Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Change in Management

I've decided that the funds in my piggy bank are now going towards the establishment of my own country.
In order to prevent certain very predictable disasters -- like, for example, annexation -- it will be based on a small island, lacking in natural resources, with minimal fresh water, no desirable infrastructure, and no recreational value whatsoever.

This will make it a less tempting resource for  overbearing foreign powers (like Tonga.) Far away from civilization, multiple species of predators will guard the safety of my new republic. If at all practicable, it should be surrounded by large and dangerous rocks, which would make approaching the island nigh on impossible. I'd also like lasers and a bunker in the volcano; I'll have to look at our budget.

Because of the demonstrable flaws in all previous democratic regimes --  which tend to intentionally or unintentionally subvert the will of the people (i.e. voter's paradox, Arrow's impossibility theorem and a bunch of other things that people with the inclination and some common sense can figure out) --  the illusion of popular government should continue, but law and order will be maintained by a convenient oligarchy. Who knows? We might even call it an ad-hocracy just for laughs.

The original founders will probably constitute the ruling class for some time, so you had better buy in early to ensure that you have a satisfactory degree of control.

Because of preference falsification, all conversations must be submitted in contract form, exposing those with an intent to misrepresent their beliefs to prosecution in accordance with the studiously minimalist, coherently-libertarian justice system. Since this raises the cost of communicating, it should limit the dull, mind-numbingly boring and eye-gougingly frustrating social interactions to a minimum.

Part of our social agreement will be the outlawing counter-productive escalation of social signals (the somewhat arbitrary ends of the spectrum being makeup at one end with blood-feuds and college degrees at the other,) which will doubtless "harm"  the non-majority which would benefit by misrepresentation of personal facts or the skewing of information curves, but will greatly increase total utility for the entire population. No one shall be allowed to begin a career unsuitable to them and detrimental to the rest of society simply because they anticipate pay-offs commensurate with their delusions of success in that field.

Also, on a somewhat related note: all accordions and cheap, plastic recorders are banned. Violinists must undertake an hermetic apprenticeship for a minimum of 2 years, and until their master can vouch that they are capable of producing sounds that do not resemble the sound of ligaments breaking, cats careening through the air at high speed, or the implosion of a magnetic train. This is a restriction which I'm sure everyone -- besides a small, automatically-disenfranchised minority -- will agree with. Along similar lines, poets should try out their new pieces on each other, rather than forcing us to experiment along with them. Billy Collins I'm looking at you.

...I haven't come up with a satisfactory solution for dealing with screaming children, perhaps we should all dope with prolactin and endorphins in the interest of continuing the project for multiple generations.
Note, Edit, Whatever:  I was talking with a friend a few days ago who asked some questions about why anyone can't simply decide to form their own state if they disagree with how things are done in their mother country. I laughed. For a really long time. I laughed for such a long time that I think I probably hurt their feelings. Also, as much as I'd love to address the questions they asked (or why we can't form our own country) both they and their questions were both very well-meaning and very politically incorrect. I don't think I'm currently prepared to expand the cohort of people that hate me that much.

So I decided to re-post this because the last few posts have been very whiny, depressing and just generally awful. How does the saying go? 'You have to laugh or you'll end up cackling madly as they strap you to a stretcher and pump you full of sedatives while you giggle about how Alan Greenspan looks like a baby wombat..." Or something like that.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Little House on the Prairie and Topless Protests: two sides of the same flawed coin

I think I need to preface my remarks by saying: I don't have a problem with 'little girl fiction.' I have no unresolved issues with Louisa May Alcott, and I think that some unfortunate part of my subconscious still looks up to Anne (of Green Gables) as a role model. I suppose that I should also apologize in advance to anyone who likes Nancy Drew, Fifty Shades of Gray, Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, Little House on the Prairie, Christy, American Girls, The Princess Diaries or anything by That Woman, who shall go nameless, but whose initials are: Stephanie Nymphomaniac Meyer.

