Sunday, April 27, 2014

The true meaning of inbox zero

A sight I've never before seen:

It was so unnerving that I had to send some of my archived mail back to my inbox just to interrupt the intensity of the white emptiness. It's like the people who, having lived all their lives amid noise, can no longer stand silence and require white noise to maintain their equilibrium. Google should make an app to correct this.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Literally checking your privilege, for points

You can do it by means of this handy checklist of advantages you might have which others are denied. As Phoebe points out, "It's the Charles Murray "bubble" quiz for a different set." This quiz contains great wisdom, however: it knows just how good you have it and even what is good (not working as a barista or waitress, apparently, even as a temp job). However, the goal is not to have it good, but to justify checking off as few boxes as possible so that you might acquire coveted "under-privileged" status. And given the subjectivity of circumstances and especially of feelings, I'll bet that anyone can achieve such valuable misery if they just make a good faith effort to put everything that's ever happened to them in the worst possible light. I found that I could be anything from not privileged to very privileged, depending on how pathetically I decided to construe my life. I would like to think this extreme flexibility and adaptability to individual circumstance and momentary moods is what the internet likes to call "a feature, not a bug" of the document.

In addition to its other useful qualities, by far the best suggestion this privilege-check makes is that "using prescription drugs recreationally" is a form of privilege. Apparently, being able to engage in self-destructive behavior is one of the unfair advantages which result in an unequal playing field for all. Not just anyone can use prescription drugs recreationally. Many there are who have to settle for such indignities as sniffing glue. This seems like an as-yet-unexplored vista of privilege, whereby those to whom the greatest advantages of self-destruction have accrued must ask themselves searching questions about how they attained their current misery and how they can redistribute it to others. In an effort to further this self-examination and rectification of injustice, I would like to offer the creators of this quiz some further checklist options. You might be privileged if:
- You were kidnapped by terrorists in a war zone. (Most people are not permitted to enter them.)
- You successfully committed a felony. (Many people botch them.)
- You are a cocaine addict. (High-roller.)
- You are an alcoholic. (Mid-roller.)
- You have injured or killed yourself or someone else with a firearm. (The very poor must settle for knives.)
- You have injured or killed yourself or someone else with your own arm. (Not everyone has an arm.)*
Now, if you checked off any of these possibilities, remember: "You are quite privileged. This is not a bad thing, nor is it something to be ashamed of. But you should be aware of your advantages and work to help others who don’t have them." Get on it, prescription drug abusers.

* Lest you think I'm making light of serious matters here, I assure you that is not the case and encourage you to examine the comments to this quiz, which include the following exchange:
"If you can read this you're privileged"
"Yes, you are. The privilege of attending a school where you are taught to read or having parents who have the time and ability to teach such a skill is a privilege denied to many people, young and old, all around the world."
"Yes, some people do not have eye sight at all." 
Please keep that in mind, dear blog readers, especially when you're feeling peeved at me. It is a privilege to be able to read my missives to you. Would that all the world were so fortunate.

Monday, April 14, 2014

James, What Maisie Knew

This can be filed, along with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, as fiction that I excuse myself for reading because it is Relevant To My Dissertation, as opposed to fiction I have no excuse to read because I should be dissertating instead. According to the democratic reviewers at Goodreads, the primary import of this book is that it contains very long sentences, so there you have it. On the other end, Withywindle, aristocrat, has mentioned it as among the most memorable books he's read.

I'm not sure what to think of it. Some essential piece of common understanding about character or morality seems to have been lost in the pipeline from James's writing to my reading. I didn't quite see how Maisie comes to understand anything that she is discovered in the end to know from all the mysterious conversational innuendo to which she's exposed, nor what it is that she finally does know. In the movie - which I watched for clarification-by-comparison purposes (plus, it's streaming on Netflix now) - Maisie seems to know primarily that her parents are unreliable and maybe selfish. But Movie Maisie has loving step-parents who simply take the place of bad natural parents and all ends well and the goodness of family (broadly-conceived) is redeemed. Book Maisie's situation is much more stark - all the adults around her are somewhere between utterly reprehensible and, at best, well-meaning but spineless, and the only one who has any moral merit has no other merits to speak of. The family is not salvageable; Maisie is better off without one. This was also the case in the only other James novel I've read, Washington Square, where I also ground my teeth over being forced to sympathize with an upright dullard for total lack of brighter alternatives.

The problem is that I'm not quite sure what exactly makes all the adults in the novel so bad that's more complex than just selfishness. James Bowman, in his review of the movie, says "we have now to see what started out as a story about divorce as a story about bad parenting." That seems right; divorce is more central to the novel, which is much more concerned with domestic propriety and propriety generally than the movie. In the book, propriety as either itself a moral quality or as indicative of the morality underlying it. To breach propriety - by speaking to a child openly (and the way Maisie is spoken to is hardly open by present standards) about adultery, for example - is not just a matter of poor breeding in the novel, but really a serious moral crime. Maisie's rescue in the end is really only from further impropriety, but it's treated as a momentous moral triumph.

