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.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Holmes Vs. Watson

Who would you rather meet, spend time with, have as a friend, Sherlock Holmes or James Watson?

I'm assuming everyone's answer is "Sherlock Holmes."

I've just been rereading the stories, and I am struck by how strongly this feeling persists in spite of the extraordinary lengths Conan-Doyle goes to to show what a cold, unfeeling, unfriendly -- actually unpleasant -- person Holmes is.

I mean, it's one thing to want to be friends with someone who is sort of distant, but also human. The feeling in that case is that maybe the friendship would be extra special, or something. You know, kind of exclusive. The person who is friends with no one, being friends with you.

But wanting to be friends with Sherlock Holmes? Weird. I mean, at every turn, we hear about how little he cares for anyone, how completely self-absorbed he is, how utterly uninterested in the little pleasures of ordinary life. A man totally unmoved by beauty, humor, sympathy.

Watson, of course, the opposite. A doctor. A man of whim and feeling. An appreciator of women. But still. Holmes is always so much more interesting.

Actually one thing Holmes does get a little emotional about is the pain of human existence, and I have to say, it's kind of moving when he does. He makes clear that he requires his intellectual puzzles to make the incredible boredom of life bearable.

I can kind of relate to that, and to wanting to drown one's boredoms in cocaine and tobacco.

Still, it's not like being with Holmes and watching him drown his boredoms would make you feel any better about life. Don't you think it would be guaranteed to make you feel worse?

This makes me think that the whole way that people are kind of drawn to people who pay less attention to them, rather than to people who pay more attention to them, is kind of a deep fact about human nature rather than some, you know, little wrinkle that applies only occasionally.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Solving Or Ruminating: A False Dichotomy

I wrote this post recently, about what I learned from guys, and one of the thing I listed was

"Just get on with it."

I explained that it's not always necessary to understand, or even contemplate, the ins-and-outs of something that is troubling you. Often, I said, if you just let time pass, go to sleep, don't worry too much, it'll just feel OK.

It's not that problems solve themselves; it's just that 1) a lot of situations are not improved by reflection, because there is nothing really to be gained by it, and 2) when there is something to be gained by it, it's just as likely to be something you realize in 20 years, not 20 minutes.

I feel this idea is basically supported by recent research, summarized in a recent New York Times article, which concludes that among teenage girls, some kinds of "co-rumination" can actually make a person feel worse. Sometimes, it's just depressing to hear about others being depressed about the same things you are; sometimes, it seems rehashing the various issues leads to new and puzzling differences between friends.

Talking things out: not always for the best.

As I understand it, this conclusion sort of side-steps both the stereotype of girls being "empathizers" and the one of guys being "fixers." In the research reported, both empathizing and fixing could be bad.

Which supports my own conclusion: sometimes, you just gotta let it go.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Female Orgasm: You Thought You Knew The Story

OK, at least I thought I knew the story about female orgasm.

I thought it went something like this:

Starting with Freud, there was this general idea out there that a woman could have an orgasm in two different ways: via the clitoris, and via the penis-in-the-vagina -- a "vaginal" orgams.

Then, it turned out that most women had orgasms from clitoral stimulation. Indeed, further research - I thought - showed that the clitoris is the basic organ of the female orgasm: sure, a girl can come from having a "p" in her "v" but it's only because the p -- or some other body part -- is indirectly stimulating her clitoris that she has an orgasm.

This, I thought, modulo some confusing stuff about ejactulation and the g-spot, was the basic story, and I took it to debunk the old theory that there were "inferior" and "superior" orgasms.

I felt comfortable, that is, shaking my head in disappointment when some ill-informed young man would write into an advice columnist, as they often do, to say, Hey, my girlfriend doesn't come just from intercourse . . . what's wrong with her? Should she see a doctor? All the girls in porn come that way.

Then the other day Jezebel had two posts (here and here) about an actual research article whose title is

"A Woman’s History of Vaginal Orgasm is Discernible from Her Walk"

The title really says it all - or, rather, most of it. Sex researchers guessed right most of the time whether a woman had a self-reported history of vaginal orgasm from wathing her walk. I haven't had the patience to read through the whole thing but they tested 30 girls.

The thing is, this story cites as known fact all that stuff I thought was false. Here's a characteristic passage:

"Compared to women who have had vaginal orgasm (triggered solely by penile–vaginal stimulation), vaginally anorgasmic women display more use of immature psychological defense mechanisms[1], are less satisfied with their relationships, mental health, and life in general [8,9], and are more likely to suffer from global sexual dysfunction [10]."

Whoa! Really? If you want to chase down those footnotes, the article is in J Sex Med 2008;5:2119–2124, that is, the Journal of Sexual Medicine. You'll have to be on a subscribing computer. Or you can email me for the pdf.

One of the references - the last - is to Fugl-Meyer KS, Oberg K, Lundberg PO, Lewin B, Fugl-Meyer A. "On orgasm, sexual techniques, and erotic perceptions in 18- to 74-year-old Swedish women." J Sex Med 2006;3:56–68.

Which sounds more like a Monty Python skit than an academic paper, but whatever.

I really don't know what is going on here.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Feminism and Families

I just spent several days in bed resting my back. On the second day, I finished volume three of Proust, and I didn't have volume four in the house. My spirits needed a little light reading, so I ended up with a series of comic novels, including David Lodge's Nice Work and Alison Lurie's The War Between the Tates.

One thing these books both have in common is that they feature "housewives."

In Lodge's book, a businessman and a woman professor are thrown together; part of the story turns on the businessman's relationship with his family; the wife in the family is a stay-at-home mom and the kids are obnoxious, entitled, teenage assholes.

In Lurie's book, Mrs. Tate herself is a stay-at-home mom; and the kids are obnoxious, entitled, teenage assholes.

It's easy to forget how fast things have changed, but they really have, because family life as depicted in these books barely exists any more. These days, even when moms stay home, they have lots of things they do outside the family, the father is expected to function as a parent, and when the kids are teens, the moms are often back out in the world, doing stuff.

Not many American moms send their 15 year-olds off to school then spend the day mopping the kitchen floor.

And I gotta say, reading those books make you feel, Thank God For That.

It's awful. The men are bored with their wives, because their wives are boring. Because they don't do anything. The men regard their children as interlopers, ruined by their mothers' spoiling them, external to their own provenance and care in life. The women, of course, are at the mercy of the men, because they're home all day and not making any money.

When you think about it, it's amazing that model worked as well as it did.