...but it's not as if I'm going to have a Nancy Drew book burning. After all, what are you going to give a little girl to read? The Scarlet Letter? Really? Try to explain that book to a ten year old. Just try. (Although I do recommend The Literary Sense by Nesbit. Every thirteen year old girl should read it. It will make their adolescence a lot less painful. For everyone else that is.)

I still find something very disturbing in the background of these stories. Look, for instance, at Christy, Little House on the Prairie, even Little Women. These books are popular, at least in part, because they present a romantic view of the past. Yes, yes, we all knew that. Why am I wasting your time? But then think about the fact that these women were in pretty atypical positions of power and independence, completely at odds with the prevailing trends in the societies of the time.

Take Christy: the quintessential good girl. Sweet, and kind, 'always clean and pretty' and just generally impossible to hang out with. In addition to which, she has her own goals, her own purpose. She has control of her own future in a way that few women did at the time. And the men in her life are cool with that. She's eventually rewarded for her insufferable perfection by having a tall, dark, handsome preacher pursue her, as well as a doctor, who, while not tall-dark-and-handsome, has an adorable Scots accent which more than makes up for his other deficits.

Laura Ingalls manages to make trudging miles to school every day -- and having your entire future hang on droughts, freak hailstorms and swarms of locusts -- sound romantic. While she's not exactly a bastion of feminism, she is at least a teacher before she gets hitched, and, because she's the main character, you never get the sense that she has absolutely no control of her life and is pretty much at the mercy of random weather events and the whims of petty little rednecks. (Please note that this is not a "thing about women." This is a thing about people. Most people, in most places, most of the time, have no control over their lives, don't know what they want and are scared to death to try anything new. If you can't relate... congratulations.)

In Little Women the only reason anything interesting happens to "the March girls" is because their father's off fighting. Realistically, life would have been pretty boring with him there, no matter how awesome he was as a father. And Dr. Quinn. Don't get me started on Dr. Quinn. Nothing along the lines of that TV show would ever have been allowed in my house when I was little. But really, a female doctor who heads out into the Wild West? Can we get any more unlikely? Oh wait, we can. Because there are wise old Indians who respect her as a source of beneficent wisdom. And a rugged cowboy/whatever who crushes on her and is perfectly alright with her being a proto-feminist.

Why don't we look at some real women and see how likely this is? Look at Harriet Tubman. Mrs. Pankhurst. Maude Gonne. Nellie Bly. Abigail Adams. Florence Nightengale (she didn't believe in germs, but she was still pretty cool.) Mary Shelley, Jane Austen, the Brontes, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf... (are you starting to get the idea that pretty much the only thing that women could do was write?)

The fact that I can pull out a random list of women who were either famous at the time, or who have been recently popularized Ada-Lovelace-style, should at least imply that women didn't suddenly start being awesome in the middle of the twentieth century. They've been awesome all along, but these women faced significant sacrifices for their independence. They weren't Dr. Quinn. They didn't have everything. In fact most of them had pretty hard lives, comparatively speaking. It wasn't just because they were women either; going against the flow is always difficult, for everyone, and it probably always will be. If it wasn't, then everyone would be awesome. That is clearly not the case.

The problem is that our standards for awesomeness are totally dysfunctional. Western standards for success have grown continually more narrow. Your status depends on being in control of people, or your salary, or the number of papers you've coauthored etc. Just being good at your job is no longer good enough. This isn't just bad for women, this is bad for everyone.

I'm not saying that being competitive is always bad and I'm not interested in debating whether women are less combative because they're born that way or raised that way. We are, no matter how we came to be so. ...and because women, on average, are less likely to hit somebody over the head (physically or metaphorically) it makes women like me -- who are perfectly alright with grabbing somebody by their shirt collar, getting in their face and/or punching them in the nose --  aberrations. Now I could get all bothered by this and yank my shirt off and go yell at some people to make myself feel better, or I could recognize that maybe not everyone needs to be like me. Possibly more women should be like me. If they were, their salaries might be the same as men's, we might have fewer abusive relationships, women's suicide rates might be lower... but I'm not going to simply assume any of that.

