Monday, January 25, 2016

What Ever Happened To Dancing For Fun?

One of my favorite places in the whole city of Toronto is this seemingly ordinary spot in the bottom floor of the Eaton Centre -- a place just outside the Microsoft Store, where the store has set up a large Xbox display.

This spot is generally dark and drab. But occasionally it comes magically to life. And what brings it magically to life is the presence of groups of children dancing.

You see, often the display is showcasing whatever dance game the Xbox comes with. I know nothing about video games, but from what I can gather the game that involves a range of pop songs together with fun graphics and choreography that the player tries to dance along with.

You cannot imagine the awesomeness of the scene when children gather around, and play, and dance. They get really really really into this activity. The small ones are completely unselfconscious, jumping around, throwing their arms in the air, and making dramatic and showoffy gestures. The older ones are a bit shy, but they want to dance too -- and I think with the presence of so many small children being completely goofy they're sort of like, "Oh, what the hell." It's usually a mixed group, with boys and girls, people of various races, and kids dressed in all different ways.

When I encounter this scene I'm usually like "Oh My God, this is the nicest, cutest, most life-affirming thing I have seen in a long time." And I'm not the only one. When the dancing game is on, you can barely make your way past, because there are gangs of adults standing around watching the kids, smiling and laughing.

Often I pause for a few minutes, to steep my mind in the atmosphere of people enjoying themselves in a way that is so -- would "wholesome" be too ridiculous a word? Would "nice" be to insipid? I don't know -- there's just something so great about it, a kind of fun that makes more fun for more people the more there is of it.

Sometimes when I'm standing there watching, I start thinking about dancing and the peculiar modern state of dancing for fun.

I danced a lot as a young person. I danced in classes -- ballet and modern. As a kid I danced around the house, to whatever was on. As an adolescent and in college, I danced at parties, and, on one extremely memorable occasion, at a Violent Femmes concern in a small venue. It was really, really, really fun.

I would like to dance now. But as a person of a certain age, I find the dance landscape strange. Once you take "dance club at 2am with twenty-somethings" off your options-list, what is there, really?

Any kind of partner-dance has the whole Men-Lead-Women-Follow problem. Even setting aside the conceptual objections, I just can't see spending hours learning to be more attentive to a guy's every gesture so I can do what he decides we're going to do. Following means dealing with advice like this: "I tell women: 'you are a food cart, with steel arms and really good wheels.'" Sorry, no can do.

Then there's dancing where you learn a certain kind of craft. This is an idea I find appealing in the abstract, but when it comes down to it, I feel like it's just another thing I'd be trying, and failing, to be good at, another source of "fuck, why am I not better at this"? Got enough of those already, thank you. Even street dance, like hip-hop, once you're learning it in a class, becomes this sort of thing.

What ever happened to dancing just for fun? I feel like at some deep level, adults have become so massively self-conscious about dancing that they can only do it in these certain specific constrained sort of ways. There was this great moment on the WTF podcast when Marc Maron interviewed David Byrne and Marc asked something like, "You seem like a shy and nerdy person, so how did it come about that you became this guy who dances -- really dances like he means it?" And David Byrne said, very seriously: "The music healed me." By which I think he meant that the musicality and depth of funk and its cousins just changed him as a person.

That is an amazing thing. But how does it happen, exactly? Is there a way to package that, export it, extrapolate it, share it around? To create an actual Dance Dance Revolution? If we're going to invest in massive innovation projects, could we just drop the whole "self-driving cars" crap, and get to work on this instead?  

Monday, January 18, 2016

Against Applied Rationality, Or, Please Respect The Elephant

Pietro Longhi, 1701-1785, The Elephant, via Wikimedia Commons

I spend a lot of time in a somewhat eye-roll-y state of mind, and sometimes I wonder: are the things and people of this world really as stupid and annoying as I tend to think they are? Then I come across things like the Applied Rationality Seminar and I know I can rest assured: no, I've pretty much got it.