Isn't what we have better? I mean, I know it's kind of too bad that women often "have to" work now, economically. But you know, because a standard of living is a relative thing, the reason this is true is that, well, most women work. And that just seems so much better than the earlier alternative.

Fathers these days, even when they're really busy at work, tend to regard their kids upbringing as partly their responsibility. Mothers these days, even when they're earning less and doing more child- and house-care, regard their own autonomous lives as really important. It's a big improvement.

And you know, even teenagers don't seem as crazy as they used to -- or at least, not in the same way. Maybe I'm naive. But the stereotype these days is of the kid who can't get off the phone with his parents, who talks to them all the time, who is pretty comfortable being part of the family, who isn't spending every minute longing for escape.

I started to wonder if this was maybe related to the feminism business. You know, if your mom picks up your room, washes your gym clothes, then flies off the handle about your taste in music, that's like a recipe for disaffection.

But if your mom, like your dad, is out working for the money to buy you stuff, and asks you to help with the dinner dishes because she's busy, and is too tired to complain about your taste in music, well, that's like a recipe for family involvement.

This is one way I believe feminism has been good for families.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Danger Where You Least Expect It

Of all the things that can get in the way of getting work done on sabbatical, I failed to see the one that has befallen me: all the hours in front of the laptop have led to back pain, which, of course, is especially bad when I'm sitting in front of my laptop. What to do?

For now, rest. But really, you'd think there'd be all kinds of configurations for typing in other positions. I mean, why not? Why not a recliner with a screen, to which you could add a wireless keyboard? Wouldn't that be cool?

Maybe I have to get a giant cinema display and put it on my wall. Would that be awesome or what?

I tried to post from my iPod but it didn't work - no text in the box. So this is it for now. Obviously I have to read the "Mobile blogging" instructions.

In the meantime, I'm gonna cut this short and go back to lying down.

And I'll reflect that given my previous thoughts on how small other people's problems seem, I can imagine how this looks to those who aren't me: several days of lying in bed reading novels? Doesn't sound too bad!

All I can say is: "Hmph."

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Hello, Friends! (Notes From Summer, 2008)

My last post was on June 11. It is now September 3. This makes me feel a little bad.

I don't know when the next post will be. I have an ongoing internet problem to be solved, but tonight, when, at random, I turned on my computer, the neighboring internet portal let me in again. And though I had nothing in particular to say, really, there was no way not to take advantage of this opportunity.

It is hot here, and I have my keys, but only a limited supply of clean clothes. And I have not watched any of the various conventions, despite having vague (strong) opinions on all of it. And I miss the internet more than I can possibly say. It is a little funny, because most of the people I email with I also talk to, and I have continued to talk to over the long desert that is my lack of internet. So why should I miss the particular form of communication that has to do with funny emails and blog reading and blog comments? But I do. It made me feel stranded and bereft in a way that was not un-related to not having the key to my apartment.

It was very hot all summer and I kept my windows closed for a good three months and my head down. I ate less ice cream than I had planned and drank more coffee. All the plants died and they are still lying outside dead and something needs to be done about it. And it will be.

You will be hearing from me. In the meantime, I had the pleasure on gorging on all of Noko Marie's posts at once, like someone who has had no internet for months.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Other People and Other Places

There's something about the problems of a stranger that they never really seem that bad.

I don't mean problems like cancer, or the death of a child, or whatever. Those problems do seem really bad. But the ordinary, run-of-the-mill problems of strangers -- like having adolescent kids that are a pain in the ass, or having a boss that's an idiot, or having a parent who is harrassing -- is it just me? those problems never really seem that bad.

What I'm trying to say is, I routinely underestimate the small life difficulties of others.

For instance. There's a food court area in the library where I do my work, and the other day I overheard two women who had clearly met to have coffee and talk. They were each about, oh, I don't know, maybe 55 years old. It was about 10 am.

One of them was describing some problem she was having at home -- I couldn't tell if it was an unsupportive spouse, or what -- but the two women talked over the issue at length and at one point the woman with the problem said, "I just don't know if I can take it anymore."

This is ridiculous, but something about the scene seemed so homey and nice. The friend, the chit chat, the cup of coffee, the morning sense of the whole day to look forward to. I found myself thinking, "Isn't that nice."

I had to remind myself, "This woman just said she didn't know if she could take it anymore. Obviously she has some kind of real problem, not just some, you know, trivia." Somehow, not knowing her, I found it hard to make it vivid.

I think people do this a lot. They read in the paper about some family that is living on 450 dollars per month, and relying on food stamps, and they think, "Well, sure, that sounds bad, but it doesn't sound that bad." When you know if they were in the same situation they'd be going out of their minds with unhappiness.

I don't know why this happens. But I was struck the other day by sense of how different it is with places. With places, you underestimate the difficulties of the familiar, not of the strange.

At least I do. In a city I know and care about, the little patches of decay and dirt don't seem depressing, really; they're just the decay and dirt of home. I didn't grow up in New York City but I spent time there as a kid and I really like it and when someone says to me, "Well, but it's so dirty!" I'm like, well, yeah, that's sort of true. It is dirty. But who cares? Why do you care?

When you're in a strange place, though, all the little negatives loom so large. "Those streets, they're not in a grid, it's very confusing!" "That section of town with the overpass and the boarded up storefront, how depressing and sad!"

I think if you grow up with the particular problems of a particular place, you just don't notice them as much.

I grew up on the East Coast of the US, and sometimes my California friends will say to me, "But when it's cold, you have to put on all those clothes before you go out! Boots, coat, hat, mittens, what a pain in the ass!"

And I'm like, "Yeah, you do have to do all those things. I never really thought about it. And your point is. . .?"

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Women Are Hybrids

My whole life I've felt kind of like a combination between a woman and a man. I'm not sure what I mean by that exactly, except that I like traditional guy things, like math, and also traditional girl things, like shopping for shoes and kittens.

I'm a hybrid. I've always wanted a serious career, and I've always wanted to have matching sets of towels at home. I like being a wise-guy, but I'm also empathetic.

I feel it at my job. I teach philosophy, and most of my colleagues are guys, and we have a kind of rough-and-tumble style where we argue a lot, and for the most part I think that's great. On the other hand, when I'm with my female colleagues, or my female graduate students, I enjoy chatting about clothes, and family members, and our lives, in ways I find hard to do with guys.

At first I thought I was unusual in being a hybrid. But then I realized that even though there are varying degrees, all women these days are hybrids. Women work outside the home, manage money, do all the traditional guy things, and also mother, nurture, make dinner, do all the traditional woman things.

