Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The Bus Riding Experience And Living In Late Capitalism

Last weekend I went to Vernon, Connecticut to visit some family members. Vernon is kind of near East Hartford, kind of in the middle of Connecticut, which means it's like a suburb in a state that is, itself, almost like a suburb of something else. All of that to say: it's a place where transportation becomes a major issue for me.

As regular readers know, I hate to drive -- and I often take the bus. I find it exhausting to pay close attention to a high-stakes and potentially lethal activity over a sustained period of time, and I find it stressful knowing that a wrong move could cause life-changing injuries or death for other people or myself. As someone who doesn't drive a lot, I'm constantly amazed that this kind of insane activity has become so embedded in everyday life.

Anyway, for complicated reasons, when I visit Vernon I usually fly in and out of Logan Airport in Boston. This is because a bus ride between Toronto and Hartford takes around 15 hours (literally, as we say nowadays -- you can look it up), and because flying between Toronto and Hartford is complicated and expensive. Going between Logan Airport and Vernon, I face a major decision: I can drive, which is around 1 hour and 45 minutes, in some pretty intense traffic, or I can take a sort of long public transit journey involving  the Silver Line bus between Logan and South Station and a bus between South Station and Hartford.

In the past, I've usually settled myself into what seems to be everyone else's denial, that driving is a normal everyday sort of activity, and done the drive between Logan and Vernon. This time, though, I was sick with a bad cold. So on the way back, I decided to do the transit option. And for the bus between Hartford and South Station, my best option was the Megabus (the fancy Acela doesn't stop in Hartford).

I have no complaint about the Megabus itself, which left on time and arrived early. What this post is about is about the Megabus ... um ... pick up spot? Which is 1) not associated with a station 2) not associated with a street address, 3) not marked as a Megabus location, and 4) not near any normal places where you could get some water or use a bathroom.

On the ticket, the "from" location is listed as "Hartford, CT, Columbus Blvd between Morgan & Talcott St." Here is the place viewed from across the street:

And here is the view from the bus stop:

I feel like having a bus that picks you up at an unmarked location between one street and another, surrounded by freeway overpasses, is a symbol of something distinctive about modern capitalism even if I'm not sure exactly what it is. Hartford has a perfectly good bus station, one that is actually linked with the train station, and is right downtown, very convenient. So I'm assuming this arrangement arises because there are fees associating with using the terminal that Megabus wants to avoid. I'm not blaming Megabus -- they want to offer cheap fares and make money. And who knows how those fees are set? Still, the outcome seems bad, and I hate the feeling that the things poor people use get worse and the things rich people use get better.

From a governance point of view, driving is massively subsidized, even though car accidents are a major cause of death and horrible for the environment. You couldn't toss in a few bucks for a bathroom, a water fountain -- or, I'm really dreaming now -- a ticket counter for bus riders? Maybe you could even incentivize companies like Megabus to use your station, rather than charging them for it?

From a markets point of view, when I'm reflecting on these matters, I frequently find myself thinking more broadly about the market forces that shape the options I have and don't have as a consumer. I want to take a reasonably comfortable bus ride, and I am willing to pay a bit extra for that, since I am lucky in making a good salary. But that option doesn't exist for me, partly because the other people who make the money I make prefer to spend it on driving. So, to satisfy my consumer preference would require getting enough people to share it that it becomes a profitable option for someone else.

When it comes to driving and busses, I think that project is a lost cause. Nobody likes to take the bus. In enjoying a ride of kicking back, with my podcasts and playlists, daydreaming out the window without a care in the world, I see to be in a tiny minority.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Juuling And The Youth Mood Of Comedic Despair

 I loved Jia Tolentino's recent New Yorker article about teen vaping and the rise of the Juul -- which was not only informative but also avoided the whole "OMG teens are doing a thing, oh no."

In case you don't know, a Juul is an electronic nicotine vaporizer that looks like a flash drive and that you can recharge using your computer. A lot of the article is about adults worrying that Juuling, like other kinds of vaping, is creating nicotine addicts instead of helping them -- but let's just pass over that part. From a cultural perspective, I'd say that the most noteworthy things about the Juul are the aesthetics, the mood, and the price.

