Pages

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

2015 in review

2015 was the year when I could count the number of alcoholic drinks I consumed on one hand, and 99% of the people on Facebook had babies. Either that or the people who had babies posted 99% of the photos that appeared on Facebook. (The other 1% were photos of Alex's cat and Phoebe's dog.) I think this is a pretty good configuration though.

Some things happened in the world, but politics moved from something that happens in the world to something that happens primarily in retweets.

Last year's resolutions were mostly fulfilled, because low bars produce easy winners. The only areas of little progress were in generating publishable non-academic thoughts, and escaping California. But I suppose this was balanced out by good things that I didn't explicitly resolve to do, like incubate a small person who has my genes (although I'm not certain that she will see that as such a good thing when she discovers what these genes are) and get another academic article accepted.

So the resolutions for next year are to find a job and move back to civilization, or one or the other, but the one will probably facilitate the other.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

An open letter to Google Scholar

Dear Google Scholar,

I would like this amazing thing added to my citation count pls. Actually, I would like it double-counted. Can you arrange for that with your techno-wizardry? Kthnx.

Sparkly hearts,
Miss Self-Important, Very Serious Scholar

Saturday, December 12, 2015

On lullabies

I wouldn't have thought to consider this strategy of sleep inducement because white noise was working so well,* but then an accidental playing of the Brahms Lullaby knocked her right out, so I decided to look into what is obviously an old and well-worn method of making babies sleep.** It's not that I don't sing to the baby, but I just make up horribly unmusical things on the spot, mainly containing the lyric, "Go to sleep so Mama can finish her dissertation." Pre-made lullabies seemed easier than trying to come up with verses that rhyme with "dissertation." The problem is that the only lullabies I know are...questionable. For example:

- "Hush Little Baby": In this song, a parent bribes the child to sleep with a number of bizarre gifts that no infant could possibly desire or use, including a diamond ring and a "cart and bull," and when all these extravagant bribes fail, assures the baby that it is sweeter or cuter than everyone else. The primary lesson is one of unfettered materialism and vanity.
- "Frere Jacques": This song encourages waking up instead of sleeping. Definitely the wrong lesson.
- "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star": The child narrating this song just wants to know what the star is, and instead gets five stanzas of quaint digression that never answer his question! Lyrics could stand to be updated by an astrophysicist.
- "Rock-a-Bye Baby": In this song, the eponymous baby falls from a tree and presumably dies. What kind of message is that?!

Further research turned up a number of more comforting songs for babies, but they're more complex musically and lyrically, so they take work to learn. Also, they're usually Christian. (Babycenter claims "Amazing Grace" is a lullaby - as if someone as musically-defective as me can produce that on demand!) I assume this is why they've failed to attain the popularity of the simple, secular songs above. One poem I was surprised not to see turned into a popular lullaby is Stevenson's "Land of Nod." I found it set to music in - of all places - Natalie Merchant's album of children's songs. (My childhood musical enthusiasms are now making music for my children.) But her tune is not very sing-able. Actually, few of these tunes are, so as an effort to create lullabies out of old children's poems, this album is kind of a failure.

* Nobody else seemed to think that putting babies to sleep by piping the sophisticated sounds of "rain on car," "washing machine," and "hair dryer" into their ears is creepy, so I accepted this practice (plus, it's so effective), but I'm still a little troubled by the sense that white noise represents a way of pushing the baby back into the womb rather than leading it out into civilization, as music does.
** But its antiquity and repute may be such only because of the failure to discover the magic of white noise earlier.

Monday, November 30, 2015

The university as a revival meeting

I spoke too soon, since if Helen Andrews is right, maybe American universities are ready to become - or take the place of - churches. This is an interesting parallel to the Great Awakenings, especially this:
One new development is how easily administrators are caving. Why did the Yale girl’s expletive-filled tirade result in an apology...and not her immediate rustication?...The activists have also benefited from the same loophole that has protected every revival in American history: They can’t condemn you for getting serious about beliefs that everyone else is supposed to share.
Being denounced as "unconverted," in the parlance of the First Great Awakening, can only hurt if you claim or desire to be converted in the first place. But that makes the present situation essentially a fight over authenticity within the Left, and conservative critics into the unchurched outsiders.

And if we follow Helen's narrative of (unconscious? subconscious?) secular absorption of older Christian modes of thought and behavior, then what is the functional equivalent of "conversion" or salvation in this situation? The revivalists, being mainly subscribers to Reformed theologies, at least thought there was a possibility of knowing that you were saved, in this life. But in a progressive political framework, the repentance of sinners doesn't seem to have an end. So what similarly satisfying marks of success do the campus protesters offer in place of Reformed certainty?

And while we're at this functionalist parallelism, what's the equivalent of James Davenport's public de-pantsing that brings the affair to an end?

Sunday, November 29, 2015

The limits of tolerance

I thought I'd become accustomed to all the baby's bodily fluids and excretions until she came down with a cold a couple days ago, and we were instructed to remove her snot with what is surely the most grotesque device imaginable: the NoseFrida, sub-named "The Snotsucker." It's basically a nose enema. An adult sucks the tube, creating suction by which heretofore unseen boogers from somewhere way up the nasal cavity and mercifully out of sight come shooting out. It's a horrible sight. It's very hard to accurately weigh my competing desires that the baby recover from her cold and that I never, ever have to suck snot out of her.

UPDATE: My resolve didn't last very long.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Department of Bad Ideas: The university as a really big homeschool

Commenters have been observing for some time that the campus activism of the past few years (arguably the past 25 years) has differed from its 1960s predecessor in requiring more adult oversight and intervention rather than trying to overthrow adult authority on campus in the name of student liberation. Student demands always include hiring more professors and administrators - that is, more adults - to provide them with desired goods and services, which include everything from identity representation to counseling to punishing their on-campus enemies. This pro-paternalist tendency is easily seen from the outside, but not something students themselves have usually admitted or perhaps even recognized, and for obvious reasons given the negative connotations of the term.

