Tag Archives: idle ranting

What’s the Opposite of Precocious?

I am a sophomore at Nathan Hale High School in Seattle, Washington. I have friends from all walks of life and believe that I would be perfect for your panel. I do not play any sports, although I had a brief stint with the lacrosse team my freshman year. I am a big fan of the entertainment industry. I have very diverse tastes in TV, movies, books, theater, and music. I cannot say no to quality entertainment, whatever the genre. I am obsessed and fascinated by pop culture, and I love reading the newspaper and magazines.

That’s the beginning of an essay I wrote in 1997. I was 15, and applying to be a ‘teen correspondent’ at USA Today.

The world of teenagers is very different from how it was in the fifties and sixties. Most males are concerned only with sex and drugs. Females seem mostly concerned about how to avoid them.

Of course, there are the few lonely souls who dare to be different, but they are labeled as ‘weirdos’ or ‘faggots’ and are generally ignored. To be popular and successful as a teenager, one must be willing to conform to what the media and their peers tell them.

The only thing more incredible than the thudding artlessness of these passages is that fact that I got the job. Based solely on the ‘strength’ of this essay, I was one of USA Today’s go-to teens for more than two years. Shit’s still on my resume.

The essay is one of hundreds of files my parents excavated  from my old hard drive and sent to me a few years ago. They all have the original names, but I’m starting to think I should just label them Cringe_1, Cringe_2 and onward to mortifying infinity. There’s one called ‘White_Racial_Identity.doc’ that I’m thinking about deleting without opening.

In this age of single parents and families in which both parents are working, the role of mother and father begin to mean less and less. Oftentimes parents would like to be home with their kids, but can’t, because they have to work a double shift so the aforementioned children can keep ordering pizzas and watching cable.

It only gets worse from there.

Maybe the worst thing about modern technology isn’t the triviality, or the ubiquitousness, but the permanence. If this essay wasn’t saved on a 15-year-old hard drive, I never would have read it again. I could have lived the rest of my life believing, on the rare occasions when I recall this period, that it was good , that I expressed something true, that I was worthy of pontificating upward from hotel room doorsteps for two years. This essay would have remained, undisturbed, a worthwhile general rather than an embarrassing particular.

We forget the extent to which we construct our childhood from input more diverse than its actual events. History, movies, retold stories, aborted friendships, it all gets folded into the way you think you had it when you were a kid. These pictures and texts from my childhood seem like some sort of alternate reality to my ‘real’ upbringing, the one I keep in my head. It’s easy to forget that it’s actually the other way around.

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Business Jargon: Think Inside the Box

I bonded with a client on the phone the other day. She was telling me about a collaboration program they were launching with other departments, and she said something like ‘we’re trying to discover all the synergies—‘

There was a long pause. ‘I’m sorry. I fucking hate the word ‘synergy’, she said.

If I had a pet project, I think it would be to write a history of management jargon. It’s amazing how terms like ‘synergy’ and ‘value-added’ creep into our vocabularies in spite of having meanings that are poorly defined at best and utterly commonsensical at worst.

Tyler Cowen says we resort to jargon to maintain consensus:

My speculation: People disagree in corporations, often virulently, or they would disagree if enough real debates were allowed to reach the surface.  The use of broad generalities, in rhetoric, masks such potential disagreements and helps maintain corporate order and authority.  Since it is hard to oppose fluffy generalities in any very specific way, a common strategy is to stack everyone’s opinion or points into an incoherent whole.  Disagreement is then less likely to become a focal point within the corporation and warring coalitions are less likely to form.

I agree with this, but I think the real purpose of management jargon is revealed in the fact that it never lasts very long. This year’s ‘low-hanging fruit’ is last year’s ‘blue-sky thinking’.

Corporations are under pressure to always be dynamic. They have to constantly expand, constantly evolve. This makes them uniquely susceptible to fads of language and paradigm. ‘Look for the blue ocean’ pulls a company to a slightly more productive equilibrium. Next year, ‘synergy’ pulls them to another one. Each paradigm resolves what it is capable of resolving, and reveals new problems for the next one.

