Monday, June 29, 2009

this week in anti-evo psych

Newsweek science writer Sharon Begley voices powerful criticisms of the ev psych movement. Read the whole thing, as they say.

See also. The author's style and tone is considerably different from mine, and there are parts of the excerpted conversation with which I don't agree. But the lines "[T]he whole appeal of the field is that it calls back to One True Natural Human Experience, before the dag-blasted condoms came to take it all away. and it seems - by sheer magical coincidence! - to be a version of True Humanity in which women ought to be sexy, men ought to be powerful, and violence against women makes you happier and more successful" -- nicely underscore what I find so odious about the field.

Monday, June 22, 2009

why "savanna theory" is wrong

A very good essay describing the flaws of much current writing on evolutionary psychology.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

advice on raising one's social intelligence, for libertarians -- I

Bryan Caplan has an interesting post up with advice on how to raise one's social intelligence. (via) I empathize entirely with Bryan's struggle to claw his way up to mediocrity; I've had to go through much the same arduous process myself. His advice isn't that helpful to me, however, because I suffered from the opposite set of weaknesses. In middle or high school, I'd commonly find myself sitting in a group of 5-6 other people and remaining completely silent for upwards of 40 minutes, unless someone specifically directed a question to me. And even then, my responses tended toward the monosyllabic or the cryptic -- e.g. "Nothing especially interesting" in response to a question like "What did you do this weekend?" Not saying what was on my mind, ever, was probably a large part of what I was doing wrong.

I have more general advice to give on this topic of breaking out of one's shell, which can wait until I am not trying to pack for my college fifth year reunion. But I'll confine myself for the time being to the sub-topic of how to talk about libertarianism.

The first thing I learned is that there are generally two categories of people interested in politics: Paragraph types and Spreadsheet types. N.b. that I borrowed this terminology from a David Brooks column about two years ago.Paragraph people tend to see themselves as independent gentilshommes (or gentillefemmes) des belles lettres. Spreadsheet people see themselves as cheerleaders for their team. It drives Pnin crazy because, as he claims, lots of professional economists who work with numbers all day are Paragraph people in this scheme, and big firm lawyers who work on writing memos are frequently Spreadsheet people. I admit I don't find this fact confusing, but I put this up there as a warning just in case.

Paragraph people envision their chosen intellectual movement as something like grad school extended into perpetuity . In fact, most Paragraph Elephants really, really loved grad school; were really, really good at grad school; and really, really didn't to leave. So they wind up in careers, like working in think tanks or at national magazines, where they basically get paid to write papers and sit around tables in nice book-lined rooms trying to suss out Truth. (We also often are paid like we're still in grad school, but that's a whole other story.) In a seminar, there are lots of different voices, nobody agrees 100% with each other, and that's perfectly okay; that's how it's supposed to be.

Spreadsheet people, on the other hand, envision their intellectual movement as a soccer game extended into perpetuity. They're wearing red uniforms. The crazy lefties are wearing blue uniforms. Their goal is to get the ball past the crazy lefties in the blue uniforms into the goal cage. They don't have a lot of patience for collegiate seminar-style fights about where the goal is supposed to be; it's obvious to them. If you do try to push them too hard about these questions, they start to wonder if you're an insurgent, a Team Blue agent in red disguise. They feel that such people shouldn't be standing around the field getting in their way.

Young libertarians should learn to identify quickly if their interlocutors are Paragraph or Spreadsheet people. It's actually quite easy for two Paragraph people on opposite sides of an issue to talk about politics ad infinitum; the only difficulty is that you two might find yourselves closing out the bar, or realizing that it's 9:00 p.m. and you have been sitting in Starbucks for four hours and haven't gotten dinner yet. Things are more difficult for Paragraph people caught in conversations about libertarianism with Spreadsheet people. You will ask detailed and thougthful questions, showing off your presumptions of good faith and reasonableness, and the other person will keep volleying back things like "The Wall Street Journal editorial board is a bunch of hacks." The Spreadsheet left-winger will ask you no questions and show no interest in why you think what you think. If you find this is the case with a particular person, eject. Disengage. You are not going to learn anything or convince the other person of anything; it's not worth your time. You can be friends with this person if you stick to talking about Cook's Illustrated or Indian fiction, but you're best off not bringing up politics or economics again.

