My last IQ-ish test was my SATs in high school. I got a perfect score in Verbal, and a good-but-not-great score in Math.
And in high school English, I got A++s in all my classes, Principal’s Gold Medals, 100%s on tests, first prize in various state-wide essay contests, etc. In Math, I just barely by the skin of my teeth scraped together a pass in Calculus with a C-.
Every time I won some kind of prize in English my parents would praise me and say I was good and should feel good. My teachers would hold me up as an example and say other kids should try to be more like me. Meanwhile, when I would bring home a report card with a C- in math, my parents would have concerned faces and tell me they were disappointed and I wasn’t living up to my potential and I needed to work harder et cetera.
And I don’t know which part bothered me more.
Every time I was held up as an example in English class, I wanted to crawl under a rock and die. I didn’t do it! I didn’t study at all, half the time I did the homework in the car on the way to school, those essays for the statewide competition were thrown together on a lark without a trace of real effort. To praise me for any of it seemed and still seems utterly unjust.
On the other hand, to this day I believe I deserve a fricking statue for getting a C- in Calculus I. It should be in the center of the schoolyard, and have a plaque saying something like “Scott Alexander, who by making a herculean effort managed to pass Calculus I, even though they kept throwing random things after the little curly S sign and pretending it made sense.”
And without some notion of innate ability, I don’t know what to do with this experience. I don’t want to have to accept the blame for being a lazy person who just didn’t try hard enough in Math. But I really don’t want to have to accept the credit for being a virtuous and studious English student who worked harder than his peers. I know there were people who worked harder than I did in English, who poured their heart and soul into that course – and who still got Cs and Ds. To deny innate ability is to devalue their efforts and sacrifice, while simultaneously giving me credit I don’t deserve.
Meanwhile, there were some students who did better than I did in Math with seemingly zero effort. I didn’t begrudge those students. But if they’d started trying to say they had exactly the same level of innate ability as I did, and the only difference was they were trying while I was slacking off, then I sure as hell would have begrudged them. Especially if I knew they were lazing around on the beach while I was poring over a textbook.
I tend to think of social norms as contracts bargained between different groups. In the case of attitudes towards intelligence, those two groups are smart people and dumb people. Since I was both at once, I got to make the bargain with myself, which simplified the bargaining process immensely. The deal I came up with was that I wasn’t going to beat myself up over the areas I was bad at, but I also didn’t get to become too cocky about the areas I was good at. It was all genetic luck of the draw either way. In the meantime, I would try to press as hard as I could to exploit my strengths and cover up my deficiencies. So far I’ve found this to be a really healthy way of treating myself, and it’s the way I try to treat others as well.
Scott Alexander, “The Parable of the Talents”, Slate Star Codex, 2015-01-31.
October 29, 2016
August 9, 2016
I’m told by a friend that there’s a new book out, The Truth about Grief by Ruth Davis Konigsberg, that apparently demonstrates how Elisabeth Kubler-Ross made up all that stuff about the “five stages of grief.” I have no plans to read it. But I’m fully prepared to believe that any hard-and-fast five-point definition of grief is bogus. Admittedly, my data sample set is pretty small but hugely significant; in the last six years I’ve lost my father and my brother out of a family of four people. And, already, it’s clear to me that the geography of grief cannot be so easily mapped.
Obviously there are going to be similarities to the terrain. But just as there are different kinds of happiness — say, winning the lottery versus having a kid, or beating cancer versus seeing Keith Olbermann booted off of MSNBC – there are different kinds of sadness, too. And how they play out depends on the context.
In terms of my own internal response, the most glaring continuity between my dad’s death and my brother’s is loneliness. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve got lots of company. I have lots of people who care for me more than I realized. I’m richer in friends and family than I could ever possibly expect or deserve.
But there’s a kind of loneliness that comes with death that cannot be compensated for. Tolstoy’s famous line in Anna Karenina was half right. All unhappy families are unhappy in their own way, but so are all happy ones. At least insofar as all families are ultimately unique.