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Leave Fat People Alone

Yeah so I probably come off as a total dick in my last post.

I actually find the stigma against overweight people repellent, especially the way fat-phobic comments come packaged in this utterly styrofoam concern about health.

I’ve been in situations where friends or acquaintances have pointed out obese people on the street to mock them (‘Her poor shoes!’), and I doubt that me saying ‘Actually, I know her. She eats super-healthy, swims twice a week and has cholesterol levels below yours.’ would make them reconsider.

Obese people are stigmatized for the same reason everyone else is: Because they don’t fit our norm of attractiveness. The health thing is just a disguise for primary school-level neener-neenering.

The problem, of course, is that being obese actually is bad for your health, at least generally. The obese woman you’re mocking on the street does, statistically, have a higher chance of heart disease, cancer and osteoperosis than the skinny woman walking the other direction.

The overweight community often wants to downplay this, arguing that its perfectly possible to be healthy and overweight at the same time. It probably is, but it’s not the case that Western countries are growing in size alone. We’re getting fatter, and we’re getting sicker.

None of this, however, is a justification for being shitty to fat people.  

The obese woman you’re laughing at probably does, in fact, eat too much and exercise too little. But neither of those things are themselves stigmatized. You don’t point and laugh at someone of normal size who orders two Big Macs for lunch. You don’t mock your friends who never go to the gym or bike to work.

We only care how much someone eats or exercises if its visible on the outside. It’s the display of their unhealth that we find unforgivable, not its content.

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The ’50s were terrible

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I found a book called ‘The Status Seekers’ in a bookstore in the Faroe Islands for a dollar (it was an unmanned bookstore. You pick a book, check the price, then deposit the cash through a slot in the office door. Only in Scandinavia!)

The book is by Vance Packard, a forgotten blip in the genre of bestseller psychology. It was published in 1959, and chronicles the increasing class stratification of America in the midst of its first period of sustained income and economic growth.

It’s a fascinating artifact, both for its descriptions of things that haven’t changed since 1959 (Bosses hate mingling with subordinates! People buy fancy cars to demonstrate their status!) and what has (Rotary clubs! Upper class people go to church!).

This is the third book I’ve read recently about the 1950s in America, and the more I learn about the decade, the more I think its conception in the popular memory is utterly false, to the point of perniciousness.

The 50s were awful. Our idea of them as embodying universal prosperity, equal opportunity and family dinners is based entirely on movies and TV. Imagine someone 100 years from now extrapolating the dimensions of our society solely on the basis of ‘High School Musical’ and ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’.

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The dark side of the 1950s wasn’t depicted in 1950s music, movies or books. That’s precisely what the dark side of the 1950s was: Nothing that scraped the veneer was tolerated.

This extended far beyond TV and movies. As Packard describes, applicants were barred from employment if they weren’t white, happily married or Protestant enough. All forms of socialization—from workplaces to schools to social clubs to churches—were designed to pre-emptively exclude those who didn’t fit in.

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The 1950s were also the decade where The Greatest Generation laid the foundations for everything that sucks in America today. They abandoned their inner cities and built an infrastructure devoted to mass-produced suburbs and shopping malls. They invented the commute.

More perniciously, and something I never really realized until Packer pointed it out, was that they built a society where classes rarely come into contact with each other. As the physical geography changed, neighbourhood institutions and social structures could more restrict themselves to a narrow demographic band. Neighborhood churches and schools became increasingly focused on servicing the universally rich (or universally poor) residents who lived near them.

‘What happens to the personalities of people who live in communities where the houses for miles around are virtually identical, and the people seen are all from the same socio-economic slice? It is too early to tell,’ Packer writes. I think with 40 extra years of perspective on his question, we can answer it.

