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?

Can Conservatism be Beautiful?

I’m not sure, or at least I wasn’t sure until I read the first two volumes of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle (yes, that is meant to be provocative, as in Min Kampf; the guy is from Norway and has written six autobiographical tomes that are often maddening with their details of common life but break out into beautiful passages and asides just often enough to make it worth reading). He’s very controversial in the Scandinavialands.

All that aside, I’m wanting to do a book review for a magazine on how he makes skepticism beautiful. Skepticism — the classical kind and not the authoritarian kind pitched by scientologists — is the basis for conservatism, and thus one of conservatism’s challenges is to remain relevant and progressive in the best senses of those two words. But its strengths are that it is based firmly in a sort of earthly reality, taking into account the limits of knowledge and human experience. That description doesn’t sound very beautiful, so here’s at least one passage in Knaus. that I think does a good job.

He’s on vacation to Norway (he’d been living in Sweden), takes a walk outside and notices everything around him: the clear sky, the wet green fields, the trees lining the towering mountains. Enter soliloquy here:

This was beyond our comprehension. We might believe that our world embraced everything, we might do our thing down here on the beach, drive around in our cars, phone each other and chat, visit one another, eat and drink and sit indoors imbibing the faces and opinions and the fates of those appearing on the TV screen in this strange, semi-artificial symbiosis we inhabited and lull ourselves for longer and longer, year upon year, into thinking that was all there was, but if on the odd occasion we were to raise our gaze to this, the only possible thought was one of incomprehension and impotence, for in fact how small and trivial was the world we allowed ourselves to be lulled by? Yes, of course, the dramas we saw were magnificent, the images we internalized sublime and sometimes also apocalyptic, but be honest, slaves, what part did we play in them?

So, slaves, what think ye? Am I too far off base here, or is this doable?

Why Ben Carson is Wrong About Tithing and the Old Testament

Ben Carson, who spoke here last year, has become a new conservative folk hero. There is a lot that can be said about him & his recent speech in Washington, but I think one point merits closer attention, and that is his belief that the Bible itself offers justification for a flat tax rate because of its injunction to tithe at a set percentage. Here’s the problem with that view, though:

The tithe as in the Bible isn’t just by virtue of being in the Bible; and even if it were, it wouldn’t mean that it could be justly imposed on contemporary society by governmental policy.

The first point, I think, should be fairly obvious: lots of things aren’t just in the Old Testament. For starters, a righteous man was commanded to flay (seriously—flay; as in burnt-offering flay) his son. There is enough death to put Moroni at ease, then there is that fairly troubling command in 1 Samuel 15:2-3 to “kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey” as if killing the people and the children wouldn’t have been enough—to add to the innocent blood of the infant the blood of the sheep to make sure desecration and destruction has taken its full toll. Then there are all of the special covenants that, even perhaps in a religious setting, people have a hard time making sense of, but that become incomprehensible in a contemporary political setting. When the injunction to tithe was given it wasn’t given with a justice claim.

All of this is to say that these things weren’t fair or just by virtue of their inclusion in the OT. The typical justification for said unjust “Heavenly Distributive Schemes”—to put it nicely—is that God had his reasons, which is I suppose satisfying enough for some, but one must also concede the point that from a societal & political standpoint these things are still very much unjust. If not, very few moral or human right claims make sense, and terrifying is the person who did not concede the point.

The second point is perhaps less obvious, but it shouldn’t be. Take the following two people and their accompanying salaries:

A: $20,000

B: $100,000

Assuming a 10% tithe, A must pay $2,000 and B $10,000. So the question is this: does the $10,000 mean more to B than the $2,000 does to A? And, ceteris paribus, I think you’d have to say that the $2,000 is much more valuable to A. Presumably, much of As earnings go towards essentials—health care, food, minimal housing, etc.—than does Bs, which, say, goes towards a family vacation. Prima facie, I don’t think a flat rate is fair at all—it certainly seems to be much more lenient to the wealthier solely by virtue of it being flat.

None of this, of course, is to say that a sufficient justificatory scheme is impossible; it may very well be, but it isn’t found in the Old Testament.

