A very creepy article about credit scores

Amanda Marcotte at Slate posted today about an article that went up on the New York Times website yesterday, called Perfect 10?  Never Mind That.  Ask Her for Her Credit Score.

As she nibbled on strawberry shortcake, Jessica LaShawn, a flight attendant from Chicago, tried not to get ahead of herself and imagine this first date turning into another and another, and maybe, at some point, a glimmering diamond ring and happily ever after.

She simply couldn’t help it, though. After all, he was tall, from a religious family, raised by his grandparents just as she was, worked in finance and even had great teeth.

So, this is the kind of article we're talking about -- the kind where a pretty date renders a woman unable to think about anything other than marriage.  The whole tone of the article reminds me of advice columns that dwell on differences in weight, idiosyncrasies in fashion choices, the wrong perfume, the wrong kind of smile, ordering the wrong food.  I guess, now, we have that kind of fear-mongering about financial inadequacy, too.

The article argues that one's credit score has become such a major consideration in dating that it's common for people to ask about it on the first date.  The NYT writer cites a website, datemycreditscore.com, which has a comment on the front page suggesting that people stop kidding themselves -- "can u truly love someone with a 500 credit score? [...] the answer is no,[1. sic.]" writes jbubbly, the only person whose comments are featured in the recent activity, last updated 22 months ago.  (This website totally captures the zeitgeist, right?)

Marcotte's article in Slate points out the many ways in which this article is not representative of a real reality, it's just a paranoid inflation of fringe, antisocial behavior by a handful of people reacting to an oppressively financial culture.  Marcotte writes,

Of course, a trend story that relies heavily on interviews with a mere 50 online daters does not an actual trend make. While there does seem to be an uptick in Americans piously telling each other to focus on the pragmatic and financial when dating, most people—including Mitt Romney—reserve the right to priortize love when it comes to their own living rooms and bedrooms.

What dictionaries do and are for

I should start keeping a record of arguments I have with people where, at some point, they look up a word in the dictionary, and on the merit of the definition there, declare themselves the winner and refuse to entertain any further conversation.  (Next time it happens, actually, I'll probably refer them to this blog post.) The thrust of the argument is generally:

ME [word] has certain subtexts, connotations or unavoidable connections which are relevant to its use in this conversation.

OTHER Nuh-uh!

ME It's hard to prove connotation, but having grown up in the same culture as me, you must have noticed it. I believe you're arguing in bad faith if you insist that connotation doesn't exist.

OTHER looks up the word in the dictionary.

OTHER Look, see? [Word] (n./v./w.e) [The definition, repeated verbatim, usually skipping over the full list to cite only the example most useful to their argument.]

ME The dictionary isn't the final say in word meaning.

OTHER presses his or her fingertips into his or her ears and hums loudly.

OTHER La-la-la! I can't hear you!

ME facepalms.*

I'm not saying dictionaries are useless.  They're a valuable resource -- we need some widely accepted touchstone for discussions about the meanings of words.

But that's exactly the point -- dictionaries are a starting point for discussions.  There's no sense in which it's acceptable to treat the dictionary definition as the final say in an argument.**

Dictionaries aren't created by the High Council of Words and their Meanings.  They're made by people, who look at the way words are already being used, and do their best to capture that in an easy and accessible way.  They do it in very small print, and in a very short space, because they're creating a general reference, not writing essays on each word's meaning.

Dictionaries change over time, and even words that haven't changed for centuries have context that isn't captured within the definition.

I remember in high school learning about Denotation and Connotation.  Words have their literal meaning, but they've also got inseparable baggage -- meaning that's there, lurking whenever the word is used, but which doesn't strictly adhere to the explicit meaning of the word.  That baggage is important.  It's often more important than the literal definition, and it's usually what sparks arguments about word meaning.

There's nowhere to look up connotation, and no one source you can point to and say, "There.  There it is."  It's the feeling you get because every time you hear a word in your life, it's surrounded by some or all of the same other words or ideas.

Connotation is the vehicle by which difficult issues, like racism, sexism or anti-intellectualism, pervade every form of communication even though they very rarely stick out in a clear way.

So, to anyone in my future with whom I argue about words:  if you try to end a conversation with a dictionary, I will hit you with it.†

*Yes, I do  feel weird about the fact that the format I chose for that exchange requires me to use the word 'me' incorrectly. **Unless the argument is, "What's the [specific publication of a dictionary] definition of [word]?" †Violence is never the answer.

Methodological Structures (2)

Yesterday I wrote about my own methods for structuring my life.  Now, I want to look into some of the reasons I've had to think so much about this, when it comes naturally to most people.