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Someday the country won’t be run by people who look back on this time of social exclusion with nostalgia. It’s time we moved on from our simplistic idea that the 1950s were America’s glory days, and start constructing them as they were: The increasingly panicked flailing of a generation that would go to any length to preserve its unearned privilege. 

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‘The almost-unfathomable distance between top-level athletes and everyone else’

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I randomly came across this article by David Foster Wallace today. It's about the weird universe inhabited by professional tennis players, and elite performers more generally.

But it’s better for us not to know the kinds of sacrifices the professional-grade athlete has made to get so very good at one particular thing. Oh, we’ll invoke lush clichés about the lonely heroism of Olympic athletes, the pain and analgesia of football, the early rising and hours of practice and restricted diets, the preflight celibacy, et cetera.

But the actual facts of the sacrifices repel us when we see them: basketball geniuses who cannot read, sprinters who dope themselves, defensive tackles who shoot up with bovine hormones until they collapse or explode. We prefer not to consider closely the shockingly vapid and primitive comments uttered by athletes in postcontest interviews or to consider what impoverishments in one’s mental life would allow people actually to think the way great athletes seem to think.

Note the way “up close and personal” profiles of professional athletes strain so hard to find evidence of a rounded human life — outside interests and activities, values beyond the sport. We ignore what’s obvious, that most of this straining is farce. It’s farce because the realities of top-level athletics today require an early and total commitment to one area of excellence.

An ascetic focus. A subsumption of almost all other features of human life to one chosen talent and pursuit. A consent to live in a world that, like a child’s world, is very small.

I wasn't in the U.S. for the Michael Phelps hype cycle last Olympics, but I remember a friend telling about what a weird specimen he was in 'Today' show interviews and news articles. His range of experience was so limited ('I wake up, I swim, I go to bed') that his interviewers struggled to find anything to ask him about. Apparently they just asked him over and over again about what he eats. 'Eleven pancakes for breakfast?! That's amazing!' What else are you  gonna ask a dude who spends 10 hours a day swimming back and forth?

I listened to a podcast last night by the author of a book called Talent is Overrated. Apparently the scientific evidence shows pretty incontrovertibly that there's no such thing as 'talent' as such, only practice. Apparently if you take anyone who is at the top of their field (Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Warren Buffett), and you find that they spent thousands of hours of time deliberately honing their skills.

Here's an article by the author of the book:

You do not possess a natural gift for a certain job, because targeted natural gifts don't exist. (Sorry, Warren.) You are not a born CEO or investor or chess grandmaster. You will achieve greatness only through an enormous amount of hard work over many years. And not just any hard work, but work of a particular type that's demanding and painful.

[...] The best people in any field are those who devote the most hours to what the researchers call "deliberate practice." It's activity that's explicitly intended to improve performance, that reaches for objectives just beyond one's level of competence, provides feedback on results and involves high levels of repetition.

It's sort of appealing to think that you're just 10,000 hours of practice away from that hole in one, or that slam dunk, or that first million. What I'm amazed at, though, isn't that people have the time or the dedication to develop their skills to such an incredible extent. It's how you have to give a shit to do what they've done.

I'm sure that if I spent two hours a day for the next 10 years working on my jump shot, I'd be really good at it. The problem is, I really don't give a shit if I can make a jump shot. When I think about it, though, I've spent probably 1,000 hours in the last five years going running, and have deliberately tried to get my 10k time below 40 minutes. Running in a big circle is just as arbitrary as putting a ball through a little hoop, yet one of them is a genuine source of stress (and stress relief) and the other one is something I care about as much as yodeling, or Yatzee, or anything else I end up doing once a year and giving no further thought to.

Whenever I'm confronted with genuine greatness, it's the bottomless giving a shit that really astounds me. On your 18th year of hitting golf balls every. fucking. day, how do you go to the driving range again? When you're on the second-to-last chapter of your 898-page deconstructivist masterpiece, how do you not think 'Is it really worth all of this?'