Selective undergraduate and graduate schools can be particularly tough environments for left/right Spreadsheet/Paragraph conversation. The few conservatives and libertarians at these schools tend to default to Paragraph mode quickly because they're surrounded by smart liberals. It's hard to be arrogant in such an environment. (There are a small minority of right-wingers who do default into extra-vicious Spreadsheet mode because they resent being overwhelmed numerically by the competition. I suspect college-age conservatives so often get tagged with the "mean" label because Spreadsheet types in overdrive are the most visible conservatives around.) On the other hand, left-leaning students have an easy time avoiding contrary ideas. Spreadsheet types predisposed to slight arrogance become absolutely arrogant. In short, I became a hyper-Paragraph person frequently clashing up against hyper-Spreadsheet people, and I think many young conservatives at similar institutions can develop the same problem.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

what my Ivy education means to me -- III

I don't understand the piling on about this program, through which wealthy Harvard alums make interest-free micro-loans to current students.

In particular, I'm befuddled by the fuss about the dining hall comment. Some kids might not think that the dining hall job is as worthwhile a use of their time as other pursuits. Who am I to tell them that it isn't? Presumably Harvard students are as capable of making rational choices as anyone? Besides, some of the angry commenters seem to overlook the point that the recipients will have to pay the money back (even if they're not paying interest on the loan.) So they have every incentive not to borrow money for frivolous pursuits and only for more important goals. Maybe I'm unduly fiscally conservative, but I would have been deeply hesitant to borrow to finance anything that I wouldn't have considered truly worthwhile years down the line.

Not an economist here, but didn't Milton Friedman write something interesting on the efficiencies of under-consumption by the young? His argument was something to the effect of why you shouldn't save too much, but should instead make spending decisions in line with what your permanent income will be. Many Harvard undergrads have low current income, but can expect much higher permanent incomes. Isn't the loan scheme just responding to an inefficiency by letting these students live lives more in line with the permanent incomes they can expect?

Also, I admit I've never seen the alleged value of working in low-status jobs while young. I was a salesclerk in high school and in early college; I did hate being yelled at by customers and/or being called incompetent, lazy or stupid. Ditto listening to pontifications about what my lack of intelligence foretold about this country's future. What I took away from all of this was how to follow basic norms of not being a jerk to people, which I thought I'd mostly internalized anyway. Was there something else I was supposed to get out of the whole thing? Ditto community service, which I found similarly useless and uninspiring.

I may contradict what I wrote earlier today Very well then; I'll name check Whitman and say that I contain multitudes. I do tend to wonder if I got lucky because the city where I grew up was small enough that it's hard to pull off economic self-segregation. I wonder if abolishing zoning laws would go a long way toward making people interact more with people of different socioeconomic classes. And if replacing public schools with universal vouchers would encourage teenagers to interact more with people from different backgrounds and thus stop acting like entitled twits.

what does my ivy education mean to me -- II

My beloved fiance Pnin* asked me recently which of the four Dartmouth factions I belonged to. He guessed Feuillant, which makes sense. I'm female; I don't come from the type of WASP old money** background that Thermidoreans generally do, and didn't make much pretense of trying to act like I was from one; and I'm right of center enough on national political issues that I clearly couldn't be either a Montagnard or a Girondin.

Upon further reflection, I think my actual answer would be something like "idiosyncratic Feuillant." As I said in that old post, I find the lack of a "vision thing" to be a crucial weakness for the Feuillant faction. I'm therefore more sympathetic to some of the Thermidoreans' positions on the importance of teaching the Canon than many Feuillants are. Also, Feuillantism in its more extreme forms encourages conflating one's identity with one's resume. That way lies the Above the Law commentariat, who are content to spend hours obsessing over the relative prestige of large law firms that seem extremely similar to anyone else outside their rather limited circles. Many of the meritocrats at ATL and similar fora also seem curiously tone-deaf and ignorant of how upwards of 97% or so of Americans actually live; thus the occasional bizarre comment about how government lawyers are forced to live lower-middle-class lifestyles or how hard it is for associates in Manhattan to make ends meet on just $160,000. I suppose I'm a bit more Girondin or Montagnard on this, as both groups have better concrete ideas on how to push back against these particular forms of tone deafness.

