Archive for June, 2010


Marriage Again

I’m an intellectual, and therefore, insane in many respects. One way is that I like theories, and so construct them whenever I can. Often, I like to make theories about people and their personalities. What rankles them, what makes them laugh, and what makes them cry. How do they see themselves and what will they respond to?

One reason I do this is because I find it fun. Another is because I have very bad intuitive understandings of social situations, and so must make do with elaborate strategies and approximations for dealing with other people. The longer someone is forced to be around me, the more precise my theory will become, and in many cases, I can even have normal conversations with them. Some people are harder to read than others, but all in all, I think some of the theories about other people have been remarkably accurate over the years.

I have many data points that I like to look at when trying to figure out what makes someone tick, and lately, I’ve added another: wedding propositions. Almost always, the guy asks the girl to marry him, and the social obligation is that he pick something elaborate, special and romantic. A lot can be learned about someone’s personality from a simple story of “how he proposed to me.” Does he use the jumbotron at sports game? If he does, it probably means he’s down to earth, not too inventive and probably not that romantic. Does he propose at sunset in a national park? Well, then he probably finds nature to be a paradigmatic expression of beauty, and he may prize physical fitness and outdoorsy stuff. Does he buy a new ring or go with a family heirloom. Does he just give the stone and let her choose the ring or the stone set already in something? All these things matter. Does he propose in front of other people — does he need an audience — or does he prefer intimacy? Maybe he proposes in a way that he THINKS she will like, in which case it shows a lot about his capacity for empathy or HIS ability to read other people.

I’m at a point when I’ll find these things out about many of my friends and so enhance my understanding of who they are. This sentence can sound really creepy and calculating, even to my ear, but its really not. Understanding is a good goal to have. The more you understand someone, the more you can help them, learn from them, and draw out their most powerful and essential characteristics.


Philosophy and Imagination

Philosophy discovers puzzles in the conceptual preconditions of everyday life, and since we so comfortably occupy a place in the daily flow of activity, it’s very hard to see what those puzzles and contradictions might be.

The first step though to find out when something: a concept, an institution, or a social practice, is a problem or puzzling, is to see how things might be otherwise. For me, there is nothing that spurs my thinking more.

In academic philosophy, thought experiments are used for this function. To see what might be important in ordinary moral situations for example, we might have to imagine other situations that are more fantastic or even other worlds altogether.

But I think imagination is especially important when wondering about codes of conducts and social practices. One example I recently came across involves humor (I’m reading another book about humor that’s a little more advanced than the last one I reviewed: Punchlines). The author starts out by making us consider humor in our own society. It’s always optional. Someone may be antisocial if they choose not to make any jokes, but humor is never socially mandated like well wishing at a wedding or condolences at a funeral.

The optional nature of humor seems perfectly natural and so not requiring of a theoretical elaboration or explanation, but a brief survey of other cultures reveals that there is something very special about humor’s present optionality in our own. This is because many tribal cultures assign joke-relationships to various members in which one person is expected to tease or harass another, who is then not supposed to take offense. The jokes are also well beyond what would be acceptable in industrialized societies. For example, in the Tahamura tribe, the deceased’s joke partner will create a mock corpse and then dance up to it and abuse/desecrate it. Members of the Luguru tribe will sit in the grave of their joke partner and refuse to get up without payment. They will then make sexual advances to women mourners.

What all this shows I think is that the first step toward understanding the import of something that seems banal or so intuitive as to defy questioning is to realize that almost nothing could not be otherwise. We drive on the right but the Brits don’t, and this is an easy case where almost everyone sees that our way of life is simply arbitrary and that road driving needs only respond to one issue: the need for standardization to solve coordination problems. These laughter examples show though I think that anything can be questioned. Even the way our laughter works. With humor though, its not as easy to say what impulses are being responded or what values are enshrined in our society.



I recently finished reading Punchlines by Leon Rappaport, a book about ethnic, religious, and racial humor.

Overall, the book was pretty good, but it was short and not very well argued. Supposedly, this book was a defense of ethnic and racial humor, but it was more a description of humor generally, how racial humor works, and its history. There wasn’t that much defense. For example, at one point, Rappaport writes:

So much the less would it be possible to prohibit ethnic humor in our society. The fallback argument is that it should at least be banned from TV, but that is also not likely, because the market rules: as long as substantial audiences enjoy it, it will be programmed.

