Quotulatiousness

January 12, 2015

Virginia Postrel on “the power of seemingly trivial inventions to utterly transform our notion of ‘normal’ life”

Filed under: Business, History, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

In The Weekly Standard, Virginia Postrel reviews Packaged Pleasures by Gary S. Cross and Robert N. Proctor:

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, a host of often ignored technologies transformed human sensual experience, changing how we eat, drink, see, hear, and feel in ways we still benefit (and suffer) from today. Modern people learned how to capture and intensify sensuality, to preserve it, and to make it portable, durable, and accessible across great reaches of social class and physical space.

Eating canned peaches in the winter, buying a chocolate bar at the corner newsstand, hearing an opera in your living room, and immortalizing baby’s first steps in a snapshot all marked a radical shift in human experience. Replacing scarcity with abundance and capturing the previously ephemeral — these mundane pleasures defied nature as surely as did horseless carriages.

It’s a keen insight and a valuable reminder of the power of seemingly trivial inventions to utterly transform our notion of “normal” life. Cross and Proctor carry their theme through chapters on cigarettes, mass-market sweets (candy, soda, ice cream), recorded sound, photographs and movies, and amusement parks. The somewhat eccentric selection reflects the authors’ scholarly backgrounds. In his previous work, Cross, a historian at Penn State, has focused primarily on childhood and leisure, which presumably explains the amusement parks. Proctor, a historian of science at Stanford, has written extensively on tobacco and cancer, including in his Golden Holocaust: Origins of the Cigarette Catastrophe and the Case for Abolition (2012).

The authors are at their best when showing how incremental improvements cumulate to create dramatic technological and cultural changes. They start with the packaging itself. “Industrial containerization,” they write, “made it possible to distribute foods throughout the globe; think only of what it would be like to live in a world without tin cans, cardboard cartons, and bottled drinks.” The “tubularization” represented by cylinders such as cigarettes, tin cans, and soda bottles (not to mention lipsticks and bullet shells) transformed manufacturing and marketing as well as distribution, giving producers easily fillable containers that could be labeled, branded, and advertised.

Historians unduly slight packaging technologies, the authors suggest, because “tubing the natural world” developed so gradually. Although the metal can dates back to 1810, it took nearly a century of refinements in stamping, folding, and soldering to achieve the design that changed the world: the “sanitary can,” which used crimped double seams and no interior solder to create an airtight seal. This was the design, Cross and Proctor write, that “allowed a wide range of tinned food to reach urban populations, especially as rival processors introduced ever-cheaper and more attractive foodstuffs festooned with colorful labels and catchy brand names.”

January 8, 2015

Copyright is to culture what salt is to snails

Filed under: Business, Law, Media — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Mike Masnick included a fascinating chart in this story:

New books by decade at Amazon

What it shows is that while new books are available for sale, they quickly go out of print and are basically not available — until you get down to 1923, at which point the works are in the public domain. Think of all those works that are no longer available to buy in that major gap in the middle. Heald has since updated that research to show how serious a problem this is — and demonstrating how the arguments against letting these works into the public domain make no sense. He demolishes the arguments made by some that a public domain will be either “under” or “over” exploited (yes, both arguments are made), as neither makes much sense.

It appears that copyright is doing similar damage in Europe. At the latest Chaos Communications Congress in Germany, Julia Reda, the European Parliament member from the Pirate Party gave a talk on the state of copyright law today (you can see the video here and included a similar graphic concerning books available in Europe:

The 20th century black hole

January 5, 2015

QotD: Hollywood elites and the mere bourgeoisie in the audience

Filed under: Business, Media, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

… Hollywood movies are made by the elite for the elite, and that it is only with reluctance, or to pay the bills, does Hollywood turn out nutritious fare meant to please and sate the coarse palate of coarse commoners like me, as the popular blockbusters mentioned above.

I do not mean to dwell on this point, I merely ask that you, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, accept it as uncontested, since surely the counselor for the Defense of Hollywood dare not claim the actors and studios like us, want to be like us, or like what we like. Their entire claim to be an elite, and superior in taste, intellect, and moral insight to the pathetic bourgeoisie is dashed if they do not discriminate themselves from bourgeoisie tastes.

