Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Maureen Dowd Gets It Right

For once.

Taken from today's column on Elena Kagan:
When does a woman go from being single to unmarried?

Single carries a connotation of eligibility and possibility, while unmarried has that dreaded over-the-hill, out-of-luck, you-are-finished, no-chance implication. An aroma of mothballs and perpetual aunt.

White House officials were so eager to squash any speculation that Elena Kagan was gay that they have ended up in a pre-feminist fugue, going with sad unmarried rather than fun single, spinning that she’s a spinster.

You’d think that they could come up with a more inspiring narrative than old maid for a woman who may become the youngest Supreme Court justice on the bench.

Kagan has told a friend in the West Wing that she is not gay, just lonely. Even so, that doesn’t mean her sherpas in the White House, in their frantic drive to dismiss the gay rumors, should be spinning a narrative around that most hoary of stereotypes: a smart, ambitious woman who threw herself into her work, couldn’t find a guy, threw up her hands, and threw herself further into her work — and in the process went from single to unmarried.
I've heard this many times before. If you're single for too long, that's a problem. It must mean you are a lesbian. Of course!

Any way this narrative is spun, it is depressing and insulting. We haven't heard Kagan speak, but it's embarrassing that she'd have to address the rumors, because nothing will be acceptable; she'll be pitied, cast as pathetic in one way or another.

How do you address the questions? Is the truth (whatever that is) even good enough? Why is the dominant answer the same old stereotype—did nothing else make sense? Why did the Obama Administration feel they needed to weigh in on this topic, instead of just staying tight-lipped?

Dowd asks the same questions, offering her own spin:
Why is there this underlying assumption that Kagan has missed the boat? Why couldn’t she be eager to come to Washington to check out the Obama-era geek-chic bachelors, maybe get set up on a date by Michelle Obama, maybe host some single ladies fiestas with Sonia Sotomayor, maybe even sign up for JDate with a new and improved job status?
The sad thing is that Kagan practically has to answer these questions, to defend her choices in her private life, whatever they may be. They will come up at some point. But that seems to be true no matter how old you are—if you’re single, especially after a certain age, you have to explain it.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Abortion and Universal Healthcare

On why Britain's abortion rate is much lower than the US's:
[O]ne important explanation was Britain's universal health-care system. "If that frightened, unemployed 19-year-old knows that she and her child will have access to medical care whenever it's needed," Hume explained, "she's more likely to carry the baby to term. Isn't it obvious?"

A young woman I knew in Britain added another explanation. "If you're [sexually] active," she said, "the way to avoid abortion is to avoid pregnancy. Most of us do that with an IUD or a diaphragm. It means going to the doctor. But that's easy here, because anybody can go to the doctor free."

For various reasons, then, expanding health-care coverage reduces the rate of abortion. All the other industrialized democracies figured that out years ago. The failure to recognize this plain statistical truth may explain why American churches have played such a small role in our national debate on health care. Searching for ways to limit abortions, our faith leaders have managed to overlook a proven approach that's on offer now: expanding health-care coverage.

When I studied health-care systems overseas in research for a book, I asked health ministers, doctors, economists and others in all the rich countries why their nations decided to provide health care for everybody. The answers were medical (universal care saves lives), economic (universal care is cheaper), political (the voters like it), religious (it's what Christ commanded) and moral (it's the right thing to do). And in every country, people told me that universal health-care coverage is desirable because it reduces the rate of abortion.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Mark Zuckerburg Likes Settlers of Catan...And Other Ridiculous Things from the World of Facebook

The New York Times posted Facebook's answers regarding a set of questions users submitted last week. And surprise! The answers provided are a TOTAL cop-out.

To wit:
It used to be that I could limit what strangers saw about me to almost nothing. I could not show my profile picture, not allow them to “poke” or message me, certainly not allow them to view my profile page. Now, even my interests have to be public information. Why can’t I control my own information anymore? sxchen, New York

Joining Facebook is a conscious choice by vast numbers of people who have stepped forward deliberately and intentionally to connect and share. We study user activity. We’ve found that a few fields of information need to be shared to facilitate the kind of experience people come to Facebook to have. That’s why we require the following fields to be public: name, profile photo (if people choose to have one), gender, connections (again, if people choose to make them), and user ID number. Facebook provides a less satisfying experience for people who choose not to post a photo or make connections with friends or interests. But, other than name and gender, nothing requires them to complete these fields or share information they do not want to share. If you’re not comfortable sharing, don’t.