The number of comic strips about women being "conflicted" about their family roles and their public roles shows that it really is more like being a hybrid than a new coherent entity. It's putting two things together that no one's really sure how to make them fit.

My next realization, though, was that not only are all women hybrids now, they've always been hybrids. No one has ever been the feminine ideal as it's been constructed through western history. You can see it going all the way back: women trying to live the passive life they're told is feminine, while also wanting the more active life they're told is masculine.

When you put it that way, it seems there's no way for a woman not to be a hybrid. The things we associate with humanity -- like autonomy -- are things we associate with masculinity. So to be a female person is to combine feminine virtues with masculine ones.

So it's not just me.

What should we do? Junk the ideals of femininity in hopes of forging a new coherent self? Be happy being conflicted?

Personally I think conflicted is just fine: there's enough hours in a day to teach class at 1 and shop for shoes at 4:30.

The whole unity of virtues thing - it's kind of a guy idea anyway.

So I say: let's stay hybrids, and take fly the banner of ambivalence with pride.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Long View Of Life

I've been a little under the weather the past few days, so I'm not up to regular standards of originality and so on. Nothing serious: just a few aches, pains, upset stomach, whatever.

After I wrote this post about being a culture snob, and about reading Proust, I thought to myself, "You know, you last read those books over ten years ago. Wouldn't they be worth reading again?" So I started in with Volume 1.

I'm just getting toward the end of Volume 2. And honestly, what I'm struck by is how deeply sad these books are. Even when the story is happy, the reflections are really fucking sad.

Or, at least, they're making me sad. I don't remember feeling quite this way the first time, so maybe I'm just getting old.

One reason they may have this effect on me is that Proust often takes the long view of life: he sees the arc of a human life, and humans, as if from a long way off. Here's Proust talking about some girls he meets as an adolescent. These are girls he worships from afar and is finally is introduced to. He can't help but think of their future selves, and of the future selves of all of us, and of how little we know ourselves:

"I knew that, as deep, as ineluctable as Jewish patriotism or Christian atavism in those who imagine themselves to be the most emancipated of their race, there dwelt beneath the rosy inflorescence of Albertine, Rosemonde, Andree, unknown to themselves, held in reserve until the occasion should arise, a coarse nose, a protruding jaw, a paunch which would create a sensation when it appeared, but which was actually in the wings, ready to come on, unforeseen, inevitable, just as it might be a burst of Dreyfusianism or clericalism or patriotic, feudal heroism, emergins suddenly in answer to the call of circumstance from a nature anterior to the individual himself, through which he thinks, lives, evolves, gains strength or dies, without ever being able to distinguish that nature from the particular motives he mistakes for it."

The truth of these kinds of observations makes me feel really unhappy. So much so that I wonder if my aches and pains and upset stomach aren't somehow a symptom of reading. Isn't that what melancholy is like? The long view of life is tough.

People like to say that there's a kind of moral responsibility to believe the truth. And it's cases like this that always make me wonder how far that's supposed to go. If I believe the truth about my own decay and my own ignorance about myself, I might not have the force of life required for getting up and going about the day. So can I just pretend that today is forever? Or is that irresponsible somehow?

I contemplated giving up the Proust re-reading project, but as that passage shows, even though these books are sad they're also really funny. Just typing out "would create a sensation when it appeared," when applied to a someone's paunch, made me laugh. So in addition to the obvious reasons (greatness etc.), there's that.

Maybe I'll take the books with a couple of advil. I'll let you know how that goes.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

What I Learned From Guys

I've spent a lot of my life around guys. I don't play sports, but I've studied guy-ish things, and I work in a field with mostly guys.

Here are some things I've learned from guys:

1. Pretend to have more confidence than you actually have.

Guys just act like they know what's what, even when they don't. They don't try to be honest about their insecurities, hoping someone will reassure them. This is wise. No one knows who is pretending. And when things are tense, almost everyone prefers to deal with someone keeping up a good front rather than someone in confessional tension mode.

2. Just get on with it.

When things go wrong, it's not always necessary to figure out what happened, or understand what it all means. Often feeling OK about stuff just comes naturally if you move on. Just get on with it: go to bed, wake up, start over, forget about it.

3. It doesn't matter if the bathroom is dirty.

Unless it's really filthy, no one will notice or care. If it's a choice between cleaning the bathroom and having a cocktail, guys say, have a cocktail.

4. Dumb things like pinball, video games, comic books, and adventure movies are fun.

I kind of had to develop a taste for these mindless pleasures, but now I see their true, deep, and enduring value.

5. Bring home the bacon.

Nothing gives you independence and power like a good salary. Sure, money doesn't buy happiness. But stop earning money and pretty soon you're cooking someone's meals and cleaning their kitchen floor, while they're zoning out with Baywatch. Having your own money doesn't prevent such a state of affairs, but not having your own money gives you no way out of them.

I'm sure there are other things but I can't think of them now. This is not to say, of course, that there aren't things guys should learn from me. But that's a post for another day.

Thanks guys!

Monday, August 18, 2008

No "General System Of Mendacity"?

For various reasons I've been thinking about what happens when people act, or judge, in ways that fail to fit a coherent or systematic pattern. It's tempting to say that there's something funny, or wrong, when someone who always acts or judges in accordance with a policy or system then acts or judges against that policy.

If someone goes around denouncing various behaviors, and gets all high and mighty about it, and then engages in the very same behavior herself, or approves of it in her friends, well, it's really annoying.

Sometimes such a person is judging, or acting, in a way that is hypocritical, or morally creepy. To judge according to one set of standards for person A and another for person B just because you like B better violates the demands of fairness. So there can be a moral condemnation.

But some people have the intuition that it's more than "unfair" to do this -- that it is somehow a violation of reason. It's "irrational" not to judge like cases alike. To which one always wants to say, "what on earth makes one case like another"?

I don't buy this irrationality move, myself. But in thinking about why it's wrong, I was struck by how hard it is to even say what is going on when someone judges in a way that seems "arbitrary," or non-systematic.

Because there are actually several things that can produce the effect, and they're all different.

Of course, a person may just be judging non-systematically and letting their emotions run away with them. That's the ordinary case.

But it could also be that a person has a kind of fucked-up policy in the first place. If someone's policy or system is to judge their friends according to one standard and strangers according to another policy, then they haven't violated their policy when they judge their friends differently. They just have an odd sense of priorities in the first place.

Then, too, a person might be in the process of changing his mind. If I have a policy of judging that something is bad, but then my friend gets involved, I may decide that I was dumb to judge so harshly in the first place, and I might change my policy.

