Tuesday, March 29, 2016

No Post, But Some Mildly Diverting Photos

Due to The Forces That Control The Universe, I was unable to write a post this week. For your entertainment needs, I can, however, offer a few mildly diverting photos.

This  is a a sign that appears on the TTC streetcars, and every time I see it, the illogic of it drives me crazy. It says: "Every day at least one TTC worker is assaulted. That's one too many." But that makes NO SENSE. If the average number of workers assaulted is 1.2, then "that's one too many" would mean that .2 is just right -- which is insane. I know this is a problem only a certain kind of person gets upset about -- but sorry, yes, I am that person.

The Bell Lightbox, home of the Toronto International Film Festival, is one of my favorite places anywhere. There's a great story behind it, of how Ivan Reitman --who produced and directed many great movies like Ghostbusters -- donated the land, which had previously been the site of his immigrant parents' car wash for many years. The Lightbox shows amazing movies all year 'round, and also has these fantastic historical posters up all over. This is the poster from the first TIFF, back when it was called Festival of Festivals, in 1976. I just love the imagery, which reminds me so powerfully of the weird hopefulness and optimism of the 1970s.

This is a panel from an amazing book called Ann Tenna. It's hard to describe so I'll quote from the Kirkus review: "[This] graphic novel tells the story of Ann Tenna, a media-obsessed NYC gossip columnist, founder of a Gawker-like website called Eyemauler. She trash-talks live from Ann Cams embedded in her powder compact and in a baguette in her Fendi bag, and despite/because of how awful she is, she’s constantly beset by a crowd of sycophants . . . After a near-fatal traffic accident, she ascends to the astral plane, where she meets her eternal self and spirit guide, who gives her 'full body, mind and spiritual, mental, emotional and electromagnetical treatments designed so you can see who you ideally are.'" Yes, you read right: metaphysics, social commentary, and makeovers. In this panel, Ann is about to return to Earth, and she says, "But I NEVER want to got back to that unevolved, toxic, planet of pain, misery, and genetically modified foods." I'm with you, Ann, all the way.


Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Pain, Nitrous Oxide, And The Interpretation Of Sensation

I don't know if you've ever encountered that idea that pain wouldn't be so bad if you could just relax and enjoy it. OK -- maybe you not "enjoy" it, but you see the basic idea: it's not that pain is essentially bad, it's more that the way you respond to the pain that's bad. 

When I first encountered an idea sort of along these lines (I think it was here), I thought, "WTF"? It seemed to me obviously false. What was pain if not something bad? If you weren't feeling something bad, I thought, you'd hardly classify the sensation as "pain." You'd call it something else. A "funny feeling." Something "strange." How could it be pain if it wasn't bad?

Then I had to have a bunch of dental work. It's always been true of me that I don't respond much to novocaine and those other things that are supposed to produce a numbing sensation. There were times years ago I'd have to get shot after shot after shot .. and still it wouldn't work great. It's no wonder I developed a lot of anxiety about dental work.

The dentist I've seen now for the last ten years or so -- well, his office is set up for nitrous. The "magic nose," as he's used to saying - to his patients who are literal children instead of metaphorical ones.

As we've discussed before on this blog, I learned that nitrous and I were made for each other. The last bunch of times I had to have serious dental work, I had nitrous, and not only does it make me feel awesome and happy, it also takes away the pain. One shot of novocaine -- and I'm totally good. I mean, with nitrous, I'm not only pain-free -- I'm having a good time.

Anyway, after a few uneventful sessions fixing various things with "the magic nose," I got talking about nitrous with my dentist, and he said that nitrous is not actually a pain reliever -- it doesn't work that way. It's not obvious why it works, exactly. He thought that maybe the nitrous relaxes you and that's what makes a difference, either because a very tense person's body breaks down things like novocaine too efficiently, or maybe -- and this the crucial bit -- because a tense person experiences pain differently from a relaxed one. Hm, is it possible that nitrous just allowed me to "relax and enjoy it"? 

At the end of that conversation he said to me nervously that he hoped our conversation wouldn't undermine the nitrous effect for me. Maybe if I thought it wasn't a pain-killer, it wouldn't work as a pain-killer. We all know in these murky domains, subjectivity transcends theory and becomes a real thing. But nothing like that ever happened. Nitrous continued to work for me just as perfectly as it ever did.

That conversation was about four years ago, and for all that time, I'd been wondering if I had to revisit my resistance to the idea that pain was bad because of the way we interpret it. Maybe I could feel the drill touch my teeth and expected pain. Maybe I imagined something harmful happening, so my brain interpreted the pain as something bad. Maybe that's why it hurt. Maybe what the nitrous did was change my attitude: "Oh, ha ha, a little drilling never hurt anyone!"