With these assumptions explicit, let us ponder the question.

Why are comic book movies better than Hollywood movies?

[…]

What is difficult is learning to appreciate and savor the artistic genius of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, of JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, who wrote comic books and paperbacks, fairy stories and science fiction marketed to children. I have worked hard to lower my taste to appreciating the things as common and simple as fairy tales, and all the simple and true things under heaven. I hope one day my taste will be as coarse as that of St. Peter, who was a fisherman.

The elite of our culture have not yet shouldered that difficult task. We all know that the elite are out of touch with the tastes of the common man, but how far out of touch they are is something of a shock.

Allow me to quote from J.R.R. TOLKIEN by Jeremy Mark Robinson:

    Philip Toynbee declared, in 1961, that Tolkien’s ‘childish books had passed into a merciful oblivion’, a wonderful statement, just a tad inaccurate. In 1997, The Lord of the Rings was voted the top book of the 20th century by readers in a British bookstore’s poll (Waterstone’s). 104 out of 105 stores and 25,000 readers put The Lord of the Rings at the top (1984 was second).

    The results of the poll angered many lit’ry critics in the UK. Howard Jacobson, Mark Lawson, Bob Inglis, Germaine Greer and Susan Jeffreys, were among those irritated by Lord of the Rings‘ success among readers. The Daily Telegraph readers’ poll came up with the same results. The Folio Society also ran a poll (of 50,000 members), and Middle-earth was top again (Pride and Prejudice was second and David Copperfield was third).

    It was Tolkien’s incredible popularity that annoyed some critics and journos. Writers are nothing if not bitchy and envious of other people’s success, and British journalists have a long tradition of knocking down anyone who’s successful. So the popularity of The Lord of the Rings served to underline many of the prejudices of the literary establishment and media in the UK:

    (1) That people who liked Tolkien were geeks, anoraks, sci-fi nuts, college students, hippies, and so on.

    (2) That Tolkien’s fiction was juvenile, reactionary, sexist, racist, pro-militaristic, etc.

    (3) And it was badly written, simplistic, stereotypical, and so on.

    (4) And it was in the fantasy genre, which was automatically deemed as lightweight, as ‘escapist’, as fit only for adolescent boys. And so on and on.

What Mr. Robinson reports of these polls is underscored and emphasized by some that film critic and conservative commentator Michael Medved mentions about movies.

Allow me again to quote, this from a talk Mr. Medved gave at Hillsdale College:

    In years past, Hollywood also turned out popular and sympathetic portrayals of contemporary clergymen. Bing Crosby, Pat O’Brien and Spencer Tracy played earthy, compassionate priests who gave hope to underprivileged kids or comforted GI’s on the battlefield. Nearly all men of the cloth who appeared on screen would be kindly and concerned, if not downright heroic.

    In the last ten to fifteen years mainstream moviemakers have swung to the other extreme. If someone turns up in a film today wearing a Roman collar or bearing the title “Reverend,” you can be fairly sure that he will be either crazy or corrupt — or probably both.

John C. Wright, “Supermanity and Dehumanity (Complete)”, John C. Wright’s Journal, 2014-12-13.

January 3, 2015

QotD: Scotland and the Scots

Filed under: Britain, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

I have soldiered in too many countries and known too many peoples to fall into the folly of laying down the law about any of them. I tell you what I have seen, and you may draw your own conclusions. I disliked Scotland and the Scots; the place I found wet and the people rude. They had the fine qualities which bore me — thrift and industry and long-faced holiness, and the young women are mostly great genteel boisterous things who are no doubt bed-worthy enough if your taste runs that way. (One acquaintance of mine who had a Scotch clergyman’s daughter described it as like wrestling with a sergeant of dragoons.) The men I found solemn, hostile, and greedy, and they found me insolent, arrogant, and smart.

This for the most part; there were exceptions, as you shall see. The best things I found, however, were the port and the claret, in which the Scotch have a nice taste, although I never took to whisky.

