Monday, March 31, 2014

Balance In The News Of The Future

Double Octuple Newspaper Press [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Save Lives With This One Easy Trick?
March 31, 2034

Researchers at Mikewa State University have announced a breakthrough in curing the virulent and often fatal strain of Vole Flu that's been sweeping the nation. "It's amazing," said Dr. Sanura Ade, head of the research team. "We found that a cheap and safe treatment made of water and cranberry juice worked in 99 percent of cases."

The question does remain of how to ensure the nation's limited cranberry supply gets properly distributed. A spokesperson for Nice People Without Borders suggested that the problem was a simple one to solve, explaining that "it just costs a few dollars to ship a box of cranberries" and that larger effects would be limited -- at most, some people might have to go without cranberry sauce this Thanksgiving.

Some, however, have expressed skepticism that our limited cranberry resources should be "distributed" in any organized way. "In a case like this, where you're comparing one person's side dish and another person's medical treatment, there's really no way to make a direct comparison" said Jane  Q. Capitalist. "If one person is willing to pay more for his cranberries, it's not our place to judge how they get used. Those who can't afford the going cranberry rate should really have been better prepared. We know from past experience that cranberry redistribution programs result in waste and inefficiency."

The spokesperson for Urinary Tract Health of America could not be reached for comment.

New Subatomic Particles Found
The New Chicago Desert
March 31, 2054

Scientists at the New Institute For Novelty In Forward-Thinking and Exciting Neo-Innovation have found evidence of new subatomic particles. In their new Large Moron Collider, they were able to conduct experiments that show the existence is pretty much settled, or, as researcher Dr. Chang Lee put it, "is the Pope Catholic?" "

Some, however, have expressed skepticism that the laws of science should be accepted uncritically. "If you look into it, you'll find that most of the reasoning used in physics is based on abstract principles and mathematical equations written down in books and articles. And where did these come from? They're just the product of human minds. To which I say, "who died and made them headmaster? We cannot simply let the elites decide these things."

Karl Popper could not be reached for comment.

Oceans Rise, World Ends, As Global Temperatures Increase Fourfold
Planet Earth
March 31, 2074

The world's rising oceans engulfed almost all remaining land on Tuesday, in a dramatic flood reminiscent of biblical times. Greenpeace held a memorial service for life as we know it, and conducted a mock court case putting on trial Western Civilization, Consumer Culture, and Modern Individualism. All three were found guilty and sentenced to death.

Some, however, have expressed skepticism that humans had anything to do with the changing climate and end of the world. "It's important to look at the data, and the data say that this flood is the result of several natural factors," said John T. Nihilist, spokesperson for the American Enterprise Competition Prosperity Institute.

"Also, people are talking as if we've never seen a flood of this magnitude. But this is absurd. A very similar flood occurred before. And you know what? It all ended up fine. Noah built his arc, and put on the animals, and everyone lived happily ever after."

The dolphin named "Smiley," expected to be new King of the Earth, could not be reached for comment.

Monday, March 24, 2014


I don't know about you but I am sick unto death of people talking about how great science and technology are and how kids ought to all major in science disciplines and how if only the kids could all become engineers all the intractable problems of modern young adulthood would somehow cure themselves.

In the US and Canada there seems to be this idea that if you could just get all the kids to study SCIENCE instead of sociology or english or art history or whatever, those kids would all get nice scienc-y jobs and the under-employment of college kids problem would go away.

Right off the bat you know is a CRITICAL THINKING FAIL. The production of more engineers or microbiologists is not going to create more engineering and microbiology jobs. It doesn't work that way. Conversely, whatever people major in, someone is still going to be making your Starbucks Chai Latte, someone is going to be watching your kids at daycare, and someone is going to be emptying the trash in your workplace. The logic of "just change your major, kids!" is the logic of highly educated baristas. And, I would add, at least if the baristas major in film studies they'll have something interesting to talk about while they foam your soymilk.

It's like someone looked at a graph that showed "income ten years after graduation" plotted against "major," noticed that scientists and engineers tend to do pretty well, and inferred that if more people became scientists and engineers the more people would do pretty well. Which is so dumb it makes you want to say, "What did you people study in college, anyway?"

