Two post-election gripes

Donald Trump has been elected the next President of the United States, so I’ve been channeling my disappointment into irritation that people are responding negatively in ways that I don’t quite approve of. Two complaints follow.

1. The Electoral College

The calls to have electoral college delegates select Clinton because she won the popular vote set off a lot of alarm bells for me.

First, if you are advocating for this but wouldn’t make the same appeal in the event that Clinton won the EC while losing the popular vote, then your position is not principled; it’s just some thin excuse to win despite the clear rules of our democratic process. We had a fair election under conditions that everyone knew applied from the beginning. If your policy is to deny the outcome in the event that you don’t like it, then I honestly wish you would just come out and say so.

If you do believe that the delegates should choose the popular vote winner in any case, then the main point I would make is that the election isn’t a poll of public opinion happening in a vacuum. Both campaigns plan stump speeches, allocate advertising money, and craft their messages based on the electoral college. The campaigns do their best to win based on the rules, and the distribution of votes would not be the same if they valued each vote equally. We can’t just treat the ballots on November 8th as a survey of the popular will after each side had the chance to give their broadest pitches. They didn’t have the chance because they were funneling most of their resources toward winning according to the rules. For that matter, we don’t know how many dissenting voters just stayed home in states that were obviously in the bag for one party.

Whether the electoral college SHOULD be the system we use is another question. If I were writing the Constitution today, without considering the political reality of 1787 America, then I would do something else. But honestly, the electoral college doesn’t offend me that much.

The founders were terrified of a tyranny of the majority. Smaller states get more delegates in part so that rural citizens, who have less economic influence and would otherwise have less political power, receive a voice on par with those in metropolitan centers. To that extent, the EC did exactly the job it’s supposed to do this year.

The delegates were also supposed to be selected by state governments so that the candidates for the highest office in the country would be vetted by people more politically active and knowledgeable than average citizens — a provision that has been, perhaps unfortunately, done away with for all practical purposes and will never come back. If I’m not mistaken, the fact that state governments select delegates was also intended to help keep the power of the federal government in check, because it would be in the states’ interests not to elect an autocrat who would seize power from more local levels of government. Obviously, we’ve moved away from this federalist model in many ways.

(One of the reasons I’m such a stickler about federalism is the same reason so many people are afraid of Republicans controlling the presidency, both houses of Congress, and soon the Supreme Court. If you insist that people shouldn’t decide matters on the most local level of government where it’s reasonable to do so, then sooner or later you’ll be represented at the more global levels by people who are antithetical to your values. But neither party seems to respect this very much when it’s their turn to take power, so I’m not sure where to turn for a defense of federalism in practice.)

The point of all this is, I’m not so sure the EC is outrageous. If anything, it’s probably the deviations from its original vision that allowed Trump to become President-elect as much as the College itself. Political elites would never have put him in office; while I’m not sure that selection by elites would produce a better average President, I do suspect that it would produce a higher competency floor than popular election.

The primary remaining function of the Electoral College is to give disproportionate influence to people who are basically not represented in the economic and cultural powerhouses of the country (prestigious newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post, universities like Harvard and Stanford, economic centers like New York City and Silicon Valley, etc.). If there’s one thing that I think can’t be contested about this election, it’s that the people who speak for op-ed writers and established politicians are not the people who speak for the ~50% of Americans living in the majority of the country’s geographic expanse. While our system doesn’t do enough to give a voice to others, such as the large population of urban poor, this attempt to level the playing field is not entirely without merit.

Finally, the “will of the people” is not such an easy thing to clearly identify. Should we really assume that third party voters are utterly indifferent between the major candidates? Maybe we should have a runoff election? Problems with constructing “fair” election rules multiply like the heads of Hydra, and at the end of the day all we can really do is pick a system and stick by it.

2. The American Physical Society

The American Physical Society issued a press release congratulating Trump on his election, which included the text:

“APS urges President-elect Trump to incorporate the necessary policies that will enable our great nation to reclaim its scientific leadership, which it has lost during the past decade. APS believes that such policies will help the Trump administration achieve its goal captured by its slogan, ‘Make America Great Again.’