George MacDonald Fraser, Flashman, 1969.

December 31, 2014

The (awful) people of Whole Foods

Filed under: Business, Health, Personal, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Many years ago, when we lived on “the Danforth”, we were occasional patrons of “The Big Carrot”, an early retail store for the self-consciously “alternative” set. If you wanted gluten-free, or dairy-free, or fair-trade, they were almost the only game in town in the late 80s and early 90s. The selection may not have been great at times, but they did try to provide a variety of foods that you couldn’t get at the mainstream supermarkets of the day. The employees seemed to be mostly good, helpful folks, but almost to a person the customers were incredibly self-centred, self-righteous, arrogant, and intolerant. I don’t know how the staff put up with the constant childish antics and unending whining from the customers. Whole Foods is a much bigger enterprise than Toronto’s Big Carrot … and they seem to have attracted exactly the same customer base:

The problem with Whole Foods is their regular customers. They are, across the board, across the country, useless, ignorant, and miserable. They’re worse than miserable, they’re angry. They are quite literally the opposite of every Whole Foods employee I’ve ever encountered. Walk through any store any time of day—but especially 530pm on a weekday or Saturday afternoon during football season — and invariably you will encounter a sneering, disdainful horde of hipster Zombies and entitled 1%ers.

They stand in the middle of the aisles, blocking passage of any other cart, staring intently at the selection asking themselves that critical question: which one of these olive oils makes me seem coolest and most socially conscious, while also making the raw vegetable salad I’m preparing for the monthly condo board meeting seem most rustic and artisanal?

If you are a normal human being, when you come upon a person like this in the aisle you clear your throat or say excuse me, hoping against hope that they catch your drift. They don’t. In fact, they are disgusted by your very existence. The idea that you would violate their personal shopping space — which seems to be the entire store — or deign to request anything of them is so far beyond the pale that most times all they can muster is an “Ugh!”

Over the years I have tried everything to remain civil to these people, but nothing has worked, so I’ve stopped trying. Instead, I walk over to their cart and physically move it to the side for them. Usually, the shock of such an egregious transgression is so great that the “Ugh!” doesn’t happen until I’m around the corner out of sight. Usually, all I get is an incredulous bug-eyed stare. Sometimes I get both though, and when that happens, I look them square in the eye and say “Move. Your. Cart.” I used the same firm tone as Jason Bourne, with the hushed urgency of Jack Bauer and the uncomfortable proximity of Judge Reinhold. From their reaction you’d think I just committed an armed robbery or a sexual assault. When words fail them, as they often do with passive aggressive Whole Foods zombies, the anger turns inward and they start to vibrate with righteous indignation. Eventually, that pent up energy has to go somewhere, and like solar flares it bursts forth into the universe as paroxysms of rage.

December 25, 2014

QotD: Reactionary views on American Progressives

Filed under: Britain, History, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

In America, progressivism focuses on pointing out how terrible American culture is and how much other people’s cultures are better than ours. If we celebrate Columbus Day, we have to spend the whole time hearing about what a jerk Columbus was (disclaimer: to be fair, Columbus was a huge jerk). If we celebrate Washington’s birthday, we have to spend the whole time hearing about how awful it was that Washington owned slaves. Goodness help us if someone tries to celebrate Christmas – there are now areas where if a city puts up Christmas decorations, it has to give equal space to atheist groups to put up displays about how Christmas is stupid and people who celebrate it suck. That’s … probably not the way to maximize cultural unity, exactly?

We are a culture engaged in the continuing project of subverting itself. Our heroes have been toppled, our rituals mocked, and one gains status by figuring out new and better ways to show how the things that should unite us are actually stupid and oppressive. Even the conservatives who wear American flag lapel pins and stuff spend most of their time talking about how they hate America today and the American government and everything else associated with America except for those stupid flag pins of theirs.

Compare this to olden cultures. If someone in Victorian Britain says “God save the Queen!”, then everyone else repeated “God save the Queen!”, and more important, they mean it. “England expects every man to do their duty” is actually perceived as a compelling reason why one’s duty should be done.