Aesthetically, at first I was surprised to hear that teens found smoking "gross" and Juuling cool. I smoked for a long time, and though I quit years ago, I still miss smoking. And of course most of that is nicotine-related, but clearly I am not alone in thinking that smoking is cool. And if you're coming from a point of view in which smoking is cool, how could you prefer this ... piece of plastic with "rounded edges and a gently burnished finish"? It sounds like a generic piece of computer equipment.

But the cool of Juul is explained later: "Teen Juul iconography radiates a dirtbag silliness. Vapes are meme-ready, funny in a way that cigarettes never were: the black-and-white photograph of James Dean smoking in shirtsleeves has been replaced with paparazzi snaps of Ben Affleck ripping an e-cig in his car. In one popular video, a girl tries to Juul with four corn dogs in her mouth." This I can understand. If Instagram is your aesthetic reference point, and everything should either be sleekly sexy or humorously ridiculous, the Juul is going to fit your life and a cigarette is going to seem ash-producing and literally filthy. Of course, there's a generational factor: the teens interviewed are very clear that Juuling is for the young: one person describes her older sister as a Juuler -- and how weird that looks, because her sister, at 23, is "older."

The teens that Tolentino interviews have a perspective on Juuling, and on life, that I found not only familiar from my own youth but that actually resonated with my mood right now. One young man said that "Juul represents his generation’s 'tech-savvy ingenuity when it comes to making bad decisions,' but added that "his generation was most flippant when it came to serious things, 'like health, or mortality.'" When asked if Juuling was a destressor for young people or a source of stress, a young woman said, "I don’t know ... People definitely stress-Juul. But everything we do is like Tide Pods. Everyone in this generation is semi-ironically, like, We’re ready to die.”

In a way, I feel like this is a general feeling in adolescence, which is why teenagers engage in so many risky and unhealthy behaviors. Those behaviors are fun, and who cares? This is not a knock on teenagers, by the way -- they may very well be right about the meaning of life and it's the rest of us who are trapped in the risk-averseness of growing up.

But in another way, I feel like "semi-ironically ready to die" has a particular resonance to being young in modern America. With climate change, police shootings, school shootings, health-car-via-GoFundMe -- for fuck's sake. In this context, "semi-ironic" is kind of a heroic stance.

In any case, price-wise: at least for teens, Juul is expensive. Teens can't shop in the online store, so there's a whole resale-markup-dealer situation going on for them, and Juuling is associated with teens who have cars and money. I don't have much to say about this except that it is ultra coherent with every other trend in which extra money is more and more essential to having any of the things.

Part of me wants to share and partake in the generalized mood of comedic despair that the Juul seems to refer to. But, at my stage of life, I also feel an obligation not to be too ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. We older people are supposed to have perspective and experience that will enable us to be constructive and helpful, to maybe steer the world toward solutions; even if there aren't any solutions, we have an obligation to care for people and help them feel less alienated and frightened. Ultimately, like Juuling itself, comedic despair is not always good look on a middle-aged person.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

TKIN Is Back In Action

After a brief hiatus, this blog is back. The plan is to resume posting every Tuesday, starting today with a reflection on consumer loyalty programs, Canadian frugality, and American profligacy. Thank you, loyal readers, you're the best!

Why Do Canadians Love Consumer Loyalty Programs?

When I moved here in 2004, one thing I did not anticipate about Life In Canada was the ubiquity of consumer loyalty programs. As Canadians well know, these fall into two categories: there is the Mother Of All Loyalty Programs, the so-called "Air Miles" program, and then there are the zillions of smaller ones, like Canadian Tire Dollars, Shoppers' Drug Mart Optimum cards, and endless coffee punch cards. My university eateries even have a punch card loyalty program for soup.

I generally don't participate in consumer loyalty programs. I'd like to say this for high-minded reasons related to surveillance and resistance, and sure, that's part of it, but the real reason is that I'm trying to get on with my fucking life. I don't know how people have the patience and mental energy to carry around all these cards and fish them out of their wallets at the appropriate moment, never mind waiting for every other patron in front of them to do the same. Am I the only person who wants to die when I'm behind seven people in the LCBO line and the cashier says "Air Miles"? and the customer is like 'Oh ... yeah ... uh ... wait ... I can't ... um ... hold on ... can you do it with my phone number?"