But now suddenly everyone has decided that open paternalism is exactly what the university should aspire to! Ok, well, maybe not "paternalism," but some nicer-sounding synonyms like "family" and "home." Seizing on a now-removed student op-ed lamenting the failure of the writer's Yale dorm to be a good family to her, the commenters have decided that the goal of modeling the university on the nuclear family is a reasonable and even noble one, and it's what schools are promising anyway, so they may as well live up to it:
Particularly in the way things have unfolded at Yale, students’ social-justice activism has been expressed, in part, as the need for care from authority figures. When they experience the hurt that motivates them to political action, they’re deeply disappointed with parental surrogates for not responding adequately or quickly enough to support and nurture them...The students’ preoccupation with safe spaces and the comfort of home seems a plausible manifestation of the profound lack of security—from violence to financial insolvency—that their generation faces. No wonder that their calls for social justice return to the talisman of safety and care of parental figures.
This is a rapid change in rhetoric. Did UChicago advertise its housing system in these familial terms when we attended? I recall a lot of boasting of the relative amenities of different dorms, but no promises of surrogate parents to lure us in. However, I just discovered that the U of C was planning to close and sell all of its so-called "satellite dorms" - the smaller buildings that are more than two feet from the main quad - and herd all the students to within hugging distance of one another. So I decided to look at the housing website, and lo and behold, it is now brimming with familial rhetoric about "caring for one another" and resident heads who "share their family lives with you." Times have changed, and become extremely creepy.

So we might wonder whether a university can be made to resemble a home and family. There is homeschooling, after all, so education at home is possible. And maybe if college students were typically orphans, the university would be an appropriate sort of institutional homeschool and surrogate parent. But since they're not and they come from already-existing families, how will the university home-family relate to the original home-family? What if its family values are at odds with those of a birth family - which "family" takes precedence?

Suk and Lind seem to assume that modeling a university on the family will bring about fundamental ideological harmony among its members so that adversarial dispute can be replaced by "support" and "nurture." But the more siblings there are in a family, the greater the potential for fraternal conflict, and the less parental support and nurture there is to go around to soothe it. So what can we expect from a family of 25,000 siblings? Perhaps we can expect 25,000 parents, in the form of additional administrators hired to provide additional nurture and support. But then we'd really have 25,000 different families, each student with his own nurturing administrator-father empathizing with him against each of the others, rather than one big one.

And what about the disciplinary and punitive aspects of family life that are completely overlooked by all this focus on support and nurture? Suk writes that "a child in pain desperately desires empathy and understanding from a parent," but parents don't just dish out unconditional empathy; they also dish out punishment, rebuke, shame, guilt. Insofar as families are places of any sort of unconditional acceptance, this tends to mean that they continually forgive their own black sheep no matter how terribly they behave, which on this analogy means giving a free pass to the very students whom the activists accuse of racism and exclusion, etc. and ask Dean Mom and Resident Head Dad to restrain or punish. And isn't there something disingenuous about claiming to want university authorities to be like your parents, and then calling for their removal when they don't respond to you the way you'd prefer? Parents are probably the only authorities whom you can't fire or replace at will, and by seeking it, don't students behave more like consumers or voters than sons and daughters?

This all suggests, as Phoebe has also noted (somewhere?), that the residential college is either overtaxed (if you want to see it as a passive victim), or it that it has overreached. It's one thing to provide decent room and board for students while they're studying far from their real home, assuming that such communal living arrangements will come with their share of conflicts as well as camaraderie. Under these circumstances, dorm residents remain primarily students, and are only incidentally boarders. But it's quite another thing to elevate dormitory living to the university's guiding purpose, and to promise a constantly fulfilling social life free of strife and slight in them. Characterizing the whole operation as a kind of therapeutic family dedicated to student mental health, as Lind hopes, transforms students into sickly orphans. And what does that make the rest of the university? Can it remain an institution devoted to research and study when its students are primarily to be viewed as fragile or damaged children in need of care instead of education? Or will it have to become an orphans' sanitarium?

As I've said before, these sorts of arguments and policies which infantilize adults and discourage adulthood are almost always bad news. When politics starts to get all intimate with you and tells you that the state is your daddy and its citizens are all your brothers, that is usually a good cue to channel your inner libertarian individualist and run away. To be someone's child is to be dependent on, ruled by, and obligated to obey this person. This is fine when you actually are a child, but perhaps you can imagine how quickly things can degenerate when you're an adult encountering other adults who just want to take care of you, and all you have to do in return is surrender some, or maybe all, of your liberty. Maybe that's a reasonable trade-off so long as you're sure your new caregivers have only your best interest at heart. Just like it's no problem to "weaken free speech protections in the name of sensitivity" when you're "sure that [your] version of sensitivity will prevail."

A university is not the state of course, but the same opportunity for despotism appears in other associations that model themselves on the family. Only churches seem to be capable of sustaining the paternal model of authority, but I'm not sure that American universities are quite ready to become religions and elevate their paternal figures into gods. Fraternal relationships can work as models for small and exclusive associations since sibling relations are more flexible and less hierarchical than parental ones. But even fraternal associations get less effective and more scary the bigger the "brotherhood" in question becomes. The family is the first and most basic unit of civic life, and so a perennially tempting model for the rest of civil society, but it's unlike all other associations. You only get one set of parents, and once you leave them, you need to figure out how to have other kinds of relationships with people that aren't paternal or parental. Adulthood opens other ways to find support and nurture - marriage, friendship - that allow us to move beyond the parental relationship and avoid collapsing everything into it. Even "in a world that is genuinely frightening and unjust," as Suk puts it (and when was the world otherwise?), you will probably be better off living off-campus than in a creepy dorm that wants to adopt you as its child and envelop you in a long, suffocating group hug.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

A long consideration of an old show, or why you should watch Gilmore Girls when you are pregnant

Just in time for Netflix to revive it, I finished watching the entire Gilmore Girls run on Netflix last month. I don't understand how I managed to miss this show when it was originally airing, since my college roommates watched it then, and its main character was exactly our age and the plot was probably the closest thing to a depiction of our adolescent and college lives that will ever make it to TV. All that would've prevented me from watching then was the epic annoyingness of Lorelai, or that I was living in the library, a study cave to which TV shows could not yet be streamed.

Watching it now though, I was surprised that the show's strong strain of mid-century New England WASP nostalgia was such a hit so recently, and I'm not sure if discovering that it was created by a Jew from the Valley made that more or less surprising. It revives two different mid-century New England worlds - that of middling small town farmers and shopkeepers, and that of urban old money society. (There is also the world of Yale in the last four seasons, but that just looks like modern college to me and not a revival of an idyllic Yale Past.)

