Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Ukraine reminded me why I won’t vote for Hillary

In Uncategorized on March 10, 2014 at 2:10 pm

I think there’s every chance that Hillary Clinton will win the 2016 Democratic nomination. Unfortunately, her recent contribution to the unfolding Russian annexation of Crimea reveals that she remains a seriously flawed politician.

On March 5, in the early days of the crisis, Hillary called Vladimir Putin a “tough guy with a thin skin”—a bizarre insult, given that Putin is in reality playing cold, calculating realpolitik. She went on to compare Putin’s occupation of Crimea to Hitler’s annexation of neighboring countries in the run-up to World War II. The comparison isn’t totally inaccurate, and has been repeated by other credible sources; but the directness of Hillary’s reductio ad Hitlerum forced her to spend the next several days “walking back” her comments, pointlessly diverting attention from the actual, ongoing crisis in Ukraine.

Hillary presumably weighed in on the crisis to bolster her credentials for the 2016 campaign, but her contribution—aggressive, badly thought-through, counterproductive—neatly summarizes why she would make an ineffective president. It shows that she has learned little from the days when she failed to move health care reform forward by threatening to “demonize” dissenting members of Congress, and that she has not matured through her tendency to cloud important situations with bluster and personal embarrassment. It’s going to take a lot for her to win my vote.

Election day

In Uncategorized on November 6, 2012 at 11:33 am

Today is the presidential election, and I have a few thoughts. First, I’m predicting a decisive win for Obama. Calling a landslide prior to the election is in almost no one’s best interest: it reduces the election’s value as a news item (so media outlets won’t do it), encourages voter apathy (so campaigns won’t do it), and exposes the predictor to the possibility of looking extremely foolish (so people with reputations won’t do it). Probably for these and similar reasons, all elections look close beforehand; but I’ve never thought we were anywhere near to electing a President Romney, except perhaps for a few days after the first debate, when the electorate seemed to wonder if Obama still wanted the job. In my opinion, Obama heavily outclasses Romney in political acumen and personal authenticity; his vision for the country seems basically right rather than almost completely wrong; and his performance during his first term more than qualifies him for a second one. So without any evidence, I trust that the aggregated judgment and intuition of the American people will produce an Obama victory.

Second, I wanted to remark on and celebrate the tolerance of most Americans during this election, which, it has been delightfully easy to forget, is between a Mormon and a black man. For such an election to be fought mostly on the issues, both political machines must have calculated that attacks against a candidate’s racial heritage or religious faith would disgust rather than energize voters. How strange and admirable that we struggle more to accept Romney’s personal wealth in a time of national hardship than we do his conviction that Jesus will one day rule from Missouri. Noticing these markers of progress as we work to develop a literally catholic culture makes me excited to live in this country.

Last, I’d like to express my gratitude for and faith in the American experiment itself. This country is like a family, and like most large families we experience a great deal of conflict, much of it extravagant and harmful. But particular occasions—weddings, funerals, reunions—can bring families together, and at these occasions the power and sanity of the family bond becomes apparent. Tonight is a reunion for this country, and even if half of us go to bed horrified by the judgment of the other half, we will have had the opportunity to glimpse the enduring strength of the American fabric. That’s something to celebrate.


In Uncategorized on October 25, 2011 at 8:49 pm

I’ve just read most of an Atlantic Monthly article by Kate Bolick describing her ambivalence toward marriage. Bolick is in her late thirties, still single, and hesitant to make the tradeoffs that marriage would entail—particularly now that (she says) the pool of good men has dried up and she’s less physically attractive than previously. She recounts breaking up with a wonderful man at 29 (they remained close friends; she later helped him pick out his wedding tuxedo) because of a vague sense of doubt, combined with unalloyed confidence that she’d find someone else. She now wonders whether she should have stayed with him, although she doesn’t feel strongly that she made a mistake.

I find it difficult to write about Bolick’s piece without anger. In part, I’m offended and threatened by the capriciousness of her decision to break up with her boyfriend. I also feel strongly that the tuxedo anecdote is sick: “As he and I toured through Manhattan’s men’s-wear ateliers, we enjoyed explaining to the confused tailors and salesclerks that no, no, we weren’t getting married. Isn’t life funny that way?” This points to problems with the ex-boyfriend. A real man (yes) would never confuse his friends with his lovers like this. Bolick’s piece is pervaded with a woolly uncertainty—“What should I do?”—and her ex has made himself part of the problem: by indulging her desire for commitment-free companionship, with all the rituals of intimacy, all the conspiratorial laughter at the outside world, and none of the real sacrifice, he has allowed her to avoid figuring out what she truly needs and what she’s willing to give up to get it. He could have done her a big favor with a firm, manly No; but that would be immodern.

