March 2006

2006 03 31

Posted by in: Metablog, Odds and ends, Sex

I just noticed that I consistently spelled “polyamory” incorrectly in a recent post on the subject. This is embarrassing, since the post probably got more hits than any other single post I’ve ever written, both from the polyamory community and from the National Review.

I promise that the next time I’m held up as a defender of a lifestyle, I’ll make an effort to learn to spell the name of the lifestyle properly.

Howls of outrage (2)

2006 03 30
The life of the party

Posted by in: Anecdotal

I was at a social gathering and the moment seemed right, so I whipped it out.

Nada (0)

2006 03 29
We get comments

I hope his vengeful God doesn’t mind run-on sentences.

Howls of outrage (3)

2006 03 28
A strike on Iran?

Joseph Cirincione thinks that the Bush administration is actually serious about a strike against Iran:

Nothing is clear, yet. For months, I have told interviewers that no senior political or military official was seriously considering a military attack on Iran. In the last few weeks, I have changed my view. In part, this shift was triggered by colleagues with close ties to the Pentagon and the executive branch who have convinced me that some senior officials have already made up their minds: They want to hit Iran.

If Joseph Cirincione were just some yahoo with a blog I would scoff like this: “ha ha ha.” But Joseph Cirincione is not just some yahoo with a blog. He knows an awful lot about proliferation and related issues, and he talks to a lot of the right people.

Still, I’m not convinced. I’m willing to believe that the Cheney crowd wants to hit Iran, and perhaps is even laying plans for that, but the Bush administration surely has its hands full now, and I think we can expect the situation in Iraq to continue to deteriorate. Hitting Iran very hard and then invading is completely impossible. Hitting Iran less than very hard would only invite painful retaliation in Iraq. The manly men in the Cheney clique might want to ignore that, but I doubt anyone else will.

All the same, I wouldn’t be surprised if some idiots were working right now on covert stuff in Iran that eventually backfires and seriously embarrasses everyone.

Howls of outrage (2)

2006 03 28
All links, great and small

Posted by in: Political issues, Sex

This post on William Saletan has gotten a lot of hits from a bunch of sites interested in polyamory relationships. Just now I noticed that the National Review has linked to the same post. Makes me wish I’d written a better, clearer and more comprehensive post.

Anyway, one of the things that interests me about the response so far is that the post seems to have been taken as a straightforward recommendation of polyamory relationships. Indeed, the National Review writer seems to imply that I’m coming at it from a straightforwardly polyamory perspective. If you read the post, though, you’ll see that I’m pretty clearly declining to get into any quick and easy judgements about the prudence of any of the sorts of arrangements that get lumped under this heading. Indeed, I even say things in the post that might well offend people currently in polyamory relationships. My main beef in that post was with crude and silly appeals to nature. That’s because a) lots of crap gets justified through such appeals; and b) contrary to the impression produced by a), carefully qualified and coherent appeals to nature seem to me to be philosophically promising. The second, related, worry had to do with epistemological barriers to reliable judgements about unconventional relationships. But making a point about epistemological barriers to judgement doesn’t imply an endorsement of anything in particular. (Nor does the last point imply a negative judgement. I’m making a general plea for humility and caution in judging other people’s lives.)

Nada (0)

2006 03 28
“Fukuyama’s Fantasy”

Shorter Krauthammer:

Only deliberate misquotation could produce the impression that I’m a deluded, warmongering hack.

Nada (0)

2006 03 26
Grammar advice

Students often write this sort of thing:

If a person/individual [blah, blah, blah], then they [blah, blah, blah].

The problem, of course, is that “they” is plural, yet it’s referring back to “person” or “individual,” both of which are singular . . . Or is “they” necessarily plural? It’s pretty obvious that the word is undergoing a shift in usage now which allows us to take it as either singular or plural depending on the context. The problem is that I’m not sure at what point I ought to stop correcting this in student papers. In favour of correcting it:

1. Part of my job is to teach standard English. If employers and newspapers and so on continue to regard it as an error, then it’s my job to make sure that students know how to write with that in mind. If they choose to ignore the rule, that’s their business, but I need to ensure that it’s a decision, and not simply the result of ignorance.

2. I can’t help it: The singular they just looks hideously ugly to me.

In favour of just giving up and going with the flow:

1. It’s obvious why this shift is occurring: it’s awfully convenient to have a gender neutral singular pronoun that refers to a person, since the traditional thing to write here is “he.” The alternatives aren’t great: “She” gives most students the willies, and anyway, we often want to make a gender neutral point. “he/she” or “s/he” and “he or she” are both ugly and often lead us into long-winded formulations (“then he or she will want respectively his or her . . . [blah, blah, blah]“.