The show's sympathy towards the old money WASPs is the more surprising of these revivals. Of course, as far as it's a comedy, it's as much a caricature of mid-century New England WASP nostalgia as a celebration of it, so characters like the Gilmore grandparents must be at least as ridiculous as they are lovable. But the show's overall attitude towards this world and its ethic is pretty forgiving - not quite Whit Stilman levels of adoration, but some real affection. The grandparents, for example, make Rory's clearly deserved but otherwise out of reach education possible, and through genuine generosity rather than standoffish obligation. The show acknowledges that coming from a "good" family and having lots of money can be seriously morally deforming, but also that there really are "finer things" worth the price, that high culture exists, and it's not all some discreditable undemocratic illusion. It actually takes seriously the idea that the grandparents possess taste and discernment (Richard in books, Emily in aesthetics) that the small-town bumpkins lack. Moreover, Lorelai's intransigent opposition to them is clearly as excessive as their own over-the-top schemes. It's usually Rory's "if it makes you happy" acquiescences (to sit for a portrait dressed in a royal robe, to transform her dorm into a den of luxury, to donate a building to Yale in her name) that are played as the best response to their excesses. I doubt that this depiction of old money WASPs could survive social media's privilege call-outs today. 

Less problematic than the opulent Hartford Gilmores is the Tocquevillian Stars Hollow. Here is clearly the best place in the world to live - no one seems to have a college education or a white collar job, but everyone is comfortable and there is zero income inequality. Nearly everyone owns a beautiful old house, and everyone has enough money to eat at the diner or get take-out every day. All goods and services, including highly specialized ones like a cat store, are available in town (despite its population being no more than 40, judging by the number of chairs available at town meetings), and at apparently competitive prices, since no one ever drives out to Walmart to cut costs. In Stars Hollow, there are no economic downturns, no foreign or even local competition, no gloomy futures where a high school diploma (or less, in Jess's case) won't suffice to make ends meet. No one will ever have to leave, neighbors will help neighbors in between absurd spats, and there will always be lively seasonal festivals. Idyllic small-town New England! And I can see why we would eat this stuff up, because as much as we might resent overbearing Emily Gilmore and her DAR ladies with their heaps of unchecked privilege, we may never get over our longing for the democratic and communitarian vision of the original New England township, and that's just fine with me.

Friday, November 13, 2015

The cuddly epidermis

During the blog silence, we procreated this goomba:
And discovered that this, from James Q. Wilson's The Moral Sense, is pretty accurate:
"One of the cues (in evolutionary jargon, "releasers") that stimulates this affectional response in adults is 'cuteness' - by which I mean that set of traits by which we judge an organism to be delightfully attractive. We respond to certain features of people and animals in ways that suggest that we share a roughly common definition of cuteness: eyes large relative to the skull, chubby cheeks and a rounded chin, awkward movements, a cuddly epidermis, small size, and a distinctive smell. Nonparents, as well as parents, respond to those cues; and the response extends beyond the human infant to other creatures with those infantile traits. I suggest that social scientists and moral philosophers have paid too little attention to the concept of 'cute.'"
I'm not sure what this means for the future of the blog. Probably the same vegetative state occasionally revived by posts on politically irrelevant topics as always.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Elsewhere

I review Jon Ronson's So You've Been Publicly Shamed, and explain why Hobbes wants you to hate your parents so that you will love your sovereign instead.

Monday, August 10, 2015

The perfect pop song

I've concluded that, unlike most other catchy songs that soon wear out their radio welcome, I can never get tired of hearing "Shut Up and Dance" on the radio, not even if it's played 20 times a day and often simultaneously on three of San Diego's Top 40 stations. Which must mean it's the perfect pop song.

Saturday, August 08, 2015

Looking for casserole recipes

That you have actually made, and preferably that can be frozen and reheated with decent results.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

The greatest alumni note of all time

I've mentioned in the past that I am a very diligent reader of the U of C alumni magazine's notes and obituaries. I read them all, and learn about how each stage of life is accompanied by very specific modes of bragging - those under 35 brag about birthing children and their first career accomplishments, those between 36 and 65 brag about their children's accomplishments, and those over 65 brag about how active and vigorous they remain (with the effect, I think, of cowing the non-active into alumni magazine silence). This last group is probably the most comical, but only because the others are so predictable. Still, I enjoy all of them. However, the most recent issue of the alumni magazine featured what I can say with almost a decade (!) of experience in the field of alumni-note reading is the best alumni note I have ever seen, composed by someone who appears not to have even graduated from Chicago:



A contemporary Tellus the Athenian, altered by modernity but not beyond recognition.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Regional differences in breaking records

"San Diego has broken just about every record it has for July," said Roger Pierce, a National Weather Service forecaster. "It was a pretty amazing weekend."
And what exactly is meant by "pretty amazing" in San Diego? This:
Sunday's downpour pushed San Diego's July rainfall to 1.50 inches, breaking the previous July record of 0.92 inches, set in 1902. Lindbergh Field recorded a high temperature of 88 degrees, one degree higher than the previous record for July 19, set in 1951.
There you have it, the apocalypse: 1.5 inches of rain and 88-degree temperatures. Essentially, San Diego experienced two average Midwest/East Coast summer storms this weekend and the city nearly collapsed.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Eliot, Daniela Deronda

The Toast once summarized all English novels with the phrase "fraught seating arrangements," which is a very accurate description of large parts of this book (as also of every book by Henry James, and a lot of Jane Austen, especially Mansfield Park, which is may be the epitome of her virtue revealed through extremely subtle gestures that only someone of extraordinary sensitivity could notice). 

I appreciate the value of manners and rules of conduct, but can't quite understand how the Victorians concluded that good manners simply are virtue, and the highest virtue is the best manners, such that the slightest deviation - a sideways glance, an insufficiently light smile, a too-long pause or alternately a too-brief one - could be taken to reveal the profound corruption (or even just an incomplete virtue, which amounts to the same thing) within. Sure, the actions reveal the man, but does that really extend to the actions of his eyebrows? 

For example, here is a line from the novel: "And Mrs. Meyrick's face showed something like an undercurrent of expression, not allowed to get to the surface." Notice that what this sentence actually means is that Mrs. Meyrick's face showed nothing and no one noticed it. But the precise nothingness that it showed revealed everything about her state of mind and loftiness of soul. Mrs. Meyrick is so virtuous that she communicates telepathically, and is perfectly understood by others like herself. Not to say that this level of exquisite sensitivity to both other people and to what is right in every circumstance is not admirable, just that it is...a very high standard, perhaps unattainable by those who have the misfortune of not being born into Victorian novels?

But even if we do take this standard as a worthy one, it still seems kind of cramped, like heroism is just the exercise of very good manners with great sincerity behind them towards all the people in your country neighborhood. The characters all have their heads stuffed with earlier modes of heroism - Dante and the art of the Italian Renaissance make many appearances, as do the novels of Walter Scott - but their own lives are so small that all they can channel these aspirations into is maintaining pleasant social concord. 

