Being good enough

When I think of where I’d like to be in five or ten years, in terms of my knowledge and my career, I don’t think of anything very specific. In fact, I’ve never really said to myself, “Above all else, I would like to become an expert on X or be a Y.” On the contrary, when I reflect on my life so far, I become aware of just how strongly I am guided by my desire to be “good enough”.

To be clear, this post isn’t an ode to mediocrity or laziness — though there’s much to say in favor of these — rather it’s a defense of the generalist in an era of specialists.

It’s a peculiar fact that we live in a world where so many work so hard to become specialized in ever narrower domains. This fact is often justified by the belief that our knowledge can only be expanded by a dedicated army working hard at the fringes. But while I think there’s some truth to this picture, particularly in certain domains, it’s incomplete. At the bottom, it’s perhaps a view of knowledge inspired by military invasion and conquest.

The second, often forgotten, means by which we expand our knowledge is synthesis. Paradigm shifts in areas of knowledge are not the product of minor changes at the outskirts of our knowledge, and therefore seem unlikely to be effected by hyper-specialists. Rather such “revolutions” consist in the refactoring of our knowledge, something that can only be performed by groups of people acquainted with necessary bits across several areas. People who are “good enough” in a variety of fields.

Scientists are not the only ones who can apply these lessons to their work. Virtually every domain of human inquiry has seen dramatic advancement over the past couple centuries. And as these domains advance, it’s becoming easier than ever to become “good enough” in many fields.

This last part may appear counterintuitive. If our knowledge has advanced over many years, how can it be that there is less to learn in order to become competent? Shouldn’t one have to learn more?

While the notion may be true enough for some fields, it seems to me that it’s completely false for most areas of inquiry. The growth in what we know doesn’t resemble the pouring of fluid into a bucket, but something more akin to completing a jigsaw puzzle. The vast majority of what we once believed is false, and no doubt much of what we “know” now is also false.

When we advance in our knowledge, we slash and burn the false knowledge that has accumulated, and leave open meadows that will one day become overrun with false knowledge yet again (though we hope there will also be some truth interspersed). This suggests that even the most brilliant minds are (and have always been) polluted with false knowledge. Naturally, all this occupies much of their efforts, and consumes much of their attention.

This seems a pessimistic take, but there’s reason to be optimistic. As human knowledge has progressed, we expect that the total quantity of false knowledge is steadily diminishing. And as such, there is somewhat less nonsense around to hamper one’s efforts.

As a consequence, being “good enough” today is quite different from what it was in the past. And the person who is “good enough” these days seems quite likely to have been regarded as a prodigy in the past.

It seems wasteful to not take advantage of our improved knowledge and our streamlined process of learning. With so much of the labor of knowledge performed for us, it seems one ought to spend twenty percent of their time to acquire eighty percent of the most essential knowledge in a field, and to do so in as many different fields as possible.

To become “good enough” across the board, to synthesize, and to discover.

Viva la MetaFilter

@ With the game of musical chairs taking place at Reddit, there has been new discussion about the many controversies involving Reddit, and the unsavory character of its community.

I don’t spend much time there. Partly because I’m not interested in what’s discussed for a given topic — it’s somewhat too LOL-centric for me — and partly because opinion is cheap.

I spend more time at MetaFilter, a community that’s been around since 1999, and is shockingly free of jerks. In my experience, the people there are polite, and the topics are unique. The discussion doesn’t surround memes and links that have circled around the web a million times over. There’s even a chance you might find something genuinely new and interesting.

Give MetaFilter a try, and if you like it, send them a few bucks.

Ideology is the enemy

@ In the course of answering how philosophy can make itself more relevant, Nancy Bauer writes:

Good philosophy of all stripes fosters in the practitioner the virtue of epistemic humility.

The best philosophy teachers are the ones who are able to model this virtue. They show their students, à la Socrates in at least the early Platonic dialogues, how the right kind of conversation can bring to consciousness the utter preposterousness of something that one has always taken for granted and then how to survive finding oneself turned around in one’s shoes. Epistemic humility sometimes takes the form of humbleness, but not always. It can be intensely empowering for people who have always assumed that the systematically poor way the world treats them is fundamentally the way they deserve to be treated.