According to the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, the United States ranks just 10th overall in innovation, ‘largely because its innovation-supporting policies, such as funding scientific research, are lower than those of other countries.'”

Predictably, there was outrage and the APS retracted the statement. Nothing was issued in its place except an apology.

Is the American Physical Society supposed to pretend like Trump isn’t going to be the President? Should it also pretend that Republicans aren’t going to control both houses of Congress?

Science funding in the years to come is not going to be dirtied by Trump’s signature to the federal budget; it will be payed for by taxes as it always has been. Nor is it virtuous to shut out lines of communication with people on whom the continued existence of scientific progress depends (whether we like that or not).

Appealing to common interests does not denote an endorsement of Trump’s statements about climate change or vaccines. The mission of the Trump administration need not be antithetical to the mission of the scientific community down to every last detail.

The APS is nominally a non-partisan organization. That doesn’t mean it should look the other way about things that harm science, scientists, or the broader society. It does mean that it should put political grandstanding aside when that does not advance its advocacy.

I hope the APS issues statements about Trump’s science advisor, his public comments about scientific issues, his proposals to immigration reform as they might significantly impact researchers, and so on. I don’t want them to pander, because then they couldn’t do any good! At the same time, in order to fill the important role of positive advocacy (rather than condemnations only), they have to be committed to finding some common goals with the people who control 75% of science funding. (Note that “control 75% of science funding” ~ “control 75% of science.” We may not be happy about it, but I can guarantee you I wouldn’t show up for work if I didn’t get payed and couldn’t buy equipment, and I bet my colleagues wouldn’t, either.)

The common thread

What riles me up about these two cases is seeing people whom I would like to be allied with giving up on basic principles in favor of denial and anger. To suggest changing the rules of a fair election after the fact is horrifying, as many on the left observed when Trump was the one talking about it. And to silence ourselves in order to avoid addressing Republicans will only allow them to achieve their most wrong-headed goals without compromise. We can neither bypass nor ignore the system. There is no better world; there’s only a better version of the one we’ve got.

Against verbal substitution

When I was in middle and high school, my friends and I used the word “gay” a lot. (Actually, I tended to use cleaner language than most of my peers and I don’t recall saying it myself. But it’s a near-certainty that I did on occasion.) Playing Garou, Mark of the Wolves: “that combo is so gay.” Complaining about homework: “This assignment is gay.” The considered opinion about a friend having to stay in on a school night: “That’s gay.”

I’m glad that we grew out of this phase. It’s just so boring. Of course it is, because it’s adolescent, and adolescent sensibilities are unsophisticated. But there was something irreplaceable about our use of that word. It’s not an overstatement to say that the character of my childhood would have been different without it.

What I could never quite explain to those who objected to this was that “gay” meant something unique. You cannot eliminate that word without forbidding someone from expressing a certain sentiment.

People have suggested saying “lame” or “stupid” instead, but those do not mean the same thing. My facility with language isn’t sufficient to explain the nuances here, but I believe the difference between “gay” and “lame” is that the latter is usually out of touch, while the former is closer to “unfair”. Dad jokes are lame, but not gay. (Example dad joke found by quick googling: “On all of my medical forms growing up my dad wrote ‘red’ for my blood type. To this day, no one knows my actual blood type.”) A 10:00 PM park curfew is gay, but not lame. There are cases where either could apply, but like almost any pair of words, they do not have full overlap. The important point is that replacing a word necessarily means forbidding the meaning that someone originally intended to express.

If this isn’t convincing, consider that people also object to “lame” on similar grounds. If we replace “gay” by “lame,” and “lame” by “stupid,” and “stupid” by “silly” — all transcriptions that people have written impassioned articles to advocate for — then can you still really believe that we’re saying the same thing in the end?

It’s a perfectly respectable position that the costs of people using “gay” in a derogatory sense outweigh the benefit of being able to express that particular adolescent dismissal. But we ought to be clear on what we’re doing, and that is not just language policing. It’s meaning policing, because language is how we convey meaning. And the the cost-benefit case for disallowing people to express certain meanings should require a very high burden of proof.

