Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Selective Implementation Of The Algorithmic Ideal Is Intellectually Dishonest: Hillary Clinton Book Review Edition

The thing that got me wildly, disproportionately pissed off this week was the news that Amazon had been deleting one-star reviews of Hillary Clinton's new book. What the actual fuck?

The reason this enraged me so much didn't have anything to do with Hillary Clinton or the content of her book, but rather the way it laid bare the depth of intellectual dishonesty and cynicism of the tech-retail industry. I used to think the algorithmic approach to the world was coherent and reasonably well-intentioned, while also massively and dangerously flawed. But this episode shows that "coherent and reasonably well-intentioned" may have been giving people too much credit.

As we've discussed before, and as you can learn much more about from the master herself, Cathy O'Neill, the algorithmic approach to the world is massively and dangerously flawed along several dimensions. There's a pernicious illusion that algorithms are "neutral," when they're anything but. The problems of legitimacy are problems of trust, not data. The attempt to draw lines while avoiding ethical judgment leads to policies that disproportionately target people who are already oppressed.

Still, I was able to sort of see the inner logic of the thing. I mean, I believe algorithms are problematic. But I could see how someone who didn't believe that might push forward toward more data and more rules and less judgment and so on. I think they'd be wrong, but they'd have a coherent position on the world, and might be acting with integrity.

But then going on and making an exception ... for Hillary Clinton? Are you kidding?

As I understand it, the main reason was that they thought the reviews were posted by people who hadn't read the book. As the publisher is quoted saying here, “It seems highly unlikely that approximately 1,500 people read Hillary Clinton’s book overnight and came to the stark conclusion that it is either brilliant or awful.”

But ... this a problem for all Amazon reviews. Admittedly, it's usually a less dramatic problem. But there are plenty of stories of people trying to sandbag other people's books for all kinds of reasons, there's sock-puppetry, and there are all kinds of other problems with the review system.

While yes, Hillary Clinton's book prompted a dramatic showcase of some of these issues, she's also like one of the most powerful people on the planet. She hardly needs protection from her critics to get people interested in reading her book. It's bizarre to me that it would be like, well, when it's everyone else, sorry, but when it's a power player politician, oh, then we have to do something.

When things like this happen, I always try to imagine how these decisions get made. Does Amazon have a hundred meetings in a row where someone brings up fake reviews and blah blah blah, and then on the 101st they bring up Hillary Clinton and people suddenly say OMG we have to do something? Is it that the issue doesn't come up those 100 previous times because the incentive structure of power players at places like Amazon discourages it?

Or is the ultra cynical interpretation the right one: that PR with prospective customers will work best when they intervene selectively in only the most high-profile situations -- i. e., just when it is the power players of the world?

In any case, I'd just like to remind everyone that they can shop for books at Indigo, Kobo, Barnes and Noble, and Powell's. I'm not saying these are some kind of do-gooder organizations: in a dog-eat-dog capitalist society, being less than ruthless than your competitors is death, so bad behavior is kind of baked into the system. But isn't it better to have several flawed tech-retail companies than just one flawed tech company, which can then go ahead and rule the world?

Monday, September 11, 2017

Can The Pursuit Of Pleasure Be An Addiction If It's Also Normal Human Life?

When I saw this headline -- "The pursuit of pleasure is a modern-day addiction -- I thought the piece might be some kind of joke or parody.

I mean, I know some people have expanded the scope of "addition" so that it includes things like shopping and carbohydrates, and I know other people can get agitated about that expansion, as if it implies that a chocolate habit and a cocaine habit are somehow on a par. But at least shopping and carbohydrates are actual specific things. And there's no question that these things can be "addictive" in the sense that the more you get the get the more you want.

But pleasure? I mean, that's not a thing you do or ingest, it's more a part of the human experience. How can you be addicted to a part of the human experience? Plus, isn't pleasure the mechanism through which those other things become so habit-forming? What does it mean to reduce the addiction to the very mechanism that makes them work?

I'm no expert on human psychobiology, but isn't pleasure supposed to be one of the main motivating forces of life? Isn't the pursuit of pleasure one of the central reasons people do things? How could it also be a pathological addiction?

And finally, what's a life without pleasure? The author of the piece, Robert Lustig is famous for his view that sugar is a poison. So is the idea that anything pleasurable is also bad? So .. even healthy food shouldn't be consumed because it is enjoyable to eat? WTF?

When I read the piece, it didn't seem quite as absurd as I thought it would be. When you get past the headline, there are more specific examples of ways in which particular pleasures are out of control. A fondness for soda leads to the "big gulp"; the love of likes leads to chronic Instagram checking. Constant stress and anxiety create the backdrop in which we're in constant need of the feel good chemicals in our brain, just to feel OK. To get the feel good chemicals, we do more and more of the "pleasure things," and get less and less out of them, and so on and so on. I guess you could describe that as being addicted to pleasure.

As regular readers of this blog may expect, I can never read things like this without thinking of the ways that these effects are sort of built into the whole capitalist system. What's more successful in capitalism than a commodity that the more people have of them the more they want? Armies of food technologists work day and night to bring about exactly this state of affairs. Whole university departments exist to train people how to do it. How is it surprising that this is where we've ended up?

Later in the essay, Lustig goes back to the more general idea that somehow it's pleasure itself that is the problem, and there he says that to live the right way we should seek "happiness" rather than pleasure. It's funny, because I was just getting ready to teach Mill, and we were going to talk about his "greatest happiness principle" where he says that "actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.  By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness pain, and the privation of pleasure.” So maybe Mill things happiness and pleasure are the same, or at least that he thinks we can use the words interchangeably. On the other hand, Mill famously distinguished between "higher" and "lower" pleasures so who knows.

Lustig says that "the more pleasure you seek, the more unhappy you get and the more likelihood you will slide into addiction or depression" and that "our ability to perceive happiness has been sabotaged by our modern incessant quest for pleasure, which our consumer culture has made all too easy to satisfy."

I see what he's getting at, but there seems to me something strange about the formulation. People have always sought pleasure, haven't they? So it's the world that's changing, not human nature. It seems to me like we just have a lot more easy sources of pleasure. As we've long said on this blog, easy sources of pleasure are difficult for humans: you think you want treats, but by definition a treat is a thing you don't get all the time. So.. how do you keep it in check? Before you know it, it you've cascaded into a misery of self-denial, living both as tyrant and supplicant, begging yourself for those treats that you yourself decided you can't have too much of.

But again, I think people have always been like that. It's OK to love pleasure. It's our modern surroundings that are the problem, not us.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

How Many Awful Things Are In This One NYT Education Story?

The Times ran a story over the weekend about "teacher-influencers" -- elementary school teachers who are using technology in classrooms and connecting with Silicon Valley companies to trade influence for perks. The story focused on the potential conflicts of interest, which, sure, of course, but I was amazed how many other awful things there were.

The story starts off fine, talking about how this one teacher has reorganized her classroom into flexible-use space and has the class run social media accounts. When I was a kid I learned math in a flexible-use and flexible-time kind of way and it was awesome, so sure, if that's working for you and your students, great.

Then you get to the "teacher-influencer" business. The main teacher being profiled has a personal brand and makes deals with companies like Seesaw, which facilitates students sharing work in various forms electronically. Of Seesaw, she says, "I will embed it in my brand every day."

In return for promoting their products, teachers get personal perks like meals, travel, or Amazon gift cards, but also perks for their students and schools, like technology goodies. At a time when schools are so poor that "teachers shell out an average of $600 of their own money every year just to buy student supplies like pencils" (!!!), every little bit helps.

OK, how depressing is it that underfunded schools have to rely on brand ambassador teachers to get even basic things they need? I feel like if that were happening in a different country, people like Nicholas Kristof would be all over it with hand-wringing and "we have to take action now" because this crazy injustice and exploitation just can't continue.

Then I got to the part about the 3D printing. One teacher-influencer "used a $1,299 3-D printer" in conjunction with an assignment on the book To Kill a Mockingbird. One student used the printer to make a gavel in connection with their presentation, "representing the struggle for justice in the novel."

