All posts by Sean Li

Brains, Stories, and Yelling

Cognitive Styles

I’m always skeptical of any explanation that involves “culture,” but here is Jennifer Richler in the latest issue of Scientific American Mind:

Previous research has shown that people from cultures that are Western,educated, industrialized, rich and democratic (“WEIRD,” in psychological parlance) tend to think analytically, using logical rules, whereas those that are non-WEIRD process information more intuitively. They even perform differently on problem-solving tasks: Americans, who are more analytical, remember individual components of a complex visual scene better than East Asians, who are more holistic.

They compared the minds of liberals and conservatives by giving them three words, e.g. “panda”, “monkey”, and “banana”, and asking which two were most related:

Liberals acted more like Westerners, pairing items that belonged to the same abstract category (for instance, two animals), whereas conservatives tended to pair items that were functionally related (monkey and banana), as non-Westerners do. One other classic test of holistic thinking also suggested that liberals tended to use a more typically WEIRD cognitive style.

The finding that conservatives think more like those from collectivistic cultures might sound counterintuitive. Aren’t liberals, who favor safety-net programs for the needy, the collectivist ones? Thomas Talhelm, now a professor of behavior science at the University of Chicago and lead author of the study, explains that true collectivism “doesn’t mean general sharing with other people. It’s about social ties and responsibilities to those within your group.” Antipoverty programs usually serve to help individuals get a leg up rather than strengthening groups—thus aligning with WEIRD cultures’ focus on individuality.

This confuses me a little because when I think about recent “liberal” examples in individualism vs collectivism, the thing that jumps out is the “check your privilege” movement, which is ultra anti-individualist. You belong to X racial group or Y social class? Privileged! Your “identity” is based on pre-defined groups (often which you did not make a choice to join) and not on your individual experience.

The counterintuitive story, that liberals are the individualistic ones, makes more sense after some thought. If you go through liberal vs conservative stances on social issues, it does seem like liberals in general favor the individual. The most glaring example is abortion, with the liberal position literally called “pro-choice.”

Here is a passage about where libertarians fit in this framework, from this article:

Historically, libertarians and modern liberals share an ideological ancestry, both tracing our roots to the classical liberal tradition of Locke, Hume, Smith, Mill, and others. In the 19th century, the classical liberals triumphed by advocating the primacy of the individual against the status quo of monarchy, mercantilism, aristocracy, theology, slavery, and the like. While the progressive movement stole our liberal terminology in the early 20th century, modern liberals and libertarians today still share that same valuation of the individual in society. This is most easily seen today in the issue of marriage equality, where social conservatives try to use the power of the state to control marriage because it is an important social institution, while liberals and libertarians focus on the importance of marriage in the lives of all individuals. It is the same core conflict between a holistic worldview that emphasizes tradition against a more analytic worldview that prioritizes the individual.

Oh, and I’m totally on team panda+monkey rather than monkey+banana. I would guess most people I know (liberals and math people) would pick the two animals as well.

Bonus: Here is a chart from the Scientific American Mind article on political party and Twitter language. It does further the story that “liberals are the real individualists”:

twitter_democrat_republican_language

Stories

Saw this on Tyler Cowen’s blog, so here is the story within a story. Just to be clear, I am quoting Tyler Cowen quoting Marti Leimbach:

“A question of privilege”

An excellent short essay by Marti Leimbach.  Here is the opening:

My university-aged daughter is always telling me about the “privilege” that people like me have and how it makes it impossible for me to understand and empathise with those whose lives are without such privilege. I do see her point. I’ve never been black or gay or trans or gender queer or mentally ill. I don’t know what it would be like to grow up in a derelict building in a dangerous neighbourhood, to have drug addicts for parents, to fear for my safety while walking to school, to be openly despised for being female, denied education or refused employment based on my skin colour or gender. And while I have been poor enough not to be able to afford a car or health insurance, I have never been so poor I had to steal food. Clearly, I’ve not suffered the worst of what society can throw at a person.

Nonetheless, this whole notion of “privilege” vexes me. We talk about it as though we can all recognise what it is. I am not always so sure. I can tell one narrative of my life and it seems to describe someone who grew up without privilege, and I can tell another narrative and it seems almost as though my life was one of ease and privilege from the time I was born.

The story continues…it is hard to excerpt with its various twists and turns, definitely recommended…

As advertised, Leimbach paints two widely differing narratives of the same set of events. It is definitely worth a read. (It also reminds me of the underrated movie Vantage Point, which shows the same plot unfold several times from the perspective of different characters.)

The power of narrative is strong. You can take the same set of facts and wind up with opposite interpretations, as was the case in Leimbach’s story. For very different example, here is a graph of US stock market investment, via Gallup:

gallup-stock-market

So should you buy into the market?

  • Story 1: “It is obviously a time to buy stocks. When the number of investors in the stock market recovers and comes back to normal levels near 60%, tens of millions of Americans will have bought stocks, making the market much higher than it is now.”
  • Story 2: “It is obviously a time to sell all your stocks. Fewer Americans are investing in the market than ever before, and this trend will only continue. Combined with the market near all-time highs, a crash is imminent.”
  • (Meta-story: “The markets are efficient and have priced in both stories 1 and 2, so it is not obviously a time to buy or to sell.”)

Do violent video games increase crime? [from this post]

  • Story 1: “People who play violent video games are likely to imitate the characters they play, thus becoming more aggressive in real life.”
  • Story 2: “People who would otherwise commit violent crimes satisfy their urges in video games and not in real life, thus decreasing the crime rate.”

So unless you have numbers to back you up or comprehensive explanations for complex issues, stay away from explaining things via simple stories.

These kinds of narratives make me skeptical of many political movements as well, whether from the right (e.g. the “war on Christianity” narrative) or from the left (e.g. the “privilege” narrative mentioned in Leimbach’s article).

Here is Cowen again, really hammering the point in a TED talk on narratives.

Basically, make sure you understand as much of the situation as you can, not just some simplified narrative.

How to Social Activism

Earlier this week, The Huffington Post on President Obama on Black Lives Matter:

President Barack Obama on Saturday praised the work the Black Lives Matter movement has done to highlight racial inequality, but also strongly cautioned activists that they needed to be realistic about their proposals and be willing to compromise.

Speaking at a town hall in London, the president mentioned Black Lives Matter specifically as he laid out his vision of how activists can achieve social change.

