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Friday, November 30, 2012

Phrenology 2.0

Withywindle links to a very long and questionable study of disparities in Jewish and Asian elite college admissions arguing that Asians and whites are being actively excluded while underqualified Jews are getting preference. The study is done with what I suspect are high-school level statistical methods, and I've already registered my many methodological complaints in the comments at A&J. But in thinking what this article might more broadly accomplish, I've decided to be optimistic that such aggressive accusations coupled with such shoddy data will encourage the schools in question to actually release their own closely-guarded data on admissions in order to dispel these charges.

In other news, despite the supposed shrinkage of my co-ethnics' skull sizes, my own head swelled substantially this week when I passed my prospectus defense and became ABD.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The care and maintenance of your pet glasses

Since this blog would not exist without my glasses (though it barely exists with them), I think it's only marginally inappropriate to share the following glasses-related notes with the public.

1. Buying cheapo prescription sunglasses (possibly made by lemmings out of Chinese glue?) online:
Since I wear real glasses all the time, switching between them and sunglasses is a big pain which I rarely have the good-health commitment to do regularly. So sunglasses are a low priority in my life, but the extreme, annoying sunniness of San Diego is hard to ignore. I bought a pair of prescription sunglasses about five years from Zenni, and they frankly looked like grandma glasses of the not-hip variety, so I rarely wore them and then the prescription became outdated. Recently, in response to the aforementioned climate exigencies and the need to drive in this sun-hell, I tried again. Zenni still seems to be the cheapest option for high-index lenses. After despairing over the dearth of product reviews online about these things, I settled on this pair (#823021) after finding this woman's flickr image sporting something similar and deciding that since she looked good, I would look good. Well, peeps, that's not how things work. This is in fact how they look:

Not terrible, but kind of large and suffering from the same problem as the old grandma goggles - totally flat across (you can see this in second photo). But for cheapness value, the prescription came out pretty well, so I am now wearing them. ($7! But actually, with high-index lenses and tint, more like $50.) If you see a bug-eyed blonde woman driving around San Diego clutching the steering wheel in fear, you will know, but please don't honk because that will cause me to stop in the middle of the street in terror and confusion, and get rear-ended. So this is a product review for any future desperate person who is also appalled by the lack of such things online for products that only exist online and that are near-impossible to return so must be gotten right the first time.

2. Getting rid of that white film that appears on plastic frames when they, no kidding, dry out:
Before switching to plastic frames in high school, I used to become annoyed when my metal frames would start growing what by all appearances was some kind of indestructible green mold on the rubber nose piece. Plastic frames fortunately do not suffer this fate, but they do apparently dry out and turn kind of white. Who knew that plastic had a preferred humidity? Anyway, the internet offers several improbable solutions to this problem: 1) wash them with dish soap, 2) sand them with fine-grained sanding paper, and 3) oil them with motorcycle lube. I offer the following replies: 1) DO NOT wash them with any soap; this will make the whiteness spread even more, 2) sanding them might work but I'm afraid to scratch the lenses so that will be a last resort, and 3) you know what more women have on hand than a can of WD-40? Chapstick. I am currently testing the much easier fix of slathering the frames with Burt's Bees and letting them sit (on my face, which admittedly is kind of a greasy proposition for me) and absorb at their leisure. So far, whiteness entirely gone, but I'm not sure how often they will be requiring this deep conditioning treatment.

Public service announcement for internet posterity complete.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Niles West Side Story

No, really:
Detectives investigated and through various interviews realized that students from Mather High School in Chicago, Niles North and Niles West High School, gathered at Emerson Park around 10:15 p.m. to watch a fight between a North student and a Mather student...The entire incident began over a Mather student “disrespecting” a North student’s brother, according to the report.
It's even called a "rumble" in the headline.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

What friends are for

These are heady days for gender neutrality. I have been an advocate of gender-neutral pronouns since at least yesterday's blog post, but zheir general acceptance is an uphill fight, while this Swedish alternative is so much simpler and more intuitive. Rather than refer to someone as a he, she, or it, we can refer to zir simply as "friend," thereby achieving gender neutrality and world peace simultaneously.