The kicker with the last thing is that not only can I change my policy, I can change it back. How much of this can go on before you start to think the person doesn't really have a policy at all?

In the second and third case, what's irrational?

Imagine R is very harsh in judging drug use: he thinks it is immoral and that the people who use drugs are evil. Then R's nephew gets addicted to drugs and R becomes compassionate and says his nephew is a good kid.

On my three readings, R might be simply allowing his love to get in the way of his judgment, or he may have a set of priorities under which love for family members generally trumps judging them harshly, or he may find that interaction with his nephew changes his mind about drug use.

It's tempting to think we can distinguish the cases by looking at someone's future behavior, but it's not so clear. After all, if R judges a stranger harshly next time, we still don't know whether it's part of a policy or he's just changed his mind back.

While I've been pondering this, I've been rereading Proust's In Search of Lost Time. Proust describes Odette as someone who acts and judges in a way that fails to be systematic: Odette lies, to her lover Swann, when she finds it useful to do so.

Swann appeals to her sense of coquettry: "can't you see how much of your attraction you throw away when you stoop to lying?"

But it doesn't work, because Odette has no policy of lying:

"In vain, however, did Swann expound to her thus all the reasons that she had for not lying; they might have succeeded in overthrowing a general system of mendacity, but Odette had no such system; she was simply content whenever she wished Swann to remain in ignorance of anything she had done, not to tell him of it. So that lying for her was an expedient of a specific order, and the only thing that could make her decide whether she should avail herself of it or confess the truth was a reason that was also of a specific or contingent order, namely the chance of Swann's discovering that she had not told him the truth."

Even with all these details, I'm not totally sure. Is Odette someone with a policy of not lying, who gets carried away by self-interest? Or is she someone with a policy of telling the truth, except in certain circumstances, which in turn rest on self-interest? Or is she someone with a policy of self-interest only: she only tells the truth when it's in her own interest to do so?

I'm inclined to think it's the second one myself: she has a policy of telling the truth except in certain circumstances, which in turn rest on self-interest. In that case, Odette's lying isn't really an exception, at all. It's just part of the program.

We can say that there's something morally fishy about such a life program. But irrational? Not so much.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

I Like Babies

I don't have any children of my own, but I have always liked babies.

I'll tell you why. Babies have the same emotional moodiness we have, but where we cover up our moods with stupid rationalizations and hit-or-miss guesses about what's "really" bothering us, babies are honest. They just have moods.

A lot of times when grown-ups are unhappy, they're just unhappy; it's not like there's some big thing wrong that a cookie and a nap won't make better. But part of being grown up means having "reasons" for feeling bad. You can't just say, "Wah!" You have to say, "It's not fair!" And then you have to explain.

Not that there aren't things that are unfair. There are, and they're worth getting upset about. But often, people just feel bad, in an elementary way, for no reason at all. And it would be nice if, like babies, we could just say, "Wah! I feel bad." And instead of recommending that anyone who feels bad for no reason had better consult a psychiatrist and get a prescription for Prozac, we could just, you know, put them in a bouncy swing, or tuck them in for a nap with some Zweibacks.

It's weird, but most of the time when I hear and see babies crying, it doesn't really bother me. I mean as long as it's normal crying. Sometimes babies cry in that desperate way that is completely freaky and panic-inducing, and that really is upsetting.

But as long as it's normal crying, my basic reaction to crying babies isn't "Ugh, that baby is crying!" but rather, "Hi baby. Unhappy? Believe me, I know how you feel. Welcome to human life."

Toddlers, not so much. Because you know what toddlers are saying. "It's not fair!"

It's the basic transition from baby to person. It's got some good aspects, but I'm not sure this is one of them.

Monday, August 11, 2008

When The Rapture Comes, Please Practice Auto and Bike Safety

There's a T-shirt shop near my house that often displays a shirt that says,


When I see it I often start reflecting on what it would be like to have God come down just for the purposes of checking things out -- you know, seeing how we're doing.

I'm an atheist, and an academic, so when I picture God he's always a cross between a fond parent and an authoritative thesis advisor.

This is corny, but one thing I'd like to show God when he comes is the Olympics. I'm not even into sports, and I know there's a lot not to like about the Olympics, but the whole people-from-everywhere all-coming-together to-play-some-games thing always knocks me out.

Today I was at the gym and the TV was showing men's Beach Volleyball, a match between Brazil and Italy. The Canadian announcers explained that Canada hadn't made the qualifying rounds, so there were no Canadian men competing in this sport. Then they explained that it was very hard to tell how the mostly local, Chinese, crowd was rooting, except when China was actually competing, and so the local guy was trying to get them to show their allegiances.

This is all kind of awesome.

Look, God: Here we have cooperation. Playfulness. Tolerance. Peace. At least for a couple of weeks, in one place. Sorry about the oceans all being full of garbage and all the suffering all, but look, we're trying, OK?

There are so many awful things you'd be ashamed to show God that it's not really fun to think of a list. I was trying to think of something really specific that I'd be embarassed about, on behalf of the human race, in addition to all the big and obvious things, and then I remembered the story in the Times yesterday about the consequences of more bicyclists being on the roads these days.

Horrific. Cars banging into people, running them off the road; drivers intentionally harming cyclists; cyclists refusing to obey the rules; cyclists acting like once they get enough people all together they can rewrite the goddamn rules.

Turns out, news flash: people are in a hurry, and they regard their own business as, like, really important.

Now this is really embarassing. Chaos, mayhem, pain, injury, death, for what exactly? Shaving a few minutes off your commute? No. Sorry. If God is coming, this will make us look seriously ridiculous. Time to act like grownups.

Anyway, after we tour the Olympics, and stay away from the traffic hotspots, I'd like to show God the internet and Wikipedia, which are both incredible sources of cooperation and playfulness. I guess the internet's got a way to go on tolerance and peace, but you know, we're trying. Nobody's perfect. Down here anyway.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Bad Behavior And Tolerance In Traffic And Beyond

"traffic jam" from nicpic's flickr stream. Used under Creative Commons license.

You may have missed the excellent piece in The Sunday Times on traffic behaviors: "The Urge to Merge," by Cynthia Gorney. I almost missed it; I just happened to click on it because, even though I don't have a car, I'm kind of obsessed with traffic.

Gorney talks about two kinds of traffic mentalities, which I'm sure are familiar to everyone.

The "lineuppers" quietly get in place at the end of the line in whatever lane they know they're going to end up in.

