Thursday, August 30, 2007

K.I.T.

If I have met you and you have made an impression on me, and you possess a relatively distinctive name and some internet presence (who doesn't, these days?) I have probably looked you up on Google. Not once, several times.

This is something the people I know and like do as a matter of course. Last night a friend said something about what if Google started telling people who had searched for them and then we both said something about how we would be screwed, unable to hold up our heads for the embarrassment of it all.

(There is a historical precedent for this. Friendster, the pioneering social networking site, switched, without notification, to allowing people to see who had viewed their profile. I spent the first fifteen minutes after I found out trying to remember who the hell I had looked at recently. Then, of course, I dove for the computer to see who had looked me up.)

This is probably something that everyone does; it's why social networking sites exist, after all.

So why am I so embarrassed by it?

(When I looked to see who had been viewing my profile on Friendster I found, strangely enough, that I assumed of other people what I knew to be (mostly) true about myself -- that they were bored and mildly curious to see what I had been up to. This surprised me; I had expected to assume that they were totally obsessed with me.)

I do take it to extremes. A friend once hinted that he might have a blog and armed with no more than what I knew about him, which was not that much, and that fact, I went hunting for that blog. Four hours later I found it.

Also, a little embarrassing is that a lot of the time, having found someone, I make contact. I couldn't exactly tell you why.

But even when I just do a quick two-minute Google search, no varying the terms, no pages viewed past two or three, no contact to be made, still I feel odd about it. Odd to be carrying around this desire to know exactly what happened to that guy in college that I never liked because he thought he was cooler than anyone. Also odd given the people I am in touch with, the people I like and fail -- why spend time on people I didn't know that well even when I knew them?

My Narrative Needs


Last weekend I read Haruki Murakami's new novel, After Dark. He's the Japanese novelist whose books are sometimes described as "metaphysical" -- though actually the metaphysical parts of the books aren't really the parts I like.

What I do like in Murakami are the characters and their conversations. Even though I rarely feel a sense of kinship with the people in these books, I do feel very interested in them, right away. They're interesting people.

Also the feeling of reading Murakami is great. I wrote recently of rereading Platform to try to say something comprehensive about it. I read it with a pencil, marking up passages, realizing to my amazement that it may have been the first time I had ever read a novel that way. Obviously, I didn't take a lot of literature courses in college.

I found it a real chore. It's funny, because often when I'm reading novels I'm struck by particular passages, and I'm excited at the thought that I might go back to them. My experience with the pencil suggests that not making the note is part of the pleasure, which I don't understand, but there it is.

That feeling of momentary delight in sentences or phrases -- that's great in Murakami.

And another thing is: Murakami writes about women who seem like real people. Ages ago there was a strip in the comic Dykes to Watch Out For that featured one character explaining to another that she never went to a movie unless there was a scene featuring one woman talking to another, about something other than a man. The punch line was the last movie she'd been able to see was Alien -- Sigourney Weaver and someone else talk about the monster.

This has stuck with me for years. If you apply it to contemporary narrative art products you get depressed fast. But Murakami's books often feature complex, strange, girls and women, doing stuff, talking about things. I like it.

The narrative structure -- or lack of it -- though, in most of his books leaves me frustrated and weirded out. The story wanders, the details come and go, lots of threads are introduced that never get resolved. I realize this is part of the point. And I realize it may be part of an interesting and good point: that the experience of life is not narratively tidy. Details come and go. That's the humanity for you.

Even knowing that, I don't like it. I yearn for narrative. I want to know: why did that guy do that horrible thing? What's going to happen to him? And the guy's wife, we know she's sitting at home, what's going to happen with her? What's the story?

This is an alternate cover for the book, with itself a much greater implicit narrative punch than the cover I'm familiar with, up at the top.

Probably this desire is partly from having spent my life reading narratively tidy books. But still, I don't think it's unreasonable. The story of a novel creates a tension, and part of what's exciting about reading is seeing how that tension gets resolved. To make a decision about an ending requires an author to make a choice, himself. The choice recasts the rest of the book.

Leaving it open-ended is a choice too, but it's not one we ever get to make in our lives, since stuff just keeps happening, and we can't help trying to make sense of it. Even if we don't know about the narratives of others, they're there. There was some reason that guy did the bad thing he did, and something's going to happen to him, even if it's nothing. And his wife either will or won't find out.

So in some ways the experience of life is narrative. Probably we impose narrative structure on events, but that doesn't make it any less real as part of our experience.

I'm childishly needy for this same kind of thing in my reading life. The one book of Murakami's that struck me as utterly different in this respect was The Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. And when I finished it I actually burst into tears. I think it's his best book.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

I Am A Klutz

Last night I was walking idly around my apartment chatting on the phone and I looked down and noticed that my toe was bleeding. Kind of a lot.

I have no idea how that happened.

It did not startle me, particularly, because I am not a graceful person and am used to banging into things. When I was a child I would come back from every excursion dirtier than the children around me. Today there are relatively few occasions for getting covered in dirt, but I pick up stray bruises. I bump my head on things. I bang my elbow against walls. I trip, a little bit, walking down the street.

I am self-conscious about it. The ability to move smoothly through space seems like a desirable human attribute.
On the other hand, if it really mattered to me I could probably fix it. Be one of those people who takes up fencing or ballet late in life. Only some of my clumsiness is innate. Enough to keep me out of contention in competitive sporting events, but probably not enough to make me fall on my face.

The rest is lack of attention. I don't think about those things. I think about things that I'm good at, like smoking or sleeping. And lost in that haze, I knock over my coffee cup, and curse.


In some ways I wish it weren't fixable, that I could say, "well, I'm left-handed," or "I lacked proper training as a child." There seems something strange about deciding that I admire gracefulness in other people, think it a good thing in the abstract, but refuse, in the particular, to take the steps needed for me to obtain it.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Women Happy At Home, Says Famous Psychologist


Last July, Roy Baumeister (of ego depletion C+C fame) gave an invited address to the American Psychological Association titled, "Is There Anything Good About Men?" His answer is "Yes": men are good for making culture and for getting chewed up and spit out by it.

There are some interesting things in this talk. Baumeister points out that on lots of scales, men do both better and worse than women: there are more men at the top of power structures, but also more men in prison. There are more men with really high IQs but also more men with really low ones.

Some of the conclusions, though, are troubling. And some of the elements of the argument seem forced. The main claims are 1) that the difference between the sexes has to do not with abilities but with motivation, and 2) that men are motivated to take risks, aim high, and engage with the world at large -- often only to fail -- while women are motivated to be mostly pleasant and nice and to engage with small groups. Men are good for creating culture, society, and anything on a grand scale, and are also useful in that they are relatively expendable.

Baumeister starts by pointing out that the variety of male achievement is an important and unavoidable aspect of human reproduction. Women can't have lots of children, but by playing it safe they can have a few. Men can maybe have lots and lots if they are successful, or may have none if they're failures. Our ancestors, then, were women who played it safe and men who took risks.

Then, too, studies show that women prefer small groups to large ones in lots of ways.

So "perhaps nature designed women to seek to be lovable, whereas men were designed to strive, mostly unsuccessfully, for greatness." Men are good for risk-taking ventures, like discovering continents, and large-scale projects, like creating art and medicine. Women can do these things too, but they're not, in the nature of things, motivated to do them.

Arguments about nature's design can't fail to be structured in a funny way, since the link between evidence and conclusion is always so weird. Here we have a speculative claim about historical development of humans, together with facts about how actual men and women behave. It's the fit, presumably, that is supposed to make the argument convincing.

Of course, one always worries that the facts about actual people can't show anything about nature's design, since people are the way they are for so many reasons. One place Baumeister tries to respond to such a doubt is in his discussion about music.

In music, he says, both women and men are proficient, but only men are motivated to create and improvise. That this is nature, not culture, he says, is shown by the fact that in the 19th-century, wealthy women played instruments but created nothing, while at the same time powerless black men with no resources created blues and then jazz.