Wait, what? Are they seriously telling me that in the modern world, we're going to engage with the themes of a book about race, injustice, and culture in the American South by 3D printing a gavel? I don't care if it was meant to "supplement" a more substantive engagement with the book in the presentation. That time should be spent doing old fashioned things like talking with other people about the complicated ideas in the book. Plus, how non-creative is the idea of making a gavel to represent justice? Even the "innovative" part becomes dull and unoriginal!

I was also creeped out by the social media lessons, which focus on helping students "understand how to maintain an upbeat online image." One third-grader said "You don’t want to post something bad, because if you want a job, those people are probably going to look at your social media page and they are going to decide if they’ll let you have the job."A sign on the classroom wall says, "I am building my digital footprint every day."

WTF? If that was in a futuristic dystopian novel, you can imagine David Denby calling it a "fanciful" but unrealistic detail.

I really don't blame the teachers for any of this -- they're obviously super-committed and trying as hard as they can to teach students what they need to know. And maybe learning about an "upbeat" social media image is what they need to know. Just yesterday, Arwa Mahdawi was writing in the Guardian about how social media presence is becoming a must-have for getting a job, with one ad for an independent contractor requiring you to "identify, assign, edit and publish at least 10 articles per day" and also have an "amazing personal Twitter feed."

We're always hearing about "innovation" in education and how important it is, and people are always moaning about how teachers are reluctant to innovate because they're stuck in their ways. But often it's unclear how the good things in education can be protected and improved on, especially when it comes to technology. If you're trying to teach students to think about ideas and communicate verbally and in writing, there really isn't much better than the slow process of being in a room together, talking, and giving them individualized feedback. What teachers need to do that is support and proper funding. A 3D printing of a gavel, advertised later on Twitter, isn't really an important part of that process.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

No Post Today But Here Are Some Geese

No blog post today because the blogger is overwhelmed with getting ready for the start of term and other academic projects. I'll see y'all next week. Perhaps in the meantime, you might enjoy this picture of some geese crossing a road. Cute! 


Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Dystopian Tech Edition

Regular readers know that I recently deactivated my Facebook account. This was not an isolated act but rather part of a concerted effort toward ... something. Something involving indignation and fear at the way the tech giants are gaining so much control over our lives. Something about not giving them my constant attention. Something about knowing that "I am the product." Something about wanting to support alternative systems.

Naked Capitalism calls them "The Five Horsemen "Techpocalypse": Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple, and ... oh yeah, the always forgettable Microsoft. It's not that I think alternatives to these companies are magically outside the nexus of labor-exploiting, surveilling, content-managing, eyeball-directing evils of the modern tech world. What frightens me is their dominance.

What's it going to be like when Amazon is the only place the buy things and Google is the only place to find things and Facebook replaces your passport? Not good. Already Amazon can push around publishers, affecting what we can and can't buy from them. Remember how they just deleted people's purchased e-copies of 1984? Google recently "changed its search algorithms to favor 'authoritative content' meaning the mainstream media"; sites like the Black Agenda Report and TruthDig saw large drops in traffic from searches. Now a new Chrome extension will block the ads of 700 publishers.

I'm as embedded in all of this as the next person. Hell, this blog is hosted by Google. But I made a note to myself to start the process of ... something. I started buying my books from Indigo and reading e-books on the Kobo app. I changed my default search engine to Duck Duck Go. I deleted Google Maps from my phone. I'm using a lot more cash. I'm still using a wide array of Apple products, and I know these are baby steps and largely symbolic. Still, they are steps.

I was thinking about the practical effects of these steps and what good, if any, they do in the world. I think that, in principle anyway, there is some effect of supporting alternatives. I am comforted to know there are other places to buy things and other ways to authenticate and other search engines, and I'm glad to know that by giving them my business, I am helping to support them.

On the other hand, I got to thinking about the potential pointlessness of supporting alternative when the entire world is lined up on the other side. If everyone is using Facebook and Google, my choice to use Duck Duck Go .. well, it's hardly going to have any actual effect. In fact, it may be completely different -- that it would be better to pile on to the same things everyone else is using and try to change them for the better.

As I mentioned in my Facebook post, this is the idea behind the 1970 book Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. I don't remember the specifics very well, but the general idea is that if you don't like something, there's a difference between "exit" and "voice": if you exit, you no longer have input or causal effects on how something develops and changes. But if you stay connected, you do.

Maybe the millions of Facebook users will be more effecting at challenging Facebook's attempt at world domination. Maybe Google users will be more effective at challenging the way Google affects our search outcomes or how it chooses to monetize and demonetize youtube users to destroy alternative media.

Still, though, I feel like the choice I'm making has a lot going for it. Sometimes the world needs a few people willing to do weird annoying things that other people don't want to do -- even if it's just to remind everyone they can be done. For whatever reason, I'm more temperamentally suited to being that person than I am to being the other person -- the "voice" person, the person who does the mainstream things and tries, through activism and talking, to make it better.

Of course, given that Facebook tracks everyone online whether they use Facebook or not, I'll have to go a lot further to be really disconnected from these companies. How far will I go? Will I avoid all the sites that use cookies and give up most of the internet? 

I guess we will just have to wait and see. 

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Leaves: Don't Forget To Let Them Blow Your Mind

Paul Cézanne, Forest [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I thought we might all need a break from the awfulness and chaos of the world, so I am going to talk to you about leaves.

I live in a part of the world where there are a lot of trees, and a lot of them are deciduous (a word I seem to recall learning at a surprisingly young age). It is also an area of great seasonal variation. What this means is that in the fall, leaves dry up and fall off of trees, and then in the spring, new leaves grow.

We say that like it's nothing. But if you think about it for even a few minutes, it can become completely mind-boggling. Thing about all those trees. Think how many leaves are on each tree. Even a small group of trees is generating millions of leaves. And all those leaves are reborn every year. 

In fact, this site estimates there are 1.5 to 2 million leaves just on a single oak tree. According to these people who seem to know what they're talking about, a healthy forest has about 40-60 trees per acre, and an overstocked one can have 100-200 per acre (interesting facts about how forests are getting denser because there used to be more forest fires). According to this estimate, there are 30.2 million acres of forest in New York State. So just looking at actual areas of forest, and not counting the zillions of just incidental trees just around, and even lowballing the estimate, that's 1,000,000 times 50 times 30 million = 1,500,000,000,000,000 leaves just in NYS.

Somehow in the fall I don't think about leaves as much, maybe because I live in a condo and don't have to rake leaves and clean them up, or maybe because it's back to school time and I'm thinking of other things. Or maybe it's just that death is less impressive, somehow, than life. I guess in the fall we're all thinking about the beauty of the "fall colors," which is sort of seeing the leaves as a giant collective instead of the little miracle individuals that they are.

Then all winter, there's something so natural about the leafless trees that this starts to seem like their normal state. They're like the furniture -- so familiar, their existence fades into the background. I start to think of "trees" as those naked, but still beautiful, things that stand out starkly against a snowy background.  

But then in the spring -- OMG. Where I live, there's a kind of long late winter, and just as it's starting to warm up, you start to notice buds all over. Insanely, each of those millions of trees is producing its own thousands and thousands of leaves. I don't know what your area is like, but even in the city where I live, I walk past tons and tons of trees, and a quick trip on an interstate highway you see thousands and thousands of trees. All being birthed, a new, and all emerging over a few day period. How insane is that.

For me this is much more interesting and exciting than thinking about "grains of sand on beaches" or "stars in galaxies" or whatever. Each of those leaves is made up of multiple complicated parts, and each has an actual function, soaking up sunlight and releasing (life-giving!) oxygen. Each leaf has internal structure of different kinds of cells, all working together to do photosynthesis. And each year, each one dies off and is replaced by a completely new one. Even thinking about it in the cool light of day, I just can't get over it.