As a general rule, I think that what, for example, Black Lives Matter is doing now to bring attention to the problem of a criminal justice system that sometimes is not treating people fairly based on race, or reacting to shootings of individuals by police officers, has been really effective in bringing attention to problems,” Obama said.

But the president went on to say that activists needed to be realistic about what could be achieved immediately and sometimes needed to compromise to achieve long-term goals.

One of the things I caution young people about, though, that I don’t think is effective is once you’ve highlighted an issue and brought it to people’s attention and shined a spotlight, and elected officials or people who are in a position to start bringing about change are ready to sit down with you, then you can’t just keep on yelling at them,” Obama said.

Thanks Obama! And no, that was not sarcastic. As a rationalist and individualist, I generally disapprove of schemes in which your identity is based on something that you had no control over, such as race.

I’m on team Clinton and I think many of Sanders’s plans are insane. However, I fully support Sanders’s right to speak at his own rallies, especially with so many supporters there to see and listen to Sanders, not some random people who hijacked the podium, which happened in Aug. 2015.

Things like this just alienate would-be allies. I was generally favorable towards Black Lives Matter before this and certainly had a lower view of the group after the event. And it’s not like Sanders did anything horrible to them before or during the event. I am glad President Obama was not afraid to address this.

Bots, Markets, and Assortative Mating

tayprofile

Tay, AlphaGo, and News Feed Algorithms

AI reached two milestones last month: beating the top human player in the world at Go, and creating a “teen girl AI” that “became a Hitler-loving sex robot.” As an enthusiast in chess, I was under the impression that Go was way more complicated and that it would take decades from now for a computer to outplay a human. Oops. The future is here. It seems pretty awesome, but other than that, I feel unqualified to speak further about the Go match.

I do feel more than qualified, however, to talk about Tay. I mean, I’m not an expert on Hitler-loving sex robots, but I have spent a lot of time arguing with people on the internet, and wow do things derail quickly. So my obviously hindsight reaction is Come on, how did you not expect this? Like, have you ever seen the comments section of a YouTube video? If you train on that, was any other result even possible? My solution is, find anyone who has made any angry comment on any YouTube video, and hire them to break your AI during testing. Also, when I imagine what people in the 1990s worried about in terms of AI development, I’m sure this was not one of them. Thanks, internet.

One more thing about AI: Facebook and Twitter news feeds. I’m generally in favor of any change that makes me have to do less work, such as scrolling past posts which, according to some algorithm, I probably don’t care about. However, the paranoia is that if I “like” an article titled, “Microsoft deletes ‘teen girl’ AI after it became a Hitler-loving sex robot within 24 hours,” I would be horrified if Facebook thought I were interested in Microsoft, teen girl AIs, and Hitler-loving sex robots from that action and then show me posts about them. Apparently, this worry is already prevalent:

In Karahalios’ study, many people voiced a common Facebook complaint: too many baby photos in their feeds. They said they would Like a friend’s baby picture out of a feeling of obligation, but then immediately hide the post to try to tell Facebook they didn’t actually want a feed full of toddlers.

So the solution is to like the story but then immediately hide it? I’ll remember that for the day when Microsoft releases a schoolgirl chatbot in the culture that is Japan.

Oh wait, that already happened.

Stocks and College Tuition

When a stock price is too low, you buy, and when it is too high, you sell. That is the most basic thing about a market. Of course, there are a million reasons why this is not so easy to do and why there is an entire sector of the economy trying to do this. And of course, as a disclaimer, nothing on this blog is ever financial advice, even “buy low, sell high.”

Now the “buy low, sell high” strategy may be even more difficult to do in things outside of stocks. One side is pretty easy to do: if groceries or cars or houses are being offered too low, buy them.

But the other side is tricky. If your grocery store is selling oranges at $50 per orange, and people are actually buying them, you probably want to sell oranges at $45 to compete with them. But you need oranges! One way to obtain oranges is to buy them for a cheaper price elsewhere, and resell them at a higher price. So you could go to a nearby city, buy 100 oranges for $1 a piece, pay $100 in transportation fees and resell them for $45 a piece, for a net profit of $4,300. But if oranges are also selling $50 in the other town, you can’t do this, so you would need to grow your own oranges, and that takes some effort, but may be worth doing depending on how much demand there is for these oranges.

The same is true for cars and houses. If the prices for them are just too high overall, the right thing to do may be to found a company that produces oranges or cars or houses and sell them at exorbitant prices. By creating competition, you are also ever so slightly lowering prices to be closer to the fair price.

During the housing bubble, if you thought prices for houses were too low, you would buy houses hoping to flip them out at an even higher fair price. But if you thought house prices were too high, it was more difficult to make that bet. You could buy a financial instrument called a credit default swap on subprime mortgage bonds, or you enter the competition by building houses for a relatively low cost and selling them at very high prices. Both options were difficult and risky.

Enter college tuition [Bloomberg]:

college_tuition

No longer is it the rent that is too damn high, but the college tuition. It has become a political issue now, with politicians in both parties decrying the cost of higher education. Among the 2016 presidential candidates, Bernie Sanders has made a particularly big deal about this, going so far as to propose universal free college tuition. Even Donald Trump agrees in spirit: “That’s probably one of the only things the government shouldn’t make money off – I think it’s terrible that one of the only profit centers we have is student loans.”

How are markets supposed to work again? Do you buy when prices are too high? No, you sell! That’s how you both make money and help drive down prices to some reasonable level. The simple theoretic solution is to found new universities. Unfortunately, the for-profit college idea has empirically been a failure so far.

I’m still hopeful for a better solution. Nonetheless, I’m glad I have already gone through college. My alma mater currently costs $67,613 a year.

Not-Often-Talked-About Sources of Income Inequality

My news feeds on Facebook and Twitter seem more political than before,  which is unsurprising given the proximity to the presidential election. At least on the Democratic side, there is much talk of economic inequality.

I roughly agree with this Paul Graham essay written a few months ago. It starts off the contradiction that startups seem to both help the world and increase inequality:

I’m interested in this topic because I was one of the founders of a company called Y Combinator that helps people start startups. Almost by definition, if a startup succeeds its founders become rich. Which means by helping startup founders I’ve been helping to increase economic inequality. If economic inequality should be decreased, I shouldn’t be helping founders. No one should be.

