Freedom of travel and democracy

Let's get the important part out of the way:  I have no idea what I'm talking about.  I've been thinking, over the past couple days, about what kinds of guaranteed, enabled, or restricted travel help or hinder a functioning democracy, or a civilization with full class mobility.[1. I'm not saying those are the same thing, just that they've both been things I've been thinking about.] I'm writing this post not because I have anything profound or substantial to say on the subject now, but because I want to start looking into it more seriously.  I hope to:

  • Get down the ideas I have now, so I can look more carefully for sources that confirm or refute my beliefs,
  • Look for spaces where I know I have gaps in my knowledge,
  • Identify presuppositions that I might not be justified in making,
  • Publicize where I'm at right now so that
    • People who know stuff about this topic might correct me or give me hints about where to look, and
    • People who know me personally will know that I'm looking for this sort of information, and send it my way when they encounter it.

So:

There's an important difference between legal restrictions of freedom and practical restrictions

Really, the difference is pretty obvious:  Everybody's allowed to leave their home and go live somewhere else, barring some legal issue specific to the individual, but most people still can't.  The reason it's important is that ignoring the latter leaves out pretty much all of the content of this question, but most people still do that.

I think that restricting freedom of movement allows for corrupt sorts of control

The first thing that comes to mind is gerrymandering: if it's easy to keep everybody in firm, specific places, it's easy to manipulate the definitions of their areas to make those definitions suit your needs.  But on the same line of thinking, and a much bigger deal, is housing segregation, like when people of color were denied access to suburban homes while white people were given cheap mortgages under the GI bill after World War II.

Failing to enable travel enables a stratified class system

If the ability to get around and choose where you live is a privilege based on finances, the way it is in the US, very nearly every kind of opportunity is tied to that privilege.  Ideally, people should be able to get anywhere they want to go in the short-term, meaning comprehensive, affordable public transportation, and live anywhere they have a reason to, which means subsidized housing.

That kind of freedom of movement would radically change the organization of US education

If it were easy to move around based on school district, it would become easier to provide more fair public education.  Or, at least, it would require a much more overt kind of oppression to keep impoverished people from attending rich people's schools.  Or, rich people would lean even more on private schools.  I don't know.  I feel like there's a substantial case to be made here, but I'm not sure what it is.

State and country lines would become problematic in new and interesting ways

This one really depends on exactly what kind of changes were made to freedom of movement, so I'm not going to make any more points about it now.

Charles Stross points out problems with bitcoin that I had never thought of and totally agree with

Why I want Bitcoin to die in a fire, by Charles Stross

I've been pretty excited about Bitcoin, before reading this post, for a few reasons:

  • every time I thought about buying some, shortly after the price has skyrocketed.  If I hadn't been so anxious about doing it, and if I had cashed out immediately every time it doubled then bought back in after the next crash, I would have a reasonably larger amount of money than I have right now.[1. Astute readers may notice that there are two explicit, and one more implied, if in that sentence, as well as the dubious claim that my memory of when I wanted to buy Bitcoin is perfect and not at all distorted by confirmation bias.]
  • I really like the idea of a functional currency that's not dependent on any central storage location.
  • Infinite divisibility is built into the nature of Bitcoin, and I think that's an economic concept that's going to matter.[2. Not only am I not an economist, I'm not even reasonably experienced at guessing about economic theories.]
  • When I first heard about Bitcoin, I was significantly more sympathetic to libertarian politics than I am now.

It's embarrassing to open up a blog you really admire and discover a post viciously tearing apart something you'd previously thought well of.  I'm drawing attention to this one in particular because Stross's post not only totally changed my mind about Bitcoin,[3. I'm wary of sudden conversions of point of view in general, but this one seems more like a specific-application change to a broader, longer-term shift in views.] but helped dig up some of the libertarian political ideas that I hadn't realized were still hanging around in my head, being problematic and gross.

First and foremost, and the only one I have a huge amount to say about right now, the super popular internet-libertarian political view "Child pornography is a small price to pay for FREEDOM" -- You don't have to examine this view too deeply before dozens of things emerge that are horribly wrong with it, but there's a convincing surface-level argument in favor of it:  "You can't rule out a possibility just because it makes you feel gross" can be convincing if you don't look at it too hard, and can easily be enough to change someone's mind if they (Like I was at 19) are paranoid that they're not being intellectually rigorous enough.

By the way, just to make me feel a little less gross, here are some of the many problems with that argument: (a.) monitoring all the content on the internet and monitoring all exchanges of funds are hugely different levels of surveillance, and this case equates them; (b.) it dismisses the possibility of increased effectiveness by targeted surveillance, which is more possible with a monitorable currency; (c.) on this point the libertarian philosophy is self-contradictory:  it protects the rights of pedophiles and child pornographers to own and profit by their content, but not the rights of children to their likeness, bodily autonomy, or privacy; (d.) in the case of child porn, the squick factor is actually a pretty solid case.

Damn, this post got darker than I thought it was going to.  The stuff-I-used-to-think folder in my brain gets grosser every time I unpack it a little more.

stuff about education and therapy

Reading Tressie McMillan Cottom's recent post about the future of higher education, I started thinking about what sort of things a higher education institution could do to help ensure that folks are really prepared for some sort of meaningful engagement with the world outside college. So I thought about what sort of stuff I've learned at college that has prepared me for the larger world.  I certainly feel more prepared now -- I have skills, and I understand things, that I didn't before, I'm certainly a better writer than I was going in -- but the biggest thing is that I feel a lot more emotionally stable, and able to deal with anxiety and social situations, than I was coming out of high school, or during the two years after high school when I hid in my bedroom and read Wikipedia.