I remember when I was a little kid, there would be phases of life where the idea of the "seasons" would kind of fade into the background of life. I mean, I would see the leaves fall, and the snow come, and the new plants, and the warmth of summer, but my mind would kind of be elsewhere. Then, occasionally, I would notice something dramatic or beautiful or I'd be wading through the fall leaves on the ground and I'd be recalled to the whole thing. Oh yeah. Fall means leaves. And here are leaves. Because it's fall!

At some point in adulthood, though, I started to become very season-attentive and now I notice everything. It's August now, which means the summer leaves have themselves become part of the familiar landscape, fading into the background of consciousness. But as you get older times moves more quickly, and the one good thing about that is that no matter what time of year it is, I basically feel like spring will be here soon.

When I went to label this post I realized almost nothing was right, and then I selected "the extraterrestrial point of view." I think it's a good fit. If you came from a planet where there were animals and plants but the plants were all small or evergreen, and you came to earth and saw the whole deciduous tree situation, I think your reaction would be much like mine in this post: Oh my god, so many leaves!

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Ethical Perspectives On Social Equality And Innovation In the US Health Care Debate

There are many reasons people favor market-based health care systems over alternatives like universal care and single-payer, and this post is about just one of them: the idea that the innovations produced by market systems are worth the trade-offs required by the deficiencies of market systems.

About a month ago, Vox ran an interview with health care economist Craig Garthwaite, who said that market-based solutions are important because competition drives innovation. Innovation creates new treatment options, so we can cure more diseases and help more people. In fact, he said, the health care systems of other countries -- like those in Western Europe and presumably Canada -- are sort of mooching off the innovation produced in the US and thus not paying their fair share. Acknowledging that health care for some people will suffer under a market system no matter what, he says that we should try to create an improved market-based system, making the ACA work better and properly funding Medicaid to take care of people who can't afford insurance.

Correctly inferring that the issues are fundamentally value-based, the author of the piece summarizes this way:

"Either we value providing adequate care to the most people possible or we value providing ideal care to fewer people in a system that produces more innovation. That’s the fundamental trade-off, and where you come down turns on what you value."

I don't know whether those empirical claims are true -- whether, in fact, innovation markedly suffers when you move away from a market-based health care system. It's a complicated question, because there are so many variables. But let's say for the sake of argument that it is true. In that case, how should we go about making these value-based trade-offs?

It's sometimes suggested that there are rational ways of calculating that would give you an answer. For example, in consequentialism, we evaluate actions and policies based on a calculation of costs-and benefits. You could estimate the QALY's -- quality adjusted life-years -- that would be produced or preserved by various policies and choose that way. This means directly weighing the negatives of under-treated people -- like women who die in childbirth or poorer people with long-term diseases like cystic fibrosis -- against the positives of new treatments like innovative cures for cancer, brain injuries, etc. You'd count how long people live, and how many people, and just add it up.

For a lot of complicated reasons, I think this wouldn't be the right way to judge the trade-off. One reason has to do with justice and fairness. What about the fact that people who are already the subjects of discrimination and historical injustice end up also being the "costs" instead of the benefits? For example, if you can increase the life-span of a few rich white people by worsening health care for poor black people, then cost-benefit analysis seems to say that as long as the increases are dramatic enough, that's a good plan. That must be the wrong answer. Another reason has to do with the idea of "quality-adjusted." As disability-rights activists point out, their lives are systematically undervalued in this framework. Because of the way "quality-adjustment" tends to be operationalized, improvements to able-bodied people count as more significant.

A more subtle way of making trade-offs is through the "interchangeability" concept associated with the work of John Rawls. Rawls suggests that to determine what is a just society, we should ask what we'd be willing to agree to if we didn't know who in that society we would be -- whether we'd be rich or poor, healthy or sick, educated or not.

This way of proceeding also faces problems and challenges, but it's interesting that the economist being interviewed says that in a Rawlsian framework he'd "probably want to be in another country." That is, if you didn't know whether you might be at the bottom, you'd choose to structure your society with more protections for more people -- even if that's at the cost of innovation. Given the cost of the ACA insurance, I expect a lot of middle-class people would prefer to be in the other systems as well.

I think a lot of people have a value-system that includes various potentially conflicting ideals, and that these ideals often include a commitment to the idea that someone who works hard should be able to afford a decent life. Prioritizing this ideal over others would also lead us to conclude that it's worth sacrificing some innovation to make sure everyone can access health care.

When I think about innovation and trade-offs, I sometimes imagine returning to the technology of the 1980s, when I was young. In the 1980s we had no internet. If you wanted to call someone on the phone, they had to be home. If you wanted to see them, you'd have to arrange in advance. If you wanted to buy something, you had to go to the store, and if you wanted to do research, you had to go to the library and track down bibliographies on paper and use these huge books that would index research articles. If you wanted to watch porn, you had to go somewhere and get it.

Would we sacrifice all the innovation improvements of the last few decades if it meant an improved way of life for people who are poorer and sicker? I don't know about you, but I would in a heartbeat. Sure, in a world where everyone has a cell phone, it sucks not to have one. But if no one had one, who cares? Were people really less happy in the 1980s? Given that modern crises of inequality and anxiety, especially for young people, we may well have been mostly better off.

In reality, there are no easy trade-offs like this, and slowing innovation would definitely be bad in some ways. For example, for some people who have health conditions and disabilities, the innovations of the last few decades may well have led to radically improved lives. But if it's really true that only certain kinds of systems produce that kind of innovation, then we need new solutions for ameliorating the costs.

And it's worth remembering that innovation isn't always technology. US maternal mortality is rising, and is three times that of the UK and eight times that of Norway. California recently bucked the US national trend of more and more US women dying in childbirth through innovative organizational changes in how pregnant women are evaluated and treated. Ultimately, those researchers also said that it comes down to a question of values: "a key driver of America’s maternal mortality problem is that America doesn’t value women."

These innovations came partly from Stanford University and partly through the California Maternal Quality Care Collaborative, not from markets.

Again, I don't know if it's true that the deficiencies of the US system are essential to its successes. But given that the costs of the deficiencies are so high, and given that the successes are mostly enjoyed by the already privileged, and given the many social factors that can bring about innovation -- we have to look for new alternatives.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

A Trip To The Sex Machines Museum

When I was in Prague recently, I went to the Sex Machines Museum. It was small and it could have used more in the way of historicizing information, but it was interesting. I was excited to get a professional discount for being a professor and I considered requesting reimbursement for my ticket as a research expense -- but honestly the price was so low it would have purely been symbolic and not worth the hassle.

I don't know what you think when you think "sex machines," but the first thing I think of is the vibrator and its amazing history. If you don't know anything about the history of the modern vibrator, you owe it to yourself to find out about it. We live in an era where we think that the way we see things is the only obvious way to see them, and this -- very recent! -- period in Anglo history can really shake up your complacency.

I learned about this years ago from Rachel Maines's amazing book, The Technology of Orgasm: "Hysteria," the Vibrator, and Women's Sexual Satisfaction, but you can get a good quick overview here.

Basically, it was common in the Victorian era to think that women were not sexual beings -- that they tolerated sex for the sake of their husbands and to have children. Especially since women do not typically have orgasms from intercourse alone, women in this context would sometimes develop a nervous irritability accompanied by a feeling of heaviness in the abdomen, wetness between the legs, and erotic fantasies. We would call this sexual frustration, but because this wasn't a concept, it was understood as "hysteria," -- a medical ailment that needed treatment.

Medical treatment involved a physician rubbing the woman between the legs until "hysterical paroxysm" occurred. Again, we would call this an orgasm, but it wasn't understood as sexual, it was understood as medical. Though it brought in good money, the treatment was considered a pain: boring and time-consuming. It also gave the doctors achy cramped hands. Maines calls it "the job nobody wanted."

So the vibrator was introduced as a labor saving device for doctors, something they would use on women to treat them. Not long after, technology evolved to the point where vibrators could be designed for use inside the home; at the same time their connection to sexuality became more obvious and so they were marketed blandly as "massagers."

The sex machine museum did have vibrators from this period, and it had some other interesting things I thought I'd share. First, here are two characteristic vibrators:



 
An early vibrator.