This whole thing is even more annoying from the big picture view. Because despite the steady drip of implications to the contrary, most of the world's most pressing problems just do not have science or technology solutions at all. They are human and social problems.

Look at international conflict and war. There's violence in the Middle East, there are Syrian refugees, on whatever day you're reading this I'm sure you can open the paper to find some horrible situation in which people are dying and there doesn't seem to be any workable solution. Huge world problem. What's the science angle exactly? New weapons, robots? Oh - I know, we'll make a giant shield to protect us forever! Awesome!

OK, maybe that example is too easy, like shooting fish in a barrel. All right, well what other problems do Earthlings have? Surely one of them has to do with the creation of wealth -- how does it happen? -- and the appropriate sharing of the goods that result from prosperity. Developing countries don't have enough of most things. Countries like Greece are falling into serious economic hardship where people can access basics like food and medicine. Rich countries are trying desperately to recreate boom time conditions. Given the global effects of the 2008 economic crisis and how ill-prepared for it we were, it would seem we have a few things to learn about how, exactly, all this works.

Where's that knowledge going to come from? You know, crazy as this sounds, I'm guessing it it won't be from the microbiology department. In fact I'm guessing it might have something to do with the social sciences and humanities. You might need some economics. But because you'd be thinking about what people do and why you might also need some psychology. And because you'd be thinking about which of the many impossible trade-offs are the right ones to make, you might need some philosophy. And because you'd be thinking about how things work not in some magic unicorn place but rather in situated social groups, where things happen in certain particular ways for certain particular reasons, you might need history and literature. I could, obviously, go on and on.

Because when you've got a hammer everything looks like a nail, people like to offer technological solutions to problems you might have thought were largely social in nature. Whenever anyone questions some new biotech food technology craze on grounds that no one has any idea what the long term effects of altered crops and so on are, you always hear the same indignant response, that there are hungry people and they need improved crops and who are you to stand in their way?

But in fact, as a species, we're producing more food per capita than ever. From what I understand the world produces enough food for everyone. The problem is who has it and who doesn't. What would you study to try to solve that problem? Nanotechnology? Chemistry?

Listen, I've got nothing against science. Intellectual curiosity, production of major great things, massive improvement in the comforts of life, etc. etc. Who could forget the great gift of hand-washing to prevent the spread of disease? That really is genius.

But it's not everything, it isn't the key to unlocking utopia, it isn't even useful for many of the things we need to figure out.

Meanwhile, everyone's falling all over themselves about the benefits of learning to code. Right -- because if there's one thing we need more of, it's apps. For example, it's good to know the best and brightest minds of someone's generation have recently busy producing an app called "Secret" that will allow people to gossip anonymously.

Finally, someone is doing something about our limited options to gossip online! Whew!

Monday, March 17, 2014

I Have A Problem With A Pleasant Day

Silvestro Lega, A Walk in the Garden, via Wikimedia Commons

Yes: I have a problem with a pleasant day.

My problem is not the well-known Future-Freak-Out problem -- that you can't enjoy a pleasant day today because you're too worried about what will happen tomorrow. For whatever reason that's not my thing. Generally I'm probably not worried enough about what will happen tomorrow.

My problem also is not Mindfulness-Or-A-Lack-Thereof. I know there are people who can enjoy now because they're distracted thinking about something else. But I don't think that's me. Generally, if the day is pleasant, I can enjoy it.

No, my problem with a pleasant day is more perverse, and has to do with OK-What-Was-The-Point-Of-That? I mean, that AFTER a pleasant day, I can't see the point of having had the pleasure. The pleasure over, the day feels wasted, spent or given way for nothing, something I was cheated out of. Somehow I can't enjoy the pleasure after it's ended. And then the fact that I'm going to feel this AFTER infects how I feel NOW.

If you think about it, it's surprising this doesn't come up even more often. I mean, one of the main elements of folk psychology of our time contrasts the impulsive feeling and pleasure seeking parts of ourselves with the rational planning parts of ourselves. 