Then about a year ago, I had an experience that took the whole thing to the next level, because I had to have a root canal. And the endodontist I was going to see? He didn't use nitrous.

I was a little freaked out about it. I told him about my typical situation with novocaine, and he said not to worry, there'd be no problem. He said he was an expert number, knowing exactly how to get the novocaine into the right spot so it would work. He said if I wasn't totally numb, we wouldn't do it. No worries.

So I settled in and we started with the shots. And they didn't work, and we did more shots. And they didn't work, and there were more shots. And more. And eventually we got to the point where the endodontist said that we were maxing out: it wasn't safe to have too much more, so if the next one didn't work, we have to cancel the whole thing and regroup for another day. Fortunately, the next one worked!

Here's the thing, though. To see if the shots had "worked," the endodontist did a special test. He had a special tool with a soft tip that was super cold. I had to close my eyes, and he would ever so gently touch the tip to my tooth. If I could feel it, the shots hadn't worked. Not only could I feel it -- I just about jumped out of my chair every goddamn time.

The whole point of the exercise, of course, was that the test was about what experience you're having when you don't know what is happening. So at least we can say one thing: whatever my dental pain is, it is not contextual. That is, it's not because I'm primed for pain, ready for pain, expecting something bad is happening, that the pain happens. And it is not only because nitrous changes my outlook or interpretation of my sensation that it takes away the problem. There has to be some other mechanism involved.

This doesn't settle the matter, obviously. I mean, no one in an endodontist's chair is in a mood to "relax and enjoy it." And maybe there are other ways to experience pain and not have it be bad. Who knows? But it certainly made me think that nitrous doesn't work by changing how I interpret my sensations. It works by actually making me feel less pain.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The "Attractor" Of Individualism And Its Basin Of Attraction


 Lately when I think about individualism in advanced capitalist societies, I find myself latching onto a certain mathematical picture -- something associated with what's called an "attractor."

With the refreshing literality characteristic of mathematics, "attractor" in this context means something like "attractor" -- a spot that attracts. More specifically: "an attractor is a set of numerical values toward which a system tends to evolve, for a wide variety of starting conditions of the system."

I'm thinking here of individualism in the sense sometimes associated with liberalism and neo-liberalism. In the basic sense: people are best understood as conceptually and practically independent from one another; they properly get what they need and want in life by negotiating and making deals; there is no such thing as society. In the more advanced sense: we should embrace the entrepreneurial self.

The reason I think of individualism as an attractor is that once you get going on the basic idea, the idea creates the conditions for its own flourishing. It's like an infection where the mechanism creates the environment where the infection can thrive. At the end it's like a cultural Roach Motel: people can get in, but they can't get out.

For example, consider poverty. It used to be possible to think of poverty as a structural problem: we live in a society that's not working for some people. Maybe there could be structural solutions?

But the attractor is close enough to exert its magnetic pull. Through some invisible process, the question gets reframed in terms of helping individuals by giving them a leg up. Characteristic of this phase is the bizarre idea of "education" as some kind of solution. Like: "Engineers make more than baristas. If we could train everyone to be an engineer, no one would have the problem that baristas are poor." Of course this is crazy: as long as we want coffeeshops, someone's going to have the problems of being a barista -- it doesn't matter what kind of education people have.

Now that we're closer to the attractor, though, the pull is even stronger. Having acknowledged that some people are going to be baristas and others are going to be engineers, individualism forces us into the possibility that it's OK that some people are baristas and poor and others are engineers and not. Like: Oh, baristas will be poor, but that's OK, because everyone has the chance to be an engineer. Life is what you make it, yada yada yada.

But of course, life isn't what you make it. People start from massively different starting points. If your parents are poor, or they don't speak English well or whatever, or you live in a crappy area with crappy schools, you are starting from way behind -- it's going to be massively more difficult for you to become an engineer.

Instead of taking this as a reductio of individualism's implications, the attractor moves people toward other ideas. Some of those ideas are things like charter schools, choice, teach character development to small children, whatever. In the end, the simplest way to avoid the cognitive dissonance is to go back to individualism itself, and here we find our way to, "Well, sure, some people are going to be baristas and not engineers, but what I can do about that? I mean, I'm just one person." 

Which -- given the creeping effects of individualism -- is actually more and more true. Because the closer you get to peak individualism, the stronger the magnetic pull toward individualism.

I don't know about you but I feel like I see this dynamic the time. Social problem identified. Solutions canvassed. Collective solutions rejected for being insufficiently individualistic. Possibility of collective power dismantled. Individualist solutions proposed. Individualist solutions rejected, on grounds that they won't make a difference anyway. Which at this point they probably won't. And so on and so on and so on.