Religion

With all its ritual and taboo, religion is a fantastic source for lifestyle structure, if you're not too worried about the consequences of that structure.

With most major religions, varying levels of commitment allow you to take as much structure from it as you need, and let the rest slip away.  You can either be devout, going to Church every Sunday or eating Kosher or Halal, or you can celebrate the high holidays and keep a rough sense of moral expectations while you fit into the structures of your industry or community.

The main problems with religious structure are:

(a.) It has a false center of purpose -- the rituals aren't for god, they're for the institution, or the community from which they originated, or they're just OCD-style quirks that found their way in through the early years of the religion.  But they claim to be designed to please a god, so there's no way to check if they're working, or if you even want to be accomplishing the end they actually serve.

As a consequence, (b.) most of the rituals have long outlived their benefits, and even the ones that work are less than ideal.  In the bronze age, the dietary restrictions of a religion were good ways to keep from dying, and rituals like confession or prayer for others are good bronze-age substitutes for therapy and conflict resolution skills.

Government

Law provides a structure for a lot of behaviors, if you want to toe the line.  The main problem with getting your guidance from the government is that it's mostly restrictive -- laws tell you what not to do, not what you should be doing.

Society

Society has elaborate structures set out for everyone, and it's impossible not to pick up at least some of your lifestyle, probably most of it, subconsciously from the world around you.

The main problems is that they're invisible -- you don't tend to be conscious of your conditioning, and they're not organized around your own priorities.  Societal conditioning is where most racism, sexism and other isms.

Coming up with your own

Personally,  I think this is the way to go.  It's an excellent route to self-improvement, and it lets you maximize your realistic adherence to your own moral values.

The main trouble is that it's hard.  And it makes you seem weird.  And it requires that you study sociology and postmodernism to learn how to unpick all the values and structures that have been instilled in you over the course of your lifetime.

But, hey, that's fun, right?

Methodological Structures (1)

It's 11pm and I haven't gotten around to coming up with an idea for a Srs Bsns post.  Or, that's not true.  I spent about an hour brainstorming earlier today, and I'm sure I had a good idea.  But I can't remember what it was. So, instead, I'm going to write about the methodological structures I use to maintain my life -- what they are, what it's like when they work, what it's like when they fail, and what it's like when I'm trying to do something without a structure.

What they are

A methodological structure is a broad category I just pulled out of my ass to attempt to capture the spirit of a variety of things I do to force myself to get work done.

Vows

Vows are my favorite form of methodological structure.  These are things I'm required to do, but for which there's no specific consequence for failure.  I have a few incomplete vows, but none in which I have officially failed.  (I have missed a couple of deadlines in the past, but I always caught up, and usually did extra work to make up for it.)

The main benefit of vows is that I haven't ever really failed at them, and I know that, when I vow something, I can make myself stick to it.  I don't vow things lightly, but I do it a lot when it comes to my writing.  It's good for projects where I know I'm going to lose my resolve at some point, because it forces me to keep going for the sake of the vow, even if I (temporarily) don't believe in the project.

Bets

Bets are like vows, except that I'm allowed to fail, but there's a consequence if I do.  I've found these to be a lot less effective than vows, because if it ever becomes particularly daunting, I always have an out -- the bigger the bet, the harder it is to rationalize failure, but if I'm in a really bad place, I can convince myself that it's not worth it.

One of the main advantages of these structures is that they give me the ability to plan around my predictable failures.  Bets aren't actually very good at doing that, and I should really stop using them.

Lists

To-do lists are a great form of structure when putting together complicated plans on short notice.  I generally make them when I start to feel overwhelmed by the amount of work I have to do, but still have enough energy to do something.  I find organizing your time in a list can make completing tasks energizing, rather than draining, as long as I don't think too hard about why I'm following the list -- I trust the judgement of my list-making past self, and zone out into the task.

What it's like when they work

I've finished three novels, kept this blog going since September, and maintained reasonably good grades in school using these methods.  They're the primary means by which I feel capable of achieving self-improvement.

What it's like when they fail

Today is a good example of what happens when they fail.  My current structure for blogging involves three scheduled days a week, but there's no structure in my life outside that to prepare me for the work that's coming.  I don't start the Srs Bsns blogs until Wednesday, sometimes not until 11pm.  A few of the Africa posts were researced and written all in one day.

I need to improve the structures I use to compel myself to write well for this blog, but I don't know exactly where to start.  It's difficult to fit things like brainstorming and drafting into my turbulent daily schedule and I don't know how to make clean, coherent vows out of them.  Tasks with no clearly defined end-point are hard to plan for, so I need to learn some new time management techniques to improve in that area.

