Friday, April 30, 2010

Feckless rebels

There's something cringe-inducingly lovable about them:

1. This is from the new Green Day musical, "American Idiot," quoted in the New York Times' glowing review:

“I held up my local convenience store to get a bus ticket,” Johnny says with a smirk as he and a pal head out of town.

“Actually I stole the money from my mom’s dresser.“

Beat.

“Actually she lent me the cash.“

2. Doug was probably the most enduring character on MTV's sketch comedy The State:



"I don't have a problem, that's my problem!"


(The State is available on DVD -- highly recommended.)

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Unpleasant research on unpleasant experiences

This New York Times blog post promises to tell us "Why Women Find Their Parents Unpleasant."

If you click the link, you'll see a graph with blue and pink bars showing how often men and women have "unpleasant" experiences with their bosses, co-workers, parents, spouses, children, and friends, and when alone (as a percentage of the total time spent in each of those situations). The researchers' term for these unpleasant experiences is the "U-index," which means how much of the time people report that they "feel more stressed, sad or in pain than they feel happy."

Catherine Rampell (the author of the blog post) sums up the findings:

It’s probably no surprise that people find spending time with their bosses . . . to be most unpleasant. Almost a third of the time that women spend around their bosses feels unpleasant; for men, nearly half of the time spent around supervisors is unpleasant. It’s also probably no surprise that hanging out with friends — the people we choose to spend time with — is least unpleasant.

For most of the categories, men and women report being in an unpleasant state about the same portion of the time. But the biggest divergences relate to spending time with family, and not in the way that stereotypes of feminine domestic bliss might predict: Women appear much less happy when spending time with their children and parents than men do.
Though these findings would seem not to be very flattering to women, Rampell cleverly spins them the other way:
[W]hen women are spending time with their children, they are more likely to be doing chores and handling child care, which can both be relatively stressful activities. When men spend time with their children, on the other hand, they spend relatively more time watching television and traveling — more leisurely activities.

The biggest gap relates to how men and women feel when spending time with their parents. When men are around their parents, they are in an unpleasant state about 7 percent of the time. Women find being around their parents to be unpleasant 27 percent of the time.

Again, some of this can be explained by what men versus women are likely to be doing when they’re with their parents. . . . [W]omen are more likely to be tasked with caring for their elderly or disabled parents than their male counterparts are.
So, Rampell seems to be following my mom's rule on how to research findings on gender:
[I]f you're going to explain gender difference, you've got to assume that whatever the women are doing is good, and it's the men who have the problem.
Can there be any doubt that if the research had instead showed that men find it unpleasant to be with their parents almost 4 times as often women, this would have been reported in the New York Times in a way that would (still) praise women and criticize men?

But I'll give Rampell credit for not just going with the above politically correct explanations. She emphasizes the study's finding that
[e]ven if you control for these different types of activities — that is, even when both genders are engaging in the exact same labors or pastimes with their kin — there are still "sizable differences in the U-index between men and women when they are in the company of their parents or children."
I honestly don't know what explains this. But here's one hypothesis by a NYT reader:
[M]others are more critical and demanding of their daughters, and fathers are more critical and demanding of their sons. Women tend to outlive men, so visiting ones parents is most likely to means "visiting one's widowed or divorced elderly mother" than some other scenario. That means more misery for the adult daughters than for adults sons.
UPDATE: Lots of responses in the comments over here.

"An Open Letter to My Artistic Potential"

"Dear Potential,

"Don't act surprised. You had to know this was coming. You were my first love and I'll always treasure what we had, but I'm getting older and it's time to be honest: this isn't going anywhere. . . . "

Monday, April 26, 2010

What should we learn from Hugo Tale-Yax, the homeless man in Queens who lay dying on the street while no one stopped to help?

This seems to be the feel-bad-about-humanity story of the moment:

Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax’s last act may have been helping a woman who was having an argument with another man last Sunday morning in Queens. But his last hour or so was spent as a curiosity for people passing him on the street as he lay face down in blood after being stabbed several times.

Mr. Tale-Yax, 31, was pronounced dead by medical workers who responded to a 911 call around 7:20 a.m. on April 18. The police confirmed the authenticity of surveillance video on The New York Post’s Web site that shows dozens of people walking by Mr. Tale-Yax, who was homeless, lying on the sidewalk at 144th Street and 88th Road in Jamaica. After more than an hour, the video shows one man shake Mr. Tale-Yax before turning him over to reveal the wounds.
This Metafilter thread about the story shows a wide range of different reactions. The standard response is that this is like the famous incident with Kitty Genovese, who was stabbed (also in Queens), and slowly died in public as many people failed to help. (I'd be remiss if I didn't note that this account has been seriously called into question.)

This supposedly shows the "bystander effect": people don't help someone in distress if there are many other people around. (Incidentally, this is at odds with the conventional wisdom that seemingly altruistic behavior is actually done out of a self-interested desire to appear benevolent: people are apparently more likely to be good Samaritans if there's no one watching.)

A related reaction is that the Tale-Yax incident is even worse than the Genovese incident:
For the first time in history, most of these people could have called 911 using an object in their pocket. Most people fundamentally suck. You've just got to try to be different.
Another reaction is: we shouldn't castigate the passers-by, because they probably had no idea what was going on. Tale-Yax probably just looked like an ordinary homeless person. Yes, he was lying in a pool of his own blood, but his body may have been covering up the blood. A Metafilter commenter elaborates on this:
I'm sorry, but when you are walking early in the morning and see a homeless man face-down on the sidewalk (a not-infrequent occurrence), you assume they are passed out drunk, because 90% of the time they are. You don't stop to see if they're okay, because that can turn into a dangerous situation if they awaken still intoxicated. I say this as a social worker who genuinely cares for the plight of the homeless and understands that the majority of the time their circumstances are caused by mental illness that they didn't have the resources to treat. But, I'm also a person who cares for her personal safety and lives in NYC and would likely have walked on by too, not assuming the worst.
It's also worth considering this commenter's experience:
I'm a woman, and I've been threatened by homeless dudes in various states of inebriation/mental confusion a few times in NYC. Just for walking too close/sharing a subway car. It's as terrifying as you expect, and pretty much removed my willingness to go up to homeless strangers and help them unasked.
But my favorite reaction is this one from another Metafilter commenter:
I guess the way to reconcile this is to say: the problem isn't that people walked on by without calling for help, and from this we can conclude that people suck; the problem is that it is so common and unremarkable to see human beings so totally destitute and outcast that they are, for all appearances, lying dead in the street, that when one of them actually is dead, because he has recently been murdered, nobody can tell the difference.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

We're all hypocrites.