It then talks about how there are some good sources of inequality (startups, variation in productivity) and some bad ones (tax loopholes, high incarceration rates), and we should be focusing on the latter group, not on inequality categorically.

Besides startups and productive gaps, what are other good sources of inequality? The one that came to mind was assortative mating. Basically, if two rich people married each other and two poor people married each other, you have household inequality, but if they cross-married, you have equality, at least on a household level. The former is becoming more prevalent. Not only does this increase immediate inequality, but it also decreases economic mobility by denying poor people from marrying up.

Tyler Cowen thinks this is nontrivial [NYT]:

These matches are great for those individuals who can build prosperous and happy family alliances, but they also propagate inequality across the generations. Of all the causes behind growing income inequality, in the longer run this development may prove one of the most significant and also one of the hardest to counter.

And more sentences here:

As it becomes harder for many people to “marry up” as a path for income mobility for themselves or their children, families that are not well connected may feel disengaged, and the significant, family-based advantages for some children may discourage others from even trying. The numbers show that assortative mating really matters.

One study indicated that combined family decisions on assortative mating, divorce and female labor supply accounted for about one-third of the increase in income inequality from 1960 to 2005.

Will the fight against economic inequality be so fervent that, in the future, startups and assortative marriages will be shunned? It would be a strange world to imagine.

Miscellaneous

I’m a space geek, but someone definitely spent too much effort making this Pluto and Charon video [Business Insider]. Also, when it states that Pluto and Charon are tidally locked, it is one of the times during which the animation does not show them tidally locked.

2015 and What I’m Thinking About

effective_altruism1

Effective Altruism

One thing I’ve never discussed on this blog is effective altruism. It is basically a movement to optimize doing good, and it does so by number crunching rather than by random donating. Here are a couple of main results:

  • Certain charities are 10 or 100 times more efficient than others. The most effective of them all is to distribute mosquito nets to sub-Saharan Africa, according to the famous site GiveWell, which ranks charities in effectiveness.
  • A high income earner can create more social impact than a social worker. The idea is that a software engineer earning $100,000 a year and donating 50% of it (to efficient charities like above) can generate a lot more good than a non-profit worker. The site 80,000 Hours has more about this.

I am fine with this movement and I really enjoy the discussions it causes. I would defend effective altruism against many of its usual criticisms.

But I am still personally skeptical for now. Which brings me to…

Markets

One thing about working in trading is that I now see everything in terms of markets. (Tyler Cowen’s blog often highlights “markets in everything“.) I naturally think about the cost and value of everyday things and decisions. This mindset probably makes effective altruism become more understandable. If every $3000 in mosquito nets saves one life, why would I ever donate to my alma mater?

Yet the same market mentality also raises some questions. I believe people are generally good, that markets are generally efficient, and that companies are generally beneficial to society. So when billions of dollars go into a tech company like Facebook (market cap of $300 billion as of this post) instead of anti-mosquito nets, there is probably a lot of hard-to-measure good that Facebook is providing and which is widely ignored.

Disenchantment with the Left

I wrote only 3 blog posts this year, and sadly two of them were about terrorist attacks in Paris. Back in college I blogged about atheism, and I kind of want to get into this again considering the Paris tragedies, and I believe that combating religion is still important.

That is also why I am becoming disillusioned with being a liberal. Both in the media and on my Facebook feed, people are too afraid (of being called racist or worse, Islamophobic) to criticize Islam and its role in the attacks. The Koran says to do horrific things to infidels, and it is emphatically not a tiny minority that believe this literally.

Liberals do a great job standing up for women, LGBT people, and religious minorities—in America and Europe. But in entire swathes of Islamic countries, in both the Middle East and Africa, women are considered second-class, legally beaten by their husbands, and even sentenced to 200 lashes for the crime of being raped. And we liberals just look the other way because it would be racist and colonialist to criticize their culture. (That last sentence is just out of anger, I hope nobody actually thinks that.)

Here is a very graphic New York Times video from just yesterday, showing a woman literally beaten and stoned to death by a mob, in a public space in broad daylight, because of rumors she burned a Koran. Can you really watch that and claim Islam had nothing to do with it?

My other disillusionment with being a liberal is the whole safe-space/microaggression/trigger-warning/check-your-privilege movement, which I talked about previously.

Anyway, I want to make a hobby out of writing in 2016, and I’m not sure if I should stick with tame topics like effective altruism and markets, or also include charged ones like religion and politics.

Bonus: My 2015 Reading List

  • The Occupy Wall Street Handbook, Various Authors: This is a compilation of essays written on the Occupy movement. I read this to challenge my positive views towards Wall Street, but I was mostly unpersuaded. The essays presume that you are against Wall Street and then talk about the movement or stats about inequality, without much attempt at persuasion.
  • A Random Walk Down Wall Street, Burton G. Malkiel: A decent chronicle of the rise of finance and Wall Street.
  • The Millionaire Next Door, Thomas J. Stanley and William D. Danko: An eye-opening book about American attitudes on saving, spending, and the accumulation of wealth. It provides so many instances where two households have the same income yet have vastly differing net worths, even when age, location, education, previous incomes, etc. are similar.
  • Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand: I expected Atlas Shrugged to be pure evil based on so many peoples’ hatred of Ayn Rand and this book, but I actually enjoyed it. At least within the story, I cheered at the end. Does this make me a bad person? I definitely agreed with the reverence of scientists/inventors/creators.
  • On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin: We are all familiar with classics in literature, so why not in science? Its force and detail are impressive.
  • Average is Over, Tyler Cowen: The title says it all. Jobs will increasingly cluster towards high-wage and low-wage, with little in between.
  • The Great Stagnation, Tyler Cowen: Good discussion of low hanging fruit in economic growth.
  • The Myth of the Rational Voter, Bryan Caplan: Excellent treatise on voter rationality and the public’s views on economic issues, and how frighteningly different they are from economists’ views.
  • The Intelligent Investor, Benjamin Graham: I didn’t find it very useful.
  • The Sense of Style, Steven Pinker: A useful writing-style guide.
  • The Price of Inequality, Joseph Stiglitz: I had a similar reaction as to the Occupy handbook. It basically listed some facts but wasn’t that convincing. I mean, I agree that too much inequality is bad, but this book somehow made the case weaker for me. It had at least one “are you kidding me” moment.
  • Humans Are Underrated, Geoff Colvin: An interesting take on the idea that machines will take over even more jobs than today and that jobs will be all about human-to-human interaction.
  • Islam and the Future of Tolerance, Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz: A very refreshing, actual dialog between an unapologetic atheist and a pro-reform Muslim. More discussions like this need to exist.
  • Brief Candle in the Dark, Richard Dawkins: Full of captivating and often humorous tales of Oxford, science, and atheism.
  • You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost), Felicia Day: Really, thank you so much for creating The Guild and this memoir. It also feels good to read another person’s experience with World of Warcraft.