Of course, that is what is at issue: should we listen to the market about jokes that might offend racial groups. This is a minor point and Rappaport’s main argument does not rest on it, but I think it shows the quickness with which he tries to establish normative conclusions (i.e. what we should do about ethnic humor).

For someone like me the history and the raw psychological data about humor were very interesting. The author mentions the connection between humor and loneliness several times, and this resonated with me given that I like to be humorous and tell jokes, but sometimes feel like joke telling can be isolating and imprisoning, demoting one to the role of permanent court jester. Anecdotally, he cites Robin Williams’ practice of sometimes going into the audience and heckling his own act. This represents the kind of self-contained dialogue that humor can become; it grows out of the obsessive and internal discussion the comedian has with himself, very similar to intellectual predilections. This is closely related to Rapapport’s observation that most comedians never got attention as kids and so plausibly used jokes as a way to enter into a society that they were ill-equipped to engage with in other ways. Or further, that  hugely disproportionate numbers of comedians are black or jewish; outsiders in more ways than one: Jack Benny, Chris Rock, Richard Pryor, Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld, Eddie Murphy. Exceptions are Robin Williams and Steve Martin.

But still, the the book nicely identifies the fact that humor is changing a lot as our society moves toward more equality for all religious and ethnic groups. Richard Pryor and Jack Benny, two of the early pioneers in cynical, gritty, in-your-face humor, both did not finish high school due to rebelliousness and were discharged from the military. In short, they were against the establishment in a big way. But later comedians did go to college and used college opportunities to further their career. What this shows is that society became much less authoritarian after the 70s and even more importantly, less trusting in institutions in general. Comedy these days is very cynical, but as society becomes more egalitarian, I expect jokes to become even more wittily destructive of established values. But as racial and ethnic targets become less palatable and more importantly, less funny, what will we attack next and where will humor go? My prediction is that humor will move to an even higher level of generality and will attack even more fundamental pillars of society including, capitalism, democracy, politeness, the family, love and marriage, and the question of human life as such. Just one final, striking example of how far humor has come, listen to this double entendre joke told by Bob Hope, which involved a play on the accepted notion (at the time) that pawn shops had 3 globe-type objects above their doors.

My girlfriend and I went to a pawnshop and she kissed me under the balls.

Hope had to issue a PUBLIC APOLOGY for this joke. Clearly, our collective innocence has been lost.

One last thing that really provoked attention from me, was that ethnic hatred or conflict does not always generate ethnic humor. Apparently, there are not many ethnic jokes that Israelis come up with about Palestinians, even though the hatred between these groups is very intense. I’m not sure what explains this. Maybe the author is right that ethnic jokes are a type of social play that is generally harmless, and makes light of stereotypes and misconceptions by holding them up to humorous scrutiny.



I write a lot about social relations on this blog, and this post is no different.

I recently attended a wedding for one of my college friends, and as many people said, this was my first “peer wedding.” What is the significance of this label, and what happens at weddings.

For me, the main effect was to underscore the many stage of life that each person goes through. I used to hate weddings. They were strange and very boring, and I always felt out of place because I could not dance. Now, I attend “peer” weddings and the importance is very real. This is now my stage of life (even though I’m not getting married anytime soon), and lessons are striking. Many of my friends that I talked to were already engaged and when I saw them, they were enjoying the wedding and taking notes as how they would things. This wedding for them was also a window into the excitement and pageantry of it all. For me it was a realization that people were playing for keeps. It’s no good just to date casually, or go to a bar, or meet up every once in a while. People were moving in together, taking sub-optimal jobs, and in short, `taking risks’ for the other person they were committed to. More and more the language I heard was not about who was cute or funny, but about who was committed and how one’s future would interact with potentially finding someone to share it with. Again, just as I felt before high school, college, and now graduate school (all I do is school I guess), big moves were in the offing.

On a more generic social level, my only insight was this: the family of the bride and the family of the groom cooperate together on the wedding. They get to know each other, and from what I could tell, they got to like each other. But then there’s the rest of the family, and the incentives for socialization are almost non-existent. Why would the second cousin of the groom have any reason to make an effort to speak to the aunt of bride, or any number of extended relations? And this isn’t to say that people don’t try and meet each other, they do, but that’s the point. Weddings are a way of testing the pure and natural socialization tendencies of human beings. Some will to try to engage with and meet others, but some are perfectly comfortable to sit at their table and watch a far removed in-law get married to a complete stranger.