A later vibrator.

One of the things that surprised me the most at the Sex Machines Museum was the number of machines using electricity -- I mean, not just powered machines but machines that would deliver current. Yikes! Here is a picture of some complicated contraptions where a "soaked ring" would be slipped onto the penis allowing electrical current stimulates erections:

"Portable electric device" for the penis.

Another thing I was surprised by was this enormous wooden contraption:

German "erotic device."

The information card for it reads "A faithful copy of the instruments used by a female prison in Germany to calm the 'restless minds' of some prisoners. The penis moved by stepping on the pedal."

So many questions. I don't know if you can see in the photo but the "penis" in this thing is huge, especially at the base. Is the implication that it was intentionally painful and abusive? If not, how did penetration from a wooden penis avoid the same problem the vibrator was meant to solve -- that women don't usually have orgasms from penetration?  Was "calm the restless minds" a euphemism? Or is the whole thing just fake? I have no idea.

Another thing I learned was about chastity belts. I always had the same cartoon thought that most moderns have about this concept, that it was a thing a jealous or possessive spouse or parent would put on a person to make sure they didn't have sex. In fact, they were often used by women to protect themselves from rape! Check out this amazing picture:


Chastity belt.
Most of the machines in the museum were for having a good time, but of course not all. The "anti-masturbation" belts for male adolescents were to prevent nocturnal masturbation; in the event of an erection, sharp spikes would dig into the penis.

To me the most disturbing of these devices was the one below, meant to alert parents to nocturnal erections: as the placard explains, "there was a ring on the boy's penis, and when an erection would occur, it rang a bell placed in the parents' bedroom."

Anti-masturbation device for boys.

OMG.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Retribution, The Limits Of Punishment, And The Question Of Unenlightened Motives

Cells of the prison on Alcatraz Island. Posted to Flickr by marine_perez; used under Creative Commons licence.

In last week's New Yorker, the classicist and political scientist Danielle Allen has a searing personal history essay about her cousin Michael, who enters the criminal justice system as a result of minor crimes at age 15, gets derailed in life, and ends up dead -- murdered at a young age.

You should read the whole piece. It is a heartbreaking personal story and also a commentary on race, culture, and the concept of punishment in the contemporary US. Like many young black children, Michael confronts a series of obstacles. Like many young black men, when he gets into trouble, his crimes are punished in ways that are wildly disproportionate.

As Allen explains, among other things Michael was caught up in a serious of specific criminal justice policy changes, motivated by general societal fears and ideas about what the concept of punishment is for. In 1994, eighteen months before Micheal got into trouble, California's Three Strikes and You're Out law had gone into effect: three felonies means twenty-five years to life or a plea deal. In 1995, panic over rising carjackings had led the state to lower the age at which a teenage can be tried as an adult for that crime to 14 years old. Micheal tried to steal a car; the prosecutors found a way to charge him with four felonies based on what the police said were spontaneous confessions at the hospital after he got shot by the car's owner.

From a philosophical point of view, Allen says that California legislators had not only given up on prison as rehabilitation, they had also given up on the idea of prison as retribution. Retribution, as she says, "limits how much punishment you can impose." "Anger drives retribution," she says. "When the punishment fits the crime, retribution is achieved, and anger is sated; it softens."

The policy on carjacking was not about retribution, it was about deterrence. It was driven by fear, and the crafters of the policy were focused on aggregate crime statistics. As Allen says, "The target of Michael’s sentence was not a bright fifteen-year-old boy with a mild proclivity for theft but the thousands of carjackings that occurred in Los Angeles." This is dehumanizing, and wrongly puts the massive burden of society's problems onto a young man's shoulders.

From a philosophical point of view the question about punishment as deterrence versus punishment as retribution often occurs in the context of the debate over ethical theories that are "consequentialist" -- in which we should aim at the production of the most well-being overall -- versus theories that are "deontological" -- in which we should follow certain rules and respect certain specific values.

It is partly because I agree with Allen's perspective on the problems of "aggregative" moral reasoning that I am not a consequentialist; as I've written about, I believe in justice and other values, and I think these values put constraints on our behavior. One of those constraints would concern the appropriate limits of punishment. 

The theoretical debate between consequentialism and deontology is massively complex, and I can't hope to contribute something to that debate here. But I would like to comment on the mood, tone, or quality of motivations associated with retribution versus deterrence.

In my experience, retribution is sometimes informally regarded as a problematic concept, arising from base and unworthy emotions. It is associated with motives that are thought to be low, unenlightened, and uncivilized.

We evolved to have retributive moral judgments, so the thinking goes, because back in the day, evolutionarily speaking, punishing was needed to keep community members in line. But we thinking people should rise above these base motives. Once we know our aim or goal is to make the world a better place, we don't need base motives like anger or retributive judgements. Instead we can cooly calculate which action will have the best effect, and simply do that. Deterrence is seen as "helping" while retribution is seen as abusive.

I once joined a multi-disciplinary audience listening to a speaker talk about ethics and robots. You want your robots to do good things and not bad things, but what does that mean? There was a general sense that the robot-makers wanted to answer the question with consequentialism: do the things that will bring about well-being overall. Aggregate.

In discussion, I tried to explain what seemed to me the importance of moral responsibility, and the inchoate sense I had that moral responsibility was something we do, and should, ascribe to humans. It matters why things are the way they are and who made them that way. Maybe the choices of robots could be tracked back to creators, so that a person would take responsibility for the choices the robot made.

The other people present really did not agree with me -- especially the computer scientists and engineers. They suggested that "moral responsibility" sounded like I wanted to punish people. And wasn't retributive punishment so barbaric? Who needs it? If you're being constructive and positive, you focus on the future. You want good results. Who cares why things are the way they are, except insofar as it's useful for thinking how they should be?

If we'd had more time, I would have tried to explain how, far from being barbaric and unenlightened,  responsibility and retribution fit into what I see as a human way of interacting, that values and respects people for themselves, for who they are, as individuals -- that aggregating people is more like managing them than caring about them.

I realize this brief foray into the cultural moods of retribution and deterrence does not settle the theoretical issues in debates over moral philosophy. But I was so moved by Allen's way of bringing out the potential humaneness of the retributive point of view -- how, far from being base and uncivilized, that framing encourages us to see individual people as worthy of respect, and forces our attention to the limiting of what counts as an appropriate punishment.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Dying Art Of Difficult And Awkward Conversations

A few years ago, I was trying to sleep around 2:00 in the morning and the people in the apartment next to me were making a racket having some kind of party. As I lay there in bed, I contemplated my options and waffled over whether to get up and knock on their door. I believe in the right to party and make noise, but as it got toward 2:30 or 3:00 I decided enough was enough.

As I threw on some clothes, I worked myself up to a state of dread and fear about the conversation. I had never met the neighbors, who had moved in not that long before. I pictured energetic partying people, angry at me for interrupting them. I pictured large guys answering the door and looking at me like I was the worst person ever. I pictured years of living next door to these people who regarded me as an asshole. I pictured them finding the smallest reason to complain back, as the years wore on.

I crept out into the hall and knocked on their door. A woman answered, with a man standing a bit behind her. They were smiling. I explained, nicely, that I was trying to sleep. They were extremely apologetic. They hadn't realized how the noise would carry. They expressed concern and kindness. They immediately quieted down, and the next day they left a ten dollar Starbucks gift card and a note on my door. I wrote them a thank-you note.

And as I have on other occasions, I found myself wondering at the power of talking to people in person and the difference between what we imagine and what is real when it comes to certain kinds of difficult conversations. I have had many similar experiences, where reality confounded expectations. It's a platitude that open honest conversation produces good results, but it's also human nature to want to shy away from conflict. And platitudes are often stupid. But in this case there's something to it.

It's not always true and there are assholes everywhere. But if you have a problem or something you need or want, and you express yourself with respect and kindness, it's amazing how many people will be respectful and kind right back to you. 

I would go even further and say that negative or difficult conversations often draw people closer together. I don't know if you've had this experience where only someone's judgment or need conveyed to you the depth of their concern. When people are a hundred percent live and let live, you can't get any grip on where you are with them.