Well, that's not quite accurate, because the title character, who spends all 800 pages of the book looking for a great purpose to which to dedicate himself finally does find one that supersedes the boundaries of Wanchester. Which brings us to the non-Victorian society half of the novel, which is about how the Jews are a mystical race of prophetic unicorns in need of a national homeland. Back in high school, when I used to read about the 19th C. history of Zionism, I could've probably had a better idea about whether Eliot's mysticism-induced Zionism was plausible if not exactly mainstream, but unfortunately, because I was reading about the history of Zionism and other exclusively non-literary things in high school, I was not reading George Eliot.

Monday, June 01, 2015

James, The Bostonians

It turns out that the novelization of Democracy in America is a story about misguided 19th C. Boston feminists that plays out Tocqueville's remarks about both the tenuous place of women and general ideas in America. This is so far my favorite of the James novels I've read, though I'm beginning to be concerned about the paucity of male characters.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

A friend of mine from college who makes shadow puppet plays that I'm never in the right city to see has finally made one that you do not have to be in the right city to see because it is a film on the internet. It unfortunately shares a name with a feeble CNN documentary about Chicago that is in effect an elaborate re-election ad for Rahm Emanuel, not a terrible eventuality given the options, but one could've hoped that there were more interesting things in Chicago to depict in 2013 than the inside of Rahm's mayoral SUV as he zipped purposefully between sound byte appearances. Anyway, this Chicagoland is about a coyote roaming the city, not the mayor, and has a better soundtrack.

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Academic conferences at tropical resorts, a follow-up

This post follows the previous entirely by coincidence, not because I am constantly thinking about conferences. But remember that, last spring, I proposed the brilliant idea that academic conferences should be held at all-inclusive tropical resorts? Well, this weekend, an NYT essay vindicates my suggestion, emphasizing how great these places are for people with kids, even people who think themselves too morally sophisticated to enjoy such low-brow pleasures. And just in time, because the SPSA's next conference is in Puerto Rico. But, hypocrite that I am, I'm not planning to attend. In my defense though, it's not an all-inclusive resort in Puerto Rico.

Friday, April 24, 2015

The best conference dream

Last night, before going to a conference in New Haven, I dreamed that I was going to a conference in New Haven, and I ran into some women I vaguely knew on the way there and they introduced me to their friends before the conference and we all hit it off so well that we decided to skip the conference altogether and take the train down to Manhattan for the day instead.

This was a very optimistic dream.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Other good to middling stuff to watch on Netflix at the moment

A list I promised to Alex last weekend:

Leave It to Beavers: Yes, a documentary about beavers.
Microcosmos: This one is about bugs.
Sons of Perdition: Mormon polygamists.
Nobody Knows: Japanese child neglect.
Short Term 12: The troubled yoof.
Nebraska: The troubled old.
Frances Ha: The troubled hipsters.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

"Rich Hill" and the mythological middle class of everyone

Netflix has a couple of watchable new films available*, among them "Rich Hill," a documentary following three poor boys in a rural Missouri town for a year. Although the subjects may not think themselves poor, it seemed clear that the viewers were supposed to think them so. The film has no particular argument to make about the boys' lives; they're just depicted, and some of them are better than others. But afterwards, when I looked up reviews, I discovered that although most people saw that clearly, a number seemed to think that the boys were intended to symbolize "an American story of the struggle to stay in the middle class, and how money changes the dynamics of families, making childhood a fleeting commodity."

Now, I know that everyone in America is middle-class if you ask them, and even that this is a kind of useful unifying national ideology since, when it works, it restrains the excesses of the rich and the poor. But it's hard to watch this movie and think that any of these boys or their families are in even the "lower" middle class. One boy lives with his grandmother, who is on food stamps and seems to be housing many of his cousins as well, because his mother is in prison. Another lives with his mother and at least five siblings on his mother's Pizza Hut wages. The third lives with both parents and a sister, but his mother appears to be addicted to sleeping pills and his father won't take a regular job and prefers to make his living as a itinerant handyman. Even in some halcyon time in the past when the middle class was bigger, or middle class wages were available to those without college or even high school degrees, these are not circumstances conducive to middle-class status since they are not conducive to steady income. These boys are not "struggling to stay in the middle class"; they are simply poor. (The rest of that sentence applies as little to the movie as this part of it, but maybe the reviewer is English and assumes that America is such a wretched place that it's typically middle-class to lack hot water.)

What is quite striking in the movie and not noted in the reviews, at least not in these terms, is that the boy who seems to be the least damaged (in fact, he seems to have quite an admirable character) and to have the best prospects is the one who is, in strictly material terms, the poorest of the three.

*The other good new Netflix movie is "In Bloom," a Georgian coming of age story which was I think the first time I ever heard Georgian spoken. I thought it would sound at least vaguely like Russian, but no, not at all.

Friday, February 20, 2015

An open letter to grad students from Francis Bacon

The derogations therefore which grow to learning from the fortune or condition of learned men, are either in respect of scarcity of means, or in respect of privateness of life and meanness of employments. Concerning want, and that it is the case of learned men usually to begin with little, and not to grow rich so fast as other men, by reason they convert not their labours chiefly to lucre and increase, it were good to leave the commonplace in commendation of povery to some friar to handle, to whom much was attributed by Machiavel in this point when he said, "That the kingdom of the clergy had been long before at an end, if the reputation and reverence towards the poverty of friars had not borne out the scandal of the superfluities and excesses of bishops and prelates.” 
--Bacon, The Advancement of Learning 

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Forever young, and ruled by the college dean

Phoebe and Sarah brought this contrarian-lite Eric Posner article defending campus speech regulations on the grounds that their targets are kinda-sorta semi-legally minors to my attention yesterday:
Society seems to be moving the age of majority from 18 to 21 or 22. We are increasingly treating college-age students as quasi-children who need protection from some of life’s harsh realities while they complete the larval stage of their lives. Many critics of these codes discern this transformation but misinterpret it. They complain that universities are treating adults like children. The problem is that universities have been treating children like adults...[Blahblah brain science says]...High schools are accustomed to dealing with the cognitive limitations of their charges. They see their mission as advancing the autonomy of students rather than assuming that it is already in place. They socialize as well as educate children to act civilly by punishing them if they don’t. Universities have gradually realized that they must take the same approach to college students.
Miss Self-Important has written against the infantilization of adults before, but must disclaim that, as far as minors go, she has no objection to exercising all the authority over them. Over time, this is increasingly unlikely to be successful, since as Locke points out, in that boiling boisterous part of life,” adolescents “think themselves too much men to be governed by others.” But, you know, give it a try if you want. However, for the same reasons that Locke extends adults complete authority over minors, he argues for the strict observation of the legal age of majority: liberty hinges on the presumption (excluding "lunatics and idiots") of a capacity for self-rule, since if we had to individually prove our maturity to the government before being admitted to full citizenship, the government would soon discover its very great interest in denying our competence (for our own good, of course). So the first difficulty with Posner's provocation is that a vague, socially-determined age of majority set at "21 or 22" is precisely the kind of ambiguous rule that opens the door to the paternal authoritarian state that Locke feared.