Here's the thing: our view of equality has more to do with a few weird 19th century post-Britannic cultural quirks than any oppressive Patriarchy (I swear, some feminists sound like they're ranting about the Illuminati sometimes.) I agree, the post-Victorian model of women staying at home and managing the housekeeper and wearing white gloves and fainting at the sight of blood is flat-out creepy. Yes, the fact that from the time of Hammurabi women have been valued less and had fewer rights than men is pretty bloody offensive. Throughout history though, your average woman has worked. They had to. And realistically, it wasn't safe for women to be out alone. (When the best thing that you can say about a king is that he chopped off the offending body parts of rapists, you know something is wrong with the world.*) The reason that women have been oppressed is not because they're women per se. It's because it's human nature to control and use whoever is less powerful than you. A lot of the time that means taking your anger out on the closest thing with boobs.

However, at present, here in "the West," the situation for women is pretty good. Of course, women across the world are still horrifically mistreated and dehumanized, and when Western feminists 'get their mad on' about the perceived or actual injustices we suffer, I feel it minimizes and detracts from the incontrovertible human rights abuses that women face globally. I don't mean to say that we should ignore any genuine problem just because it's small, but many of the issues that bother many feminists are, at the very least, up for debate. Global human rights abuses aren't.

I don't think that makes me a bad feminist. I think I'm allowed to disagree on what positive rights are essential and inalienable. Negative rights are not negotiable: I have a problem with jerks who disfigure kids with acid just because they want to go to school. I think it's absolutely unequivocally wrong to prevent a woman from doing anything just because she's a woman. And I have major rage issues with people who circumcise little girls because of their weird hangups.

But all that is very different from the sense of entitlement that I see in most of the feminists I know and come into contact with. There is a big difference between feeling you ought to have something, and saying you don't have it because of discrimination (thereby getting yourself all furious so you can feel better...) and being explicitly categorized as a subhuman.

The 'Angry Feminist' picture of what women are (or should be) is just as unrealistic as the notion of good, sweet little Nancy Drew making her souffles and solving crimes and vomiting up the encyclopaedia at every conceivable opportunity. Whether this propaganda is intentional or not doesn't really matter (in my opinion). It's still there, it's still part of our psychological backdrop, and the stories we hear (real or fictional) are the building blocks with which we construct our personalities. Perhaps it might be better if, instead of modelling ourselves after characters in books or, worse, magazines, we looked at the women (and men) in our lives, and decided to act like the ones we admire most.

Also -- which is what started this whole thing -- what does taking your shirt off prove? Can someone explain this to me?

*This is in William the Conquerer's obit in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (I think. If I'm wrong, feel free to lord it over me.)

...and actually, while I'm on the subject, I don't apologize to the people who like Fifty Shades of Gray. Or Twilight. But it's become kind of de rigeur to trash both series, and I'm even more of a contrarian than I am a snob.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015


I'm sorry, but someone ought to say this:
You're not beautiful just the way you are.

In fact, if we're having this conversation, you're probably ugly. And you know what? That's okay. You matter as a person, you are valuable, you are loved. But you aren't beautiful.

It makes me angry to see people confusing beauty with worth, especially their own worth. Sure, some primitive part of our brains confuses being good with being beautiful, with being intelligent/kind/interesting. That doesn't mean it's actually so. If we could all start acting like adults about this that would be awesome. (This goes for a lot of things, but this is a blog post, not the Pensées, so we're sticking to one subject.)

Telling a child he's intelligent doesn't make him smarter. It makes him feel smarter. Which does... well, it does precisely nothing. Until, of course, he figures out that he's not intelligent and people have just been lying to him, or at least confusing the hell out of him, for his entire life. 

Just because you love someone and see them as valuable does not automatically provide them with the cornucopia of talents that you wish they had. Sorry, them's the breaks.