Trying to do things without structure

I haven't yet found something I can really succeed in without some kind of structure to it.  But I think that's true of everyone -- in many ways, structure is built into every element of our society.

But I grew up with almost no structure at home, and poorly enforced structure at school.  It wasn't until I hit my twenties that I started to seriously work towards creating something resembling a lifestyle -- a word I'd like to explore more later.

I'm going to continue this section of the post tomorrow, exploring how structure is embedded in human cultures, religions and governments, and some of the reasons to shirk that structure and attempt to construct your own.

Canada got rid of their penny

CGPGrey has already done a great video about this, so I'm not going to try to put it together as a news story.  Here's his video:

I am in favor of this, and hope it happens in America.  But I honestly don't think it's very likely, because every time I bring the issue up with people not already familiar with it, I get the same, boring, paranoid response:  it'll cause prices to go up.

Maybe that was the case in Canada.  Maybe there are a lot of paranoid Canadians freaking out about the government stealing their money... in the future... for other people.

But in America, it seems like a lot of people hold the private belief that they are secretly economists.  (I've noticed a lot of Americans seem to also believe they're doctors, comedians, singers, carpenters and foreign policy experts.)

I think that if America hasn't gotten rid of their penny by the time I'm ready to have kids, I'll try to move and raise them somewhere that has.

The concept of money

I'm not a communist.  I swear. I like money, as a concept.  I think it's useful.  I even think the free market is good for a lot of things. I am technically a socialist, in that I think there are a lot of things for which the free market is a very bad solution.  But that's not what I want to talk about.

I think that as an abstract premise, money is quite a good thing.  But I also think that the concept of money can be corrupted, and that's what we see a lot of in the version of capitalism we have in the United States.

I saw a commercial a lot like this one earlier tonight.  (I couldn't find a clip of the actual commercial I saw.)  It's for a gas card, and points out all the money you can save if you just spend enough at the right places.

It's common wisdom that "You can't get something for nothing."  The philosophical validity of that claim aside,* in our culture we're encouraged to try to get things for nothing.  The atmosphere presented by stock markets, gas cards, rewards programs, IRAs, and mortgages pressures us towards a view of money that suggests we should be trying to game the system -- that financial success means being good enough at 'money' to avoid providing full value in money for the goods or services we're asking for.

The fact that this is basically a description of the simplified version of an "economic bubble" we heard so much about in the 2000's is troubling.  But that said, this all does work out quite well for people who really are good at money.  There's a mind-bogglingly elaborate system that invites you to try to exploit it, and the more complicated a system, the easier it is to find an exploit.

For the rest of us, though, what's left is a culture that encourages us not to develop a coherent philosophy of money that suits our needs.  We're expected to want more than we can afford, and told that if we work hard enough in the right ways, we really can turn our low-income jobs into high-income lifestyles.

I don't think this is the only problem with the American economy or with American culture, but it's a significant one.  It's the same sort of problem as the cult-of-thin beauty expectations that encourage us all to look photoshopped.

I don't have an easy answer for this problem.  I don't have any sort of answer at all, really.  But, like I've been saying a lot lately, I think a big part of the solution to the problem is just understanding.  Exploring the issues with our systems and understanding that they're not the only option is ultimately all it really takes to make change happen.  Spreading that understanding is a whole task unto itself, and ultimately it's going to be someone's job to act on that understanding.  But that doesn't mean that, for the individual, understanding isn't something huge you can do.

Personally, I'm going to be trying to develop a more coherent philosophy of money.  Best wishes, talk to you tomorrow.

*I think that it's not so much a right or wrong statement as it is a close-to-useless, non-communicative statement that contains too much ill-defined presumption to convey a coherent point.

Therapy and self-esteem, and thinking about problems

I just watched an old episode of Laci Green's youtube show, Sex + (I'm not sure whether it was called that at the time, but that's the most recent title I've seen for it) titled "Does Size Matter? (b00bies version), in which she discusses the pros and cons of breast enhancement.  Here's the video:

In it, she points out that while it can seem easy and reasonable to try to change something about your physical body or situation as a quick fix for self-esteem, it's really better to work on your mind.

I agree, of course -- this isn't even really an issue for taking sides.  She's right.  But it can still; be very hard to do.  I still tend to think of a lot of my "I'll be happy if" presuppositions as being about external things.  Accomplishments, acquisitions, and conditions.  And I do think there's  a give-and-take.  A certain amount of stuff is necessary to feel stable and happy.  I mean, you have to be stable, know where you're going to sleep at night and whether you can eat the next day.

