Friday, November 14, 2008

Noko Marie, Continued

Dear readers,
Noko Marie continues her reflections at her new blog,

Come check it out!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Oh Noes! The End of C and C?

Dear readers,
I'm afraid it's true: this is the end of C and C. Since the Cap'n has other responsibilities these days that are incompatible with blogging, and since C and C was always meant as a joint venture, we've decided that this is a natural end.

I, Noko, plan to start up a new blog continuing my reflections soon. When I do, I'll post a link here to the new URL. That should be in about two weeks. Feel free to email me at the address on my Noko Marie profile any time for more information.

Thanks! See you all again soon!

Monday, October 20, 2008

My Rational Emotive Elephant

I wrote before on C and C about women and men and rationality. I had been long puzzled, I explained, by the fact that women were taken to be less rational, when on the face of it, women are the less impulsive, less violent, more cautious of the two genders.

What I came to think, on mulling it over, I said, was that while women may be sort of a little irrational about a lot of things, a lot of the time, men are sort of really irrational about a few things -- you know, sex, money, at certain times.

I don't know if that's right. But I was thinking about it again reading this great book by Jonathan Haidt called The Happiness Hypothesis.

Haidt says the self is like an elephant and a rider. Reason can guide your inner elephant, but only through persuasion and training, not really through force. Sometimes the rider knows what is best, but sometimes the elephant does. Haidt describes riding a horse on a scary cliff, and suddenly failing to use the reins to guide the horse at a crucial moment. He figures he's going to go over the cliff, but of course the horse doesn't want to go over the cliff either. The horse doesn't even need direction. He knows which way to go.

I like this metaphor, which seems to me to grant that neither reason nor emotion should always have the upper hand. Sometimes the rider knows what's best; sometimes the elephant does.

Now, it's tempting to say that irrationality is when the rider doesn't control the elephant. But the fact that the elephant can be right means this is too quick. Irrationality is just taking actions that don't make sense. Like steering toward the cliff. Both the rider and the elephant can have this sort of problem.

If that's right, it seems a person could be "rational" either by having a strong rider, or by just having an elephant who wants the right things.

Speaking for myself, I've never felt in much in control of my own decisions in the riderish sense. My rider is there, but he's either really weak or really gentle, as I wrote about before.

On the other hand, I think my elephant has generally good impulses. OK, sometimes he has to be guided away from overindulgence in pleasures, but other than that, he's pretty OK. I am impulsively inclined to be nice to people, to do work that is interesting and useful, to make my loved ones happy, and to keep my home tidy.

Does the fact that I am impulsively inclined to want things that are actually in my own best interest, and that I follow those impulses make me more rational or less? I don't know.

But I will say that some impulses, like the impulse to violence and rape, aren't just impulses you want to be able to control. They're impulses you don't want your elephant to have at all.

Haidt says a bit about retraining your elephant. The main thing is it takes practice. I guess this is what culture and cultural inhibitions were doing for us, before we all decided that total autonomy and chaos was the way to go.

Me, I think a little general elephant retraining might be in order for some of us.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Back On Monday

OK, I'm a little suddenly swamped with other responsibilities, so no new C and C excitements from me 'til next week. Back on Monday!

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Four Modes For The Working Woman

Nobody likes to be told what to do, and nobody likes to be criticized, and nobody likes to be told that whatever they're doing isn't good enough.

Men, it seems to me, particularly hate being told these things by women.

This means that any woman who has a job that involves telling men what to do and telling them when they're not measuring up will have a much easier life if she can develop a kind of "work persona": a mode of being that is related to, but not identical to, her true self, and that taps into one of the types of women that men don't mind being pushed around by.

As I see it, there are four such modes.

1) The mom.

Obviously, one major mode of acceptable bossing around comes from mom. The mom is warm, and easy-going, and always has your best interest at heart. She's doing this for your own good, and she'll give you a teaspoon of sugar to make the medicine go down. Much as I disagree with Sarah Palin's politics, I think she's doing the "mom mode" like we've never seen it done.

2) The bitch.