So what do you tell a child who maybe isn't quite as smart? You praise them for the actual effort they put in. You tell them you love them. You let them know what their diligence can really earn them. Which, oddly enough, is exactly what you tell the clever child, who will otherwise think that they should have the world handed to them on a platter, from which they can eat with a silver spoon. All this because of some accident of environment and genetics -- which they had no control over, yet which they still implicitly claim credit for. 

It's the same with pretty people. Life is genuinely harder when you're not beautiful. Like it or not, people are shallow and our brains like symmetry. And we tend to favor things we like. Pretty children get more positive attention in school. Pretty people get more attention period. They actually can get away with things by simply batting their eyelashes. We automatically assume that pretty people are smarter. So if you're not attractive, you've already started life with one major deficit. That just plain sucks. 

So given how people are, do I blame others who spend seemingly ludicrous amounts of time and money trying to alter their appearance? No. Because people are jerks. Life is hard enough without someone immediately judging you, your overall health and evolutionary fitness upon seeing your misshapen nose.

The issue is not that people do any of these things, it's our willingness to delude ourselves. If you mean "valuable" say "valuable," if you mean "beautiful" say "beautiful." It's not that hard. 

No matter what we believe, we can't all be above average. It's not possible. This much is obvious. (I hope.) What's not obvious is why we blame people who aren't above average for their "innate" mediocrity. Since most of us are mediocre in most ways, it's kind of a shitty thing to do.

...but what do you expect when you measure people's worth by their intelligence or attractiveness or conviviality? What about someone without any of those pleasant attributes? (Such people exist, I guarantee you.) If all we are is a collection of attributes and affiliations, if you measure a human's worth by their utility to you... such a person is not worth anything. So rather than face the icy implications of being utilitarian, or choose a different philosophical outlook, we lie to ourselves and say that someone is what they are not. Because reality is a slippery concept and truth is painful. 

Edit: Someone pointed out that while Penguin classics can get away without putting the accent aigu on 'Pensées,' I, miserable plebe that I am, cannot. Things have been updated accordingly. 

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Far From the Madding Crowd

I am generally the last person to complain about movie adaptations. It's ridiculous to expect the same thing from two very different art forms. Personally, I don't want to sit through a seventeen hour version of The Old Man And The Sea (I don't want to sit through an hour and a half version either, but that's beside the point.) Because of that I'll forgive certain film-making conventions and shortcuts. For instance, The Great Gatsby was really good; the frame story was entirely justified and using modern music was necessary to avoid making it feel like a period piece (which would have been directly contrary to the aims of the novel.)

That said, the constraints of a given art form do not entitle anyone to butcher a beautiful (if slightly dated) story. The screenwriter is, of course, completely free to totally alter the tone, timeline, and characters, but he shouldn't expect us to be happy about it. (I'm sure David Nicholls cares deeply about my opinion. Deeply.)

Warning: Spoilers and ranting ahead.

There are some things I understand. Having Bathsheba introduce herself is jarring, but forgivable. And some things, like introducing her on the road, with its little mirror scene (which provides a contrast for her later, totally unselfconscious ride to fetch oat bran) would have been completely impractical. A detailed description of Gabriel Oak would have been likewise impossible to include. The movie's version of Gabriel "Farmer" Oak does present him as modest, diligent, and recently prosperous, but his character doesn't come across in the same way at all. Hardy's Farmer Oak is almost immediately human, and he doesn't take very long at all to go from 'real' to actively endearing. We hear about his watch, which, we are told, has a tendency to either go "too fast or not at all." The hour hand also slips. It's really only a watch "as to shape and intention." And so we learn about his stargazing, both as a way to keep time and for the sake of simple appreciation.