But this is actually not the main difficulty. Some college students are legal minors in addition to Posner's "social" minors, though more are semi-minors in terms of parental responsibility for tuition*, but, as Posner points out, private universities may make more or less whatever rules of conduct they wish, a right which is unrelated to the ages of those who are subject to those rules. Private firms may enforce speech codes over unambiguous adults, which is why the faculty and staff at universities are just as much subject to all these regulations as the students. That right, and not the ages of students, is what Posner's argument turns on. No question about the extent of free speech on campuses can be answered by appealing to the childishness of students. Determinations about what can be taught, researched, and written at universities don't have anything to do with how mature or immature kids-these-days are. They're made to advance the purposes of the institutions themselves, and these purposes do not include baby-sitting.


This is why the argument collapses when Posner justifies speech restrictions by appealing to students' supposed immaturity: 

While critics sometimes give the impression that lefty professors and clueless administrators originated the speech and sex codes, the truth is that universities adopted them because that’s what most students want. If students want to learn biology and art history in an environment where they needn’t worry about being offended or raped, why shouldn’t they? ....
The modern speech and sex codes have surfaced as those waters recede back to sea. What is most interesting is that this reaction comes not from parents and administrators, but from students themselves, who, apparently recognizing that their parents and schools have not fully prepared them for independence, want universities to resume their traditional role in loco parentis. 
But wait, why do we care what "students themselves" demand when we've just expended many words to demonstrate that their demands and preferences shouldn't matter because they are children. Only mature adults are in a position to decide for them what they should learn and under what conditions. And if those adults think it's in the children's best interest to have disciplinary procedures with high burdens of proof or exposure to offense, then who's to say they're wrong?

And moreover, which adults? The secondary school model which Posner extols here for its salutary pedagogical sensitivity to adolescent immaturity also permits parents and non-experts a great deal of say in school governance. In public schools, boards of (often) parents and (even more often) non-academics govern school curricula and procedures, and other parents can be very effective in adjusting these curricula and procedures if they object. Private schools are not run by elected boards, but there too, parent associations are very powerful. Now, would Posner also like the curriculum and policies of UChicago to be substantially determined by the parents of current students? And why not? Why should faculty, who after all study obscure equations and ancient Mesopotamian holes in the ground and know nothing about their children's developmental needs, get to determine the rules under which these tender babes are to be educated?

And what is this nonsense-in-a-box about the noble desire to be "in an environment where they needn't worry about being offended or raped"? As if anyone has ever longed to be in an environment where they had to worry constantly about being raped. But no such worry-free environment has been created by the new rules, which have only proliferated investigative and punitive measures. Posner consistently conflates irrelevant problems like politicizing the classroom with the actual aims of speech and sex codes. These have very little to do with professors who "blab on about their opinions," but aim to regulate the personal relationships among students and between faculty and students by determining how they should interact with one another. Professor Leftist Revolutionary can continue to bloviate all he wants about his glorious time in the Central American guerrilla movement of his choice so long as he refers to his students by the correct pronouns, doesn't mention any jungle activity that might recall their traumas, and maybe permits his syllabus to be determined by students' identities. (Partisans of the other side may feel free to replace this scenario with a Professor Reactionary.)

Posner concludes that he has solved the culture wars:
Libertarians should take heart that the market in private education offers students a diverse assortment of ideological cultures in which they can be indoctrinated. Conservatives should rejoice that moral instruction and social control have been reintroduced to the universities after a 40-year drought. Both groups should be pleased that students are kept from harm’s way, and kept from doing harm, until they are ready to accept the responsibilities of adults.
Problematically, however, "diverse ideological cultures" won't keep students "from harm's way" or "from doing harm." They will deal with the problem of harm diversely and with diverse results. If students are minors in need of protection, we cannot leave them to the mercy of "ideological cultures" that reject the very premise that it is their job to protect students, or those that have unorthodox ideas about what "protection" entails. What will really keep these crazed and impulsive but simultaneously risk-averse and terrified students of Posner's description from doing harm and out of harm's way is locking them up in single monastic cells with all sharp objects removed for four years so that they can do nothing but their schoolwork. Safety first.

*Thanks to Phoebe for noticing my brain melt.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Is American politics boring?

Withywindle thinks so. (By "American politics," I mean the subfield of political science, not actual politics. I realize that, with this admission, everyone reading this will instantly fall asleep.)

I will not attempt to defend the subfield here by a weaselly appeal to the sub-sub-field of American political development, which is a political science version of American history, so clearly it can't be boring (to Withywindle)! Nor will I tell you how interesting it is to teach American politics to undergrads in order to discover the patterns in their ignorance (but never my own of course!) of our basic governing institutions which may hearken our near-future political doom (for instance, few of them appear to know that federalism still exists). Instead, I will stick with defending the scholarship of the dusty standby sub-sub-fields - Congress, the Presidency, the Courts. I read (or, letsbereal, skimmed) a lot of books and articles in these fields for my comps that were indeed very boring. But not all! Two very interesting books that are both very much academic American politics in that they involve theories or models (as distinct from writing about the politics of America that adheres to no such disciplinary expectations) are Skowronek's The Politics Presidents Make and Whittington's Foundations of Judicial Supremacy, though it's true that in a way they are one book about two branches. But the book I think really redeems the entire subfield of American politics because it is fascinating even while being about the discipline's most boring topic (thereby cosmically compensating for all the boring books about more interesting topics) is Wilson's Bureaucracy.

I read parts of Bureaucracy for my exams and I think I taught the section on the dilemmas of the Watertown DMV once, and then I got sick in the vacation-like period between this Christmas and New Year's, so I decided to go back and read it through. And it was surprisingly compelling. The book had the general rhetorical effect of making me very complacent about government dysfunction. Wilson offers a thousand reasons that government agencies can't get any better than they are (no spoilers), though my favorite paradox still remains that of the beleaguered Watertown DMV, which could do everything imaginable to increase efficiency - hire more clerks, update their technology, monetarily reward good service - but when it finally achieves excellence, it will simply be swamped again by the people who would otherwise have gone to the Boston DMVs but heard this one was better, and the whole process would have to begin again. The devil blocks every exit. By the end, one is surprised and grateful that government agencies have ever accomplished anything at all, especially militarily.