I'm not one of those people who are always complaining about "kids these days" and I think generally speaking the younger generations are wonderful and unjustly accused of all kinds of ridiculousness. I don't buy into the idea that their desire to make the world a better and more just place speaks to some kind of weakness on their part.

But I do think that all of us are getting even more reluctant to have difficult or awkward conversations, probably for a range of reasons, some of which involve the internet. Sometimes out and about, I see people waiting and waiting for their needs to be acknowledged -- by a stranger or a service person -- seemingly reluctant to speak up and say "Excuse me, can I get some help"?

I don't know if you've noticed this, but in women's bathrooms in public places, women will line up behind one another, entering only the stalls that someone is coming out of, and leaving a bunch of stalls open and unused, because they don't want to be "that person" who is either knocking, or trying the door, or looking for shoes under the stall, to see which ones are empty. Because it's awkward.

Somehow I feel like the extra negativity we feel when we hear these things by email or virtually has infected our impression of how we'll feel when we have these difficult conversations in person. It's tempting to think that bad news should come virtually, since the person can react privately and won't be put on the spot. But I think that's a mistake. When I have bad news to convey, I feel like conveying it in person just passes along so many human emotions along with the news, it can't help but be made better.

I remember a long time ago when I was in high school, I had these two teachers. One was relentlessly positive and always told us the nicest, most supportive things. She was like a cheerleader for students. The other was difficult, and caustic; she was the faculty member in charge of the literary magazine and when she thought students were being stupid or lazy she would tell them so in no uncertain terms.

I remember that when I applied to a summer arts program, I had to get some letters of recommendation. And I was so much more comfortable asking the grouchy teacher than the supportive teacher. Because the supportive teacher was so supportive -- I had no idea what she really thought of me, or what she really thought about anything. The grouchy teacher, I knew she thought I was smart and talented, and I knew she thought I was imperfect, and we were good to go.

Difficult and awkward conversations are difficult and awkward. But especially when you have them in person, they're often OK. As we get less comfortable being awkward together, I hope they don't disappear entirely.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

I Am Away But Here Are Two Photos That Gave Me A Complicated Feeling

I'm away at a conference in Prague, and I thought I'd have time to write something, but the stresses and complexities of international travel got to me and I didn't.

For your entertainment, however, I can offer these two photos, of a Prague window/storefront for a place offering iPhone repair: 


In case you can't tell, this is window-areas littered with broken and discarded iPhone parts, mostly screens, with one actual Mac showing gadgetry insides.

I had a complicated emotional response to this sight. I thought it was a cool, original, and artistic idea. I like the way it looks -- it actually does look like art. I like the idea. On the other hand, it's depressing to see all this junk, and it's awful to be reminded of the mass of garbage that our lives generate.

I'm even ambivalent about all the broken screens. I'm the type of person who uses a protective cover for my phone, because I'm the of person who drops my phone and doesn't want to deal with breaking it. When I see young people (and it is mostly young people) using fancy phones with no protection, my first instinct is something to be like "What are you doing! That's a nice phone! What happens if you drop it!"

And yet -- there's something I love admire about the anti-protection commitment. I was also the kind of young person who wouldn't have used any protection on my phone, and would have been heartbroken when the screen cracked, but who would also have gone on the same way, unwilling to give up the aesthetic commitment for some dumb practicality like "the phone might break."

I know I'm more sensible now, but sometimes I miss that adolescent spirit I had, and wish I could be that person again. 

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

A Few Philosophical Thoughts On "Taxation Is Coercion"

Pieter Brueghel the Younger, "Paying the Tax (The Tax Collector)," via Wikimedia Commons

I feel like there's been an uptick in people in the US using "taxation is coercion" or "taxation is theft" to support their given point of view. The topic is obviously enormous and too large to be dealt with in a short blog post, but these are just some thoughts that come to my mind about this idea from the philosophical perspective.

Taxation is only coercive against a backdrop of a very specific theory of ownership -- one in which you have full property rights to whatever you gained in a voluntary transaction. But as we've discussed before, this theory of ownership faces several serious and well-known problems.

First, contemporary economic activity is now enmeshed in complex webs of social, cultural, and political structures and relationships. Many modern voluntary exchanges would be impossible without infrastructure, education, etc. etc. etc. As is often pointed out, the question isn't whether we have to pay for these things -- it's just how much.

Second, if we actually tried to follow a principle in which everyone has full property rights to whatever they gained in a voluntary transaction, we'd run immediately into the difficulty that vast wealth and holdings in western countries derives partly from utterly non-voluntary transactions.

This is because in a theory where you have full property rights to whatever you gained in a voluntary transaction, you do not have rights to whatever you gained through a non-voluntary transaction, and you do not have rights to what was stolen or taken by force. If A steals a diamond ring from B, then A doesn't own the ring -- B does. If A sells the ring to C, C also does not own the ring: justly speaking, B owns the ring, C owns the money they were going to trade for the ring, and A doesn't own anything.

But the land and wealth in rich western countries is enmeshed with a violent history of colonialism, slavery, war, and theft. Under the theory of ownership being proposed, who would own the land in North America? Presumably, Native Americans and Indigenous people and no one else. So the theory leads to very different consequences from the ones it's typically taken to support.

Third, when the full ownership theory is used in ways people don't like, there's a lot of uproar about it, suggesting most people do not endorse or agree with that theory. When Martin Shkreli bought the rights to life-saving drugs and then radically raised the prices, what he did was well within his rights in the full-ownership theory of property. It's his -- he gets to do what he wants.

I've been surprised by the degree of hate against this guy from all sides. I mean, I think the outcomes are bad, but then I'd endorse a different health care system entirely. It's the lack of supporters from other sides I'm struck by.

As I mentioned before, on Reddit there was general applause when a doctor pressed Shkreli on what improvements in the drug "warranted" the price increase. But that's not how our system works. I actually thought Shkreli made a valid point when he said in 2015, “Our shareholders expect us to make as much money as possible ... That’s the ugly, dirty truth.” That's true. The problem is with the system, not with one specific guy.

Anyway, moving beyond the full ownership theory, it seems to me that whatever theory of ownership you adopt, a claim about "coercion" is a moral claim, and once you're in the realm of morality, things are never straightforward. As I discuss in my 2015 book, many people endorse multiple values. In our society, that range of values often includes some right to be free of certain kinds of interference. But it also often includes other values like justice, benevolence, honesty, fidelity, and so on.

So whether taxation is "coercive" isn't the end of a discussion. It's the beginning of a larger discussion, about ownership and what is and isn't coercive, but also about how all the various values we endorse should be implemented and prioritized in some sensible way. Obviously, this is something the citizens can, and do, disagree about, and that's one reason politics is complicated and fraught. 

I don't endorse the kind of full ownership theory that would be necessary to conclude that taxation is coercive, partly because, as this book review explains, taxes are "part of the entire system of property relations, not something that happens after property accrues in private hands." That is, there's no "A owns X and B owns Y" and then you have taxes. Rather, taxes are part of the system of property relations that entails what, exactly, A and B own.

And if property relations are a system of which taxes are one part, then I also believe that other values, like justice and fairness, should play a rule in structuring that system. 

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Why I Deactivated My Facebook Account


I recently deactivated my Facebook account. When Facebook asked me why I was deactivating, I put in the text box: "I don't want to aid in Facebook's quest to take over the entire universe."

I know social media platforms all share the same kinds of problems. I know that "if you're not paying, you're the product." I know that their ultimate goal is to make money off us, often by tracking our info and selling it to advertisers or whatever. I know that they're all engaged in various shenanigans.

But Facebook is in a class by itself. I've always felt pushed around and creeped out by Facebook, what with its perverse privacy settings and options and with Mark Zuckerberg basically acting like if you're not willing to make something public you must be some kind of criminal. Every time I went on Facebook -- and often by email when I didn't log in -- Facebook would remind me that I didn't really have a lot of friends, and I might be able to connect with more friends, and the things I posted weren't really getting any traction, and there might be ways to make traction happen.