I know there are loyalty programs in the US, and people use them at the grocery store, but somehow the whole thing takes on a different texture here. If you're not Canadian, you might not appreciate the way loyalty programs are such a centrality of life here.

The "Air Miles" program sounds like something to do with frequent flyer miles -- and when I first moved here I kept confusing it with "Aeroplan," which is the actual miles program associated with Air Canada. But AirMiles is everything. You get points on different kinds of purchases and then you spend them on all kinds of things. 

News and controversy about loyalty programs regularly feature on the front news page of the CBC webpage, and in recent years the rewards of Air Miles have been big news. It used to be that Air Miles didn't expire, and then in 2016 it was announced that they would, so people would lose miles received before 2012. People were enraged, and the company backed down. Then the federal government stepped in and said that loyalty programs can't have expiration dates. The Air Miles people were also accused of shenanigans, where you could only see the big rewards if you didn't have enough points for them, and later they disappeared. Then last year people started stealing Optimum points. I don't know how this works, but it's like you're racking up points at home in Sastaktoon and someone goes and spends your points in Quebec.

This corner of Canadian culture gives me mixed feelings. For one thing, seeing news stories like "Thieves steal millions of PC Optimum points" as headline news, I often go through a two-step emotional response. First, I feel a wash of gratitude, that I am lucky enough to live in a country so peaceful and prosperous that "Thieves steal loyalty program points" is big-time, national news. But then, there are newsworthy things happening in Canada, and sometimes I learn about Canadian news related to Indigenous people or foreign policy in The Guardian. So I'm like, Wait, why wasn't this covered at home? Why are we reading about loyalty points?

More fundamentally, I'm ambivalent about the kind of sensible Canadian frugality that seems to motivate the careful, ongoing, attentive use of loyalty programs. Canadian frugality is so different from American profligacy. These are, I think, deeply rooted cultural differences. Go to Buffalo and you'll see block after block of huge, beautiful Victorian houses, made of wood, with high ceilings. Cross into Ontario, and you'll see houses made of brick, with small, cozy living rooms, perfect for keeping warm in a cold climate. Even in the late 1800s, Americans were thinking Go Big Or Go Home.

I admire Canadian frugality -- it is probably linked to all kinds of other wonderful Canadian qualities like generosity and good sense -- but I cannot see myself reflected in it. I know that by punching 12 punches in a card I can get a free cup of coffee, but I just don't care. Sure, at this point I'm lucky to make enough money that I can just pay for the extra cup, but honestly I wasn't frugal in this way when I was a waitress and a grad student and trying to help my poor, widowed mother. I'd rather ratchet down my living standard altogether, or go without the extra cup of coffee, than attend to the ways that I can incrementally make things better by paying careful attention over time.

My reluctance to participate in loyalty programs is a source of ongoing interpersonal awkwardness for me, especially buying coffee on campus. The efficient and helpful people who work in food services here are always like "Coffee card?" and I'm like "No, thank you," and sometimes they ask "Why not?" and I try to explain "I can't handle keeping track of all those cards" -- and then we look at each other with mutual misunderstanding. It always reminds me of when an American colleague came to visit our Department, and went to buy wine at the LCBO, and the cashier said, "Air Miles"? And she, befuddled by what this could mean, answered "Sorry, I don't know what you're talking about. I'm not even from this country."

Sunday, April 29, 2018

The Elena Ferrante Novels, Philosophy, Naples, and Me

It seems like forever that I'd been meaning to read the Elena Ferrante novels about Naples. I kept hearing how good they are, and how they are about Naples in some deep sense. Naples is interesting to me, partly because my grandmother's family was from Gaeta, near Naples. Also, I read the book Gamorrah and saw the movie, and it's about Naples. The movie has incredible scenes of housing projects that are simultaneously horribly run-down and dysfunctional and also weirdly beautiful. I remember when I saw the movie, the discomfort I felt at aestheticizing someone's poverty. But then, so much about movies involves complicity with some morally questionable aestheticizing of something.