The worst enemy of the best philosophy is ideology in all its forms. Philosophy at its best evinces deep skepticism about the stories powerful people and institutions tell about How Things Are. It models the virtues of not knowing what one thought one knew. The natural home of philosophy is in the agora, not the ivory tower. The question is whether the academy can bear to confront that truth.

Defend your privacy

Someone posed the question, “Should I live my life as if I am entitled to privacy?“, on MetaFilter. They mused:

Should I just give up on the idea that a normal person is entitled to privacy? Should I stop speaking my real thoughts? If I tell a friend privately that I thought some restaurant served bad food, should I be afraid of repercussions? And should a restaurant be afraid of what I say in a private conversation? How should we live our lives? How should I live mine?

Unfortunately, the responses in the thread seem pretty defeatist to me. Aside from someone offering mental health advice, here’s a few excerpts from the replies:

“If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” is really a good rule, for privacy reasons and other reasons.

Everyone is entitled to [privacy], and you should not have to live in fear that you will lose it.

When you deliberately share things with people, though, they can no longer safely be called private, particularly if you share them in a public place, which is ipso facto not private.

I try to never say something to one person that I wouldn’t want the world to hear.

In addition to defeatist, I think these replies are just profoundly sad. I’m not angry about it; I just feel sadness.

I can’t imagine what it must feel like to believe you can’t share intimate thoughts with anyone. To never say anything that leaves you vulnerable, or that you’re unsure about. It seems like a truly lonely way to live, and I think rejecting the notion is frankly necessary if you wish to live a full life.

What does it mean to say that you’re entitled to privacy, but that merely sharing with others is to relinquish that privacy? Doesn’t that amount to saying that the only privacy you can expect is the privacy of your own thoughts? Doesn’t seem very generous to me.

And don’t get me started on the if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all nonsense. No one has ever actually believed this. People have feelings — positive and otherwise — and no one succeeds in suppressing them in the end.

For my part, I try to be as honest as possible. I’d even say I aspire to radical honesty, even if I fail in this more often than I’d like to admit. And if something I think is unnecessarily hurtful to others, maybe I’ll work on how I think about things.

Like many people, I think we’re living in a time where our basic right to privacy is under attack. And what’s needed now more than ever is for us to assert and exercise this right. If someone invades your privacy, or betrays your confidence, stick to your guns. If it’s a significant offense, cut them out of your life, and protect yourself from losing a part of yourself and growing distrustful. And if someone mentions, or confronts you with, information that’s the result from an invasion of privacy, don’t acknowledge or concede it. Treat it as fruit of the poisonous tree, which it most assuredly is.

All this is hard to practice, but it’s always good to try. And retaining our privacy demands it.

The politicization of decency

Now that same-sex marriage is a simple fact, it has been interesting to observe the ways in which a vocal minority has rebelled against it. Over the years, the opposition has evolved from overtly hateful hysteria to paranoia of religious persecution. But there’s another approach, and it’s espoused by people who are perhaps more rational than the religious right, but fundamentally as hateful.

You find it in the strangest of places, and often in response to the support offered by some companies. As one example, the following comments appeared on an Apple fan site, after Apple released a video showcasing their participation in Pride:

Cue up the homophobes who don’t think Apple should get involved.

Thinking Apple shouldn’t be involved in political causes that don’t concern their business ≠ ‘homophobia’.

Such a response is the last vestige of a scoundrel.

The idea here is that an issue shouldn’t be discussed just because it makes someone uncomfortable. That it’s improper and impolite to acknowledge, and that certain topics ought to be swept under the rug for only the riff-raff to discuss. Or more precisely, it’s the suggestion that the content of discussion isn’t to be addressed or questioned, but rather the existence of discussion itself.

I happen to think there’s absolutely nothing “political” about same-sex marriage. Or at least, it’s certainly no more political than other kinds of marriage. True enough that there’s a political dimension to it, as well as most things, but claiming it’s intrinsically political is simply false. Similarly, I believe the saying that “the personal is political” is profoundly misleading. Things can be viewed in all kinds of ways, and suggesting that a civil rights issue is merely political undermines the topic as fodder for some game or merely an object of one’s preference.