Caplan’s book discusses anti-market bias, and I feel like I did had lower expectations for books that were pro-market and higher expectations for ones that were anti-market. Both sides surprised me.

Safe Spaces and Universities

I’ve always considered myself a liberal. I am pro-equal-marriage, pro-choice, pro-feminism (at least in the classical sense), and pro-gun-control. When Donald Trump utters words, or when people complain about red Starbucks cups, I feel ever less proud to be an American. So it pains me greatly then, to ask, what the hell is going on in our universities?

Safe space is an innocuous-sounding term which, despite its reasonable and even praiseworthy historical origins, seems today to really mean safety from any encounter and discussion of opposing viewpoints. And it is unfortunately part of a larger phenomenon. As Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt wrote in a well-known Atlantic piece:

A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.

What kind of discomforts or offenses? Here is another passage (emphasis mine):

This new climate is slowly being institutionalized, and is affecting what can be said in the classroom, even as a basis for discussion. During the 2014–15 school year, for instance, the deans and department chairs at the 10 University of California system schools were presented by administrators at faculty leader-training sessions with examples of microaggressions. The list of offensive statements included: “America is the land of opportunity” and “I believe the most qualified person should get the job.”

Just read the whole article.

Influence

The main surprise is that this is happening at all. For a long time, I thought terms like safe space, trigger warning, check your privilege, and microaggression were confined to the echo chambers of Tumblr and occasionally seeped out to other social media sites. But to take prominence among real college campuses, including the most elite ones—that is surreal.

Last month the Yale Halloween Costume fiasco was ignited by this letter:

Even if we could agree on how to avoid offense – and I’ll note that no one around campus seems overly concerned about the offense taken by religiously conservative folks to skin-revealing costumes – I wonder, and I am not trying to be provocative: Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious… a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive? American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition. And the censure and prohibition come from above, not from yourselves! Are we all okay with this transfer of power? Have we lost faith in young people’s capacity – in your capacity – to exercise self-censure, through social norming, and also in your capacity to ignore or reject things that trouble you?

Responses included:

  • “I don’t want to debate. I want to talk about my pain” in the Yale Herald (now taken down),
  • “I have had to watch my friends defend their right to this institution. This email and the subsequent reaction to it have interrupted their lives. I have friends who are not going to class, who are not doing their homework, who are losing sleep, who are skipping meals, and who are having breakdowns. I feel drained. And through it all, Christakis has shown that he does not consider us a priority.” (from an archive of the post)
  • this video incident:

From a professor writing in a Washington Post op-ed:

An additional problem that affects the current generation of college students even more is that it is so easy for these contretemps to balloon so quickly into national debates. That’s extremely unfortunate. One of the purposes of college is to articulate stupid arguments in stupid ways and then learn, through interactions with fellow students and professors, exactly how stupid they are. Anyone who thinks that the current generation of college students is uniquely stupid is either an amnesiac or willfully ignorant. As a professor with 20 years of experience, I can assure you that college students have been saying stupid things since the invention of college students.

Two years ago, I still roamed the halls of Cornell University as a student and I’m thankful I didn’t have to witness any of this nonsense. The most I have observed was a TA who used the term “freshpersons” instead of “freshmen”, and this is something I’m perfectly fine with. Other than that, nothing. So that means either:

  1. I went to a safe haven from safe spaces, or
  2. I managed to avoid contact with these people.

I’m guessing (2) is more likely. Perhaps it helped to have certain expectations for college life. It has become an antiquated notion that college is a place to open your mind and challenge your beliefs. Instead, certain students would persuade you that it is a place to close your mind and guard your beliefs as if they were more sacred than God.

College campuses should be safe spaces. They should be safe spaces for bright and motivated students to exercise free speech, challenge social norms, and learn new things. Picture that. And now picture that the people who want to place restrictions on these rights are not the administrators, but the students themselves.

On a similar string, here is an op-ed from The Daily Californian, calling on people to occupy the syllabus:

We are calling for an occupation of syllabi in the social sciences and humanities. This call to action was instigated by our experience last semester as students in an upper-division course on classical social theory. Grades were based primarily on multiple-choice quizzes on assigned readings. The course syllabus employed a standardized canon of theory that began with Plato and Aristotle, then jumped to modern philosophers: Hobbes, Locke, Hegel, Marx, Weber and Foucault, all of whom are white men. The syllabus did not include a single woman or person of color.

We have major concerns about social theory courses in which white men are the only authors assigned. These courses pretend that a minuscule fraction of humanity — economically privileged white males from five imperial countries (England, France, Germany, Italy and the United States) — are the only people to produce valid knowledge about the world. This is absurd. The white male syllabus excludes all knowledge produced outside this standardized canon, silencing the perspectives of the other 99 percent of humanity.

The white male canon is not sufficient for theorizing the lives of marginalized people. None of the thinkers we studied in this course had a robust analysis of gender or racial oppression. They did not even engage with the enduring legacies of European colonial expansion, the enslavement of black people and the genocide of indigenous people in the Americas. Mentions of race and gender in the white male canon are at best incomplete and at worst racist and sexist. We were required to read Hegel on the “Oriental realm” and Marx on the “Asiatic mode of production,” but not a single author from Asia. We were required to read Weber on the patriarchy, but not a single feminist author. The standardized canon is obsolete: Any introduction to social theory that aims to be relevant to today’s problems must, at the very least, address gender and racial oppression.

This is just so rich. You speak of racism? You speak of sexism? Like, you are talking about theory in a time when the world was far more racist and sexist than it is today. If anything, rewriting the past to hide racism and sexism is making matters worse.

