I kind of like trigger warnings

[Trigger warning: trigger warnings]

Confession time: I actually kind of like trigger warnings.

A little over a year ago there was a flurry of media attention around trigger warnings, hardly any of it kind. Warnings heralded the death of academic freedom and represented everything that was wrong with America’s coddled youth, etc., and I bought into it for a bit until I read an argument for them.

I could … imagine good people using trigger warnings to increase their ability to read things that challenge their views. Suppose you are a transgender person who becomes really uncomfortable when you hear people insult transgender people. Gradually you learn that a lot of people outside the social justice community do this a lot, so you stop reading anything outside the social justice community, forget about genuinely rightist sources like National Review or American Conservative. Now suppose sources start trigger warning their content. Most right-wing arguments don’t insult transgender people, so all of a sudden you have a way to steer clear of the ones that do and read all of the others free from fear.

I wasn’t totally convinced by the argument in that post last year, but after regularly visiting places on the interwebs that use content warnings, and seeing how it makes navigating the web more of an enjoyable experience, I’m pretty much converted. There’s still a lot of handwringing over academic freedom — oh hey, Politico and “trigger culture” — and spoiled kids and GREAT LITERATURE IS DEAD!!! but there’s something to be said for politely warning your readers what they’re in for.

This is because the sheer amount of upsetting things on the internet. Writers focus on misogyny, rape, and race, but that’s only a small part of it — I’ve been reading about evolution and genetics lately, and sometimes come across discussions of infanticide. Like look, I’m not a prude, but sometimes I’m just not in the mood to read about evolutionary health and dead babies, yeah? I might even save it for later when I feel more like reading something like that. I imagine most people have strong reactions to discussion of at least some topic, and it’s a nice gesture by the writer to warn the reader.

It also keeps me from crossing certain sites off my list (except for Gawker et al sorry Gawker et al) because I know that I’ll get to choose what I see.

On Horses

Today American Pharoah will try for the Triple Crown. I wish I could’ve been there but am in Boston this week.

In honor, here are a few excerpts from a couple of my favorite books, not just on horses, but period.

Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses:

What he loved in horses was what he loved in men, the blood and the heat of the blood that ran them.

Finally he said that among men there was no such communion as among horses and the notion that men can be understood at all was probably an illusion.

John Jeremiah Sullivan, Blood Horses:

We are no longer frightened of nature; what frightens us is the idea that we have triumphed over nature, and what that triumph will mean in the long run, when we understand, too late, that we were nature, that our triumph has been a suicide. This is what the unbroken horse symbolizes now: the strange power of that which is both defenseless and indispensable, that which exists by our leave but without whose existence we would change, become something less than what we are.

Century after century, we have prosecuted our insane conflicts from atop their backs, resting on their sturdy necks when we grew weary, eating their flesh when we were starving, disemboweling them and crawling inside their bodies when we were freezing.

The Nail Salon Exposè Was Fascinating, But It Shouldn’t Be Surprising

If you haven’t read The Price of Nice Nails yet, you should. It’s a fascinating look at the exploitation and racism in the immigrant communities that revolve around us, touching our sphere when we need cheap services. The story is also a great look into the modern economy of New York City.

But one thing it wasn’t: surprising.

Particularly that part about racism. (Q: What was the biggest surprise in your reporting? A: by Sarah Nir, the reporter who wrote the story: The racism.)

I’m trying to wrap my mind around why the racism would be surprising. I mean, human history 101, okay:

  • 200,000 years ago the first homo sapiens appear. 130,000 years of small groups, relying on ingroup and fearing the outgroup because life depended on it.
  • 70,000 years ago cognitive revolution. emergence of fictive language allowed us to talk about non-concrete stuff and create non-concrete identities. so groups became a little larger. still, though, family and immediate community = protection.
  • 12,000 years ago agricultural revolution. settled down, larger communities, but still very dangerous, and a lot of fighting between larger groups for thousands of years.
  • 200 years ago industrial revolution, where markets replaced family and community. unprecedented stability and prosperity.

So for the vast majority of human history outgroup = bad (death) and ingroup = good. And still today, ethnic identity remains the strongest type of identity for people in most countries.