This essay in yesterday's New York Times has all the details. You spend four days and nights "on site," in overcrowded dormlike conditions, mostly with other highly motivated Bay Area 20-somethings, doing exercises designed to free you from your irrationality. Only $3,900 per person.

Obviously, I'm not so churlish as to deny someone a leg up with dealing with procrastination or obsessive Facebook checking or whatever. Knock yourselves out. But as so often with these kinds of things, it's never about small improvements in your existing life. It's always some kind of messianic and all encompassing drive -- like it's the boot camp for The Singularity or something.

I can never quite get what these programs are getting at, because I can never grasp what end point the people are aiming toward. I mean, if rationality is just taking appropriate steps to satisfy your preferences, then who's to say "checking Facebook" or "sitting on the sofa" isn't your true preference rather than "work" or "going to the gym"?

They give the example of someone who wants a PhD but doesn't want to "work on it." Well -- if you don't want to work on it, wouldn't it be just as rational to, um, not work on it? To form some other goal instead?

The people who run the workshops take pains to show that they're not anti-emotion, talking about the idea of two systems that can sometimes run in tandem and sometimes run in different directions. It's "like a monkey riding an elephant." The monkey is the "intellectual, goal-setting" part, and the elephant is the "emotional, instinctive" part. When they're not in harmony, trouble ensues.

Sure, I get that. And yes, when there's disharmony between the monkey and the elephant, there's no question there's going to be trouble. But they talk about it like the elephant is some kind of idiot -- at best giving you a bit of intuitive edge to see things you might have missed otherwise, but otherwise there to be nudged and guided in the appropriate way.

So what I don't get is: Who died and made the monkey headmaster?

When people talk about "who they are," they often come up with things like "loving parent," "caring spouse," "Chicago Bulls fan," or "Star Wars obsessive." These things are all about caring and liking. Aren't they all from the elephant? So why when we're getting down to it do we suddenly act like "Oh, monkey needs help! He can't steer the elephant! Monkey needs a workshop on elephant management. Only $3900 per person.

While it is true that some of the exercises are about getting clearer on what your goals are, all the techniques mentioned seem to involve introspection and thought experiments -- basically more thinking about what you are thinking. All these years of people shouting that Descartes was wrong because the self isn't identical to the thinking self -- and where have they gotten us?

One reason I think people side with the monkey is that in the background, there are lurking ideas about "productivity" and "getting things done." And especially in this group, the idea seems to be that when you get unstuck, you'll be able to harness the power of your emotional self for doing "important things." One guy, when confronted with the possibility that there are other things beyond productivity -- like happiness, and other people -- is dismissive:

"I want to augment the race," he says. "I want humanity to achieve great things. I want us to conquer death."

Oh brother. Much as I'd love to be immortal, it's hard for me to count not-living-forever among the pressing problems of the human race. Plus, is this really intended to convey that ordinary people like this guy should stop wasting a few minutes here or there online and make sure to get to work so they can ... do what exactly? Make an app? Move some money around?

Maybe there are people whose activities are important enough to be maximized. Maybe people inventing solutions to the climate crisis. Or trying to stop wars. Maybe health researchers? Actually I think those people are already really productive, and according to articles like this, the way to improve things like health care is to stop pushing productivity and start to care about love.

Look, maybe you do need to change your life. If you're constantly undermining yourself, if you're a diabetic and you can't eat right and take your meds, if you're drinking yourself to death and you can't stop, if you keep lashing out in anger at the people you love -- yes, your elephant is in trouble, and you might want to change, and you might need help doing so.

But as we all know from living on Earth among humans (and as Atul Gawande has been reminding us lately), mostly people change because of other people -- other people taking an interest, talking to us over and over, nagging occasionally, and caring what happens.

It's basically the polar opposite of a highly individualized workshop teaching you to look inside yourself for the powerful answers within. 