Finally in April I started reading them, and once I started I couldn't put them down, and now I am in the middle of the fourth and final book. In one sense, the books are primarily about the state of womanhood in the modern world: about women's relations with other women, with men, with family, with work, with the various constraints that form the tracks that guide our lives into territory we hadn't meant to be heading toward.

But the books are also speaking to me in more specific ways. One theme has to do with the relationship between the world of books, learning and ideas and the worlds of practicality, poverty, and politics. Not surprisingly, this is something I think about often. As I often tell people, my journey into academia was initially prompted by my condition as an American without health insurance working as a waitress. Though I didn't have money, I was lucky to have had a lot of cultural capital, and I was good at math, so I figured it might work out. A zillion years later, here I am, a professor of philosophy.

Over these years I've become increasingly interested in doing philosophy in ways that connects it up with ordinary life, but in my darker moods I despair of this even being possible. You have ideas, and you want to bring them to life in context; but very quickly the situation reveals itself to be one of convincing some people to believe one thing rather than another or at least question something to which they've long been committed, which is no longer a problem in philosophy but more a problem in politics and rhetoric. And honestly, if you want people to reconsider how they see the world, a novel or a movie is going to be way more effective. So, in these moods, I'm like WTF am I doing?

I know there are answers; I wrote about some of them here and here. If you can't think things through for yourself, you can't form your own opinions at all; thinking is often difficult and uncomfortable. My friends have answers too, and they talk me down. Still, there is this feeling of a distance, between the idea world and world of people, events, and things. In the Naples books, this distance moves from metaphorical to literal, as the characters' different paths renders them able to communicate only imperfectly.

A second more particular theme is the specific social and class structure of Italian and Neapolitan society in the decades between 1945 and now. I have to admit an uncomfortable truth: that there is something about the dysfunction of Italy that soothes and appeals to me. This is uncomfortable for the obvious reason that it's horrible to feel positive in response to people miserable over lack of work and failing social structures. Of course, I don't feel positively about it on balance. I see its badness.

But if there is a twinge of something, I think I can chalk it up to this. Italian society seems explicitly and self-knowingly in a post-empire state: one in which the choices are often all bad, and the task is muddling through. In North America, by contrast, the mood of optimism, the relentless moral smugness, and the rhetoric of opportunity, meritocracy, and free choice exist exhaustingly alongside the reality of exploitation, global violence, and oppression. I feel like it would be comforting for me for the surface to match the reality, for the mood of the people and even the infrastructure to reflect, in an obvious way, the darkness.

I keep wondering who Elena Ferrante is. I know the name "Elena Ferrante" is a pseudonym, and I know that a few years ago there was an internet kerfuffle over her real identity. I do not know -- because I don't want to know, at least not yet -- whether that kerfuffle ended in her identity being revealed. As a result, I have exerted Herculean self-control not to look this up. I guess I don't want to know what her real relationship is to Naples, or to academia, or to other people. Given that all of this information is like ten keystrokes away at any given moment, it's hard to say how long my ignorance can last.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Is This Blog On Hiatus Or What?

After almost ten years of regular posting on this blog, I find myself unable to put the words together on a regular basis. What is up with that?

Is it that I'm busy with extra administrative tasks at my job? I've had over a hundred applications for two short-term academic jobs to read over the last couple of weeks, so maybe.

Is it that I'm worn out putting words together? I am revising a draft of my book manuscript -- tentatively titled "The Philosophy of Sex and Love: An Opinionated Introduction" -- which requires massive amounts of time rewriting, reorganizing, reframing, reeverything, so sure, that could be it.

Is it that writing anything on the internet right now feels either nerve-racking or pointless or both? Sometimes I get into a mood where for everything I might say, I can imagine immediately what the various intellectual and emotional responses are, and I can imagine how I feel about them, and then I move on to how that seems from a wider point of view, and ... Once I start in that direction there's no real destination for me except cocktails. Sometimes with even one tweet, I can through that whole mental process and I'm so over the whole thing before I even start typing. I've been in that mood lately,  I expect that yes, there's some of that.