Then for some reason Nicholls begins messing with the characters. In the book Gabriel Oak mentions to Bathsheba's aunt that he was going to propose, and then leaves when her aunt implies that Bathsheba has multiple admirers, instead of proposing directly as he does in the movie. So he retreats, saying that he is only an "everyday sort of man" and he knew his success would have been contingent on being "first comer." Taking that into consideration though, he is still in a better position than Bathsheba, having risen in the world due to his diligence and skill. She still refuses his offer of marriage, and we like her a little for that, even though she seems a bit self-absorbed.  In the book the contrast between them is heightened by the differences in how they speak. Oak speaks with a rural accent, in painfully sincere and direct way, and Bathsheba sounds educated, but she tends to blurt things out. In fact, almost everyone speaks on the same register for the entire movie, and Hardy's use of dialect to show power differentials and cultural disparities is pretty much ignored.

So she refuses Oak and then comes a major reversal: she leaves for her uncle's farm, he loses all his sheep through no negligence of his own, and he eventually comes to her as a suppliant, asking if she needs a shepherd.

Nicholls took substantial liberties with Bathsheba's character. I do understand that not everyone is up on the social context of the 19th century, and I thought that some of the explanations/modifications were good. (A prime example would be the Sergeant Troy's kiss being turned into a 'kiss plus grope,' which doesn't really go against anything in the book and makes everything generally more clear for an audience who probably would think 'so he kissed her, what's the big deal?')

It is hard to get across the idea of how independent she is within the context of her conservative rural culture, and I admit that. An interesting thing though is that she never breaks the more explicit rules of her society -- which the less self-possessed Fanny Robin does. She breaks the rules not because she's rebellious, but because she's determined and stubborn. Another thing that doesn't come across well is how impulsive she is. She runs after Oak to correct her aunt's misinformation, she sends the valentine saying "Marry me" to Boldwood on a whim, she opens the casket etc.

Which brings me to my second point. She only considers marrying Boldwood because of how guilty she feels about her thoughtlessness in sending the valentine. She never (as the movie says) has a notion of how unbalanced Boldwood is, but she's genuinely sorry that she caused him distress, and considers marrying him out of duty and pragmatism. She did after all ask him to marry her, even though it was a joke. I'm truly not sure why that was changed. If anything, marriage is a less serious proposition now.

Which brings me to my third point. There are several shameless, and completely useless insertions and/or alterations. The valentine in the movie doesn't actually say "Marry me,"  shifting a good deal of the blame from Bathsheba, and making Boldwood seem immediately unbalanced. Then there's the insertion of Oak's dog, Old George. Which moves the story along in precisely zero ways. Worse, Movie Troy feels jilted and is portrayed as being totally ignorant of Fanny's mistake in going to the wrong church. Which is far more forgiving than Hardy's characterization, where he doesn't marry her (partly) because he was annoyed at having to stand there embarrassed at the altar. He's much less interesting and far more forgivable as result.

I'm not sure why they made this decision honestly. Sometimes there is just a clearly defined bad guy. Troy is that bad guy. He maliciously plays with Boldwood, letting him think (not unreasonably, given Troy's general character) that he bonked Bathsheba without marrying her. In 19th century England this is Very Big Deal. Boldwood is terrified for Bathsheba -- because it's typically the women who get found out, don't you know -- and offers to pay Troy to marry her. Troy toys with him a bit more and then refuses to take the money, revealing that they actually are married. At which news the reader sighs, knowing Troy to be a complete reprobate.

Oak knows this too, and tries to warn Bathsheba, but -- big surprise here -- she doesn't pay attention. Fanny appears, dies, and Troy says nasty things to Bathsheba, who for once, is entirely blameless. He swims out into the ocean and is taken for dead. Boldwood renews his suit, and it becomes apparent to certain people that he's really losing it.

Disaster ensues, during which Oak is, as always, completely devoted. Troy gets shot by Boldwood. Why the shooting scene was moved outside I'm not sure, but anyhow... Bathsheba cradles Troy's head in her lap, takes complete command of the situation and what follows are the only quotable sentences that didn't get included in the movie:
"She was of the stuff of which great men's mothers are made. She was indispensable to high generation, hated at tea parties, feared in shops, and loved at crises."
Troy dies, Boldwood gets committed, and Bathsheba lives miserably ever after. Except not, because Oak makes sure everything is settled and then informs Bathsheba that he's going to America. Bathsheba decides that she really doesn't want him to leave.