It would seem that the Victorian British are more on the Mormon side and modern Americans more like the Unitarians. And in fact, the Victorians managed to colonize half the planet while America can’t even get the Afghans to stop shooting each other. While one may not agree with Victorian Britain’s aims, one has to wonder what would happen if that kind of will, energy, and unity of purpose were directed towards a worthier goal (I wonder this about the Mormon Church too).

Reactionaries would go further and explore this idea in a depth I don’t have time for, besides to say that they believe many historical cultures were carefully optimized and time-tested for unifying potential, and that they really sunk deep into the bones of the populace until failing to identify with them would have been unthinkable. The three cultures they most often cite as virtuous examples here are Imperial China, medieval Catholicism, and Victorian Britain; although it would be foolish to try to re-establish one of those exactly in a population not thoroughly steeped in them, we could at least try to make our own culture a little more like they were.

Once again, the Reactionary claim is not necessarily that we have to brainwash people or drag the Jews kicking and screaming to Christmas parties. It’s just that maybe we should stop deliberately optimizing society for as little unity and shared culture as humanly possible.

Scott Alexander, “Reactionary Philosophy In An Enormous, Planet-Sized Nutshell”, Slate Star Codex, 2013-03-03.

December 18, 2014

“[C]onservatives are underrepresented in academia because they don’t want to be there, or they’re just not smart enough to cut it”

Filed under: Politics, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 06:55

The advantage of the quote in the headline is that it allows the person saying it to feel more positive about his or her own worldview, while side-stepping the real issue. Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry looks at a new report that addresses this issue:

I have had the following experience more than once: I am speaking with a professional academic who is a liberal. The subject of the under-representation of conservatives in academia comes up. My interlocutor admits that this is indeed a reality, but says the reason why conservatives are under-represented in academia is because they don’t want to be there, or they’re just not smart enough to cut it. I say: “That’s interesting. For which other under-represented groups do you think that’s true?” An uncomfortable silence follows.

I point this out not to score culture-war points, but because it’s actually a serious problem. Social sciences and humanities cannot be completely divorced from the philosophy of those who practice it. And groupthink causes some questions not to be asked, and some answers not to be overly scrutinized. It is making our science worse. Anyone who cares about the advancement of knowledge and science should care about this problem.

That’s why I was very gratified to read this very enlightening draft paper [PDF] written by a number of social psychologists on precisely this topic, attacking the lack of political diversity in their profession and calling for reform. For those who have the time and care about academia, the whole thing truly makes for enlightening reading. The main author of the paper is Jonathan Haidt, well known for his Moral Foundations Theory (and a self-described liberal, if you care to know).

Although the paper focuses on the field of social psychology, its introduction as well as its overall logic make many of its points applicable to disciplines beyond social psychology.

The authors first note the well-known problems of groupthink in any collection of people engaged in a quest for the truth: uncomfortable questions get suppressed, confirmation bias runs amok, and so on.

But it is when the authors move to specific examples that the paper is most enlightening.

December 16, 2014

Anton Howes on what caused the industrial revolution

Filed under: Britain, Economics, Europe, History — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:02

In the first post at his new blog, Anton Howes lays out one of the biggest questions about the 19th century:

What caused the Industrial Revolution?

By the term “Industrial Revolution”, the broadly accepted meaning is of (1) innovation-led, (2) sustained and (3) replicable economic growth.

Each of those adjectives are the source of some of the other important questions in the social sciences. Here are some brief summaries of the issues at hand, which I’ll maybe expand upon separately.

(1) Innovation-led

Innovation-led growth distinguishes itself hugely from what we might call ‘Ricardian’ or ‘Malthusian’ economic growth (it’s usually called ‘Smithian’, but that’s a topic for another time). Capital accumulation, population growth, conquest, and education, can all result in initial surges of economic growth. But this is soon brought to a standstill by the brutal reality of diminishing marginal returns, depreciation, and food shortages.