"Homo hypocritus" is a model of human behavior proposed by Robin Hanson (on his blog, Overcoming Bias, which often has thought-provoking observations about the quirks of human thought and behavior).

As Hanson puts it, a "large fraction of modern behavior is explained by our evolved capacities and tendencies to pretend to do X while really doing Y."

He gives this example: "Forager norms cut overt Y of dominance, bragging, sub-coalitions." This would explain why political candidates habitually declare, "This is not about me!" By definition, a political campaign is about the candidate, and they surely know this. But they also know that admitting this would be against their interests.

Hypocrisy is so fundamental to human nature that I would suggest it's not very productive to try to seek out, expose, and shame those who are guilty of it. The taboo against hypocrisy leads people to come up with convoluted and unconvincing rationales for why, for instance, there's no inconsistency in being a vegetarian without being a vegan. The more useful approach would be to admit that there is an inconsistency but explain why it's preferable to other ways of eating/living that are also inconsistent. I imagine that a lot of benefits would result if it were more socially acceptable to admit that we're all hypocrites.

UPDATE: This post was "featured" on Brazen Careerist. In the comments section over there, Jamie Nacht Farell makes an ironic confession:

[H]ypocrisy is probably the one constant in my personality as I've changed through the years.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The cultural subtext on happiness

A blog post in Psychology Today bills itself as "10 Life-Enhancing Things You Can Do in Ten Minutes or Less." The intro tells us: "Here are ten things you can do in ten minutes or less that will have a positive emotional effect on you and those you love."

3 of the 10 items tell you to do something with "your mate":

Spend a little while watching the sunset with your mate. . . .

Write a thank you note to your mate. . . .

Go to bed with the one you love ten minutes earlier than usual. . . . Let the feeling of warmth from your mate move through you.
Here's my tip for being happy: don't read blog posts that implicitly tell you you need to be in a relationship to be happy.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Highlights of this blog

Whether you're new to the blog and would like to get a general overview, or you're a loyal reader and feel like rummaging through the archives, I recommend clicking on any of these links that jump out at you. These are in reverse-chronological order.

77. If people are bad at deciding what's best for themselves, is government the solution?

76. The "acting alone" fallacy

75. Live-blogging the general-election debates: Obama vs. Romney #1, Biden vs. Ryan, Obama vs. Romney #2, Obama vs. Romney #3, Johnson vs. Stein

74. Live-blogging most of the Republican presidential primary debates: #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, #7, #8, #9, #10, #11, #12, #13, #14

73. Thoughts on playing sad songs and easy guitar parts

72. "Who's in charge — you or your brain?"

71. The fundamental difference in how liberals and conservatives think of themselves

70. 2 surprising pay gaps

69. Is it effective to argue that homosexuality "isn't a choice"?

68. Is throwing a pie in the face of an unsuspecting victim ever a good idea?

67. Is the death penalty "racist"?

66. How much of a problem is it that you don't have enough time in your whole life to become "reasonably well-read"?

64. Scheduling life

63. The top 10 greatest classical composers of all time

62. Professor Robert Summers of Cornell Law School

61. Blogger of the Day (ongoing series)

60. The view of computers from 1982 and the view of photography from 1859

59. What is the atheist / secular humanist / free thought community missing?

58. Did the journalists who reported on the Koran burning threat understand what they were doing?

57. How to use "What would I regret the most?" to make life decisions

56. What were the earliest hints of the internet as we know it?

55. Unemployed vs. single

54. Men and women earn more money if they're tall and attractive

53. Getting it wrong -- language and more

52. We're all hypocrites.

51. Influential books — post 1, post 2, post 3

50. Why politics and policy are less important than music and art

49. Redistributive tipping

48. 6 ways blogs are better than books

47. An atheist finds "comfort" in thinking of death.

46. The 100 best songs of the first decade of the 2000s

45. Penelope Trunk's Twitter post about miscarriage and abortion

44. The movie scene I think of every time I hear the "brilliant filmmaker" defense of Roman Polanski

43. Is "loser" a male noun?

42. Is it morally wrong to care too much for your children?

41. How was The State so funny?

40. Kant's categorical imperative vs. the golden rule

39. Do the top 1% of Americans pay their fair share of taxes?

38. Robert Wright's self-contradictory attack on the "new atheists"

37. The 2 most overused chord progressions in pop music

36. What news is the American media worst at covering?

35. 17 online dating profile cliches that women should avoid

34. Abortion rights and quality of life

33. "What are the simple concepts that have most helped you understand the world?"

32. Can you give a neurological or evolutionary explanation of love without debunking the whole idea of love?

31. Joe the Plumber's hate-the-sin-love-the-sinner homophobia

30. Does music describe things?

29. Charles Krauthammer on torture and the ticking time bomb hypo

28. Do women earn less money than men for equal work?

27. Blogs vs. "continuous eloquence"

26. Do tobacco taxes unfairly burden the poor?

25. 15 rules of blogging for myself

24. David Brooks on moral reasoning vs. moral instincts

23. The problem of evil — post 1, post 2

22. What Katha Pollitt doesn't get about Ross Douthat's sexual conservatism

21. Haydn's brilliant blandness

20. Is economic stimulus an enemy of the environment?

19. Michel Petrucciani (1962-1999)

18. Keeping an open mind on the mind-body problem — post 1, post 2, post 3

17. The case against adjectives

16. What's so bad about product placement?

15. The philosopher paradox

14. Two kinds of careers

13. IM on fatalism and time, ideas and plain language

12. The fake skinny women contest

11. The top 120 moments on the path to the White House — post 1post 2post 3post 4

10. Live-blogging the 2008 debates — 1st presidential debatevice-presidential debate2nd presidential debate3rd presidential debate

9. Imogen Heap — Beauty in the breakdown

8. "Do you see what's happening?"