And that mostly doesn't have much to do with college.  I mean, I've had some very healthy and productive social relationships at college that have helped move me towards a better place -- but I've also had a handful of awfully destructive relationships at college, and there wasn't anything at the school that helped me distinguish between them.

What really helped, I think, was therapy.  Maybe therapy combined with Liberal Arts.  But I'm not sure that therapy can be mass-produced on an institutional level.  Which is a shame, because I know basically nobody who shouldn't see a therapist at least sometimes, and especially if the goal of the therapy is, beyond just coping with the experience of day-to-day life, developing the life-skills to be a generally more balanced person, capable of having healthy relationships and choosing and pursuing positive goals.

Maybe instead of pushing people to go into STEM programs, since apparently we don't actually really need any more, the institutional education propaganda should encourage people to become professional counselors.  (Though that creates the serious problem of people going into therapy because it seems like a lucrative career and not actually being any good at it.)

Thinking about whether my education is actually useful is stressful, and it seems like it would take a pretty intense reworking of not just the education system but the economy into which it's pouring kids, so I don't think there's anything I can say on this topic that's really insightful or helpful.

PSA: This is what I think about when I wake up at 7am.  When possible, please let me sleep in.

Hypothetical future commentary by historians on DFTBA

Sometimes it's fun to think about what future historians are going to say about phrases people look back on.  Like how "Hat trick" doesn't actually come from ice hockey, or how "Blood is thicker than water" apparently used to mean literally the opposite of what it means today. I was thinking about this after watching Dan Brown's recent video, "Feel Free to FTBA," in which he points out that the common nerdfighter saying "Don't Forget to Be Awesome" (DFTBA) is problematic if you interpret "Awesome" in the traditional sense -- Google defines it as "Extremely impressive or daunting; inspiring great admiration, apprehension, or fear."

So I started imagining what sort of paper an internet historian might write about DFTBA, clarifying the social context for people who might otherwise misinterpret the Nerdfighter movement:

Though it seems to mean that Nerdfighters believed they should make an effort to always act or seem more important, and is often interpreted to describe Nerdfighting as a thoroughly narcissistic movement, one must bear in mind that at the time, the word "Awesome" was most commonly used colloquially to mean something like "Exceptionally morally and/or aesthetically uplifting or good," or to describe holding oneself to a higher standard of personal conduct, above and beyond what might constitute the minimum for acceptable behavior.

And, obviously, people will think it's ridiculous, because there's plenty of evidence that awesome could mean really bad for a huge amount of time before the early 21st century, so why should Nerdfighters have interpreted it differently?  (Unless, like, hypothetical future people are less instinctively anti-academic.)

That was fun to write, but I don't really have any good way of wrapping it up.  Anybody know anything else that's going to take historians some effort to unpack?

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

I just saw the new Hunger Games movie, Catching Fire.  It is now very late at night, and I can't really consciously unpack all my thoughts.  So I'm just going to throw this out there: I hope -- I really, really hope -- that the way the people involved in the creation of this film act after the final film has gone out into theaters reflects the way the characters in Catching Fire behave at the very end of the movie.

So, obviously, spoilers.

The way Catching Fire goes down, at the end, is the gamemaker of the 75th annual Hunger Games turns out to be working with the rebellion to use the games to undermine the government and spike up anti-Capitol fervor.  So, it's one-or-several industry insiders using an incredibly popular form of entertainment to sneak in subversive, anti-establishment narratives in an effort to deconstruct an extremely problematic status quo.

The Hunger Games marketing team hooked up with, Covergirl, I think?  To put out a line of makeup based on all the districts, which is just incredibly fucked up for reasons that are pretty obvious if you read the books and understand the themes, or even if you've just seen the movies.  I'm hoping that it's the setup for a planned double-cross.  I'm hoping that Suzanne Collins and Jennifer Lawrence and everyone else involved just start doing interviews all over the place unpacking all the parallels between the Hunger Games films and the problematic nature of entertainment in the US.

That is all.

Pessimism on the internet: Response to The Bean @ beanalive.blogspot.com

A friend of mine, who blogs at Bean' Alive, wrote a post the other day about pessimism and conformity on the internet. She asked for feedback, so I decided to offer some.  And I'm cross-posting it here. Here's an excerpt, so this makes a little bit of sense, but I really recommend going to the site and reading the original post:

Having recently entered the internet culture of Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, etc., I have noticed that a lot of posts and are pessimistic and accepting of procrastination, sluggishness and low self-esteem.

[...]

However, I do think [...] It’s perpetuating the cycle of negativity.

The cycle of negativity is something I did not realize existed until I was pulled out of it myself. I find internet culture does not help stay out of the cycle of negativity if you are not constantly aware of the potential effects of what you’re consuming may have on you.

[...]

Yes. I do think the internet has developed to the point where it has an overall mass consciousness involving morale. That morale must be cared for and used to help the world, not to spread negativity and acceptance of the constant negativity.

And, my response:

###

I disagree.

Well, I don't doubt your experience that there's a lot of pessimism in the social networks you participate in. Cultures and cycles of pessimism definitely exist, and you're right that they're dangerous and destructive.

The point I mainly disagree with is that the culture of the internet, overall, is pessimistic. Insofar as the internet has a culture and a morale (I think you can make the case, but I don't think it's very relevant to this discussion -- a point I will return to) I feel that its most defining morale trait is a sort of techno-utopianism, or at least absentminded revolution. (Mike Rugnetta made something like this point in his talk at this year's XOXO festival, here: http://youtu.be/-D9Xq3Xr8aE)

Pessimism strikes me as fundamentally inconsistent with the major functions of the internet: connection, learning, speaking out, and so on.