I'm too old and atheist to think that I'll discover some hidden talent and become the Tiger Woods of billiards or something. But I still hope I find something I give enough of a shit about that I don't mind doing it every day.

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Immigration as recruitment

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In the middle of a week of Breaking Newses on two topics I care about, global warming and health care, I've strangely found myself thinking more about immigration. Specifically this:

There is a near consensus in America that unlimited immigration via entirely open borders is not viable. What frustrates me is that, among many of the folks who style themselves immigrant advocates or pro-immigration, there is an utter refusal to articulate specific, workable views about what the limits should be, let alone to abide enforcing limits that are duly signed into law. One pernicious effect is that restrictionists are the only game in town for folks who want to enforce some limits on immigration.

I'm always complaining that whenever the topic of immigration comes up, we forget that the reasonable parts of the left and the right are so close on the issue that they're practically spooning. We just don't notice because five seconds after the topic comes up, they get smothered by a duvet of idiocy from the radicals.

So what should America actually do?

…we should reconceptualize immigration as recruiting.

Assimilating immigrants is a demonstrated core capability of America's political economy — and it is one we should take advantage of. A robust-yet-reasonable amount of immigration is healthy for America. It is a continuing source of vitality — and, in combination with birth rates around the replacement level, creates a sustainable rate of overall ­population growth and age-demographic balance.

But unfortunately, the manner in which we have actually handled immigration since the 1970s has yielded large-scale legal and illegal immigration of a low-skilled population from Latin America. It is hard to imagine a more damaging way to expose the fault lines of America's political economy: We have chosen a strategy that provides low-wage gardeners and nannies for the elite, low-cost home improvement and fresh produce for the middle class, and fierce wage competition for the working class.

I never thought of the ability of America to assimilate immigrants as a competitive advantage until I lived in Europe. I totally agree that this is a pretty fundamental competence, and could be utilized far more than it is now. You think of all the well-educated people in the world whose entrepreneurship and talents don't go anywhere because their home countries don't have the capacities, and you wish we would start courting, rather than discouraging, them.

The article mentions Australia and Canada as two countries who have developed skills-based immigration programs, from which they have benefited greatly.

It's amazing toggling between the immigration cultures of Denmark, Australia and America. In America, the attitude is 'well, somebody's gotta clean our toilets and pick our fruit.' In Denmark it's mostly 'They don't belong here! Cloth on head bad!' And in Australia, it seems to be 'bring 'em on!'

There are, of course, nuances to these, but it would be great for a country to really run with the recruitment model and see where it got them. It's depressing that throughout Europe, this is as politically impossible as making Ramadan a national holiday. 

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Nasty, brutish and Detroit

This is a really great 'full catastrophe' piece about Detroit, one of America's most robust and baffling tragedies:

The troubles of Detroit are well-publicized. Its economy is in free fall, people are streaming for the exits, it has the worst racial polarization and city-suburb divide in America, its government is feckless and corrupt (though I should hasten to add that new Mayor Bing seems like a basically good guy and we ought to give him a chance), and its civic boosters, even ones that are extremely knowledgeable, refuse to acknowledge the depth of the problems, instead ginning up stats and anecdotes to prove all is not so bad.

 

This is from Guernica:

There is such a dire shortage of protein in the city that Glemie Dean Beasley, a seventy-year-old retired truck driver, is able to augment his Social Security by selling raccoon carcasses (twelve dollars a piece, serves a family of four) from animals he has treed and shot at undisclosed hunting grounds around the city. Pelts are ten dollars each. Pheasants are also abundant in the city and are occasionally harvested for dinner.

 

OK, so that's the bad and the ugly. What's the good?

It’s possible to do things there. In Detroit, the incapacity of the government is actually an advantage in many cases. There’s not much chance a strong city government could really turn the place around, but it could stop the grass roots revival in its tracks.