In short, I want our elite universities to be more purely meritocratic, yes, but I do want them pushing back harder against this kind of ugliness. I admire the Thermidoreans' devotion to beauty and to the Canon, as education in these topics can soften some of the more odious striverism that meritocracy encourages. I respect the Girondins' and Montagnards' attempts to make these institutions more open to people of talent of different backgrounds, and to inculcate more tact toward people not running on the same meritocratic treadmill.

*Pseudonym chosen only because he is both a Russian immigrant and a professor. Otherwise, there isn't much resemblance to the character.

**I inadvertently typed "WASP old monkey" at first. That's actually kind of a charming image.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

for what it's worth

Director-Explorer. So I think I'm well-suited to the person I'm marrying.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

what does your Ivy education mean to you?

Vis-a-vis the Sotomayor debate, Helen Rittelmeyer has re-posted an interesting Culture 11 essay on what having an Ivy League degree really means today. I've written on this subject before, so I'll throw up some disjointed thoughts.

Caveat: Rittelmeyer and I did go to different Ivy League schools. From talking to people who have gone to the other six Ivies and similar schools, I've gotten the sense that American selective colleges are far more alike than they are different. That said, each school has its own unique culture, and some of my criticisms may merely reflect that Dartmouth and Yale are just different places.

1)I agree with Rittelmeyer's main premise that much of what gets from these schools is instruction on how to be a good member of the upper class. For a more extended discussion regarding my own experience, I refer you to a post from my old LJ on the tensions between different political groups on what that instruction ought to look like. Rittelmeyer seems to think that the group that I call Girondin dominates the Yale campus, just as it dominated Dartmouth. That doesn't surprise me. But inasmuch as Rittelmeyer implies that nobody was challenging the bobo Girondin consensus, I disagree with her. The Thermidoreans, Montagnards, and even Feuillants were doing plenty to dislodge the pleasant Girondin monolith and kept campus intellectual life quite lively.

2)I'm getting somewhat away from her main premise, but I'd challenge also somewhat her characterization of Yale as "careerist" (and inescapably so) rather than "intellectual."I heard the same thing about Dartmouth numerous times, when I was there and since I've graduated, from both close friends and op-ed columns. Perhaps this is a matter of different schools, different cultures, but I found that the same people were careerist and intellectual all at once. In which box am I supposed to put my sophomore year suite-mate who's in medical school and cares a lot about getting a good internship, but who also minored in English, loves Shakespeare, and good debates about sci-fi? What about the other suite-mate who graduated summa cum laude and is getting a Ph.D. in German literature from Yale, but who is so uninterested in anything outside her field that she once asked me if Howard Dean is a Republican? What about the guy who spent four years in a pot-and-beer-induced haze, who favorably impressed my law professor boyfriend at a party five years later with the depth of his reading about Indian politics?

I could go on much longer with related examples, but the point is that nearly everyone I knew had both impulses to some degree. Thus, by sophomore year or so, I found most complaints about lack of intellectualism unconvincing. Sometimes, the people who made them seemed to suffer from the illusion that all intellectual life everywhere ought to be more like Paris in the 1920s, the Bloomsbury group, or some other historical era. Other times, they seemed to have missed the crucial point that most eighteen-year-olds opining about world peace sound naive, pretentious, or both. Perhaps our willingness to remain silent on topics we knew little about was no great flaw.

And if that's true, shouldn't we recognize that these schools do have an intellectual mission, as well as a class acculturation mission? Shouldn't these schools try to find a way to play to the intelletual impulses that each of the people I described above have, while also acknowledging the reality of their careerist ambitions? (Rittelmeyer's line about leadership mattering more than intellect in admissions just seemed odd. I knew plenty of nerds with 1500+ SATs in college, and also plenty of dynamic Student Council president types with 1200-ish scores who tried for Ivies and wound up somewhere on the order of Bucknell.) Maybe not the one that Rittelmeyer or I would have imagined at 17 or so, but a real one nonetheless?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

On male/female friendship

Request for advice: I know that this Onion article is meant largely as satire, but how exactly are women supposed to behave in situations like this?