The "sidezoomers" zoom past all those patient lineuppers, using whatever lanes happen to be open, then edging their way into the proper lane when the time comes.

The lineuppers are all, "Those goddamn #$%& ing sidezoomers! No sense of fair play! No sense of respect! I'll NEVER let them edge their way in."

The sidezoomers are all, "Meh, all this kerfuffle about nothing! Obviously, the traffic moves fastest when all the available space is used. I'm just trying to, you know, move everyone along. So CHILL, lineuppers."

To my utter delight, Gorney decides to determine, once and for all, who is right, by talking to some actual traffic experts.

Various hilarity ensues, and you should really read the article. But what I can't stop thinking about is the conclusion, which is about as frustrating and annoying as a conclusion could possibly be.

Traffic, it turns out, moves fastest when most people are linuppers, but some are sidezoomers, and -- get this -- when the linuppers just patiently let the sidezoomers in.

I know it's wrong to extrapolate from traffic, to cooperation in general, to morality and free-riders, to the overall meaning of life, but I couldn't help myself.

Think what this means for human existence. Cooperation works best when most people behave, but a few people don't, and when the misbehavior is patiently tolerated?

I find this conclusion just beyond infuriating. I mean, it's one thing if it's best for everyone to be a lineupper. And it's one thing if it's best for most people to be lineuppers, and for the linuppers to punish the sidezoomers. Or at least get to feel really indignant about them.

But the idea that not only is it best when there are sidezoomers, but that the sidezoomers can't be punished? Really. Beyond infuriating.

The fucking icing on the cake, of course, is that not only does the sidezoomer get home earlier, he's probably having a great time, listening to music, chillin', talking on the phone . . . meanwhile the poor linupper not only gets home later, but he has to get all angry and upset along the way. At those goddamn sidezoomers.

Fast forward forty years, the sidezoomer is sipping cocktails at the lineuppers funeral, after the linupper dies of a heart attack from all that indignation he wasn't allowed to express.

I mean, I know "life isn't fair," and all that, but this is ridiculous!

Monday, August 4, 2008

The Devil's Advocate And The Devil Himself

Yesterday, like a lot of people, I read the Times story about the internet trolls with a kind of horrified fascination.

I knew there were people who would say things they didn't believe, or ask dumb questions, just to get other people riled up. And I knew anonymous comments boards could be horrifically nasty and stupid.

But I didn't know there was this kind of connection between internet cruelty and real-life cruelty and harassment, like when some kids call up and mock the family of a teenager who killed himself. And I didn't know the people who act this way consider it an important or meaningful thing, or that they act together or even that they talk to each other. But there is, and they do, and they do.

I hope all C and C readers will join me in saying, "ZOMG WTF is wrong with these people?"

Anyway, here are three quick thoughts on the whole trolling concept.

1) There's a whole "back up your arguments!" "you can't just say that!" "you have to logically prove your point!" thing you find from regular commenters and trolls alike on message boards, and there's a bit of it here on the Times blog-form discussion of the story. That aspect is hilarious if you happen to teach at a university, like I do. I mean, every day I'm in the classroom asking students to have opinions, to disagree with one another, and to freakin' back up their opinions using logic. Usually I can't get a peep out of them, and when I do, they're usually trying to reconcile some other disagreeing views to show how they really "fit together." Why does this kind of "arguing" and demand for logic come so naturally online to people who shun it so vigorously in real life?

2) The obvious answer is "anonymity." I know, I know, people want to argue when it's anonymous, and they don't want to argue when they're sitting in a room together. I don't really get why this is so, but people have told me it's true, and I believe them. I get why people want to say "*%#@ you, you %$#%ing ^@#$&(@!!!" when they're anonymous, not that it's a taste I share myself. But arguing and demanding reason and logic? That is what you do for fun when no one knows who you are?

3) There are people, some of whom also commented on the Times blog post discussion, who like to say, "Well, I wouldn't do anything really bad, but I do like to stir up trouble on internet discussions by saying stuff I don't really believe in order to get a rise out of people. In order to, you know, get them to back up their arguments. I'm playing Devil's advocate."

As a philosophy professor I suppose I should be thrilled that someone wants to have a debate, but you know what? I think this sort of behavior is actually not OK. I mean, it's fine to say, of something people actually believe but you don't, "I don't really believe X but some people do, and what do you say to that?"

But to pretend to believe something so someone will have to back up and prove to you the opposite is true? Beyond sophomoric, and entering the territory of evil. First, it creates in every reader's mind the possibility he is surrounded by morons or worse. Second, it uses up everyone's time and energy on stupid stuff. Finally, it just makes us all feel like we're surrounded by a bunch of disagreeing and disagreeable weirdos.

So: playing devil's advocate? OK if you're among friends, OK if you explain you're just playing devil's advocate, and if you have a reason. Otherwise? Knock it off!!

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Don't Be Judgey!

Ironically, there seems to be this idea out there -- out there only in the girly blogosphere? I don't know -- that one shouldn't be judgmental.

"Don't judge! I got my thing going on that you don't know anything about and even if you did it's not your place to have opinions about my life 'cuz it's mine anyway and you're not my mom so just, like, don't get all judgey!"

I say "ironic" just because what are internet conversations except occasions to be judgey? OK, I'm exaggerating, but if you're posting on any sort of blog about celebrities, or gossip, or fashion, all it is is fucking judging.

But whatever. We can leave that irony aside. What makes it OK to complain about people being judgmental?

Surely it's OK to judge other people. We do it all the time. The person who beats his kids, the guy who rapes women, and the woman who commits identity theft? All properly judged as morally wanting. The guy who jumps onto the subway tracks to rescue someone? Properly judged a hero.

I figure the subtext of the demand not to be judgey is something like, "don't be judgmental about things that aren't moral wrongs, but are just, you know, things I'm doing."

And I think this is fair and reasonable. Often the demand arises in connection with something that is in the moral margins. You know, like judging whether someone may withhold certain information in relationships, or whether someone may lie in some circumstance, or whether it's OK to let your kids drink alcohol in your home.

These kinds of cases are on the moral margins in the sense that we think there's some moral aspect to the situation, but we know everyone isn't going to agree on whether it's a case of moral wrong -- "oh, no, you mustn't" -- or moral permissibility -- "I wouldn't, but hey, knock yourself out."

Knowing that it's a marginal case, the defensive person feels it's his right to judge for himself. Not to be judged. Or maybe the defensive person feels that in whatever context the conversation is happening, the demands of politeness or friendship or community are overriding, so that as long as its a marginal case, she shouldn't be judged.

