Monthly Archives: May 2012

Death of a Salesman

A recent NYT article intrigued me:

Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” … is the most devastating portrait of punctured middle-class dreams in our national literature. … [It] has consolidated its prestige as an exposure of middle-class delusions. … Mr. Miller later wrote …. that he had hoped the play would expose “this pseudo life that thought to touch the clouds by standing on top of a refrigerator, waving a paid-up mortgage at the moon, victorious at last.” … Mr. Miller remembered worrying in 1949 that “there was too much identification with Willy, too much weeping, and that the play’s ironies were being dimmed out by all this empathy.” … Miller’s outrage at a capitalist system he wanted to humanize has become our cynical adaptation to a capitalist system we pride ourselves on knowing how to manipulate. (more)

I didn’t remember the play offering a critique of capitalism, but looking around I see this view is common:

Critics have maintained that much of the enduring universal appeal of Death of a Salesman lies in its central theme of the failure of the American Dream. Willy’s commitment to false social values—consumerism, ambition, social stature—keeps him from acknowledging the value of human experience—the comforts of personal relationships, family and friends, and love. … Some commentators perceive the play as an indictment of American capitalism and a rejection of materialist values. … Willy’s … penchant for blaming others has been passed onto his sons and, as a result, all three men exhibit a poor work ethic and lack of integrity. Willy’s inability to discern between reality and fantasy is another recurring motif. (more)

So I just re-read the play. And it does contain critiques of status, ambition for status, and self-delusion to gain status. It is indeed sad to see a success-driven man unwilling to admit his failure, or to accept charity from friends, choose instead to kill himself. But I see no further critiques of materialism or capitalism in the play.

On materialism, Willy Loman and his similar son Happy mainly want to be liked and respected. Sometimes they care about money, but mainly to keep score, and get respect. When they want luxury goods, such as stockings or fancy drinks, it is mainly to get women to sleep with them. In contrast, Willy’s other son Biff wants “to be outdoors, with [my] shirt off.” Perhaps those other women are materialistic, but not these men.

On capitalism, the play might hold critiques of failing to save for hard times, or of success based on who you know, good looks, and likability. But these are not intrinsic to, or even obviously correlated with, capitalism. For example, North Korea today is nothing like capitalism, yet it has strong status differences, people who struggle for status, in part to gain sex, and success based in part on good looks and who you know. A story about an old self-deluded status-seeking North Korean failure would make just as much sense as Willy Loman’s story.

This seems to me a common situation – things said to be critiques of capitalism are often just critiques of humanity. Humans vie selfishly and self-deludedly for status. Some succeed, while others fail. The struggle, and the failures, aren’t pretty. Yes capitalism inherits this ugliness, but then so does any other system with humans.

It is interesting to note that, compared to most occupations, the world of Miller the playwright was especially like the salesmen Miller described:

For a salesman, there is no rock bottom to the life. … He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back—that’s an earthquake. … A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory.

Like salesmen, playwrights succeed when others like them. Even though most fail, most self-deludedly think they will be the exceptions, and can be crushed when they eventually learn otherwise. But few playwrights lament this, or blame it on capitalism. Why?

I suspect this is because playwrights see even failed playwrights as high status, and successful salesmen as low status. A hidden message of the play is “Poor Willy can’t see that even if he sold a lot, he’d still be a failure in our eyes.” Which is part of why it bothered Arthur Miller that his audiences empathized so much with Willy. Audiences thought Willy could have high status.

Some key quotes from the play: Continue reading "Death of a Salesman" »

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Far Truth Is For Extremes

To answer the question posed in my last post, here are some situations where it makes sense to forgo the large benefits of things like religion, to care about far truth:

  1. You are stuck in your ways, like a smoking addict. You admit it would have been better for you had you become more religious early on, but alas you fell in with the wrong crowd, and now the costs of change for you outweigh religion’s gains. If you are nice, you’ll warn young folks to avoid your downfall.
  2. Contrarian far claims with big personal consequences are true. If choosing cryonics would gain you five or more expected years of life (over its costs), and you are one of the rare people who would actually do something so contrarian after being intellectually convinced of its advantages, and if you can reliably discern when a majority is wrong, then you’ll need to think accurately about far topics to find such opportunities. For non-contrarian far claims with personal consequences, you could just follow the crowd without thinking.
  3. You have a good chance of being respected as a far topic expert, by a community that evaluates claims in truth-correlated ways. If you could be a famous cosmologist, you might try to create cosmology claims that will look good when evaluated by the tests cosmologists will apply. The gains from becoming a famous cosmologist could outweigh the risk that by becoming more truth oriented you will forgo religion’s gains. Beware, however, that truth-correlated is not the same as true – most communities say their far claim tests are more truth-correlated than they actually are.

So assuming you actually have a viable choice, the situations where it makes sense to reject religion in favor of far truth are extreme – either there are big personally-useful far contrarian claims to learn, or you have a good shot at being a rare far expert, respected by a community with truth-correlated standards. So if such extremes seem unlikely to you, far truth probably isn’t worth its costs to you. Go away, and sin no more.

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What Use Far Truth?