Is it the disconnect between the hilarious prose that I want to write and the plodding prose I feel I end up writing that's getting me down? The other day I was joking with someone about a topic so dark and awful I am not even going to name it here, and we were laughing hysterically. I felt, as I so often do, the power of black humor to make life feel worth living. But, as they say, dying is easy and comedy is hard. Plus, black humor on the internet is tricky. Did I mention that writing anything on the internet now feels nerve-racking or pointless or both?

Maybe it's time to shake things up. We'll see. I'd write more now, but I have more job application files to read before tomorrow. See you next week, hopefully! 

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Cost-Benefit Analysis And Informed Consent Both Seem Neutral But They're Totally Different

Because I'm interested in value pluralism, I spend a certain amount of time thinking about two seeming alternative approaches to complex ethical situations, namely efficiency and informed consent.

As I see it, in contexts of value pluralism, making ethically complex decisions often requires making trade offs among values and figuring out what to do in cases of moral conflict. For example, we might value autonomy, benevolence, justice, honesty, and fidelity -- and these might recommend different actions in different circumstances. If you have to lie to keep a secret that you've promised to keep, honesty might entail telling the truth, while fidelity and keeping commitments might entail lying. We might make different judgments about which value matters more in a given case, and those decisions might be highly context-sensitive. Crucially, those judgments require judgment: someone has to make a decision about what they think matters and why.

One of the knocks on this kind of pluralism is that because it relies on ethical judgments, it is arbitrary and subjective. Someone has to make a moral judgment. How? And based on what? If you want to see why I think that these criticisms are misplaced, you can read my book. The point of this post has to do with the potential alternatives. Very broadly speaking, two alternative ways to approach decision-making are through cost-benefit-analysis and informed consent. Those aren't ethical theories, but they are informal descriptions of methods people use. What's interesting to me is that while these are often simultaneously treated as impartial, objective, and commonsensical, they're also really deeply different.

As everyone probably knows, cost-benefit analysis means adding up the costs and benefits and generally choosing the action that maximizes the benefits at the least cost. Costs and benefits can refer to money, or they can refer very generally to well-being and preference satisfaction, or to something else. If you're trying to decide where to build a new road, you might add up the costs and benefits and see which proposal looks best.

Informed consent may be most familiar to us from medical ethics, but it is in play in any system in which rights and voluntary exchange are seen as the relevant ethical components. When we round up people for testing a new medical treatment, we don't use cost-benefit analysis and then choose the best people and make them do it; we recruit people and ask them to give their informed consent. Presumably, that's because we think people have a right to control what happens to an in their bodies.

These two ways of approaching issues are really different. One focuses on what's best for the group, and doesn't pay much attention to individual rights. The other focuses entirely on individual rights, and doesn't pay much attention to what's best for the group.

In regular life, I expect most of us shift smoothly from one to the other as seems appropriate. If you're thinking about the social norms around deciding whether or not to have sex, it would be strange to use cost-benefit analysis. What if person A really really wanted it and person B mostly didn't? Could CBA could yield the conclusion that B had to go along with it? Typically, we use the autonomy-decision-consent framework there. If you're thinking institutionally, though, about questions like where and how a university should build new gym or dorm space, then cost benefit analysis may be just what you want. Would you really want to give each person a veto?

How do we know when to use the one and when to use the other? It's complicated, but roughly something like this: some areas of life concern basic rights and you have to use the autonomy/consent framework; others involve presumed cooperation and you expect to use the CBA framework. When? It's based on institutional structures and also background judgment.

Sometimes, we use a mix of the two approaches. This CBC story describes a situation where a provincial government is deciding to close a small town because it is too expensive to supply the town with resources. The way the system works, communities must volunteer to close and in a vote, at least 90 per cent of residents must be in favour of relocating; then if they do relocate, each resident receives between $250,000 and $270,000 to move to another town.

It's not CBA, since there's a consent requirement. It's not the consent-autonomy framework, because you might be in that 10 percent who doesn't want to move; also, I'm guessing CBA of some kind was used in arriving at the dollar range specified. It's a mix. Where did that "90 percent" come from? I imagine it's a number that seemed about right to someone, based on all the factors involved. It's a judgment.

So: if we use our judgment in deciding when to use the various frameworks, and if sometimes we use a mix of the two approaches that incorporates some group thinking and some individual thinking ... well, doesn't that mean we're always using the same kind of judgment calls that value pluralism makes use of?