(That said, I wholly endorse “tabooing” words so that people have to clarify their meaning during a discussion. One of my book groups has tabooed “interesting” because that word was allowing us to be too non-specific about what engages us. I’ve found the same trick helpful for discussions about religion and morality, among other things. This should not be confused with a claim that no one should ever say “interesting,” or “God,” or “right.”)

I’ll give one example where this kind of language seems particularly indispensable. When discussing physics education research with Starburst, he proposed that social factors are too neglected by some pedagogy theory. His example pertains to the “clicker” fad from around the time we started college. These are devices that allow you to register multiple choice answers during a lecture. The professor might put up a slide, for example, that says “The acceleration of a freely falling body: (a) increases with mass, (b) decreases with mass, (c) is independent of mass.” You click a button on a remote for (a), (b), or (c), and the distribution of student responses updates on the projector in real time. This is supposed to keep students actively engaged and tick some other ticky boxes that teaching research has found ought to be ticked. But in both our experiences, it doesn’t work because clicking those buttons…well, it’s just so lame. You can dress that up in more mature language, but doing so will obscure the experience of the 17- and 18-year-old students in those classes, which could have significant consequences.

[Starburst does not necessarily endorse any of this post, including my interpretation of this conversation from probably three years ago.]

So do we say “gay” in a derogatory manner or not? Personally, I haven’t had the slightest temptation to do so for many years. It’s not very useful to me because I don’t want to express what it means, and that’s because I don’t have the unserious, cynical disposition of a teenage boy. But if someone does feel compelled to say it, my recommendation is that we help them understand all of its meanings first. They should know that it can be hurtful. They should know that it is rarely beneficial to express what it means. They should know how to use more specific words when they have something more specific to say. They should know these things just like they should know them about “fuck.” Then if they decide that it’s what they mean to say and they feel the need to say it, we should hear them out in the language where they can most naturally express their perspective.

We are all single-issue voters

One of the things I love about social choice theory is the radical perspective on politics afforded when you regard democracy not as a moral duty or pragmatic arrangement, but as a map from a set of votes to a set of winners. We can then ask, what properties might we like this map to have, and what additional constraints are imposed on the map by those properties? If the map cannot simultaneously have every property we would like to impose, which should we regard as the most important to preserve? Is some map preferable in a special case than the one we prefer for the general case? All the psychology and morality are taken out, but the questions still feel so human. Continue reading

Isn’t it time?

[Content note: one-year retrospective on a breakup. If you are any of the people who broke up with me a year ago, you’re still welcome to read this as long as you know what you’re getting into. I also discuss facts about my relationship with sexuality (respecting others’ privacy, of course) that some people might conceivably be embarrassed for me upon reading. On second thought, everything in this post might be pretty embarrassing.]

I.

It’s said that you can’t logic yourself out of something that you didn’t logic yourself into, and that is indeed the case. For people with my temperament, it’s an observation that deserves forceful and frequent repetition. Even more so—and this is the ultimate tragedy of the human condition, in case you were wondering—it must be said that you can’t logic yourself into something that another person didn’t logic themselves out of. Continue reading

Reflections on a brief span of giving

I.

A few minutes ago, a woman approached me for donations to a charity that supports the local deaf community. Such events in life are always awkward, but this had the potential to be doubly, nay, triply so. For at that very moment, I was staring at the confirmation page to donate to Captain Awkward herself.

My choice was between giving money to a woman who writes a funny advice column on the Internet so she can buy some fancy cheese, on the one hand, and giving to people whose fundamental quality of life could perhaps be substantially improved with my contribution on the other. I had chosen the former, and I knew it.

The woman in front of me only brought that knowledge into the open. She didn’t need to see my browser window to challenge my priorities. I’m happy to say that I faced the challenge with resolve: I told her that I couldn’t help, and then I sent some of my hard-earned money to a lady I don’t know in Chicago. Continue reading

Book review: The Thirty-Six Lessons of Vivec [5/5]

Everything in life is about metaphysics except metaphysics. Metaphysics is about power.

I.