It's just a small example, and who knows what the answer is. But there seem to me to be a lot of other explanations. It was greatly in these women's interest to be passive. And plenty of women seem to be creating music now. Indeed, the incredible surge of women's involvement in the public domain over the last forty or so years seems to suggest more a pent-up desire to create, and be in public life, than a lack of desire.

In the 19th century, wealthy women were discouraged from creative production not by lack of resources but by an entire social structure. Trollope's late 19th-century novels are filled with women who bristle at their narrow life roles, and long to make a mark on the wider world. They find it impossible, because they have no practical or social independence, and because their roles are so narrowly defined. And Trollope was a conservative, against women's rights. So it's not like he was trying to make a point.

In my post about the Bonobo controversy, I said that questions about nature's design ought to receive the suspicious reply: Who wants to know? Don't go too fast with conclusions about men and women's motivation. Because the next step -- though Baumeister is careful not to make it -- is obviously: Chill out gals, if you're not getting anywhere, it's not our fault. You're probably not really trying.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Anatomy Of A Plot Twist

Certain artistic devices always work. A montage, for example, is always all right by me.

But today I'm concerned with books, not movies, and with the most profoundly soothing plot device ever found in a second rate thriller.

(There will be spoilers, but most of these spoilers will apply to books from the early sixties that you have either already read or weren't ever going to read. If you are sitting there at home reading this just before turning (with bated breath) to Mary Stewart's The Ivy Tree for the first time ever, you might want to skip it. Similar rules apply if you're reading your first novel by Alistair MacLean.)

It is the first person narration where the narrator presents her (or him) self to the reader as ignoble or evil or incompetent or clueless in some important respect only to throw off his (or her) cloak somewhere between a quarter and three quarters of the way in. At its best (and for best read most comforting, most like a warm bath) the reader is given some time to appreciate the discrepancy between the outward seeming of the narrator and his (or her) true nature before the other characters are clued in. I am more or less past the age where I would chuckle warmly at the comedy to be gotten from such a situation -- I'm not ashamed to admit, though, that once upon a time I did.

Last night, I read Fear Is The Key by Alistair MacLean. The book tips its hand; in the prologue the narrator undergoes a personal tragedy and the back cover tells you that he will be fending off villains. Leading one to suspect that he's a good guy. Still, in the first twenty pages or so he shoots a policeman, is provided with a criminal record as long as your arm, takes a hostage, etc.

I have read Alistair MacLean before and remained calm. One character mentioned that the cop shot by the narrator had died -- I didn't bat an eyelash because I knew it couldn't be true.

So it wasn't surprising, when the supposed bad cop and our supposedly villainous narrator shake hands and beam at each other inside the villain's stronghold. It was, however, deeply comforting.

The Ivy Tree
does not telegraph its punches; it is more subtle (in, and only in, its plotting). It looks to be a straight up rip-off of Josephine Tey's Brat Farrar: a person who looks like a disappeared claimant to a fortune is talked into pretending to be that person. Sinister things happen.

But about three quarters of the way through it turns out that, in this version, the imposter is no imposter. And then you go through the previous chapters again and work out how it all makes sense.

I don't think that it's exactly random that the book tells us again and again that the imposter can't ride, while the claimant is an almost supernaturally excellent rider. The narrator, it turns out, is not only not an asshole; she's got skills. Horse-whispering skills.

Drabble
is pound for pound the least funny comic strip known to man. (That was exaggeration for comic effect. Marmaduke is less funny.) Still, I sometimes think about the strip in which Norm wanders through the mall. People stop, look at him, titter. At the end, he says, "It's more fun to be a people-watcher than to be people watched."

The good-guy-narrator-plot-twist is comforting in the protection it gives from being people watched. The people watching are working under wrong assumptions.

There are things you do that you don't talk about. Some because you'd genuinely rather other people not know that particular fact about you. But others because, secrets, whatever their content, provide a shield of factual confusion against any outside judgment.

You may think, reading this, that I'm harping once again on sub-literary books, inventing a school of plot twist out of a couple semi-esoteric examples.

But you don't know the truth about me, just like nobody knows the truth about Bruce Wayne, playboy, or Clark Kent, klutz. So, go ahead, judge me as you will.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

My Wikiphilia

I love Wikipedia.

A while ago, a friend and I were wondering: which episode of Beavis and Butthead is it that Beavis claims he is being sexually harassed by a classmate, because she is so attractive that she "gives him a stiffie"?

A google search brings up the relevant Wikipedia article immediately. In the entry, "Sexual Harassment (Beavis and Butt-head episode)," you learn everything you need to know: the girl's name is Kimberly; it happens in social studies class; the boys take their claim to court; it all ends badly when they're called into judge's chambers to be reprimanded and they accuse her of sexually harassing them.

There's even a cute picture of the two of them getting all excited, and a link to "frivolous litigation" in case you wanted to check out what, exactly, they get in trouble for at the end.

Beavis in more light-hearted times, enjoying some nachos at the beach.

Well. Civilization has arrived. We no longer have to stumble around in ignorance. There are Wikipedias in over 200 languages. You can see the list, here.

But as every Wikipedia user knows, Wikipedia can be infuriating. Sure, if you want to know the chemical make-up of arsenic, or the population of Nepal, or whatever happened to Marc Bolan, you're in business.

But if you want to know about the concept of autonomy, or the history of Al-Qaeda, or whether the Landmark Forum is a cult-slash-pyramid scheme, you'll get the familiar directive: please see the talk pages.

In its early stages, the Wikipedia guys were kind of purists about the user-generated content business. They were totally anti-hierarchy. As time has gone on, though, they seem to have become more pragmatic. Some users are known, and thus trusted. Some users are so trusted they have the power to block edits. And so on. This is good, I think: a little hierarchy is necessary when subjects are controversial.

So some of these endless talk page discussions may end in high-quality entries, eventually.

But user-wikis are also just better suited to some things than others. On this page, Wikipedians explain that they have more, and better, entries in the sciences and technology than in arts and humanities. They say that's because early users were likely to be geeks.

But I don't think that's the whole reason. It's in the nature of, say, chemistry, that a student with a good textbook can put up high-quality information in minutes. Writing about ideas is harder. If I am going to write a short, informed, readable article on autonomy, I'm going to use a lot of mental energy, a lot of time, a lot of care, to get it right. (Likely depleting my active self; see previous post here).

If someone comes along with Autonomy for Dummies and edits my entry, I'm going to be mad.

Sometimes, too, I just miss the feeling of identity on Wikipedia. Who is this Wikipedia ghost, who took the time to transcribe Beavis's misadventures?

And in case you were considering a sex-harassment suit, please remember, as Wikipedia says here, "As some articles may contain errors, please do not use Wikipedia to make important decisions."

Friday, August 24, 2007

Another Burst Of Nostalgia From Captain Colossal

To this day, when, in a fit of panic or bonhomie or sheer sentimentality, I am trying to convince someone that I am cooler than I seem, I mention my semester abroad in Berlin.

I was pretty broke in Berlin. I'm not exactly sure why; I was well-funded by my family and I paid maybe 220 DM (a now defunct currency) a month for my one bedroom apartment. That comes out to somewhere a little above $100, is my recollection. The apartment had unfinished wood floorboards, a plug-in shower, coal ovens for heating. The guy I was subletting from left me some coal, also a space heater because I worried I would asphyxiate myself with the coal. A friend christened it the Commie Hut.

I don't know how to describe Berlin, or the Berlin I lived in. In many ways, it's more like Los Angeles than any other city I know, or it was then. I lived in Friedrichshain (10 Samariter Str.). Around me were those tiled buildings put up during the communist years; they were always dropping their tiles. Everything was either very new or a little seedy in an inoffensive way. The streets around my house were full of dog shit; there was more dogshit per square foot than anywhere else I've ever seen. In my recollection there weren't that many people on the street; I don't think that's correct.