Jumping in time, just yesterday in the UK, certain students made death threats and actively disrupted a lecture in the name of “safe space”. The speaker, “Ms Namazie, 49, is a leading secularist and member of the ‘ex-Muslim’ movement which campaigns to give Muslims the freedom to leave their faith without reprisals.” An excerpt from the Daily Mail  regarding what occurred:

Speaking after the event, Ms Namazie said: ‘After my talk began, ISOC “brothers” started coming into the room, repeatedly banging the door, falling on the floor, heckling me, playing on their phones, shouting out, and creating a climate of intimidation in order to try and prevent me from speaking.

‘I continued speaking as loudly as I could. They repeatedly walked back and forth in front of me.

‘In the midst of my talk, one of the ISOC Islamists switched off my PowerPoint and left. The university security had to intervene and remain in the room as I continued my talk.’

Another excerpt:

Goldsmiths Islamic Society has previously hosted a number of radical speakers including Moazzam Begg of Cage, the charity which described ISIS terrorist ‘Jihadi John’ as a ‘beautiful, kind man’.

If you are advocating killing apostates and praising ISIS terrorists and leveling death threats against your critics, then sorry, you don’t get to claim the “safe space” defense.

And what’s worse is that people feel they have to be respectful of anything safe space, so they are stuck in a position where they can’t criticize what just happened above. “I’m offended” trumps any logical argument.

Jerry Coyne calls it the “death of liberalism“.

And we cannot leave out Yale’s twin, Missouri. Regarding the media incident at the University of Missouri, specifically this Youtube video, Conor Friedersdorf annotates:

Here the doublethink reaches its apex:

  • As the video begins, a man tells the photographer that he is not allowed to push the wall of people which has formed to stop him from moving forward.
  • Around the 20-second mark, a woman shouts that the photographer needs to respect the space of students, just as they start to forcibly push him backwards.
  • Just after the one-minute mark, having been pushed back by students who are deliberately crowding him to obstruct his view, things grow more surreal as the photographer is told, “Please give them space! You cannot be this close to them.”
  • At the 1:24 mark, as the students are chanting at the photographer and some are visibly smirking at him––and as he’s frustrated but doing his best to keep his cool––a protestor tells him, as if he is disrespecting them, “You think this is funny.”
  • Around 1:42, after several rounds of students chanting and yelling loudly at him in unison, he raises his voice to politely insist that he has a First Amendment right to be there. And a student interjects that he must not yell at a protestor.
  • At 1:50 or so, a student tells the photographer that the members of the large group outnumbering him 20- or 30-to-one need to protect their space as human beings from him.
  • Around 2:08, a woman walks right up to the photographer and says, “You know what? Back off of my personal space. Leave these students alone.”
  • That woman then spreads out her arms and starts pushing the photographer back more––and as she makes contact with his body other students tell him, “Stop pushing her.”
  • At 2:33, the same woman tells the photographer that one of the students doesn’t want to talk to him. He explains that he has no desire to speak with anyone. And she replies, “She doesn’t want to see you,” as if he’s infringing on a right to not stand in a public space in a way that makes him visible.
  • Another surreal moment comes at 2:47, when a student who has been there the whole time approaches the wall of people preventing the photographer’s forward progress and says, “I need to get through, are you not going to let me through?” as if the photographer is the one transgressing against her freedom of movement.
  • At 3:32 another student says, “They can call the police on you,” as if the photographer is the one breaking the law.
  • A moment later, the photographer puts his hands and camera directly above his head to try to snap a photo. The women in front of him pushes her hands in the air to try to block the lens. They make fleeting, inconsequential contact, and a bystander accusatorially says to the photographer, “Did you just touch her?” Because that would be beyond the pale, never mind he has been repeatedly pushed!

And on it goes like that.

This behavior is a kind of safe-baiting: using intimidation or initiating physical aggression to violate someone’s rights, then acting like your target is making you unsafe.

“You are an unethical reporter,” a student says around 5:15. “You do not respect our space.” Not 30 seconds later, the crowd starts to yell, “Push them all out,” and begins walking into the photographer. “You’re pushing me!” he yells. And even moments after vocally organizing themselves to push him, they won’t fess up to the nature of their behavior. “We’re walking forward,” they say, feigning innocence. Says one snarky student as the crowd forces him back, “I believe it’s my right to walk forward, isn’t it?” Then the photographer is gone, and only the person holding the video camera that recorded the whole ordeal remains. Ironically, he is a member of the press, too, which he mentions to one of the few protestors who is left behind.

By then, the mask has fallen.“Who wants to help me get this reporter out of here?” an unusually frank protestor yells. “I need some muscle over here!”

The woman calling for muscle? An assistant professor of mass media at the University of Missouri … who had previously asked the campus for help attracting media attention.

So campus protesters have devolved into hypocrisy, blatant threats, and intimidation. This is now the example? I can hear Martin Luther King Jr. rolling in his grave.

You don’t have to sacrifice free speech or human compassion to advance your causes. It is not a tradeoff. My TA who said “freshpersons” didn’t feel the overwhelming urge to censor or threaten people who said “freshmen”. She was the most politically correct instructor I knew at Cornell, but she was a rational person who seemed to also understand the vital importance of free speech. It was not even close to these other stories.

Why Now?

Why did this phenomenon arise, and why so recently? The following sociology paper (Campbell and Manning) is a good answer. It argues there is rise of “victimhood culture” which is distinct from its predecessors, “honor culture” and “dignity culture”, and that the rise is based on social conditions—namely the college campus, a more egalitarian society (kind of surprisingly), and 21st-century technology that grants us the ability to mass-publicize grievances.

Abstract:

Campus activists and others might refer to slights of one’s ethnicity or other cultural characteristics as “microaggressions,” and they might use various forums to publicize them. Here we examine this phenomenon by drawing from Donald Black’s theories of conflict and from cross-cultural studies of conflict and morality. We argue that this behavior resembles other conflict tactics in which the aggrieved actively seek the support of third parties as well as those that focus on oppression. We identify the social conditions associated with each feature, and we discuss how the rise of these conditions has led to large-scale moral change such as the emergence of a victimhood culture that is distinct from the honor cultures and dignity cultures of the past.