Monday, January 11, 2016

Western Imperialism and Theories of Human Nature; Or, Culture Is A Thing

I don't know if you saw this article that appeared the New York Times over the holidays about the aftermath of the case in Afghanistan where the woman was beaten and killed by a mob of men because someone said, falsely, that she had burned a Quran.

The article basically describes the way the legal process has unfolded, the various attempts to hold people responsible for the violence, and the many obstacles and difficulties that have arisen. Among other things: it's hard to know exactly when she died, and therefore it's hard to know who was and was not responsible for her death; the case was heavily politicized from beginning to end; a million complicated things.

It was only when I got to the middle of the article, though, that I realized that the piece is not just about a court case and its complexities; it's also about the way the case itself is seen as a test case for a massive program of Western intervention into the Afghan legal system.

The details and failures of that effort read like a textbook case of Western imperialism, hubris, arrogance, and just general failure to understand anything about how the world works.

Most broadly and unsurprisingly, as one informed commentator said, the consulting experts failed to understand the point of the exercise, with the experts assuming they were "helping to rebuild a system in transition from the Taliban period to a more secular one," when in fact the Afghans are still deciding what kind of system they want, given that their current system draws on both Islamic law and an existing state legal code.

In a classic move, assuming their job was to "rewrite" the code instead of starting by just translating the existing one, Western consultants from various countries just used their own systems as templates when they felt like it -- like, "Oh today the Italian guy is here so he's going to make it look like the Italian code."

As insulting and paternalistic as that whole business, what's crazy is how badly the whole thing was done. Like, it's bad enough you want to be headmaster of the world -- but now you're going to do a half-assed crappy job of it?

There were many missteps, leading eventually to a wide array of problems -- such as many defendants with no defense lawyers and with no notification that it was even their day their case would be considered.

And so many of the missteps seemed to me to come back to simple failure to understand that culture is a thing. People live in various ways, and those ways profoundly affect how social systems work. It's not like fixing a carburetor, for fuck's sake.

According to the Times, these things happened during the consulting phase:

Consultants tutored the Afghans about jury selection, even though judges decide the cases.

Consultants spent a lot of time teaching about how to handle sexual assault cases, even though in Afghanistan almost no one brings sexual assault cases, because of family pressure and fear of reprisal. 

Consultants placed young advisors to tutor older judges, even though this flies in the face of cultural attitudes about deference to age and experience. The judges were then naturally dismissive. As one Afghan defense lawyer with a Harvard degree put it: "Everyone has his pride, and they say, 'Why is this young kid teaching me?'"

Judges often study theology and Shariah. So when lawyers trained in law and political science are in the courtroom with judges, they're often talking past one another.

The consulting program didn't deal with the problem of corruption. As a defense lawyer for two of the accused in the case said, "When your client is a poor guy, you are asked to pay a bribe or he spends 16 years in jail."

Partly because of corruption, people don't trust the justice system. When people don't trust the justice system, you can't just let the system do the work of trying to find the just decisions. No one will believe the result was arrived at in the appropriate way, and will therefore interpret the result as politicized.

While I realize that in some deep sense you can trace these problems back to ingrained social attitudes in the West that their system is somehow obviously best so who cares what other people think, it seems to me there are some interesting implicit ideas about human nature that are relevant.

I don't know how and when this happened, exactly, but somehow the idea seems to have taken hold -- at least in North America -- that social problems are basically like engineering problems, that you can just use some charts and graphs and so on to get to your "result," that economics and the language of incentives gives you all the "theory" you need, so that sociology, anthropology, history and literature have been deemed relatively unimportant.

How do cases like this not suggest to everyone that this is the opposite of the way things are? Culture is a thing. To work with people and collaborate with them, you have to understand it. To understand it, you have to think about people and learn about them and listen to them in a certain humanistic way.

If the education gods came down from on high, don't you think they would find it bizarre that while war and violence and injustice are some of our main problems, we're closing down the departments where you learn about such things?

Culture is complicated, and social systems are just not engineering problems. Why is there so much resistance to this simple and obvious fact? 