7. The 40 greatest grunge songs

6. Vignette of an unmade argument

5. How to write a New York Times article to make it seem like women work harder than men

4. Thank you, Tim Russert (1950-2008)

3. What are the disadvantages of being male?

2. The death penalty: Does it saves lives, and if so, should liberals support it? — post 1, post 2, post 3, post 4

1. First post


Montmartre

(Photo by me.)

Is the "tax burden" on the wealthy rising or falling?

New York Times columnist David Leonhardt explains why the burden is falling, and why people have trouble agreeing on this.

He seems to have read my blog post from last year.

Friday, April 16, 2010

My favorite quotes by other people on this blog

It's been a year since I did the first quotes post, so here's an update. For the sake of readability, I've removed all formatting (italics, etc.) and alterations (ellipses and brackets). If you happen to need a more exact quote, just click the link on the person's name and look for the quote in the original post.


LIFE

"If there is no reason to believe that anything matters, then that does not matter either, and we can approach our absurd lives with irony instead of heroism or despair." -- Thomas Nagel

"Don't confuse simple, reasonable honesty with radical silliness. There is no reason to try to articulate blurry feelings or over-explain every detail. The point is to be honest instead of internalizing, not to try to extract juicy confessionals out of everyday life." -- Summer Anne Burton

"My friends tell me that I have a tendency to point out problems without offering solutions, but they never tell me what I should do about it." -- Daniel Gilbert


WORK

"One of the worst pieces of career advice that I bet each of you has not only gotten but given is to 'do what you love.' If you tell yourself that your job has to be something you'd do even if you didn't get paid, you'll be looking for a long time. Maybe forever. So why set that standard? The reward for doing a job is contributing to something larger than you are, participating in society, and being valued in the form of money. -- Penelope Trunk

"Very few men can be genuinely happy in a life involving continual self-assertion against the skepticism of the mass of mankind, unless they can shut themselves up in a coterie and forget the cold outer world. The man of science has no need of a coterie, since he is thought well of by everybody except his colleagues. The artist, on the contrary, is in the painful situation of having to choose between being despised and being despicable." -- Bertrand Russell

"I labored long and hard to try to tell these college students -- some kid would get shot down by the police in New York City, or chased to his death on a highway by a racist mob in Howard Beach. And they would say, 'We're a racist America!' They'd be at Vassar College talking about a 'racist America.' And I would say, 'You're at Vassar College! The world is your oyster! There's nothing you can't do! Learn Chinese, you idiot!'" -- Glenn Loury


THOUGHT

"We have grown terribly -- if somewhat hypocritically -- weary of larger truths. The smarter and more intellectual we count ourselves, the more adamantly we insist that there is no such thing as truth, no such thing as general human experience, that everything is plural and relative and therefore undiscussable. Today’s essayists need to be emboldened, and to embolden one another, to move away from timid autobiographical anecdote and to embrace -- as their predecessors did -- big theories, useful verities, daring pronouncements. We must rehabilitate the notion of truth -- however provisional it might be." -- Cristina Nehring

"Is Mount Everest more 'real' than New York? I mean, isn't New York 'real'? I think if you could become fully aware of what existed in the cigar store next door to this restaurant, I think it would just blow your brains out! I mean, isn't there just as much reality to be perceived in the cigar store as there is on Mount Everest? You see, I think that not only is there nothing more real about Mount Everest, I think there's nothing that different." -- Wallace Shawn

"If people can't think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then all other things being equal, the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible." -- Paul Graham


DOUBT

"It is an odd fact of evolution that we are the only species on Earth capable of creating science and philosophy. There easily could have been another species with some scientific talent, say that of the average human ten-year-old, but not as much as adult humans have; or one that is better than us at physics but worse at biology; or one that is better than us at everything. If there were such creatures all around us, I think we would be more willing to concede that human scientific intelligence might be limited in certain respects." -- Colin McGinn

“Instead of explaining why this recession (or depression) is just like the others, we should attend to what is new and especially problematic about the current downturn and why it may not respond to policies modeled on avoiding the errors of the past. To speak of a crisis of financial epistemology may sound abstract, but it has had very concrete and disastrous consequences.” -- Jeffrey Z. Muller

"Scientific psychology becomes unscientific because it is dealing with mind, and mind does not lend itself to experimental precision." Norman N. Holland

"And this is the point in which I think I am superior to men in general, and in which I might perhaps fancy myself wiser than other men -- that whereas I know but little of the world below, I do not suppose that I know." -- Socrates


ENVIRONMENT

"On the one hand, we are told that our overconsumption is polluting and cluttering up the earth with garbage, using up resources and showing insensitivity to all the needy people in the world. On the other hand, we are told that until we start buying more goods and services, the economy will be in the dumps and we will leave many of our fellow citizens jobless, homeless and hungry. Something is wrong with that picture." -- Ina Aronow

"You might declare that global warming and energy insecurity, not to mention urban sprawl and pollution, have intensified the sin of indulging one's motoring desires. And I would not argue with that point. You're right. I am a bad man. But over the long term, if you want to develop a new transportation and energy policy, you'd probably want to err on the side of assuming that people won't change much. And it is human nature to like to be empowered." -- Joel Achenbach

"Can environmentalism be bad for the environment?" -- Edward L. Glaeser


SCIENCE

"It is this claim to a monopoly of meaning, rather than any special scientific doctrine, that makes science and religion look like competitors today. Scientism emerged not as the conclusion of scientific argument but as a chosen element in a worldview -- a vision that attracted people by its contrast with what went before -- which is, of course, how people very often do make such decisions, even ones that they afterwards call scientific." -- Mary Midgley