Among other things, it provides a wealth of examples of academically documented cases of microaggression and claims of microaggression. Some interesting passages here:

A third notable feature of microaggression complaints is that the grievances focus on inequality and oppression – especially inequality and oppression based on cultural characteristics such as gender or ethnicity. Conduct is offensive because it perpetuates or increases the domination of some persons and groups by others. Contemporary readers may take it for granted that the domination of one group by another, or for that matter any substantial kind of intergroup inequality, is an injustice to be condemned and remedied. But people might have grievances about many other kinds of issues. For instance, they might condemn others for vices such as drunkenness, sloth, and gluttony. They might criticize or punish people for illicit sexual acts such as sodomy, incest, or bestiality. And cross-culturally and historically, people might harshly judge and persecute religious, ethnic, and other cultural minorities merely for being different. Such grievances are largely absent from microaggression complaints, and those who promulgate such complaints would surely consider criticism of cultural minorities and unconventional sexual practices to be examples of the very oppression they seek to expose and eradicate. The phenomenon thus illustrates a particular type of morality that is especially concerned with equality and diversity and sees any act that perpetuates inequality or decreases diversity as a cause for serious moral condemnation.

And this:

…a morality that privileges equality and condemns oppression is most likely to arise precisely in settings that already have relatively high degrees of equality.

And this:

When the victims publicize microaggressions they call attention to what they see as the deviant behavior of the offenders. In doing so they also call attention to their own victimization. Indeed, many ways of attracting the attention and sympathy of third parties emphasize or exacerbate the low status of the aggrieved. People portray themselves as oppressed by the powerful – as damaged, disadvantaged, and needy….

Certainly the distinction between offender and victim always has moral significance, lowering the offender’s moral status. In the settings such as those that generate microaggression catalogs, though, where offenders are oppressors and victims are the oppressed, it also raises the moral status of the victims. This only increases the incentive to publicize grievances, and it means aggrieved parties are especially likely to highlight their identity as victims,emphasizing their own suffering and innocence. Their adversaries are privileged and blameworthy, but they themselves are pitiable and blameless. To the extent that others take their side, they accept this characterization of the conflict, but their adversaries and their partisans might portray the conflict in the opposite terms. This can give rise to what is called “competitive victimhood,” with both sides arguing that it is they and not their adversaries who have suffered the most and are most deserving of help or most justified in retribution (Noor et al. 2012; Sullivan et al. 2012).

And this:

The emerging victimhood culture appears to share dignity’s disdain for risk, but it does condone calling attention to oneself as long as one is calling attention to one’s own hardships – to weaknesses rather than strengths and to exploitation rather than exploits. For example, students writing personal statements as part of their applications for colleges and graduate schools often write not of their academic achievements but instead – with the encouragement of the universities – about overcoming adversity such as a parent’s job loss or having to shop at thrift stores (Lieber 2014). And in a setting where people increasingly eschew toleration and publicly air complaints to compel official action, personal discomfort looms large in official policy.

Jonathan Haidt wrote a good outline of the paper here with comments.

What Now?

It doesn’t appear that this trend will subside anytime soon. What will happen? Will this cause a right-wing backlash? To protest this, will I have to vote Republican?

Bonus read: The word “colonial”/”colonialism” only occurs 12 times in this NPR denouncement of a Taylor Swift music video.

Paris and Campus Activism

je_suis_charlie_2
January 2015. Getty Images.

Paris

I like to wait some time after a current event and see people’s reactions. To the Paris attacks, everyone is responding exactly as you would expect:

  1. ISIS takes credit.
  2. France declares the attacks an act of war, bombs ISIS stuff in Syria, and smokes out related suspects.
  3. The rest of the world sympathizes with France.
  4. Conservatives in Europe and America want to stop taking in Syrian refugees, and more right-wing backlash, etc.
  5. Liberals criticize conservatives.
  6. People on the internet say all the usual stuff which they think are new and clever arguments on terrorism/tolerance/religion even though these arguments literally appear every time there is a terrorist attack.
  7. I get angry as an atheist because many people still try to tiptoe around calling this “Islamic” terrorism because the thought of accidentally offending people is so much worse than a hundred people being murdered.

The only thing sort of unexpected was the universal support against terrorism this time, in contrast with Charlie Hebdo in January. The last blog post I wrote, which seems like a really long time ago, was about the backlash against Charlie Hebdo after the attacks as many people thought their cartoons were too offensive and that in some way they deserved it.

Even the Pope changed his mind about it. “If my good friend Dr. Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch,” said Mr. Francis in a victim-blaming allegory regarding the January attacks which killed 12 people. On the other hand, regarding the November attacks, he stated that there is no “religious or human justification for these things.”

So I’m pleased that the world is finally starting to rally together against ISIS. But it has unfortunately taken so many lives, not just in Paris but around the world, to get us to this path.

Missouri and Yale

One thing the Paris attacks did was to totally shut out the campus “activist” incidents from the news.

The Missouri protests seemed mostly legitimate, other than the whole fiasco of stepping in front of a car and touching it to obtain instant victimhood status, or the part where  protesters refused media into their safe spaces and then complained about not getting media attention. There was blatant racism at the school (like not microaggressions* but literally dropping cotton balls in front of a black community) and it seemed like the administration didn’t do much about it. Even if the president was totally not a racist but just incompetent at his job, it more or less justifies the protests.

For Yale though, I have to denounce the Halloween costume protests and instead take the side of Erika Christaki. Her apparently biggest mistake in life was to encourage students to think and exercise free speech, in an institution where students are supposed to think and exercise free speech. The backlash against her from some of the students seemed completely out of line, given that it took place at such an elite university. I basically agree with this Atlantic article by Conor Friedersdorf—its title, “The New Intolerance of Student Activism”, sums it up.

Bonus read: a protest at Dartmouth, with students’ own responses here and here. The first link is disconcerting. A passage:

The large group of protestors began to move up and yell at students on first floor Berry. Students were again yelled at to stand up in support of the protest, and many did so, either out of support or fear.

After making a girl cry, a protestor screamed “Fuck your white tears.”

I was startled by the aggression from a small minority of students towards students in the library, many of whom were supporters of the movement.

When I was at Cornell just a couple of years ago, I never saw anything like this. The closest to campus controversy I witnessed was the day after some rockets from Hamas hit Israel and killed some people. A group of pro-Israel, presumably Jewish, students organized a demonstration on Ho Plaza (yes, that place exists at Cornell). While I watched, another group of students, who I would guess were Muslim, started shouting profanities at the Jewish organization. From what I later heard, the second group was trying to kick out the Jewish group but the Jewish group had already cleared the event with the administration and thus had the right to be there.