For example, if I am mugged in Stockholm, I will yell out, "That friend! A friend mugged me!" When passerby ask me who mugged me, I will respond, "A friend! A friend did it!" When the police ask for a description of the suspect, I will say, "It was a friend. The friend was tall with blond hair." They will plaster the neighborhood with the detailed composite sketch based on my description and a headline like, "Wanted: Friend who is a mugger," or "Beware: Mugger who looks like a friend."

Later, when I have recovered from this, I will meet my friend friends at a bar, and we will discuss our friendships. One friend friend will say, "I know Hjalmar and Lotta are friends and friend friends like us, but are they friend friend friends?"
"I think so," another friend friend will say, "because I saw friend walking with friend last Friday after the bars closed, and you can imagine where they were headed."
But a third, more skeptical friend friend will counter, "But are you sure Hjalmar even goes for friends? I always suspected that Hjalmar was the kind of friend who preferred friends." This suggestion will cause general surprise among my friend friends.
"Are you implying that there is an appreciable difference between friends and friends?" the first friend friend will ask suspiciously. "That is not what I was taught in school."
"Yes, friend is right," another friend friend will chime in reassuringly. "I don't know what your problem is, but Hjalmar loves all friends. The question is only who friend's current friend friend friend is."
But the skeptical friend friend will press on, "No, I love all friends too, and I love love my friend friends, but sometimes I think I love love love only some friend friend friends, although I'm not quite sure how to describe what sets them apart from other friends and friend friends." These remarks will stir something closely resembling outrage among my group of friend friends, and one will even throw a glass of beer to the ground, silencing other nearby groups of friend friends and drawing their attention to friend.
"Friend, I don't think we can be friend friends if you believe things like this. Frankly, I'm not even sure we can be friends." A collective gasp will arise from the bar's friendly patrons. "In fact," this friend will continue, "I think we may even have to be..." friend will trail off for a few seconds as friend scrambles to unearth the archaic term from the recesses of friend's memory, "...ENEMIES."

Carl Schmitt would have been so excited to witness this spectacle.

Thwarted thrift

My favorite Cambridge/Boston pizza chain closed and filed for bankruptcy. Not only is this sad news on the long-term pizza consumption front, but as an avid collector of those stamp cards for frequent patrons that give you a free product once you collect X number of stamps, I was only one stamp away from a free slice at Upper Crust! And since I pick up a stamp card pretty much wherever I go that offers one, even if it's from a subpar place or in a city I'm only visiting for two days and to which I'm never planning to return, so that there is no possible way I will be able to purchase the eight requisite cupcakes to get a free one, I have built up a sizable collection of these cards and, like lotto tickets, most are totally worthless. (Although you never know when you might randomly pass through central Vermont again, and again, and again, until you finally get a free cupcake for your efforts). But this card was well on its way to actually being useful, and then Upper Crust had to sabotage all my diligent thrift efforts. Hmph.

But, perhaps in compensation for this loss, my hair training is going pretty well, and I think my scalp has noticeably adjusted to its diminished shampoo rations.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The seven-body problem

Phoebe brings our attention to the following two-body problem, which reminds me of a situation I heard about last year in which someone got a spousal hire for a person to whom it turned out she was not (yet?) married. Or maybe it was he who got the hire for her; these people were not in my field and I'm not sure which was the "upwardly-mobile mate." Anyway, apparently this happens, perhaps especially when you make a point to refer to your non-spouse as "my partner," which is sufficiently ambiguous and politically-charged that it makes people anxious about looming discrimination claims. And this got me thinking about how the idea of a "spousal hire" could be broadened in other ways beyond just "relationship hire," particularly in ways that would benefit me.