[...] In many cities where strong city government still functions effectively, citizens are tied down by an array of regulations and permits that are actually enforced in most cases. Much of the South Side of Chicago has Detroit like characteristics, but the techniques of renewal in Detroit won’t work because they are likely against code and would be shut down the minute someone complained.

Just as one quick example, my corner ice cream stand dared to put out a few chairs for patrons to sit on while enjoying a frozen treat on a hot day. The city cited them for not having a license. So they took them away and put up a “bring your own chair” sign. The city then cited them for that too. You can’t do anything in Chicago without a Byzantine array of licenses, permits, and inspections.

In central Indianapolis, which is in desperate need of investment, where the city can’t fill the potholes in the street, etc., the minute a few yuppies buy houses in an area and fix them up, they immediately petition for a historic district, a request that has never been refused. [...]

In most cities, municipal government can’t stop drug dealing and violence, but it can keep people with creative ideas out. Not in Detroit. In Detroit, if you want to do something, you just go do it.

 

This reminds me, strangely enough, of my trip to Italy last year. I attended a fundraiser organized by my buddy Giacomo for earthquake victims in Abruzzo. Their idea was to raise a bunch of money, fill a van with sandwiches and sound equipment, and drive down to Abruzzo and throw a dance party. The night I was there we raised like 2,000 euro, and the next week, they did their Movable Techno Feast.

It struck me that weekend how similar America and Italy are. We know that the government isn't going to do anything for us, so we take some of the responsibility. Everyone I talked to at the Abruzzo fundraiser had a 'if not us, who?' kind of attitude, the same one you found in a lot of America after Katrina and 9/11. You can't count on the government for everything (or, quite possibly, anything), so you do it yourself. This goes from small gestures to huge movements, from sponsoring a bell-ringing santa to endowing a college fund.

There's a kind of vitality and independence there that I really like. One of the symptoms of growing up in a well-functioning social democracy (Denmark, Switzerland, etc) seems to be the ebbing of this 'let's make this happen fellas!' drive. Government will take care of you. You're hit by a bus and you keep your job, your home, your car, your kids. A friend of mine here in Copenhagen gets a monthly stipend from the government for being allergic to wheat. Because gluten-free food is more expensive. We roll our eyes at this, but there's a logic to it.

It's sort of sad to think that a generation or two of well-functioning government and social harmony might just neuter Americans of everything we like about them. It's also sad to think of the profound price we pay for our individualism. I'd trade some of that DIY urban renewal in Detroit for a government that actually addressed its failures and their impacts on the individuals picking up their trailings.

For now, though, I just keep reading great articles about the people doing their best to salvage a city out of Detroit, and cross my fingers that no one with any authority notices them.

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The ‘Precious’ problem

I just came back from seeing 'Precious':

‘Precious’ trailer

There's been an interesting debate over the film since it was released last month.

Not since ‘The Birth of a Nation’ has a mainstream movie demeaned the idea of black American life as much as ‘Precious [..] Full of brazenly racist clichés (Precious steals and eats an entire bucket of fried chicken), it is a sociological horror show.

Black pathology sells. It’s an over-the-top political fantasy that works only because it demeans blacks, women and poor people.

That's Armond White, a (black) movie reviewer for the New York Press, who seems to think that all movies about black people should have an immaculate protagonist, an unthreatening premise and a triumphant denouement.

I usually roll my eyes at this shit. Armand White is a known cinematic asshole, always the first to jump on a contrarian bandwagon. He spends most of his review attacking Oprah, Tyler Perry and the movie's director, Lee Daniels, as 'media titans' and 'a pathology pimp'. I've been reading his reviews for years, and he always pulls this shit where he judges every movie primarily on its political message. Its actual content and quality– how honest it is, how compelling it is — always come second. 

Then I saw 'Precious'.

Fuck. Did it have to be a bucket of friend chicken that Precious steals and binges on? Did her mother have to have lines like 'I only leave the house when I'm playing my numbers?' There are scenes, especially in the first half and particularly the one where her mother scams a social worker for a welfare check, that feel like they were written by an Appalachian militia.