Unique is a misunderstood word. Pedants like to say there’s no such thing as “very unique.” I don’t think that’s true. For instance, we say that each snowflake is unique. That’s true. No two snowflakes are alike. But that doesn’t mean that pretty much all snowflakes aren’t very similar. But, imagine if you found a snowflake that was ten feet in diameter and hot to the touch, I think it’d be fair to say it was very unique. Meanwhile, each normal snowflake has its own contours, its own one-in-a-billion-trillion characteristics, that will never be found again.
Families are similarly unique. Each has its own cultural contours and configurations. The uniqueness might be hard to discern from the outside and it certainly might seem trivial to the casual observer. Just as one platoon of Marines might look like another to a civilian or one business might seem indistinguishable from the one next door. But, we all know the reality is different. Every meaningful institution has a culture all its own. Every family has its inside jokes, its peculiar way of doing things, its habits and mores developed around a specific shared experience.
One of the things that keeps slugging me in the face is the fact that the cultural memory of our little family has been dealt a terrible blow. Sure, my mom’s around, but sons have a different memory of family life than parents. And Josh’s recall for such things was always not only better than mine, but different than mine as well. I remembered things he’d forgotten and vice versa. In what seems like the blink of an eye, whole volumes of institutional memory have simply vanished. And that is a terribly lonely thought, that no amount of company and condolence can ease or erase.
Jonah Goldberg, “From the frontlines”, National Review, 2011-02-24.
August 4, 2016
In the Wall Street Journal, Nicole Hong explains why people like me need to be shunned and shamed for our favourite summer shorts:
Relationships around the country are being tested by cargo shorts, loosely cut shorts with large pockets sewn onto the sides. Men who love them say they’re comfortable and practical for summer. Detractors say they’ve been out of style for years, deriding them as bulky, uncool and just flat-out ugly.
Mr. Hansen’s wife, Ashleigh Hansen, said she sneaks her husband’s cargo shorts off to Goodwill when he’s not around. Mrs. Hansen, 30, no longer throws them out at home because her husband has found them in the trash and fished them out.
“I despise them,” she said. “There were so many good things about the ’90s. Cargo shorts were not one of them.”
Fashion historians believe cargo pants were introduced around the 1940s for military use. In the U.S. Air Force, narrow cockpits meant pilots needed pockets in the front of their uniforms to access supplies during flight. British soldiers climbing or hiding in high places found pockets on cargo pants more effective than utility belts for storing ammunition.
“It’s a reflection on me, like ‘How did she let him out the door like that?’ ” she said.
Tom Lommel, a 46-year-old actor in Los Angeles, said he loves wearing cargo shorts because they’re like “socially acceptable sweatpants,” referring to their lightweight nature. He says they’re more breathable than tight Bermuda shorts.
His wife, however, isn’t a fan. Mr. Lommel, who often works from home, seizes opportunities when his wife is away at work to wear his cargo shorts.
“Every time I put them on, I am conscious of the fact that I am now being disobedient in my marriage,” he said.
Mr. Lommel’s wife, Lyndsay Peters, disputes the idea that he tries to wear cargo shorts only when she’s not around. “I wish that were the truth,” she said. “If he was only wearing them when I could not look at him, that would be perfect.”
July 27, 2016
Having lived all my life in a country swarming with messiahs, I have been mistaken, perhaps quite naturally, for one myself, especially by the others. It would be hard to imagine anything more preposterous. I am, in fact, the complete anti-Messiah, and detest converts almost as much as I detest missionaries. My writings, such as they are, have had only one purpose: to attain for H. L. Mencken that feeling of tension relieved and function achieved which a cow enjoys on giving milk. Further than that, I have had no interest in the matter whatsoever. It has never given me any satisfaction to encounter one who said my notions had pleased him. My preference has always been for people with notions of their own. I have believed all my life in free thought and free speech — up to and including the utmost limits of the endurable.
H.L. Mencken, “For the Defense Written for the Associated Press, for use in my obituary”, 1940-11-20.