That’s why, at this wedding, a socialization technique that was on display was the “cage and feed” strategy in which the venue is compressed and lots of food is available. There’s no room to hide and everything to be gained by going to where the food is at, and the hope is that people collide and then share some polite banter. Then, after a while, you open things up and the people expand into the new space, and back into their comfort zones. You compensate for the increased room to avoid people by providing tons of alcohol; then people aren’t so gun shy.


What is it like to be ugly?

I’m very interested in what it’s like to be ugly. I don’t know if I have personal experience with this or not (the title of this post is not meant to imply that I don’t know the answer to this question because I’m gorgeous), because I think only a very small group of people have any idea how physically attractive they are.

The reason I’m interested in this topic is because there are a lot of stereotypes floating around that I find essentially correct, which is that ugly people are more interesting than attractive people, but at the same time, usually more bitter, sarcastic, introspective, etc.

Biological and psychological explanations are ready at hand. Everyone wants to be with some attractive and it hurts when you can’t be. Sure there’s a lot of crap out there about finding the person you love and being happy with them, but I think that response needs much more careful treatment. It’s not that I don’t believe in love, but that I don’t believe it operates in anything like the way most people think it does.

Anyway, I think there is also a deeper explanation about why ugly people are so interesting, so driven, and so quirky, which is that they are excluded from one of the most basic and intuitive sources of human value, which is flirtation, sexual desire, companionship, and the magical feelings of attraction.

There was a 30 rock episode about one of Liz’s boyfriends who lives “in a bubble” because of his attractiveness. In that bubble, people gave him seats at restaurants and he got taxis quick and all sorts of stuff like that. But all that misses the point. Attractive people don’t get things (well they do, but that’s not important) they get a way of life that has value in its own right, which is the life of seduction, playfulness, flirtation, and socialization.

I used to think that attractive people were mainly just superficial, but I don’t anymore. They have just never had to train themselves to relate to people through facts, connections and ideas because they inhabit a world where such things are not necessary, and may spoil the mood or ruin the game.

So I take back what I said before and also revise something else I said. I said ugly people were more interesting. That isn’t really true. They are more interesting for people like me TO TALK TO, because I like facts, ideas, and ways of viewing the world; ways of OBSERVING the world. However, attractive people have a special way of participating in the world or being in it. This is not to say that some attractive people don’t live vapid lives, but if they do, I don’t think it has to do with their being attractive (maybe being attractive is a necessary condition of leading a certain type of vapid life, but certainly not sufficient).

Ugly people however are forced out of this world, and so they begin asking questions: why don’t people go out with me, and they start getting little glimpses of how different their life might be. They see a couple holding hands or two strangers hitting it off at charity event, or on the street, or yes, in a bar. Such experiences may seem alien or strange, and they ask more questions. And usually, these sorts of questions lead straight to a theory of sociality or a worldview about justice, or perhaps an understanding of what men are, or what women are. The list goes on.

I’ve said a lot of rambling stuff in this post, but the take away point is this. It’s easy to slip into the false belief that ugly people live in a kind of freudian torture, unable to satisfy their desires for attention and attraction, so that they find covert expressions of anger and jealousy toward attractive people (certainly many movies have explored exactly this theme; the revenge of the ugly on the beautiful). But really, something much deeper is going on, which is that one consciousness is confronting a question about the value of human society, and in some cases, trying to work out an answer.


I think every road in Boston was broken

I drove to the airport to pick up my friend. There was one lane traffic, and I unsurprised that part of the road was shut down. That’s normal. But then, as I got closer to downtown, I found out that the exit to the AIRPORT was shut down. Really? The detour took me around most of the financial district of Boston before I got there. When I did, I found out that terminal B, where my friend was flying into, was completely shut down for repairs. So, me and the other people who were picking up trickled through a parking lot in the middle of the terminal which served as an ad hoc pick up line. There was no loitering anyway, and so, since my friend got outside 5 minutes after I passed through, I had to do the whole thing over again.

Then, I left the airport and found that the pavement on the sumner bridge part had been pulled out. So much for my tires and axles. Then I tried to get on 93, and found out that IT TOO was closed. The airport exit and 93? Without those two roads, there are no roads in Boston.

