Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Paperwork as meditation?

"The Pale King,” the name Wallace gave to the novel that, had he finished it, would have been his third, was one-third complete, by an estimate that he made to Nadell in 2007. The novel continues Wallace’s preoccupation with mindfulness. It is about being in the moment and paying attention to the things that matter, and centers on a group of several dozen I.R.S. agents working in the Midwest. Their job is tedious, but dullness, “The Pale King” suggests, ultimately sets them free. A typed note that Wallace left in his papers laid out the novel’s idea: “Bliss—a-second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious—lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (Tax Returns, Televised Golf) and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Instant bliss in every atom.” On another draft sheet, Wallace typed a possible epigraph for the book from “Borges and I,” a prose poem by Frank Bidart: “We fill pre-existing forms and when we fill them we change them and are changed.”

From D.T. Max's fantastic New Yorker profile of David Foster Wallace.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

stickKing to my resolutions

I just created a "commitment contract" to exercise 5 times a week at stickK.com, a site recently launched by Yale Professors Dean Karlan and Ian Ayres. In short, stickK lets you commit to any goal you can think of, with the option to donate money to a charity (or anti-charity!) if you lose. I didn't put any cash down, but they claimed that even just formalizing a commitment should help. We'll see how it goes.

Friday, February 08, 2008

I uneasily believe in limited government.

So I was talking to my girlfriend (let's call her "G") about all kinds of interesting things, and somehow she got to talking about her confidence in the idea that government should cap the level of salt in restaurant food, since it causes so many people obesity and heart problems, driving up healthcare costs. In short, if I believe the government ought to maximize utility, as I seem to believe, I should be in favor of this.

So is my preference for freedom in this case just an aesthetic taste? My strongest response was the society portrayed in (the shitty Wesley Snipes movie) “Demolition Man,” where the only restaurant is Taco Bell and salt is completely banned. The logic of decreasing healthcare costs would seem to lead us to that conclusion.

G responded that a Demolition Man-esque salt ban does not strike the utility maximizing balance.

My rejoinder was this: people disagree on what the utility maximizing balance is. The Center for Science in the Public Interest probably advocates a much healthier, less tasty diet than the average American prefers, and CSPI folks are precisely the type of people who like to pass government legislation telling people what the utility-maximizing balance is. Even if G believes she can decide what the utility maximizing policy looks like, she cannot expect that such a policy will be implemented. Given the messy realities of democratic politics, it may even be best for her to refrain from advocating the legislation she prefers, because it will take society down a path that she doesn’t like.

Yet she continues to advocate it.

On an even deeper level, there are people who prefer the current, overly salty food being served, as evidenced by the fact that they consume it by the bucket. Yet G would argue that there are incentives in place (artificially low prices, thanks to corn subsidies) that lead them to make a suboptimal decision.

I guess it just comes down to what extent you value people’s revealed preferences, and to what extent you believe that government can calculate a utility-maximizing level that contradicts what people claim to prefer.

Liberals tend to have faith that government can do that. Conservatives tend to believe that government can’t, and point to historical example upon historical example to show what happens when you put too much trust in government.

In the end, it is tempting to believe that government can do these things well. But perhaps a humbler, less optimistic role for government is the best we can have.

Monday, January 15, 2007

This NYT article on advertising made me think of Michael Crichton's Next, in which ad executives genetically modify sea turtles to display logos and engineer schools of fish to spell out brand names.

That, most people would agree, would be crossing the line. But what about the deluge of ads we face every day? Should anti-ad-activists fight ad pollution just as they do other environmental perils and annoyances?

It seems most consumers aren't bothered by the inundation of ads--we just learn to tune them out. For a while, advertising through novel media may attract attention, but people will eventually ignore these ads as they do the rest. The best strategy for advertisers, then, is to create ads that people enjoy, ads that people want to interact with and even share with their friends.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Government Sucks

I'm pretty firmly convinced by now that a big government does stupid things. I just read an NYT articleabout Jefferds Huyck, a Santa Cruz Latin teacher who has a doctorate in classics from Harvard and 22 years of teaching experience, just taught 16 students who earned honors on a nationwide Latin exam, and not considered "highly qualified" under California education officials' interpretation of the No Child Left Behind Act. So he's leaving public school to teach private school, rather than suffer a 2-year, $15,000 teacher-certification program in which his wife (after an English literature Ph.D and a statewide teaching award) learned to write lesson plans and maintain classroom order.