I've written on situations like this before in response to a really bad Kay Hymnowitz column. There, I concentrated on trying to offer advice (and admittedly, justification) to men stuck in similar situations. But what are women supposed to do when they find themselves in this situation?

I suppose one easy answer is simply not to socialize with the opposite sex at all. Thus, for fear of disappointing someone, I should simply never agree to do social things with a boy. But that strikes me as nearly impossible. One, for good or ill, I live in a society where men and women attend school together, work together, etc. Maybe we would all be better off if most American colleges returned to being single sex, but that's unlikely happen anytime soon, if only because the switching costs would be so high. So I still need advice about what to do in the meantime.

If I were to start refusing all invitations to do something innocuous-sounding with members of the opposite sex, would I risk offending men who did really mean something, well, innocuous? Would I be cheating myself -- both of us -- out of the pleasures of legitimately innocent, platonic friendship? Wouldn't it just sound odd to say, "I know that you asked to go hang out on Saturday, and that sounded innocent and meaningless. But there's a chance that you might really have meant that you want to sleep with me. And clearly, I can't risk letting that happen, because that would be emotionally devastating for you. So I have to say no, even if that might be fun." Would this not also be horribly arrogant - the subtext being that the woman is so gorgeous that no man can spend time in her presence without his being torn up with desire for her? Such would sound especially ridiculous, coming from the mouth of your decidedly-average looking correspondent. Still, should women do it anyway?

I tend to think that the burden ought to be on the guy to figure out fairly quickly what he wants out of the situation. Does he really want to be friends with the girl? If so, then he should make up his mind to forget about pining for something else. Or, if he doesn't, then he ought to declare his affections and if they're not reciprocated, walk away. For what it's worth, hanging around someone hoping that they'll change their mind about you romantically is almost always helpless. This goes for both genders: I myself have been stuck in this situation several times and been forced to absorb the lesson the hard way. Walking is nearly always the wise choice of action if someone doesn't like you back right off the bat.

I once observed to Clarissa Dalloway that When Harry Met Sally was the most evil movie of the twentieth century, narrowly beating out Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of The Will and D.W. Griffith's The Birth of A Nation. Perhaps that was harsh, and the anti-prizes should go to the glorifications of the Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan. But I tremble at the notion that men and women really can't be friends without letting the sex get in the way. Doesn't this inexorably lead to the notion that men and women must necessarily inhabit separate spheres, because the temptation of female sexuality is just too great? That way lies Tehran. Well, maybe not; maybe we could establish excellent all-female colleges, professional schools, etc. But I fear that the most talented women -- or those with particularly unusual interests -- might still suffer too greatly from the necessary constriction of their ambitions.

This, incidentally, is partly why I find evolutionary psychology so loathsome. But that's a post for another day.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

the Ukraine girls really knock me out/They leave the West behind...

I'm trying to decide what I think of this Ukrainian woman's story of her journey to the U.S. as a mail-order bride. On the one hand, I'm happy that she seems to have a happy relationship with someone who's supportive of her educational and career plans. I'm happy that she escaped all of the negatives commonly associated with international marriage brokerages.

On the other, there are parts of this story that make me more nervous. The "few years on you, girl" struck me as skeevy. And while I appreciate that he arranged the separate bed for her during their first meeting, just in case she wouldn't want to sleep with him, it also rubbed me the wrong way. That is, the presumption should be that he wouldn't want to sleep with her right away. It shouldn't be that she presumptively want to sleep with him, and that the extra sofa should be there just in case?

Loeb's comment on women not being able to get non-secretarial jobs in Ukraine also stood out. I believe everything she writes about how poor everyone in Ukraine is. But one of my second cousins -- who's old enough to be Loeb's or my mother -- has an electrical engineering degree. My future mother-in-law (who is Russian, not Ukrainian, but still) also worked in a technical field in the USSR. To my knowledge, neither was ever relegated to secretarial positions.