I think this is a fair demand, and I just want to pause here to note that it rests on what I think of as a "traditional" model of morality.

On the traditional model, there are things that are morally charged, and things that aren't, and a few things in the vague area in between. As long as someone's doing OK with the morally charged things -- like not abusing kids -- they get to do what they want with the non-morally charged things. Morality only covers a small subsection of life.

There's been a kind of interest lately in overthrowing the traditional model, in favor of an even older, but also newer, "holistic" model. On the holistic model, life isn't divided into a kind of moral domain and non-moral domain; instead, a life as a whole can be well-lived, or not. So the philosophers talk of "virtue ethics," rather than "rights-and-duties." Live a life of virtue!

On the holistic model, the aim is to live a good life, and to worry less about moral rules and transgressions and more about how one's life works overall.

When you put it this way, the holistic model sounds nice: open-ended, flexible, accomodating.

But I just want to point out one thing. On the holistic model, there's no escape from "judgey."

Since there's no non-moral domain, everything you do is up for evaluation, by yourself, and by others. There's no defense of acting in the moral margins, because there are no moral margins -- there isn't even any non-moral domain of life, really.

To me it's a huge problem with the holistic model. Hey, you know, if I want to live a stupid life, what's the problem? As long as I'm not hurting anyone? The main good thing about the traditional model is that the answer is clear: "Nothing."

On the holistic model, the answer is, "Well, maybe lots, depending on how stupid your life is." The range for judgey is huge.

So just to say. Next time you're thinking it would be better to junk all those moralizing rules, or the inflexibility of the demands of rights and duties, think of what you're missing: the right to say, "Don't judge!"

Monday, July 28, 2008

Not Reading About Not Reading

I just got back from a car trip and even though I had almost no time for the internet and didn't buy the Sunday Times, I couldn't avoid hearing about the, um, news:

"OH NOES no one READS anymore and everyone just looks at the INTERNETS all day and what about WAR AND PEACE and what kind of moron spends her whole day SOCIAL NETWORKING!"

The story is here, but um, to be honest, I didn't read it.

I tried, but I got bored. Isn't this debate getting old? I mean, I love books as much as anyone, and I want them to survive, and I value and treasure the mode of reading associated with books, and so on and so forth.

But there are actual interesting questions about the future we could be discussing instead.

For example. I teach Philosophy. I used to assign some reading, from Hume, or Plato, or whatever, and students would have to go read it and try to puzzle out what it meant. OK, they didn't HAVE TO, but figuring out how not to was hard.

Now, there are a million websites laying out all the basics. Hume said X, he meant Y, in simple language this means Z. Recently, most people think W, though some also think Q.

Now, you could say, "No looking at the internets when doing philosophy homework!"

But that would be dumb. I know this, because I do the same thing my students do. Or, rather, I do the scholarly equivalent. When I'm reading about something, I google a few phrases; I see what comes up; I check out homepages of authors; I read encyclopedia entries.

Of course, that's not all I do. Duh. That's the starting point. But it's incredible useful, it's easy, and it's pretty fun. Not doing it would be stupid.

So what I want is to get my students to do the same thing: use the internet sources on a subject as a starting point for research on some topic, and then have them do work that brings them from there to somewhere else.

It's not totally obvious to me how to make this work. Assignments will have to be structured differently. Probably different readings will have to be assigned. Even class time may be used differently.

I admit that doing things this way, something will be lost. Students will spend less time reading Hume and more time thinking about Hume-related topics, or reading secondary sources on Hume's philosophy.

That is something lost.

But there are great gains. A student who not only is responsible for learning not only the basics, but who also has to learn what's new about some subject, and has to understand what people are thinking about it now, and who has to sort through various kinds of texts and points of view to figure out what is right, is learning a ton.

Obviously this is critical thinking.

To me, the interesting question is, how are we going to restructure learning so that googling something is not generally cheating, but is rather a way of learning stuff?

'Cause really, trying to get students not to use the internet to learn things is really, really, really, just not going to happen.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

I Am An Unreliable Narrator

No, no, not that kind of unreliable narrator. In fact, when it comes to objective truth, I'm in there with the rest of them.

No, I'm talking about being "unreliable" in a different way.

I wrote recently about how much I loved Rivka Galchen's novel Atmospheric Disturbances.

But not everyone, you know, loved the book. OK. Fine. I can deal with that.

Mostly some people seem to find it cold. The New Yorker review, by James Wood, describes the book as "original and sometimes affecting."

Since I found the book an emotional wind-tunnel, tornado, and roller-coaster, the fact that someone else found it "sometimes affecting" raises, well, let's just say it raises some questions.

Wood also says in his review that Galchen's novel is best understood as being in the "tradition of tragicomic first-person unreliability." An "unreliable narrator" tells a story that is ostensibly about his perceptions of what happened, but is really revealing to the reader the narrator's own perceptual and psychological oddities.

Wood puts another of my favorite books into this category: The Confessions of Zeno, by Italo Svevo. At first I kind of balked at this classification, because I'd been thinking of the unreliable narrator as somehow alienated from the author, and Svevo makes it clear that he loves his narrator Zeno, and identifies with him, no matter how crazy Zeno is.

When Zeno asks three different sisters to marry him in one evening (sequentially), and settles for his third choice, and then discovers that he is delightfully happy being married to her, I feel Svevo is saying not so much, "See how crazy Zeno is?" as "See how funny and unpredictable human life is?"

I love it when Zeno expresses his amazement to the third choice sister, and she says something like "But didn't you know it would be like this? How can you be surprised?"

Zeno's nuttiness seems in a different category from the alienated kind I associate with the novels of Robert Plunkett. Plunkett's My Search For Warren Harding, and Love Junky both present narrators who are really peculiar, not so much in the universal way of Zeno, but in their own individual craziness.

When the hero of My Search for Warren Harding tells us, with a straight face, that he is a fanatic for Morris dancing, this is not, it seems to me, a way of saying, Oh, we all have our goofy obsessions, but rather a way for the author to wink at us about the character without saying anything about him at all.

So I realized that an unreliable narrator can be alienated, but he doesn't have to be. And Galchen's and Svevo's novels are both unreliable but non-alienated narrators.

And then I had my answer about why I love Atmospheric Disturbances (and Confessions of Zeno) so much:

I am an unreliable narrator.

I am acutely aware of the ways in which my first-person experience of the world just fails to add up to the coherent story I use to get around in it.

I find that while I think I know the reason for some feeling, I then discover I don't. I have my "reasons" I tell myself for the things I do, but I know they're probably not the real reasons, which are just unknown to me.