Consider two facts:

  1. People with religious beliefs, and associated behavior, consistently tend to have better lives. It seems that religious folks tend to be happier, live longer, smoke less, exercise more, earn more, get and stay married more, commit less crime, use less illegal drugs, have more social connections, donate and volunteer more, and have more kids. Yes, the correlation between religion and these good things is in part because good people tend to become more religious, but it is probably also in part because religions people tend to become better. So if you want to become good in these ways, an obvious strategy is to become more religious, which is helped by having more religious beliefs.
  2. Your far beliefs, such as on religion and politics, can’t effect your life much except via how they effect your behavior, and your associates’ opinions of you. When you think about cosmology, ancient Rome, the nature of world government, or starving folks in Africa, it might feel like those things matter to you. But in terms of the kinds of things that evolution could plausibly have built you to actually care about (vs. pretend to care about), those far things just can’t directly matter much to your life. While your beliefs about far things might influence how you act, and what other people think of you, their effects on your quality of life, via such channels of influence, don’t depend much on whether these beliefs are true.

Perhaps, like me, you find religious beliefs about Gods, spirits, etc. to be insufficiently supported by evidence, coherence, or simplicity to be a likely approximation to the truth. Even so, ask yourself: why care so much about truth? Yes, you probably think you care about believing truth – but isn’t it more plausible that you mainly care about thinking you like truth? Doesn’t that have a more plausible evolutionary origin than actually caring about far truth?

Yes, there are near practical areas of your life where truth can matter a lot. But most religious people manage to partition their beliefs, so their religious beliefs don’t much pollute their practical beliefs. And this doesn’t even seem to require much effort on their part. Why not expect that you could do similarly?

Yes, it might seem hard to get yourself to believe things that seem implausible to you at the moment, but we humans have lots of well-used ways to get ourselves to believe things we want to believe. Are you willing to start trying those techniques on this topic?

Now, a few unusual people might have an unusually large influence on far topics, and to those people truth about far topics might plausibly matter more to their personal lives, and to things that evolution might plausibly have wanted them to directly care about. For example, if you were king of the world, maybe you’d reasonably care more about what happens to the world as a whole.

But really, what are the chances that you are actually such a person? And if not, why not try to be more religious?

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Is Conflict Inevitable?

Imagine you’ve been hiking in the wild for several days, with six others. Feelings are raw. Some think others aren’t carrying a fair load, some have been arguing politics, some are workplace rivals, and one has been having an affair with the spouse of another.

For weapons, the group has only a few small paring knifes. It is about time to find a place to stop for the night, and up ahead you spy a pile of rocks just the right size for violence – small enough to lift, and big enough to crush a skull. So you suggest stopping there for the night.

You think, “Violence is bad, but there is going to be violence here, so I might as well start it, so I can win. I’ll pretend to sleep then when others are still I’ll get up and smash my rival’s skull with a rock. I’ll conspire with my best ally George, who I may have to betray later. After all, the violence may continue until only one of us is left alive.”

Now, yes, it is possible to have Hunger-Games-like situations where everyone strongly expects everyone to fight until only one is left standing. And yes, in such situations you are better off hitting first, before they can hit you. But the first question you should always ask is, just how sure are you that you are in fact in such a situation.

This is what I think every time I hear people talk about inevitable future conflicts, be they Earth v. alien, robots v. humans, human v. animal, west v. east, rich v. poor, liberal v. conservative, religious vs. atheist, smart v. dumb, etc. Yes, if enough folks will see this as unrestrained war to the death, then you should consider striking first. And yes, there probably will be some sort of war eventually. But if you are wrong about the war being likely soon, you could cause vast needless destruction.

Alas, there is a unusually strong temptation to think in terms of inevitable conflict in far mode. In far mode we think more using a few sharp categories of us vs. them, we insist more on following basic principles no matter what the cost, and we think more in terms of dramatic story lines.

Worse, over the very long run, we do in fact expect a lot of winning and losing. Some firms will grow and others will go bankrupt, some professions will rise and others will fall, some musical genres will be remembered while others are forgotten, some families and races will have many kids while others have few, etc. This makes it easy to frame the long run as a no-holds-barred struggle to the death.

But if you are tempted to think this way, you should realize that that it will be very hard to preserve everything you like against future competition. It is very unlikely that you could simultaneously ensure the triumph of your planet, species, race, language, nation, city, musical tastes, favorite sport and team, preferred style of dress and home decoration, favorite story genres and characters, favorite school and profession, etc. If you are going to fight to the death for one thing, you will have to be ready to give up most everything else you like, if need be, for that one thing. And by initiating unreserved conflict in the hope of getting a first mover advantage in favor of your one thing, you may hasten the loss of many other things you treasure.

It seems to me that for most of the things you like and treasure, your best way to promote them is via peaceful trade and persuasion. Yes, most of them will probably fade away, outcompeted by something else. But your best bet to extend their duration is usually to compete peacefully, prospering as best you can to gain resources to help you support the things you like.