But how is the rational planning part supposed to factor in pleasure? In this previous post I expressed my mystification at the idea that the planner could have any way of adjudicating how much pleasure is the "right amount" - it's like needing an answer to an ill-formed question.

But then there is this whole other problem, which is that from the point of view of the planner, how is the pleasure of the past any use at all? At least with the pleasure of the present and future, you can see how that would get a grip on a person, capture their motivation, feel meaningful. But the pleasure of the past?

It feels like in terms of the past, the planner can only evaluate how well certain goals were achieved. Like, if you're trying to finish writing the Great Canadian Novel and on Tuesday you spend five hours on it and you get 10 pages written then the planner inside your heart has a clear way of entering this information into the system. But what if you knocked off on Sunday and sat around watching TV or even just going for a nice walk? What can the planner say about that other than, Oh Well.

For me this problem is most acute when it comes to A Pleasant Day. Because if something is really fun, exciting, super-pleasurable,  you just kind of get swept up in it and you tell the planner to go to hell. But a garden variety pleasant day: it's harder to figure out.

It seems to me the planner can only make sense of a pleasant day by working in some idea of a "goal" of having pleasant days in one's life. But why would that be a goal? I mean, insofar as something is a pleasure, it'd seem you'd want it. But that seems almost like a tautology. It's not a thing you'd come to think because of reasons.

If you ask me, the problem is the whole feeler versus planner metaphor, which seems to misconstrue the relationship between how you feel about something and how you decide whether to do it, by seeing these as two separate things.

If that's part of the story, then it would seem the reason I've got a problem with a pleasant day is that I've somehow internalized the feeler versus planner metaphor, despite its difficulties. And I think that is possibly true. Doing a little armchair psychology we might observe that the subject -- me -- spent her young adulthood as one of the worst planners in the world, routinely missing class to drink, take drugs, and "just hang out."

It wouldn't be surprising that such a person, faced with the prospect of life as an endless succession of doing nothing, would over-develop her planning capacities, and adopt, even if subconsciously, the metaphor of the all powerful planner who knows all and controls all.

As long as the subject hasn't shut that planner up with some pinot grigio, anyway.

Monday, March 10, 2014

I Have An Anger And Negativity Dilemma, And Maybe You Do Too

The Governess, by Emily Mary Osborn (1834 - 1925) (British) (Artist, Details of artist on Google Art Project) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I don't know how you feel, but I am sick unto death of people and their constant anger and negativity. Everywhere you go, people are expressing their indignation, calling other people out on shit, making fun of people for doing dumb things, and generally bitching and moaning.

Of course, if you're on the internet -- well, yeah, of course. We all know about "comments" -- but it seems even the mildest things these days seem to provoke people. Friends are angry on Facebook that other friends don't post the right kind of things -- too much humble-bragging, or too many pictures of the kids, or the video someone thought was cute is actually pernicious because Some Reason The Person Didn't Think Of.

But it's not just the internet. I feel like people are complaining all the time, about everything. The other day I was at my favorite exercise class, with my fave instructor, who is awesome, and after as we were all walking out, I happened to be behind three people who had been trying the class for the first time. Man, were they upset! "Oh, she thinks you can stretch your adductors with a twenty second stretch! WHAT BULLSHIT." As one of the other people pointed out, the class is pre-organized by someone else -- but you know what? Even if it wasn't -- wtf? News flash: not everything in the world is going to suit you perfectly. Suck it up.

Often I find myself thinking, "Please: if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all." And I honestly think a little shutting up would make the world a better place.


On the other hand, I also often feel like things are so fucked up in the world that not to be angry and negative is somehow ridiculous. I often feel like I should be more angry. What with the whole broken world and politics and stupidity and the new "books? who has the time??" it seems like anger is the only reasonable response.

In fact, sometimes when people are relentlessly mild-mannered I want to shake them, like Why Aren't You More Angry??

So there it is, the classic dilemma: To be angry or not to be angry, you're screwed either way.

Now maybe you're thinking it's not really a dilemma, because righteous and deserved indignation is different from petty squabbling, and it's the former where anger is justified, and the latter where it isn't.