You'd think being bitchy would turn people off, and sometimes it does, but sometimes it really works. I think the trick is to make people feel, yeah, you're being bitchy to them now, but some day when the stakes are big, you're going to be bitchy on their side, and then they'll be thrilled to have you in their corner. Think Hillary Clinton.

3) The dominatrix.

This isn't necessarily sexual, though it can be. The dominatrix tells you what's what, beats you up a little psychologically, but makes it kind of fun, or at least kind of interesting. The big difference between the dominatrix and the bitch is that the bitch is emotionally hot, while the dominatrix is emotionally cold. The dominatrix delivers her orders and assessments with no anger and no smile. I'm thinking Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada.

4) The cute girl.

You might think, and I used to think, that the cute girl mode would only work for women who are relatively young and powerless. But it's a surprisingly versatile mode, and it can be effectively deployed in a variety of ways. The essential thing is you make your demands pleasant and fun to satisfy because, Hey! They make a cute girl happy and proud. I can't think of any public examples, but I assure you I have seen this in action.

I suppose it's telling that I have real examples for 1 and 2 but not for 3 and 4. Maybe these are more successful modes. I don't know.

In any case, it's not an exhaustive list. You can mix and match or create your own!
These are just, you know, suggestions.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Digital Info: Where Is The Love?

I teach at a University. University libraries offer their students and faculty various kinds of access to electronic resources. Usually, this includes digital access to past issues of journals that someone has scanned in.

I often use such articles from such journals in my teaching. Students are famously paying way too much for textbooks these days, so I want to save my students money by making use of these resources.

It's pretty easy to put a link on their course page where they can download the article. It's free. They can then print it out, or use it on their computer, or whatever. This is almost like a utopia of information accessibility.

I started this process for a new course the other day, and I found that one of the articles is in the right journal -- the library has access, in this case through "Poiesis" -- but for some reason whoever is supposed to scan in the journal never scanned in that issue. From that year there is volume 2, 3, and 4, but no volume 1, which is the one I need.

I emailed my reference librarian, who was kind and energetic, and tried to help. But basically, there is no answer. The reference librarians don't know how to get in touch with Poiesis, and all they'll tell me is that "Acquisitions" doesn't know either.

They're going to scan it in and get copyright clearance, so it's the same thing, I guess. But I couldn't help trying to ask them a few questions: wasn't there a contract between the university and someone? Doesn't that someone agree to provide certain stuff? Isn't the library paying? Can't they contact whoever they are in this contract with, to say, Hey, Guys, You are missing Volume 1?

You know if the library had paid for some book series and never received one of the volumes, nobody would be all, "Oh. Um, guess theres's nothing we can do." They'd be up in arms.

But digital info, it gets no love.

Really, I can hardly believe how slow the move to open source information is. I mean, there are two journals in my entire discipline that I know of that are open source. And what about books and essay collections?

The big thing is "gatekeeping" and CVs. You know, if you just put something online, that doesn't really show you've accomplished something important in your research. If your article is accepted by a journal, or published in a book, it does show you've accomplished something important in your research. That accomplishment shows up on your CV, which is how other people evaluate whether you're accomplishing things, or just posting rantings on the internet.

But surely it's possible to devise some analogue to the open source journal, except for publications of all kinds? You know, where it's open source, but some gatekeeper is making the "acceptance" process meaningful?

You know, the actual publishers aren't going to lead the way, 'cause it's not in their interestes. Probably it will require some initial infusion of energy and capital. No one in education has capital. They do have energy, though. So hey, rich people, if you want to help out with the spread of free information around the world, please! Please help!

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Don't Look Behind The Literary Curtain

I was hit hard by the suicide of David Foster Wallace. Not because I knew him personally -- I didn't -- and not because I was a big fan of his books or anything. I've never actually read any of his books. I started Infinite Jest, and wasn't in the mood for it, and been planning to try it again soon.

I guess the suicide hit me hard because he's roughly my age, and because he seemed to have everything a thinking person could want in life.

He was a respected writer, with a good teaching job, where by all accounts his students adored him. He was married. He was obviously talented and intelligent. He had accomplished a lot.

So I guess I found it destabilizing to remember that even with all those things, life can just seem really empty and hollow if you're looking at it in a certain way.