Maybe on the hike, Fred is your rival at work, and maybe he will beat you to that promotion you both want. Maybe he is also considering making a move on your gal. You might lose that competition too. Even so, you are usually better off trying your best via peaceful competition, than bashing in his skull with a rock during the night. He who competes but loses, and walks away, may live to fight another day.

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Hypocritical Flattery

Humans usually have a social norm against flattery. Yes we flatter each other, and often, but we usually flatter indirectly. So just how big of a fig leaf does it take to hide flattery? Consider item #1 from a post on “the seven techniques for ingratiation and influence that are most effective in moving up the corporate ladder without looking like a kiss-ass”:

Frame flattery as likely to make the boss uncomfortable. …one manager whom we interviewed noted that he commonly prefaces flattering remarks with such phrases as “I don’t want to embarrass you but. . . ,” or “I know you won’t want me to say this but. . . ,” or “You’re going to hate me for saying this but.” (more)

Note that this approach makes the praise seem no less glowing, and it offers little reason for observers to less suspect the praise was designed to gain favor. So how could flattery without this addition be unacceptable, yet flattery without this addition be acceptable?

This example suggests that the key social norm is that you should not encourage others to flatter you. While there is a weak norm against praising others to gain their favor, the stronger norm is against your explicitly rewarding others for praising you. So by directly claiming that someone is not encouraging you to praise them, you declare them innocent of violating the key social norm against encouraging flattery from others.

Of course it is hard to see why anyone should take your mere claim that they do not encourage flattery as much evidence for this conclusion. After all, they are still a boss, you could still gain by flattering them, and your claim that they do not encourage flattery is itself additional flattery!

Yet I’ll bet it does work. Which just goes to show that human social norms have a limited scope. We can only manage to express, learn, and enforce a limited number of social norms, while the social behavior that our norms must police are vast and vary widely. As a result, while our norms appear on the surface to discourage flattery, in fact they just move it a level or two away from the norms.

While this does little to actually discourage flattery, or bosses from encouraging flattery, it does greatly reward those who are smart enough to see how to flatter just outside the scope of the usual rules. Hypocritical social norms reward intelligence. Which is why, according to my story, humans have huge brains.

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Academic Blog Credit?

Martin Weller considers academic credit for blogs:

The answer to … whether new approaches such as blogging constitute scholarly activity, is an emphatic yes. Which leads us to a more problematic question: How should we recognize it? …

Tenure committees have increasingly come to rely upon journal-impact factors to act as a proxy for research quality. In short, we know what a good publication record looks like. But these criteria begin to creak and groan when we apply them to blogs and other online media. Simple metrics are subject to gaming, and because of the removal of the peer-review filter, may be meaningless anyway. I may have a YouTube clip of a skateboarding octopus with two million hits, but that doesn’t make it scholarly work.

It’s a difficult problem, but one that many institutions are beginning to come to terms with. Combining the rich data available online that can reveal a scholar’s impact with forms of peer assessment gives an indication of reputation. Universities know this is a game they need to play—that having a good online reputation is more important in recruiting students than a glossy prospectus. And groups that sponsor research are after good online impact as well as presentations at conferences and journal papers.

… I’ve found that since becoming a blogger, I publish fewer journal articles, so it has had a “negative” impact on that aspect of my academic life. However, it has led to so many other unpredictable benefits—such as the establishment of a global peer network that helps me stay up to date with my topic, increased research collaboration, and more invitations to give talks—that it’s been worth the trade-off. (more)

Yes universities care about getting good and much “press”, but they are not willing to tenure professors merely for getting good press. The self-concept of professors only lets them give at most a minor weight to press, and sometimes the weight is negative.

The key difference is between getting attention vs. making impressive original intellectual contributions. Being cited by major news media, or having so many blog readers, can credential you as getting attention. But so far only journal articles, Ph.D. theses, and certain books and conference papers are accepted as credentials for impressive original intellectual contributions. For these, high quality experts are seen to judge the intellectual contribution.

Yes blog posts can contain impressive original intellectual contributions. Newspaper columns can contain them as well. So can speeches. Even spontaneous party conversations can contain them. The problem is, we don’t have systems set up for experts to evaluate these things in such terms. And if an intellectual contribution isn’t credentialed as such by academic experts, then it basically doesn’t exist as far as academia is concerned.

So either blogs will be continue to be seen mainly as a way to get “press” attention, or some folks will develop a system of expert evaluation of the intellectual contribution of blog posts. And as with academic journals, the main obstacle to doing that is: getting sufficiently prestigious academies to spend enough time doing their evaluations.

Now it turns out that many prestigious academic already read a lot of blog posts. So one approach would be to create a special “review” section where only prestigious academics can enter quick reviews of blog posts they read. Perhaps these reviews would be anonymous to the blog author and readers, and a more centralized part of the system would weigh their prestige, and degree of topical expertise, to compute a post evaluation.

But even with lots of new whizzy software support, it isn’t obvious you’d get enough reviews to make it work. People write reviews of journal articles in part because they hope doing so will favorably dispose editors toward their later submissions. People who write reviews of blog posts couldn’t have that motivation.

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Open Thread

This is our monthly place to discuss relevant issues that have not appeared in recent posts.

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