Just last week, I wanted to message something to an old friend, and --oops! -- You can't message people any more unless you've properly opted into the chat feature and signed on to all the extra crap Facebook wants to you to sign on for. Good god.

But beyond the manipulation, to me the deeper threat is the depth to which Facebook is embedding itself in everyone's lives, becoming something you can't live without, becoming essential to what you thought were entirely non-Facebook related things. I'm sure you heard about the old news that lenders were going to use Facebook to judge your credit worthiness. Recently I was using a book reading app and there was an option to share notes. How do you share notes? You have to authenticate through Facebook. Want to use a dating app? Oh -- you can authenticate through Facebook.

What's it going to be like when you have to authenticate through Facebook to vote, to apply for a job, or to satisfy a customs official?

It also freaks me out that people are increasingly getting their news -- and their everything -- from Facebook. People often tell me they won't see anything unless a link pops up on their Facebook feed. It is disturbing. Plus, as we've written about before, do you really want Facebook determining what is and isn't a genuine news source?

The way Facebook deploys its real name policy is frightening. The brilliant sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom wrote about her experience being kicked off Facebook for using "TressieMcPhd" -- the name she uses in her online writing and with her 20,000+ Twitter following -- as her name. Someone reported her -- and bam! As Dr. Cottom explains, for all kinds of reasons, the enforcement of these kinds of policies have particularly negative effects for people who are already oppressed:

"It is more common that Facebook will ban non-white, non-male, non-Western users for violating ethical codes when they write against racism or sexism or inequality than they will ban those who post actual racist or sexist content."

In my academic field of philosophy, it is amazing how much discussion relevant to issues in the profession happens on Facebook. Often, before I learn about something from a blog post, there has already been extensive discussion of it on Facebook. But one problem with this is that Facebook actually reinforces some of the problems we're already having. For example, philosophy has an in-group out-group problem: some people are, or are perceived to be, the in-crowd, while others are, or feel, marginalized; overlaid on that there is a sense of people in factions or cliques. Because Facebook encourages and facilitates sharing with your friends, more than with strangers, opinions are shared in ways that track, rather than challenging, the sense of factions, groups, subgroups, who's in, and who's out.

I know my deactivation will go zero distance toward challenging Facebook's success at global domination. It is a tiny symbolic gesture in a cold and uncaring universe. But maybe some day some event or something will be organized and there will be this tiny resistance of people who aren't on Facebook, and the whole business will have to be conducted in some other way, like a blog, or on the non-walled garden parts of the internet, or -- god forbid -- email.

As I was writing this post, I was reminded of the 1970 book Exit, Voice, and Loyalty by Albert Hirschman. Hirschman argues that when an organization of any kind is being a pain in the ass, its members can "exit" but they also have the alternative of "voice" -- of sticking around and trying to change things. Maybe the current members of Facebook can change the way Facebook operates, as they did when drag queens won the right to use their preferred names. God knows, when it comes to members of Facebook, there certainly are enough of them.

It's a testament to the power of Facebook that I didn't delete my account but merely deactivated it. Which is temporary. We'll see how things go. In the meantime, why not connect with me on Twitter? It's far from perfect, but there's no real name bullshit. Plus, isn't it weirdly comforting that Twitter is so far from world domination that they still haven't even managed to make any money?

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Life's Confounding Open-Endedness And The Problem Of How To Spend Your Day


I don't know if you read this in-depth piece in The New Yorker about the opiate crisis and how it is affecting a community in West Virginia.

West Virginia has the highest overdose death rate in the country, and mostly the article describes how communities are responding to the crisis -- in some cases blaming drug users, but mostly doing heroic things to save them and to increase the measly support for people who want to quit.

My attention was caught, though, by something that might seem a bit to one side of the main topic. Toward the end of the article, the author describes a person formerly addicted who points out how hard it is for people who've never had the experience to understand what it's like to be addicted, how everything is grey and your mind just shuts down. And then the author says:

"As she described it, the constant hunt for heroin imposed a kind of order on life's confounding open-endedness. Addiction told you what every day was for, when otherwise you might not have known."

I was struck by this description of opiate addition. I had heard of the idea that opiate addiction transforms the vast range of human motivations and emotions into a single kind of thought -- do I have access to drugs, and if not, how can I get them? But it had never occurred to me how that might be a relief from something.

Regular readers won't be surprised to hear that this resonated with me -- I mean, the idea that "life's confounding open-endedness" could be a burden. At first I was inclined to see it as part of the human condition. As humans, we have to make decisions about what to do, and this means putting yourself behind something, in a sense. Unlike with other animals, even our less reflective decisions can feel like they are the result of decisions --  even if you're not going to think about something, you often have to choose not to think about it.

But the more I thought about it, the more I thought that life's confounding open-endedness might be a particular burden in our particular time and place. We live in a culture that has take to an extreme the idea that you should be free to do as you please, that one way of living is as good as another, that happiness involves finding your particular "passion" or developing some personalized "dream," that the things you chose are somehow more important than the things that just, somehow, choose you.

This is not only a departure from previous less "modern" forms of living, it's also largely bullshit. I think one reason it can be hard to see it as bullshit is that the sometimes less modernity seems less "progressive." When the contrary to "everyone can do as they please" is "women do this, men do that, gay people shouldn't exist," it's horrible. But the fact that X is bad doesn't mean everything not-X is good. We're already asking people to create their own personalities, branding, and entrepreneurial selves. Maybe  asking them to craft a day out of nothing is too much to bear.


Ages ago I wrote a post about our "independence fetish" and how strange it is. People talk about how important it is to be "happy within yourself," and to have a sense of self that doesn't depend on family, job, friends, home. There's the idea that you have to assert the rights of that self within relationships. But these ideas seem directly at odds with basic beliefs most of us have about how close relationships work, and why they're so valuable. I mean, isn't caring about someone a kind of dependence on them? Isn't thinking of your own good as separate from, and maybe at odds with, the good of others a way of keeping them at arms length? Isn't being needed by someone one of the best things in life?

Maybe the kinds of activities and relationships that relieve the burden of the "confoundingness open-endedness of life" require the opposite perspective: that you're radically dependent on other people, and they are on you, and sometimes the things you find yourself immersed in are just yours, whether they're the ones you'd have chosen or not.

Since I had seen the "confounding open-endedness" of life as somewhat to one side of the main point of the article, I was struck that a New Yorker letter writer mentioned it as well, as a manifestation of a "spiritual crisis" and in that sense a central cause of addiction. Correctly observing that detox, rehab, etc. do not really address these causes, the letter writer then goes on to way that what really is needed is job creation -- some New Deal type of thing that would put people back to work.

Being immersed in my own interpretation of the burden of life's "open-endedness" I was startled to see the idea of "jobs" being proposed as a solution. Of course, there's no question that having meaningful work, and being able to support a family, are crucial elements of well-being! And yet, the idea that this kind of spiritual crisis could be cured with a little extra dose of capitalism -- well, I guess it just seemed to me a little sad.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

My Mother Audrey Would Not Just Follow Your Stupid Rules

My mom in her twenties
As regular readers know, my mother had been in ill health for quite a while. Last week I posted that picture of my parents from back in the day. The following day, my mother died.

As you may know if you read the obituary, my mother was a political activist, feminist, cat-lover, and Red Sox fan, known for her open-mindedness, humor, warmth, and compassion. But she was also what you would call an "independent thinker."

People toss around phrases like "independent thinker" to be nice about eccentrics, intellectuals, or weirdos, but my mom was the real deal. She just refused to go along with things just because they were things everyone else was doing, or things someone else wanted her to do, or things you'd be expected to do just because doing them was part of how the system works.

When my mom was just out of high school, she moved out of her parents house, got a job, and got an apartment in Boston with her friends -- something single women never did in the mid-fifties. Though she never went to college, she read widely in a range of subjects and especially in politics and education. She thought elementary school should have more freedom and more play and more unstructured learning -- and she said so to anyone who would listen -- even while my father was running for school committee in our town on almost the opposite platform.