I think what's more relevant here, though, are the internet's subcultures, and that's where I think you'll find a lot of pessimism. The atmosphere you find on tumblr, twitter, facebook, etc. have more to do with the people you choose to connect with than the overall atmosphere of the website. You said yourself that you've got experience with a cycle of negativity -- it makes sense, then, that the communities you most immediately have access to tend to reinforce that kind of attitude.

So, there's good news and bad news.

The good news is really good: there are communities out there that have basically none of this pessimism floating around in them! And, since the internet is all about connectivity, you can totally access them! It's not necessarily easy, because communities aren't the sort of thing you can just pull off a shelf, but there are positive influences to surround yourself with on the internet.

It's also kinda good news that there's no great pessimism overhanging the whole of the internet. (If you believe me, which you may not.)

On the other hand, that's kinda bad news, too, because it means that pessimism isn't one big problem that, with a sufficient burst of effort, can be vanquished off the internet forever. It's pockets of behaviors in small groups all over the place: the same, difficult problem, over and over and over and over and over. If your goal was to save the internet, it can make you feel pretty pessimistic.

...Sorry.

Imaginary political arguments: the obligations of society to citizens

Sometimes I imagine myself arguing with Bill O'Reilly.  I'm bad at it -- I'm sure if I actually tried to defend my politics on his show I'd get owned.  (Not because he'd be right, but because he's a professional at making people sound wrong to his audience on TV.) I'm not trying to think through my actual views.  That's not the game.  The game is to come up with ways to use conservative presumptions about the world to force a conclusion that's similar in function to my beliefs, forcing an intellectually consistent opponent to agree with me.*

Today, I was imagining the responsibilities of the poor, and the idea of entitlement.  (I'm not going to try and actually write a back-and-forth with O'Reilly, that's a little more effort than I have time for today.)

###

If people in a society aren't entitled to anything, they cannot be expected to owe anything.  If we want to hold people responsible for anti-social behavior, we have to agree that there are things that pro-social behavior entitles them to.

Further, we can't blame people for anti-social behavior if pro-social behavior doesn't earn them enough benefit to outweigh the benefit of the anti-social behavior.

We can see this clearly laid out in the justification for the American Revolution.  I think it's safe to agree that war is an antisocial activity.  But we think of the American people as justified in rebelling.  Why?

Because the British government wasn't offering us enough to justify our pro-social cooperation.  We felt we could do better as a nation if we threw them off, so we did.

Now, America is an individualist nation.  We can't assume that we need to reach some sort of communistic agreement between all citizens before we decide whether disruption is appropriate or not.  Certainly, America started pursuing the revolution long before even a majority of Americans were on board with the idea -- even the debate and propaganda is anti-social, insofar as the social order is subjugation to the British crown.

So we can't say that rejecting the social order based on a notion of unmet entitlement is okay for the nation, but not okay for individuals.

Then, what entitlements are enough?

It can't be none.  That's absolutely clear:  if a person isn't entitled to anything from their government, then America has no justification in having rebelled.

It must at least include survival.  We can expect people to act in anti-social ways if it's the only way to get food and shelter, so if the government doesn't supply food and shelter or the means to get it, we can't expect anyone to agree to the legitimacy of that government.

And it must involve other protections as well:  if a person is threatened with violence or catastrophe, the government has to be ready to step in.  There's the police force and the fire department.  People would have to take up arms on their own, if there weren't an organized military.  So that's necessary.  And millions of examples have shown that people will do whatever it takes to get healthcare, so the government has to make that accessible.

Then, what do the people owe in return?

Well, first of all, taxes.  That's easy enough to agree to.  They also have to agree to pro-social behavior:  obedience to a code of laws.  But they are, in that case, entitled to a genuinely pro-social law code.  And those taxes can't reduce their resources to beneath a state of survival.

Do they have to agree to work?  That's one of the assumptions we definitely make in this dialogue.  People have to work if they want to earn survival.  But, then, working must always be an accessible option.  That means the government would have to step in to provide jobs for people without jobs.  An unemployment rate of above zero would be unacceptable -- people who couldn't find work would be morally justified in anti-social behavior.

And then, that work has to be good enough to meet a reasonable standard of living, or else it may be more profitable to prey on the cooperating citizens, which has better hours and probably a higher quality of life.  We know this to be legitimate because the American Revolution involved stealing 13 colonies worth of England's stuff.

So, we have: affordable housing, healthcare, and food, access to reasonably scheduled work at a living wage, either a guarantee of a job or a system of support for the unemployed,  and a just law code with good enforcement.

Anyone see anything I missed?

###

*Note: I know this doesn't work.  I realize that most political reasoning starts with the conclusion and the reasons are constructed to hold it in place.

Kameron Hurley on secrets in publishing

There's a great article in the Locus Magazine website called "Everybody Already Knows”: How Silence About the Realities of Publishing Hurts Authors.  It's about the ways in which secrets are kept in publishing -- she compares it to problematic family secrets, like abuse, and compares new authors to small children who aren't in any way equipped to navigate the sometimes seriously screwed up situation they get themselves into just by being around. For reasons I think are obvious this article was important to me.  Here's one of the best bits:

What I began to hear from other writers as I brought up these issues and many other troubling ones in the industry was this:

‘‘Oh, everyone already knows that.’’

Everyone knows who that verbally abusive editor is. Everyone knows who that groping publisher is. Everyone knows….

But everyone didn’t know. I certainly didn’t. I learned during the long implosion of Night Shade Books that writers in our industry had many private forums and listservs and a lot of conversations at the bar about bad editors, bad publishers, and terrible agents (and the good ones, too) – but they tended to be in closed groups, not public forums. So when folks said to me ‘‘everyone knows’’ it meant ‘‘everyone on my listserv’’ or ‘‘everyone who reads the SFWA forum’’ or ‘‘everyone who was at the bar that time in San Antonio.’’