Living life as an unreliable narrator is lonely. Pretty much everyone else -- including me -- knows only the constructed, presentable version.

It's hard to even explain, or describe, the sensation, never mind the underlying phenomena.

So in addition to whatever else, I read these books with a deep feeling of identification. And the suggestion that somehow the crazinesses are universal -- are a matter of degree, rather than of kind, in the unreliability -- I love it.

It's reassuring, not to be alone in the world. And glimpsing the inner self of the unreliable narrator, it's very moving.

The fact that other readers take these books with analytical distance -- "sometimes affecting! -- makes me wonder:

Are other people not unreliable narrators?
Are other people unreliable narrators but they don't know it?
Do other people know they are unreliable narrators but they just don't care?

I don't know. My best guess is that people would be happy to admit they're unreliable narrators of their inner lives, but that they just don't find this fact very interesting, except in a kind of silly, intellectual house-of-mirrors kind of way.

And I guess that's what leads people to feel that books like Galchen's are "sometimes affecting." Cute, intellectually vivid, but only mildly moving. Hmph.

But. Since this is the logic that ends in people writing letters to novelists and inviting them to lunch, I think I'll just stop these reflections here.

Monday, July 21, 2008

"Women Are Irrational!"

When I learned as a young person that it used to be considered common sense to think that women were less rational than men, I was surprised.

I mean, aren't guys the ones known for getting into impulsive barroom fights, raping women, and buying expensive consumer electronics?

Aren't women known as the planners and the plodders of life? The ones who make grocery lists, nag people to eat their vegetables, and make "safe" but weak investment choices?

OK, I am overstating, but you know what I mean.

I got thinking about this recently when the Times did that series on love in Iraq, or whatever it was, and they quoted some man talking about how the reason one had to keep women indoors was that they were so irrational, they could be talked into anything. Let them out of the house, and some guy will sweet-talk them into having sex, and that'll be the end of it.

Leaving aside all the other questions this raises, I had to ask myself, Well, is this true? Are women are more swayed by emotions they haven't reflected on?

And I replied to myself, "Hmph! Swayed by emotions when it comes to sex? It's guys who are always saying they couldn't help themselves; it's guys who respond to the simplest visual cues; it's guys who actually make less rational decisions when there are pretty girls around (at least if this somewhat wacky study is true).

I explained my ruminations to a wise friend, who said something like, Well, maybe what it is is that women are more likely to change their minds about things in response to what is immediately in front of them, and men are more likely to say constant to abstractions despite conditions on the ground.

I think this may be right. But I don't think it shows women are more irrational. I mean, depending on your goals, sometimes it's means-end rational to change your strategy, or focus on the immediate, and sometimes it's not.

For example, people talk about moral "impartiality." The moral point of view should treat all persons the same.

But we also tend to think parents should take special care of their own children, and are right to lavish extra care on them.

It's easy to see how everyone might be best off when parents lavish extra care on their own children, which means these don't really conflict.

Focusing on the immediate, and not being impartial, can nonetheless be "rational" in the larger sense.

So: I don't think the difference in focus shows women to be less rational.

It is true that a kind of impulsivity can sometimes be irrational, and I think that's why I always thought it was more of a guy thing, especially in the sex and violence realm.

Then I thought, Aha! That's why people always thought of men as more rational: men are rational with particular exceptions. Exceptions they treat as irrationality. Whereas it's harder to carve out the parts of women's behavior that seem impulsive, calculating, emotive, etc. It's all kind of a mix.

And then I had a smaller kind of Aha when I thought, "Oh, and that's why sex was probably considered this strange dark force instead of just a normal part of life."

Maybe you already understood all of this. But it cleared up some things for me.

Speaking of non-impulsivity, here's a fun fact: according to Wikipedia, "a 'darcy' is a unit of permeability." OK it's not named after that Darcy but after another Darcy, but still, wouldn't it have been cuter and equally efficient if they'd made the darcy a unit of "impermeability" rather than permeability?

Friday, July 18, 2008

Noko Marie Is Rationalizing

I am on sabbatical. You might think, Gee, a person on sabbatical probably has more time and opportunity to post to her blog. And in a sense you'd be right, since my day is kind of my own.

But the truth is, these sabbatical days, I spend my day writing. After a day of writing, I'm kind of not always in the mood to sit down, and, you know, do a little more writing. What I'm in the mood for is more along the lines of, you know, drinking and staring off into space.

Over the next few months, I'm expecting to post about twice a week. So that no one has to check back and check back -- we know how annoying that is! -- I'm going to schedule my posts for Monday, 9:00 am and Thursday, 9:00 am. Now you'll know exactly when to look for more NM wisdom, and when not to bother.

See? I'm rationalizing in the bad way -- poor me! on sabbatical! no time to post! -- and in the good way -- here's my new, improved, organized, better, plan for the future! -- all at the same time.

I just googled "rationalize" to make sure I had that right, and the two relevant web definitions I found are so, I don't know, so nice:

Rationalize: to pretend that one’s desires are caused by impartial reasoning.

Rationalize: to structure and run according to rational or scientific principles in order to achieve desired results.

Somehow that "pretend" sounds a little funny and informal to me. But also cute. Hey guys! Let's play pretend! I'm going to pretend my desires are caused by impartial reasoning!

Anyway, see you all Monday morning, back here.

UPDATE: Oops, OK that's 9am EST, or 6am blog time; these "time zones," so complex!

Sunday, July 13, 2008

If This Were A Different Kind of Book. . .

OK, so I wrote before about how I don't like to read reviews of novels I'm actually going to read, about how in my view the only thing to say about a book you think is great is: it's good, go read it.

So I read a book last week that was like the most amazing book EVER, and so I'm here to tell you to read it. It's called Atmospheric Disturbances.

Nominally it is the story of a man, a psychiatrist, who is convinced his wife has been replaced by someone who is not her: a simulacrum. I could go on an on about how great this book, and how multidimensional its greatness is, but I want everybody to be able to encounter the book without any distracting thoughts about what someone else said about the book.

I didn't have that opportunity myself. I was reading The New Yorker on the bus, and there was a review of this book, and I read the first paragraph, and I felt myself being drawn in, and there I was, reading, and thinking to myself, "Ack! Don't read! You want to read this book! Don't read the review! Noko Marie, put the magazine down!!"

Because I was bored and tired I didn't have the power to resist, and I read the whole review, and let's just say, understatedly, that it did "affect my reading experience in a negative way."