Against that background, people with histories who’ve hated each other and fought for hundreds of years (say, the Chinese and Japanese, or Koreans) come to New York City … and we’re shocked that they consider each other inferior races? It also doesn’t take being that close to some of these communities to hear a lot of skepticism and hate expressed about other races.

I’m wondering if another reason people find this surprising has something to do with the belief that reverse racism isn’t a thing, or at least that white people are the only people who can be racist. The way I understand this theory is that racism is structural: an act of violence against a white person by a community of Hispanics who do not like white people isn’t racism — it’s just plain old violence, because the system is on the side of the person they killed. (Is that right?)

Which, okay, fine, but if you’re going to try and strong-arm the dictionary to include something about structure under the definition for racism, you’re going to have to find another term for whatever-it-is when a Korean person calls a Chinese person a dirty dog and makes her eat separately at work without a place to sit.

Structures get really messy really soon, because as I understand them, they are largely historical. But history is really really messy and it’s not clear where the structure should be in that relationship. Within China, too, there is a hierarchy — for a great (but heartbreaking) read, look at Atticus Lish’s new novel Preparation for the Next Life about the first love of a girl from Xinjiang come to Flushing. It is remarkably accurate in its depiction of the city, and it isn’t pretty.  

There are other sad parts of the original piece in the New York Times, and the dirt wages are one of them. But still, they’re not new. They exist at restaurants and other places all across the city. Workers don’t complain because many of them don’t know they can, or they are illegal and they have zero political or other capital.

And even if they were legal, what would be the incentive to jeopardize a $60 a day job when there’s a chance you could be making nothing and be forced back to where you came from or worse? There is none.

I don’t think the situation of extremely low wages is going away any time soon. Hundreds of thousands of people in this city are willing to work for very little because they have no other options. No government organization (no, not even NYCs Dept of Labor) is powerful enough to stop it — they’d have to be laughably large to begin with, and even then, constant monitoring of every transaction between employer and employee is impossible. There are simply too many ways to get around the system and the incentives are too screwy.

Disclosure: I worked on the Times’ project for a few days before quitting; my Chinese wasn’t good enough, I’d just had a baby, and I was trying (but mostly failing) to do a master’s degree. 

A Defense of Knausgaard (Gun to My Head)

The work of Karl Ove Knausgaard fascinates me, but not in a way that compels me to defend his work. That’s different than for most of the authors I admire — DOSTOEVSKY! EVERYBODY SHOULD JUST READ DOSTOEVSKY OKAY?!

I mean, Knausgaard is the guy who wrote 3,000 pages about his own, not-that-significant life, and called it My Struggle. And he’s the guy who wrote not one, but two several-thousand-word pieces in the New York Times Magazine, which were in theory about traveling to see the area that his Scandinavian forbearers settled in Minnesota, but were actually about him taking an ill-fated dump in a hotel and about fat Canadians and the like. Telling your friends you’re really into a guy like this isn’t a good way to earn their respect.

But who cares about respect?

In that spirit, here’s what I’d say if somebody really wanted me to defend Knausgaard.

He’s one of the most unpretentious writers I know. It might seem a bit counterintuitive, being that he really only seems to care what’s going on in his head, but who else would have the balls to say, “You know what Times? I’m going to write it like it is.”

It was liberating to see how small and insignificant each separate part of this history was, compared with our notions about its grandness. It felt liberating, because that is what the world is really like, full of insignificant trifles that we use to blunder on as best we can, one by one, whether we happen to be 19th-century immigrants building a log cabin in some forest glade, cold and miserable, longing to sit motionless for a few hours in front of the fire; or a local museum director in a Norwegian children’s sweater; or a crafty Swede, carving runes into a stone and burying it in a field in an attempt to change world history. Or for that matter, an inept Norwegian writer who has spent 10 days on assignment in the U.S. without discovering anything, apart from this.

He’s self-deprecating to a fault. But he writes what is in his head, and the reader can tell how close he is to it — how he’s just willing to put it out there. He has these grand thoughts about the beauty and tradition of Russian Orthodoxy compared to the American plastickiness of Christianity, then he totally shrugs it off and says he’s wrong. There are no language games, no post-modern cleverisms — the guy shoots straight.

knausAnd on a separate but related thread, he writes about things as they actually happen. That’s kind of a horrible thing for a magazine. Narrative storytelling is inherently manipulative … but to read about how things really unfolded — and in a way that I completely sympathize with, in the sense of all that self-doubt and angst and whatever along with the mundane details — is not only novel, it’s refreshing.