I checked -- you have to be an SFWA member to get on the forum.  There's a good reason for me to double down on trying to get some qualifying short story sales.  (Or any short story sales...)

I decided to google Kameron Hurley, and I found this story, which I don't have time to finish reading right now, but is pretty cool so far:

Genderbending at the Madhattered

by Kameron Hurley, published in Strange Horizons, 2004

The popular conception of introversion pisses me off

The new Idea Channel is about introversion -- specifically, about the fetishization of introversion and some of the reasons it happens.  I'm pretty thrilled that he came out with this video, because it gives me an excuse to rant about the introvert/extrovert dichotomy.*

I just took an online Myers-Briggs test, because Mike talks about it a lot in the video, and it plays pretty heavily in the article he quoted:

We worked diligently and with enthusiasm, and perhaps unsurprisingly (given the way our culture socializes girls), all three of us tested identically: At the time, we all came out INFP.

And we rejoiced. Suddenly, we had answers. We weren’t outcasts or “nerds” [...] oh no: we were a rare personality type, one that the book said makes up only one percent of the entire human population.

I quote that section in particular because I got INFP when I took the test just now.  I, too, got the rarest personality type, apparently.

Here's the thing, though: I just got dropped into Introverted, Intuitive, Feeling, Perceiving -- rather than Extroverted, Sensing, Thinking, Judging, on the basis of these numbers:

Introverted / Extroverted: 55.88% / 44.12%  (11.76% difference) Intuitive / Sensing: 65.63% / 34.38%  (31.25% difference) Feeling / Thinking: 56.57% / 43.33%  (13.24% difference) Perceiving / Judging: 54.17% / 45.83%  (8.34% difference)

The biggest difference there is between intuitive and sensing, which surprises me, but w/e.  That's not the point.  The point is -- and, I know people love to point out that we're supposed to interpret the results as being about a spectrum -- the point is that the Myers Briggs ratings push people into a set of sixteen categories that (a.) hint at a complexity that isn't there, (b.) stampede over the complexity that is there, (c.) encourage people to embrace more unnecessary binaries in their identity, and (d.) attempt to (i.) normalize things that should perhaps not be normalized, and (ii.) force a normative structure on personality in general.

I've thought a lot about why this all pisses me off -- and there's some pretty good stuff in the above-and-here-linked article about the problems with the introvert meme, as distinguished from introversion as a clinical term -- and here are some of my conclusions.

  1. I'm not an introvert.  I'm not an extrovert, either.  I'm not sure the conventional definition, introverts are drained by social interaction and energized by time alone, whereas extroverts are energized by social interaction and drained by time alone, is in any way sensible to describe my experience of the world.  You know what I find draining?  Exertion, sleeplessness, fear, anxiety, loneliness, boredom, I could go on... You know what I don't find draining?  Being around other people -- OR -- spending time by myself.
  2. The popularity of this dichotomy has, I think, discouraged me -- and probably discouraged other people -- from acknowledging anxiety problems.  Instead of asking, "Do I feel more energized or more drained when I spend time around people?"  There are a lot of times I should have been asking, "Did I feel afraid just then?  When?  Why?"  What would probably have emerged was a fear of isolation, of rejection, of embarrassment, that made my social interactions difficult and my time alone painful, neither of which have anything to do with whether I'm more or less socially inclined.
  3. I have for long periods of time felt caught between two standards, against both of which I was failing.  In one, I'm an academic, bookworm, loner, sitting quietly in dark rooms with books written by Russians.  In the other, I keep up with my friendships, go out a lot, dance, sing karaoke, and drink at parties all the time.  Neither standard makes any particular amount of sense, neither describes more than, like, one person I know, tops, and I felt like I was failing to live up to both of them.

The introvert/extrovert narrative bothers me for a lot of reasons, but I think the biggest one was that it encouraged me to identify with my mental illnesses, and fail to seek help.  It tells a story in which all my experiences are supposed to fit into one kind of healthy or another, that things that should have been symptoms got treated like normal parts of a personality.

I'm not rejecting the existence of introverts, and I certainly don't want people who just like being alone to be treated like they're ill.  But neither do I want symptoms, things like fear and anxiety and hopelessness and inability to get out of bed, to be glorified as a kind of superiority.

*No, I don't need an excuse to write about whatever I want on my blog.  Yes, I do still feel like I need an excuse to write about the stuff I already want to write about.  It would be easier to blog if I could get over that.

Decades of TV: an elaborate conspiracy?

I think one of the easiest ways to dismiss everything going on with the NSA right now is to remind yourself that this all sounds like something out of a kind of paranoid cartoon.  I remember seeing a screencap of an episode of King of the Hill, shortly after the leaks started, in which Dale Gribble answers his phone, saying "You've reached Dale Gribble, you do not have permission to record this conversation."  Or something like that. Anyway, here, via the Guardian, is a list of TV shows and movies that made claims about the NSA that turned out to be, pretty much, true.

Now, I'm not saying the NSA has been planting those jokes for decades to make the reality seem implausible... actually, I'm not.  For real.  It's just funny that so many showrunners can sit back right now smirking and shout "Called it!" over the phone, trusting that the message will get back to the NSA.

Nightvale, Lovecraft, Idea Channel, and an argument I had with one of my teachers today

We just got to the part of the history of western civilization in my Western Civ 1 class when Socrates shows up!  Yay... I shouldn't be totally surprised, but I was, that when we discussed Socrates, phrases like "Greatest philosopher ever" and "Still extremely relevant today" were thrown around.  I have some pretty strong contentions with that point, especially where Socrates fades into Plato, and the Western canonization of Essentialism and fundamental truths.