Now, my partner is not an academic, so I can't really demand zir hire, but I do have some friends whom I'd really like to have as colleagues in the future. And in academia particularly, where dispersion to the ends of the Earth is the norm and yet the philosophical enterprise itself relies on sociability (see Socrates in the agora, Plato's Academy, Epicurus' garden, and so on), having friends amid the penguins or sheep who will be your primary neighbors is imperative. I don't want to be without my friends, but how to keep them close in such a competitive market? Of course, "friend hire" will never do on its own because it's corrupt to hire one's friends, but what about "polyamorous partner(s) hire"? Certainly no enlightened  institution of higher education continues to limit its conception of "family" to married couples with children, or even married couples, so why continue to privilege couple-hood at all? It's possible that polyamory would require somewhat more active "amory" than my friends and I presently engage in, but I counter that eros is primarily a matter of philosophical affinity, and any physical engagement is merely incidental. Besides, is the hiring committee in a position to demand proof?

And, as Phoebe points out, where a spousal hire could potentially bring under-represented populations to a faculty, it ought to be considered in a more positive light. I happen to have several female friends (and those friends have friends...), so just think of the boon to diversity, future potential hiring committees! You will never again have to go out in search of elusive females because if you hire Miss Self-Important, she will bring you so many ladies that you won't need to worry about gender imbalance until at least 2050. No more leaky pipeline with polyamorous partner hires!

So far, the only major obstacle to my plan is that it seems that ze has to be an outstanding and sought-after scholar to be offered even a regressive spousal hire, and in my case, that is unlikely. However, that is why I'm putting the idea out there now, so that enterprising scholar-readers of this blog better positioned for academic glory can begin paving a new road to progress and personal freedom. Also, when you do that, please remember this good turn I've done you, especially if I am unemployed and in need of some 'amorous' assistance.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Statistics will fix everything

I'm a little confused as to the reason for all this recrimination about bad election predictions, as though it was bad predictions and not bad campaigning or ineffective persuasion that lost Republicans the race. The professionally disappointed Conor Friedorsdorf, for example, claims that his party has once again let him down (can we ever hope to live up to your standards, O Great Conor?) by not hiring "the most rigorous forecaster it could find," like the NYT did. But since only one party can win a race, if both sides hired equally rigorous forecasters, nothing would change except that one party would be informed several months in advance that polling indicates that it will lose. What is it to do then? Withdraw pre-emptively because The Opinion Polls Have Spoken?

Conor evidently thinks so, or at least something like that, when he suggests that conservative media has to be "honest" with "the rank-and-file" (the jus' plain folks who exist to follow the pundits). What would such honesty consist in? The National Review will announce in September, "Look guys, it's over. We lost before you even cast a ballot. We now have this science of calling up random people and soliciting their extremely incoherent opinions, and it's frankly way more effective than all this voting and franchise stuff because it tells us how you will vote without your even having to bother doing it. So why don't you just forget about all this politics stuff and focus on going to work and raising kids, ok?" 

I understand how accurate prediction is better than inaccurate prediction, and how it's also highly statistically probable that predictions based on models will be accurate more often than predictions made from the gut or from anecdotes, but whom does that surprise? What I don't understand is how the accuracy of predictions determines the effectiveness of a campaign, or how it replaces the purpose for which political journalism exists - to persuade. That polls show a candidate up by 2 points doesn't tell me anything about whether I should vote for him unless my sole criterion is to vote for the winner. Polling data can obviously be useful in planning a campaign strategy, but even armed with all the best public opinion models in the world, you only know what the average person who doesn't think of you claims he thinks of you, and not what to tell him to get him to think better of you. 

Even Conor concedes that the "misinformation" of the "rank-and-file" wasn't all about the numbers. Something was off about the message too, but not that it failed to persuade, because in the world of numbers and accuracy, there is no persuasion, only an "information disadvantage." And how would a Conor-led defeatist and cringing conservative press improve things? Well, for one thing, it would be liberal. Because the big problem with conservatives is that they're not liberal, and so they do completely incomprehensible things like "waste time on stories the rest of America dismissed as nonsense." Totally - all that nonsense about the HHS mandate and religious liberty, and entitlements spending and health care, and blah blah Libya attack. Who cares about that? Maybe conservatives, but probably not "the rest of America," whose own partisan outlets never engage in less-than-Conorable fear-mongering about the "War on Women" or anything like that. Noted: the War on Women is real, but war in Libya is a delusion. 