Why not simply set everything up for opt-in rather than opt-out? Facebook seems to assume that users generally want all the details of their private lives made public. abycats, New York

Everything is opt-in on Facebook. Participating in the service is a choice. We want people to continue to choose Facebook every day. Adding information — uploading photos or posting status updates or “like” a Page — are also all opt-in. Please don’t share if you’re not comfortable. That said, we certainly will continue to work to improve the ease and access of controls to make more people more comfortable. Your assumption about our assumption is simply incorrect. We don’t believe that. We’re happy to make the record on that clear.

On the latest fiasco:

Why must I link to a page for my school, job, or interests and make them public, or delete the information entirely?Absolutely Not, Chicago

It turns out that less than 20 percent of users had filled out the text fields of this information. By contrast, more than 70 percent of users have ‘liked’ Pages to be connected to these kinds of ideas, experiences and organizations. That is the primary reason we offered the transition — because it reflects the way people are using our service already. While we see tremendous benefit to connecting to interests, we recognize that certain people may still want to share information about themselves through static text. That’s why we continue to provide a number of places for doing this, including the Bio section of the profile. In these places, just as when you share a piece of content like a photo or status update, we give you complete control over the privacy of the information and exactly who can see it. However, we know we could have done a better job explaining all of this and you can expect to see new materials on the site soon. I’m sorry we didn’t do a better job.

Stop being conciliatory and DO A BETTER JOB. No excuses. Be realistic.

But the best part was discovering that Mark Zuckerburg has a very open profile. VERY open. As does his girlfriend. Ridiculous!

Update: Facebook has called an agency-wide meeting tomorrow to discuss their terrible image. Hopefully some major changes will be made.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

In Defense of Privacy Or, Why My Sex Life Is None of Your Business

Oddly, over the past couple of years, I have become a person that will answer pretty much anything. I’m not sure how this happened—maybe it’s just being asked interesting, provocative questions, questions I never thought about. Maybe it was the environment I was in. Maybe it’s just my personality. But everyone has their limits. And I’ve learned that many people don’t respect these limits, especially if they deal with sex.

Thanks to the exploits of tons of reality TV stars, it has now become commonplace to know the details of someone’s sexual and romantic history. There are shows devoted to sex rehab! And so, there are some males who feel the need to question me about this aspect of my life. These questions are confrontational and accusatory, as if I’m hiding my adventures from them, even though they are asking for details—inappropriate, lurid, puerile details—that don’t concern them in the least. And when I balk, because I have a right to my privacy, I am met with a torrent of insults.

Listening to these men, it is my duty to go whore myself out, and then report back. I fit the “profile”, based on what I presume to be youth and attractiveness. These men assume that I am hit on constantly and that I am just flat out rejecting all these advances, for reasons that mystify them. And I am mystified that they hold this belief so firmly, when it is so very, very wrong.

Apparently I am not the only one who has wondered where this attitude among men has come from. Does it stem from rejection?

Leah, who has also noticed these assumptions, thinks so. The men are angry and upset because they can’t get laid, and so blame the girls instead. Emily and Petpluto have also written about a version of this (termed The Nice Guy Syndrome, where men feel they own women’s sexuality). I’ve gotten these questions out of sheer curiosity, sure, but also as a way of trying to illuminate The Female Experience for these male friends of mine, even if my experience doesn’t jibe with their experience regarding girls, or what they think is the definitive version of being Young and Female in America Today.

Jezebel also addressed the ostensibly male assumption that women can get laid whenever they want, noting that men view anything less as being overly picky. Prompted by a book review in The Smart Set, Jezebel points out that there are a good many women who are deemed by the culture at large as “unfuckable”. They can fit into a number of categories: old, poor, have weight, genetic, or disability issues, or maybe are just not pretty or conform to a certain beauty standard. Many women fall into this group at a certain point in their life. But they are largely forgotten, ridiculed, always, in popular culture and in real life. For what worth is a women if she is not desirable?