Finally, a lot of what he does is actually really beautiful. If I’d picked up Book III of My Struggle and started in the middle, I might not be having to order the next book from the UK because the American version comes out weeks later. But I didn’t; I started with Book I, and to begin there’s this beautiful essay about death, and in a certain section he asks why it is that, if somebody died during a movie showing, we don’t just finish the show — why does death terrify us? I mean, granted: a lot of these essays are sprinkled in among thousands of pages of him changing diapers, fighting with his wife, thinking about his father. But at times it’s really good, and can even be great.

And even for the rest of that stuff, there’s something to be said for the reckless abandon of the work over the careful precision of a novel or memoir. Most of the time I would prefer the latter, sure, but like with Proust the guy is just going somewhere, and you feel compelled to go, because you’re in somebody’s head, and, surprise!, that experience turns out to be really normal, but, still, you’re actually in somebody else’s head who happens to be really thought-provoking. And though putting it this way makes it sound like I’m toking it in between paragraphs, reading Knausgaard can actually be a really compelling experience, in that you’re following along with his diary, caring about what he cares about, recognizing yourself as a kid, feeling that same insecurity. It’s a different kind of beauty, and a different kind of literature, but at its best it is wonderful.

Does overcoming death mean the end of mass medicine?

“For the first time in history, if I’m rich enough, maybe I don’t have to die.” — Yuval Harari

Earlier I wrote about artificial intelligence and quoted Yuval Harari to the effect that intelligence is very good at specialization. But what does that mean for medicine?

In the 21st century, there is a good chance that most humans will lose, they are losing, their military and economic value. This is true for the military, it’s done, it’s over. The age of the masses is over. We are no longer in the First World War, where you take millions of soldiers, give each one a rifle and have them run forward. And the same thing perhaps is happening in the economy. Maybe the biggest question of 21st century economics is what will be the need in the economy for most people in the year 2050.

And once most people are no longer really necessary, for the military and for the economy, the idea that you will continue to have mass medicine is not so certain. Could be. It’s not a prophecy, but you should take very seriously the option that people will lose their military and economic value, and medicine will follow.

People will lose economic value. Does that mean that medicine will no longer be for the masses — that it will try to extend the lives (perhaps even infinitely) of those who have economic value only?

I’m a bit skeptical, but I’m not sure why. There’s already inequality in terms of outcomes, and treatment, presumably — paralleling income inequality is life expectancy inequality, and lifespan has increased for only the upper class over the last few years.

That’s already sort of troubling — if that trend continues, it’s almost as if inequality is biological, and that’s a vicious cycle. As much as we talk about overcoming poverty or changing economic policy, you can’t really overcome genes that will kill you prematurely.

Treating death as a disease to be overcome is revolutionary, and that’s a large part of what attracted Google in their attempt to overcome death. I think this is the wrong way to look at it, but as Harari says, next generation there could be a breakthrough, then the next would be starting with more, and then what? Or five or seventeen generations? At that point, I think it’d be safe to say that those with no economic value wouldn’t be privy to that particular form of technology (just as they’re often not able to afford the best in medicine now).

There may have to be a revolution in our way of thinking in order for us to detach meaningful value from work. Like a basic income guarantee, but a basic value guarantee, where each person is promised, say, 65 years of life (and medicine ensures that) and is given enough to subsist on and treated like any other sapien. And maybe my hope for non-economic value is what’s making me skeptical that the era of mass medicine is over.

Robots Want My Job, and They’ll Probably Get It.

I don’t usually make predictions, but I’m reasonably confident that my job can be done by a robot in the near future. 

It’s not that I’m especially bad at my job, or that my job is easy. It’s just that technology will replace most jobs, and there are already bots that can compose sentences, and I don’t see any reason why this particular innovation will stop short of most journalism.

If you haven’t yet seen the discussion between Daniel Kahneman (Nobel-winning social psychologist) and Yuval Noah Harari (author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind), you should take a look. There’s a lot of big things in there, but here’s the relevant part: 

There are a zillion things that the taxi driver can do and the self-driving car cannot. But the problem is that from a purely economic perspective, we don’t need all the zillion things that the taxi driver can do. I only need him to take me from point A to point B as quickly and as cheaply as possible. And this is something a self-driving car can do better, or will be able to do better very quickly.