In the elegance typical of pure mathematics, there's a concept called the "basin of attraction." Technically: "An attractor's basin of attraction is the region of the phase space, over which iterations are defined, such that any point (any initial condition) in that region will eventually be iterated into the attractor..."

Which is a fancy way of saying: there's some range of starting places from which you can't help but fall into the attractor.

I don't know when, exactly, modern western society went from skirting around the edges to actually falling into the basin of attraction for individualism. Was it Reagan and Thatcher in the 80s? Was it back with colonialism? Did Locke have something to do with it? I have no idea. All I know is, I think we're in it now.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The Global Economics And Inner Morality Of Drug Mafias

Regular readers know of my admiration for Roberto Saviano, who wrote the amazing book Gamorrah about organized crime in Italy. Now I've just been reading his latest book ZeroZeroZero, which is about how organized crime -- especially that associated with the movement of cocaine and other drugs -- functions in the global economy.


It's no surprise that massive drug cartels operate like large and powerful businesses -- after all, that's why they call them "cartels." But Saviano also argues that the global economy of crime is hugely intertwined with the global economy of everything else -- so much so that you could almost think of cocaine as the essential commodity, the consumer good that not only drives the world's economic changes but also profoundly affects global politics and, by extension, the everyday lives of people around the world.

It's a complicated argument to make, and at least some readers wish it could have been made less impressionistically. But I found it fascinating. Saviano tries to tell the tale of cocaine by tracing out highly individualized stories and connecting them to the bigger picture. Though the stories of the individual narcos are vivid and extreme, I was in some ways even more interested by the narrative concerning Wachovia bank, money laundering, and the whistle-blower Martin Woods.

You can read about the Wachovia story at the Guardian here. Billions of dollars from drug money was filtered through Wachovia in direct violation of all kinds of laws, side-stepping all kinds of internal guidelines. Woods, hired to be an internal senior anti-money laundering officer for Wachovia in 2005, kept telling his superiors that something was up, and kept getting shushed and eventually harassed. Finally, Woods meets someone outside Wachovia who is willing to review the evidence, and the bank's defenses come crashing down.

Saviano's take on it is partly that of course it is massively in the bank's interest to look the other way. All the incentives were, and presumably still are, in that direction. To me, it is hilarious to consider this in the light of the comments at Naked Capitalism about how banks are harassing small-time customers who want to use cash rather than cards, sometimes with the excuse that monitoring and preventing cash transactions is necessary to prevent money laundering.

From the point of view of moral philosophy, the book has much to ponder about self-interest and society, and especially about the bonds that enable people to keep commitments to one another even as they perpetuate the most cruel and inhuman behavior imaginable.

Not surprisingly, those commitment are embedded in Hobbesian webs of threats and violence that ensure that people do as they're expected to do. These kinds of stories always make me reflect on the newer "self-interest" theories of morality, where the idea is that if everyone does what's actually in their (enlightened) self-interest, things will work out for the best.

In a passage from an old article in the New York Times that still rankles me, Steven Pinker tried a version of this moral jiu-jitsu. Trying to say that self-interest will lead people to act morally, Pinker wrote,
"If I appeal to you to do anything that affects me — to get off my foot, or tell me the time or not run me over with your car — then I can’t do it in a way that privileges my interests over yours (say, retaining my right to run you over with my car) if I want you to take me seriously. Unless I am Galactic Overlord, I have to state my case in a way that would force me to treat you in kind. I can’t act as if my interests are special just because I’m me and you’re not, any more than I can persuade you that the spot I am standing on is a special place in the universe just because I happen to be standing on it."
The idea being something like "Gee whiz, if I want you to be nice to me, I'll have to be nice to you! Unless I'm Galactic Overlord, but of course that doesn't apply to any of us."

Among other things, this just always seemed to me so naive about the nature of power. You don't have to be Galactic Overlord to be able to boss other people around; you just have to have power over them, wherever that comes from. Then, self-interestedly, you can do whatever you want. In fact, self-interest can often recommend perpetuating harm and violence.

Early in ZeroZeroZero, Saviano tells the truly horrifying story of a guy who is actually a DEA agent and who manages to infiltrate deep into the drug cartels of the "Golden Triangle" -- Sinaloa, Durango, and Chihuahua. When he is found out, the people he has betrayed realize that, rationally speaking, they must punish him in ways that will serve as a powerful reminder for anyone who might dare to try something similar. It can never, ever happen again. As Saviano says, "No one was ever to forget how Kiki Camarena was punished for his betrayal."

[If you're sensitive about violence skip this next paragraph]: Toward that rational end, "Camarena was tortured at Gallardo's ranch over a 30-hour period, then murdered. His skull, jaw, nose, cheekbones and windpipe were crushed, his ribs were broken, and a hole was drilled into his head with a screwdriver. He had been injected with amphetamines and other drugs, most likely to ensure that he remained conscious while being tortured."