See, as the teacher told it, Socrates was the hero who freed Greece from the cynical Sophists, who believed there was no such thing as essential truth.  Now, I will grant that it's possible to get pretty cynical on that premise.  But I'm on the side of the Sophists -- at least, the ones who understood, if any of them did, that the point is humans don't have access to unrestrained truth, and that all we have to work with are narratives that are varyingly successful in describing and predicting the reality they attempt to describe and predict.

I brought this up with the teacher after class, and we had a fun discussion in which he asked me if I thought the Pythagorean theorem would go away if nobody knew about it, and I said "Yes."  The fact that triangles have certain relationships to themselves wouldn't, but the Pythagorean theorem isn't an insight into the core truth of the universe -- it's a narrative we use to arrive at certain among those truths.

Which is why it's pretty cool that today's Idea Channel decided to help me out by talking about H.P. Lovecraft, Welcome to Nightvale, and the huge problem most people have with accepting that some things just aren't knowable.  Whole video linked and embedded below, but I particularly want to emphasize this quote:

Philosopher Graham Harmon describes Lovecraft as a writer of gaps.  A gap specifically between what we understand to be possible, and what the characters are experiencing in the stories, expressed by the gap in the existence of something and the ability of language to accurately and appropriately describe that thing.

How Does Night Vale Confront Us With the Unknown? 

Here, I also want to throw out another Idea Channel video, Is Math a Feature of the Universe or a Feature of Human Creation?

There are totally people who believe math is a real thing, as Mike addresses above.  Personally, I think those people are nuts -- math is a narrative we use to describe things.  "Math comes from the human brain, and nowhere else."  Fictionalism ftw.

I will totally be sharing these videos with my professor.  But first!

The thing about essentialism, whether mathematical, Platonic, Christian, political, whatever -- (well, one of the things.  Well, one of the things, and the line about where it becomes and stops becoming a thing is fuzzy.  There's no real essential truth about essentialism.)  -- is that it encourages people to believe that everything should be relatively easy for humans to understand.

If we believe the Socratic claim that all knowledge is embedded in the human mind, and it just takes the right questions to unlock it, how do we ever understand Quantum Physics?  How do we even approach the question, "Can language even describe some things?"  How do we deal with incompleteness?

It also leads to a different, more cultural, problem: the danger of a single story.

In this point, I'm referring to an awesome TED talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a storyteller who grew up in Nigeria, embedded above.  The point I want to draw here is that the simplification of narratives that Essentialists pursue is not just wrongheaded, irresponsible, and doomed to fail:  it's also civilizationally corrosive and destructive.

Stuff about Schizophrenia: American exceptionalism is real!

via Boing Boing

On the nature of schizophrenia as it relates to culture

The New York Times recently posted a story about research in schizophrenia patients in India and in America, and revealed something kind of disturbing about what seems like it must be something to do with America's culture:

In the past few years I have been working with some colleagues at the Schizophrenia Research Foundation in Chennai, India, to compare the voice-hearing experience of people with schizophrenia in the United States and India.

The two groups of patients have much in common. Neither particularly likes hearing voices. Both report hearing mean and sometimes violent commands. But in our sample of 20 comparable cases from each country, the voices heard by patients in Chennai are considerably less violent than those heard by patients in San Mateo, Calif.

Describing his own voices, an American matter-of-factly explained, “Usually it’s like torturing people to take their eyes out with a fork, or cut off someone’s head and drink the blood, that kind of stuff.” Other Americans spoke of “war,” as in, “They want to take me to war with them,” or their “suicide voice” asking, “Why don’t you end your life?”

In Chennai, the commanding voices often instructed people to do domestic chores — to cook, clean, eat, bathe, to “go to the kitchen, prepare food.” To be sure, some Chennai patients reported disgusting commands — in one case, a woman heard the god Hanuman insist that she drink out of a toilet bowl. But in Chennai, the horrible voices people reported seemed more focused on sex. Another woman said: “Male voice, very vulgar words, and raw. I would cry.”

(emphasis mine.)

So it looks like there is something special about America: we're so violent, we make our mentally ill people extra-violent!

[notice]I'm being pretty much totally unfair here.  The size of this study was 20 comparable cases from each country, which means either 20 or 40 people -- either way, it's not enough to draw the kind of sweeping conclusions I've made here.  But we'll see, when the research continues.[/notice]

On facing vs. denying mental illness

In another very small trial, patients with schizophrenia

...[C]reate[d] a computer-animated avatar for their voices and to converse with it. Patients chose a face for a digitally produced voice similar to the one they were hearing. They then practiced speaking to the avatar — they were encouraged to challenge it — and their therapist responded, using the avatar’s voice, in such a way that the avatar’s voice shifted from persecuting to supporting them.

All of the patients experienced a decrease in the frequency and intensity of their hallucinations, and three of them stopped hearing voices entirely.

The article also discusses a movement, called "Hearing Voices," who encourage patients with auditory hallucinations to communicate honestly and openly with them, rather than trying to suppress them.  On their website, they say the voices are "...a variation in human behavior, like being left-handed."

Altogether, lots of interesting things going on with schizophrenia these days.

Tropes 101, part 2

First post here Yesterday, I started answering a question posed on the TVTropes subreddit, roughly: “If you could teach Tropes as a college course, what would your class be like?”

I got through the first 7 weeks of a 14-week curriculum, and during that time I think I covered all the stuff that's necessary for students to understand the idea of tropes, and the attitude it takes to analyze media in the TVTropes style.

But I've got another half a class to fill.  So now I have to think pretty seriously about what, exactly, I want to accomplish.  Apart from "TVTropes is a website that is pretty cool," what should the students in this class learn?

I've been treating my schedule so far as if it were written for Lit majors.  And that's an obvious group for this class to target.  But the question on the subreddit referenced getting a media degree, and that'd probably take a bit of a different direction.  And there's one more category of student who'd take a class like this:  writers.