But beyond the extreme cases of lacking, it seems like this ties in a lot with the things I've been thinking about lately, about the Uganda issue, activism in general, and my work on myself in therapy.  All signs seem to point to how important it is to just know the right answers.

I don't want to blame it all on capitalism, because I think a lot of this is just the basics of being human, but in our society system it's easy to view everything as a problem of spending decisions.  I'm unhappy because I don't own the right stuff, the problem in Uganda is that they don't have enough money.

But  very often the problems we have are not spending problems, they're attitude or perspective problems.  I'm bad at feeling emotional satisfaction.  The Ugandan government is corrupt.

Of course, maybe if we were in the opposite system, we'd never run into any perspective problems, and we'd notice a lot more glaring holes where the solution really is just 'throw some money at it'.

But I think it's worth occasionally reflecting on the value of reflection.  There rae definitely problems out there, and not just little ones, some of the biggest problems we have, where the solution is just to think hard about it and find a way to understand, and the right behavior will follow naturally and easily from that.

Pi Day

So, I think I've mentioned before that I don't like most holidays.  Pi day is definitely one of the ones I like.  It's an excuse to celebrate math and eat pie. So I was thinking, today, about whether my appreciation for Pi day is a double standard.  Because the argument I've generally made for why I prefer, say, Halloween to holidays like Christmas is that Christmas (even the most secular versions thereof) celebrate values which ought to be fairly year-round.  Kindness, charity, love, and so on.  Whereas Halloween represents taking time to celebrate things (like fear, otherness, etc.) that we can't really maintain constantly.  I dislike the idea of holidays that bottle up to specific times things that should be celebrated universally.

But Pi day is about celebrating math, and I really don't think that's something out-of-the-ordinary, something that needs to be taken aside because it can't be celebrated every day.

I don't know, maybe I need to rethink my philosophy of holidays.

Happy Pi day.

Charity Debt

So, I found out about five minutes ago that J.K. Rowling isn't on Forbes Magazine's list of billionaires.  Prior to this discovery, I wasn't aware she should have been.  But as this article explains, she's only off the list because she's given too much of her money away to charity:

"New information about Rowlings' estimated $160 million in charitable giving combined with Britain's high tax rates bumped the 'Harry Potter' scribe from our list this year," stated Forbes.

Naturally, none of this likely bothers Rowling, who from the beginning has made giving back a priority for her wealth.

“You have a moral responsibility when you’ve been given far more than you need, to do wise things with it and give intelligently," she said in a past interview.

This made me think about my amount of charitable giving lately.  (None, apart from Kiva's recent promotion offering 25 dollars to lend for free.  So, arguably $25 but still none.)

I'm in a lot of debt right now, so I can't afford to start giving money.  But last time I had a job, I wasn't giving regularly either -- I gave some, when it occurred to me and was convenient.  But I didn't have a regular donation schedule set up, and that bothers me.

So, I'm going to start a new list in my book:  my charity debt.  Every month, I'm going to pick a charity, write its name down on a line, and add a $5 debt to them.  When I have more steady work and have paid off my more pressing debts, it will be $5 or 5% of my monthly income, whichever is more.

This month's charity will be Planned Parenthood, which has a convenient $5 minimum.  I'm sure I'll have more to say in the future about my philosophy of charitable giving as it develops, but offhand I imagine I'll be mixing it up between health organizations and homelessness relief in the US, responsible aid in the developing world, and direct donations to specific artists who produce work for free.  (Aaron Diaz and Jeph Jacques deserve my money, for instance.)

I hope to stick to this for the rest of my life, well into my extravagant wealth, when 5% of my income for a month would be like winning the lottery.  Or, maybe at that point I'll divide it up a little...  And maybe give away a larger percentage.

Carbon negativity

While I was cooking my lunch earlier, I watched Hank Green's most recent episode of SciShow like five times.  It's about climate change, and it's scary.

Now, I believe in climate change.  (I feel weird that I even have to say that.)  But I also believe that we're unlikely to convince a significant portion of the American public that climate change is a real thing -- I especially think we'll fail to convince enough people to force meaningful change on corporations or convert away from fossil fuels before it's absolutely necessary.

So it occurs to me that the best way to deal with that social problem is for people who do think climate change is a real thing to try to go carbon negative, finding ways not just to minimize their carbon output but to actually reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere in their daily lives.