Surely that is right in some sense, But in practice it doesn't really help, because for me anger is as much of a mood and general stance toward the world as it is anything. I mean, if I want to feel less angry, what I usually do is adopt a more forgiving and easy going attitude about the world in general. I remind myself that people are flawed and confused, and that they need a lot of love and care that they're not getting, and that it's not their fault if they weren't taught how to think things through.

And this way of feeling angry really does work. But then it has the other effect as well, that I can't muster up the requisite anger when it probably makes sense.

Conversely, I can go around being touchy and easily pissed off, and this is a good state of mind to be in when you really ought to tell someone, assertively, Dude, You Have Problems. But then I can't turn it off, and I find myself becoming enraged by asshats who eat and talk in the library, or stand on the left hand side of the escalator -- and even by those who are trying, but failing, to do something nice, like the people who stand *in* the doorway as they're "holding the door," or the stranger who alerted me that I wasn't carrying my backpack on both shoulders and "did I need help"? (??)

Probably non-anger mode is the best for one's individual health and well-being. But how can you be a philosopher if your attitude toward the world is "Oh, it's OK, it doesn't really matter, love is all you need"?

Monday, March 3, 2014

To Assume Or Not To Assume?

It's old news that people say offensive, annoying, and insensitive things to one another when they're trying to ask simple questions.

People of color get asked "where are you from? No, really, where are you from?" as if "Canada" can't be the real answer. Gays and lesbians get quizzed about dates and hot prospects of the incorrect sex. Women get grilled over when they're going to have children. I'm sure you can multiply the examples.

It's sometimes suggested that the underlying problem that explains this kind of oafish behavior is that people make assumptions about one another -- which they ought not do.

I get the appeal of this idea, and certainly it's partly right, but I don't think it can be quite the whole story. Because I think failing to make assumptions can be just as offensive as making assumptions.

Imagine if you were introduced to someone of a different race or ethnicity or background or sexual orientation from yourself and you started asking questions like "Are you a person? Do you breathe air? Do you have a mother and father?"

These questions would be the height of offensiveness, not because they make assumptions, but because they fail to acknowledge what ought to be obviously correct assumptions to make.

These examples are extreme, but I think the same applies to real and ordinary questions. Since I'm a prof I often talk to students I don't know. Whenever we turn away from the scholarly and toward the personal, I try to ask them open-ended questions to learn about their life and point of view, to let them guide the discussion. But in doing so I'm often struck that even asking a good open-ended question often requires some kind of assumptions -- and hopefully understanding -- of their likely situation.

For example, if a student is considering majoring in philosophy and wants to talk, they're often not even sure what questions to ask, so I find myself asking questions to draw them out. I generally assume that they'll want to know about job prospects, that their parents will have some opinion about the matter, etc etc.

It seems to me it would be more offensive and annoying to start the conversation back one level with questions like "will you be planning to work for a living as you grow up?" "Are you in touch with your parents, do you talk to them?" I mean, the answers to these questions might be "no," and yet, if I were talking with a student different from me it seems to me those questions would open, not close, conversational distance.

If you're not going assume, you have to ask. But questions make their own assumptions -- about what's common knowledge and what isn't, about what the asker thinks significant and worth discussing and so on.

An acquaintance of mine recently emailed and happened to mention he was writing from a middle-eastern country known for a turbulent history. Since he brought it up, it seemed to me it would be weird to not mention it in my response, weird to assume somehow that violence or threat of it were affecting his visit, and perhaps weird not to assume that violence or the threat of it were affecting his visit. Even a question would, it seemed to me, goes one way or the other. I'd recently learned about some aspects of this place not associated with turbulence and politics, I asked about those. Probably best, but who knows? In circumstances like that, it seems to me you could be stereotyping if you ask about violence and annoyingly ignorant if you didn't -- depending on details, context, and so on.

I don't think there is any blanket strategy for avoiding the problems of offensive and annoying questions, by which I mean -- the only way to avoid them is to know what they are and know how to avoid them. Listen to other people, take it seriously when they talk or write about what's on their mind, use it to inform your next conversation, and go from there.

It's not about avoiding making assumptions, but rather about knowing which assumptions are apt and sensitive to make -- and this seems to require actually knowing something about the world and the other people in it.