'Precious and her mother share a Harlem hovel so stereotypical it could be a Klansman’s fantasy,' White writes. 'Fuck!' I thought, watching Precious's mother force-feed her a plate of pig's feet as retribution for forgetting the collard greens, 'he's right!'

Imagine watching a movie with an all-Native American cast, where the first 45 minutes were just characters sitting around an evergreen-wooded trailer saying things like 'I sure do love this firewater!' 'Let's make money selling roman candles!' and 'Let's scam the white man by opening a casino!' As much as I hate to admit it, that's the sort of cringe I got watching 'Precious'.

Look, I'm a left-wing, overthinky homosexual living in Denmark, for pagan-ritual's sake. I don't know any more about the black experience in Harlem in the 1980s than I do about the Welsh experience in Australia in the 1870s. I do know  stereotypes, however, and the way they get used as ammunition. It's genuinely unsettling to see them in life size, at 24 frames per second.

I fully admit that cringeyness, and Armond White's anger, come not from the movie itself, but from its failure to fulfill its obligation as Blackness Ambassador or whatever to the rest of the country. It is essentially us going, 'Egads, what will the white people think?!'

This reaction is incontrovertibly bullshit, I know. But that doesn't mean it shouldn't be taken seriously. Majorities do form their opinions of minorities based on culture. Depictions do matter, regardless of who's doing the depicting.

Minority groups spent the better part of last century fighting over the quantity of representation in mainstream culture. Now they're fighting over the quality of that representation. And that's OK.

I would be pissed if a mainstream, critically acclaimed movie depicted gays as meth-fueled promiscu-yuppies (and pissed-er, if I'm honest, if it was written or directed by heterosexuals). But at the same time, I get frustrated when the gay experience isn't depicted in all its complication and ugliness. We deserve to be just as nuanced as any other decadent, unbreeding population group.

In my mind, minority representation on film needs to be judged only on its verisimilitude. I can take welfare queens and teen pregnancy when they're in the service of something that, overall, feels true. As far as I'm concerned, 'Precious' fails not because it makes black people look bad, but because it's two dimensional and Paul Haggis-y.

Armond White sees the mother character — an almost unadulterated cinematic monster — as a blow against black people. I see it as a blow against art. Any character who literally throws a baby on the ground is no more representative of black people than Freddy Krueger is representative of Dutch-Americans.

Neither 'Precious', nor any other minority-themed film, is going to be the inspirational squeegee that finally wipes the last scum of bigotry from American society. It will be a great thing for America, and the movies, if we stop expecting them to be. 

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Prostitution and hitchhiking

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When you think about it, it's kind of silly that we don't hitchhike more in Western countries, especially the United States. The cars and roads are there. The distances are reasonable. No one is so socially disastrous that you can't make 15 minutes of small talk with them.

Yet we never consider it. Hitchhiking has become so rare that only the weirdos do it. It's taken on cultural connotations (lower-class, hippie, daisy dukes) that no respectable middle-class professional would want to be associated with. Consequently, we waste billions of petro-gallons driving empty chairs from A to B.

We've set up a series of cultural rules for ourselves that prohibit hitchhiking. We're awkward and untrusting in confined spaces with strangers. We're wary of the motives of someone who would want to take a random thumber in their car. We don't like making ourselves vulnerable, or relying on other people. We don't want to risk hearing a John Cougar Mellencamp mixtape.

We look at the cultural practices of developing countries and pull our hair out: 'These people are dying of AIDS yet they won't use condoms because they think it will dampen their manliness? Come on!' You can imagine someone walking around D.C. going, 'These people are so concerned about global warming that they'll spend thousands of dollars on local food, electric cars and building retrofits, yet they won't share their commute with strangers? Come on!' When you control for the cultural factors, we're all idiots.