I say "remember" because this is something I know. It's something I try not to think about too much, because it's frightening.

The short New Yorker "Postscript" about Wallace in last week's issue quotes Wallace as having said that great literature made him feel "unalone -- intellectually, emotionally, spiritually."

I was like, "Yeah! Me too! I know exactly what he means."

Indeed, reading novels is one of the main sources in my life for keeping at bay the bad feelings of emptiness and hollowness. In this I contrast reading novels to other kinds of thinking. Some kinds of thinking encourage a kind of up-from-above perspective on life, a perspective from which it's easy to get a kind of vertigo.

You look, and you think, What is the point of all this exactly?

Now, reading a novel for me is like the opposite of that feeling. There's a basic level of "Ooh! What a scoundrel! What's going to happen next?"

But there's also a more complicated set of feelings, that I hadn't really thought to articulate, but you know, Wallace pretty much sums it up. "Not alone." Right. Uh-huh.

Now to me, thinking about literature, rather than just reading it, can sometimes give me the bad, vertigo, feeling rather than the good, unalone feeling. It's just such a reflective activity somehow.

I want to be in front of the literary curtain, being all amazed and entranced, not behind the literary curtain, thinking about how it's all put together and what it all means.

From what I can tell, Wallace's books are the books of an novelist who spent a lot of time reflecting on how it's all put together and what it all means. Maybe all novelists have to do this; I don't know. But I could see how all that thinking would make a person prone to despair.

All this reminds me of an image (from a novel!) that I think about all the time. In Philip Roth's excellent book The Anatomy Lesson, the main character, Zuckerman, is a novelist, and he writes about how tough novel-writing is. Day after day, alone with the typewriter and your own brain, pounding your head against the wall and tap tap tapping on the keys.

Zuckerman says something like, If there were a monkey doing this, and people were looking in at him, in his cage, obsessed, day after day, with the same activity, they'd probably say, "Gee, isn't there something someone can do? Can't we at least get him a companion"?

It's one of my most favoritest things in literature. Makes me feel deeply, and totally, unalone.

Monday, September 29, 2008


I was browsing around in the bookstore looking for something to read the other day, and I settled on this book called Adverbs. It's by Daniel Handler, who it turns out, is also the author of those Lemony Snicket books.

For some reason I've never even looked at the Lemony Snicket books. I think I became conscious of them the same time I became conscious of Harry Potter, and I didn't really like the one Harry Potter book I read, so somehow, I don't know, one of those things.

This book, Adverbs, has a lot of funny things about it, things I would have said I would really, really, not like in a book.

For one thing, all the chapter headings are adverbs. You know, Chapter 1: Immediately. Chapter 2: Obviously.

Also, the chapters don't really follow any single cohesive narrative line. They jump around, there are lots of characters, you're not sure when the stories intersect. Or even if they intersect.

Finally, the book is "about love." Right on the back, it says, "This novel is about love."

Just as I'm buying the book, I'm thinking, What am I doing? These all sound like things I will hate.

But I was a little desperate. Regular readers may remember that I'm toward the end of Volume 4 of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, so maybe you're wondering, how could you be desperate for something to read?

Well, the copies I have of Proust are big, hardcover books. Not really the sort of thing you pop into your purse to read on the subway, and not really the sort of thing you want to carry around all day. Also, you may have heard, as wonderful as those books are, Proust can be, you know, a little sad.

So I bought Adverbs. And I got totally swept up in it. I loved it. None of the qualities I thought would be annoying or peculiar were annoying or peculiar.

What I liked most was the simple calm feeling of the whole thing. This book just does its thing. When it's done right it seems effortless but writing simple sentences is very difficult, which is why you don't see it that often.

The adverb I'd use for this book is: Quietly. Even when there's drama, this is somehow a quiet book, in the nicest way.

For example, the last chapter, "judgmentally," begins this way:

"In the United States, where this love story is set, we all get to make decisions about love, even if we're not citizens or if we don't know what we're doing. If you get into a taxi and you fall in love there, no laws passed by the government of the United States will prevent you from making a fool of yourself. If you have someone in mind for the prom, you do not have to submit this person to a vote. If you want to be a lover, that is your call, no matter your mother's advice or what the song on the radio is going on about. The love's yours, for the time being.