"If a psychological Maxwell devises a general theory of mind, he may make it possible for a psychological Einstein to follow with a theory that the mental and the physical are really the same. But this could happen only at the end of a process which began with the recognition that the mental is something completely different from the physical world as we have come to know it through a certain highly successful form of detached objective understanding. Only if the uniqueness of the mental is recognized will concepts and theories be devised especially for the purpose of understanding it." -- Thomas Nagel


HUMAN NATURE

"The science of happiness barely grasps the things that the average sage of antiquity took as fundamental. The fundamental error of the science - and the reason why so many of its recommendations sound trivial or just confused - is the assumption that happiness is the same as positive emotion. Researchers are continuously drawn back to this idea since it makes happiness measurable." -- Mark Vernon

"We're all puppets, and our best hope for even partial liberation is to try to decipher the logic of the puppeteer. Just because natural selection created us doesn't mean we have to slavishly follow its peculiar agenda. (If anything, we might be tempted to spite it for all the ridiculous baggage it's saddled us with.)" -- Robert Wright


SOCIETY

"Violence has been in decline over long stretches of history, and today we are probably living in the most peaceful moment of our species' time on earth. Cruelty as entertainment, human sacrifice to indulge superstition, slavery as a labor-saving device, conquest as the mission statement of government, genocide as a means of acquiring real estate, torture and mutilation as routine punishment, the death penalty for misdemeanors and differences of opinion, assassination as the mechanism of political succession, rape as the spoils of war, pogroms as outlets for frustration, homicide as the major form of conflict resolution -- all were unexceptionable features of life for most of human history. But, today, they are rare to nonexistent in the West, far less common elsewhere than they used to be, concealed when they do occur, and widely condemned when they are brought to light." -- Steven Pinker

"What if everyone followed this Larger Meaning Doctrine? Something happens to an individual, and he could drop it or apologize or look into the particular details of the case, but instead he insists that his experience should represent some big problem in the world that people ought to be concerned about, that his case should be the jumping off point for something much more general, so that his problem isn't wasted but yields Larger Meaning for us all. Imagine how annoying that would be! And now think about how you'd react if these Larger Meaning adherents also topped off their demands by declaring 'this is not about me.'" -- Ann Althouse


MUSIC

"This whole problem can be stated quite simply by asking, 'Is there a meaning to music?' My answer to that would be, 'Yes.' And "Can you state in so many words what the meaning is?" My answer to that would be, 'No.' Therein lies the difficulty. Simple-minded souls will never be satisfied with the answer to the second of these questions." -- Aaron Copland


WRITING

"I am now part of the conspiracy to intentionally make simple ideas obscure and complex." -- David R. Hakes

"Complexity and obscurity have professional value -- they are the academic equivalents of apprenticeship rules in the building trades. They exclude the outsiders, keep down the competition, preserve the image of a privileged or priestly class. The man who makes things clear is a scab. He is criticized less for his clarity than for his treachery." -- John Kenneth Galbraith

"Continuous eloquence wearies. Grandeur must be abandoned to be appreciated." - Blaise Pascal


MEDIA

"People who have a lot of ideas need a blog, not a book. A blog is more immediate, so you’ll get better feedback. And getting feedback as you go is much more intellectually rigorous than printing a final compendium of your ideas and getting feedback from the public only when it's too late to change anything." -- Penelope Trunk

"Book publishers mostly rely on their authors to ensure accuracy; dedicated fact-checking departments now rarely exist except at some magazines. The New Yorker’s checkers are justly renowned for their tenacious scepticism, but even they err sometimes. One reader was annoyed to find himself described as dead, and requested a correction in the next issue. Unfortunately, by the time the correction appeared, he really had died, thus compounding the error. This tale illustrates not only the drawbacks of printed media, but also the role that readers can play in overcoming them -- even if things did not quite work out in this instance." — Anthony Gottlieb

"It was deeply disturbing, but not terribly surprising, to learn that under the guidance of a stern man in a lab coat, ordinary people would torture innocent victims in the infamous Milgram experiment carried out at Yale University. Cronkite was a white man in a tie, with a calm, reassuring voice, and he could have talked us into almost anything, if he wanted to. But his legacy is a paradox: We trusted him to teach us to trust less. The nostalgia for Cronkite is nostalgia not for a lost golden age, but for a brief time when three large media corporations held a monopoly on the airwaves, when trust could be sorted out easily and quickly with the shorthand of race, class and education." -- Philip Kennicott


GOVERNMENT

“Something that’s unsustainable, like a dysfunctional relationship, can go on longer than you expect, and then end faster and messier than you think.” -- Peter Orszag

"The confidentiality of the judicial process would not matter greatly to an understanding and evaluation of the legal system if the consequences of judicial behavior could be readily determined. If you can determine the ripeness of a cantaloupe by squeezing or smelling it, you don't have to worry about the produce clerk's mental processes." -- Richard Posner

"I am mindful of the words of President Eisenhower, who – in discussing our national security – said, 'Each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration: the need to maintain balance in and among national programs.' Over the past several years, we have lost that balance, and failed to appreciate the connection between our national security and our economy. We simply cannot afford to ignore the price of these wars." -- President Obama

"The aughts were ruined by not letting good crises go to waste." -- Will Wilkinson


GENDER

"No matter how bad things get for boys/men, well, they're men, so they can look after themselves. Women, on the other hand, need a Presidential Council to make sure they're doing all right, even if by many metrics they are outperforming men." -- Sofa King

"[quoting this New York Times article:] 'Women's desire is dominated by yearnings of self-love, by the wish to be the object of erotic admiration and sexual need.' A lot of feminist writing would say that the culture has oppressed women by presenting them as the object of male desire. What if that originates in the woman? Well, that would shake the foundations of feminism!" -- Ann Althouse

"From the moment of conception on, men are less likely to survive than women. It's not just that men take on greater risks and pursue more hazardous vocations than women. There are poorly understood -- and underappreciated -- vulnerabilities inherent in men's genetic and hormonal makeup." -- Marianne J. Legato