That said, I'm not gonna start thumb-mmuting anytime soon. It would take hours to get anyone to pull over, and I am wary of their motives and personality. This is the world we've got. But hitchhiking is the kind of thing that governments all over the world should be encouraging, not discouraging. Practices like hitchhiking aren't inherently unsafe. They're unsafe in practice because only the fringe does them. The minute they become mainstream, the risk falls away.

I can't help thinking that prostitution somehow follows this model too. Most people would never get a prostitute  because, well, they're fucking prostitutes. The buyers and sellers of sex are a fringe group, and indeed, there are a number of risks associated with that market as its currently practiced.

But most of the seediness of prostitution really comes from its rareness and practitioners. Just like hitchhiking, the act of prostitution isn't what gives us the gishies, it's the reality of prostitution. The girls are exploited, the pimps are assholes, the brothels have lava-lamps, etc. It's not that it's immoral, necessarily, it's more that it's fucking tacky.

My generation's promiscuous as hell. We're not offended by one-night stands, or fuck-buddies, or threesomes, or any other kind of sexual hitchhiking, as long as its consensual. Yet most of us would never even consider buying or being a prostitute. In the world we've got, that's a prudent decision. But in moral terms, we should acknowledge that it's the current reality of prostitution that offends us, not the prostitution itself.

[P.S. you gotta admire this dude's candor: Why I Slept with 1,300 Women]

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The Disinformation Age

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One constant and recurring problem I have these days is trying to formulate opinions on topics that require technical or scientific knowledge I don't have.

I was reading an op-ed the other day in the New York Times where this energy consultant says more or less that 'peak oil' is bullshit. He quotes a lot of sciencey-sounding numbers and technological processes to back this up, like:

because quicker extraction causes the fluid pressure in the field to drop rapidly, the wells become less and less productive over time. But this declining return on individual wells doesn’t necessarily mean that whole fields are being cleaned out. As the Saudis have proved in recent years at Ghawar, additional investment — to find new deposits and drill new wells — can keep a field’s overall production from falling.

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In the end, perhaps the most misleading claim of the peak-oil advocates is that the earth was endowed with only 2 trillion barrels of “recoverable” oil. Actually, the consensus among geologists is that there are some 10 trillion barrels out there. A century ago, only 10 percent of it was considered recoverable, but improvements in technology should allow us to recover some 35 percent — another 2.5 trillion barrels — in an economically viable way.

Now, everything he says might be true. Or it might be unrepentant nonsense. How would I know? The only tools I have to judge the truth or bullshit of this column are his credentials ('energy consultant', let's face it, sounds pretty sketchy) and my pre-existing biases on this topic (like, that most people I know who subscribe to this 'peak oil' thing are hippietarded assholes).

So what should I do? I can't go to fucking peakoil.com or whatever, because they'll just dazzle me with a bunch of counterfactual scientific arguments that I can't understand any better than those of mister energy consultant here.

I find the same issue with a lot of political controversies these days. Global warming, health care, immigration reform, all of them require scientific or demographic knowledge that we humble laypersons don't have. So we fall back on anecdotes and partisanship.

A friend of mine recently come across the now-famous literature review that concluded that organic produce probably isn't all that much better for you than regular produce, and was amazed at the squint-eyed resistance he got from his organo-friends when he mentioned it. First they retreated to 'well that study was bullshit', as if they're in any position to say that, then further to 'well, organic produce was never about the nutritional value anyway.' This adherence in the face of counterfactual evidence, says my friend, 'isn't opinion, it's religion.'

A lot of the issues we read (and vote) about aren't moral issues like abortion, or dropping nukes, or adultery. They're technical issues: Is air pollution making our planet warmer? Is our planetary oil straw about to start making that the-milkshake-is-almost-gone sound? Was your great-great grandfather a backscratching ape?

But I keep thinking that I'm not really qualified to make judgments on these issues without fully understanding the processes behind them.

Maybe this isn't the Information Age, it's the Argument Age. We each pick a team, and then go looking for ammunition.   

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