Same-sex marriage, like other civil rights, isn’t like subscribing to a political party, nor is it like one’s beliefs on gun rights. Reasonable people can take reasonable positions on these matters, and reach different conclusions. However, if you oppose civil rights, you defy an ethical commitment that any decent person will make to another. It is to hold a reprehensible and antisocial position that should be attacked if we are to live in a society. No one should accept such backwards beliefs as inevitable in the sea of opinion. 

There ought to be no tolerance for intolerance. And if you assert a person’s identity is out-of-bounds, you’re intolerant. It’s that simple.

Religious freedom

Republican strategist, Ana Navarro, argues that religious freedom and the legality of same-sex marriage are compatible. She’s quick to compare her enlightened views to those of Democrats, an interesting strategy given the state of her party:

Unlike Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and so many other Americans, I didn’t evolve on the issue. I don’t remember a time in my life when I thought gay people were entitled to fewer rights than I was. I don’t think same-sex marriage is a threat to the institution. […]

I never saw a conflict between conservative values of less government intrusion and personal freedom and supporting marriage equality. There is no freedom more personal than deciding who to commit your life to. Government shouldn’t mandate whom we choose to love.

Of course, her views are not so strong to keep her from identifying with a backwards political party. Nor are they strong enough to survive religious claims:

The religious freedom battle is just beginning. There are decent people of good faith, people who are not bigots who have deeply held religious views against same-sex marriage. They legitimately feel their religious freedoms are at risk.

Some of these people are also my friends and relatives. My 74-year-old Nicaraguan Catholic father cannot get himself to accept same-sex marriage. God knows, I’ve tried.

I know my dad. It is not in his nature to discriminate against anybody — well, maybe with the exception of communists. My dad cannot get his arms around the idea of two men walking down the aisle. His views are shaped by his culture and guided by his religion.

I’m sad to say that it is in her father’s “nature to discriminate”, because he in fact discriminates. And that prejudiced people are, actually, bigots. Of course, one can always modify the language to suit their inclinations.

In a similarly Orwellian parlance, she also suggests that supporting civil rights should also entail supporting the rights of people to infringe on said rights when it’s convenient:

It is time for everyone to remember that tolerance is a two-way street. We must be respectful of people’s rights — that includes the right to marry who you choose, and also the right to practice the religion that you choose. These two rights can co-exist. […]

Our society is so politicized and polarized, reaching agreement can be hard to imagine. I urge both sides of this issue to take a deep breath and reflect on how we can live and respect each other’s freedoms, rights and beliefs.

Navarro suggests she’s among the enlightened fringe of her party, which is only true if one were to consider the likes of Ted Cruz or Bobby Jindal to represent mainstream Republican opinion (which I happen to believe is untrue). Rather, she more or less represents the so-called moderate Republican view: It’s clear the gays are running the show now, so let’s not discriminate against them overtly, but rather frame such discrimination as a religious prerogative, thereby painting those who support civil rights as discriminating against religion. It’s kind of pathological. Personally, I’d prefer an honest bigot over a slimy and deceitful one any day.

As for the argument itself, I have no reason to believe that same-sex marriage and religious freedom are either compatible or incompatible. That is, “religious freedom” is an incoherent notion that requires further explanation. The reason for this is simple. The notion of “religion” is poorly defined. If I were to start a cult in which my followers adhered to the principle that bashing people’s kneecaps was a sign of respect that had to be exercised fortnightly, would performing this act constitute an exercise of “religious freedom”?

What if my religion mandated the regular consumption of children? Embezzlement? Insurrection? Speed limit denialism?

It seems to me that there is no principled way by which one can distinguish such a hypothetical religion from whatever religion that Navarro is referring to. In each case, the religion plainly conflicts with law — and if we’re not all to be ruled by fringe beliefs, then this is unacceptable.

On the other hand, exercising religious freedom is compatible with civil rights, if one’s religion doesn’t provide for infringing upon said rights. Accordingly, “religious freedom” cannot be understood as absolute — but contingent upon not causing harm to others, or otherwise breaking the law, which is to be expected so long as joining some club shouldn’t give one carte blanche.

Those who are worried about their religious freedom might do well to reconsider their views on freedom generally, gaining some appreciation of the interaction between one’s personal freedom and the freedom of all those around them. Without a reasonable understanding of this interaction, society itself is surely impossible.

