On optimism

@ I recently attended a discussion group on the topic of optimism. In it, we discussed the very real, and often substantial, general progess toward a more civilized and just world that vaguely accompanies the passage of time. When you look at rates of poverty, war, disease, murder, or illiteracy, you can see in broad strokes that humanity is becoming more humane (or less inhumane if you prefer). As Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

This is worth keeping in mind as an important and useful counterweight to our increasing awareness of the world around us, which includes an increasing awareness of human atriocities, and the feelings of hopelessness that often seem to come attached.

It’s tempting to read news or opinion and conclude the very worst about humanity. Judging from social media, it even seems to be in fashion. But no good can come from this. If we apply such a conclusion to ourselves, then we’re perhaps honest but will grow to despise ourselves. If we do not, then we’re hypocrites and will tend toward narcissism and dishonesty.

And so, challenging though it may be, it seems to me that the best course is to read broadly, and conclude from it absolutely nothing about humanity at large. Our view of humanity should follow from first principles, including hopefully our optimism. We should bring this to bear on our reading, and not allow the converse.

Should socialists eat brunch?

In Should socialists smoke good cigars? (1932), Bertrand Russell considers whether it is unethical to consume more than one’s share, if everything ought to be divided equally. Many would perhaps admit that it is unethical, but defy the principle anyway. However, Russell suggests it is not so clear.

If it were unethical to consume more than an equal share of the world’s income, then in order to live ethically, one would need to make do with about $10,000 per year. For many of those living in industrialized countries, this would be plainly impossible. So, if the principle holds, we’re left with the result that the majority of people in such countries are living unethically, and perhaps cannot do otherwise, including many of the very poorest in these countries.

Try to advocate for a more equitable world on that platform.

David Shaftel tries as he might in his Brunch is for Jerks, writing:

There’s something more malevolent at work than simply the proliferation of Hollandaise sauce that I suspect comes from a packet. Brunch has become the most visible symptom of a demographic shift that has taken place in our neighborhood and others like it. As rents have gone up, our area has become unaffordable to much of the middle class, and to young families who want more than two bedrooms — or can’t even afford one.

This leaves an increasing number of well-off young professionals who are unencumbered by children — exactly the kind of people who can fritter away Saturday, Sunday or both over a boozy brunch. Our once diverse neighborhood now brims with the homogeneity of an elite university.

Shaftel shows his concern for social justice by chastising those who have the resources to eat breakfast foods at lunchtime hours. Inequity is captured best by the endless stacks of starch and sugar that the Fortunate consume.

However, it would be a mistake to suggest that Shaftel’s disdain for pleasure is primarily motivated by his concern for social justice. He’s actually just feeling a little old:

For me, having a child — and perhaps the introspection that comes with turning 40 — made me realize what most vexes me about brunch: Once the domain of Easter Sunday, it has become a twice-weekly symbol of our culture’s increasing desire to reject adulthood. It’s about throwing out not only the established schedule but also the social conventions of our parents’ generation. It’s about reveling in the naughtiness of waking up late, having cocktails at breakfast and eggs all day. It’s the mealtime equivalent of a Jeff Koons sculpture1.

So before you eat brunch, if you won’t think of the poor, think of the children.

  1. If anything shows that one is of the people, it’s a reference to some controversy in the New York art world.

Comedians and truth

@ Jerry Seinfeld on advertisers at an awards ceremony for advertising:

I think spending your life trying to dupe innocent people out of hard-won earnings to buy useless, low quality, misrepresented items and services is an excellent use of your energy. Because a brief moment of happiness is pretty good.

Seinfeld has a real talent for observing human behavior, locating the absurdity that often underlies it, and distilling it in almost clinical terms. If an anthropologist from Mars landed on earth and studied us, their conclusions would probably be indistinguishable from Seinfeld’s. Our reaction to them, however, would be quite different.

After Seinfeld made the remarks, the audience — largely made up of advertising professionals — laughed uproariously. People don’t ordinarily laugh when someone expresses contempt for their being, unless that person is insane or a comedian.

I wonder what that means. Do we laugh because the truth makes us feel uncomfortable? Or do we laugh because we think comedians are harmless liars?

I think the latter would be a mistake. Many comedians seem to me our greatest truth-tellers.