And when you look at it more and more, for most of the tasks that humans are needed for, what is required is just intelligence, and a very particular type of intelligence, because we are undergoing, for thousands of years, a process of specialization, which makes it easier to replace us. To build a robot that could function effectively as a hunter-gatherer is extremely complex. You need to know so many different things. But to build a self-driving car, or to build a “Watson-bot” that can diagnose disease better than my doctor, this is relatively easy. 

And this is where we have to take seriously, the possibility that even though computers will still be far behind humans in many different things, as far as the tasks that the system needs from us are concerned, most of the time computers will be able to do better than us. 

My job wasn’t really supposed to be replaceable (at least, in grad school nobody told me it was, and grad school is expensive, so…). But look at this recent quiz from the Times. I’d be willing to bet you won’t be able to tell with total accuracy which passages were written by a bot and which ones by a human — and there’s only eight questions.

It’s a little unfair, yeah: for starters the bot-composed newspaper sentences are formulaic. But computers can do poetry, too. Journalism, the best of it, can be beautiful, introspective, moving, argumentative. I get all that, I really do. There’s no difference in category here though: beauty is replicable, and so is argument and emotion. I think that software, in the future, could express skepticism in writing when it is given a claim, and learn how to give different weight to conflicting ideas.

But I don’t think computers have to fully do these things. They need to do it just enough for it to make economic sense to employers, to convince those who pay that a cheaper, maybe slightly duller version makes more economic sense than the real thing. That’s true for taxi-drivers, but it’s also true for attorneys, businesspeople, and even doctors (more on that last one later, I hope).

I don’t know the timing of any of this. It could be twenty, or a hundred years off, maybe much more, but computers will be able to do what you do, only more efficiently, without asking for raises and having babies and doing all of those other pesky things employees do.

Is Your Core Self Built on Lies?

There’s been a lot of speculation over whether Brian Williams was a “victim” of his memory — was he lying about being on a helicopter in Iraq that was shot down a dozen years ago, or does the version of events in his head actually differ from reality?

If the latter seems far-fetched, consider that there are a whole lot of events in your head that you’re cold wrong about. Williams could very well be lying (and being in a chopper under fire would seem like a pretty monumental event), but the brain is far less like a recorder and much more like an interpreter.

So point of all this: reading up on the controversy, I was reminded of an exceptional short story by a guy with sort of a nerdy, speculative-fiction reputation … insofar as he’s got a reputation at all, because far too few people read him. But his name is Ted Chiang, and the story is a fictional essay about a piece of software in the future called Remem.

Remem is basically an advanced search tool. Many people record their entire lives with something like advanced Google Glass, and Remem can search conversations and events from that record. So say you’re thinking about that time your dad took you to McDonald’s for ice cream to make things up to you, and all you have to do is say, “Remember dad, at McDonald’s with ice cream” and Remem brings up the video in your field of vision.

And it’s not only for use when speaking with someone else; Remem also monitors your subvocalizations. If you read the words “the first Szechuan restaurant you ate at,” your vocal cords will move as if you’re reading aloud, and Remem will bring up the relevant video.

So the essay revolves around a single event, a fight with the author’s daughter. And using Remem, the author finds that things weren’t at all how he’d remembered them.

Here’s the line I thought of when Williams came up:

“I am here to tell you that you have made more than you think, that some of the core assumptions on which your self-image is built are actually lies. Spend some time using Remem, and you’ll find out.”

Oh — and did I mention it’s free and you can read it online right now?

The Lost Art: The Life of a Professional Whistler

The Lost Art

 

There is, a Google search reveals, no shortage of odd jobs: armpit sniffers, dog food tasters, etc. But there are also jobs out there that retain their oddity but are much more, let’s just say, refined. I think a professional whistler is one of those. My colleague found Steve Herbst and together we filmed his story.

He’s worn a lot of hats lately, but the one he likes the most — that fits him best — is being a whistler. He grew up around music lovers but shunned instruments for something that he could always take with him. His incessant practicing doesn’t seem to have won him a lot of friends, but if nothing else it’s turned him in to a very good musician. I’ll be posting links soon.