These two ways of looking at things might seem objective or neutral, but the fact that they're so different ethically shows they're not really objective or neutral. They're value systems. That is not bad -- it's good! But as long as you're using a value system anyway .. why not use one that reflects the full multiplicity of values and represents accurately the complexity of ethical decisions? It sometimes seems uncomfortable for decision-processes to rely on judgment and values, because then we have to ask, "Whose judgment and values"? But I think any way of making complex choices relies on judgment and values. So that question is, in some sense, always with us, even when we can't see it clearly. 

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Frankenstein And Feminist Ethics

Mary Shelley
I've always had a thing for Mary Shelley. I love the book Frankenstein, and have always thought it a seriously philosophical work -- nothing like the monster movies that came later. Shelley's life, full of adventure, literature, politics and parenting, was incredible.

So I was excited to read Jill Lepore's New Yorker article contextualizing some of the history of Frankenstein. I already had the opinion that the book is more about motherhood than about science, but it was cool to see everything assembled in a tidy package. As I wrote about before, if you've read the book, you know that what changes the creature from a kindly awkward creature into a violent monster is that his creator despises him. He has no one to love him. He has no mother. This leads to the violence that ruins the lives of everyone in the story. Lepore talks about Shelley's miscarriages and how many infants she gave birth to who died soon after being born -- basically, "eight years of near-constant pregnancy and loss."

I learned two new things about Frankenstein. One is that the story wrapped within a story wrapped within a narration allows the novel to depict different perspectives all at the same time. Lepore says it's like nesting dolls. and because of this, people debated whether the politics of the book are revolutionary or counter-revolutionary.

A second, more interesting, thing is that the creature's account of his eduction closely follows the conventions of the slave narratives of the time and that the creature's experience was understood to implicate the institution of slavery.

You may remember that the creature, on being chased out of the lab and roaming the countryside trying to find warmth, shelter, and companionship, then listens to a family through a hole in the wall and later comes upon books by Milton, Plutarch and Goethe. This is how he learns to read and write and think in language. I learned from Lepore's piece that despite Sir Walter Scott finding this "preposterous," it actually echoes stories like that of Frederick Douglas, who learned to read by trading with white boys for lessons and later from reading books. I had no idea that Shelley and her contemporaries were following debates over abolition, or that the relationship between the creator and his creation was widely seen as a parallel for the United States and slaves who, if freed, were sure to seek vengeance. Now I want to read Elizabeth Young's Black Frankenstein.  

One thing Lepore doesn't discuss, that I've always wondered about, is the relation between the motherhood themes of Frankenstein and the philosophy of Shelley's father, William Godwin. Shelley was the daughter of Godwin and philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, but Wollstonecraft died soon after giving birth, so she was raised by Godwin (and, eventually, a stepmother). Godwin was a utilitarian and a famous impartialist -- meaning that ethically we ought to treat each person as equally deserving of our moral consideration.

I learned from reading Peter Singer that Godwin proposed a thought experiment: you are outside a burning building and inside is a famous author and also your father, who happens to be the author's valet. The author writes the kind of books that bring moral uplifting and happiness to many people. You have to decide whether to save the author or your father. Godwin said you should save the author, because morality requires impartiality, and impartially the author will bring a greater amount of happiness and well-being to the world than your father ever would.

I don't know much about Godwin, but doesn't that sound like the opposite of the themes of Frankenstein? Part of the point of the book is that without that deep and highly partial love that a parent can give you, you cannot develop into a proper human (or, proper creature in this case).

I'm not saying utilitarianism is pro-monster, obviously. It's more a question of how love fits into it, and how caring is essential to ethical life. Shelley's perspective fits with contemporary feminist ethics and ethics of care, but now I'm curious of what she thought of her father's philosophy.

In the end, one of Shelley's children lived, and after a serious of difficulties, Shelley devoted her later life to bringing up her son, educating him, supporting him and her father, while traveling and writing. Along the way, she helped all kinds of people, especially women whom society disapproved of. We love you, Mary Shelley!

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

How Did I Fail To Read Any Books In January 2018?