I locked myself out of my apartment once. In the end, after being plied by my bathrobe clad next-door neighbor with liquor and cigarettes (Gitanes) and coffee I made my way in by climbing over the wall separating our shared balcony and kicking in the french door that led to my bedroom. Before that, the guy working at the restaurant downstairs told me he didn't know how to get in touch with the landlord, but (after some discussion in a language I didn't know) told me I could move in with the guy at the end of the bar.

I slept on a filthy futon on the floor. I had one bowl, one plate, one fork, etc. Cigarettes were cheap in those days. I didn't have a drug habit. And yet I was always broke.

Because the thing was, I longed and longed for bourgeois comfort. Not instead of, just in addition to. I was going to school at the Humboldt. It was also in former East Berlin, but in Mitte. Mitte, I think, was refurbished in an antique private train-car kind of way. One of my classes was near this place called Hackescher Hof. Hackescher Hof served fresh-squeezed orange juice with its continental breakfast.

One of the things I could never adjust to in Germany, even in Berlin, was the generalized discomfort. I had never realized until then the extent to which my country prized comfort. If a capitalist good can be made more comfortable, more pleasant, the United States will spare no effort to make it so. I didn't know how admirable this was until I got to Germany. There was very little fresh-squeezed orange juice in Germany.

I spent my money on orange juice and opera tickets and the complete works of Heinrich Heine. I bought a fake gilt mirror for the Commie Hut. I didn't take any pictures. I took the longest tram ride imaginable out to the planetarium to see Jackie Brown undubbed. I went down to a gentrified district I can no longer remember the name of and got tuna rolls to go and walked along the banks of the Spree Canal and imagined what it would be like to have an enormous apartment with a balcony. I was obsessed with milch-kaffee and marzipan rolls coated with chocolate.

I don't know. It all seems like a pretty standard response to ego-depletion, in retrospect.

I was wandering around Hollywood this morning, thinking about ego depletion, eating a breakfast burrito, letting my neighbor, of whom I am fond, take my picture for a t-shirt he's making for his Landmark Forum course, and somehow it made all that come back to me.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

More of Me, Please!

OK Kids! Today on Mister Science, we'll be discussing a highly entertaining bit of psychology research. The paper in question is "Ego Depletion: Is the Active Self a Limited Resource?" (by R. Baumeister, E. Bratslsavky, M. Muraven, and D. Tice, Journal of Social Psychology 74 (1998)). See also "Ego Depletion" Wikipedia entry here.

The conclusion of the paper is that the active self -- the ego, or whatever it is, that controls the self -- is, well, "a limited resource." Or, as the authors put it, "very limited." "Surprisingly limited." (p. 1263).

Actually, it's so limited, you have almost no self-control. What self-control you do have will be quickly spent up (about five minutes), even on undemanding tasks (like not eating chocolate).

People forcing themselves to eat radishes instead of chocolates were way less able to keep doing frustrating puzzles. Choosing to make a speech about personal beliefs, suppressing laughter and emotion, forcing activity over passivity -- all of these rendered experiment subjects less likely to persist in making themselves do stuff.

This casts serious doubt on any life strategy that involves "just getting your act together." You're not going to wake up one morning and become one of those people who eats egg whites and all-bran for breakfast, drinks only water, saves for retirement, and goes to bed early.

Maybe you'll do a few of those things, but you won't do them all. Indeed, it seems the more you do some the less you do the others. Even if you do decide that two marshmallows in twenty minutes are better than one now, you'll only be able to hold out so many times (see previous post here).

When I first read this paper I thought, "holy shit." You mean it's not just me? I was kind of excited to think that everyone had the problem of only being able to get about half of life together at any given time.

Then I thought, "Those afternoon advice shows had better get with the program." Oprah and Dr. Phil usually advise people to improve their self-control by valuing themselves more. I could never get this: I have a pretty high sense of self-worth, but it doesn't stop me from eating muffins and junk food and running up my credit card balance. Why would it?

If these guys are right, it would make more sense to advise people to move their self-control around.

One of the authors (R. Baumeister) has a new paper, which I found by googling the obvious "ego replenishment." There he says the self replenishes through rest and "positive affect," which I think is just psychology-speak for "happiness." This seems plausible enough, though it does give you a chicken-and-egg feeling: if you're miserable over your lack of self-control, you've got yourself in a real difficulty.

He also says some people can learn increased self-control through daily exercises. Which brings to mind a lot of wise-ass questions. If you have no self-control, how are supposed to practice daily exercises?

Maybe someone should set up a service: "Ego Replenishment: More Active Self for Less!" You could pay them to kidnap you and just force you to practice your self-control, to increase your daily ego supply. "More please! More of Me!"

Anger And Other Useless Emotions


Yesterday I was finally getting my act together and taking a shower. Soap had been applied, etc.

The water stopped. I waited. Nothing.

Maybe all the two minute mysteries had sharpened my wits, but I remembered hearing some workman from the courtyard of my building earlier that day. I put two and two together. I wondered, briefly, if there was some kind of sign I had missed. My building, which is far from well-maintained, has been known to sport signs saying "No Water Today."

But when I went out five minutes later, there were no such signs. There was a guy who was part of the work crew. I asked him if he knew anything about the water outage. Yes, he said, they had turned it off.

I was pissed. I had been left mid-shower, with soap on my body. What the hell? I said that it would have been nice to have gotten some notice. He said it was an emergency. I said they could have still knocked on doors or something. He said he was sorry. I suspect that if seen in a mirror I would have been sporting a tight little smile, the smile of the wronged everywhere.

I got to watch other people ask them the same questions over the course of the next couple hours. One guy bounded down, asked pleasantly, asked when the water would be back on, thanked copiously, bounded back up. One guy asked what the fuck was going on and explained just how fucked up the situation was. That guy's the guy you can hear sometimes at 11 p.m. screaming at his family, I think.

Here's a second incident. There's a pool in the middle of the courtyard. A small pool, a not that nice pool. It's summer and it's been hot here. Anyway, the neighbor kids -- tweens with skateboards and a habit of yelping at each other -- have been using it. In the entirely admirable way of kids everywhere their idea is to stay in for hours, diving at each other and making fun of each other and shivering dramatically.

One day they were there forever with something like ten of their closest friends. The next day a sign went up -- "The pool is for the use of residents only." Maybe a week later the sign came down.

Anyway, I went down the other day to use the pool and two of them were in there. I didn't like them being in there, to be frank; I always want the pool to myself.

Every goddamn time they bumped against me, I looked them hard in the eye. I asked them to please stay out of my way. A lot of hard staring; a certain number of requests not to splash. I was in the grip of rage.

Look, there wasn't really any point to anger in either case. In the first case, there was nothing to be done -- the water was off, it would come back on shortly, nobody would get hurt. In the second case, I could probably have gotten the kids kicked out of the pool if I wanted to. Failing that they weren't trying to get in my way so there weren't a lot of places for any discussion to go.

But in each case I felt the need to demonstrate my displeasure. Not because it could produce any good result, not even because I was convinced of its righteousness. Just that it was mine, it was strongly felt, etc.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Controversial Sports Figures: The Tiki Barber Edition

Noko Marie asked me if I was going to post on Michael Vick. I was thinking about it, and never got back to her.

I don't actually have that much to say about Michael Vick. I don't think the country's outrage over the case squares with its general position on animal rights. I think the case demonstrates a revolting publicity-seeking on the part of some federal prosecutors. I think it illustrates our over-criminalization of the world in general. I think Michael Vick's friends are not very loyal. And I think it's pretty goddamn amazing (and, all right, funny) that the biggest scandal to erupt in the NFL, a league where a player was sentenced to prison for conspiracy to commit murder, has to do with dog-fighting.

Not that I'm pro the electrocution of dogs, okay?