Beneath the anger and insecurity, there’s sadness. I regret how difficult it is to choose anything (a school, a job, a mate); to be chosen in return; and to stick with your choice. I also feel deeply sorry for American women, who by middle age are the most stressed-out people in the country. If they’re married mothers with elderly parents, they’re likely caring for three generations, all while working full-time jobs. Meanwhile, the messages they’re getting from the culture are largely about what they ought to be—more independent, more assertive, more spontaneous, more fun, thinner, younger—and how they might be making a big mistake by working or not working, having kids or not having kids, divorcing or not divorcing. You can see why Bolick wants out: how much easier, and how much less brutal, simply to live for oneself. But living for oneself is what a child does. If we never commit, do we become the children we never had?

Broken English

In Archives, Uncategorized on February 9, 2011 at 12:00 pm

Subject-pronoun agreement is a basic and pernicious flaw in formal written English. It makes correctly expressing the thought “someone should lend me their coat” impossible: because subjects and pronouns must agree, a singular but indeterminate subject (“someone”) must match a singular pronoun—but English lacks an appropriate singular gender-neutral pronoun (“his or her” being formally correct but ugly). The writer must find awkward workarounds that frequently impede shis ability to communicate.

“Someone should lend me their coat” is a natural and ubiquitous construction in spoken English; writers shouldn’t have to contort it into “a lent coat from someone would please me” or anything else. So how can we get the former declared grammatically correct? Who is the relevant authority—or, if none exists, what would it take to remove formal writers’ hesitation to use this construction?

The best idea I can come up with is that the US president, the UK’s prime minister, and other leaders of English-speaking countries should make a formal statement authorizing use of “they” as a singular pronoun. If this is what it’d take, I’d happily start a media campaign to make it happen. If anyone wants to join the movement, they’re most welcome.

Alleviating Misery, Promoting Happiness

In Archives, Uncategorized on February 8, 2011 at 12:00 pm

In recent history, the societies that have been best at alleviating misery have been among the worst at promoting happiness. The converse is also true.

Recent technological and social advances brought largely by the West have vastly reduced acute suffering—curing treatable illnesses, alleviating extreme poverty, reforming predatory governments and unjust social institutions—but have left intact or even exacerbated the fundamental doubts, insecurities, and lonelinesses that can make life basically unhappy. Conversely, the societies that report the highest levels of general happiness are also often the poorest, and the most vulnerable to every type of acute misery.

Obviously, the question is whether future societies can combine happiness and freedom from misery. That will take movement in both directions: “development” is conventionally about extending prosperity to poorer countries, but the countries that currently hold power can also hope to “develop” by listening a lot more seriously to the basic wisdom underpinning life in the happiest societies.

The Internet

In Archives, Uncategorized on February 7, 2011 at 12:00 pm

In the process of making a short video, I recently discovered that my Windows Movie Maker software won’t open QuickTime movies (which are associated with Microsoft’s hipster rival, Apple). After twenty minutes of searching online, I had found “VideoPad Video Editor,” a free video editing program with all the basic features I needed, and support for QuickTime files. This experience made me reflect again on the incredible value of the internet, and on how that value has been almost entirely captured by consumers.

Online services are incaculably valuable: some, such as Facebook, have almost reached the status of municipal utilities. And yet the providers of most of those services continue to be completely unable to charge us for them, except indirectly through advertising. Even that can be a hard sell: ever since YouTube began tacking ads to the beginning of its videos, there have been mutinous user comments about how the service “should” remain completely unpolluted by advertising. Never mind that YouTube was built and is maintained by large outlays of cash—unlike, say, a pristine mountain lake.

The economic explanation for this state of affairs, I suppose, is that competitors face almost no obstacles in duplicating successful online services, and consumers usually face almost no switching costs. But I’m also interested in the social dimension: our feeling of entitlement, the comfort with which we demand the internet’s previously unimagined miracles for free. As someone preparing to begin earning money, rather than just spending it, I’m a little scared to see how accustomed consumers can become to getting something for nothing.