Of course, I have no clue, whatsoever, if this is possible.  The extent of my knowledge about carbon negativity is that, on a large scale, things like huge forests act as carbon sinks, sucking up the extra carbon, which, yes, does reinforce my favorite solution for all the world's problems (put everyone in giant cities with vertical farms and let most of the world go back to wilderness) but doesn't really help me pursue lower net carbon in my daily life.

So I hereby resolve to try and learn more about my carbon consumption.  Where I can, I'll cut down on my carbon intake.  If I can, I'll start doing things that actively reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.  And as much as I can, I will endeavor to resist losing the world as we know it to one of the above-outlined apocalyptic scenarios.

Destined to be an idiot

I think if there's one thing that's undeniably true about the present time, the period of history in which the internet is invented, the early 21'st century, that thing is that it's going to be short. By that, I mean -- the dark ages went on for quite a while, and the Roman Empire quite a long time before that.  The Industrial Age even got a good hundred years in there.

But whatever you want to call the current time in history, and whatever you think is going to happen in the future, I think we can be confident that a hundred years from now, it'll look very, very different.  Probably unrecognizably so.

There are plenty of theories -- nuclear apocalypse, the Singularity, post-scarcity and the techno-utopia, mass extinction due to global warming -- but whatever it is, it's not going to be like it is now for much longer.

And one of the cool things, I think, about living in a time like this is that I'm pretty much guaranteed to be horribly wrong about everything, once you get out to a long enough scale.

I mean, I don't think I'll be quite as wrong as the people who think, for example, that the record companies are basically going to be fine once the government deals with that pesky filesharing problem, or the people who think some possibly-fictional schizophrenic from the bronze age is their Personal Lord and Savior.

But there's an insane amount of unpredictability in our future, and the best I can possibly say is "This is what I've got my fingers crossed for" -- like, "This is what I hope we'll do, and if we do it, I hope it'll work."

I'm not entirely sure why I think that's cool, but I do.

Talk to you tomorrow.

Bucket Lists are hard

Every once in a while, the concept  of the bucket list floats back into my attention.  It's pretty pervasive in our culture right now, and I think it's generally a pretty good idea -- I mean, if you start from the premise that you're going to make sacrifices and compromises to have a relatively safer and more comfortable life (which I do think everyone does eventually have to do, in some form or another) then it's a great idea to figure out your sticking points -- what sort of experiences you absolutely don't want to miss. The thing is, though, I can't write one.

I really can't.  I can't figure out what things I wouldn't be willing to die without doing.

I mean, there are a handful of things that are really important to me.  I'd like to meet Neil Gaiman (check) and Tim Minchin  (check), I want to publish a novel, but more importantly I want to build a career as a writer, I want to travel and have meaningful relationships and hopefully have kids some day and raise them to have relatively few deep emotional issues.

But as far as the sort of easy, event-based, check-off-a-list kind of things that a bucket list is well suited to organize?  I just don't think I know myself well enough to know what sorts of things those would be.

Maybe I'm wrong -- maybe the bucket list is a shallow papering-over of the reality that human desires are too complex and subtle to be satisfied with a simple checklist.  Maybe, ultimately, you don't need to compromise your selfhood, even one little bit, in order to get through an entire lifespan.  But I think that casts my current ambivalence in a bit more of a positive light than I'm confident it deserves.

That said, I think I'm on the right track in thinking about this, even if I can't actually write the list.

Talk to you tomorrow.

Hank Green tells us about Electric Airplanes

I don't have a huge amount of time to write a post tonight, so I thought I'd share a cool video I saw earlier today.  Apparently, Google, NASA, et.al., have teamed up to sponsor the creation of electric planes.  Right now, an incredibly energy-efficient plane has been created as a sort of proof-of-concept, which is awesome.

I'm a big fan of high speed electric rail, which I think might have come up here before.  The reason is that I don't think we're likely to cut down on the degree to which humans want to travel long distances, but jet planes are not really energy viable in the long term.  I figure if we want to avoid environmental and economic collapse, we need to start replacing our long-distance travel technology with substitutes that use less fuel.

My thought was trains, but as this video demonstrates, we might actually be able to get planes off fossil fuels.

That would be awesome, because it strongly suggests the hope for the future that we might be able to safely transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources without massively dropping our luxuries available.

Talk to you tomorrow.

Conspiracy theories (and climate change)

Before I get into this:  Climate change is a real thing.  That's not what I want to talk about in this post, but I don't want to leave it ambiguous.  My position is that humans have caused global climate change, that's a bad thing, and people who disagree are definitely wrong. But what I really want to talk about is the politics surrounding it, and what it says about conspiracy theories.