This is just after I read William Easterly's "The Cartel of Good Intentions: The Problem of Bureaucracy in Public Aid," which reads like an absurdist novel as it details how the thicket of bureaucracy in agencies like the IMF, WB and WTO prevents any aid from actually helping its receipients.

I'm still not sold on the whole "taxation is a heinous moral wrong" thing, but give it some time.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Much Ad About Nothing

Thanks to Seth Stevenson's Slatearticle on the Clio awards, I just watched a really cool Honda ad in which a choir recreates all the sounds a Honda would make while on the road.

I often wonder whether the millions of dollars companies pour into advertising really have any effect. I can't remember the last time I was making a purchasing decision and thought, "hmm, what ads have I seen lately?" I suppose ads do have their intended effect in a more insidious manner, subliminally indoctrinating me to believe that a certain product is "cool." Even when it comes to food, which should depend entirely on taste, not brand popularity, advertising seems to work: I buy Coke or Pepsi from the grocery store, not RC Cola.

Speaking of insidious indoctrination, in about a month I'll be attending a free, weeklong seminar on Environment and Society sponsored by the Institute for Humane Studies, a "nonpartisan" but conservative-leaning organization which, as far as I can tell, exists solely to indoctrinate impressionable college students like myself with free-market ideology. I feel vaguely dirty attending the seminar, like I'm willingly marching off to a "reeducation camp" or joining a cult (I guess I've already done the latter by becoming a member of the Party of the Right at Yale). The IHS presents itself as fair and balanced, and I suppose conservatives are to be admired for fighting to defend what they believe in the war of ideas, but still...

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

A brainy answer to the abortion debate

First order of business now that I've resumed posting: bring some depth to the abortion post, which has been bothering me ever since I posted it.

Kolmogorov, whose blog I stumbled across while reading The Fray at slate.com, points out that all human cells, even skin cells, are human and grow, which quickly dismantles my 2 sentence argument that embryos are human life. He suggests, instead, that the presence of brain activity be the criterion for life, just as its absence is the criterion we use for death:

If there is "brain death", so also there must be "brain birth". Just as we look for electrical signals to indicate that brain death has occurred, so we could, and should, look for electrical signals to see if brain birth has occurred. And that's exactly my position in the abortion debate. It's a position almost everyone misses, but I think it is the only remotely principled position one can take.

Makes sense to me. In responding to comments, Kolmogorov mentions that his position doesn't get him out of the woods with Christians, who that human life begins when God endows something with a soul. But I'm comfortable with the brain-life stance he takes.

Guess who's back...back again

So, in the 3 months since I created this blog, I've posted a whopping 5 times. That's partly because I've been busy with other things, but mainly because I haven't decided what the purpose of this blog is. I vaguely recall being motivated to start a new blog when I read an article about employers perusing applicants' blogs as part of the evaluation process; actually, I think I was considering applying for an IHS summer program and saw that the application had a field marked "blog."

Since then I've realized that Blog-as-resume holds myself to a unnecessarily high standard, keeps me from blogging about anything that isn't Deep, and makes blogging a chore instead of a procrastinatory delight.

Another reason I've been less than motivated to blog is my conspicuous lack of readership. The only comment I've had has been from an acquaintance I haven't talked to in person since middle school (thanks Zach!), and anyone who was interested in reading my blog has probably long since given up hope. But I would just feel silly returning to Xanga, and I suppose I can write more freely knowing that no one's reading.

Which raises the question (I'm very tempted to say it "begs" the question, but the specter of Mr. Wolf looming over my writing keeps me from abusing a term with precise philosophical meaning), why bother to post at all? For one thing, the prospect, ever-so-slim though it may be, that someone may read my work forces me to strive for higher levels of precision, organization, and interestingness. For another, it will force me to take positions on issues, instead of just idly pondering them, letting the arguments for both sides wash over my brain and moving on.

Besides, I need something to do during the two months of summer vacation before I leave for China. (I'm teaching English through the Crimson Summer Exchange program, where Harvard pays my airfare and room/board. So not only do I get a free trip to China, it's funded by my rival school!

If anyone's still reading, my responsibilities include submitting a copy of "a text, or part of a text, that illustrates or helps one understand American culture. Cultural submissions that relate to moral and behavioral standards are particularly encouraged." Any suggestions?)