This is the kind of argument I appreciate when its background is the incessant clamor of all my media, journalistic and social, about the uniquely urgent crises of The Now. For Wilson, everything (except the non-SSI side of the Social Security Administration, which he frequently reminds us is perfectly competent and effective because its functions are so clear and easy to perform) always runs in crisis mode, it always has and it always will, so that in the end, the crises of The Now will probably be resolved by some combination of incompetence, error, unclarity, obstructionism, and organizational failure, and we will "muddle through by the seats of our pants," as one of my college professors used to say, oblivious to its infelicity, to explain every instance of English success at anything, including its continuing existence.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

17th century solutions for 21st century problems: internet mobbing

Michelle Goldberg, via JTL:
Social media has done away with all that. Nobody gets a presumption of good faith anymore, and we’re all subject to loud, public judgment by people who might not share any of our underlying assumptions about the way the world works or the rules of intellectual debate. In the past, The Baffler might have published something that pissed off feminist readers, but most of those readers would share The Baffler’s broader worldview, and would be less likely to excoriate it. Even if they wanted to publish a response, there wouldn’t be many venues except the publication’s own letters section. Outsiders simply wouldn’t notice. 
There is value, of course, in the new regime. The price of bigotry is much higher, the ethical blind spots concealed by clubby consensus are much more easily exposed. But the pressure to conform is also far more intense. The distance between what writers—or, at least, some writers—say to each other and what they say publicly is growing. That’s not oppression, but it is a loss.
This is essentially a description of the problems of over-exposure. I've been thinking about this for a while with respect to student journalism, which illuminates the problem more clearly, since most people will agree that no mere college student deserves be subjected to an online mob for writing a dumb op-ed, even if they're less certain about the extent to which a professional writer could be said to "deserve" such a response. I obviously link student journalism here all the time, though I prefer reportage of the absurd to op-eds. But I also think we were all a lot better off before student newspapers went online.

This was briefly A Topic last spring when that Princeton guy's essay on privilege earned him the vociferous scorn/praise of the entire country and old-new TNR ran a piece attacking adult media for giving this guy a platform. But they never had! They covered the coverage, which we might say (and Phoebe did say) was bad form, but the essay was published in a college magazine. The problem is that college writing is too accessible to, and too eagerly overexposed by the "semi-professional" media (the really professional media only gets to it after it's gone viral). Phoebe pointed out that these are not children and they're old enough to consent to the publication of their work. There is no question of violated privacy in these cases. But there is a question of what effect subjecting 1) inexperienced student writers and 2) even professional writers to the levels of public scorn previously reserved for politicians accused of pedophilia will have on journalism.

The optimistic possibility is that it will toughen writers up. In these early days of massive, personally threatening smear campaigns, writers will still be sensitive, but after such attacks become a regular feature of the job, it's possible that writers will shrug them off more easily and continue to write what they will. After all, the pain is acute but rarely long-lasting; the internet mob needs to be fed regularly, and so rarely spends very long draining a particular victim before being attracted to the blood of another.

The pessimistic possibility is that instead of toughening up sane people who, on account of possessing normal levels of pain, guilt, and fear, react rather poorly to these sorts of attacks, these publishing conditions will instead elevate writers who are not quite as sane and who can withstand such attacks because they enjoy or at least don't mind being the objects of intense universal scorn.* This is something I've particularly wondered about student journalism - whether early and frequent over-exposure to vicious and pointless criticism will inure younger writers to all criticism, hardening their faith in their own (immature) instincts and raising their estimation of writing that is mere provocation and offense.

If Goldberg's account is right, then some types of writing are better when they come out of many small and partially closed-off institutions in which the basic assumptions necessary to build arguments on are broadly accepted, because every debate can't be over fundamentals. Like clubs and cliques, they flourish under conditions that are not perfectly transparent and to some degree exclusive. Exclusion need not be active rejection of would-be members; self-selection is sufficient, as all members of high school social loser cliques know. Subscription to a publication, for example, is a form of self-selecting inclusion. (But active rejection does raise a club's stock, as all sorority girls know.) This dynamic is reflected in the casual experience of  how much more useful and productive it is to argue with your own partisans, and how common it is for even the most sincere "bipartisan" discussion about any concrete topic to end in a standstill over questions like, "But what even is freedom?" These questions have their place, but re-arguing them incessantly is neither useful nor interesting. Even the objections to an argument are often more incisive and compelling when they come from the writer's own side than when they come from the opposition.** So good political writing (maybe also other kinds of writing?) might rely to some extent on what Goldberg calls "ethical blind spots concealed by clubby consensus."

But, if the internet has made such clubbiness impossible by removing the audience-sorting mechanisms that subscriptions and physical copy once provided, and these institutions wish to persist as clubs rather than universal organizations with no members, then perhaps they will have to revert to some old-timey workarounds. For student journalists, who never relied on subscriptions in the first place, that would mean returning to physical copy so that only your equally stupid classmates will have sufficient incentive to discover and deride your stupid opinions. For professional writers, we might consider that in the 17th century, people who wanted to convey thoughts that could get them imprisoned or exiled sometimes did it by circulating manuscripts (not the fancy kind) through their friends instead of publishing their work through a bookseller. This didn't obviate the dangers of committing thought to paper, of course, but it minimized it. There would only be a few copies of your wayward opinions floating around, and the chances that they might fall into the wrong hands were thus diminished. In the late 20th century, the manuscript form was inadvertently transmuted into the "zine" in some quarters and the "academic book" in others. The former was a very cheap but extremely physically inaccessible manuscript, whereas the latter was in principle widely accessible, but so prohibitively expensive and forbidding that it was in fact rarely accessed. Although neither was expressly created for the purpose of providing cover for clubby speech, they are both well-constituted to have this effect. So, just a suggestion.

Besides, ever since the beginning of the internet, people have been worrying that it's going to destroy real friendship. Maybe the perverse result of making published writing a danger zone of 17th century proportions will be to force writers to rely on actual friends if they hope to disseminate their ideas. Or maybe, this new development in public discourse will demonstrate the utility of the old subscription + print magazine format in a way that the previous efforts to defend print media by fetishizing how amazing it feels to touch paper utterly failed to do.