But this incident seemed respectful of free speech and was about actual legitimate issues, not Halloween costumes.

*WordPress hilariously auto-corrects “microaggression” to “nonaggression”.

If You Think Charlie Hebdo Needs to Tone It Down, You Don’t Understand Free Speech (Or Satire)

Je_suis_Charlie

In response to the Charlie Hebdo shooting, there have been roughly two kinds of sentiments:

  1. I support free speech, and the attacks were unjustified. (“I am Charlie”)
  2. I support free speech, and the attacks were unjustified, BUT Charlie Hebdo went too far and shouldn’t have been so offensive. (“I am not Charlie.”)

The second sentiment is what I have trouble with, and it is one that I feel needs to be addressed.

We should be on the same side here. Extremist Islam is not just anti-free speech—it’s also anti-feminist, anti-LGBT, and anti-Semitic, to name a few examples. In fact, to blow your mind further, Charlie Hebdo is actually a left-wing paper. This is just one of the problems of satire, that some people will confuse what a satirist is making fun of with what he or she is actually supporting. Unfortunately, this “some people” category includes people who I would normally view as very intelligent, and perhaps they just flew too quickly into the contrarian nest. (I say this because it’s the left that should be MORE supportive of Charlie Hebdo, whereas it seems that all the detractors I know of are from the left.) I imagine that if the terrorists had attacked an women’s rights convention, the response from the left would be far different. (“I don’t profess to be a scholar of Islam. But it’s plain that some branches or interpretations of the faith view any depictions of gender equality as blasphemy.”) After all, it’s extremist Islam, not offensive cartoons, that brought you Boko Haram’s kidnapping of schoolgirls, lashes for women as punishment for being raped, and the shooting of an oh-so-offensive Malala Yousafzai. You should have the right to call these out without having to worry about your life.

Now, the way of calling these out is where some people disagree. They think free speech is the right to say what you want so long as it doesn’t offend people. But this is a contradiction in terms: by definition, free speech isn’t free if there are restrictions on what you can and can’t say.

“This is because, in part, the use of printed (and now digital) satire is an old and honorable response to the excesses of government and religion. When the people have no other voice, when the main media outlets are controlled by the state (or too fearful to challenge the state), satire flourishes. One of the few ways the citizen can hold the rich and powerful accountable is to employ humor and satire.” —Robert F. Darden (source)

The right to free speech is the right to ridicule, the right to offend. By arguing that Charlie Hebdo should essentially censor itself, you are calling for the destruction of your own human rights, and this sentiment I find much scarier than a terrorist shooting.

*

I also feel the need to address the main side point surrounding the issue, which is the claim that Charlie Hebdo is “racist” or “hateful” or “Islamophobic.” I’m afraid most of the articles or comments I’ve read that make this claim seem completely unaware that Charlie Hebdo is a left-wing satirical newspaper as opposed to a right-wing serious newspaper, which you might think it is if you didn’t get the satire. Here’s an example where several articles that I know of seemed to completely miss the joke:

charlie_hebdo_welfare

Yep, at first it looks quite offensive, even though I’m not sure what it’s saying. Other people had the same idea, but went ahead and created their own story for what it is saying. For example, this Chicago Tribune article titled “Sorry, I am not ‘Charlie'” interpreted this trivially and lumped it with a list of other “offensive” drawings, with the description:

One cover cartoon of four young black women in burqas was headlined: “The sex slaves of Boko Haram are angry. ‘Don’t touch our child benefits!'”

The Hooded Utilitarian has an article titled “In the Wake of Charlie Hebdo, Free Speech Does Not Mean Freedom From Criticism,” where the author not only shows the above cover in a list of “offensive” covers, but also adds a clever (but in hindsight, non-intelligent) quip, saying “Yes, that last one depicts Boko Haram sex slaves as welfare queens.”

A quick Quora scan, on the other hand, reveals that some people just don’t understand satire. An explanation by Jean-Baptiste Froment:

This cover is mixing two unrelated elements which made the news at about the same time:
– Boko Haram victims likely to end up sex slaves in Nigeria
– Decrease of French welfare allocations

In France, as in probably every country who has welfare allocations, some people criticize this system because some people might try to game it (e.g., “welfare queens” idea). Note that if we didn’t had it there would probably be much more people complaining because the ones who really need it would end up in extreme poverty.

Charlie Hebdo is known for being left-wing attached and very controversial, and I think they wanted to parody people who criticize “welfare queens” by taking this point-of-view to the absurd, to show that immigrant women in France are more likely to be victims of patriarchy than evil manipulative profiteers.

And of course if we only stay on the first-degree approach, it’s a terrible racist and absurd cover.

And by another commentor, Adrien Lucas Ecoffet:

I can only confirm what Jean-Baptiste Froment and Stephen Reed’s answers have been saying: it’s easy now for non-French observers to imagine Charlie Hebdo as a right wing, racist, anti immigrant publication because of the fact that they have only seen covers about fundamentalist Islam.

The reality is, Charlie Hebdo is a far left, pro-immigrant publication, of which many contributors have been members of anti-racist organizations.

As the other answers have mentioned, this cover is simply the combination of two news stories to make a provocative joke. This is a very common occurrence in Charlie Hebdo front pages.

Overall I don’t think you should make much of this front page. Clearly people are cherry-picking Charlie Hebdo covers in an attempt to prove that it is a racist, anti-Islam publication, perhaps in some form of victim-blaming, when this assertion is absolutely preposterous to anyone who actually knows the newspaper.

Incidentally, this particular issue was preceded and followed by anti-Le Pen front pages, Le Pen being the front figure of the French anti-immigration far right.

I’m not French, I don’t speak French, nor am I familiar with French newspapers or political organizations, but with even a drop of critical thinking, I can say that these explanations make far more sense than what the “Charlie Hebdo is racist” crowd is shouting.

Let’s do more examples!

Here is a Tumblr post with 55,152 notes at the current moment of my writing this. I’m going to link one of the images and quote the entirety of it here (and I bolded a particularly interesting sentence):

charlie_hebdo_bleu

Before social media sparks fire and everyone claims the phrase #jesuischarlie I want to point out some lovely truths about Charlie Hedbo that the news media may “forget” to point out.