One of the most interesting comments posted to the piece said that men are jealous of women’s sexual power; they are the ones constantly putting themselves on the line:

"a woman can get laid whenever she wants" is an expression of male frustration at female sexual power.

This is not to say that female sexual power is uniformly distributed. Not to say that the world doesn't suck if you've been dealt a poor hand (genetic, medical, social).

Please think for a moment about the male side of this equation. If you're a guy, you don't get hit on. Such an occurance is a memorable life event, not a daily happening. If you're "wing man" to an attractive/sociable/sexually successful guy, then you never EVER get hit on. And you're trying to attract/hit on/get rejected by gals your buddy isn't even looking at. And you adopt this socially demeaning and rejection-filled roll because it marginally increases your odds of some level of sexual success over "going solo".

And in that context, it sucks to be a guy. If the supposedly 'unfuckable' 'hags' in the audience demeaned, debased, and put themselves at the same degree of emotional risk as every guy at the bar, lowered their standards, donned their beer goggles, and shelled out for a few drinks and meals, I'd be willing to bet their "hit rate" would be dramatically higher than for any guy. any. guy.

So yeah, men are envious of womens' sexual power. and being guys, they sum it up (insensitively and coarsely) as, "a woman can get laid whenever she wants".

He’s right that if the game was reversed, the women would do pretty well, but that’s the just the nature of the sexes. But the image that women hold all the power is grossly ill-informed, and by placing the blame onto women, the men just make it worse for themselves.

The statement that all women can get laid easily is also a complete, unjust lie. Undesirable women do feel shame and embarrassment, and no such counseling like “reshape your attitude!” is really going to help; it’s just going to make things worse. Life isn’t a fairytale where a makeover changes everything.

As Leah noted, it’s impossible to live up to whatever the standard is. And being forced to conform to whatever is deemed acceptable is damaging and hurtful. One’s sexual life is only one aspect of a person, and it is mutable.

But the other issue I have with these questions is the appalling assumption that I’m expected to answer such personal and intimate questions, especially in some cases with people I barely know. Why is this acceptable? I consider myself a somewhat private person, in that I believe in privacy and I believe that not everything in my life is up for public consumption, and that attitude, increasingly, some find offensive. There are some things that are none of your business, and no matter how nosy you are, you have to accept that. It’s not impolite or out of hand to say “no.”

So what gives?

It goes back to our increasing TMI culture, and the murky notions of privacy that are constantly being redefined. Facebook has become the very public face of this privacy problem, especially as it has been playing out on the web:

Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg seem to assume that once something is public, it’s public. They confused sharing with publishing. They conflate the public sphere with the making of a public. That is, when I blog something, I am publishing it to the world for anyone and everyone to see: the more the better, is the assumption. But when I put something on Facebook my assumption had been that I was sharing it just with the public I created and control there. That public is private. Therein lies the confusion. Making that public public is what disturbs people. It robs them of their sense of control—and their actual control—of what they were sharing and with whom (no matter how many preferences we can set). On top of that, collecting our actions elsewhere on the net—our browsing and our likes—and making that public, too, through Facebook, disturbed people even more. Where does it end?

--Jeff Jarvis

Where does it? Technologies increasingly are able to monitor every little thing we do. From security cameras in Times Square to GPS locators on our phones to cookies on web pages, there are very little areas or transactions today that are not monitored somewhere, by somebody. We’re so used to this that we accept that mundane calls to customer service lines are recorded, or, if we turn our settings a certain way, we can be tracked by virtually anyone who wants to find us. We do a lot of this out of convenience and novelty; that’s why we save passwords on our computer, that’s why we enable our tweets to be geographically placed.

We like keeping track of our things digitally. That’s why online banking is a hit, and why we like to see the status of a package on Amazon or FedEx. And as long as only we have access to this information, we’re fine. But this information is protected, by passwords and codes and encryption. The debate has turned to less tangible items—memories and statements, ideas and personalities. It’s this violation of truly personal things that has caused this newest uproar.