If you'd rather be a criminal, though, we have a different system for that."

I don't know why I like this little passage so much, but I do. I love "even if we're not citizens or if we don't know what we're doing," and "we have a different system for that." These sentences are just right for me, somehow.

Maybe they'd be right for you, too. It's hard to say.

Love: always complicated and unpredictable.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

A Moral Hazard Before It Even Happened

The Times has this new blog called "Economix." It's supposed to be about "the science of everyday life," which is already annoying to me, as if economics were the basic tool for explaining why people do what they do.

As I've discussed on C and C here before, economists cheerfully admit they have no idea why people do ordinary fun things like pay a lot for concert tickets, or why they feel compelled by fairness to pay for things even when it's not required, or why people vote.

Also the economic theory of rationality predicts that we all act in our own self-interest, which is just obviously false.

So while it's fine with me if they want to study money, the idea that economists are going to explain everyday life is just really, really irritating to me.

Anyway, over at one of their "guest posts" today, an economist named Bob McTeer explains that contrary to appearances, the bailout represents no risk of "moral hazard."

Moral hazard is when someone is rewarded for behaving badly or doing something dumb, and so is more likely to do it again next time rather than less.

The crux of McTeer's argument seems to be that since the individuals who made bad decisions actually will suffer consequences, there's no moral hazard. I'm not sure I've got all the details, but the idea seems to be that since the CEO's of AIG etc., are going to lose their jobs and money, the CEO's of the future won't be tempted into the bad behavior that got us into this mess.

CEO's, McTeer says, look at what happens to other CEO's, not to what happens to customers.

I don't know how this applies to the proposed bailout -- McTeer objects to the term "bailout" in any case -- but the basic idea seems to be that as long as you save the company but not its owners and managers, you don't risk moral hazard.

I'm no economist, but come on, really? Even before all this happened, lots of people were wondering at the planning skills of the people in charge. Lots of people were wondering, why on earth are these companies taking such enormous and dumb risks? It's not like no one knew something like this could happen.

One reason it must have seemed safe to take huge risks was because everyone else was taking huge risks. So you figure, well, we can't all go down in flames; the economy won't survive that. So there's safety in numbers.

Turns out that was right. Because we're going to bail these guys out. So the bailout created moral hazard before it even happened, just because we knew it was overwhelming likely that something like it would happen.

I'm not buying McTeer's argument that losing a job is the ultimate in motivating a CEO or bank manager to act one way rather than another. Anyway, anyone who *was* motivated by that sort of fear into behaving in ways that weren't taking big economic risks probably would have been fired before the crisis, for not bringing in enough money.

So the no moral hazard argument, I am not buying it.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Empty Nest Syndrome Of My Mind. Or Not.

Oops, when I was supposed to be writing on Commonwealth and Commonwealth yesterday I was at the mall instead. And then I forgot I hadn't done it.

It's ironic (as we say nowadays) because I was going to write about the empty nest syndrome inside my mind, the basic idea being that having recently outgrown my own adolescence, I could experience empty nest syndrome without having any kids.

The "kid" I was missing (I was going to explain) was me.

My whole life up to now I've been accompanied by a person who refuses sensible shoes, dreams of owning a sports car, wants to spend every late afternoon with a martini in hand, and incessantly demands to be taken to the mall. Me.

Now I'm getting a little older, and some of those impulses are fading. And it's like, wait, where's that teenager? What's she doing? It's boring around here without her.

Unlike the real empty nest syndrome, I can't call her up on the phone. She doesn't exist anymore.

So I was going to say all these things, but as I say, I went to the mall yesterday, and I bought some jeans, and I tried on an incredible leopard print (fake fur! don't worry!) jacket, and I went to the Apple Store, and I blew a fortune on a new bottle of my favorite perfume, and boy! Well, I felt like a new woman. I mean, like a new girl. Or whatever.

So reports of the missing adolescent were premature. I'm relieved. The empty nest of my mind was kind of sad and lonely.