Normally, I tend to be very skeptical towards conspiracy theories -- more often than not, it seems the evidence available makes the most sense if you assume that everyone involved pretty much means what they say they mean and wants what they say they want.  Massive, systemic attempts to complete a task with an ulterior motive seem generally too unwieldy to be realistic.

But when it comes to the climate change issue, you sort of have to be a conspiracy theorist.

I can only see three sensible options to account for the existence of the debate over climate change:  either (a.) you believe that conservative politicians, in the pockets of lobbyists, are arguing against climate change to protect American business interests at the cost of the Earth's future, (b.) you believe that the entire institution of science is conspiring to falsify data in order to invent an environmental crisis for some reason, or (c.) I guess you believe that the media is falsifying a massive controversy or something while everyone in the real congress gets on with their lives.

There's no option that doesn't include some massive group of people being dishonest about their motives and generally being kind of super-villainy.

It's a weird distance from the usual scenario, where the conspiracy theory is juxtaposed against a bunch of people being totally honest.  Did the government lie about the moon landing, or did NASA actually do everything they said they did?  Was 9/11 an inside job, or is Al Quaeda actually the terrorist organization they said they were? The answers are obvious:  the ones that involve no major organizations conspiring together to make something pointlessly up.

I guess the take-away lesson from this is, while skepticism is good when it comes to conspiracy theories, sometimes conspiracies do happen, and when it comes to conspiracies, there's a meaningful line between skepticism and denialism.

It's Starting

Actually, it's already started, and has been going for a few weeks now.  It's already been a source of inspiration for some of my posts. I'm talking about the war on "The War on Christmas."

Being a northerner (I live in New Hampshire) the holidays are the only time of the year when religious oppression really starts to set in.

I say "Religious opression," but what I really mean is "Christian whining."  It's not like there are Islamic groups getting particularly active this time of year.  No, this is the time of the year when the entirety of the Christian nation conspires to try to force everyone else to simultaneously celebrate their holiday, and refuse to allow anyone to celebrate their holiday without making it all about their god.

Most of the year, it's not really a big deal.  My friends are mostly atheists and all accepting of my atheism, it's been years since High School, where I was afraid to let people know publicly that I was an atheist (my close friends knew, and it's not like no one ever saw me with a copy of the God Delusion, but I was always careful not to bring it up) and, in general, the only thing that really bothers me about Christianity's intrusion into the secular world is the unusual shop hours on Sundays, which seem to be the day I most frequently need something after 6pm.

I've been called Scrooge already, which is annoying after forty or so times a season.  I've been called soulless, evil and gay, though that last one isn't really an insult so much as an arguably false claim about me, and those last three were in response to an article about the Salvation Army's systemic homophobia.  People have made fun of me for celebrating, and for not celebrating, Christmas.  (I haven't actually gotten yet, this year, the solution to the double-standard:  "Just become Christian.")

There are some things I like about Christmas, but they tend to be overwhelmingly outweighed by my paired distaste for the rampant consumerism of the season, and the annual nationwide campaign to attempt to widen the hole in the separation of church and state, and shove Christianity into the homes of every non-Christian in the country.

I get mail!

So, I recently wrote an article for my school paper about why you shouldn't donate to the Salvation Army. It got responses. It got the first responses this paper has got this semester not directly from a current or former staff member. (If I remember correctly.) The responders were angry. One claimed that I do not have a soul. My favorite argument came up, in a letter preemptively insisting that free speech guaranteed my obligation to print their letter.

I don't intend to address the attacks on my character in my response (which will follow the printed letters, unedited) because it's irrelevant and I don't want to waste page space validating their attacks.  But the comment about my soul really bothered me.

I don't have a soul.  Neither does the letter-writer.  Souls don't exist.

But even if you disagree, it's illustrative of the predominant view in the United States that not being religious makes you evil that people consider it an insult on the very core of one's ability to be moral to claim that a person "doesn't have a soul."

Beyond that, though, I've noticed more and more that people seem to defend much more vehemently and with much more emotion and energy positions they don't really believe are true than positions they are firm in.  With the one exception of the civil rights movement, in which both sides fight bitterly, but only one tends to be on shaky ground, the other motivated by outrage at the massive dissonance between the obviously immoral reality and the incredibly clear solution of not marginalizing people based on irrelevant qualities.

I'm guilty of it, myself -- it's not a quality I'm particularly proud of, but I don't think anyone reading this could honestly argue that they don't feel that impulse.

It's not something you simply lack, if you're a good person.  It's a tendency one has to be mindful of.  I try to develop checks to confirm with myself whether I'm irrationally defending a position I don't really stand behind, because I feel I've been backed into a corner.