So, I'm going to pander to all three!  Starting with the writer weeks, because everyone who spends a lot of time around art should get a taste of how much work goes into making it:

Next up I'm heading into Literary Criticism territory, so  I'd like to re-state the same caveat I've already pointed out in the first post in this series:  I'm not a Lit major, I don't know the language, and odds are pretty good that I'm missing some major points.  If I were going to teach this class, I'd want to spend at least a couple semesters taking lit classes, and Week 10 (or possibly sooner) would be all about interfacing TVTropes criticism with the criticism my students are already familiar with.

  • Week 10:  Watsonian vs. Doylist.  Getting used to analyzing from different perspectives requires that we get used to understanding where we're looking from.
  • Week 11: Post-Modern.  We've been here already, for quite some time.  Let's talk about it.  (Not talking about the fact that we're talking about it, but students who do that week's reaction paper on that question will probably recieve high marks.)

Finally, the media students, for whom this question was initially posed.

  • Week 12:  Seinfeld is Unfunny.  If you're going to start constructing narrative histories of concepts in media, you need to learn how to put yourself in a frame of mind to appreciate stuff that's 20/40/100/2000 years past its contextual expiration date.  Discussion on the differences between this and Values Dissonance, and revisit earlier themes of moral accountability in art.
  • Week 13:  A walk around the Creator Standpoint Index, for a distanced discussion of the artist's relationship to the work, rather than the audience's -- superficially similar to but I think meaningfully different from Weeks 8 and 10.

And, at last, finals!

  • Week 14: Take-home essay final that I'll come up with and hand out somewhere around week 12.

Tropes 101, part 1

On the TVTropes subreddit today, someone asked a question, the gist of which was "If you could teach Tropes as a college course, what would your class be like?" And this question seems like loads of fun, so I'm going to answer.

The highest-scoring post currently on the thread breaks it up into a 14-week class, so I'm going to copy that format.  (I can't remember how long my classes are at school.)  I'm also going to borrow a class structure my English Composition 2 teacher used, and require an essay from each of my students, every week, in which they will come up with a question about the subject matter we've discussed and try to answer it.  They will be graded on the quality of their questions, and their answers, and the degree to which their analytic skills improve during the semester.

Now, I'm not a Lit major, so I'm not deeply embedded in the correct use of terminology, but I'm sure that TVTropes's approach to media analysis must fit into some or another theory of analysis.  If it fits neatly, week 1 and 2 are about that.  If not, weeks 1 and 2 are a discussion of where it fits, and students will be expected to choose a position about that and defend it.  (They are free to fluidly change their position as suits their later papers.)

Prominently included in this first two-week period will be the first trope we'll introduce from the website:  Deconstruction.  TVTropes's use of the word deconstruction is intimately related to, but not the same as, philosophical and literary deconstruction.  I also think that, though it's a hard concept, it will be an excellent way to get everyone in the class to a place where they can really internalize the idea of tropes, and the role they play in art.

After that, let's take it easy with the real, mechanical itemization of every element of a narrative and talk about how tropes say things about broader cultural trends.  This will be more familiar territory for college students, hopefully, and if it isn't, then it's damn well something I want people to come away from TVTropes understanding.

  • Week 3: Using tropes to identify problems in media.  Women in Refrigerators, Black Dude Dies First, The Bechdel Test.  Class materials: Anita Sarkeesian's Tropes vs. Women videos.
  • Week 4: Wait, back up.  So tropes are inherently racist/classist/homophobic/patriarchal/sexist/transphobic/etc?  Well, no.  Tropes are Tools.  This week we'll discuss how you can't determine the quality of a show by the quality of its tropes, without losing sight of the fact that art needs to be held accountable not just for itself but for its role in a larger cultural narrative.

This will lead up to an entry into the meat of TVTropes, the specific manifestations of concepts that add up -- not entirely, but significantly -- to art.  We'll jump into a few fun examples that will hopefully be pretty universally recognized:

  • Week 5: Checkov's Gun.  Introduction to Playing with it, too -- this is a great one for variations, because they've all got names, most of them plays on this one.
  • Week 6: The Manic Pixie Dream Girl, covering characters as tropes and practice deconstruction all in one go.

And approaching the halfway point,

  • Week 7: Midterm!  Assigned at the start of the semester and taking place over the time available, students will give presentations on the tropes in their own favorite media.

[...]So, this is a lot of fun, but I'm running out of time tonight to spend blogging and I'd really like to put some more thought into this.  Also, I'm at over 600 of my 500 daily words.  So I'm going to come back to this tomorrow, and pick up after the midterm and outline the class through the final.  Comments are welcome.

Homeownership

In that fake constitution I've been working on, I'm adding a clause saying the government is required not to create any legal structures that incentivize unnecessary land ownership.  This includes things like guaranteeing artificially cheap mortgages, selling off government property that consists mainly of open space or woods to owners that might intend to pave it or chop it down, or sell it to someone who'll pave it or chop it down, when there's perfectly good abandoned property to knock over and build on all over the place. The Atlantic Cities has an article up, Why the U.S. Needs to Fall Out Of Love With Homeownership, that offers a whole bunch of supporting pieces of information for my case:

[...]numerous studies have found that excessive homeownership significantly distorts the economy, diverting investment away from much more needed areas like technology and knowledge.

Homeownership continues to make sense for many Americans. But for those whose income is limited or who are still building their careers, a house can be an anchor than limits their ability to move to where jobs are.

And as Yale economist Robert Shiller has noted, the real rate of return to owning a home has been close to zero for the past century, substantially less than the stock market. "Housing traditionally is not viewed as a great investment," he added. "It takes maintenance, it depreciates, it goes out of style."