In the book, the climax is a truly nineteenth century discussion, talking about her reputation etc, and Oak admits that he was leaving because people were talking about him and her getting married, which he bitterly refers to as an "absurd" idea. But Bathsheba is now more amenable. The chief point though is that they're friends, and have suddenly become equals (chiefly because of Oak's decision to move on actually.) The movie pretty much loses that, and it ends with them kissing.

That is my issue with the movie. In trying to update and explain the original story the movie morphs the resolution into a cliche. I understand why a modern audience might not be receptive to marriage being the happy ending. But Hardy's point isn't about marriage per se, it's about devotion and independence. Oak's devotion is the same whether he's her bailiff or her husband, though his actions change.

Oak is actually in a more or less subservient position to her for the entire book, either as suitor, or shepherd, or bailiff. Towards the end there he even agrees not to leave for America on her request. It's not to say that he always obeys or agrees with her, but Hardy put him in relatively powerless, dare I say, typically "feminine" position. For example, he's described as having "a quiet modesty that would have become a vestal," and in the denouement Bathsheba says that 'it's almost as if she'd come courting him.' It's not Bathsheba's agreement to marry him that is important, but her willingness to rely on someone (though she's actually been relying on him throughout her entire time as a farmer.)

In the movie though, Oak doesn't change his mind until she shows romantic interest again. This (among other things) changes Oak's character completely, and as a result a book that was a total subversion of gender norms has been completely castrated.

Maybe it's one of those stories that just shouldn't have been adapted. Like the remake of Brian's Song, perhaps it doesn't have any impact when you take it out of context.
Note: I did watch the movie at 40,000 ft with a fever, a horrific earache and a head full of snot. So it's possible that I'm being a little unfair, and that a bit of all that carried over into my opinions on the movie. But I actually read the book when I was sick too, so I don't think that's it.

Also: throughout the book Bathsheba seemingly engages in what a less enlightened time might call "coquetry." (Due to modern advances in linguistics we now call a woman who acts in this manner a "cock-tease.") But, as with her valentine to Boldwood, she genuinely doesn't mean any harm, and she doesn't do it intentionally. (I forget the section of the novel that implies this, but it's there somewhere.) 

Friday, April 10, 2015

value of a marginal "friend"

The value of a "marginal friend" as a false signal.

"Every additional second you spend thinking allows you to make a slightly more thoughtful answer but also increases what he expects of you. If he is very sharp, he will be read your reply and possibly see deeper into the question than you did making you look bad. "

I become very worried when I find my neurotic thoughts posted on the internet in more eloquent form. The world is far crazier than I give it credit for and everything I say could potentially be that much better....
Because my mental process is something more like this:
"Oh, interpersonal interaction required. Ineffectually attempt to shut down flight-or-fight response. Realize that every second you spend increases the expectation of the initiator. Try to answer quickly and not sound stupid. Look at stupid response. Try to find methods that do not result in stupidity, while understanding that since you've wasted this time the quality of your thought should reflect the extra time that you've "spent." Iterate. Eventually realize that it's not working. Give self a lecture and try to sound intelligent. Marginally better. Understand that you've been thinking about this for a comparatively long time, and you can only blame internet connectivity if it's actually happened because you completely suck at lying. Write a decent response that addresses every point except the single most obvious one that you thought of first (you forgot it because it was so completely obvious)"
Solution: pretend you are actually swamped and exhausted and finally managed to jot off a response, which also has the pleasant side effect of making people think you have a life... :)
(this does work better if you're actually swamped and exhausted occasionally.)

So of course I had this all worked out before, but not verbally condensed (as you can see,) the problem is that I never apply it. Also my brain should be completely messed up because I already have a spot in my brain tagged "the value of a marginal friend" and it relates to a completely different thought process....