In Archives, Uncategorized on February 4, 2011 at 12:00 pm

I wonder how much of adulthood is a process of becoming reconciled to uncomfortable facts—in particular, death. It’s a gloomy subject for a Friday night, but it struck me that a person is truly “mature” to the extent that he or she has made peace with death.

Take good sportsmanship, and in particular the ability to lose with grace. Part of the “agony of defeat” is being confronted with the fact that even our best effort cannot make the world the way we want it. In this sense, defeat symbolizes death, the ultimate violation of our preferences; and so, I think, true (rather than grudging) sportsmanship requires some level of acceptance of death itself.

Sports aside, I think we value many things—youth, prestige, romantic attention—partly for their symbolism that death is a distant concern. Being fired or dumped hurts not only for the loss itself, but for the deathly message, which helps explain why those things hurt even if we don’t want the job or relationship anyway. I think maturity is accepting that message and not looking for escapes or alternatives to it, which is really difficult to do. Well, enough of that! I may go get drunk.

Snow Day

In Archives, Uncategorized on February 3, 2011 at 12:00 pm

Everyone I know was overjoyed by the snow day. (I was too, even though I don’t have class on Wednesdays—I think I got caught up in the spirit.) That joy is interesting if you step back and look at it: we’re giving years of our lives and many thousands of dollars for the learning opportunity that our classes represent, and yet we’re delighted when we don’t have to attend them.

I think this gets at a basic problem: most things that make us happy—in the long term, but even in the much shorter term—require a little bit of pain up-front. Getting up and going to class is strenuous, even if we enjoy the class once we’re there. To overcome our reluctance, we need pressure, both from ourselves and externally. But that pressure is uncomfortable, and when a Biblical snow storm lifts it for a day, it’s a celebration.

This problem (“time preference”) keeps popping up in my classes: many mothers keep meaning to take their children to free health clinics for vaccinations, and many farmers keep meaning to buy fertilizer for the next growing season. On a more personal level, time preference has probably given me at least one unnecessary dental cavity, as well as a physique that was clearly not forged in a gym (if at least not found in the Dumpster out back). People’s willpower is only so strong, so there is a great need for systems that encourage us to do what we already want to. Letting us relax now and again is also nice, so here’s hoping for more bad weather—maybe a crippling heat wave.

Oh, the Humanities!

In Archives, Uncategorized on February 1, 2011 at 12:00 pm

I took five literature classes in college: one on Shakespeare, one on Tolstoy, and three on a bunch of other people. All of those works I read, understood, and could write about. But at that age, I was generally unable to experience much of their actual value: the gut-level impact that makes them worth reading in the first place. W. H. Auden once wrote that people should be banned from literary criticism until they turned thirty. But should we even study literature before we’re adults?

There seem to be a lot of reasons not to concentrate your undergraduate studies on literature. As an author’s account, literature presents truth through an inherently partial lens; but academic protocol demands a dry impartiality that prevents teachers from discussing it on its own terms. Without the help an impassioned teacher might have given, I could not appreciate most literature on my own: I simply hadn’t lived enough. And while I was learning—and not appreciating—Faulkner’s stylized take on the early-20th-century South, there was plenty of unexplored empirical truth lying around: the very basics of business, for example.

And yet, I don’t feel justified in wishing that I or other young students had studied literature less. Would someone please make the case for intensively studying literature at the high school and undergraduate level, taking into account the educational opportunity cost? Bonus points for classical allusions.

Are We Good?

In Archives, Uncategorized on January 31, 2011 at 12:00 pm

It’s interesting to think that people could be in grad school together, studying extremely complex and specific topics, and yet have very different views of the basic nature of life. In particular, I sometimes wonder whether or not fellow students believe that all people are intrinsically “good,” and what a person who is not “good” is instead.

My own understanding is that everyone is fundamentally sympathetic. Just by being alive, we are in an immensely challenging situation, with pain, unwelcome change, and death being pervasive facts of life. And yet we all seek the best, for ourselves at least, and generally also for the people closest to us. Even if we go hugely wrong, we are sympathetic—good—in our efforts to navigate a difficult life and attain what we think might bring us happiness.

I think your opinion on this question has potentially big implications for your work. For example, would you want to throw yourself into a development project for people who aren’t “good”—say, because their society encourages pervasive corruption and human rights abuses? Or, would you be able to fight a war with the opposite understanding? I’m glad to have my perspective on the intrinsic goodness of people: it’s helped me a lot, particularly in challenging situations. But I’d be very interested to learn what else is out there.