"It’s too bad that one side of teaching our children about sex and relationships means reminding them that there are bad people in the world; stay away from them, stay safe, speak up if someone hurts you or pushes you. But everyone needs that information, and that promise of adult support. We have to get that message across without defining some of our children as obvious perpetrators and others as obvious victims, because that insults everyone." -- Perri Klass


SEXUAL ORIENTATION

"I think the institution would be strengthened by the inclusion of more couples who are genuinely committed to each other. But even if you believe marriage would be changed for the worse by same sex unions, I'm not sure it's a compelling argument for their exclusion. We don't forbid divorce, a more proven and prevalent threat to the health of our society." -- Steve Schmidt


RELIGION

"Every religion I know of has changed its views with respect to concrete controversies over long periods of time. People's views about the morality of homosexuality are likely to undergo some change, even though they're making judgments based on their religious beliefs. Because in fact, religion is an extremely durable, and yet flexible, way of trying to apprehend what's good and what's bad in the world. In fact, its durability comes from its flexibility. Now, speaking from inside a religion, it's hard to talk that way." -- Jack Balkin

- "Is life in general more rewarding if you are spiritual, and a real believer? Does someone who truly believes that God is watching my every step, God is taking care of me, whatever happens to me is somehow approved by or helped by God, does that person live a richer, fuller life than someone who thinks: we're on our own here?"
- "It depends on your specific conception of God, because belief can equally well leave you with this constant sense that you're coming up short and you're being judged and you're not doing quite the perfect thing. You know, I was brought up very religiously, and I never totally lost that sense, you know, that I'm screwing up." -- Joel Achenbach and Robert Wright

"How can it be Heaven if our families aren't there?" -- Greta Christina


ANIMALS

"I'm not a vegetarian. Now, don't get me wrong — I like animals. And I don't think it's just fine to industrialize their production and to churn them out like they were wrenches. But there's no way to treat animals well when you're killing 10 billion of them a year. Kindness might just be a bit of a red herring. Let's get the numbers of animals we're killing for eating down, and then we'll worry about being nice to the ones that are left." — Mark Bittman

"Yes, dogs are intelligent, feeling beings, but so are pigs, cows and chickens. Properly cooked, dog meat is as healthy and nutritious as any other meat. It is also said to be delicious. In fact, since many people now advocate eating locally produced food and stray dogs are killed in their thousands in most big cities every year, dogs are the ideal local meat." -- Peter Singer

"If you eat meat, something like that is going on in the background for you too." -- Ann Althouse


HEALTH CARE

"Whether, in the aggregate, society making those decisions to give my grandmother, or everybody else’s aging grandparents or parents, a hip replacement when they’re terminally ill is a sustainable model, is a very difficult question. I think that there is going to have to be a conversation that is guided by doctors, scientists, ethicists. And then there is going to have to be a very difficult democratic conversation that takes place." -- President Barack Obama

"We're traveling down the route of Europe. And many Americans just hate that idea. If you're in any group of conservatives, and you say, 'Oh, that will take us down the route of Europe,' they will say, 'Oh no, we don't want to do that! That's awful!' Nobody ever explains what's so terrible about Europe." -- Bruce Bartlett


RIGHT and WRONG

"Good and evil, right and wrong, were invented for the ordinary, average man -- the inferior man, because he needs them." -- John Dall

"We are vulnerable, but we don't want to be reminded of that. We want to believe that the world is understandable and controllable and unthreatening, that if we follow the rules, we'll be okay. So, when this kind of thing happens to other people, we need to put them in a different category from us. We don't want to resemble them, and the fact that we might is too terrifying to deal with. So, they have to be monsters." -- Ed Hickling

"Those subject to capital punishment are real human beings, with their own backgrounds and narratives. By contrast, those whose lives are or might be saved by virtue of capital punishment are mere 'statistical people.' They are both nameless and faceless, and their deaths are far less likely to be considered in moral deliberations." -- Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule

"Each act of cruelty is eternally a part of the universe; nothing that happens later can make that act good rather than bad, or can confer perfection on the whole of which it is a part." -- Bertrand Russell

"If their characters find they are superior to many people, well, maybe they are." -- Roger Ebert


ART and LIFE

"Those that treated political, social or historical levels of explanation as fundamental now seemed to me to be treating externals and surfaces as if they were foundations, and to be superficial and point-missing. Marxism had a complete explanation of the arts in terms of political power, economic interests and social classes, and this seemed to me a grotesque attempt to explain the greater in terms of the less." -- Bryan Magee

"The devaluing of the visual goes along with the theory that there is no such thing as quality, i.e., good versus bad [art], a theory that inevitably comes to parody itself as a prejudice against the beautiful." -- Richard Lawrence Cohen

"'He was in pain all the time,' recalled his father. 'He cried. I bought him a toy piano.' The keyboard looked like a mouth to Michel, and he thought it was laughing at him, so he smashed it with a toy hammer, and his father got him an old full-size upright abandoned by British soldiers at a military base. -- David Hadju, quoting Tony Petrucciani


BLOGGING and LIFE

"So that's what's sad about not eating. The loss of dining, not the loss of food. It may be personal, but for, unless I'm alone, it doesn't involve dinner if it doesn't involve talking. The food and drink I can do without easily. The jokes, gossip, laughs, arguments and shared memories I miss. Maybe that's why I enjoy this blog. You don't realize it, but we're at dinner right now." -- Roger Ebert

"And if I told myself that I would have something interesting to blog about, that I had something to look forward to, and that I still had something to write, then there was absolutely no reason to die." -- Zachary Paul Sire

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The conservative case against higher taxes on the rich

Pithily taken down by Jon Chait.

The Library of Congress is going to "archive the collected works of Twitter."

We're going to record "the second-by-second history of ordinary people."

That NYT article makes this important point (which it attributes to unnamed academics):

For hundreds of years, . . . the historical record has tended to be somewhat elitist because of its selectivity. In books, magazines and newspapers, . . . it is the prominent and the infamous who are written about most frequently.
I've been critical of Twitter. But I only wish we had this kind of access to random people's fleeting thoughts from 50, 100, 200 years ago.