Same-sex marriage is even bigger than same-sex marriage

As the country celebrates today’s Supreme Court ruling, requiring states to permit same-sex marriage, it’s worth reflecting on its consequences. The obvious consequence is that same-sex couples nationwide will be permitted to exercise the same basic right as their peers, and enjoy the privileges and responsibilities of marriage.

But there are indirect consequences of the ruling as well. The ruling judicially legitimized a significant portion of non-traditional relationships and identities, and I believe will pave the road to enacting nationwide anti-discrimination measures for the benefit of such people, and for the moral development of all.

Throughout much of the debate surrounding same-sex marriage, opponents of marriage equality suggested that same-sex marriage would lead to the recognition of polygamy and other consensual, but non-traditional, arrangements. (They also compared it to certain non-consensual arrangements, but let’s set that aside for the moment.) For understandable political reasons, many supporters of same-sex marriage who also support other non-traditional relationships distanced themselves from the claim.

The truth is, I’ve always agreed with conservatives on this count. If for no other reason than that LGBT people are often more understanding and accepting of alternative kinds of relationships and identities. Their moral and emotional maturity in such matters will spread to the population generally, as folks begin to learn that sexual and romantic differences don’t necessarily yield the devil incarnate. If this is a fact to celebrate and not deny — as I believe — then it’s only a matter of time before trans, polyamorous, and other stigmatized people get their time in the sun.

Finally, I believe the ruling will bring a push to re-examine our beliefs about gender. I have always believed that a significant portion of homophobia consists not in the hatred of gay or bisexual people as such, but in the belief that men and women are not supposed to behave or appear in certain ways. The notions that men attracted to men are necessarily weak or unmanly, or that women attracted to women are all just pretending for the sake of male stimulation or social currency, are perhaps more closely connected to our beliefs about gender than homophobia, even if the two are often bedfellows.

Today’s ruling will tend to expand our ideas about our own gender identities and what they could be. And this is a profound thing that, in the longer term, could very well lead to a more gentle and reasonable society — across many different dimensions.

Same-sex marriage is important, but it’s only the beginning. And I think it’s a very good start.

Subsidizing health insurance upheld

@ The Supreme Court upheld a key provision of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) today — namely, the ability for the government to subsidize health insurance for individuals. In so doing, the Court forced Republicans opposed to such subsidization to find an alternative means to deny health insurance to some five million people, and consequently ensure the death of many. If the Democrats have any courage, they’ll drive home this point — which is polemical, scary, and simply true.

Of course, I’d prefer that we make health insurance companies irrelevant, and institute actual universal health care. However, it’s an obscenity to attempt to gut an imperfect bill, thus removing the lifeline of millions of Americans.

Selling the Confederate flag

A couple days ago, I shared a link regarding the present scandal involving the Confederate flag. In it, the author encourages us to “actively disrespect the banner that represents a pure form of human evil”, and regard it in much the same way as most of us regard the Nazi swastika. I completely agree with both points.

Unfortunately, several retailers — including eBay and Amazon — have responded by banning the sale of the Confederate flag. The Washington Post shared a list of similarly hateful goods that are still sold, despite this recent ban.

I won’t contest that the retailers are entirely within their rights to ban these goods. This seems obvious to me. However, this doesn’t mean they should. Moreover, I think doing so demonstrates profound contempt for basic principles of the free exchange of ideas. If we’ve learned anything from the Enlightenment, it should be that the free exchange of ideas (and symbols) should not be restricted. They should be fought with other ideas (and symbols).1

Everyone — or at least I believed everyone — is familiar with the line, “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it”. Forget about fighting to the death; there seems little interest in mounting a defense at all. Again, I appreciate we’re not talking about rights as such, but rather a kind of private censorship. Nevertheless the above quote, often attributed to Voltaire, is illuminating.

Rendering Confederate flags unavailable will not erase racism. We can be assured it won’t even make a dent. On the contrary, it is not unreasonable to expect some backlash, and even some increase in racist sentiment. People don’t like being told what to do. Moreover, we’re a paranoid country. And restricting the use or availability of symbols will be seen as “political correctness gone amok”. Sadly, it’s difficult for me to disagree with the assessment.

Again, removing symbols doesn’t influence sentiment. The concept of “racism” will be known to all, even if the flag goes away. This principle extends to other symbols which are commonly policed, much to the disadvantage of those who actually endure concrete oppression. This doesn’t mean the Confederate flag shouldn’t be removed from government property. On the contrary, it should be removed — just because it’s not what we should represent. But the removal of the flag from government property is rather different from regulating — even privately — the flag’s circulation in the public.