“These ideals are not going to change in nature, even though they may change in representation.” -Sermon Eighteen

My favorite book right now is an ancient eastern religious legend. It’s full of striking imagery, engaging narrative, and complex metaphysics. Unwrapping its layered meanings requires several passes and an openness to associative—arguably even loose—judgment. Unsurprisingly, its full significance can only be understood with a context that is not contained entirely within the text, and I don’t have the background or time to make all of the connections that would have been more apparent to its original, intended audience. On each new read-through, however, I learn a little more. The story is divided into sermons collectively known as The Thirty-Six Lessons of Vivec, the eponymous character being the god whose legend lies at the center of the narrative thread and who allegedly passed the text down to his people, the Velothi.

Of all religious books, it’s hard to say why this one in particular has drawn me in. The translation I’ve been reading by Michael Kirkbride is mostly in prose, but T.S. Eliot’s aphorism that “genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood” seems to still apply. The mystical style and overtly-contradictory content suggest a depth that, on closer inspection, rarely turns out to be specious. Even the few sermons that first appear straight-forward reveal themselves to be subversively didactic.

It’s also relevant that no one currently practices the religion, so it’s easier for me to read the text as literature or allegory rather than a collection of preposterous claims that actual people believe to be true. While trusting in the underlying truth of scripture motivates religious practitioners to hunt down and absorb the significance of canonical texts, as an atheist, knowing that no one else takes a particular doctrine seriously enables me to evaluate it on its own terms.

However, there are many other extinct religious mythologies, and I’ve never been so engaged by any of them. Ovid’s Metamorphoses, for example, struck me as remarkably stale, with the same basic templates repeated ad boredom. The Lessons, on the other hand—whatever they might be—are never uncreative. Continue reading

Giving what we will

The effective altruism (EA) movement is still small, but I see what must be a disproportionate amount of discussion about it. Some of this comes from friends on Facebook, some comes from Scott Alexander at Slate Star Codex, and some comes most recently from Ozy Frantz at Thing of Things.

For those who don’t know about EA, the first few sentences of its Wikipedia article will be a good enough introduction: “Effective altruism is a philosophy and social movement which applies evidence and reason to determining the most effective ways to improve the world. Effective altruists consider all causes and actions, and then act in the way that brings about the greatest positive impact. It is this broad evidence-based approach that distinguishes effective altruism from traditional altruism or charity.”

Some of the discussion I see is about straightforward in-group concerns: which charities do the most good per dollar, how can we compare investments that are high-risk-high-reward against those that are low-risk-low-reward, etc. A remarkable amount of discussion, on the other hand, is about spreading the word. How do we get more people interested in charity? How do we get people who already donate to charity to exercise more discretion about what their donations achieve? How can we tell people that we give 10% or more of our income to charities without them getting defensive? And so on.

These latter questions are very important. One of the EA hubs is Giving What We Can (GWWC), which encourages people to pledge 10% of their income toward effective charities. Each additional pledge is a huge win in terms of human impact. GWWC claims that 10% of my annual (graduate student!) income would be expected to save a human life in the hands of a high-impact charity. They currently have only 670 members.

This post serves a couple of distinct purposes: first, it describes two new proposals that might get more people to donate to charity; second, it’s an announcement of my own intention to follow one of those proposals.

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Are we there yet?

[Content warning: Reflections on a recent breakup. Especially if you were party to said breakup, you should figure out whether you want to read my reflections before continuing. As far as I’m concerned, I wouldn’t post this here if I weren’t okay with certain people reading it.]

I.

When my girlfriend Ruby and I broke up after about four and a half years of dating, I was told by a friend of a friend that her friend says that it takes one month of being single for every year of the relationship to get over it. (There’s a formula! Time goes in, time goes out!) So around the beginning of month four, I started thinking about how my recovery process would look in the light of this maximally-authoritative maxim.

By then, I was working on a proposal deadline, had a week-long out-of-town conference, and had just found out that I needed to find a place to live in another state, so now I’m just in time for a reflection on the five-month mark instead.

Still, I can’t do a very good job of answering whether I’m over it yet. What would that even mean? Here are some trial answers:

  1. I am at a level of risk indistinguishable from zero of harming myself or others.
  2. I enjoy many of the things that I do.
  3. I routinely perform tasks at a significant fraction of my best, and sometimes perform at my best.
  4. I am interested in dating other people and excited about the prospect of a healthy new relationship or set of relationships.
  5. The breakup has not significantly damaged my sense of self-worth.