Of course, I’m by no means advocating that we put an end to homeownership altogether and become a nation of renters. My hunch is a homeownership rate of between 50 and 60 percent is just about right; and that’s not too far from where the U.S. is now. But we can’t hide from the fact that excessive levels of homeownership — either among nations or metros — seem to be associated with lower levels of innovation, productivity and economic development.

Emphasis mine.  And that's just one of the many good bits.  And there are also graphs.

New constitution revival

I'm not sure if I've mentioned here before that last semester, for one of my finals, I wrote a new constitution to the United States.  Anyway, I did, and this semester the teacher I turned it in to asked me if he could submit it for consideration for an award. I agreed, obviously, but also asked if I could make changes -- I only had a month or so to work on the first draft, so it's far from perfect, and I know for sure that there are big things I left out, including a lot of commentary I wanted to leave in there (none of that "what was the intent?" bullshit going on in my constitution) -- and it turns out, I can.,

So I've just started reading through the first draft, and I'm going to be making changes pretty fluidly, and I figured since I hadn't blogged yet today, I'd keep a post open and throw up what I think is interesting or what I might like comment on.

I added a paragraph to the preamble:

I find it difficult to imagine a system of government that doesn't exert a strong pressure towards particular kinds of lifestyle choices, so I'm not going to shy away from that possibility.  This government will express philosophical beliefs, and it will structure society in accordance with those beliefs.  In being transparent about that fact, I hope to leave it open to honest, reasonable criticism and a process of improvement.

I added a whole new section, called Social Context:

The first time I wrote this document, I was writing for an abstract country of about the United States of America's size.  This time through, I'm going to write as if I'm proposing a constitution that will actually guide a new government being installed over the remains of the previous US government.

For the purposes of this document, the name of the country will be the Post-American Experiment, or PAX.  Pun intended.

The young government of PAX asks, for the first ten years of organization, that other developed countries lend assistance in the form of temporary military presence, and assistance in a peacekeeping government and a forgiving, peace-minded judicial system.  We ask this not because we think it's the best light in which to guide a transition, but because we think it's better than leaving the nation's infrastructure and culture to anarchy for a decade while issues of structure and governance are worked out.  We ask for the assistance of multiple countries, from around the world, so we can begin our nation in a worldwide gesture of mutual benefit, goodwill towards international relations, and positive-sum politics.

There's more, but I'm going to wrap it up from here.

Android's sentence suggestions

I think a lot about what it's going to mean when Google gets so good at predicting things about us that they really can finish our sentences. I think about it a lot when I'm texting, because sometimes when I'm in the middle of a text, the next word I was going to write pops up, so I click it.  Then the next one pops up, too, so I click that.  Then, a word that isn't the next word I was going to write, but is pretty close, pops up.  And I click that.

Once in a while, I get all the way to the end of the sentence I was going to write, and Google suggests a period, so I click that.  And I wonder, when Google gets better at predictive technology, when it's able to quickly and easily digest the entirety of

(a.) My history of online and textual communication

(b.) The recorded history of my relationship with the person I'm texting

(c.) The stuff I've been doing lately and my approximate mood and energy,

what's Google going to write?

Now, I don't think that Google is ever going to reach a point where it can perfectly predict everything I was going to say.  That's past superintelligent and into brain-scanning.  But I do suspect that eventually Google will hit a point where they have the technology to carry on a conversation as if it were me talking.  Or, a version of me.  The version of me that is averaged with the rest of Google-using humanity (which would notably skew white, male, cisgender, heterosexual, and so on) and then applied to this conversation.

Would Google Me swear?

Would Google Me be more insensitive to the people I care about?  Or less insensitive?

Would I risk drifting out of consciously experiencing my conversations?  If I'm busy or distracted, would I just autofill whole chats and read them later?  Or forget to read them later?  Or assume that Google covered the important points?

What's more likely, I think, is that Google will step a little too close to acting like this, and there will be a huge ick-factor backlash (which I think would be justified in that case) and they'd dial back the functionality of their service until it didn't make people question their humanity and individuality.

Student loan bubble bursting

Yesterday Charles Stross Tweeted a link to a CNBC article pointing out that JPMorgan Chase will, as of October, no longer be making student loans.  The article makes the case that this decision, as well as the language and context by which JPMorgan Chase announced it, closely resemble the first signs of the subprime mortgage bubble bursting in 2007.

There is over $1 trillion in outstanding student loans, making it the second largest source of household debt after mortgages. Just 10 years ago, student loans stood at $240 billion. About $150 billion of the total is comprised of private student loans made by banks and other financial institutions, according to a report issued by the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau last year.

This is seriously bad news, at least in the short-term.  I'm not exactly sure how it's going to end up manifesting, but I suspect a lot of people in the middle of a degree program in 2014 are going to have to drop out.  Schools will probably lose huge chunks of revenue; will probably end up downsizing or closing. The already labyrinthine and oppressive system of laws holding down people with a large amount of student debt will probably become an even bigger burden, unless and until Congress is able to enact some emergency reforms.

In the long term, this could be another step towards comprehensive class stratification in the US: the universities that survive may just be the fancy, expensive ivy league ones and universities approaching that scale.  We may lose even the pretense that America's government and economy are set up to give the poor an opportunity to work their way out of poverty.