My mom played the piano and was seriously into classical music, but she refused to play in front of people -- she said it drove her crazy if she was playing and people were talking, so she just said, "Nope!" In 1976, when everyone was arguing about Carter versus Ford, my mom campaigned for Senator Gene McCarthy. Her favorite movie was Auntie Mame.

I'm not going to lie: being the child of an independent thinker wasn't always easy. My mom's feminist commitments included the concept that children should be dressed in jeans, t-shirts, and sneakers -- basically, clothes you could run around in. But I was a girly girl from the earliest age. Why couldn't I run around in a dress? My mom valued eduction, and sometimes said she wished she'd gone to college -- but then she also said she only wanted to go if she didn't have to do any assignments she didn't want to do. Why couldn't she just suck it up, like everyone else? When she drove around without car insurance or registration because "nothing bad is going to happen" or wouldn't go to the doctor because she was "mad at the American health care system," I went nuts.

But my mom's habits of independent thought have obviously had a profound impact on who I am as a person. I myself enjoy challenging the status quo. Even though my mom seemed to think academic philosophy was an unimaginative and irrelevant way to think about things, the impulse to ask "why are things way rather than some other way" is one that clearly forms a basic part of my intellectual approach to the world. Also, I don't mind being thought a weirdo. For these things, crucial to who I am, I have my mother to thank.

My mom had a heart condition that caused her to have heart failure last fall, and after a hospital stay she was weakened enough that had to move permanently to a nursing home. In a way, she was OK there: reading, following politics, and watching the Red Sox were all activities easy to continue, and her warmth and caring attitudes were appreciated. But she didn't like the rules. She didn't like being told that she had to do physical therapy, or that she had to take a shower at a certain time. She didn't like that she had an identifying bracelet with her doctor's name written on it. She didn't like being part of the system.

Over the last few weeks my mom's health declined rapidly, likely because of her heart. On one of her last days, the doctor came in to check on her. "Audrey," he said, as he leaned down to speak into her ear. "It's me, Dr. Sharma."

My mother had just been lying there with her eyes closed, but at this she perked up. "Oh!" she said, raising her braceleted wrist, her tone eye-rolly and sarcastic. "I guess I belong to you." Everybody laughed. Complaining about the system, right to the very end. That's my mom!

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

A Picture Of My Parents

Regular readers may remember that my mother's health hasn't been good. Unfortunately, she has rapidly declined over the last couple of weeks, and isn't doing well. Partly because of this, I wasn't able to write a blog post this week.

So I thought instead I'd post this photo of my mom and dad, taken some time in the 60s or early 70s:



I love this picture. I think my mom made this dress, since sewing her own clothes was a thing she did in her youth, even though by the time I came along -- and wanted to learn to sew my own clothes! -- she had decided this was somehow regressive and anti-feminist. I also love that my mom has both a drink and a cigarette -- my mom loved a Southern Comfort Manhattan, which is a crazy drink along multiple dimensions.

Thanks for your patience and kindness, loyal readers. I'll see you next week!

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Problems Of The Environment Are Not (Only) Problems Of Individual Consumer Obligations

Vincent van Gogh, Olive Trees, via Wikimedia Commons.

I was interested to see this piece by Umbra Fisk on Naked Capitalism about how "withdrawing" and living "off the grid" were bad solutions to environmental problems.

When I first saw it, I confess that in true modern style I had expected it to confirm some beliefs I already had: that living in cities was environmentally friendly, that living in the country often involves a lot of driving and so on, and that spending a lot of time doing outdoorsy activities could be harmful.

I wrote about some of these issues a couple of years ago.  For one thing, it turns out that if you think of elevators as a way of getting from one place to another, they are very energy efficient, because of counter-weights. As the New Yorker put it back in 2008:

"Without the elevator, there would be no verticality, no density, and, without these, none of the urban advantages of energy efficiency, economic productivity, and cultural ferment. The population of the earth would ooze out over its surface, like an oil slick, and we would spend even more time stuck in traffic or on trains, traversing a vast carapace of concrete."

I love that image, of the elevator saving people from oozing out all over the earth's surface -- like we're some kind of skin disease or something.


Another interesting thing is that as reported in the NYT, hiking and camping and related activities are "the fourth-leading reason that species are listed by the federal government as threatened or endangered..."

To a certain extent, the NC piece did confirm my existing beliefs. Because of public transportation and other kinds of infrastructure, living in cities can be more environmentally friendly than living "off the grid" or moving into a tiny house.

But in another way, the piece actually pushed me to realize ways that I had failed to take my thinking to the next step. Because the main gist of the piece is really about the relative pointlessness of all those small individual habits we form, the limitedness of thinking just about yourself and your consumer activities, when really you should be trying to think more in terms of community and contributing to large structural changes. The theme of the essay is "get to know your neighbor."

And I realized I really had been framing my thinking about this in a highly individualized way, thinking of myself as a consumer, and then considering what my obligations were in terms of my individual choices.

It's not that that kind of thinking is wrong. Of course it's good to carry your water bottle, and repair your things and, of course, take the bus (like I do!).

But to frame the problem as an individualistic consumer obligations problem is a mistake. It's a mistake we're all likely to make, because we live in a society that for complex reasons is constantly reminding us of our position as individual consumers and never reminding us of our position as anything else.

So yes, ask yourself about sustainable practices for your life. But as the essay says, don't forget to also ask: "How do you cultivate respectful, meaningful relationships with the people who will help you fight fossil fuel infrastructure?"

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Hurt Feelings And The Perverse Modern Demand For Invulnerability

Have you seen that comic strip that shows the guy hearing all kinds of praise and one bad thing, and how in the course of the day the praise fades and fades to nothing, 'til when he's lying in bed and all he can think is of that one bad thing?

Here it is:



I think about this comic all the time, because I am very susceptible to this. In the comic, the one negative thing the guy can't get out of his head is "you're a jerk," but my negative things range over all types and categories and can include both comments from other that, for whatever reasons, hurt my feelings, and also vicious negative self-assessment.

Anyone who teaches students can tell you about experiencing this with course evaluations. You can read one positive comment after another, sheet after sheet where the only negative feedback is "the readings were dry," and then you come upon someone who says you're incompetent or boring or disorganized or behind-the-times and -- WHAM. I promise, that is the comment you'll be thinking about for the next few weeks, or maybe forever.

I discuss this comic strip with people often, because it's important to remember what a widely shared experience it is and to keep in mind that feeling this way doesn't make you weak or weird or over-reacting or anything. It's just human nature.

When I share this comic strip and think about it, my mind often turns to thinking about how crazy it is that as humans hyper-sensitive to negative feedback, we've basically created a system in which people are constantly subjected to it. You'd think if we were people like the guy in the comic strip that we would find a way to create a society in which we are surrounded by praise and positive comments and only hear negative feedback in the gentlest and most constructive way.

But it's not like that at all. It's like the opposite. Most of us are surrounded with critical evaluation from all sides and only hear praise if we're lucky enough to have people around who love and care for us.

Worst of all, the people who are -- or who act -- the most impervious to criticism are often the people who are most successful. They exude positivity, and they prop up their personal brand and likability.

It is one of those strange states of affairs: we have massive human vulnerability, and modern society is set up for massive invulnerability. Like we set up society for people radically unlike ourselves. WTF?

I don't know how you undo any of these complicated systemic things that no one really designed, and that seem to emerge out of the always churning blend of capitalism, the Human Resources industrial complex, and people just needing to lord it over other people. But wouldn't it be nice if we could shift things around a little?

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

In Praise Of Workplace Inefficiency

It's always bothered me the way you can open a newspaper like the New York Times and find completely different perspectives depending on what part of the paper you're in. In the Science page, you might read about how to lower your carbon footprint by taking fewer trips, while in the Travel section you're reading about how it can be a new kind of fun to fly to Europe just for the weekend, and in the Business section you're reading about how to get extra airline miles by making pointless extra stops while you travel -- first class, of course.