On the other hand, most tweets surely aren't very interesting. It's hard to imagine that more than 10% are worth going back and reading even a year later. But the Library of Congress is apparently archiving all tweets. This seems bizarrely undiscriminating for such an august institution.

Now, sifting through the 55 million tweets per day (!) would be an enormous task, so I'm not surprised they don't bother to do that. But couldn't they come up with an algorithm that would automate the process of distilling the whole archive into something with more overall value? For instance, they could have a rule that they only archive tweets that have garnered a certain number of "favorites."

Lastly, this is disturbing:
[T]he vast majority of Twitter messages that would be archived are publicly published on the Web.
"The vast majority"? You mean some of the posts that will be stored in the Library of Congress will be from posts that were never publicly published — that is, from "locked" accounts? How is that not a flagrant violation of privacy?

Short URL for this post: goo.gl/pEOuV

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

What people have said about this blog

Just for fun, here's a selection of responses this blog has gotten in the two years since I started it (comments without links are from either emails or defunct links):

"I learn at least one thing new every time I visit."

"My goodness. A tremendous, very well written, passionate post. . . . I'm glad I was able to read it. Wow."

"Of those live-blogs I read, this is one of the more thoughtful, eclectic, real-time following of last night’s debate."

"What a nice piece of Live-blogging, thank you very much . . . I appreciate your acute comments, being overseas and too tired to stay awake to watch, I have a very sensible idea of what went on last night."

"John's post about gender rules and the disadvantages of being a man prompted me to stay up wayyyyyy too late last night reading and thinking about the topic . . ."

“I got to number three or four or five and ended up wandering off into random spaces in history, fixing Wikipedia articles (with minutes old knowledge) and having a blast. Thanks! This is what the internet is for.”

“Hey, that blog you linked to is great. The series on grunge was fantastic.”

"What this is about is nothing more than self-centered, me-first, half-assed, infantile analysis."

“I love you for writing this post. It was so thoughtful and thought provoking and perhaps you have just touched the tip of the iceberg.”

"John Althouse Cohen says, better than I ever could, why Tim Russert was so important and why he will be so missed."

"Kind of long-winded and waffley."

“A fascinating argument”

"As always, love your stuff."

"Just wanted to let you know that I explored your posts, and your links.... Please keep up the great work."

“Cohen’s posts are well written, thoughtful, and provocative. Highly recommended.”

"John, your premise has all the makings of a serious book on the topic, not some jumped-up Dr. Phil exploration, and I wish you luck should you delve further into it."

"John, whose list of the best songs of the 2000s is probably better than mine . . ."

"How fortunate that my favorite blogger should also turn out to be my son! And how fortunate that even if I didn’t know John, I’d respect and admire his rigorous intellect and forceful prose."

"Your son's Blog is very well done. He has a sensitivity to the limits of men knowing Truth together with a courage to push those limits in many areas."

"JAC’s comment is hardly unique on the left and it is a categorical, dictionary definition of racist."

"Lovely little bittersweet blogposting from him."

"I can relate to your post, & found it very touching. & I'm not easily moved"

"The blog entry strikes me as one of those things someone writes in the heat of a sentimental moment."

"What a beautiful post."

"I thought that was a lovely, poignant post and remarkably insightful for someone who's commenting upon his own [ex-]relationship."

"JAC's comments sound like the usual half-truth ramblings of the clueless beta male."

“John Althouse Cohen is awesome. (And not just because he quoted me! His whole blog is great.)”

"Son of prominent blogger Ann Althouse – runs a pretty damn good blog, himself..."

"It's written by Althouse's son, which should be reason enough to check it out, but the guy is a good thinker, and a good writer, on his own account. JAC and I don't agree (he will be voting for Obama), but from what I've read of his blog, he's a sane voice, as I hope to be. He doesn't write exclusively about politics, but a good and necessary part of politics writing (for me at least) is a reminder that the other side of the aisle contains real people too."

"Who the ---- is Ann Althouse's son and why the hell do I give a ---- what he thinks?"

"Hey there, this is my first time here, and let me say what a thoughtful and well written article that was. Outstanding! . . . You are a brave person, perhaps braver than you realized, and I wish you well on your journey."

"John Althouse Cohen puts in another application to Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations . . . ."

"Thanks for your thoughtful and enjoyable post. Now I'd like to see the movie . . . "

"I've long been bemused by how easily impressed people are by brain scans. That every state of mind is paired with something going on physically in the brain was known in principle long before anyone was able to capture pretty pictures of it. Excellent post, JAC."

"I hope that the people who translate feminism into just being a movement to protect women are a very small group. I can only speak for myself when I say that my idea of feminism is that it gives attention to the ways that gender defines us and the ways that society forms that gender translation. A wise professor once talked about the Marlboro man and how that man had never learned to express or communicate or be intimate. It was an eye-opener for me, and I was ever so thankful for it. This was a great piece to read and remind me how fragile we all are, how kindly we should look on one another and how different the world could be with just a bit more attention to the how's and why's of our actions."

"I want you to know that you have me thinking a LOT more about the role of young men in today's American society. . . . It was really your post and the corresponding links and commentary around the internet that now has me standing back and THINKING instead of REACTING to this topic. Thank you for that."

"I have tried to blog, but I so lack your focus and tenacity. You have done well, I would buy you a beer and toast you if I could. Carry on!"
And I will.

Thank you, all of you.

Well, almost all of you.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Colonialism's legacy isn't the most important thing holding Africa back.

So says Nicholas Kristof.

It's very easy to invoke "colonialism" as the root cause of anything that goes wrong in Africa. (An example is the fifth comment in this Metafilter thread about the article on African "un-wars" that I blogged the other day.) I say this is easy because it almost always sounds plausible, and you can make the assertion without knowing much beyond the general fact that there was a lot of colonialism in Africa. Not many people will defend colonialism, and that's fine with me -- but I don't think it's fine to use it as a convenient scapegoat for all the current-day problems in an entire continent. Kristof supports his conclusion by taking a reasoned looked at the actual evidence from developing nations that experienced heavy, light, or no colonialism. Anyone who wants to opine on the effects of colonialism should first look at Kristof's fact-based reasoning.