*Sayeth Locke, clearly anticipating Johnson: "He must be of a strange and unusual constitution, who can content himself to live in constant disgrace and disrepute with his own particular society...Nobody that has the least thought or sense of a man about him, can live in society under the constant dislike and ill opinion of his familiars, and those he converses with. This is a burden too heavy for human sufferance: and he must be made up of irreconcileable contradictions, who can take pleasure in company, and yet be insensible of contempt and disgrace from his companions."
**Exhibit A: Criticism of Straussians from Straussians vs. criticism of Straussians from conspiratorial paranoiacs.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The privilege of silence

This is from Alex Pareene's frenzied cannibalization of Jonathan Chait:
It's not just angry Twitter nobodies, either! "[Political correctness] also makes money," Chait says, using, as his example, one BuzzFeed post about microaggressions that has "received more than 2 million views." I'm guessing that Chait makes quite a bit more money than the person who compiled that post. In fact, that's true of nearly everyone who is presented as a victim of political correctness in Chait's essay, from millionaire comedian Bill Maher to the anonymous professor at a prestigious university: They all enjoy superior social status to the people who are supposedly silencing or terrifying them. It's hard to see how democracy was significantly harmed by Condoleezza Rice not giving a commencement address.
Well, I'd like to know the answer. Is democracy harmed by Condoleezza Rice not giving a commencement address? What is this democracy being described? It seems not to be a formal question of suffrage but of some more amorphous social status equality. The undercurrent of Pareene's gleeful screed is that people who already have "superior social status" don't need to speak (in the broad sense, not just at university commencements), because they already have so much influence, whereas those without "status" are the ones requiring an amplifier. Now, if you reduce "status" to money, as Pareene wants to do here, then you can perhaps sound reasonable saying that the rich should not have so many outlets to speak b/c their money speaks for them, whereas the poor should have all the public microphones because they have no money to buy influence. TNR for the people!

But "social status" is precisely that sort of slippery thing that doesn't simply equate with money. What gives a university professor or a journalist or a policy advisor or even "millionaire comedian Bill Maher" their status is not their incomes, but their speech. They all won their superior social status by speaking. Pareene's response is that it is precisely their ambition to influence through speech that renders their speech suspect. Because they've spent their lives speaking and achieved a reputation for it, their speech should be quieted by the unpracticed producers of I guess Buzzfeed posts who, by virtue of lacking such ambitions, possess more authentic voices. (Like Ta-Nehisi Coates, apparently, a man of no ambition or practice in the arts of rhetoric.) On one hand, we should amplify marginalized voices by hiring them at places like the Atlantic and TNR, but on the other hand, they're no longer marginal once they're on these mastheads. So, huh.

Pareene, to the degree that he makes any sense at all here, demands a sort of bifurcation: status disjointed from influence. Those with high status (= money) are obliged to yield the podium in order to even things out for those of low status, who will be compensated with opportunities to complain about their lack. So, aspiring young person, you have a choice: you can use your talents to attain a comfortable life of silent disengagement, or a wretched and impoverished one from which you will be permitted to engage in public harangue of the silent privileged. That's democracy. So, which will it be?

On the broader dynamic of speech policing, I refer you to Julian Sanchez's depiction of the social process whereby the center-left position in all questions is demolished first by the center-left's own temerity in the face of the rhetoric of the far-left, then by their fear of being identified with the right. But I think if we slot actual people into his abstract in-group and out-group positions, we might have to conclude that the degeneration of which Chait complains is his own fault.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Snow day!

Cambridge, oblizzerated:

Mt. Auburn St., being skiied

Harvard Sq., being empty except for us


Widener Library, being sledded by us

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The John Locke theme park for kids

Peeps, there is a theme park in Mexico (and elsewhere, but not the US) where children can pretend to be adults and role-play adult jobs and earn and allocate their property in responsible ways. They drive cars, pay taxes, and try one another in court for littering. The writer wants to criticize this endeavor for being too corporate capitalist and scripted, and its founder for being some sort of crypto-fascist, but it seems pretty fantastic to me, and moreover almost unbelievably Lockean. It's Lockean not just in its conception of how children learn and what they should learn, but it apparently also has Lockean political underpinnings:
KidZania tries to be sensitive to local mores, but López also sees a role for the company in implicitly promoting the values of a Western, market-driven democracy...A few years ago, López’s marketing department came up with an origin myth for KidZania: kids, having seen what a mess adults had made of the world, founded their own country, whose borders children cross every time they visit the park. A KidZanian Declaration of Independence was written, which outlines the six “rightz” of childhood: to be, to know, to create, to share, to care, and to play. It concludes with the national motto: “Get ready for a better world.” To López’s frustration, children who visit KidZania are largely unaware of this invented history. He hopes eventually to educate them about it—perhaps by producing a KidZania movie...
Well, for what it's worth, Locke also says that children should not be taught much about politics until adolescence, and that childhood instruction should be of a more generally ethical character. Which this place is: "It was like being in a reimagined Las Vegas, with the celebration of virtue substituted for the celebration of sin." Virtue seems to be primarily of the civic variety and so potentially a bunch of tepid mush: 
KidZania worked with the local government to develop activities that are intended to promote good citizenship: road safety, health, awareness of civic institutions, environmental sustainability, and tolerance of difference among individuals and groups. The program emerged from a series of crime-reduction recommendations made by Rudolph Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, who had been hired as a consultant by the Mexico City government a decade ago.
Nonetheless, this is probably no worse than the environmentalist alarmism targeted at children at every city aquarium I've visited in the US in the past decade (a surprisingly large number). The civic-mindedness is a little un-Lockean, but I accept this modification because Kidzania still seems amazing. The closest experience I had to this as a kid was the children's museum outside Chicago, where I once went with a friend's family and which featured a grocery store with mini-carts and plastic food that was so deeply absorbing that I have no difficulty believing that Kuwaiti kids are truly entranced by the activity of faux-petrochemical engineering a helmet in a child-sized plastics plant. Or delivering DHL boxes. Yes, it sounds dull. But also, so is grocery shopping. And yet. And then there is this point:
“We are empowering them to become independent,” [Lopez] said. “What they love most, on the second or third visit, is their independence. They have their own kidzos; they can make their own decisions. This is their world, where they are not being told what to do. Even if you go to Disneyland, you are guided—you are supposed to walk a typical way. But here children are by themselves. We don’t tell them anything. Just cash your check, get money, and start spending money—that is the only thing we tell them.”
Apparently however, child profligacy varies by nation, and Japanese children entirely lack it. (Perhaps they should avoid expansion to Germany...) This quote is a bit unfair, since elsewhere the article admits that kids can also earn money in the park by doing jobs (like delivering DHL boxes), so it seems like Lopez wasn't suggesting that independence was for the sake of buying lots of stuff. In fact, it's not really clear from this article whether Kidzania features any shopping in the usual sense since no stores are described. In any case, compare the above sentiment with Locke, below:
Were matters ordered right, learning any thing they should be taught, might be made as much a recreation to their play, as their play is to their learning...For they love to be busy, and the change and variety is that which naturally delights them. The only odds is, in that which we call play they act at liberty, and employ their pains (whereof you may observe them never sparing) freely; but what they are to learn, is forced upon them; they are called, compelled, and driven to it.
The fact that all the role-playing is scripted really sticks in the writer's craw, but ultimately the liberty of children is only "acting at liberty." Adults have to control behind the scenes. A courtroom with no script would result in no trial. Fine on most days, but not if you want to show kids how a trial works. So as far as the possibilities of acting at liberty are concerned, this place seems fantastic. I will take my future hypothetical and hypothetically Spanish-speaking children here to make them into good Lockeans.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Schooling movies