Finally I dropped my friends off at MIT, and found, as usual, that storrow drive was randomly closed off at several arbitrary points.

Now, in the grand scheme of things, I don’t take my complaints very seriously. I’m lucky to live in a country with roads at all, and most (all) of my bitching is hyperbole. But these little posts are cathartic for me because in all seriousness, Boston is a very badly kept up American city. That much is fact, and one which I hope might spur action at some point.


Downtown, Inc.

I’m pretty much done with Downtown, Inc., and all in all, I have to say that it’s pretty great (though of my summer books, ecology of fear is still #1).

In this book, there are really a lot of great insights, and definitely too many to get into in just one post.

But anyway, the book starts out with a brief history of urban development, starting after WWII. The story is unsurprising in some ways: a bunch of people wanted houses and so they moved to the suburbs to get them. This left the cities to rot, especially since manufacturing was already starting to show signs of strain as compact city locations could not efficiently hold assembly line factories that were cropping up all over the place. Also, racism was rampant and for many people, the city was just too black of a place to live.

Enter the urban renewal projects of the 50s and 60s. Basically, the (federal) government was giving out a bunch of money for cities to build stuff: anything they wanted. So, they bulldozed the houses of a lot of black people and built really elitist city furnishings such as opera houses and theaters and also a lot of architecturally highbrow buildings that were intimidating to the average person. Cities were transformed into the playgrounds of the elite on the back of various minorities and politically powerless groups.

The side-story about highways is especially good, since apparently, Eisenhower never really intended for a lot of highway mileage to go through the big cities, but when everything was said and done, highway mileage in the cities, though it was something like 20% of total mileage, was something like 50% of the total cost. Anyway, city planners used highways to bulldoze through various parts of the cities, again mostly black neighborhoods.

Unfortunately, even after all this, cities still sucked. The federal government took away its money and so cities were now on their own. What could they do?

The answer, as Frieden and Sagalyn, exposit, is that they learned to be a little more capitalistic, and that this was for the better. First, cities let private developers call some of the shots about what downtown improvements would look like and where things would be built. Then, they subsidized the hell out of things so that people would actually consider building in cities. (I don’t know how you could pay someone enough to build in say, Boston). Then there are a bunch of case studies about various cities, and the focus is on malls. As the authors point out, malls in the middle of the city did some really good things. They helped whole areas develop, reduced crime, and created, in quite a few cases, a more architecturally inviting, liveable and beautiful city. As a side note, Boston’s Faneuil market is one of the most successful city development projects ever. This place was expected to make no money, but in the end, I think the city actually made money it, which is almost unheard of. Score one Boston and mayor Kevin White.

How did they do it? Basically, city councils found a bunch of interesting ways of paying for things that were off budge. They pledged future taxes and rents and all sorts of stuff to get loans, but the public never had to feel their pockets being pinched.

There’s also the human side of things. Basically, James Rouse was a complete badass. This guy was building stuff left and right and all of it was great. Even when incompetent legislators and obstreperous private negotiators tried to stall projects, he just barreled right through. His problem solving was instrumental in making things happen.

Then the book talks about the negatives. Malls represent the privatization of public spaces, they don’t bring anything but consumption to the city, and one problem which I though was particularly interesting, was that they don’t perform the same civic role as other public buildings, though they claim to operate in their stead. One example was that malls don’t operate under the strict protections of free speech that public buildings do so that campaign trips, petitions, rallies, and awareness raising can be (and invariably are) curtailed inside the mall. These downtown malls are usually part owned by the city, but they do not permit the wide range of democratic activities that other public spaces afford due to constitutional restrictions on government action that do not fall so heavily on private citizens.

EVEN FURTHER, there are all these little tidbits. For example, I learned about Albert Hirschman’s  principle of the hiding hand (or at least I got a taste of it), in which people underestimate their ability to deal with problems in complex projects, so that making a project seem easy at the start is really important. If all the problems were seen in advance, valuable projects would not be undertaken. Also, it’s apparently true that building new stadiums for sports team is a losing proposition, but Mayors build them anyway out of what seems to be pure ego considerations: that any worthwhile city has to have a sports teams. How much better would cities be if we let the NFL build all the enormous and ridiculous stadiums (Dallas, I blame you), and let cities build better subways, streets, sewage, and electricity? The answer is: a lot better.