Although placing all the blame on outsiders who did wrong in the past might feel like a righteously perceptive outlook, this can't be the key to future progress. It's similar to turning every discussion of race in America back to slavery. While it is important to recognize that slavery (aside from its inherent evil) had deleterious consequences that are still with us, it's counterproductive to place all the blame on slavery. If you send a message that a group of people is persistently held back by things someone else did in the distant past, you're denying the current-day people their own agency and capability to solve problems for the future.

What I don't understand about Kristof's blog post, though, is why he doesn't link to his own vividly reported column about a household in Zimbabwe, which that blog post is based on. (See how easy this linking thing is?) You can find the link somewhere on the page, but it's buried deep in the right-hand sidebar. (And I've found by observing the behavior of blog readers that people rarely look at the sidebar.) Basic blogging practices dictate that if your blog post begins, "In my Sunday column . . . ," you need to link to that column. Kristof writes a New York Times blog and has an active Twitter page; surely he's blog-savvy enough to know how to do this, or he has staffers who are supposed to do it for him.

By the way, Kristof notes in that column that the leader of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, "subjects journalists to imprisonment," so he had to keep his reporting "surreptitious." He risked his liberty to bring us this column; he should promote it as effectively as possible.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Enter Sandman, smoothly



That's Andy Rehfeldt -- a self-proclaimed YouTube celebrity -- playing all the instruments, with only the vocals from Metallica's performance of their great song "Enter Sandman."

The basic gimmick is pretty simple: replace a distorted guitar tone with a clean one, and switch the key to the relative major of the original. But the execution is very impressive, especially the guitar solo. Here's a disco version by the same guy.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Addiction and choice, part 2

If you've read the post from a few weeks ago about whether addicts have a choice in their behavior, you might be interested in this rebuttal and the original author's response, which gets surprisingly personal.

Speaking of personal, the commenters over here unflinchingly give us some snapshots of their experiences. Here are a few that stood out:

Michael said...

I stopped drinking 20 years ago because I am/was addicted to alcohol. I doubt seriously that alcoholism is a "disease" but I do not doubt that if you quit drinking the desire to drink will go away. Give a monkey a number of drinks every day and the monkey will become addicted to alcohol. Not because he didn't get enough bananas when a baby and not because he had a bad home life but because he drank too much alcohol with too much regularity. Our therapeutic culture has transformed a fairly simple solution (quit drinking) into a very complicated solution(quite drinking after you find out why you drink). I commend to all Theodore Dalrymple's book "Romancing Opiates: Pharmacological Lies and the Addiction Bureaucracy" which supports the view that the industry built around "recovery" is very invested in the notion that addictions to drugs and alcohol are nearly impossible to overcome without the help of therapy, medical supervision, etc.


themightypuck said...

I've gotten off heroin and pain meds and it was never a problem. The hardest drug for me to quit was crystal meth but I got off that as well. The most painful drug for me to quit was xanax which I had taken daily for 8 years as prescribed by a doctor for a legitimate health reason. That was hell for 3 days and dysfunction for 3 months. The only drug I have been unable to quit is alcohol and for the most part I don't abuse it (although I bet I'd live longer if it were illegal).


David said...

I learned about alcoholism up close and personal through by beloved but alcoholic second wife.

The argument about whether it's a disease is all semantics. If it's a disease, it's a treatable disease. The treatment is to stop drinking. There are lots of ways the treatment can fail, but unlike in other diseases, the treatment is ultimately in the hands of the patient.

RIP Sally.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Preserving "are-" language

Wow.

IN THE COMMENTS: Some object to the focus on this sign. I held back from defending it because, well, you know what they say about explaining a joke. But I'm glad that my dad responded with a cogent explanation of the humor and importance of the photo.

I'd just like to reiterate that I find the protester's sign not only funny but profoundly significant; there is a lot more that could be said about this. I certainly don't think it should be considered out of bounds to publicly criticize obscure, non-powerful individuals who have chosen to thrust themselves into the public spotlight, especially when they do so with malice toward others. The way to respect an adult is not to try to place him or her beyond intellectual scrutiny.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

How good has Obama's foreign policy been?

Pretty good, says Matthew Yglesias.

Pretty bad, says The New Republic.

I hate to say it, but TNR's argument sounds more convincing. But I haven't been following foreign policy very closely since January 2009, so I don't have a strong opinion. What do you think?

Monday, April 5, 2010

The "taste" of political and economic ideas

I love this passage, from an article that was recently posted to The New Republic's website, about which I'm deliberately omitting the key details:

It will not do to dismiss [this book] as a farrago of nonsense. Its very quality of not making sense is exactly what gives it effectiveness. We must rid ourselves of the view that only logical ideas can be political weapons. Ideas in politics are much like poetry: they need no inner logical structure to be effective. Edward Lear's nonsense verse merely extends a principle inherent in poetry as a whole. And _____ is, in a sense, the Edward Lear of political thinking. He has taught us that, just as a limerick drives Shakespeare out of our minds, . . . illogical political ideas drive out the logical. And whether or not he makes sense, his book has become the profoundly evocative philosophy of millions of people.
As I said, I left out the specific book and author in question because I think the point is worth considering in the abstract before being distracted by the specifics. If you click the link, you'll immediately see who it's about.

Will Wilkinson and Tyler Cowen have a similar insight in this portion of a Bloggingheads diavlog. (I want to be clear that I'm not at all trying to put down their thoughts by connecting them with the above passage.)



A transcript:
Wilkinson: My own view of intellectual life was influenced by it.* When I consider questions about difficult intellectual issues, I think of them as somehow having to do with taste . . . . There are certain arguments that 'taste' wrong. Because you don't necessarily explicitly see the logical structure of an argument. But you're like, "There's something wrong with this." And a lot of what you do when you're trained in a discipline, whether it's philosophy or economics, is that you're cultivating a kind of epistemic taste. You're not implementing an algorithm to tell whether a certain policy argument violates a fundamental principle of economics. You have to develop what people call economic intuition. But what is that? And it feels like what you have when you can taste the elements in a good Merlot. "Oh, there's a little bit of blackberry in there."