[…]

(2) Sustained

Innovation existed before the Industrial Revolution. Of course it did – you need look no further than the invention of agriculture, writing, bronze, crop rotations, horse collars, windmills, gunpowder, printing presses, paper, and bills of exchange to know that innovations have occurred throughout history before the IR.

The difference is that these were few and far between. Some of them, often grouped together, resulted in Golden Ages, or “Efflorescences” as Jack Goldstone likes to call them. The 1st Century early Roman Empire; the 8th Century Arab World; 12th Century Sung Dynasty China; the 15th Century northern Italian city-states; and 17th Century Dutch Republic are all good examples.

[…]

(3) Replicable

Perhaps most importantly, this miracle quickly spread. First to Belgium, across the Atlantic to the new-born USA, and then to the Dutch Republic still winding down from its own Golden Age, France, Northern Italy, and the multitude of German principalities.

In the last Century it spread to Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, China, Vietnam and Eastern European countries escaping the shadow of Communism.

In this Century it appears to finally be taking root in various African countries. Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda in particular seem to be leading the way.

The more recent recipients of the IR are experiencing an unprecedented rate of growth, which in itself provides a further miracle in economic history. Britain’s sustained growth only initially manifested itself at less than 1% per year. It took about 100 years for Britain’s first doubling in GDP to occur.

More recent recipients can expect to grow at 7-10% every year, and sometimes even higher. To put that in perspective, growth at 7% per year would result in a doubling of the size of the economy in only 10 years. 10% a year in only 7 years.

December 12, 2014

The British pantomime tradition

Filed under: Britain, Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:03

Tracy Morgan looks at a British holiday tradition that didn’t seem to travel to the rest of the empire:

An actor in drag endowed with enormous boobs stands alongside an actress in male britches. Every year they tell the same jokes, flirtatiously sing silly tunes, bring a good-over-evil narrative to life and comment on everything — except much about Christmas. Yet theatergoers consider it a great holiday tradition, because nothing says Christmas to Brits quite like cross-dressing slapstick, screaming children and sexual innuendo.

British pantomimes run from late November through mid-January, and the question is not are you going, but which panto are you seeing? “For many people, a trip to the theater to see the pantomime is as big a part of Christmas as roast turkey dinner,” says Simon Sladen, assistant curator of modern and contemporary performance at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. ’Tis the season for the goodies to take the stage to cheers while baddies slink into view amid boos. A man plays the leading dame, and a woman often plays the starring male role, retelling classic fairy tales like Cinderella or Jack and the Beanstalk with a comedic twist. Chants from ticket holders include “Oh, yes it is” to “Oh, no it isn’t,” or the classic “It’s behind you!” to warn those on stage of imminent danger.

I’d always wondered where those phrases came from…

Unlike its silent namesake, these colorful productions — aka pantos — are a mishmash of very verbal theatrical genres, from Italian commedia dell’arte’s slapstick to the medieval mystery plays and the Everyman play’s morality. Pantomime, which originally meant “imitator of all,” is “reflective of the world around it,” says Sladen, referring to how it incorporates contemporary political and cultural jokes, modern music and fashion. Members of the audience are meant to see aspects of themselves in the characters and identify with their struggles and successes.

December 9, 2014

QotD: The rise of the word “fuck” in common usage

Filed under: Britain, History, Military, Quotations — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

During the first World war use of the four-letter word, as it is now called, became universal, or more probably its universal use was first observed by the literate classes. Between the wars the word was presented by writers in a modified form — mucking or flicking — or with its initial only: f—ing. Its use in full — fuck — now seems to be approaching literary, though not conversational, respectability.

A.J.P. Taylor, A History of England: England 1914-1945, 1961.

December 8, 2014

QotD: Talking about “rape culture”

Filed under: Law, Media, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

So I am having a hard time getting my head around something. All week people have been calling me a “rape apologist” and “pro-rape.” I’m being constantly informed that I don’t understand “rape culture.” These often hysterical accusations tend to come from people who seem to understand rape culture the same way some people understand the geopolitics of Westeros or Middle Earth: They’ve studied it, they know every detail about it, they just seem to have forgotten it doesn’t exist.