On the other hand, what would it mean for me to not be over it? Again, some trial answers:

  1. I think about Ruby every day.
  2. Though I don’t get sad every time I think about her, I do get sad at least one of the times that I think about her each day.
  3. The thought of running into her makes me physically uncomfortable in a way that seems associated with some combination of anxiety and terror.
  4. I routinely have dreams about her, which I usually experience as being unpleasant.
  5. Our breakup has significantly compromised the sense of narrative coherence I had for my life.

Maybe this ambiguity is intentional. When people ask me, “do you think you’re over it” or “are you okay,” they want me to be comfortable answering however specifically or vaguely I want. The problem is that it is always uncomfortable for me to communicate imprecisely, and even the answers that lie deeply within “answering specifically” territory still feel so vague and general as to be completely misleading. So whereas I probably ought to say, “I don’t understand what the question means, and in any case, I’d rather not answer it right now even though I appreciate the concern,” I mostly just feel confused and unsure of how to respond. This is no less true when I’m the one asking the question.

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Typical Mind Fallacy and Falsifiability

Or, I see your point and raise an objection. Bridge is way more fun than poker so why aren’t we playing it already?

I.

I used to spend a lot of evenings listening to music and walking my dog, usually passing through a park near my mom’s house. The park is two blocks long, with a makeshift baseball field on one side and a pool on the other. There is a large playground near the pool and a small area with picnic tables where I often went to write poetry at night. The openness of the middle area of the park is interrupted only by a large tree slightly askew from the center.

I felt a profound sense of connection there, both to the natural world it seemed to reveal in the sky and scattered foliage, and to the human society that had embedded the place as a kind of temple within the collective home of its city. The altar for me was the the isolated tree near the center, whose crooked branches evoke pity and whose tangible motion of rising seems to demand awe. Its thickest branch, beginning relatively low on its tall trunk but still too high to reach, juts away from the rest in an unreasonable and determined manner inspiring respect. There have been many nights in my life when I looked at that tree and saw it as a representation of the human ideal.

One night I was listening to Vivaldi’s Gloria, a piece that begins in that simple, sweeping, celebratory way that can be almost embarrassing, but which develops into something disarmingly earnest and meditative. My path to the park dropped me off at the middle and I paused to look at the full moon and my tree, not quite straight ahead.

After a while, I began to see indistinct faces appear in the moon. None of them were familiar, and with time they would each morph, one into the next. Every time I blinked, a cross-shaped flash of light raced from the moon and every street light, then retreated back just as quickly. I didn’t think about it much; I just stood there, kept watching, and felt the deepest peace I’ve ever known. About half an hour later, I went home and prayed for the only time in my life that I can remember.

The next day, I was in a state of bliss. And the day after that. And again.

For the next two or three weeks, I perceived a clarity that enabled me to remain unperturbed by all of the usual stresses that lay along the routine of my blandly stressful life. It was what I imagine is meant by an experience of grace.

The clarity that I perceived has largely been lost on me, but its most important feature was the conviction that I was in control of my own mind. Whenever I noticed impatience, irritability, or frustration beginning to creep in on me, I would ask whether that reaction was constructive. Each time, I concluded that it wasn’t, so I would turn it off. I tried to explain this to my friends and none of them believed me, assuming that what I was describing was repression. I viewed it instead as a conscious decision not to accept unproductive burdens.

Pretty soon it was as hard for me to understand other people’s reactions to experiences as it was for them to understand mine. I remember talking to a friend who expressed embarrassment about something, and I asked her whether she thought the feeling of embarrassment was useful. She said “no,” and I asked her why she didn’t stop feeling it. (The observant reader will notice what a complete asshat I was being, but I urge him to postpone this topic until sections III and IV.)

At some point, I let the clarity slip. There was something unpleasant and I wasn’t sure whether it was constructive or not to feel bad about it, so I left it alone. After that, I was pretty much back to my ordinarily-stoic self.

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