May 23, 2016
It is pleasing to see a man travelling in style. Erkan Gürsoy, age sixty-eight, took the northern route for his latest visit to his native Turkey, which is usual when flying to the Old World from British Columbia. But he gave this a twist by avoiding the airlines. Instead he negotiated the Northwest Passage, then crossed the rough Atlantic (weathering a hurricane), in a 36-foot aluminum yacht of his own construction. The Altan Girl, and her master, arrived safely at Çanakkale (near Troy in the Dardanelles), somewhat dimpled by the ice. Polar bears were also among Mr Gürsoy’s perils, as I gather from reports.
Most solo sailors come from inland locations, I have noticed, and this one from the Turkish interior. My theory is that people raised along the coast would know better. My own frankly escapist sailing fantasies owe much to a childhood spent mostly well inland, so that I was fully four years before I’d even seen an ocean. I remember that first encounter vividly. It turned out to be larger than I had expected.
Mr Gürsoy makes his living in Nanaimo manufacturing aluminum boats, mostly as tenders for larger vessels. He calls his stock-in-trade the “non-deflatable” — the hulls ringed around with fat aluminum irrigation tubing. He has a patent on that, and while admitting that his craft are rather ugly, notes that they are hard to sink. (From photographs I see that he is not much into concealing welds, either.) They are also rather noisy, for those riding inside, and they do bounce about on the waves. But on few other ships can one drum so impressively, to discourage those pesky bears, when trapped in ice that is crushing you like a pop can.
Clearly, from the accounts I have read, and by the full Aristotelian definition, a magnificent man.
David Warren, “Yachting news”, Essays in Idleness, 2015-02-11.
May 17, 2016
As my father the industrial designer used to say, “Stainless steel is so called because it stains less than some other steels.” But give me, by preference, wrought iron from a puddling furnace, for I don’t like shiny. Unfortunately it is not made any more except on a small craft scale: but I have, in the kitchen of the High Doganate, a pair of Chinese scissors that I’ve owned nearly forever, which have never rusted and whose blades stay frightfully sharp (they were only once sharpened). They cost me some fraction of a dollar, back when forever began (some time in the 1970s).
Too, I have an ancient French chef’s knife, nearly ditto, made I think from exactly the steel that went into the Eiffel Tower. It holds an edge like nothing else in my cutlery drawer, and has a weight and balance that triggers the desire to chop vegetables and slice meat.
And there are nails in the wooden hulls of ships from past centuries which have not rusted, after generations of exposure to salt sea and storm. Craft, not technology, went into their composition: there were many stages of piling and rolling, each requiring practised human skill. (The monks in Yorkshire were making fine steels in the Middle Ages; and had also anticipated, by the fourteenth century, all the particulars of a modern blast furnace. But they gave up on that process because it did not yield the quality they demanded.)
What is sold today as “wrought iron” in garden fixtures, fences and gates, is fake: cheap steel with a “weatherproof” finish (a term like “stainless”) painted on. These vicious things are made by people who would never survive in a craft guild. (Though to be fair, they are wage slaves, and therefore each was “only following orders.”)
However, in the Greater Parkdale Area, on my walks, I can still visit with magnificent examples of the old craft, around certain public buildings — for it was lost to us only a couple of generations ago. These lift one’s heart. I can stand before the trolley stop at Osgoode Hall (the real one, not the Marxist-feminist law school named after it). Its fence and the old cow-gates warm the spirit, and raise the mind: if the makers sinned, I have prayed for them.
Almost everywhere else one looks in one’s modern urban environment, one sees fake. This, conversely, leaves the spirit cold, and lowers every moral, aesthetic, and intellectual expectation. To my mind it is sinful to call something what it is not — as is done in every “lifestyle” advertisement — and to my essentially mediaeval mind, the perpetrators ought to be punished in this world, as an act of charity. This could spare them retribution in the next.
David Warren, “For a Godly materialism”, Essays in Idleness, 2015-01-31.