Why do I care? Because while removing the flag will not reduce racist sentiment, it can quite easily make us feel that we’ve done so. Many will look to this action by retailers as a kind of moral progress, while about 1 in 6 black men presently wither in prison. Fully thirty percent can expect to serve time at some point in their lives. Median wealth for black families is about seven percent of white families’. Not seven percent less, seven percent full stop. So much for moral progress.

You want to smash racism? Don’t make it more difficult to purchase racist symbols. Make people uninterested in purchasing them in the first place.

  1. If one disagrees, perhaps they should consider whether The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn should be removed from Amazon for its historically accurate use of language. Or whether Mein Kampf should be removed. Perhaps we ought to just forget about Hitler and other unpleasantries because contemplating them is painful or makes us sad. Once we’ve forgotten the past, we can be free to make the same errors again.

How to buy a toothbrush

@ On a Chipotle take-out bag, Aziz Ansari writes about the process of purchasing a toothbrush:

Every toothbrush I bought on a hunch has been fine. I’ve never been disappointed in a toothbrush. Why waste my time trying to find the best?  Have you ever run into someone with no teeth and asked, “What happened?” And they replied, “Bought the wrong toothbrush. Should have done more research.” […]

Maybe you just make confident decisions and feel great about them.

I actually really appreciate Chipotle’s practice of printing short essays on their paper bags. We don’t see enough philosophy — formal or not — in today’s culture. I’ve always found the pieces they’ve commissioned to be thoughtful and to have that spark of humor that’s so essential in the essay form.

I can’t say I agree with Ansari’s conclusion — forcing yourself to feel great and confident about your decisions, if that’s what he’s suggesting, seems narcissistic to me — but I’ve never before had strong intuitions when encountered with a take-out bag. And I thank him for that.

Supremely talented and deported

@ William Han spends a few thousand words explaining how “supremely talented” he is, and how unfair it is that he failed to receive U.S. citizenship:

In short, American immigration law hangs a Damocles’s sword over the heads of even the supremely talented among us, turning those heads prematurely white. Never mind the tired, the poor, or the huddled masses. When the rest of the world sends America its best and brightest, America says, “Go away.”

Interesting that he should consider the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses in an after-thought.

Although the immigration process is convoluted and unfair — and I largely agree with Han on this point — it seems to me that those are just the people that deserve citizenship the most. People with few opportunities in their native countries, and who won’t necessarily enjoy a life of luxury in the United States but at least survival.

As for Han, we can be reasonably sure that, despite his setback, he’ll do fairly well in that most primitive of countries, New Zealand. It’s only unfortunate that he couldn’t use his status to help those most especially in need.

Paying authors by the page

@ Amazon will soon be paying authors that offer their books on Kindle Unlimited or in the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library based on the number of pages that are actually read, rather than by the number of times their books are borrowed.

As Peter Wayner of the Atlantic notes, the policy may affect the content of the books offered:

For the many authors who publish directly through Amazon, the new model could warp the priorities of writing: A system with per-page payouts is a system that rewards cliffhangers and mysteries across all genres. It rewards anything that keeps people hooked, even if that means putting less of an emphasis on nuance and complexity.

The trouble here is that “cliffhangers and mysteries” are not suitable in every genre. Moreover, there are certain kinds of books — reference materials being an example — that will be doubly affected, as such material isn’t ordinarily to be read in full.

Consider also that non-fiction books that make extensive use of citations and resource materials may also be adversely affected, as readers commonly do not read such material, but for those that do they are often indispensable.

Apart from how books themselves may change, there is also reason to question the fairness of this program. While authors’ income will depend upon the “use” of their “product”, one wouldn’t expect — for example — appliance manufacturers to receive payment according to how often their products are actually used. Part of the reason involves the cost of materials, but it’s troubling to see abstract or intellectual works further devalued over material goods.

It’s also foreseeable that the author who writes more challenging material, and spends more time and energy doing so, will be rewarded less than the author who quickly churns out potboilers, self-help guides, and other work that’s both written and read with relative ease.

Special thanks to Boing Boing.