But I didn't have a lot of outrage one way or another until my Aug. 13 copy of ESPN The Magazine showed up containing an article by David Fleming titled "Arthur & Mike: A Love Story Gone Bad." I wasn't able to find a link to it online, so I'll summarize. It features lots and lots of pictures of the Falcons owner, Arthur Blank, hugging Michael Vick, pushing his wheel chair, high-fiving him.

The thesis of the article seems to come at the end of the third paragraph. Fleming has described the scene as Blank pushed Vick onto the field in his wheelchair for opening weekend 2003. You can tell, kind of, where Fleming is going pretty quickly. He describes both Blank and Vick as looking "inappropriately giddy." He suggests that Vick could have walked onto the field -- he had a set of crutches and a walking cast for god's sake. He says "[S]omewhere on the sideline that day in Dallas, they rolled over a line, blurring the boundary between owner and player. Blank and Vick looked far more like business partners and close friends."

Ok, here's David Fleming's point: "In retrospect, Vick's precipitous fall from national icon status to federal indictment may have begun with that little push from his boss."

Michael Vick went bad because Arthur Blank treated him like an equal.

It made me think about last year's Tiki Barber controversy. No dogs tortured there. Basically, Tiki Barber, a suave and handsome man who health-wise, still probably had a season or two in him, decided he wanted to step down and pursue his interests in broadcasting. Given that my recollection had him already at the age in which players in his position are usually too fucked up to play anymore, it seemed reasonable enough to me. But according to an article in ESPN The Magazine (I threw away that issue, so no citation -- I really need to start saving them. Probably in plastic covers) this decision by Tiki Barber illustrated a critical lack of heart. And we wouldn't remember him as one of the all-time greats. Instead, we would sneer at his memory.





So I thought I wasn't going to be able to connect the dots between Michael Vick and Tiki Barber. Fortunately, controversy erupted again when Tiki Barber made the mistake of criticizing Eli Manning. This article breaks it all down for you -- for our purposes all that's really important is this quote from Manning: "I guess I could have questioned his leadership skills last year with calling out the coach and having articles about him retiring in the middle of the season, and he's lost the heart." Eli, nicely summarizing the press coverage.

Regrettably, googling for blogging purposes, I am forced to acknowledge that not all the press coverage was as one-sided as that (see, for example, this). And I know Chuck Klosterman once wrote a column where he pointed out that most of us are a lot more like Ricky Williams than Michael Jordan.

Whatever. I'll jump on the goddamn bandwagon. I would like my boss to treat me like an equal. I would damn well expect my boss to treat me like an equal if I was a superstar and the face of the franchise and the person who kept ticket sales up. None of this would make me more or less likely to buy property on which to host dogfighting.

And if and when I want to retire from what I do I expect people not to make a goddamn federal case about my lack of heart (and we're not talking my current joblessness here; we're talking a future joblessness where I have some kind of financial security).

It's a little strange that we don't apply the kind of analysis to athletes that we apply to ourselves. I'm not just saying that we expect more from them, or less from them. We don't think about them as human in the same way. (I 'm not really prepared to be thoughtful about the race issue right now, although I have, in my knee-jerk liberal way, no doubt that it plays a huge role. Fortunately we have the refereeing studies to keep us busy on that front.) Which makes me feel a little sick to my stomach, frankly.

I was having real trouble ending this post. I couldn't figure out why. And then I realized it was all that sports journalism. I was convinced that I needed a punchy ending.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Living In Letters


Yesterday I finished reading The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. It is a memoir by a French man, Jean-Dominique Bauby, a former magazine editor, who is almost completely paralyzed, after a stroke. He can move only his left eyelid.

To be honest, this was a book I was almost afraid to read. I was afraid that it would be too much -- too overwhelming, too sad.

One reason for my fear is that I am kind of a freak about death. The fact that I am going to die -- that anyone is going to die, has died, must die eventually -- strikes me as unbelievable, horrific, a complete and utter tragedy of infinite proportions. It is no solace to me that I am now healthy, or that I have some "good genes"; it's not the length of my life that I care about, it is the fact of its being finite.

What is the name for this? People talk about "fear of death," but I'm not afraid of death, exactly. Of pain and suffering, of sharks, of drowning -- of dying -- sure, but not of non-existence. Dread of death? That doesn't seem right either.

Anyway, I'll have to think about it more another time, because even though the book is kind of sad, it's not sad in the death way. It's just a quiet, reflective set of memories and little stories about life as a non-moving, non-speaking person.

I was amazed by how much the day-to-day life he describes is like any one else's. You'd have thought: boredom broken only by rage and frustration. But Jean-Dominique's life is weirdly familiar sounding: there are visits from friends; there's TV-watching; there is work; there is moping about the past and daydreaming about the future.

He wrote the entire book through a method devised by his "guardian angel" speech therapist -- the method he used for all communication. She would read the letters out, one by one, in order of the frequency of appearance in French, and he would blink his left eye when she got to the right letter.

I couldn't stop thinking about this while I was reading. I felt so absurdly greedy, gobbling up all those letters so fast when their production was so slow and laborious.

Then this morning I had a little half-awake dream image. I was surrounded by giant letters, made of metal. Letters about six feet high. I was trying to pick up an "E,", to try to put it in place, to try to make a word, to try to make a sentence.

Jean-Dominique Bauby died soon after the publication of the book. Outrageous! Who set this crazy system up, and where do I call to complain?

Monday, August 20, 2007

Two Minute Mysteries Can Last A Lifetime

If you are going to quit smoking you need things to compulse over.

This is why I now have a book of half-filled Sudoku puzzles. More precisely, I have a book of Sudoku puzzles in which the easy-to-mild Sudoku puzzles are untouched, while the hard Sudoku puzzles are half-filled. Something I could actually do wasn't going to hold my attention; I needed something I couldn't do, and I needed to abandon it once I got bored.

Also: when I was at Borders the other day I saw in their clearance rack the Two-Minute Mysteries Collection by Donald J. Sobol. It is perhaps worth noting that on that trip to Borders I also found a cigarette between the pages of the book I was looking at (Gold Diggers! Through the Ages! -- which looked pretty good). I'm not asking whether the cigarette was a message from a supernatural being.

So, two-minute mysteries. I had many, many Encyclopedia Brown books as a child -- I did not have any two-minute mysteries (featuring Dr. Haledjian). I saw them around though, in the hands of my more sophisticated peers. They feature actual death and dismemberment, as opposed to property damage. The solution is upside down at the ending; they take about a page and half.

When I was a kid, I couldn't solve any of the Encyclopedia Brown mysteries. My current rate is about fifty percent. My young and impressionable mind may just have learned Donald J. Sobol's little tricks (he's particularly fond of the criminal going for, at the direction of the detective, the, say, flower when an innocent man would have gone for the flour).

The mysteries aren't logical in the way of Sudoku. For example, in The Case of The Spilled Brandy, Haledjian catches the criminal because he finds the brandy in a house he's supposedly a stranger to. It's not, I think we can agree, really a logical solution. Instead, the stories have this crossword puzzle aspect to them -- the solution's not perfect, but it's the only thing that you can use under the circumstances.

This sort of thing will leads you to decide that "greases" is an adequate synonym for "facilitates".

Which leads to an oddly appealing combination of crossword puzzle solutions and supposedly real human interactions. They're not really human interactions, of course, and they're not designed to be psychologically piercing. But the human brain, mine at least, given a set of characters, cannot help trying to move them into more plausible attitudes.

And although this is already probably too long (the Secretary was complaining about post length yesterday) there's also the dependence on a supposedly shared body of human knowledge, that, of course, is not shared at all. I don't mean the random facts ("after covering 26 miles, a runner's calves will have increased an inch or more"), but the not-quite facts. I.e. a resident of San Francisco will never, ever call the city Frisco. Still mostly true, but not really true enough to give conviction. Some of that may just be the passage of time; the copyrights in the book start in 1967. Some of it may be the need to limit the world -- two minute mysteries can only be solved in a world designed as a test chamber, where a particular act always produces a particular effect.