Ethics For Sale: Hugh Nibley is Somewhere Crying

In China it is possible, Michael Sandel writes in his new book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, to hire the Tianjin Apologizing Company to apologize on your behalf to that person you can’t bring yourself to even speak to. This sort of thinking–made possible by the crowding out of actual values to market ones–belies a certain attitude that I think is at the very least troubling: namely, that everything is for sale. Because some things clearly aren’t, or at least shouldn’t be.

So, naturally, it was a bit unsettling seeing this sign at the business school–essentially seeing something that should have intrinsic value trying to be given an extrinsic incentive. There is no value, belief, tradition, or whatever that won’t respond to money, or so the economists & the folks at the WSJ think. But in a rare moment of insight, Jonathan Long of the WSJ had this to say about the standard economic view:

“This is a depressingly reductive view of the human experience. Men will die for God or country, kinship or land. No one ever picked up a rifle and got shot for optimal social utility. Economists cannot account for this basic fact of humanity. Yet they have assumed a role in society that for the past 4,000 years has been held by philosophers and theologians. They have made our lives freer and more efficient. And we are the poorer for it.”


Violence, Part I: Nature Devouring

I hope this to be the first of two not-so-focused essays on violence.]

In a vein not usually explored by people with normal jobs I’ve found an interesting parallel between a passage in Mencius and one in the Old Testament. The biblical passage is kind of obscured in this larger context of the Assyrians settling in Samaria, slipped in like the author was telling us the weather that day:

And so it was at the beginning of their dwelling there, that they feared not the Lord: therefore the Lord sent lions among them, which slew some of them. (2 Kings 17:25)

This is reported to the king of Assyria, so he naturally teaches the people the law of god, and end of lions. Next story. I came across this in John Sullivan’s essay on animal violence (and by that I mean animal-on-human violence[1]). I don’t think I would have otherwise paid any attention to it; it is, after all, but one of many odd passages in Kings, although I have for a long time known about the two she-bears who came out of the woods and mauled 42 of the ‘small boys’ to death.

Anyhow, the other day I was reading Mencius and came across this:

If benevolence and righteousness are obstructed, that leads animals to devour people.

These are eerily similar. But despite Kipling’s ‘East is East and West is West and never shall the twain meet’, I actually get where Mencius is coming from a little more than the OT. The idea of benevolence & righteousness being central to everything functioning properly is a major theme, probably the major theme, of most of what Mencius taught, and this kind of fits into his overall project. It also has this sort of agnosticism toward religion & god that marks almost all Confucian works. It isn’t that god will punish evil; it’s just that this obstruction leads to the devouring and the social chaos or whatever, because that’s just the way it is. It’s the way it has been and the way it will be forever, because that’s who we are and that’s what nature does.

And that feeling is completely lost in Kings because you’ve got the Lord behind the actions, and it makes it sound absurdly casual, like another day at work, cleaning up messes. (I guess in fairness the Harper Collins Study Bible I’ve got [NRSV] says that the lions are “agents of divine judgment,” which makes sense.)

But there’s really something I find fascinating about all of this, about thousands of years of mistreatment finally taking its toll and the earth and all those belonging to Her finally taking revenge for the totality of all of the cruel and senseless acts. In a way it would be more terrible than (the much-loved-by-pop culture) zombies or vampires, because we were already supposed to have triumphed over nature, harnessing it & neglecting it until few understand its mysteries anymore.

Terryl & Fiona Givens wrote a book that came out in Oct. called The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life. I haven’t read it but I’d imagine that it gets its idea from a book in the Pearl of Great Price where it says that God actually wept, much to the astonishment of the protagonist. But in that same chapter, kind of weirdly, it says that “all the creations of God mourned; and the earth groaned . . .” I guess a lot of this is supposed to be figurative or whatever, but I think it’s at least as interesting as the idea of God weeping—His Creation taking on its own human emotion, the animals and all of nature doing this collective pitiful groan under the weight of it all; of standing witness to the violence that we insanely carry out on each other; of the blood spilt from malice, much of it its own only to return back to its element.


[1] When you Google ‘animal violence’ all of the results on the first page are of human-on-animal violence. But Sullivan’s essay is seriously entertaining. A large part of it is made up, but none of the accounts of animal on human violence are, and many of those are exceptionally absurd.