But oddly, Conor is not comparing the National Review to Jezebel or Mother Jones, or conservative pundits to liberal ones, but rather NR's conservative pundits to the New York Times, a nominally nonpartisan international newspaper with millions of subscribers and hundreds of reporters all over the world (and not its opinion section either). Why doesn't the National Review deliver the same kind and amount of "information" as the New York Times? Some people say statistics are hard to understand, but I would argue that this discrepancy is much more mysterious.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Project thrifty coiffure, attempt #2

Remember when I tried to do this gauche, TMI thing? Ok, it failed. The problem is that training your hair to stop getting oily every day and coaxing it to switch to an every other day grease schedule demands that you schedule your life around hair washing, and if you exercise at all or need to go out in public between hours 36-48 of the unwashed state, you throw the whole hair-training schedule out of whack and have to start over. So annoying! But what is also annoying is washing your hair every day when it's long, because air drying takes hours and you end up spending most of the day in a damp hair state. (Let us not speak of the blow dryer that my friend accidentally dropped into my toilet last year. It was useless anyway because blow-drying makes my hair get greasy even faster.) There has to be an alternative. So I am trying anti-grease hair training again, except this time, I am no longer a thrifty person, having since upgraded to $8 shampoo and other absurdities, so I will be purchasing a dry shampoo to help things along. If this effort works, I will promote dry shampoo to the heavens. Seriously peeps, looking presentable is so much work. Women should get more credit.

Monday, November 05, 2012

The ubiquitous deathy-ness of the past

There was a comment thread awhile back on A & J about whether the People of the Past experienced death as a tragedy or were, by virtue of its ubiquity, inured to its psychological effects. The issue re-appeared in Withywindle's post about finishing Anne of Green Gables, which happens this time to coincide with my reading Lawrence Stone's Family, Sex, and Marriage in England, 1500-1800, a book which seriously suffers from precisely this kind of reliance on mortality rates to explain practically the entire structure of the early modern psyche. Since this is book number two or three of this sort that I've read (the other being Centuries of Childhood and The Disappearance of Childhood), I'm getting increasingly annoyed by this tic. 

So, I have assembled the following primer on how to do early modern social history for anyone interested: 
- First, we must examine parish marriage and death records. Why them? Because they're the only records we've got! What do we learn from our looking? Why, that everyone always dies! They die young! They die in childbirth! They die from rampant disease! (Cue long section on the prevalence of worms in 16th century England.) And if they escape disease, they die from blows to the head sustained at the ale-house! 
- Second, let's do statistics with these records. What do we learn? A large percentage of people die before 40, but if they don't die before 40, they have a pretty good chance of living past 40, although then they too will die! 
- Now we are prepared to draw conclusions from this rigorous empirical work, and they are these: Due to all the death surrounding them and their own high chances of dying any day, People of the Past had no emotions. They didn't care if their children died, they barely noticed their spouses' deaths, and indeed, they typically looked forward to them so that they wouldn't have to be stuck with the same tedious person after the children had grown. ("Modern divorce is little more than a functional substitute for death.") They had no friends and trusted no one. The specter of death governed their every decision.

The picture of the early modern European we get from these studies is that he was a consummate actuary, and it’s a wonder that he even bothered to go through the motions of living when he was so likely to drop dead at any moment. There is obviously a certain logic to the argument that being surrounded by death makes you less emotionally concerned with it, both your own death and others' deaths. I think that's something like Aries's position, but it's not quite Stone's. Stone seems to conclude instead that People of the Past were very concerned about their own deaths, and it's this concern that made them so wary of forming intimate and affectionate social ties with others, since all such ties were likely to be severed almost immediately. This suggests a very strong regard for one's preservation, not quite the devil-may-care ease of people really inured to death and living for the moment. So, in this respect, People of the Past sound a lot like People of the Present. And our response to the knowledge of the imminence of our demise (and I don't think that the conquest of intestinal worms since then has really put a huge dent in our fear of death) is not uniform coldness and "psychic numbing" (Stone's term). So why should we assume this of the infamous People of the Past? Certainly we know of many individuals who appeared to have loved their families and had affectionate friendships - Thomas More? More and Erasmus? The Erasmian circle more broadly? 