Of course, the whole thing was taped. How else could it work as a warning? In fact, one of the prime strategies the criminals in Saviano's stories use to keep people afraid and keep them in line is YouTube, with videos of torture posted as warnings. The whole thing is a paradigmatic use of rational thinking-- incentivizing others to do what is in one's interest.

So really, you don't have to be Galactic Overlord for self-interest to recommend that you abuse others. You just have to have power.

At one point, describing a lengthy discourse from a mafioso, Saviano points out that he's heard "dozens of speeches on Mafia moral philosophy." And I thought, "Wow, that is really what it is." Is any philosopher studying the moral philosophy of the Mafia? I don't know. I can only say that, really, somebody really ought to get on it.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Gutting The Social Commentary Of Opera: The Case Of The Marriage Of Figaro

From the COC production.

 Over the weekend, I went to see Mozart's Marriage of Figaro at the COC. It is an amazing opera, dealing with sex, love, and the fickle nature of the human heart. It's also about class, gender, power, and the relics of the feudal system in the eighteenth century -- but unfortunately you wouldn't know that from the staging of the COC production.

Do you know the story? It's the eighteenth century,  and the Count's loyal servant Figaro is about to marry the lovely Susanna, the Countess's maid. The Count is bored with his wife the Countess, whom he once loved passionately. He not only flirts with his more attractive female underlings, he also abuses his position of power to badger and coerce them into reciprocating his sexual attentions.

Even though the Count says he is all about abolishing "feudal privilege," in fact he is plotting and scheming to prevent the marriage so he can have Susanna all to himself. Through plotting and scheming of their own, Susanna, the Countess, and Figaro subvert his plans, and make a fool out of him.

Like so many works of artistic genius, the opera works along multiple dimensions. It's a comedy, with ridiculous disguises, mistaken identities, people hiding behind curtains, that sort of thing. It's also a love story, with all the modern rom-com conventions. And, on top of all that, it's a social commentary.

One of the more interesting social commentary aspects is reflection on the "sexual double standard." Why does the Count get to fool around with impunity, while his wife's briefest admiring glance brings censure and rage? Yes -- it turns out that people have actually been thinking about this problem for over two hundred years.

But the main social commentary has to do with power. The Count gets to do whatever he wants, because -- well, because he's the Count. If this includes sex with Susanna -- well, what are Figaro and Susanna going to do? They're servants. They're under his orders and under his protection. It's not like they can up and leave, wander the countryside for other options.

The opera takes you to the brink of horror -- is the Count really going to rape Susanna and prevent Figaro from marrying her, thus ruining both of their lives? -- before bringing you back to a happy ending through antics and absurd plot devices (literally "OMG, that's actually Figaro's long lost mom!").

Of course the Director chose to showcase how relevant a story of class, power, and sex is to our modern era -- Oh, just kidding! In fact the staging was such as to undercut the social justice commentary and to "psychologize" the whole thing.

Infuriatingly, the physical direction showed Susanna sort of willingly going along, as if it's a kind of half-hearted flirtation on her part and not a case of control of the weak from the strong. The Count is presented not as a menace, but just as a kind of bossy and irritable guy. There's a scene where in the story, the Count is going to kill someone out of jealous rage. The way it was in this production, you find yourself thinking, "Well, he'll just shout a lot and then he'll get over it." It changes the whole point of the story.

In the program notes, the Director says that in his interpretation, the characters are "completely torn between morality, desire, and impulse," and that this was why he wanted to "follow the characters into their darkest psychological depths, but at the same time leave space for exploring the utopian moments in Mozart's music."

Could any artistic statement be more of its time? I mean, for all the ridiculous hand-wringing about political correctness, so much art has become de-politicized. Or -- you can make political statements these days, but you can't put politics and entertainment together. Somehow it's like people think the Venn diagram of "entertainment" and that of "thinking about society" should be empty.

There's a trend of focusing on individuals, and what's in their hearts and minds, instead of the social structures and context around them. The forces of of individualism have become so deep and pervasive, it's like people find it hard to even conceptualize the idea of "social justice" as "social." The director thus sees only individual characters, torn between their own sense of morality, dignity and obligation, and their own desire, eros, and impulse.

As longtime readers know, this keeps happening to me with opera. I thought it might be something to do with the COC, but many of the productions with the same problem were created in other places and then brought here. So it's some kind of widespread phenomenon.

With all these productions, you'd think we were all living in a post-class and post-gender paradise, where everyone is equal and no one can exert absurd control over one another, where the idea of coercion and sexual assault through power dynamics was somehow past us.

As if you'd say to yourself, "Well, this opera is partly about power, gender, and class. But we don't have those problems in our society, so ... Wait, I know, I'll make it about the characters' 'darkest psychological depths!'"