Monday, January 4, 2016

Philosophy Of The Post-Apocalypse: Station Eleven Edition

Over the break I read this excellent post-apocalyptic novel, Station Eleven. Unlike a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction, this book really got to me -- in the sense of making me feel I should learn some post-apocalyptic-appropriate skill like fighting or sewing, and also in the sense of making me feel like somehow the apocalypse is realistically right around the corner.

I think the reason this book made me feel its reality so effectively is because it is .. well, completely realistic. It's not about some weird future world. It's about what our total actual world would be like if an awful contagious and fatal disease killed 99 percent of people and everything completely collapsed.

Like a lot of dystopian novels, this one is pretty philosophical. Partly because it involves a pandemic instead of a man-made oh-we-brought-this-all-on-ourselves, it goes beyond some of the more obvious cheap-shots at humankind that dystopian novels can sometimes take.  

Yes, this post has spoilers. But in a book where the apocalypse happens at the beginning, it hardly matters, does it? So: in no particular order, a few themes from Station Eleven.

1. The post-apocalyptic future is not a future of moral clarity.

I am so sick of narratives involving good guys and bad guys, where the whole story is about good and evil and how evil people do evil things and good people try to stop them. Not only is this a completely inaccurate representation of our world of moral complexity, I think it's turning a lot of people into moral morons. You're with us or against us! We'll bomb them back into the stone age! You can't let the terrorists win!

Only a citizenry stuffed to the gills with Star Wars Death Star Good Versus Evil simplicity could be sold this sort of black and white vision of the world. In Station Eleven, some good people have to do some pretty awful things, and the bad people -- well, even the main hero of the book is like, "Who knows why? I bet they saw some awful things."

2. Civilization is kind of a human miracle.

Sometimes in modern life civilization seems so inevitable, so part of the landscape, you can almost forget it about how surprising and miraculous it is. Over and over in this book the characters who survive and make their way through the empty world marvel at the leftover remnants of the civilized world, and especially at the way that world was a world of people.

At one point one of the characters muses that we tend to think of the modern era as somehow depersonalized, when in fact it's people who do everything to keep it moving along. The pandemic doesn't destroy any of the material world -- it just kills people. But without people, there's no one to fix the grid, there's no one to make anything or move anything around -- the whole world just comes to a complete standstill.

At one point one of the characters beholds a snowglobe. On the one hand, it's just a trite object from an airport gift shop. But on the other hand, it's an object that represents massive global interaction: someone to design the object, someone to make and assemble it, someone to package it in a box, someone to put it on a container ship to somewhere.

This crazy sense of a world of billions of people coordinating their actions --without which we're just a bunch of scared bipeds trying to shoot deer for food.

3. The everything-happens-for-a-reason-people are going to kill us all.

One of the biggest dangers of the post-apocalyptic world is prophets and cults -- the people who believe that their connection to the deep meaning of it all gives them license to threaten, dominate, and kill others. One of the scariest prophets in the book is someone who was about eleven years old when the pandemic strikes, and whose mother always taught him that "everything happens for a reason." He naturally infers that the saved were saved because the are the special people. 

Well- meaning citizens try to explain to him that no -- in this case it's just germs, and they got some people and not others, there really isn't any deeper meaning to it. But, post-apocalyptic moods being what they are, he doesn't really buy it.

The main story line of the book follows a traveling symphony that goes around in rusted out vans pulled by horses, playing classical music and also performing Shakespeare. Their motto is "Survivial is not enough" -- a slogan they got from an old Star Trek episode. They're always a bit baffled by the point of what they're doing, and whether it's pointless to perform Shakespeare instead of something more suited to their strange condition.

I loved the way they were muddling through, confused, uncertain, and just trying to do something. It seemed to me the opposite perspective to everything-happens-for-a-reason, more like Who-the-hell-knows-what's-going-on-and-why? It might be hard to see the Forces of Uncertainty as the Forces of Good, but I think surprisingly often, they are.