It all reminds me of Edmund Wilson's essay about Sherlock Holmes, in which Wilson discusses how the beauty of the Sherlock Holmes set-ups is ultimately diminished by the solutions. I feel the same about the Two Minute Mysteries. While Holmes stories started with the beauty of the exotic and strange and improbable, the set-ups of Two-Minute Mysteries have the beauty of the pseudo-familiar, the would-be-plausible, and, ultimately, the improbable.

My Day With Richard M. Nixon

Eight years ago I was back in L.A. with some friends. It was Memorial Day weekend, we were in various stages of completing college, and we were on a road trip to my hometown. It should have been awesome; in fact, it was crummy for reasons that, to this day, I don't fully understand. The outward and visible signs of which included: tears, vomit, willful walkman (discman?) listening, and a close encounter with running out of gas.

That's not the point. The point is, one morning we woke up and I said, "Let's go to the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace." I don't know where that came from. I was not a history major; I was not a politics buff; I was not even really a collector of historical kitsch (although for late '90s Berkeley students a certain low level avidity for historical kitsch was par for the course -- I certainly wasn't innocent of those impulses).

I don't know how to describe what happened to me that day. It's not as though it really changed me. I know a little more about Nixon now than I did then -- I finally sat down and read All The President's Men, but I never made it through the copy of the excerpted tape transcripts that I picked up, or the biography of Pat. I had already seen the Oliver Stone movie, so there was that. Basically, I'm saying that my Nixon knowledge continued to reside in that file of glib namechecking that most of my knowledge hangs around in -- I can talk about Republican cloth coats with the best of them. Also I picked up a Nixon mug that I used for years until it broke, and back when I had a car I had a Nixon bumper sticker.

But Nixon really does get to me. I identify with Nixon although we're not really that much alike. He's our first California-born president, and he's the opposite in every way of the California stereotype. He's hairy and ill-postured and not really that sporty. He's grudge-holding and quick to take offense and he has a chip on his shoulder. He's not really an attractive guy, although, especially in his younger years, it's not like he was bad looking. He had to put the full-court press on Pat to get her to go out with him.

One of obvious things that always comes up with Nixon is the Kennedy comparison. Which makes you think about what the good life really consists of. Politics aside, is it more fun to be Kennedy or Nixon? Die young and heroic or old and with a complicated embittering reputation?

I went back to the Nixon library yesterday. I had gone to see the Reagan library earlier this year. The Nixon library seemed a little small, these days. There wasn't as much stuff in the gift store; the cafeteria was a joke. I don't know if that's just a matter of time -- ten years from now maybe the Reagan library will be in similar disrepair.

Look on my works, ye mighty, I guess. Or maybe it's the peculiar and particular sense of slight that Nixon carries with him, in my head at least.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Sex And The Angry Western Guy, Part II

"Something is definitely happening that's making westerners stop sleeping with each other. Maybe it's something to do with narcissism, or individualism, or the cult of success, it doesn't matter . . . On the other hand, you have several billion people who have nothing . . . except their bodies and their unspoiled sexuality."

"The money you could make is almost unimaginable."

So says Michel, the central figure in Michel Houellebecq's Platform (pages 172-173 of my Vintage paperback in English). The subject is a business plan. The problem with the tourist industry, Michel says, is that people on vacation want to have sex, and they are not having sex. The solution is sex tourism: rich western guests can pay poor attractive locals for sexual pleasure. Gay, straight, man, woman, as Michel makes clear, this solution is for all of us.

In a previous post, I described my love for this book, and my confusion over its interpretation by critics. In particular, I was surprised that the book had been taken to present a simple free-market defense of sex-tourism, given that the book harshly criticizes the "What have you done for me lately?" western preoccupation with contractual interactions and fair exchange. Indeed, I suggested, the book seems to say that this preoccupation is leading us to hell.

As Captain C. has observed, the questions of sex tourism are live ones: even now, bloggers are trading tips and advice for finding the hottest girls in Thailand, and musing on the pleasures of sex tourism compared to the pains of sex at home.

And so here I want to return to a question I left hanging before: what does this book have to say about why sex at home is in so much trouble?

To find the answer, I reread the book. And I found two ideas there.

First, westerners have become annoying. The women ask for too much and give too little; they go on and on about their stupid problems and ex-boyfriends, and won't put up with guys who don't have looks, brains, and style. They're a real pain. Western men, too, are hung up and have no sense of fun or sexual innocence.

Second, sex in the western world is ruined because westerners are self-absorbed, obsessed with status, and terrified of weakness and dependence. Michel presents this view explicitly, telling his girlfriend that we are "cold, rational, acutely conscious of our individual existence and our rights, more than anything, we want to avoid alienation and dependence; on top of that we're obsessed with health and hygiene." And with the failures of our bodies to achieve porn standards (pp. 174-175).

It's impossible, Michel says, to make love without giving selflessly, without accepting a state of dependency and weakness.

The second idea, it seems, may be meant to explain the first: our self-absorption and fetish for autonomy has made us into whiny exchangers of sexual goods. And no one finds that attractive.

I have to say, on this interpretation the novel seems to present no defense of sex tourism. Far from it. First, it suggests we are seeking selflessness by paying for it, which is a dubious and morally disturbing strategy. Second, it raises the obvious problem that if contracts for pleasure have ruined us, and sex tourism is contracts for pleasure, well, then. . . things aren't looking good for the rest of the world.

The narration does not shy away from this conclusion. Toward the end, Michel reflects: "I know only that every single one of us reeks of selfishness, masochism, and death. We have created a system in which it has simply become impossible to live, and what's more, we continue to export it (p. 258)."

Frequently, the novel presents male characters complaining bitterly about western women and their pain-in-the-ass expectations. In a characteristic passage, the boss describes meeting up with potential western mate while on vacation: "She started telling me all about her job in marketing, her problems with her boyfriend, how that was why she'd come on vacation. She got on my nerves, so I went to bed (p. 159)."

Captain C.'s post suggests that these complaints about western women echo those sometimes made in defense of paying-the-locals. So we might ask whether the novel endorses them.

In one way, I think the novel does endorse them, as part of its general claims about western self-absorption. Michel himself talks this way, as if he agrees with the defense.

But in a sense it also undermines them. What could be more self-absorbed than a man who can't bear to hear about a woman's life before having sex? What is more contractual than demanding a perfect and sexy woman with no investment of time, energy, or personality?

The novel suggests no answer to these problems. There may be nothing to do. As Michel says, "In most circumstances in my life, I have had about as much freedom as has a vacuum cleaner (p. 67)."

In his New Yorker review, Julian Barnes suggests ambiguities like these represent a novelistic failure. But to me the combination of Michel as astute observer and Michel as a representative of our various failures is part of what makes this book great.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Some Preliminary Thoughts On Smugness


Smugness, for whatever reason, is a topic that takes up a lot of my mental energy. (Probably the fact that I possess a friend who continuously urges increased smugness upon me has something to do with it. Not everything.)

Let's not start with that. Let's start with the reasons why, despite the fact that I'm jobless, and not pursuing any particularly arduous macrame projects, I haven't posted in a while.

One: I spent a night this week in Bakersfield, pretending, with one of my favorite people, to be a nineteen year old girl. This involved a lot of dancing around, a lot of willful irritating or provoking of the people around us, a reasonable amount of drinking.

Two: I have poison oak on my arms, and scattered across my stomach. It bubbles, and looks more or less like the bubonic plague to my untrained eye. It itches, and saps my will to live, although I have learned to love hydrocortisone cream.

Three: Quitting smoking. A process, not an accomplishment.

I mention these things not because they are interesting in themselves, but because, to me, they illustrate that weird difficulty in pinpointing what I mean by "smug". My dictionary just defines smug as "highly self-satisfied" -- surprisingly, the third definition for smug (the first is "trim or smart in dress").