I don't think that's the case with the Salvation Army piece, and I intend to calmly defend my article in a follow-up response to the letters.  But, while I understand the motivation that lead the writers to respond, I don't respect or admire it.

Just because an orginazation calls themselves a charity doesn't mean they can't be assholes.

Boycott the Salvation Army

This post isn't actually about the reasons you should boycott the Salvation Army (though you totally should). I write for the newspaper at my school, and, being hard-pressed to come up with a topic for the upcoming issue, I decided to take the suggestion of one of my fellow staffmembers and write about the bellringers that begin to pop up around this season.

The thing is, my position isn't exactly likely to be popular.

For those of you who don't know, the Salvation Army is a proactively homophobic organization that devotes resources to acts of discrimination.  I don't support them, and I think it's morally irresponsible at best to give them your change.  (I don't care how warm and fuzzy it makes you feel.)

In the back of my mind, it bugs me a bit that I know this will probably be my least popular article this semester.  It seems like it should be really morally straightforward -- it's a bad idea to support organizations that suppress human rights.  It's not like the SA is the only organization out there that helps poor people.  Goodwill is around, so are various secular soup kitchens and homeless shelters.  There are hundreds of other charities you could devote that money to, as well.

But the SA has ingrained themselves in the Christmas culture so thoroughly that people take it like an attack on the very notion of charity when you point out the fact that that particular organization is made up of total assholes (and a great many part-assholes and less well-informed employees and volunteers who (a.) should have done better research or (b.) couldn't get a better job.)

As a general rule, I think it's a bad idea to donate money to people on the basis that they happen to be standing by with a bucket.  While I do believe most charities have good in their hearts, a lot of them don't necessarily have sense in their heads.  An irrationally run charity can do more harm than no charity at all, and it's a lot harder to do research in the thirty seconds it would otherwise take to just walk past the annoying beggar and give that same change to (a.) a real homeless person who can use it for food or (b.) go home and use that guilt you have from walking past the bellringer to motivate you to look up a charity worth supporting and send them a fiver.

Some of the text of this post might make it into my article...

On graph jokes

In an episode of David Mitchell's Soapbox, he discusses innuendo.  (I promise this will get back around to the point.)  Here's the video:

In case you, for some reason, don't want to watch a British dude pontificate for two and a half minutes, here's the point he makes that I intend to hang my thesis on:  "Innuendo is only really pleasing when not everyone gets it. [...] It stops being funny when there's no one left outside the joke."

He goes on to discuss the history of innuendo in recent decades -- the fact that in the sixties and seventies, sitcoms were "filled with innuendo -- because sex had only recently become something you could allude to, and so the place between saying something innocent and saying something rude was fraught with tension, ambiguity, and, so, humour. [sic]"

Now, here's my thesis: I think we're seeing much the same sort of thing going on today with science, and I think the proliferation of graph jokes on the internet is a sign of that.

I think we're at a point, culturally, where the idea that most things can be sensibly expressed in chart form is still controversial.  Not in a media/election way, not the kind of controversy people have heated arguments about, but in the sense that a lot of people still have an intuitive, ingrained sense that there's something a little bit wrong with bringing certain topics into the realm of clear, unambiguous expression, like with flow charts or with graphs.

It's funny, in the same way innuendo was funny in the aforementioned sixties, because there are people who are on board with the idea that it's okay to talk about pretty much anything in a logical or scientific sense, and that it doesn't diminish the meaningfulness or personalness of the thing being talked about.

Those people, when they see something charted unexpectedly, get a kick out of it, because it's exciting to see the transgression of a social norm that supports your beliefs.  In the same way, innuendo was funny because it was exciting to see other people who also hold the implied belief that it is, basically, okay to talk about sex.

The reason I bring this up in the context of that David Mitchell video is, I think this is all going to stop being funny eventually, and I think that's really pretty awesome.  Because if he's right, and if my analogy is valid, then the hilariousness of charts at the moment is a strong indicator that, within the next few decades, it's going to become culturally normal and uncontroversial to make a point of being accurate and clear, no matter what you're talking about.

The charts are just one area I see this in.  There's also the present day disconnect in art, the expectation that it's okay, expected, and even right to be dishonest or inaccurate in music, poetry, or on TV shows and in movies.

Right now, just being totally honest about reality in a love song is enough to get a laugh:

But maybe this is an indication that, in twenty or forty years, it'll be considered normal throughout mainstream culture to admit that, if you weren't with your current partner, you might not necessarily be miserable and alone.  Even if it's in a song.