A theory floating around is as society has become more permissible, old notions of impropriety will disappear, and future generations will have no need for privacy. This is hogwash. I disagree with Penelope Trunk (and others) who say privacy is basically a way of hiding things that don’t need hiding. Really? So everyone—my mother, my colleagues, my boss, my neighbor, the stranger I spoke to last night at a party—is entitled to know everything about me? And I’m supposed to be fine with knowing everything about everyone I know? Sure, maybe that movie you watched last night isn’t super-secret news, but it doesn’t mean that everyone has to know about it, just like everyone doesn’t need to know every detail of what you did over the weekend. The notion that privacy just equals secrecy is damaging and erroneous. I am all for transparency, especially in companies, but confusing transparency with a lack of privacy, especially for individuals, is dangerous. Everyone should be able to control what information they tell to specific people; there’s a reason we have “work selves” and “friend selves”, why there are some things you shouldn’t say to your mother but will say to your best friend. Penelope Trunk basically acts like things in our private lives won’t get us into trouble in the workforce, but that’s completely untrue. Sure, standards have relaxed, but that doesn’t mean that showcasing your exploits and your baser aspects of yourself won’t cause some problems. Think of it this way: Would you really want to hear about some borderline criminal activity a coworker or neighbor was doing? Would you want to be responsible for knowing every dirty little secret of everyone you know?

Surprises can be good things. It’s an icky feeling to know things about people before you meet them, because you Googled them. Now you’re an expert on their life. But by having everything up already to be viewed by a public, whether Facebook posts or Flickr albums, the element of surprise, of learning about someone through natural, organic discourse is lost. What’s left to tell? What’s left to discover? If everything about you is already up on the web—reduced to mere anecdote, a selection of tidbits that are “you”, no matter how misleading, embarrassing, or untrue—then why should I bother to try to get to know you anyway, when I already know everything there is to know?

People are not just the sum of their experiences, nor are they defined by particular things. Sure, when we describe ourselves, we do so in this language, often because it is the easiest. But people change, interests and experiences and opinions change. People don’t want to be known by something in their past, especially if they’ve moved past it, or if it’s not accurate. Privacy is important because it gives a sense of control, a sense that you are defining who you are and what’s important to you. Others should not be defining who you are or what you can say; you make that determination.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

"What Might We Be Accomplishing If We Weren't Tethered to the Net?"

Writing a book, maybe? Watching television? Cleaning? Exercising? Not being a total loser?

Everyone loves the Internet, but I'm convinced some people love it more than others (I firmly belong in the latter category). And there are many of us in said category that wonder what we would do with all that extra time if we didn't spend it conversing with others, looking up random shit, or watching YouTube videos. The Internet is one of the greatest timesucks ever invented, and all those other things fall into it: chat services, Twitter, Facebook, email, RSS feeds....

To quote technologist Nicholas Carr:
[T]he Web is also an enormous global timesink, sucking up massive amounts of time that might have gone into more productive, thoughtful, and fulfilling activities. It's difficult to measure the cost of this wasted time, because it's impossible to know what people might have done if they weren't surfing and tweeting and youtubing and huluing and foursquaring and emailing and IMing and googling and etc. The Web often gives us the illusion of having an incredibly diverse set of pursuits when it's really narrowing the scope of our thoughts and activities. There is still a whole lot more that people can do offline than online - something that's easy to forget as we peer into our screens all day. (my emphasis)
That's seen in the discussion of the polarization of our country and our media, how everyone is worried that we siphon ourselves off into our own bubbles. StumbleUpon can tell us our interests, further refined on sites like Amazon and Pandora, all with the universal "like" button. The Internet is, like so many things, a blessing and a curse, a way to connect and a way to disconnect. It's up to the user to define the experience.

Facebook, Stop Sucking Ass

As pretty much anyone who uses Facebook semi-regularly knows, the site keeps changing its privacy rules. Not only is this confusing and downright maddening, but it's pissing off a helluva lot of people. I track Facebook's moves somewhat closely, and I've been fed up with them for a while. And I'm a very heavy user. I know the ins and outs better than most, and I've been having trouble wading through this recent mess.