Now, hold on. I certainly believe rape happens. And I definitely believe we have cultural problems that lead to date rape and other drunken barbarisms and sober atrocities. But the term “rape culture” suggests that there is a large and obvious belief system that condones and enables rape as an end in itself in America. This simply strikes me as an elaborate political lie intended to strengthen the hand of activists. There’s definitely lots that is wrong with our culture, particularly youth culture and specifically campus culture. Sybaritic, crapulent, hedonistic, decadent, bacchanalian: choose your adjectives.

What is most remarkable about our problems is that they seem to take people by surprise. For instance, it would be commonsense to our grandmothers that some drunk men will do bad things, particularly in a moral vacuum, and that women should take that into account. I constantly hear that instead of lecturing women about their behavior we should teach men not to rape. I totally, completely, 100 percent agree that we should teach men not to rape. The problem is we do that. A lot. Maybe we should do it more. We also teach people not to murder — another heinous crime. But murders happen too. That’s why we advise our kids to steer clear of certain neighborhoods at certain times and avoid certain behaviors. I’m not “pro-murder” if I tell my kid not to walk through the park at night and flash money around any more than I am pro-rape if I give her similar advice.

Of course, the problem is that feminists want to expunge any notion that women are gentler and fairer. This requires declaring war on chivalric standards for male conduct, which were once a great bulwark against caddish and rapacious behavior. Take away the notion that men should be protective of women and they will — surprise! — be less protective of women.

None of this means we’d all be better off with women in corsets on fainting couches. (I like strong, assertive women so much I married one. I’m also the son of one, and I’m trying to raise another.) But somehow feminists have gotten themselves into the position of adopting the adolescent male’s fantasy of consequence-and-obligation-free sex as an ideal for women. Uncivilized and morally uneducated men have, for millennia, wanted to treat women like sluts. And now feminists have embraced the word as a badge of honor. Call me an old-fogey, but I think that’s weird.

Jonah Goldberg, The Goldberg File, 2014-12-05.

December 6, 2014

Everyday life in “The Ghetto Archipelago”

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Law, Media, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 00:03

At Reason, J.D. Tuccille reviews On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City, by Alice Goffman:

The police presence in 6th Street is pervasive. Residents, young black men in particular, can expect to be frequently stopped, questioned, and searched. Many initial arrests are for drugs, often possession of marijuana. After that, as Goffman records, the system takes on a horrible logic of its own. Criminal records make employment hard to find, and recurring court dates devour time that might be devoted to work, job searches, or family responsibilities. Without regular income, court fees add up and may prove unpayable. Many of the people Goffman writes about are essentially constant low-level fugitives, hunted by police for missed appointments. Some end up committing additional crimes to pay their accumulating debts to the courts.

People living on the wrong side of the law are both dependent on and vulnerable to those around them. Goffman documents how chronic legal problems prevent young men from attending the births of their children or the funerals of their friends, since the authorities often monitor those occasions looking to make arrests. Those legal problems also provide opportunities for angry girlfriends and other acquaintances to avenge perceived wrongs with a simple phone call to the cops.

Neighborhoods heavily populated by young men on the run (usually in the most figurative sense, since their lives become circumscribed by familiar people and streets) also create business opportunities for those willing to serve their idiosyncratic needs. One memorable character in On the Run is Jevon, whose memory and ability at mimicry allow him to earn money impersonating men to their parole officers for curfew-checking phone calls. Another, Rakim, augments income from his passport photo business selling clean urine to men facing drug tests. Many local businesses-such as rental car lots and motels-have two price sheets, one for mainstream customers and one for those who have no credit cards or ID.

Identification itself is a commodity, with employees inside the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation selling drivers licenses-basically, new identities — for a substantial fee. (Other public employees, from court clerks to prison guards, also find it lucrative to sell favors and services.) “The level of social control that tough-on-crime policy envisions-particularly in a liberal state-is so extreme and difficult to implement,” Goffman writes, “that it has led to a flourishing black market to ease the pains of supervision.”