Having read the book I felt it was safe to read today's review in The New York Times, and of course I was annoyed by it -- of course, because, if you love a book, how can you want to read what someone else -- a stranger no less!! -- thought to say about it in a newspaper? You're setting yourself up for doom.

I won't be revealing anything if I say that part of what annoyed me about the Times review was that twice the reviewer said something like, "If this were a different kind of book . . ." Meaning, a book with the same basic plot but told in a completely different way.

Why would you even ask such a hypothetical question in a book review? Um, it's the book it is; it's not an entirely different kind of book.

I also won't be revealing anything if I quote this brief passage from the book, one that I thought was wonderful:

"Indecisiveness, capriciousness -- these qualities in Rema never irritated me. I've always thought of my own mind as an unruly parliament, with a feeble leader, with crazy extremist factions, and so I don't look down on others for being the same."

Maybe like sea shells, these sentences don't seem so great when they're separated from their fellows. I don't know; I can't separate them out in my mind.

So don't judge for yourself, just trust me. Read the book.

Oh yeah, and don't judge the book by its cover either, 'cause you won't make any correct inferences. I didn't, anyway.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

When Things Go Right

It's easy to feel like things always go wrong, or often go wrong, or go wrong a good amount of the time.

I figure it's partly because of that special bias we have for noticing certain things. When things go right, well, that's normal life. When things go wrong, it's like, "#@%%*! My life sucks!"

So I just wanted to pause and record something that went right today.

On my way home I got caught in the craziest more torrential rainstorm I think I've ever seen. True madness. I had to walk 1.5 blocks and it was like I'd been dipped in a swimming pool head to toe.

My main fear was for my laptop. I mean, if I were really dipped in a pool, the laptop wouldn't be doing so good.

I had only recently stopped a kind of minimal laptop-protection system, involving a snap-on plastic case and a flimsy backpack, in favor of a sturdier laptop-protection system, involving a lovely Tucano slim case inside a flimsy backpack.

When I got home, the moment of truth:

The computer was completely dry!

Score one huge point for the forces of order, planning, and good luck in the universe. It's not all chaos all the time.

And since the Tucano case did such an awesome job, here's a photo. You can buy it at the Apple Store here, should you want to share my good fortune.

Like the rest of us, it's cuter in person, but you get the idea.

Monday, July 7, 2008

The Environment: Please Play Fair

I just finished reading Elizabeth Kolbert's excellent piece in The New Yorker about the Danish island where they produce more energy than they consume.

One thing that made the piece excellent was all the specific numerical information. The island has 11 large wind turbines, and about 12 smaller ones. The island is roughly the size of Nantucket. "Together, they produce some twenty-six million kilowatt-hours a year, which is just about enough to meet all the island’s demands for electricity," Kolbert explains.

There's also numerical information about environmentalism in general. I have to say, I've been hoping for such information for some time. I mean, I don't use those energy-efficient lightbulbs, but I also don't have a car, and I don't have many electric appliances. How does it all even out?

Kolbert talks about the conclusions of a Swiss group, that about 2,000 Kilowatts continuously, per person, is about what is sustainable from an environmental perspective. So, if you had 20 100-watt bulbs burning all the time. That's 17,000 Kilowatt hours per year per person.

In some countries, averages are way lower: the average Bangladeshi, Kolbert says, uses about 2,600 Kilowatt hours per year, which is 300 Kilowatts continuously. The average Chinese person is using about 1500 Kilowatts continously; close to the 2,000 Kilowatt goal.

The US and Canada, Kolbert tells us, are at a whopping 12,000 Kilowatts continuously. That means we'd have to reduce by five-sixths the amount of energy we use.


I have two thoughts. The first is, it's hard to say from reading the article where my own Kilowatt usage is, but one thing that seems clear is that air travel is my main problematic indulgence.

One round trip between Zurich and Shanghai uses up 800 of that yearly 2,000 target maximum. I make several trips per year on airplanes, and even though they're typically shorter, the number surely adds up.

The second is, I'm not fucking reducing my consumption until some other people reduce theirs, too.

People talk about environmentalism as if it has to be consistent with freedom and autonomy; people can just choose environmentally good alternatives for themselves, as they see fit.

But honestly, there is no way I am curtailing my consumption from, whatever, 12,000 to 10,000 Kilowatt hours by reducing my air travel, while there are plenty of people with second homes on the beach, personal airplanes, and vacation spas for their dogs.

I'm just not. I'm not a big energy user, but I'm not going to become a small energy user 'til some other -- richer -- people step up to the plate.

Western world, consider yourselves informed, and warned. You gotta play fair, or the rest of us aren't going to play at all.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Where's The Soma Spam?

Two things arrived in my inbox yesterday, from unrelated sources, but both dealing with the new holy grail of "happiness."

First, there was a link to a news story from Newsweek showing that people who have children are generally less happy than people who don't.

Then, there was a conference announcement for "Thoughts on Happiness." The beginning of the description of the conference said,

Happiness has long been our ultimate goal. We just haven't made great progress. That's about to change.

At first I thought it was a call for papers, and I thought, "Oh, great! I can submit an abstract for a paper showing that the whole premise of the conference is flawed." Because, really, isn't it old news that "happiness" isn't the whole story on the good life?

The I realized it's not a call for papers, but just an announcement of a happening. They gots an email list; they gots a blog; and they gots a website, so dudes, they are ready to go with the whole "conference" thing.

The best part is if you register really early (to be a "happy worm" - I am not making that up) you pay only 950 Euros as registration fee. Otherwise 1450 Euros. They say, "In total there are just 120 tickets and we want a mixed audience of scientists, creative minds and professionals."

All I can say is, LOL guys!

I don't know who is paying attention here and who isn't, but isn't part of the point of that book Brave New World that happiness isn't really what people want? I mean, if happiness were all we wanted, wouldn't we just pour our energies into creating happiness drugs with no side-effects, and then marketing them to one another with spam subject lines like "Canadia Farmacy, Get ur S@maa here!"

No one seems to be working on that project at all.

Anyway, with respect to the children question, I don't have any kids, and I suppose part of the reason I don't have any kids has to do with the fear of the unhappinesses and deprivations associated with child-rearing. But honestly, it's just a part. In some ways asking whether having children makes you happy just seems like the wrong question altogether.

The researchers sort of seemed to know this, and they admit in the Newsweek article that parents do feel increased "meaning of life" or something.

Maybe someone will bring this up at the happiness conference. Although at 1450 a pop, it's hard to imagine who will be at the happiness conference. We can imagine that, at any rate, poor people won't be the main thing on the attendee's minds.