The Herd of Independent Minds

@ From Harold Rosenberg’s essay, The Herd of Independent Minds (1948):

The mass-culture maker, who takes his start from the experience of others, is essentially a reflector of myths, and is without experience to communicate. To him man is an object seen from the outside. Indeed it could be demonstrated that the modern mass-culture élite [...] actually has less experience than the rest of humanity, less even than the consumers of its products.

To the professional of mass culture, knowledge is the knowledge of what is going on in other people; he alone trades his experience for the experience of experience. Everyone has met those culture-conscious “responsibles” who think a book or movie or magazine wonderful not because it illuminates or pleases them but because it tells “the people” what they “ought to know.”

I think the principle here extends beyond the mass-culture maker to include many mass-culture consumers. It’s a common sport to talk about what “the masses” think, feel, or do — often to the exclusion of what one’s self thinks, feels, or does.

Comments and chaos

@ Elizabeth Spiers touches upon comments in her return to personal blogging:

In the days before comments on blogs, you could generally have a thoughtful conversation online without everything degenerating into madness and chaos simply because responding to a post required that you wrote a post on your own blog and linked back. This created a certain level of default accountability because if someone wanted to flame you, they had to do it on their own real estate, and couldn’t just crap all over yours anonymously.

I’ve always thought comments are a losing proposition from both the perspective of the commenter and the blogger. The commenter consigns their thoughts to a third-party, as if blogs are scarce and hyperlinks expensive, and the blogger hosts a discussion that has practically no structure.

Spiers is right about flaming and the lack of accountability, but I’m equally irritated by the trivial utterances of assent that comments also bring. Blogging can help us enrich our connections to one another, and I think comments often cheapen these connections.

Political temperature

@ From Bertrand Russell’s Icarus, or The Future of Science (1924):

Some people think that we keep our rooms too hot for health, others that we keep them too cold. If this were a political question, one party would maintain that the best temperature is the absolute zero, the other that it is the melting point of iron. Those who maintained any intermediate position would be abused as timorous time-servers, concealed agents of the other side, men who ruined the enthusiasm of a sacred cause by tepid appeals to mere reason. Any man who had the courage to say that our rooms ought to be neither very hot nor very cold would be abused by both parties, and probably shot in No Man’s Land.

I think it’s also important to acknowledge a third kind of partisan. Namely, those who maintain the best temperature is a moderate temperature, not for reasons of comfort but solely because it is neither hot nor cold.

Making computers work for you

It’s been a little while since I’ve made computers actually work for me, rather than the converse, and I’ve been feeling increasingly manipulated by them (or more precisely, by many of those who program them).

That changes now.

Moving forward, I intend to be a lot more deliberate about what reaches my attention. The filters that social networks have constructed serve primarily their ends, not my own, so I will build new filters.

Just one simple filter: A few simple CSS rules that hide the Facebook home feed. Five seconds of work, and now Facebook works for me, as what I’ve always wanted it to be: A fairly dumb directory of my friends and interesting events. A way for me to find out what they’re up to, on my own time and when I’m interested.

That last bit might sound a little selfish, but I think it’s not. None of us have the unconditional right to forcibly take others’ attention, and I’m certain none of us intend to, but the addictive qualities of Facebook (in conjunction with the never-ending content) produce just that result.

Another filter: No notifications, except those that I deliberately choose. Each and every notification constitutes a minor encroachment on our lives. One every so often might not be a big deal, but if you live with the defaults, you’re going to get notifications constantly. This is emotionally draining.

If a person acted the way that many notifications do, you’d think they were being psychologically abusive.

Therefore, all notifications are off, except ones that map to genuinely urgent items. This includes synchronous communications for work, and certain emails, but nothing else. I won’t neglect these non-urgent things, but I will deal with them deliberately. I hope to restore some meaning to the word “urgent”.

I don’t think computers are intrinsically useful, but rather that we must make them useful. By being a little more conscious of their effects, and by using them actively and to my own ends, I think I will grow to like them again.

On bright red hair

I dyed my hair bright red last week.

I’m unaware of any conscious motive for my having done so, and believe I just did it on a whim. Despite this, I fully intend to maintain the color, as I think it suits me. Plus, it turns out that people are capable of expressing a wide variety of reactions to something so seemingly innocuous as bright red hair, and I confess that I’m interested to see just how many different reactions will continue to surface.