One of the main offenders in this regard, I think, has to do with the workplace. In one part of the news, you're likely to read about the importance of having a super-efficient company, with a super-efficient workplace. You might read about strategies to prevent workers from chit-chatting, or looking at the internet, or taking too long in the bathroom.

In another part of the news, though, you might see a completely different take on things, with basically the opposite message -- namely, how to avoid having work completely ruin your life. You might read about strategies for stress relief, like taking frequent small breaks and getting up to walk around.

Personally, I love to see workers being inefficient. This morning I happened to be staying at a hotel, while on a trip to visit my mother, and when I came down to get coffee, there were three hotel employees -- room cleaners, by the look of things -- and they were hanging out, chatting, laughing, and eating pastries from the hotel breakfast room. Yesterday another worker gestured for us go first up the stairs, and when we gestured that he should go first, he said, "Nah. You go ahead first. I'm on the clock!"

I was so happy to see workers in a seemingly relaxed workplace, enjoying themselves a bit. I thought to myself, "This hotel is awesome."

People spend a lot of time at work. And work that requires you to be always on, always pushing forward, never just slacking off -- it's awful. Maybe you saw the news stories about bankers in Canada who were pushed to upsell products in order to meet targets. The described "panic attacks," and "insomnia," "nausea," "anxiety" and "depression."


What must it be like to work as an Amazon picker, where you can never sit down, you can't chat with co-workers, and "if five minutes ever passes without you accomplishing a task, the scanner informs management"? Or in a store in the mall with unrealistic quotas and high pressure consequences like being fired? Or on a chicken conveyor belt, cutting up 45 chickens per minute?

Conversely, just having a bit of a relaxed feeling at work is such a huge component of feeling like things are OK. Those moments between tasks when you can share a joke, or take a look outside, or whatever. Before I became a professor I worked as a waitress, mostly in small, locally owned, low-key diner-type places. I didn't make much money, but I always appreciated it as decent work, mostly because -- unless it was super-busy -- you could chat and joke with your co-workers and customers as the workday rolled along.

This somewhat relaxed feeling at work -- it flies in the face of standard business norms in favor of efficiency, and in a competitive environment, employers might not even be able to afford to make their workplaces more relaxed than other workplaces.

And on top of that, it's not even something that would be easy to regulate. I mean, you can regulate a fifteen minute break. But you can't regulate that feeling that hey, it's OK, we all have plenty of time, if you want to stop and chat or rest your hands or whatever -- it's OK.

It's more like one of those things that has to do with amorphous matters like how it's OK for one person to treat another, and how much you're willing to yell at other people and make their lives miserable on a day to day basis, and how much other people are willing to yell at other people and make their lives miserable on a day to day basis.

Amorphous, shifting, hard to describe -- but very, very real.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Hot Housing Markets And The Dutch Tulip Bubble Of 1637


Ambrosius Bosschaert  (1573–1621), Flower Still Life [with a yellow tulip]. Via Wikimedia Commons.

A friend of mine sent me this article about the "overheated" condo market in Toronto. I own a condo in Toronto, so I guess issue is certainly relevant to my interests. Personally, the price fluctuations don't matter much to me. Partly, this is because we bought our place before prices got so high, and we are using it more as an actual place to live, rather than an investment, so who cares? Partly, this is because I'm the sort of person whose eyes glaze over when we talk about money.

So, sure, I open the unsolicited mailings that real estate agents send us, with their reports on what sold for what and their endless rhetoric of optimism. And sometimes I'm like OMG, how much?? But who knows what's going to happen next? I don't get too excited. From a personal point of view, it's more like entertainment or a spectator sport than anything else.

Of course more generally, I worry about rising housing prices, because I want people to be able to afford housing. Housing prices are one of the weirdest things to read about in the news. When housing prices go up too fast, it's considered bad. When housing prices fall, it's also considered bad, because people use housing as a way of saving for the future. When I see the news about falling housing prices, I sometimes think, "Yeah, I know. But isn't this also a good thing? For people who want to be able to afford homes?"

You might think that rising housing prices would be a reason to create more housing, the theory of supply and demand suggesting that the more supply there is, the more the cost would go down. But in the article my friend sent me, the chief economist at Bank of Montreal is cited saying this isn't so. Creating supply in response to more demand, he said, creates more demand. Prices will then go even higher.

He mentions the example of the example of the Dutch Tulip Bubble in 1637, when people starting paying more and more for tulip bulbs, with prices reaching obscene levels, before a sudden crash in the market. The economist asks rhetorically, "Do you think that the best response to the Dutch Tulip Bubble in 1637 was to cultivate more land and grow more tulips?"

Later he makes the same point with the example of the dot-com bubble of the 90s, asking whether the right response would have been an increased supply of shares of Pets.com or Toys.com.

I don't know if he's trying to simplify a complicated point or something, but these struck me as peculiar analogies. I mean, tulips and dot-coms shares are something no one needs. Housing is something everybody needs. I know, not everyone needs housing in a particular place. But still, tulips and shares are like the opposite of homes: the former you can buy and sell easily and there's no point to owning them beyond making money and impressing people. The other is a huge pain to buy and sell and most people use them for something essential to life. It doesn't add up.

Perhaps the implication is that housing prices are surging in Toronto not for normal supply-and-demand related reasons, but because people are doing with condos what they did before with tulips and dot-com shares, namely buying them not to live in, but more to make money and impress people.

I have no idea if this is true -- in fact, I'm not even sure how someone would know whether it is true. But if it is, even a bit, true, then I guess this means that there are a lot of people with a lot of extra money to throw around and a lot of leeway with respect to how they're throwing it. Are there really so many people who can afford to buy a whole condo just as an investment for the future? In addition to the home they're actually, you know, living in? Tossing them around the way you might throw around a tulip?

I've always thought these kinds of discussions were haunted by the old idea of a "just price." As I've written about before, a long time ago there was the idea that there was a "just" or "fair" or "appropriate" price for something. This makes it easy to explain how a tulip costing ten times someone's annual salary is insane. In some basic sense, a tulip just isn't worth that much.

But as economics developed, the idea of a just price started to seem unscientific and impossible to define. What would it mean, to say one thing is "worth" a certain amount? All the data we have just concern prices: what it's "worth" in modern parlance is just what people think it is worth, which is basically what people are willing to pay. The idea that there is "worth" inherent in objects, that transcends what people want to pay, seems peculiar, like some kind of weird bad metaphysics or voodoo science. 

But if worth is just what people are willing to pay, then it's difficult to say that things are costing "too much." You can't say that tulips were insanely overpriced, and by extension, you can't say that the housing market's pricing is out-of-whack. At most, you could say something about the future: that you think prices are going to come crashing down. But you'd have to refrain from saying anything about which price is what the housing is really worth.

The reason I say just price theory "haunts" these discussions is just that I think certain intuitive but hazy background ideas about worth are sometimes in play. When the pharmabro guy wanted to put skyrocketing prices on his drugs, people said he wasn't charging a "fair price." When people talk about housing prices being out-of-whack, there's a suggestion that there is something a condo is actually worth, generally speaking.

So when someone says it would be silly to make more tulips in response to demand, I think one reason this rings true is because we feel, in some inchoate sense, that tulips just aren't worth that much. After all, if tulips were found to have some cancer-curing chemical we could use to treat people, then a rational response to skyrocketing tulip costs would be -- of course, for God's sake, make more tulips.

It wouldn't be surprising if judgments of whether housing has some inherent worth varied along with wealth: if you think of housing as a think you use to live, like those life-saving tulips, then it seems to have some hazy inherent value relative to other goods in your life and so on. And a rational response to demand is to make more.

But if you think of housing in terms of a thing people just buy and sell, then it's hard to see how its "value" can be understood in any way except what people are willing to pay. And in that case, it might seem that the creation of supply would be, on balance, not a good thing.

I don't know all the ins and outs, so I can't say what will cause what to happen overall. But as someone thinking of housing as a good thing, the analogy to the tulip market doesn't ring true to me. If you have a good thing, and costs for it go up, then why not make more?