Some of the evidence Stone draws on to demonstrate the supposed barbarism of the 16th and 17th centuries - personal accounts from travelers and church officials visiting French and English country towns - demonstrates that revulsion towards this sort of behavior existed at the same time, in the very people who described it as barbaric. And what about the growth of politeness that has made people who don't feel too aggrieved by their relatives' deaths today quieter about their apathy or even pleasure? It's not nice to express relief or pleasure at someone's death, but that doesn't mean it's impossible to feel it, just as the reverse may have been true in an England not concerned with forms of politeness, where grievers had to suffer quietly. In other words, it may not be human emotion that has changed since the 17th century so much as which emotions become acceptable or desirable to express. The relative proximity or ubiquity of death doesn't control that. 


Fundamentally, I'm simply unpersuaded that the psychological consequences of death's imminence have changed since 1660 just because statistical trends in dying have. Loving one's family and friends intensely and not loving them at all are both equally plausible responses to the same constant fear of death that plagued people subject to smallpox and highway brigands, and those subject to bicycle accidents and cancers. The Greco-Roman and the Christian traditions in Europe at this time offered accounts of both kinds of responses as well, and people pondered death as obsessively then as they do now. If both are equally plausible, equally grounded in traditional possibilities, then I don't see how we can decisively conclude for coldness over warmth based simply on death's greater statistical probability. If a calculation of the statistical probability of people's deaths actually determined how involved we got with them, wouldn't we be requesting such calculations more often now than ever, given the improved accuracy of actuarial science since 1660?


Stone often concedes that it's difficult to reconstruct the history of "affect" from the sources available. We know from diaries what a handful of particularly logorrheic individuals felt (and it turns out that those people usually did demonstrate substantial "affect"), but we have little idea of what anyone else felt about such events as the deaths of their spouses and children, the significance of their marriages, and so on. But immediately after admitting that, Stone proceeds to make sweeping and authoritative claims about just how the early moderns did perceive these things. "The Elizabethan village was a place filled with malice and hatred, its only unifying bond being the occasional episode of mass hysteria." Or, my favorite so far:

It is reasonable to assume that for many young men this delay involved considerable sexual denial at a time of optimum male sexual drive, despite the usual non-procreative outlets. If one follows Freudian theory, this could...help to explain the high level of group aggression, which lay behind the extraordinary expansionist violence of western nation states at this time.
This is basically how Stone squares his own circle - assuming that all of history is a progress of, in this case, emotional delicacy from nonexistent to highly sensitive (old Rousseauian story wearing big fancy Freudian coat), such that each age is an unpeeling of the calloused outer layers of the human self to reveal the more refined emotions underneath, until we arrive at our present, perfectly-developed humanity, whose fine elements form a beautiful aesthetic harmony under illumination. Only the technological-political conditions of the present have permitted us to properly express our so-long repressed psychology in its full glory.

How else to make sense of all this stuff about how People of the Past all walked about mentally ill because of the parental abuse and violence they'd endured, which contradicts entirely the thesis about the emotional inoculation that pervasive deathy-ness brings about? How could you be suffering from feelings of abandonment and alienation when all this death everywhere supposedly made self-alienation the only means of not suffering?

Anyway, it's a pretty entertaining book when you get past all this annoying Mortality Math, and so I conclude with this fine poem Stone has inserted:
'Come soon, O Death, and Alice take.'
He loudly groan'd and cry'd;
Death came - but made a sad mistake,
For Richard 'twas that died.