The main lesson I have learned from all television and movie depictions of school (any school - grade school, high school, college, even grad school) is that it's a place of incredible emotional and social growth where no one ever studies. Classes consist of four-minute lectures comprised of inspirational cliches from which everyone learns all there is to know about both the subject at hand and the world at large (because the former is a metaphor for the latter). Some characters are smart and others less so, which we learn when other characters refer to them as smart or less so. To gesture at the idea of studying, we are sometimes shown brief montages of page-turning and note-taking and coffee-drinking. Knowledge is actually a molecule that attaches itself to caffeine, for convenience of intake. But mainly, there are shenanigans being undertaken and non-academic personal crises unfolding and intense social bonds being forged. At the end of it all, the characters are always launched into exciting futures (elite colleges, law schools, jobs) that you'd think would've required something more than their strong social bonding records to secure.

But, I still totally watch these movies and shows, if for no other reason now than that Netflix has so few good options that aren't five-season, hundred-hour commitment shows. So recently, after watching Mystic Pizza, I followed Netflix's recommendation to watch Mona Lisa Smile. Ok, yes, Mystic Pizza was not a great film, but since it was very of its moment, it was at least possible to get a vague sense of America from it. I use this possibility to redeem my watching of many bad movies. But what manner of monstrosity is Mona Lisa Smile? It is a movie inspired by someone's having come across those 1950s advertisements for home appliances featuring grinning housewives and thought, "What if all these women are actually frustrated physics PhDs forced into housewifery by the slavish mores of the benighted past?" No matter that the women are models and not housewives, and unlikely to have ever taken physics. This imagined injustice can be imaginatively rectified through film! Let us imagine these housewifey models when they were yet on the cusp of doom, still studying physics in an elite New England college but already being pressured into marriage and a life of modeling vacuum cleaners in the pages of Redbook... How can we demonstrate to these pitiful young things that 2003 called, and it very much frowns on their choices?

And that is how Mona Lisa Smile came to be. Perhaps the entire philosophy of history of studio films consists in the view that what is essential about any moment in the past is its style of dress. If the clothes and hair are reproduced faithfully, the past has been accurately captured. But the main thing (which is to say, why I watched it) is that it's a school movie, and a real winner in that genre. It features very typical college students, the kinds of girls who memorize all their textbooks without ever cracking them. They are both brilliant and extremely stupid, since not one of them has ever thought to wonder what makes art good, so they must be instructed in the idea of feelings. The character tasked with leading these naifs is an art history grad student who not only never works on her dissertation but does not appear to have one, though that is apparently no barrier to academic employment. (She says that her "research" shows that Picasso will be just as important in the future as Michelangelo is in the present. I, for one, had not known that one of the subfields of art history was fortune-telling.) What is striking is that we are never given even one suggestion of what might make art good, despite the many harangues that Julia Roberts delivers to her class about the Meaning of Life. The problem may be that the Meaning of Life turns out to be version of "choose your choice," and has no connection to art as either a discipline or an activity. (No one in the film is inclined to choose art.) So the girls fail to grasp this meaning and get married anyway, and immediately after their weddings which everyone in greater Boston attends, they buy fully-furnished houses in the environs of Wellesley and their husbands are promoted to "junior partner" of something, having been lowly college students just the week before. So it turns out that in spite of the film's strenuous ideological axe-grinding, it shows us that in 1953, you really could have it all, and in one fell swoop.

One day, there will be a truly great school movie made that depicts how studying is not only the main thing people do in school, but also the pleasures of study and the way it illuminates the world, and not in an "X is a metaphor for LIFE" way. I'm certain it will happen. So I'm waiting.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Getting warmer

Since my last post, the necessity of walking outside for almost an hour each day in the New England frost has driven me to seek warmth in such technologies as are readily available to the cost-conscious, internet-enabled cold person. My roommate recommended Uniqlo's Heattech line, and since there is now a Uniqlo in downtown Boston to which I can free-return any recommendations that did not pan out, I purchased a wide variety of supposedly self-warming (and simultaneously self-moisturizing!) leggings, tights, socks, and also yes, legwarmers (there was a $75 minimum for free shipping). They arrived. The sizing was wildly variable. I found the ones that fit and tested them on this fine 20-something-degree day.

Here is the verdict: Japanese technology can't fix the cold. Cold makes you feel cold. There is no getting around this misfortune. I wore the "extra warm" leggings under a pair of jeans, with the regular-warm socks and fleece-lined boots. The nice thing about Heattech is that it's thinner and softer than regular cotton leggings and socks. The less nice thing is that it's not noticeably warmer than them. It is somewhat warmer when you are inside and already warm, but expose the Japanese techno-miracle to the 21-degree day, and your flesh will still feel exactly like it's being exposed to a 21-degree day.

The legwarmers do look pretty fantastic, but I'm almost 30, so I think the time to wear fantastic legwarmers may be past. I am keeping one of each bottom though, because soft and thin are tangential goods, even if the longed-for good of warmth has yet to be found.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Failures of technological progress

Why can we have phones that converse with us and servers that store eleventy billion dissertations' worth of data, but not umbrellas that don't flip in the wind, or socks and gloves that actually keep toes and fingers warm when it's freezing? Why can't something be done to systematically diminish the static charge generated by every warm fabric? Why can't there be rainboots that are simultaneously waterproof and breathable? The catalog of minor but persistent aggravations caused by everyday weather conditions is so vast and the number of people affected by them so large that affordable and sensible solutions to these inconveniences would seem to be highly remunerative. So why, in 2015, am I still being tormented by winter?

Thursday, January 01, 2015

A probing retrospective

2014 was a lot like 2013, which in turn was like 2012, and I expect 2015 to follow the well-worn tracks laid by its predecessors. The only major change may be that I actually finish my dissertation. Maybe. As yet though, there remains no urgent reason to take such drastic measures. But maybe this year will give me one.