On the other hand, maybe this time America will snap out of the hypercapitalist fantasy that letting the people with the most money set all the rules will work out for the people with less money.  Maybe we'll get some real reform:

  • After the second bubble-burst in less than 10 years, the government may decide to try a more regulatory approach to recovery and lock down banks' ability to recklessly gamble with the fabric of the economy
  • Forced to admit that an educated populace is a non-negotiable asset, America might restructure the education system to treat higher education as a basic right and help all Americans get the education that will make them as useful as possible in the workforce and in civic life
  • Amid the collapse of pressure on colleges to extrude uniform profitable-education-product, experimental teaching methods that achieve higher rates of comprehension and practical utility might flourish, maybe even further down from college in K-12
  • By virtue of the associated collapses, the college textbook racket might collapse and students' won't have to pay $200 for a $50 book, or $50 for a $10 one
  • The government might decide that the best approach to get citizens functioning within the economy again, and simultaneously punish banks for their irresponsible lending, is to absolve all student debt. I've got my fingers crossed for this one, on behalf of several of my close friends who have unfairly large burdens for pursuing a better life

More likely, none of that will happen, and things are just going to get worse until we're dragged through a Soviet Russia style blight of poverty.

Colorado campaign for Local Power makes me think about video as an information format

You know something that bugs me about viral campaigning?  I have no idea how to tell the difference between hyped-up, reductionist campaigns like KONY 2012, and stuff that looks legitimate but might be just as bullshit like this video, "Campaign for Local Power," from Colorado:

The thing is, I can't think of any conventionally structured video content that doesn't come across as deeply, aggressively full of crap.

A year ago, I would have said that I just don't think video is a capable format for disseminating information.  But then I spent the last year watching YouTube videos, and now I'm somewhat more convinced that it's possible to create informational, and even educational, content with video.  The Vlogbrothers make a lot of videos that seem perfectly clear and not at all misleading.  So does VSauce, MinutePhysics, CGPGrey, and ViHart, along with many others.

And since this is the first time I've seriously thought about this subject and not concluded that film is a bullshit medium, here are my aggressively underthought hypotheses:

Hypotheses

Traditional documentary and ad for mat involve an anonymous narrator over video of actual stuff.  That's mostly not what happens in YouTube videos:  usually you get to directly see the person talking, even when we're supposed to take what they're saying as uncontested fact.  And, it's pretty much always the same person.  And, it's usually the person who did the research, and they're around in some capacity to answer questions and engage in discussion about the topic of the video.

Infographics: when these channels do jump away from straight video of the person talking (which some of them do at all times) the content they jump to is usually some kind of animation of diagrams, graphs, math, etc.  Stuff that, while it's manifestly not actual, real things in the world, are somewhat less inherently biased by the context.

The YouTubers I follow might just generally cover the easier topics.  They certainly second-guess themselves, a lot, on camera, when they address the bigger questions that are harder to get clear answers about, like environmental reform.

They aren't doing some of the things that conventional video does all the time:  Get a dozen people to say the same thing, to create the illusion of widespread agreement; feed information in audio format while throwing up moody, or energetic, or otherwise emotionally charged imagery to appeal to your emotions; end with specific calls to action; beg for money or deliver their viewers' eyeballs in maximum quantity to advertisers.

Closing non-conclusions

The thing that frustrates me most about this train of thought is that the only place I can really settle is "Yeah, it's basically impossible to trust any sort of explanation of information other than  your own, personal, direct grasp of things, which is susceptible to your own errors and prejudices, instead of those of whoever's doing the explaining."

I still feel like there are uniquely manipulative things about video, but I'm still totally unable to put my finger on what they are.  Maybe it's just that the people who established the conventions for video in 20th and 21st century culture were so awful at objectivity that it's totally outside the sensibility of anyone with a camera to present information fairly.

What is a whistleblower?

I spent all day today at the offices of the NECC Observer, the student newspaper on which I'm Copy Editor.  Since I had time for basically nothing else today, and I wrote a whole page of news on world events, here is one of my stories. Wikipedia (which is not a good primary source, but is a great place to get a general idea about a subject) has this to say about American whistleblowing legislation: “Whistleblowing in the U.S. is affected by a complex patchwork of contradictory laws.”

This complex patchwork is the reason that the laws relevant to Edward Snowden, and those relevant to Chelsea Manning, when defining who is and isn’t a whistleblower, are completely different. Under the Whistleblower Protection Act, federal employees have a right to submit their concerns about "a violation of law, rule or regulation; gross mismanagement; gross waste of funds; an abuse of authority; or a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety."

Under that standard, a federal employee acting with the information Snowden had could have submitted it to the US Office of Special Counsel (OSC) without fear of reprisal; however, according to a report by former federal employee Robert J. McCarthy, 98 percent of these reports are rejected. The report quotes the Government Accountability Project, saying "[t]he Federal Circuit Court of Appeals has a 3-219 track record against whistleblowers since Congress last reaffirmed the law in 1994."

There are two reasons that Snowden would not have been entitled to that protection. First, it only applies to federal employees: Snowden was a contractor, and so is entitled to no protection; second, Snowden leaked information to the Guardian, a UK newspaper.

There is no way to know whether Snowden would have used more conservative legitimate channels if any such channels existed for someone in his position.

Chelsea Manning is subjected to different regulations: above a certain rank, members of the military are actually required to blow the whistle on unethical behavior. They can be court-martialled if they don’t.

But Manning, being a Private, was below that threshold. She would only be subjected to the rule of the Non-disclosure agreements she would have signed on joining the military, making any kind of disclosure, even one motivated by conscience and judged to be in the public interest, illegal.

Neither Manning nor Snowden could possibly have approached their concerns in a way that the US government would see as legitimate. Though they both leaked information that, if addressed by the right person, would demand protection, both are by technicality outside the boundaries of that protection.

But the question about what to call these two is not just a matter of legal categorization. It also reflects a personal, moral conviction: did either of these two do the right thing? Was it in the public interest that the information they leaked be made known? There’s disagreement on that subject even within the staff here at the Observer.

The Associated Press has instructed their reporters to refer to Snowden and Manning as "Leakers," arguing that it's not appropriate for reporters striving for objectivity to choose terms loaded with a moral judgement.