Cowen: Economics and politics are much more about taste and aesthetics, I think, than often we have realized. And there are thinkers that see that, when you go back in the history of ideas. They're not always the most salubrious thinkers, but there's a lot to it.
* This segment explains what Wilkinson means at the beginning of the clip when he says his view of intellectual life was "influenced by it" -- the "it" is Hume's essay "Of the Standard of Taste" (which I've blogged before).

By the way, that whole diavlog is excellent and worth listening to. (You might want to download it as a podcast.) It's structured as an interview with Cowen about his book Create Your Own Economy (which is oddly titled since it's not mainly about business or economics). But the diavlog transcends the promotional interview format and turns out to be an enlightening conversation about the value of outside-the-mainstream thinking styles.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Could teaching nonfiction as literature improve American kids' reading ability?

In a Daily Beast article called "How to Make American Teens Smarter," Dana Goldstein takes stock of the disappointing progress we've made with children's reading skills:

According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the federal test known as "the nation's report card," only one-third of American kids can read at the "proficient" level. Over the past two years, no national gains have been made in closing the achievement gaps between rich and poor, white and black, white and Hispanic, or girls and boys. And though some individual states did better than others on the assessment, the overall picture of literacy in America is bleak—a decades-long achievement plateau that leaves most young adults unprepared for higher-level work.
Are we not allowed to suggest that this might be caused in part by the custom that reading and writing are taught almost entirely through fiction rather than nonfiction? Goldstein goes there:
In no grade do students typically read nonfiction, beyond memoirs like the The [sic] Diary of Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel's Night—even though success on standardized tests, in college, and in many jobs requires the ability to comprehend dense nonfiction texts. . . . [In the comments, my dad takes issue with this paragraph, and Goldstein responds. -- JAC]

"People don't really understand the nature of reading. They feel that reading is a skill, that it's transferable, so once you're a good reader, you can read anything that's put in front of you," says Daniel Willingham, a University of Virginia cognitive psychologist who focuses on K-12 education. "But that's only true for decoding—what you learn until grade three or four. After that, when you see good readers versus poor readers, what you're looking at is mostly differences in the knowledge that kids bring to the reading. It's easy to read something when you already know something about the topic. And if you don't know about the topic, it's utterly opaque to you."

That's why children should read newspapers and magazines, texts about nature and technology, and biographies—genres that increase real-world knowledge. This is especially important for poor children, who may not be exposed to as much "background" information at home: the random vocabulary, facts, and associations that make it easier to do well on tests like the NAEP and SAT, and to succeed in the workplace.
My favorite example Goldstein gives is that high-school students are regularly taught George Orwell's novels 1984 and Animal Farm; why shouldn't they read "Politics and the English Language"? And that's just one of his great essays. Children are taught to write essays for specific purposes, but they're not taught to read essays for the sake of encountering an intelligent mind contemplating the world (as opposed to the utilitarian, non-literary nonfiction in science and history textbooks).

My mom made this proposal (which "really stirred people up"):
[W]hy does reading even need to be a separate subject from history in school? Give them history texts and teach reading from them. Science books too. Leave the storybooks for pleasure reading outside of school. They will be easier reading, and with well-developed reading skills, kids should feel pleasure curling up with a novel at home. But even if they don't, why should any kind of a premium be placed on an interest in reading novels? It's not tied to economic success in life and needn't be inculcated any more than an interest in watching movies or listening to popular music. Leave kids alone to find out out what recreational activities enrich and satisfy them. Some may want to dance or play music or paint. Just because teachers tend to be the kind of people who love novels does not mean that this choice ought to be imposed on young people via compulsory education. Teach them about history, science, law, logic -- something academic and substantive -- and leave the fictional material for after hours.
Back to Goldstein's article:
"One of my big gripes is the imperialism of literature, of trivial fictions and poetry," says E.D. Hirsch, a literature professor and advocate of "cultural literacy." Hirsch rejects the idea that storybooks are the only books that appeal to children. "Fiction doesn't have a monopoly on narrative," he says. "Take, for example, biographies. They have the form of fiction. It isn't whether kids can read it or not, it's whether it is taught or not. And boys tend to be more interested in nonfiction than fiction. It's one of the reasons… that boys do less well and are turned off from reading."
Matthew Yglesias agrees that reading should be taught through nonfiction as well as fiction, but bristles at the gendered angle:
The thesis about boys is provocative, but it’s probably best not to get this tied in too much with controversial claims about gender. The essence of the issue is that clearly some people are more interested in reading non-fiction than fiction and might find reading lessons oriented to non-fiction material more engaging.
That does make a certain amount of strategic sense: if you're mainly trying to advance a controversial position (the nonfiction idea), you probably shouldn't connect it to a second controversial position that's not your driving motivation.

Maybe it's unfortunate that the idea that we should care about boys is so controversial. But, as Yglesias says, the more useful perspective is that we want to help people. The gender-neutrality of that goal is a good thing. While it might make some people feel good to say of a certain policy, "This helps women [or girls]," and it might make some other people feel good to say, "This helps men [or boys]," there's no inherent virtue to those statements beyond the general idea of helping someone.

I also don't see any need to stereotype boys as liking one type of reading and girls as liking another type of reading. (The article doesn't include any actual evidence to support the claim that boys especially enjoy reading nonfiction.) Rather, we need to stop stigmatizing nonfiction as unserious and privileging fiction as the only real literature.

IN THE COMMENTS: My dad, who works in this field, points out that things are a little more complicated than this post may have suggested. Admittedly, I'm no expert in nationwide English curricula (I used the time-tested writer's technique of extrapolating wildly from my own experiences), so I'm glad to hear that nonfiction-for-its-own-sake isn't quite as absent from schools as I thought.