(incredibly creepy counterexample.)

In summary:  graph jokes are awesome, but I think they're going to get old, because I'm optimistic about the future of rational discourse in society.

Thoughts?

Some comments on OWS

This morning, in the early hours of the morning, the NYPD raided the Occupy Wall Street camp to evict them.  Over the course of the morning, a restraining order was issued against the police, but they continued to illegally remove the protesters.  Among the variety of disgusting transgressions, the one that most vividly stuck out to me was the police's destruction of over 5000 books in the OWS public library. The mayor ultimately won the court case, around 3pm today, to evict the protesters from the park. Last I heard, the protesters are returning anyway.

Which is good.

New York and the country had every opportunity to let this persist as a peaceful protest.  But if the government intends to take up arms against the people, it is responsible, respectable and admirable for the people to return exactly as much resistance as is necessary to counter that effort.

The middle-of-the-night attempts to evict the protesters is just more evidence of the systemic corruption of our legal system and national political infrastructure.  The occupation must go on.

Talk to you tomorrow.

The valid ad hominem

[Note: I intend to use some mildly NSFW language in this post.  I don't know why I'm so anal about warnings on  that topic, but I am, so, well, shove it.] The title of this post is slightly misleading, but gets at the heart of what I want to say.

Thesis:  I think there are circumstances in which it's valid, in an argument, to call your opponent an asshole.  I think there are circumstances in an argument where the fact that your opponent is being an asshole is grounds for rejecting their argument.

The particular case I have in mind is when your opponent is arguing in bad faith, which I will define here as pursuing a purpose other than the reasonable and fair resolution of the argument.

You can identify when someone is doing it by the feeling you get during the conversation.  If your opponent says something, and you feel stricken by an inability to refute it, because it's inconsistent with the basic presuppositions necessary to stage the conversation, they're being an asshole.

It's hard to respond, because what they say is usually something that would be perfectly valid in a certain kind of conversation, but which is, or should be, self-evidently invalid in the one you're having.

For example, if you're arguing with your boyfriend (let's assume you're monogamous, committed, and open to relationships with men) because he got head from a girl at a party the previous night, you might claim, "You cheated on me."

If he were to respond, "The construct of cheating in a relationship implies ownership, which is ethically indefensible," he's an asshole.  Not because that's an indefensible ethical position, but because if he believed that, he should have brought it up at the start of the relationship.

It's not that he has to be wrong for his point to be invalid.  It's that his point is inappropriate in scale to the conversation that's going on.

Another good word for what he's doing in this conversation is being pretentious.  Ask me some time and I'll rant about that word for hours, but in this case it definitely applies.

On that count, I feel I should point out that it goes both ways.   Throwing out abstract ethical arguments in a specific-case conversation about a real, immediate issue can be pretentious.  It isn't always -- your hypothetical boyfriend had told you about his views on cheating early on, bringing up that you knew that was how he felt would be legitimate.

But it's also pretentious to attempt to pull an abstract conversation down to the level of immediate, every day life.  This is something a lot of people who aren't liberal arts majors do.  (There are definitely people who don't, and I love them for it.  If you can tell the difference between a conversation you understand and one you don't, and subsequently contribute or not based on that knowledge, thank you.  From the bottom of my heart.)  People who do this are assholes.

For example, if you and your hypothetical boyfriend are having a conversation about the nature of truth, and he says, "Ultimately, there's no meaningful difference between truth and lie -- all language represents a distortion of reality in such a way as to make it convenient for other people to handle.  It's impossible to make a true statement."

And you respond, "Bullshit -- it is, for example, true that you cheated on me last week."  You're being a pretentious asshole.  (We're assuming this is a different conversation entirely, not a continuation of the earlier one.)

In both examples, one of you is refusing to play ball by the implied rules of the context.  In these cases, I think it's okay to just call the other person an asshole.

Why?  Because implied rules of context are complicated.  I could talk about them for hours, and probably wouldn't be able to get most of the people I talk to to understand what I meant.  It's about as reasonable to expect someone to be able to explain exactly what someone's doing wrong when they break those rules as it is reasonable to expect the average man-or-woman on the street to explain the financial crisis.

People tend not to like thinking of their minds as being too complicated for them to explain.  It's outside our comfort level in a way that accepting that our circulatory system is too complicated for us to explain just isn't.  Assholes exploit that discomfort by cheating in ways most of us can't articulate, and don't really want to have to think about.  Often they'll use the subsequent tongue-tied phenomenon to declare success.  But that doesn't make them right.  It makes them assholes.