Though my heart goes out to the victims to the shooting at the Charlie Hedbo headquarters ( I ALSO DO NOT CONDONE THE ACT OF VIOLENCE AS A SOLUTION TO RACISM OR HATE ) I need it to be known that this newspaper was not some sweet periodical that used it’s platform of freedom of speech as a catalyst to social change in France. Before you allow Fox News to label the shooters as Muslim Terrorist and that all Muslims are terrorist and that Charlie Hebdo was a magazines for families and saints you need to know that this newspaper was infamously known for being racist, homophobic, and highly islamophobic. I am not one to laugh at a blatant racist comic as “oh lol free speech” because with free speech comes RESPONSIBILITY.

It should be no secret that the Muslim community in France has often been abused, push to the side, and ignored. Even laws are put in place to prevent then from practicing their beliefs comfortably. For Charlie Hebdo to be a left wing newspaper that questioned the actions of the right wing, why does it often look like they are laughing along with them? Why can’t this magazine question why we are racist and islamophobic than to continue to justify their belief in supposed “ironic” comics?

My prayers go out to the victims of this shooing. As an artist, a person who works in magazines, a human, and as a French woman I feel their pain.

MAIS

JE NE SUIS PAIS CHARLIE

I will not stand for this magazine, I will not celebrate the privilege of “free speech” to be a disguise for hate. I am a black woman who understands how frustrated one can be as whites continue to use laws as an excuse to be abusive to who we are whether it be religion, skin color, or sexual orientation. I know France is scared, I know people are hurting. But I cannot be this newspaper’s ally. I am an ally for the people of France, I am an ally to the victims and their families but I will not stand in solidarity for this hateful newspaper.

JE NE SUIS PAS CHARLIE

Clearly this author senses something wrong: “For Charlie Hebdo to be a left wing newspaper that questioned the actions of the right wing, why does it often look like they are laughing along with them?” But she doesn’t go any further or investigate, and instead concludes she understands what the newspaper is about.

The author included the above Charlie Hebdo cartoon, which at first glance looks incredibly racist. However, the first warning bell that went off in my head was the word “raciste.” Now, as I said before, I don’t know any French, but it seems like you’re actually a real racist and drawing a racist depiction of someone, you wouldn’t include the word “raciste” in your depiction. Indeed, some digging reveals the full story (by John Courouble):

In November 2013 a cartoon in Charlie Hebdo depicted the Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, who is black (not literally African, specifically she was born in French Guiana), as a monkey. This has been a very popular image to share on Twitter as evidence that Charlie is a racist publication.

The first clue that all is not what it seems is that the cartoon was drawn by Charb – the editor himself. He was a Communist, and his girlfriend’s parents were North African. A funny kind of racist. Next you have to note that the text next to that cartoon says “Rassemblement Bleu Raciste”. This is a play on “Rassemblement Bleu Marine”, the slogan of Marine Le Pen’s national front, and the tricolor flame next to it is the party logo.

So, what you then need to know is that the cartoon was published after a National Front politician Facebooked a photoshop of the woman in the cartoon as a monkey, and then said on French TV that she should be “in a tree swinging from the branches rather than in government”.

The cartoon is literally saying the National Front are racists. I’m genuinely not sure whether propagating the imagery is or isn’t a useful way of mocking the FN, but turning an antifascist cartoon into evidence of racism based on no understanding at all takes some real pathology.

Again, this makes way more sense. It’s like when Obama was portrayed in the following way in The New Yorker, and many people missed the joke.

obama_new_yorker

These are quite entertaining, so let’s do one more, and this time, a more relevant one. This one portrays Muhammad (which you basically aren’t supposed to do, if you believe in censorship and blasphemy laws):

charlie_hebdo_prophete

Once again, this looks quite racist at first.

Finished judging yet? Let’s look at a translation:

charlie_hebdo_prophete_translation

Yeah. Let that sink in for a while.

Basically, people in the second group assumed that Charlie Hebdo was a bunch of classic right-wing sweep-all-Muslims-into-one-category racists, but hopefully they realize now that it is not the case. As this cover illustrates, they are actually criticizing the extremist parts, by figuratively saying that extremists have turned on their prophet.

So basically:

  • Satirical newspaper staff was attacked.
  • People were sad.
  • People wanted to defend free speech.
  • Some people thought Charlie Hebdo shouldn’t be so offensive.
  • These “some people” don’t realize that Charlie Hebdo is actually satirical and making fun of racists.
  • Hopefully they will realize this and stop with the “I am not Charlie” nonsense.

Once again, to those I’m criticizing (those of you in the “I am not Charlie” group): I think we’re ultimately on the same side here, you might have just been misinformed or leapt too quickly to judgment without careful thought.  The enemy isn’t Charlie Hebdo, it’s religious extremists.

I haven’t looked at or evaluated every Charlie Hebdo cartoon for racism, but based on several examples that seemed clearly racist at first but were actually not (and were actually anti-racist), and based on their track record for supporting free speech, it seems like Charlie Hebdo is an excellent publication to support.

May the freedom of speech prevail.

I am Charlie.

Interstellar

InterstellarFinally, a movie that supports technological progress! (As opposed to condemning it, like every other movie.)

This is just a great movie to exist right now. Granted, some of the messages, as critics have pointed out, are not very deep, but at least it has such messages that no other feature film dares to voice. Messages like nurturing a long-long-term solution, i.e. going into space, rather than plowing through the next harvest. Or messages about scientific tools being more valuable than the next dollar bill, as in the following dialogue:

Cooper: You don’t believe we went to the Moon?
Ms. Kelly: I believe it was a brilliant piece of propaganda, that the Soviets bankrupted themselves pouring resources into rockets and other useless machines…
Cooper: Useless machines?
Ms. Kelly: And if we don’t want to repeat of the excess and wastefulness of the 20th Century then we need to teach our kids about this Planet, not tales of leaving it.
Cooper: You know, one of those useless machines they used to make was called an MRI. If we had any of them left the doctors might have been able to find the cyst in my wife’s brain before she died, rather than afterwards. And then my kids could have been raised by two parents….

And then, of course, you have the more obvious ones: “We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars, now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.” There is something simple yet infinitely dramatic to these lines.

Interstellar can be viewed in many ways, including as a space- and time-bending love story or as a “negative productivity shock hits the global economy.” I see it, perhaps over-optimistically, as a statement about what humanity can and will accomplish. More strongly, it is about what we must do if we wish to thrive as a species, let alone survive.