Quieting the voices

I just unfollowed about 40 people on Twitter. These were people to whom I don’t have a personal connection, but rather I’ve been following them for news from their parts of the world, and that news has been predominantly bad. I saved almost all of them to a private list with the intent of adding them back into my feed when I’m ready, but right now I need a break.

Much of this is personal. I’m having a hard time emotionally right now for reasons I only half understand, and getting a firehose of bad news from places I care about threatens to push me across the line from merely upset to despairing. I need to take better care of myself, and I’m hoping it won’t be too long before I have things back under control and can take my head out of the sand. But there’s a bigger picture too.

The two things I really appreciate about Twitter are the ability to have ad hoc conversations with friends who aren’t nearby, and the ability to get unfiltered news from real humans in places I’d otherwise know far too little about. Because of these I’m not making the unfollow anywhere near complete—there are plenty of purveyors of bad news I’m still following because I have some personal connection—but I am more conscious than ever of the distorting effect that this firehose can have. Since wars in the Middle East are at the front of my mind, this chart is particularly relevant:

A chart showing how many fewer people die in war than over previous decades
Not quite over, but getting there

One about rape, one about poverty and the cluelessness of politicians. Woohoo.It’s from an article reminding readers that there are quite a few positive trends in the world. As much as I worry about environmental destruction and the closure of public space for dissent, and as impatient as I am to see many ongoing wrongs righted, the average human alive today may well be better off than at any time in history. And yet… here are the top recommended stories from the sidebar of that same article:

And a large proportion of my twitter stream—particularly the stuff I read first in the day because it’s from 8-10 time zones ahead of me—is about death, hatred and entrenchment in Syria, Israel, Palestine and the Sahel. I still believe that it’s important to confront the world as it is, and not hide from this stuff, but it is so easy to lose all sense of proportion and that’s what I find myself doing at the moment. I need to figure out how to balance these things; how to have the benefit of being able to be connected with many more humans in many more places than ever before, without the severe loss of perspective it can engender.

Meanwhile, I’m retreating a little to regroup.

Posted in Me Me Me | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Minimum wage, restaurants, and seeing the whole system

Seattle is on course to raise the minimum wage within city limits, above the state’s minimum, which at $9.32/hr is already higher than the federal minimum but pretty clearly not enough for a decent standard of living here. The cause is popular enough that it seems almost certain that something will be done, so all the real arguing is about details.

The pro campaign is pushing for a new minimum of $15/hr, with no exceptions and few concessions. It’s not clear to me to what extent this is still an opening bid for negotiation, versus a final uncompromising position. On the contra side, big businesses are conspicuously absent from the conversation, while small business owners have been making a lot of noise about how terrified they are that this will drive them to close. I haven’t yet seen anyone propose that we do nothing, but the owners of many popular restaurants have gone on the record arguing for a range of concessions that would either amount to a special exemption for businesses exactly like them, or generally water down the rules in such a way that many peoples’ income would not increase. There are a lot of editorials along those lines from people whose establishments I love and wouldn’t want to lose. I’ll link to Tom Douglas’s letter because I think it’s the best reasoned, and the level of detail he goes into about their cost structure is helpful.

I do have some sympathy for the business owners here. Common threads through many of their complaints are that relatively few new businesses survive two years, the owners themselves often make less than minimum wage in those two years, and even long-lived stable restaurants often have tiny profit margins. I believe that they are coming from a place of sincere fear, and not simple greed. It is also true that a raised minimum wage which shuttered many businesses would be a spectacular own goal. But I also think they’re taking a problematically narrow view of what the new rules would do.

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Taxation without representation

Since arriving in the US, I have been taxed without representation. For the first few years I didn’t really see not having the vote as a problem—I didn’t immediately engage with local politics and I do see sense in not instantly giving new arrivals a vote for President—but the taxation part felt pretty absurd when my student funding was coming from the government in the first place. I joked about holding a Cleveland Tea Party with a single teabag and Lake Erie, and never got around to actually doing it.

tea party, geddit?
Photo by Gurjot Bhuller

Once Seattle started to feel like home, my frustration with this started to rise. I’ve lived here almost 9 years, expect to stay and am highly engaged with local politics, but still don’t get to vote for my own Mayor or City Council. Meanwhile a US citizen who moved from Miami just in time for the voter registration deadline can. This has never made sense to me, and while the margin was larger than one vote it especially hurt to have to watch on the sidelines as a Mayor I felt great affection for was voted out last year.

Now we’re a month away from a ballot measure, the failure of which would sabotage bus service in the region. I am entitled to apply for citizenship, and I need to get on with that, but there’s no way it would be processed in time for this ballot. I resent my disenfranchisement.

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Happy ambiguity day!