2. Because of #1, I look forward to the day when my own linguistic intuitions gradually yield to the singular they.

3. The shift to the singular they really does seem a natural one. Only stuffy people like myself or old people avoid it in spoken English these days, where it’s incredibly common. I’m not a linguistic prescriptivist, so I’m not about to elevate my own knee-jerk prejudices about the singular they into some silly pining for the good old days of the English language.

So . . . if a person wants to be sensible about this, what should they do?

Howls of outrage (41)

2006 03 25
Syntactic ambiguity

Posted by in: Language, Sex

From the abstract to “Time for sex: nycthemeral distribution of human sexual behavior” (pdf) by Roberto Refinetti in the Journal of Circadian Rhythms:

Background: Nycthemeral (daily) oscillation has been documented in a variety of physiological and behavioral processes. The present study was carried out to evaluate the existence of a nycthemeral rhythm of human sexual behavior and to identify environmental factors responsible for the rhythmic pattern.

Methods: Non-traditional university students (ages 18 to 51 years) recorded the times of day when they went to sleep, when they woke up, and when they had sex for 3 consecutive weeks. They also answered a questionnaire designed to identify the causes of their selection of time for sex.

Emphasis is mine.


A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2006 03 24

William Saletan’s latest piece in Slate tackles the question of how to draw a principled line between same-sex unions and polygamy, which is apparently what deep thinkers on the right are scratching their heads about these days. Forget about that question though. I’m interested in the way that Saletan invokes nature in his argument. His basic idea is that two is the natural number for both mixed and same sex-unions, and it’s natural because jealousy is natural. Oh sure, many of us want a little on the side, but we dislike our partner getting a little on the side more than we like to get some ourselves:

The average guy would love to bang his neighbor’s wife. He just doesn’t want his wife banging his neighbor. Fidelity isn’t natural, but jealousy is. Hence the one-spouse rule. One isn’t the number of people you want to sleep with. It’s the number of people you want your spouse to sleep with.

For all I know, and for all I’m going to say, that could all be perfectly true. But Saletan’s piece is still irritating because he’s just so damn sloppy with his subject matter.

Saletan’s research seems to have consisted in reading a few articles on polyamatory unions which reported that polyamatory unions had . . . many of the same problems that monogamous (in either theory or practice) unions have. Now, it seems to me that if you wanted to take an honest look at non-standard behaviour of this sort you’d want to keep an eye on a few issues. Among them:

1. Am I falling prey to confirmation bias?

It’s ironic that Saletan shows so little awareness of this potential problem in an article sympathetic to same-sex unions, since much of the explicitly homophobic opposition to same-sex unions gets into the same damn problem. Here’s how it works: People observe heterosexual unions breaking up over various issues, including infidelity, and think, “How terrible,” and then they see a same-sex union break up for similar reasons, and think, “Ah ha! It’s not natural.” There’s – ahem – a natural tendency to slip into this trap when evaluating nonstandard arrangements like polyamatory unions, so we ought to be highly suspicious of anecdotal or impressionistic results of the kind that Saletan has lazily scrounged up for his article.

2. Are the allegedly dysfunctional or harmful effects of the practice under investigation intrinsic to the practice itself or (partly?) the result of prejudices against the practice?

I’m reminded of the Philip Roth novel in which the parents of a Jewish-Gentile marriage oppose the marriage because such marriages tend not to work out, and some of the marriage’s troubles are traceable to the opposition of the parents and their complete lack of support. Again, this pattern ought to be familiar to us from the debate over homosexuality. Homophobes like to justify disgraceful treatment of homosexuals by pointing to data apparently showing how unhealthy homosexual lifestyles are (e.g., greater incidences of depression) – without asking first whether any of that is attributable to the disgraceful treatment! Given that polyamatory unions face a lot of social resistance and don’t have the kind of social acceptance and support that regular unions have, it’s worth asking what effects that might have on polyamatory unions as they exist in this culture.