And I think of smugness as a self-satisfaction in one's good qualities, real or imagined. People are smug over their prowess in wakeboarding or politics. I hate real-life nineteen year old girls who dance around because they are smug in their cuteness, and I felt in Bakersfield that other people were fully justified in hating our smugness, our "we will dance around now if we want to attitude." (Conceding that hatred is appropriate, by the way, is a far cry from saying that I think it's bad. I think nineteen year old girls, esp. real ones, should dance around. They should just be prepared for the fact that they will piss off those people around them who aren't thinking about taking them home.)

But you don't have to be self-satisfied about your good qualities. You can be self-satisfied about your bad ones. Poison oak sucks. I don't recommend it. It itches and itches and itches and just yesterday a new batch of sores bubbled up, leading me to worry that I would never be done with this and/or that poison oak oil was lurking somewhere on my pillow. That said, I dealt with a "why haven't you called me back phone call" yesterday by referring to my poison oak, and the inestimable pain associated with it. There's a certain satisfaction in direct and obvious weakness, in knowing that you can't possibly meet certain expectations placed on normal people out there in the world -- you are, for whatever smug and inward reasons, different and worse. (Quitting smoking also falls under this header of my preliminary thoughts on smugness. When I put it down I thought I might have something else interesting to say about it. I didn't.)

George Saunders, who is one of those vaguely familiar names that I couldn't have actually identified, has an article in GQ this month. I found the article, while fun to read and well-written and all that, fairly annoying. It's about the deleterious effect of the media on our discourse. Most of the reasons why I found it annoying aren't relevant.


This is. In the course of this article he writes:
The best stories proceed from a mysterious truth-seeking impulse that narrative has when revised extensively; they are complex and baffling and ambiguous; they tend to make us slower to act, rather than quicker. They make us more humble, cause us to empathize with people we don't know . . . .


He goes on to say that good story-telling causes us to imagine other people as being, essentially, like us, while bad story-telling causes us to imagine other people as "essentially unlike us: unknowable, inscrutable, inconvertible."

This strikes me as a prime example of smugness out of anti-smugness. It is good, he says, to be humble. It is good to act slowly. It is good, not to know.

Maybe. I, personally, think of myself as "unknowable, inscrutable, inconvertible" -- that might be my problem.

The Plague Of Higher Common Sense

I just finished reading Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons. I haven't seen the movie. If you haven't seen the new cover by Roz Chast you gotta check it out here.

My first reaction was to feel that I didn't really get it, which is a reaction I would say I virtually never have to novels. I just mean, I don't usually think of novel-reading in terms of getting and not-getting.

I got that it was a kind of parody, of a certain kind of English, rural-centered novel, with lots of allusive jokes. Some of which, I know, went past me. But still, I was missing something.

Then I read the Wikipedia page, and I don't know if I would say that understanding washed over me, but I did suddenly have some kind of humor epiphany.

The novel centers on an unassuming and sensible heroine, Flora Poste, who comes to stay at the farm owned by a family of her relatives, the Starkadders. There are, like, 30 Starkadders and one of the jokes is that you can never quite figure out how everyone is related, because it's a sea of crazy people. Then, too, as Wikipedia puts it, each of the Starkadders has "some long-festering emotional problem." Relying on her favorite book, The Higher Common Sense, Flora sets out to solve these problems.

One great thing in this entry is a quick list of Flora's solutions.
For instance:

Judith: Flora hires a psychoanalyst, Dr Müdel, who, over lunch, transfers Judith's obsession from Seth to himself until he can set her interest on old churches instead.

Another great thing is an actual family tree diagram.

But basically the humor epiphany was this: what's really funny here to me is Flora as the instantiation of a kind of right-thinking, sunnily optimistic, clear-headed twentieth-century female. Flora is like every woman's magazine article, every chirpy advice-giver, every light-hearted pragmatist rolled into one tidy package. (See previous CC post on advice, here).

Unwanted pregnancies? Use contraception! Lonely? Find yourself a nice guy and settle down! Bitter at the injustice and cruelty in the world? Buy a ticket to Paris and have yourself a blast!

In this the novel isn't dated at all, even though it was written in 1932. If anything, I'd say the plague of Higher Common Sense just gets worse and worse. Get plenty of exercise, study hard, eat right, and everything will be OK. If you're not happy, honey, you're just not trying. Or maybe you should see a therapist?

And if something really bad happens, just remember, "It was probably all for the best!"

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Realization Of Pure Plastic Expression

Yesterday I went to the Apple Store. I had no need to go to the Apple Store -- indeed, I had just been there the day before to ask them some dumb question about backing up files to my new LaCie hard drive. But I was walking by, and its vortex just, you know, sucked me in.

The store, as always, was teeming with busy shoppers, gawkers, obsessives, tourists, and people like me, who just got sucked in walking by.

As I watched a young woman finger a tiny red iPod shuffle, I got thinking about the appeal of these very perfect and very artificial objects. As often when I get on this train of thought, I was reminded of Mondrian, the artist who made those colorful paintings of lines and squares.



Piet Mondrian, Composition with Yellow, Blue, and Red, 1939-42, oil on canvas, 72.5 x 69 cm, Tate Gallery. London. Image in the public domain, according to Wikipedia.

When I first encountered the idea that these paintings were supposed to have something to do with utopia, I didn't understand. I like them, but they seem so cold, so impersonal. What could they have to do with something so charged as human perfection?

But it turns out the coldness is part of the point. "Curved lines," Mondrian said, "are too emotional." What is necessary is a "detachment from the oppression of nature." This I do understand. People like to get all warm and fuzzy about nature. But it is oppressive. It's messy, often ugly; it's boring; it gets in the way; it's the source of disease, decrepitude, and misery.

But there's no disease, decrepitude and misery in these paintings, and there isn't in the Apple Store either. These objects aren't like us: they stay clean and shiny; they are perfectly responsive, their proportions are perfect and never change.

Mondrian thought eventually, if we played our cards right, we would no longer need artwork, because we would live in a created world. "In the future," he said, "the realization of pure plastic expression in palpable reality will replace the work of art." (from Plastic Art and Pure Plastic Art, 1945, p. 32).

I'm all over that. Artifice gets a bad rap these days. But what is artificial is just made by us. Artifice is humanity. Yes, we need nature, but this is a practical matter, and not an ideological one.

When the realization of pure plastic expression comes around you can count me in.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Dear Whoever

I'm obsessed with advice columnists.

It's a little strange that I'm obsessed with advice columnists because I hate advice. I never give advice. Nor do I take advice. In fact, advice makes me angry. If you give me advice, particularly good advice, I will call to mind all the (even debatably) stupid things you have ever done, and I will say nasty things about you behind your back. I may do this if I even think that you are diagnosing and solving my problems silently to yourself.

Nevertheless, I regularly read Miss Manners, who is a genius, but makes me feel bad about my failings, Carolyn Hax, who falls in the "basically right-minded but a little traditional category," Dan Savage, who falls into the Miss Manners category as far as I'm concerned, Slate's Dear Prudence, who drives me absolutely insane (the linked column suggests that a couple might want to reconsider their decision not to have children), and Slate's old Dear Prudence, Margo Howard, who's Ann Landers's daughter and pretty good, although too prone, like many advice columnists to suggest therapy. While many letter-writers should contemplate therapy, I think the advice columnist has an obligation to offer some substance beyond "go get advice from somebody else." I also read Sars on Tomato Nation, who's great, but can strike me as smug (that seems to be an occupational hazard, and in this case probably has more to do with my own anxieties than her actual tone) and Cary Tennis on Salon, who suffers (apparently uniquely in the annals of advice-giving) from what may be the opposite problem.

Also one summer a couple of years ago I went through the entire back archives of Breakup Girl.

This list, frankly, is both incomplete and embarrassing.