Finally, I get most nervous about trying to draw policy conclusions from this piece. When right-wing blogs attempt coverage of gender relations, often commenters mention marriage to foreign women as an appealing alternative to the hardships of domestic dating. (See, e.g., Helen Reynolds' comments sections, or the surprising amount of linky love Roissy in D.C. gets from otherwise thoughtful writers.) Though perhaps my own experiences are atypical, I don't think things are nearly as bad as those commenters claim. At least not enough so to warrant condoning the kinds of inequities often inherent in mail-order spouse situations. I'm happy Loeb's experiences were positive, but I'm not sure that I feel comfortable extrapolating from them that mail-order situations generally work out well.

(For the nyetkultura, title explanation here.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Cooking For The Chronically Impatient

Several months ago at a party, I was talking to a friend about cooking. She mused that she felt herself too impatient to cook well -- that she's prone to undercook things because she wants them off the stove too quickly. Apparently she told a professional chef friend this, and he responded that someone ought to put together a compilation of recipes based on personality type.

I thought of this last night as I made a nice impromptu yellowfin tuna recipe. It's really the perfect dish for the chronically impatient. (Like my friend, I'm much more likely to get impatient and undercook things than I am to burn them.) First, I mashed some orange zest and juice with butter and scallions. Then I dusted the tuna with a little sea salt and coriander and seared it in a grill pan, three minutes on each side. You have to work to undercook this; it's hard to make sure that it actually stays pink inside.

Other suggestions, if I put a cookbook featuring recipes for the chronically impatient? Fish more generally, including salmon and swordfish. Fresh pastas; they cook up nicely in two-three minutes, as opposed to the ten to twelve dry generally take. And yes, this gets expensive, but filet mignon. Also good with herb or roasted red pepper butter, or perhaps a crust blue cheese and scallions. I'm also usually fine doing anything with an oven -- so long as I walk away until the timer goes off, I'm prone not to screw things up.

On the other hand, I'm bad at pancakes. I always want to flip them too soon and then they flop inside themselves. Those are better for people of the reverse disposition. Ditto omelettes.

What other foods belong in this cookbook? For both the chronically impatient and cooks of the reverse type?

Also, this whole discussion reminds of the scene in the (old, featuring Audrey Hepburn) Sabrina, in which an elderly cook at her Parisian school tells her that women who are happy in love burn their souffles, and women who are unhappy in love forget to turn on the oven. I've been happy and unhappy in love. In both states, I'm much more likely to forget to turn the oven on. Make of that what you will.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Why blog under a pseudonym?

My RSS reader is chock full of posts about the contretemps ensuing from Ed Whelan of NRO's decision to reveal the identity of Obsidian Wings contributor John Blevins. (The linked post has a nice collection of links to the many blogs that have weighed in on the matter.) For what it's worth, I agree most with Olson's post.

I suppose it's worth adding a note to why I myself have decided to write under a pseudonym. First, it's partly because I am risk averse, probably unduly so. That is, I try to sound as reasonable and thoughtful and appropriate as I can here, but I nonetheless find myself constantly second guessing my own judgment. Pseudonymity makes me feel more secure about the possibility that I've said something deeply foolish and not realized it.

Second, I find comfort in pseudonymity precisely because the rules of appropriate blogging remain so unclear. At least one speaker that my law school's Career Services brought in advised us never to blog at all. Similarly, at one of my law school summer internships, one lawyer apparently told a co-clerk in a screening interview that "We don't like to hire people who blog." (I wrote pseudonymously if irregularly on LiveJournal at the time, yet it never came up during my own interview.) At the same time, I've encountered people who work in similar fields-- including my fiance, who is a law professor -- claim that as long as a blogger follows basic standards of reasonableness about what to post, she ought to be fine. Because I don't know how much (or if at all) anyone would hold this blog's existence against me, I play it safe and go the pseudonymous route. I can't fault Blevins for having tried to do the same.

I miss Pnin already

1)This Megan McArdle post is interesting, but perhaps it suggests that the converse is true: that low-performing schools should mimic the high-performing ones and instead devote more resources to bringing up students who are already strong?

2)This post on empathy and the unseen is very good.

3)I also really liked this Julian Sanchez post on the perils of pop philosophy.

4)How regulation screws up our lives: let me count the ways.