Today is Purim. I have two batches of Hamantaschen dough in the fridge, and plenty on my mind. I’ve always loved the simple account of the festival I generally tell people when feeding them cookies:

On Purim we celebrate the failure of an attempt at wiping our ancestors by eating anachronistic representations of the would-be mastermind’s hat, and then getting drunk.

What could be more appealing than that? Celebrate the failure of a great crime, and a lucky escape by our ancestors, with a little harmless Schadenfreude. Next up: gingerbread Hitlers.

But last year I decided to back and actually read the Megillah of Esther, which tells the story Purim celebrates, and found it troubling. Continue reading

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Asking City Council for more density

I just sent the following to City Council and our new Mayor. If you live in Seattle and agree that we should be embracing density rather than fearing it, I encourage you to send feedback in this week, because there is a loud and effective group of anti-density activists making worrying headway.

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Planetary

A year ago today, Chris Hadfield went to the International Space Station and started tweeting from there. It seems silly, given that there’s important research done there and all, but the tweeting was what drew me in. It was sort of a revival of my seven-year-old self’s fascination with space, but with an important twist. Back then I was obsessed with looking out, while these days my attention is much more focussed on our own planet, so what really kept me going were Hadfield’s photos of the Earth from orbit.

Seattle from space

Sociologists have a word for what seeing Earth from space does to us: the Overview Effect. In short, nationalist and self-centred perspectives on the world start to seem awfully narrow when you’re hurtling by in a tin can that took unprecedented international cooperation to build, and watching your usual home from a perspective at which national borders are only visible if one side has screwed up. Astronauts report coming back from space with a freshly planetary perspective.

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Bad neuroscience and gender: reading this will change your brain

Warning: reading this post will change your brain. So will choosing not to read it, though, so you might as well continue and learn something. There’s been yet another neuroscience study claiming to have found important, systematic differences between male and female brains. I can’t critique the original paper, because it’s behind a paywall, so I’m going to have to trust Tom Stafford’s analysis of it and Cordelia Fine’s discussion of the paper’s problems. Even so I can see that the secondary reporting is utterly dire, and the interest in this study hinges on multiple misconceptions about gender, statistics, causality and brains.

The Guardian has the least bad of the popular press reports I’ve seen about this, so it’s the only one I want to encourage anyone to read. In fact, to the Guardian’s credit, it looks like all the badness in their article came from the original paper or the corresponding author’s statement. The claims are that in a huge set of brain scan data, researchers found “stark differences” between the “wiring of male and female brains”, and those differences correspond very neatly to gender stereotypes. Towards the end of the Guardian’s article, they casually mention that the gender differences don’t appear until age 13 or 14, but outside that one sentence the implication seems to be that these are innate differences (the BBC article doesn’t even mention the age effect, which is one of the reasons I’m not linking to it).

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A Rose is No Longer a Rose

Looking over Viridian materials for that retrospective, one paragraph from the Viridian Principles jumped out at me as particularly sharp:

“Nature” is over. There’s not a liter of seawater anywhere without its share of PCB and DDT, and an altered climate will reshuffle the ecological deck for every creature that breathes. A 21st century avant-garde must deal with those consequences and thrive in that world. We have already painted flowers. We want to know what a flower means when a flower has onboard processing, amped- up genetics, and its own agenda. Thus a central Viridian aesthetic dictum: “A Rose is No Longer a Rose.”

My contribution to the retrospective is now online: A Rose is No Longer a Rose, on why we bother ‘restoring’ habitat when Sterling is right to say that we can never have back what used to be.

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Re-reading the Viridian Manifesto

Tim Maly is curating a retrospective on the Viridian Design movement. I was always sort of conflicted about this movement. It had some clearly worthwhile, needful ideas, but I find Bruce Sterling’s tone & writing style off-putting, and I have some substantive disagreements with his approach.

There’s enough that was worthwhile about it, or at least genuinely thought-provoking, for Tim’s call for submissions to intrigue me, so I’ve promised at least one piece. Before writing that I figured I’d better re-read some of the key documents:

I started writing notes of my responses to bits of the Manifesto, so I can find the right parts to quote when I write the more substantive stuff. On the off-chance that this is interesting to anyone else, here they are after the cut:

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Feedback please: Soviet Psychology

My first degree was in Psychology. More importantly, it was in an unusually interdisciplinary department of a university that still had some traces left of a politically radical past, in the late 90s. As a result, one of the component courses was “Soviet Psychology” which introduced us to some key concepts in psychology that were either unique to the Soviet literature or had been developed much earlier there than on our side of the Iron Curtain. Some of the positive examples are:

  • Learning as a culturally mediated process
  • Child development as a process of learning to build more sophisticated relationships with a larger number of people
  • Framing simple tools like a mathematician’s pad of paper as an extension of the mind
  • A sophisticated critique of the artificiality of lab psychology experiments

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Posted in Requests for ideas | Tagged , , , | 23 Comments