May 9, 2016
One of the things I enjoy is urban running — i.e., running through the streets of cities. When we travel, this is one of my favorite ways to see cities, and it also helps me run further because I do not get bored. But trying to run through sometimes crowded pedestrian areas can be frustrating, since one is trying to move faster than the crowd and the crowd typically does not expect a runner coming up behind them on the sidewalk. As a result of many such runs, I have developed two laws of pedestrian behavior:
- Groups of pedestrians will expand to fill the width of the space allotted. If the width changes, groups of pedestrians will respond very quickly and expand their group spacing to fill that width. While this behavior is almost certainly natural, it is almost impossible to distinguish a group walking naturally from one purposefully trying to block passage by a faster pedestrian. Corollary: Groups too small to fill the width of a passage or sidewalk will weave.
- Groups of pedestrians, everything else being equal, will choose to pause and congregate at the bottleneck in any sidewalk, thus constricting an already narrow passage. DisneyWorld is a great location for spotting this behavior. Corollary: A disproportionate number of people will choose to stop right at the exit door from an jetway when exiting an aircraft.
Warren Meyer, “My Contributions to Social Science”, Coyote Blog, 2015-01-06.
March 24, 2016
The cheerleader effect describes a human perception issue where pictures of any woman in a group are often considered more attractive than a picture of that woman alone (this may apply to men as well, but I have always heard it referred to women). Apparently women exploit this effect by posting pictures on dating sites that show them in groups of their friends rather than alone. Anyway, I have developed two corollaries:
Polo Shirt Effect: Polo shirts in a store appear more desirable when grouped with other similar shirts in an array of colors than when presented alone. This effect is strong enough to trump the paradox of choice, where offering consumers more choices can tend to flummox them and cause them to buy less. I believe arrays of multi-hued polo shirts presented together increase purchases of these shirts.
Christmas Tree Effect: We almost never buy ornaments for our tree. 95% are individually ugly, but meaningful, constructions by our kids over the years. The rest are what remain after breakage of some commercial ornaments we bought 20 years ago on deep discount in the after-Christmas sales. But a tree constructed of these ornaments is beautiful. So ornaments look far better when massed on a tree than they look individually.
Warren Meyer, “My Contributions to Social Science”, Coyote Blog, 2015-01-06.
March 11, 2016
Long-time readers know that I am not a gender-difference denialist; I fully accept that there are many ways in which men and women tend to be totally different, and believe it’s foolish and counterproductive to pretend otherwise. But there are other differences between the sexes which have little (if anything) to do with biology and everything to do with societal expectations. Take car repairs, for example; though many women don’t care for getting dirty, there is no earthly reason for a woman not to learn basic techniques that could get her out of a jam or save her money (especially if there’s no man handy to do them). My father would not let me drive alone until I showed him I could change a tire, and though I absolutely hate doing it and generally prefer the “stand on the side of the highway and look frustrated until a man stops and changes it for me” method (which for me never takes more than five minutes to work, at least in the daytime on a busy highway), I think it’s still a good thing that I know how to do it in a pinch…even if I do (as per Daddy’s lesson) stop as soon as I can thereafter and ask the first convenient man to make sure the lugs are tight enough. But see, that’s not really helplessness; that’s just recognizing that I simply don’t have the upper-body strength necessary to tighten those babies as tight as they probably should be. And for all his bad qualities, I do have to give Jack credit for one thing: he insisted I learn how to perform every simple car repair he could teach me, from changing spark plugs to replacing a brake master cylinder. Since Grace’s dad didn’t believe in letting her be ignorant of cars, either, I haven’t had to do any of those repairs myself in over twenty years; however, it’s still nice to know what is involved in them.