Why do I read advice columns? It's not to figure out what I should do in a particular situation. I don't take advice. There's just something about the range of human situations that people write in with, mostly. It's nice to know that we're all out there swinging, in our strange and elaborate ways, for the fences. Also I like to find out how well my instincts match up with the advice-giver -- do I think the way other people think?

Sadly, though, I think underlying my compulsion is my hope that these people will find solutions, that a switch can be flipped and the lunatic sister will fall into line, the racist uncle will not spoil the wedding, and the money-grubbing party thrower will be sternly rebuked.

And clinging to that hope, I now return to my program of trying to fall asleep and scratching morbidly at my poison oak pustules.

Monday, August 13, 2007

A Generation In The Making

I remember being about 10 or 11 and in the car with my father and complaining that there was no name for my generation, and how I felt a little depressed about this, like nothing was ever going to happen to me because my generation had not been deemed worthy of a name.

I think my father pointed out that it was a little early.

Anyway, a couple of years later the book Generation X came out, and after that it was mayhem. In the blink of an eye, we all knew everything about Generation X, and it seemed like only moments later that there was a Generation Y.

So, all well and good. Problem solved. Except, not really. Because they keep screwing with the boundaries of the things. And I am right at the boundaries of both generations, by the loosest of definitions. By the tightest of definitions, I belong nowhere and in another ten years I will write an article about the distinctive characteristics of people born in 1977, kind of like this, which will be depressing.

I don't know. The whole experience has made me a little skeptical of generational labels. I mean, the original description of Gen Xers -- slackers dubious of the value of getting ahead -- belongs in a long tradition which includes, at a minimum, Maynard G. Krebs and Gidget's Big Kahuna.

On the other hand, when I look at people a few years younger than me, I think "My god, their way of life is so distinctive."

Theorem: When It Comes To Sex, The Typical Guy = The Typical Girl

Reading The New York Times yesterday, I was mystified by a story on math and sex. It's commonly reported that men have more sex partners than women. Some mathematicians have claimed this is impossible, on the grounds that men and women must have equal numbers of sex partners, since they have sex with each other (bracketing, I guess, the various complexities about homosexuality and "threesomes").

I was mystified because of all the people they asked, no one pointed out that there's a simple confusion here between "median" and "average." The mathematician's proof shows that the average number of partners are the same. But this leaves open the possibility that most men have more sex partners than most women.

As we all know, averages can be the same while distributions are very different. So, for example, if a few women have sex with lots of men, while many women have sex with only one man, then there is an obvious sense in which men have "more" partners: lots of men are having sex with more than one woman, while few women are having sex with more than one man. But the average number of sex partners will be the same.

For those who like this sort of thing, I drew up an example. Remember, the median is the number at which half the sample is above and half is below.

Suppose {1, 2, 3, 4, 5} and {A, B, C, D, E} have sex in the following combinations:

{1A, 1B, 1C, 1D, 1E, 2A, 3B, 4C, 5D}.

The median number of partners for numbers is Med {5, 1, 1, 1, 1} = 1
The median number of partners for letters is Med {2, 2, 2, 2, 1} = 2

There is a sense in which the numbers here have fewer sex partners than the letters: most numbers have only one partners, while most letters have 2. But the average number of partners for each is the same: 1.8.

I don't know if this is what it's like for women and men, but it seems possible. It's weird that none of the experts cited in the article mentioned this. The Times article even shifts between reporting results for "medians" when discussing the received view on sex difference, then moves to averages when discussing the impossibility of such difference.

What The Times should have been reporting on in this story is why the received view is based on medians and not averages. If a few women are having lots of sex, are those women less significant when it comes to making judgments about "how many"? Why so? After all, usually when we say "the typical person," we're talking about the average person. And as the mathematicians show, there's a sense in which the typical woman is having the same number of sex partners as the typical guy.

At least, this is so leaving aside complexities such as men going to prostitutes, who, the CDC researcher mentioned, are "not part of the survey," or going outside the country. These outlier factors may explain differences in averages, if there are any. But there is no need to invoke them to explain differences in medians.

UPDATE: The Times published a follow-up, here. It seems there are differences in reported averages as well as reported medians; indeed, the raw data of what is reported is, in a sense, internally inconsistent.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

"Let's see what happens when we take away the puppy."

There's been some talk in these pages about vices. Non-moral vices, I guess, are habits that are fun in the short term and bad for you in the long term.

There are two elements to vice-resistance. First, you have to judge that, all things considered, it is in your best interest not to indulge. Second, you have to exercise your powers of "delayed gratification," or "the ability to wait in order to obtain something one wants."

With respect to this second element, the classic experiment is the so-called "marshmallow test." Give a bunch of four-year-olds one marshmallow each. Tell them they can eat it, or wait 20 minutes and have two marshmallows. Watch what they do. Wait 14 years, and check on their progress in life. In a result I find depressing for some reason, the kids who waited for the second marshmallow will be better off all around, and even score higher on the SAT.

But what about the first element, the judgment part? The marshmallow test assumes that two marshmallows in 20 minutes is clearly better than one marshmallow now, but that doesn't seem quite obvious to me. Even if it is obvious in this particular example, it is certainly not better to have 3,944,616 marshmallows in 150 years than one marshmallow now. So the principle can't be "more later is always better."




Are two marshmallow peeps in twenty minutes better than one now? Photo by Deanna Nichols. (All rights reserved; used with permission.)


The problem isn't just death. Ask me about 657,436 marshmallows in 25 years versus 13,1487 in five and I have no idea what my preference is.

Of course, all of these problems arise even after you assure yourself that the marshmallows are really forthcoming, that the lab assistant won't get crushed by a falling piano on her way back, that the study isn't really intended to test "incidence of rage and depression among the marshmallow-deprived."

It seems like we ought to prefer more pleasure later to less pleasure now. And presumably this why we're supposed to give up our vices: so we'll be better off in the future.

But, as economists tell us, we're also supposed to have transitive preferences: if you want A more than B, and B more than C, you ought to want A more than C.

Put these together and you get the four million marshmallows problem: you want two at 12:20 more than one at noon, four at 12:40 more than two at 12:20, . . . and so on. By transitivity, you must want 4 million marshmallows in 150 years more than one now. But even if you weren't going to die, it would be crazy to save up *all* your marshmallows.

Maybe all this means is that there is something wrong with transitivity. As Larry Temkin argues, it seems one ought to prefer to suffer at a certain intensity for a certain amount time than to suffer just a little bit less for twice as long. But apply transitivity to this preference over and over, and it seems one ought to prefer two years of torture to a life-long hangnail. Which would be madness.

Maybe transitivity is the difficulty here. But I think there's a harder problem in the vice case. There seems to be no right answer as to how to compare the pains and pleasures of our future selves to those of our present selves. Especially when the nature of the future experience -- health vs. sickness -- is so different from the nature of the present one -- indulgence vs. abstinence.

The further I go into the future, and the greater the qualitative difference, the more I feel at sea trying to weigh future pleasures against current sacrifices.

So I don't think judgments about what is in my long-term self-interest can be justified by appeal to a principle about more pleasure later being better than less pleasure now. At least for me. I seem to need more immediate benefits. Like Captain C., I quit smoking when I could no longer "make it up a goddamn hill." As she says, sad, all very sad.

Friday, August 10, 2007

The Street Where I Lived

I found myself back in my old neighborhood today.

Since I live in the same city I grew up in, this is not a particularly unusual state of affairs. Also my old neighborhood has become one of the places where people like me tend to live in Los Angeles. East Coast types have been known to describe it as reminiscent of New York. They are out of their fucking minds, because it is nothing like New York.

That's not really the point, except to say that as often as I go there, and as many people as I know that live around there in their normal adult lives, I still, usually, get some kind of charge out of being in the place where I grew up.

I don't know how to describe the charge. Some of it is just me being annoying -- I'm hanging around with you and we're going to some bar there and I have to tell you the first time I went there and the first time I saw that building and I tend to say it in a way that suggests that I think I have some kind of superior claim on this bar and this building even though you're the one that goes there every week. Like that.

