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.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

I Am A Culture Snob

I didn't set out to become a culture snob. It just sort of happened.

And I have to say, I'm the worst sort of culture snob: the kind who is not only snobby, but sort of proud of it.

I do try not to be too annoying in my actual behavior. But to be perfectly frank, it's sometimes hard to resist feeling that there's value to cultural snobbery: that the world is a better place with a few people in it who read Proust instead of A Year in Provence, or whatever that book was called.

Indeed, that is my sort of snobbery. I put some early effort into developing a taste for certain kinds of things, and that taste has left me bored, and annoyed, and irritated, with other, dumber things.

Let me be clear: I'm not a snob in the sense of preferring the "high-brow" to the common. I loved the Die Hard movies (um, except maybe I didn't see the last one?); I loved Pulp Fiction; I watch Flavor of Love at the gym, and I always read the daily comics in the paper.

Some trashy things are excellent.

But this is just another form of high standards and snobbery, I figure.

I was reflecting on these things over the past few days, because I had a few movie experiences. Toronto, where I live, has an amazing Cinemateque, which shows film series of all kinds of awesome things.

On Friday and Saturday I went to movies starring Marcello Mastroianni. The first was "Il bell'Antonio," which is about an attractive, wild young man who happens to fall madly in love with the girl his parents want him to marry. The second was "A Particular Day," which is about an attractive, somber older man who is in big trouble with the fascist party and spends a day with a thirty-something-and-quite-beautiful mother of six.

(The mother of six is played by Sophia Loren, and she looks lovely, and as the curtain went up, the guy next to me said out loud, "She was still pretty hot!" I know what he means, but jeez.)

These movies both seemed pretty much perfect to me. I mean, they were visually beautiful, with surprising, inventive plots, and interesting characters. Mostly, they managed to work both as "Ooh, ooh, it's a movie, look at that guy, and what's going to happen next?!" and as "Wow, that was a surprising and thoughtful treatment of something complicated I'd never thought about."

Tonight I went to see "WALL-E." I had high hopes: I went because I'd seen the preview, and read a review, and thought the movie seemed like it would be excellent. And it was inventive, and sweet, and reasonably fun to watch. My favorite thing was the visual portrayal of an Earth covered in trash. It was seriously freaky and interesting to see things like freeway on-ramps and megastore parking lots the way they would look after hundreds of years of neglect.

But to be honest, I was also bored. In between the cuteness and the futuristic aspect, the movie was just kind of boring to me. I kept feeling like it was taking up about half my attention.

And then I thought: that's what happens when you're a culture snob. An Italian drinking coffee uses up 95 percent of your attention; a starship hurtling through space with the Milky Way in the background, down around 45.

At least "WALL-E" made my snobbery seem sort of reasonable, insofar as the menace of the movie is lazy corporate types drinking giant sodas and lazing around on deck chairs. You sure got the impression everyone would have been better off trying to make their way through a couple of challenging French novels.

Which brings me back to why I don't feel so bad about my snobbery. Good things are good, right? I know not everyone has the time, mental energy, and habit required to deal with them, but isn't it good if someone does? I'm here, dudes, and willing. I'll keep the Proust flame alive.

Just don't make fun of me too much, and don't get all mad when I don't want to go see Mamma Mia. OK?

WALL-E would thank you, if he could. He's a kind of a wanna-be Proust reader, if not a literal Proust reader, it seems to me.