But even if a woman is as lucky as I was, and has boyfriends and family members who don’t intentionally keep her as helpless as possible, she still has to endure endless societal pressure (not just from men but from women and institutions) telling her not to take risks, not to do anything that might scare her and get her in trouble, not to explore her existence without the help of a man (or worse, of Big Brother). And though early feminists seemed to be making some progress against that, their successors have embraced it and are its most vociferous proponents. “Feminists” demand that young women be protected not only from physical harm, but even from ideas or pictures that might upset their delicate sensibilities, rattle their chains or force them to question their preconceptions for five minutes. And they march arm-in-arm with religious conservatives and police-state functionaries to restrict women’s sexual choices and send armed thugs to hunt, entrap, rape, brutalize and cage them in order to “send a message” that utilizing one’s sexuality to win economic independence is too dangerous an activity for women. Their propaganda reveals their incredibly low opinion of women’s competence; sex workers are said to be unable to place their own ads online, and touring is reframed as a criminal “circuit” in which helpless, ovine women are passively trucked around by evil “pimps”. The idea that the female brain might actually be capable of booking hotels and writing ad copy is completely alien to the narrative.
Maggie McNeill, “Boy Juice”, The Honest Courtesan, 2015-01-08.
March 4, 2016
When everything works the way it’s supposed to in philosophy textbooks, arguments are supposed to go one of a couple of ways:
1. Questions of empirical fact, like “Is the Earth getting warmer?” or “Did aliens build the pyramids?”. You debate these by presenting factual evidence, like “An average of global weather station measurements show 2014 is the hottest year on record” or “One of the bricks at Giza says ‘Made In Tau Ceti V’ on the bottom.” Then people try to refute these facts or present facts of their own.
2. Questions of morality, like “Is it wrong to abort children?” or “Should you refrain from downloading music you have not paid for?” You can only debate these well if you’ve already agreed upon a moral framework, like a particular version of natural law or consequentialism. But you can sort of debate them by comparing to examples of agreed-upon moral questions and trying to maintain consistency. For example, “You wouldn’t kill a one day old baby, so how is a nine month old fetus different?” or “You wouldn’t download a car.”
If you are very lucky, your philosophy textbook will also admit the existence of:
3. Questions of policy, like “We should raise the minimum wage” or “We should bomb Foreignistan”. These are combinations of competing factual claims and competing values. For example, the minimum wage might hinge on factual claims like “Raising the minimum wage would increase unemployment” or “It is very difficult to live on the minimum wage nowadays, and many poor families cannot afford food.” But it might also hinge on value claims like “Corporations owe it to their workers to pay a living wage,” or “It is more important that the poorest be protected than that the economy be strong.” Bombing Foreignistan might depend on factual claims like “The Foreignistanis are harboring terrorists”, and on value claims like “The safety of our people is worth the risk of collateral damage.” If you can resolve all of these factual and value claims, you should be able to agree on questions of policy.
Scott Alexander, “Ethnic Tension And Meaningless Arguments”, Slate Star Codex, 2014-11-04.
January 21, 2016
What about obesity? We put a lot of social effort into fighting obesity: labeling foods, banning soda machines from school, banning large sodas from New York, programs in schools to promote healthy eating, doctors chewing people out when they gain weight, the profusion of gyms and Weight Watchers programs, and let’s not forget a level of stigma against obese people so strong that I am constantly having to deal with their weight-related suicide attempts. As a result, everyone … keeps gaining weight at exactly the same rate they have been for the past couple decades. Wouldn’t it be nice if increasing obesity was driven at least in part by changes in the intestinal microbiota that we could reverse through careful antibiotic use? Or by trans-fats?
What about poor school performance? From the social angle, we try No Child Left Behind, Common Core Curriculum, stronger teachers’ unions, weaker teachers’ unions, more pay for teachers, less pay for teachers, more prayer in school, banning prayer in school, condemning racism, condemning racism even more, et cetera. But the poorest fifth or so of kids show spectacular cognitive gains from multivitamin supplementation, and doctors continue to tell everyone schools should start later so children can get enough sleep and continue to be totally ignored despite strong evidence in favor.
Scott Alexander, “Society Is Fixed, Biology Is Mutable”, Slate Star Codex, 2014-09-10.