It's this link between the forms of conduct and the intentions behind it that I can't quite grasp. Is it that it's possible to be inwardly craven so long as you carry out your social offices correctly? Or that carrying them out according to these standards all but demands internal moral uprightness? If I try to draw a parallel to our own social proprieties, almost all of which have to do with public speech, it's hard to see how they do more than mask duplicity - you have to say the right things first to gain the freedom to think through them on your own later. But this does not seem to be James's point. I don't think, however, that my lack of understanding arises out of James's unclarity and long sentenciness, but rather that some unstated understanding about the "moral sense" so much spoken of at the end of the book that was abroad in 1897 holding this book together has up and left the room in the intervening years.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Ross Douthat is clearly wrong

The left is completely willing to be honest about what it means by "diversity," at least at its net-roots. Just look at the comments to his column:
When people say they want a diversity of ideas it's implicit that the ideas pass even minor scrutiny. This means nearly all 'conservative' ideas don't pass muster.
An "NYT pick" of a comment. Seems pretty straightforward to me. Sure, sometimes there's inconvenient ambiguity involved, like when the same person simultaneously denounces FGM and the religion that facilitates it. But, in the end, there is always someone with unambiguously correct ideas to be found who will "pass muster," so to speak, so no one has to feel uncomfortably conflicted about the internal consistency of his idea of diversity for too long.

UPDATE: See, even the Crimson is willing to say it: "Brandeis should have more thoroughly vetted potential candidates to ensure that all of the recipients’ views were in line the university’s values." Santa makes his list, but sometimes he forgets to check it twice (incipient senility). Good thing the elves are so diligent! (Also enjoyable from this editorial is the invocation of the consensus of "the global community," which you may be surprised to discover requires only "6,800 signatures" on a petition. The WORLD has spoken.)

Friday, April 11, 2014

Scifi as political theory, redux

Peeps, the new CW show The 100 is my dissertation. It features the state of nature, the origins of politics (mostly Hobbesian, unsurprisingly), the problem of rule by children (they are not so good at it), and also neon forests and two-headed deer and other imagined effects of nuclear holocaust. It's also Lord of the Flies set in a post-apocalyptic survival world, which also kind of means Lord of the Flies was my dissertation, but now my dissertation is on the teeveee. Becky told me about this (I've been boycotting TV due to overproliferation of shows that "make u think"), I've watched the first few episodes,'s not as bad as you'd perhaps expect.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The best percent, and the rest of the percent

Like Phoebe, I was vaguely troubled by the annual NYT announcement that selective college admissions grows ever more selective. Unlike Phoebe, I'm at the U of C right now (in the Reg even!), and I can attest to the devastating effects of this stringency first-hand: the undergrads, especially the women, have become a lot more attractive, or at least, cleaner since we were there. They were always more hygienic than the men, but now, whoa. Also, they all wear the same casual-but-actually-calculated side-flip hairstyle. It is a travesty.

However, the question this raises for me is: can you design an experiment that tests the quality of decision-making that goes on under conditions analogous to current high-prestige college admissions? These admissions counselors are always saying that they're turning away thousands of "qualified" applicants. But since they're human beings, their choices among this overflowing pool of the qualified cannot be or even approximate random selection. They're also consciously trying to select the best of the qualified. And, indeed, the casual inference to be drawn from an 8% acceptance rate is that the accepted students are in some kind of 92nd percentile and up of awesomeness out of the available options. Is there some way to test whether people making choices that they assume will have an enormous impact on people's life outcomes under such high-selectivity constraints results in their making, on average, better or worse choices?

I realize that the vagueness of what constitutes a correct choice in this case might present problems for such an experiment. But, I suppose you could use a sample of the applications of recent graduates who ended up doing very well academically at a school for your baseline of correctness and applications of students who fared worse for incorrectness. This is subject to some difficulty of course, since some students do poorly at a school for reasons that could not possibly be predicted by their applications, but maybe there is a way to correct for that? If so, then maybe mix these two sets of applications together, impose a drastically low selection rate on one set of deciders and a much higher one on another, and set them to work to see who picks more correct applications? Or, something else?

My suspicion is that, on the whole, the dull but solid applicants are more likely to get passed over under conditions of extreme selectivity where the stakes are high (that is, those deciding believe that admitting someone will substantially improve his life outcome), but that they are also more likely to be successful in college than colorful iconoclasts (and also might become more colorful later as the precociously colorful get duller), so that highly selective admissions processes produce slightly worse academic outcomes than moderately selective ones. But, having been a dull but solid admit in my day, I of course would suspect that. So I want this to be tested.