Most reactions were positive or neutral, but I was surprised by how many reactions indicated that people have some very strong intuitions concerning bright red hair.

Within a few hours of having adopted bright red hair, I was called various homophobic slurs on three separate occasions in an area of town that is imagined to be tolerant. While I thought such a reaction was possible, I didn’t exactly expect it, and certainly didn’t expect the accusations to be so frequent!

The other reactions I’ve experienced weren’t so aggressive. Many people simply gawked, while others took to explaining to their curious children that it was somehow rude to acknowledge my admittedly unconventional hair color. Other parents subtly distracted their children from gaping at my hair, as if to dissuade them from getting any wise ideas. (I have faith in these children.)

Of course, of all these reactions, I thought the young maniacs shouting homophobic slurs were the most interesting1. Briefly I wondered why they would believe that hair color would be any indication of one’s sexual predilection, but I think they wanted to say more than that. I think they wanted to talk about gender expression. They wanted to say that decent people are not supposed to have bright red hair, and boys that do are just a little too delicate.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve never put much stock in this notion of gender. As best as I can tell, the concept is used as a kind of proxy for a wide variety of complicated things: behavior, personality, interests, attitudes, and so on. Just as there is an INTP or ENJF, there are boys and girls and other genders too.

I don’t question that the concept may be useful or helpful in some circumstances for some people, but I am sure that it can also be quite harmful.

It seems to me that much of the enterprise of gender consists in inventing fictional kinds of people who are supposed to exhibit certain groupings of behavior, personality, interests, attitudes, and so on. Deviation outside certain acceptable ranges is answered with punishment, while conformity is met with approbation.

So, a boy with close-cropped hair is fine, but if the hair becomes a little too long (or a little too bright red), then there’s a problem. Just how great a problem it is depends partly on time and place.

Of course, all this is a very poor model of human identity and expression, and so when people invariably deviate from restrictive social norms, new terms will need to be coined to denote such people.

I think such terms may be useful for practical and political purposes; they can help such people find one another, and organize for common causes. However, ultimately, they’re probably pretty poor descriptors, and probably don’t capture some deeper reality.

Many people are much better acquainted with these issues than me, and face far more serious consequences for aspects of their persons that are much more important than hair color. But for my part, perhaps my bright red hair will serve as a helpful reminder.

  1. I think the fact that there are any reactions to bright red hair at all is interesting, and is probably a sign that we’re all a little more boring than we ought to be. Apparently, just as one may ignore the elephant in the room, one may pay significant attention to something as silly as hair!

The investigative mindset

@ Fellow Automattician Lance Willett on the investigative mindset:

Knowing where to look for answers is more important than memorizing a set of requirements or rules…

Rules and requirements change, and the context I work in is constantly changing. I’m more productive in my work by making good, informed decisions—not by the book. I can work smarter, gaining a new awareness of how everything works…

Often, the investigation takes me out of bounds—out of my “area”—that’s OK, and natural. I talk to other people outside my team, and I learn a bit more about how it all works together. I fill in the gaps in my knowledge. I’ve raised my awareness.

The investigative mindset is useful in many occupations, and is also indispensable in life outside work. It’s a shame that our schools offer only superficial training in this regard, instead opting to focus on its opposite: The assembly line mindset.

On buying a house

@ George Bernard Shaw wrote that “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world, [while] the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”1

In my first month as a homeowner, I’ve realized both the pleasures of fitting one’s environment to oneself, and the terrible pains of doing the same. Beyond pains, you soon realize that there’s something fundamentally unsound about your project, but that the alternative is probably even less tenable.

As the owner of an old house previously occupied by tenants, you have the privilege of restoring old wooden floors to their former state. Your confidence in your ability to manipulate objects in the physical world increases, as you remove white paint from planks that haven’t been touched since Kennedy was in office, only to refurbish wood that was around when Emily Dickinson was alive. In some way, you’re contributing to history.

At the end of the day, however, you’ve only changed the surface on which you walk. It’s not objectively very impressive.

Still, it’s your surface, and you will not compromise.

  1. Maxims for Revolutionists, Man and Superman (1903)