December 17, 2015
Carl Trueman comments on what he calls the transageist community:
The case of Stefonknee Wolscht, the Canadian man who has decided that he is not simply a woman trapped in a man’s body but actually a six year old girl trapped in the same, has attracted some web attention. At first, I thought the story was a hoax but, no, it would appear that the lunatics have taken over the asylum and it is indeed true. Even if a sick joke, however, it would still offer insights into the inner logic of the politics of identity as currently played by the Left. Thus, for example, the U.K.’s Pink News reports that parts of the trans community are upset. Not, of course, at the harm done to Wolscht’s wife and children, those symbols of bourgeois oppression who are thus just so much collateral damage in the Glorious Revolution of the Self(ish). No. They are upset because his claim to be a different age “discredits their cause.”
A moment’s reflection would indicate that this condition, whereby a person is really a small child incarcerated within a much older adult body, is increasingly prevalent in today’s society. Recent events on the campuses of some of America’s top (sic) universities (sic) clearly show that the transageist community is rapidly growing in size, influence and belligerence. Still, as with all vanguard movements, some opposition is to be expected. The concerned reaction of sections of the transgender community is therefore understandable.
No doubt opponents will say that such a view will create chaos. Law courts must recognize an age of consent and an age of criminal responsibility; Schools need an objective standard of age to structure their curricula; And it is in everyone’s best interest that one-year-olds are not allowed to drive on the highways or drink Scotch or play in their cribs with loaded AK-47s. Well, yes, of course — but, please, do not shoot the messenger. I have not created the politics of repudiation which drives so much of the Left today. I am merely pointing out that its logic is inexorable. Those who accept its premises and yet seek to curb its power according to their own tastes are merely so many desperate postmodern Canutes, shouting impotently at the relentless waves of ecstatic nihilism that are even now crashing against the shore.
H/T to David Warren for the link.
December 4, 2015
I always laugh when I hear the phrase, “Dance like nobody’s watching.” It’s 2015. Everybody’s watching.
Jim Treacher, “Mac & Cheese Dude Is Sorry For Being An [Incredibly Unpleasant Person]”, The Daily Caller, 2015-10-13.
November 24, 2015
Megan McArdle says you can safely avoid novel and baroque food variations for the most stereotypical American meal of all time:
Every year you’re supposed to come up with something amazing and new to do with the most scripted meal in the American culinary canon. Turkey crusted with Marash pepper and stuffed with truffled cornichons. Deconstructed mashed potatoes. Green bean casserole that substitutes kale for the green beans and a smug expression for the cream-of-mushroom soup. Pumpkin-chocolate trifle with a chipotle-molasses drizzle.
I’m sorry, I can’t. I just can’t.
You know what we’re having for Thanksgiving at our house this year? With minor variations, we’re having the same thing we’ve had every year since my birth in 1973. There will be a turkey, roasted whole, because my oven cannot accommodate a spatchcocked 16-pound bird splayed over a sheet pan full of stuffing. It will be brined in a cooler, stuffed full of stuffing despite all the dire culinary injunctions against it, and cooked in the same undoubtedly subpar way we have always done it. My sister will make her homemade cloverleaf rolls, and stuffing with sausage, ginger and apple. There will be cranberry sauce, little creamed onions, mashed potatoes, and butternut squash, with bok choy for those who want greens. For dessert, there will be pie: apple, pumpkin, and perhaps, if we are feeling especially daring, cranberry-raisin.
Novelty is overrated at holidays. If you want to try planked salmon and braised leeks for the first time this year, then bon appetit. But the idea that we must have novelty, that a good cook is constantly seeking out new and better things, is a curse. The best parts of our lives do not require constant innovation; they are the best because they are the familiar things we love just as they are. When I hug my Dad, I don’t think, “Yeah, this is pretty OK, but how much better would it be if he were wearing a fez and speaking Bantu?”
How badly distorted is your mental map of the world thanks to the use of the Mercator projection? You can test yourself right here in your web browser with The Mercator Puzzle. Click on the image below, then drag each distorted country outline to its correct location on the underlying map:
H/T to Laura Hudson for the link.