H/T to ESR who wrote:

Linked article explains why, though I’ve defended the shooting of Michael Brown as a prudent and ethical response to an imminent threat of deadly force, I’ve had little patience with those defending the Ferguson police in general either before or after the shooting.

Yes, the system oppresses people like the blacks in Ferguson, in a way that has little to do with “institutional racism” but everything to do with a vicious cycle of deteriorating ghetto culture coupled with perverse incentives on the police created by “tough on crime” laws.

How do I know? I’ve never been to Ferguson…but Philadelphia is my city. I used to live there, mere blocks from the ghetto archipelago. I’ve seen some of the overspill from what Goffman is writing about. She speaks truth, and we would do well to heed her.

December 1, 2014

QotD: Marriage and divorce

Filed under: History, Law, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 00:01

The divorce laws of an earlier era were one part of a complex social institution with mutually reinforcing norms and a fairly elaborate system of punishments and rewards. People were encouraged to stay in marriages because divorce was difficult — but it is at least as important that divorce was heavily stigmatized. Even more important is the energy society spent encouraging people to get married in the first place — not just with the gauzy dreams of wedding gowns and perfect babies that help sustain the institution today, but also with a complicated system of carrots and sticks that have now completely vanished. Old maids were stigmatized; women who had babies out of wedlock were shunned. Marriage was the only socially permitted way to cohabit and, for that matter, often the only legal way to do so: Landlords didn’t like renting to people who were shacking up, and hotels that rented to rooms to openly unmarried couples risked being indicted as brothels. On the positive side, getting married often meant a raise for a man, and for both parties, it constituted instant admission to adulthood.

In short, the legal system of yesteryear didn’t have to worry that harsh divorce laws would discourage marriage entirely; any marriages that they did discourage probably shouldn’t have happened. But people would continue to get married, because there wasn’t any viable alternative for the majority of people who wanted to live on their own and raise a family without the neighbors talking — or calling the vice squad. In the same way that European politicians didn’t have to worry about bad incentives during the immediate postwar boom years, when anyone who could breathe and carry a tool bag could get a job. When the boom weakened, however, the laws intended to shore it up instead kicked out more of the props underneath the job market.

We might well find the same story with no-fault divorce. Even if you accept the premise that marriage needs to be strengthened — which I do! — and even if you accept the premise that the state therefore has a right to force people to stay married, which is a bigger stretch, I’m not sure that the state should. As conservatives are fond of noting, societies, like economies, are very complex organic systems. We do not understand them, much less control them with a few simple tweaks.

Megan McArdle, “Can Limiting Divorce Make Marriage Stronger?”, Bloomberg View, 2014-04-16

October 29, 2014

Passionate about #gamergate? Ken White has a few thoughts for you to ponder

Filed under: Gaming, Media, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 00:03

The Popehat grand poobah suspects that if you’re passionate about #gamergate, you’re probably wrong … or at least, wrong-headed about your passions:

GamerGate is label-heavy, and labels are lazy, obfuscating bullshit.

Labels are supposed to be shorthand for collections of ideas. I might say “I am libertarian-ish” because it’s not practical to go around announcing the whole array of views I hold about demolishing public roads and privatizing the air force and so forth. This, up to a point, is useful.

It stops being useful when we argue over labels instead of over ideas. Take, for instance, “feminist.” A person who describes themselves as “feminist” might associate that term with their grandmother being the first woman in the family to go to college and their mother defying a sexist boss in a male-dominated job and the development of laws saying women can’t be relentlessly harassed in the workplace or fired for being women.1 Someone who routinely criticizes “feminism” might be thinking of Andrea Dworkin saying all heterosexual sex is coercive, or that time a woman snapped at him when he held a door open, or the time someone embarrassed his friend by saying his joke was sexist. When these two people use the term “feminist” in an argument, they are talking past each other and engaging with strawmen rather than ideas. The feminist is engaging the anti-feminist as if he opposes women in the workplace or supports gender-based hiring, which he doesn’t necessarily. The anti-feminist is engaging the feminist as if she thinks all marital sex is rape and as if she thinks jokes should get him fired, which she doesn’t necessarily. Neither is really engaging in the particular issue at hand — because why would you engage with a person who holds such extreme views? Why would it matter if the person you are arguing with has an arguable point on a specific issue, if they also necessarily (based on labels) stand for everything you hate?