We're not just dealing with my need for self-branding, though. Tonight I was walking down Talmadge. It was dusk and there were clouds and I remembered roller-skating down that street circa age 11 and I remembered stopping at the mildly sinister convenience store to be bought Martinelli's apple juice in the apple shaped container by my folks (for whom such food counted as decadence). The convenience store isn't there anymore, but there was something about remembering a time before you knew the probabilities of life, a time where you could make up stories about the various buildings and for all you know they're true. Also just the layer upon layer of time spent on that street, fugitive memories of a party in one of those houses, or maybe a nightmare about one of those houses. The past, a little out of reach.

I listen to a certain amount of sappy country music. Kenny Chesney has this song called Back Where I Come From that's all about growing up in the country and how he's proud of it. It's a little stranger to have grown up some place that lots of people come, that's a big city designed to be legible to outsiders, and yet to want to stake that mine, all mine, kind of claim to the place.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Is That A Banana In Your Pocket? Or . . .

In yesterday's post I reflected briefly on the recent controversy concerning bonobo behavior. Frans de Waal has posted a reply to his critics here (and another is coming soon, here). On one item I agree completely, and cannot resist a brief comment.

One of the scientists featured in The New Yorker story, Gottfried Hohmann, says that frequent vulva-to-vulva contact between females is "probably not" sexual.

De Waal's reply notes that US courts settled this matter in the Paula Jones case, determining that deliberate contact with the genitals is sex. That better not be right, or gynecologists all over the world are in trouble.

But we don't need the courts to make the point for bonobo research. What's interesting in the bonobo case is the claim that these primates, especially the females, perform "genito-genital rubbing" (is that the least sexy name ever?) in a range of contexts.

And if you define sex so narrowly that sex is only what leads to intercourse or happens in an erotic mood, then by definition, female bonobos can't engage in playful sexual activity in varied contexts. But that seems wrong: whatever else, the claim of free-wheeling bonobo sexuality can't be false by definition.

As Greta Christina elegantly argues in her "Are We Having Sex Now or What?" it's almost impossible to give a good definition for human sex. Probably it'll be even harder to give one for bonobo sex, given that we can't even ask them their opinions. "Yo, babes, are you having sex now? Or what?"

Has Britney Spears Lost It?

That's what MSN was asking me this morning as I signed out of my hotmail account.

I think I've already mentioned that it would give me great great joy to see Britney
Spears turn it around.

Not that I want to see Britney Spears buy a lovely Los Feliz estate and marry some non-trashy guy and put the excesses of her youth behind her while not eating white flour. Screw that.

Also, I'm not, like, in love with Britney, although "Toxic" is one of the all-time great pop songs.

I just happen to have gotten tired of this division of our celebrities (and by extension ourselves) into the saved and the damned. And, just like in Calvinism, the one sure way to distinguish the saved from the damned is to see how it ends. Angelina Jolie might have seemed like a troubled youth, but now she's got a family and a beautiful husband, and all that goddamn modern architecture, so we know she was always all right. She was fundamentally sound.

Not that I have anything against Angelina Jolie.

Look. Some of my favorite books fall into a category I think of as chick-lit-but-for-real. I am talking about Heartburn by Nora Ephron, who has made vast sums of money off of movies that invariably end happily. Or Fear of Flying by Erica Jong. Also, The Company She Keeps by Mary McCarthy.

Now, since Heartburn came out in 1983, and Fear of Flying in 1973, and The Company She Keeps in 1942 (this much I have garnered off the internet), and since I don't have any other examples ready to mind, I have just created a (historically speaking) pseudo-category of book. Also The Company She Keeps is much much better than the other two books, and would do just fine in a more heavyweight literary category. But I think about these books together because they manage to remain light, remain bearable, while depicting a world in which being adult means both betraying and being betrayed, behaving badly and behaving very well, and surviving it all.

A middle ground, you might say, between the Mill on the Floss (where every misdeed is paid for in blood and Pride and Prejudice (where all is forgiven, and wasn't that bad to begin with). Things happen, people behave badly, people behave well, people are funny and adult about it and people are heartbroken and childish about it, and then other things happen.

Other cultural artifacts that give me that feeling: the movie Manhattan, the books of Richard Russo, the essays of Gore Vidal. But I can't help feeling that there's not enough of it going around, not enough light-hearted realism, not enough grace seen in real behavior, to counteract the tidal wave of self-help telling us that perfection is obtainable, and that falling short of it can only mean disaster and the grave.

Britney Spears has obviously fallen short of perfection. I think we can agree on that. And her public behavior at the moment seems designed to give the impression that disaster and the grave await her. So, you know, I'd like to see her turn it around. Not apologize, not dress better. Just not give way to melodrama. Keep going, in whatever teetery fashion. Turn it down a notch. Raise her kids, eat her Cheetos, whatever.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Angels In Paradise. Or Not.

When you hear about the scientific misunderstandings of the past, you sometimes ask yourself, How on earth could that have happened? How did no one notice that their scientific findings served only to mirror their cultural beliefs?

You mean people really thought they could determine differences in racial intelligence from cranium measurements? They thought the uterus moved around and caused hysteria? They thought female orgasm was a treatment for hysteria, properly brought about in the doctor's office?

Reading the recent story about bonobos in The New Yorker, you almost feel like you can see how it happens. The scientists here are patient observers. But the cultural overlay, the expected conclusions, and the interpretation of their work is such that it is no wonder that bonobos are considered both peace-loving, happy, and sexually explorative and also warlike, grouchy, and competitive.


A particularly inscrutable bonobo at the Milwaukee County Zoo. Photo by Flickr user vigilant20, here.


The idea seems to be: Bonobos are like us. So they can help find out, once and for all, what we are like. If, as has been thought up to now, bonobos are matriarchal, clit-diddling, food-sharing little angels, maybe we are too. If, as now seems possible, they are hierarchical, toe-chomping, angry little bastards, well, maybe we are too.

Up to now, the bonobos have enjoyed a kind of ganja-smoking, swinger image. This, it turns out, was based largely on studies in zoos, where they were observed having lots of hetero- and homo-sexual sex of all kinds, and kind of lazing around.

But in the wild they aren't always like this, and there are now plenty of observations of bonobo brutality. Even in the zoos, after time, there can be a fair amount of aggression. One biologist describes seeing five females attack a male: "They were gnawing on his toes. I'd already seen bonobos with digits missing, but I'd thought they would have been bitten off like a dog would bite. But they really chew. There was flesh between their teeth."

The story describes Frans de Waal as using the sunnier bonobo portrait to beat up on the idea that human morality is a restraint on otherwise vicious beings. And, not surprisingly, people love this idea. "Make love not war!" cries the Bonobo Conservation Initiative. "You can't very will fight a war while you're having an orgasm," says the sex advisor Susan Block on her program, "The Bonobo Way."

You'd have thought everyone would be falling all over themselves to point out the insanity of using studies of animals to figure out the truth about human nature. But that doesn't even come up.

One reason there is so little research on the bonobos in the wild is that the animals are in hard-to-reach, politically unstable, dangerous places. The whole thing makes you want to shout: look, if you're trying to understand people, you don't have to hike eight days through the woods and live on seeds! We're right here! All around you!

Of course, studying people just tells you about, you know, people. But studying animals, well, maybe that can tell us about what we're really like -- what we'd be like if we weren't raised in some particular culture.

But when I feel this question being asked -- what are people really like? -- the first thing that comes to mind is, "Who wants to know"? Because really, what's the point of even asking what people are like when they're raised outside of some particular culture? Everyone is raised in some culture.

By all means, study the bonobos. But don't expect the outcomes to tell us whether free-love, socialism, and equality are good for us. Or whether we should just build more jails for toe-biters. We'll have to figure those things out on our own.