I could be wrong, but I think that January 2018 was the first month since I started this blog that I read zero books. I mean, zero of the non-philosophy books that I read for fun and general interest and list here on the right hand side of this blog.

A month with no books disturbs me. Not because I have some weird hifalutin idea about the life of the mind and not because I'm snobby about books as opposed to other forms of entertainment -- but just because I like to read, and I'm like, what the hell have I been doing with my time? Why didn't I read any books in January?

Of course, the "what have I been doing with my time" invites the honest, universal, and prima facie relevant answer that "Well, I've been busy." It is true that my job is time-consuming and I've been extra busy lately. But I don't think that's the crucial issue. In the past, there have actually been times when I've been extra busy and I've read more books, because I'm extra in need of the distraction and decompression that novels provide. And I can read anywhere. I like to eat alone and read. I read when I'm waiting in line or early to something. I read before dinner, when I'm just home from the gym, and I read after dinner.

So it's not a brute time factor. I have two hypotheses, which are equally uncomfortable for me in different ways.

The first is: I've been looking at the internet. Yes, all those times when I'm sitting around or early to something or whatever, instead of looking at a novel, I've been looking at the news on my phone. GAWD -- as my mother would have said. It doesn't even have the interactivity of social media, it's just stupid stories about Brexit, and Donald Trump, and school shootings, and more Brexit. I don't know if I have a soft spot for British news because Britain is truly dysfunctional in a more entertaining way than the US or whether I'm kidding myself about that, but man, do I read a lot about British dysfunction. In any case, as a way of spending time, it's ridiculous.

The second is: I was catching up on my New Yorker reading. OK, I know this sounds like an absurd thing to be concerned about but hear me out. Throughout my life, I've heard always hear people talk about how they were "behind on their New Yorker reading." For me, this was in the same category as something like "I have eight books on my bedside table that I've started and haven't finished." And I felt like they were both absurd in similar ways. Because, when it comes to art, I prided myself on doing the things I liked doing and not doing the other things.

I don't like having "guilty pleasures." When I have pleasures, I like to stand up for them. Like Beavis and Butthead, or the song Blurred Lines (yes. I wrote about it here.) And I don't like having the opposite of guilty pleasures -- which, whatever you'd call them, are like things you feel you ought to do for culture but you don't want to. Artistically, I am invested in doing the things I like doing and not other things. And "catching up on" New Yorker reading always felt to me like the opposite of that. 

And yet here I am. I got like ten issues behind, and I couldn't bear to just let it go and start up again on the new issue. I'm not sure why. So all those moments, when I could have been reading a novel, I was catching up on my New Yorker reading -- I mean, when I wasn't drowning in news about Brexit.

The good news is, I'm all caught up. And before February was over my friend said to me, casually, Oh, have you read An American Marriage? It's really good. Got it, on it, hopefully back on track.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

For Your Consideration: Some Images

Hello loyal readers! I wasn't able to write something for you this week because I am trying to revise a book manuscript and it is taking up all my words. For your entertainment pleasure, however, here are some images of interest.

First, we have the following phone capture, representing a text message I received when a family member had a health procedure in the United States.

The way it works is you give them your phone number and they put you in a system so they can text you with news, updates, and offers. I also received a special welcome card with an offer of $2.50 off any food or beverage purchased in the hospital cafeteria. Maybe it's because I've been in Canada so long, but this all seemed such a perfect representation of the capitalism of the US heath care system. Minus: many people with no health care! Plus: texting and welcome gifts for the well-insured!

Next, we have the following iPhone auto-correct on my phone. I don't know why, but I'm easily amused by auto-correct humor. A site like this can amuse me for -- well, minutes on end, anyway.

In this case, I just couldn't get over that mistyping "Hello" as "Vhello" would lead to the suggestions of "Chelonia" and "Chelicarae." WTF?

Finally, we have this graffito (on the bottom) in the Women's bathroom at Robarts Library in Toronto:

It says "Change the world, idiots, not yourself." This is a useful and philosophically sophisticated statement. I don't know if it is meant to apply to this ad specifically (which is for birth control, though you wouldn't know that from the ad, I guess because the have to be cagey about it?) or whether it's just a general statement.  Either way, I'm always happy to see it and be reminded. It's not me, world -- it's you.