Oh, and reacting before thinking (or instead of it)?

People are going to say things about your favorite parts of the culture. Some of these things will be stupid or wrong. It is swell to use more speech to disagree with, criticize, or ridicule the criticism. But when you become completely and tragicomically unbalanced by the existence of cultural criticism, or let it send you into a buffoonish spiral of resentful defensiveness, people may not take you seriously. Rule of thumb: a reasoned rebuttal of wrong-headed cultural criticism mostly likely won’t require you to use the word “cunt.”

There are ten points Ken covers in the original post. I really do recommend that you read it all. By my count, he gores everyone’s ox by the time he’s at point four (and by point five, he’s blaming Canada in the footnotes).

October 27, 2014

The mayoralty race in Toronto

Filed under: Cancon, Politics — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:03

I haven’t lived in Toronto for a couple of decades — and when I did, the city hadn’t been amalgamated so the role of the mayor was much more symbolic than real: the mayor had peers in North York, Scarborough, Etobicoke, East York and York. Now, the psychological stakes are higher even though the role of the mayor hasn’t changed all that much — still only one vote on council, but the advantage of the bully pulpit. That said, the voters in the former city of Toronto often feel that the mayor should “really” represent them more than those uncultured swine in the former satellite municipalities. The place is still called Toronto, but the sensibilities of former city of Toronto voters are affronted that the barbarians in the suburbs inflicted the Ford brothers on them. In a sense, Rob Ford was an over-sized middle finger gesture by the rest of Toronto directed toward those effete downtown snobs.

At Gods of the Copybook Headings, Richard Anderson mulls who Torontonians should be voting for (or against):

With days to go we are confronted with two choices here in the Imperial Capital: The polished millionaire non-entity or the white trash millionaire bruiser. It is in moments like these that the vasty fields of Saskatchewan beckon with unusual strength. What are housing prices like in Regina anyway? What’s the price for a Toronto-sized shoe box without the Toronto sized traffic and political idiocy? This used to be a boring city placed within a boring province. It’s gotten very interesting of late and in the very worst way. I miss Mel Lastman. Heck I miss Art Eggleton, if such an emotion is even possible.

The Toronto Sun, a usual bastion of populist common sense, has decided to endorse John Tory. Given the farce that has dominated municipal politics these last twelve months I can’t blame them. The Fords have become so terribly embarrassing. Vulgar, crude and probably violent as well. Respectable people can no longer abide by the Fords’ antics. John Tory could not be more respectable. He says all the right things in all the right ways. The Right respects him, the Left respects him and the Centre looks upon him as a long-lost lover miraculously returned. Who are we to oppose?

[…]

Then there is Team Ford. Rob, Doug and whichever brother is currently running the family business. I don’t think I’d ever invite any of them over for tea. They have a natural ability to alienate those around them. It’s almost a talent. They have a flare for screwing things up. Toronto has never seen anything quite like them and will likely never again. A god awful mess. They are, however, the only conservatives running in this election. A house trained Doug Ford would likely do more to trim municipal government than John Tory. The latter needs to be liked but the former doesn’t give a damn. Therein lies the difference. One is a carefully managed artifice and the other is a sincere disaster.

What I like most about the Fords is their lying. They lie like children. Attempts at deception, misdirection and deflection are so obvious they have a kind of charm. Beneath the trailer trash manners and the millionaire bank accounts they are actual, albeit deeply flawed, human beings. These are rare enough traits that they should be encouraged.

I don’t want a smooth mediocrity bankrupting Toronto, or striking half-baked compromises with the Left. If the Imperial Capital is going to go, let it go with a bang and not a well-heeled whimper. Let’s have Doug Ford’s fat blond figure standing right in the middle of municipal politics for the next few years. For sheer obstructionism he can’t be beat. A clear message to the great and good that there is a mass of people in this city who no have interest in being patronized to.

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