I want better ways to complain, I want to be able to have choices, to control what I want, and I want some of the old features back (I won't list them all). Mark Zuckerburg went from being this wunderkind to this reviled, amoral overlord. Facebook is too wound up in my daily existence, my way of life, for me to just zap it out completely--like destroying the Internet!--but Zuckerburg's vision of the future is not compatible with how users want it to be, and he no longer cares about the vast network he's built. He's transforming the Internet with his conceptions of privacy and openness, not understanding that everyone needs and has the right to privacy. Hell, even when Gawker exposed him, he quickly took control and put his stuff behind privacy walls!

So I am very glad that, among many other website, the Times is on this and has compiled a list of questions they will present to Zuckerburg and Facebook to answer. A response should be up in a few days; I eagerly await it. In the meantime, check out this timeline of privacy changes to the site, and please, check and update your privacy controls! Too many people stay ignorant and they ruin it for the rest of us.

Update: Here's an interactive pie chart, using the same data as the EFF.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Tracking Yourself

Of course I have to mention the Times Magazine's cover story on self-trackers. I am very much into the idea of tracking everything, as I love the idea of quantifiable data and how I can use it to improve my life. The biggest downside is the vast amount of time it takes to do this, and it quickly becomes, like anything else, another chore. And there are so many already!

I was surprised they didn't mention Feltron, a guy who's tracked his music, the restaurants he visits, the cities he flies to, and a number of other things over the past several years. I blogged about this before, and I am again in awe of this idea. Self-absorbed? Maybe. I've taken a different approach to self-absorption and narcissism in this age--it's about how you relate to people. If all you talk about is yourself, then yes, you are self-absorbed and boring. But this idea, of tracking yourself in order to change your life, to conduct experiments? Awesome.

But Jonah Lehrer (who looks like an older Michael Cera here) takes issue with this:
One of the main problems facing self-experimenters is the powerful role of expectations in shaping performance. If we think something is going to work, then it probably will work, at least for a little while.

Studies like this demonstrate the necessity of blind controls. The brain is a gullible machine, which is why the very act of believing that tryptophan might work makes it much more likely to have an effect, at least at first. ... That's why I'm a teeny bit suspicious of clear-cut results that come from tested hypotheses, especially when the results contradict the scientific literature. The very act of speculating about a causal relationship - say, for instance, the link between a pill and the ability to concentrate - warps the data, biasing our mind in a million little ways.

His discussion on wine and beer is quite interesting--and I do buy the idea that mood and other factors do shape our opinions and reactions. A bad day may make us eat more or work harder--or just be lazier, if we stopped giving a shit.

I love the tools, the apps, that make it easier to track things. I think it could help me with productivity and other time/organization issues. I somehow imagined the afterlife as being a repository of facts; you could look up anything related to you and your life, and it would be there. How much time, over the course of your life, you spent in the bathroom. Or on the internet. Or talking with a specific person. Or anything. How scary and awesome that would be.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

On Laura Bush

I am a fan of Curtis Sittenfeld. I have read all her books, and I think she does an excellent job of describing women as they are, what they go through, often in ways that aren't usually expressed. I think of her second novel, The Man of My Dreams, occasionally, because it's a book that doesn't do any sort of typical romance or romantic trajectory, and is completely heartbreaking is so many ways that feel so true to life. I agree with Katie's review in that I immediately liked it just because the protagonist wasn't experienced, and not in the totally fake way that Charlotte Simmons is. But her standout is most definitely American Wife, her novelization of Laura Bush. When I reviewed it in 2008, I said it didn't compare to her previous works, but I don't agree with that assertion any more; I think it is quite distinct on its own.

I bring this up because Laura Bush has released her own memoir, and I agree with Jessica Grose in that reading American Wife completely changed how I viewed Mrs. Bush. She still seems so reserved and matronly, but with American Wife in my head, even a year and a half later, I am intrigued by Mrs. Bush's story. It just proves how damn good Curtis Sittenfeld is.

This Should Be My Bible

Katie from Boston at Struggling Single Twentysomething linked to me. Yay! And she led me to an excellent site: Smart, Pretty and Awkward.

Change is one day at a time, right?