3. Does the rarity of the practice under investigation skew our observations of the effects of the practice?

Related to this is the worry that because polyamatory unions are less socially acceptable, the subset of people who engage in them will be more adventurous, more transgressive, and possibly wilder, than they would otherwise be if this sort of arrangement were more common. An unmarried 20-something year old woman in the 1950s who slept with several men over several years is a very different case from an unmarried 20-something year old woman in NYC right now who has slept with several men over several years. The former was engaging in fairly non-standard behaviour, the latter in something she might casually mention to her mother in conversation. Same behaviour, but we would be less surprised to find the former case associated with other sorts of unhealthy activities (drinking too much, for example), since sleeping with several men over several years isn’t the sort of thing that good girls did back then, whereas it’s perfectly normal now. It would have been arguing in a circle back in the 50s to point to our adventurous lass and her problems as evidence in favour of sticking with 1950s pre-marital sexual mores, since those problems were arguably at least in part artifacts of the fact that wilder people tend to be the ones deviating from the mores. Once the behaviour became more widespread, it began to attract more conventional types, the sample size increased, and many of our (using “our” tendentiously, of course) worries subsided. And it’s very difficult to know if this might also be the case with polyamatory unions. (Obviously I’m simplifying a lot here in order to get across the basic idea.)

4. Are we projecting our own cultural quirks onto our image of human nature?

The piece under discussion isn’t quite as bad as this earlier one, in which Saletan kept referring to what “men” and “women” preferred exclusively on the basis of American opinion polls, since at least in his latest reflections on human nature Saletan reached for his Bible as an aid to speculation. But still, it’s annoying that Saletan doesn’t indicate more puzzlement about this very tricky problem.

5. In discovering what is natural, have we discovered the limits of what is possible without undue strain?

There’s an odd assumption that many people make that if an activity is unnatural in some interesting sense of the word, then engaging in the activity will necessarily result in an intolerable strain. That’s not necessarily so. To borrow Frans de Waal’s example, it’s natural for a tiger to kill a dog. But if you raise a tiger with a dog in a zoo (dogs are sometimes used to socialize tigers) then the tiger won’t be interested in killing its adopted mom or siblings. This is highly unnatural, but it’s hardly an intolerable strain on the tiger. (Similarly, there’s no easy inference from the fact that something is a strain to the claim that it’s unnatural. Lots of things we recognize as natural are strains on us.)

And so on. There’s a lot more to say about Saletan’s piece, but I’m well over my alloted blogging time for today. Again, I’m not taking any position on polyamatory relationships or polygamy or polyandry or jealousy or whether you should always wear matching socks. Also, since liberals are often accused of having a radically pared-down blank slate conception of human nature, let me just point out that what sensible liberals object to is not (necessarily) attempts to ground normative claims about humans on claims about human nature, but rather crude and unreflective appeals to human nature to ratify whatever prejudices a writer happens to have. Indeed, there’s a venerable tradition in Western ethics, from Aristotle to Aquinas to Philippa Foot of looking to human nature to draw far stronger and more interesting conclusions than Saletan does in his article.

Update: More here.

Howls of outrage (12)

2006 03 23
The making of a great humourist

Posted by in: Anecdotal

My father, stepmother, and little brother returned to Ottawa on Wednesday. The downstairs neighbours must be very, very relieved. My little brother, age 10, who was staying with us, loves to stamp his feet a lot. Anyway, I noted this exchange while they were visiting:

Stepmother: Your father is such an old fogey. If you look up “stick-in-the-mud” in the dictionary, you’ll find his picture.

Dad: That’s . . . because . . . it’s right next to “stud-in-the-mud”!

And there you have it, ladies and gentlemen: the sense of humour I inherited, or learned, or both, a sense of humour based largely around lame pseudo-macho come-backs that don’t even make sense. It’s a good thing I’m so fucking hot that no one holds it against me.

Also, I found myself automatically responding to any of my little brother’s complaints (walking too far, food not tasty, etc.) with the assurance that enduring the hardship would put hair on his chest. From time to time I would demonstrate the success of the strategy by lifting my own shirt to reveal an almost completely hairless chest. That’s comedy gold, folks. Pure comedy gold.

Howls of outrage (4)

2006 03 22

Posted by in: Language, Pundits

I read Christopher Hitchen’s latest just now, for old time’s sake, after recently mistaking two different quotations from it quoted around the blogs for cheap parodies. It’s beneath me – seriously – to dignify the piece with any sort of response. I just wanted to note this bit: “. . . has laid out a tranche of suggestive and incriminating connections . . .” Tranche. That’s an interesting, and not very common, word. I think it just means “bunch” or “portion”. Anyway, I had this odd idea that Hitchens really likes this word, since “tranche” really does seem a Hitchensy way of saying “bunch.” To my disappointment, Slate’s search engine didn’t turn up anything, but before I gave up Google led me to the following cases of Hitchens using the word “tranche”: one, two, three, four, five (on tv), six.

OK, so that’s probably not enough to brand him “tranche-happy” but I do suspect the word gives him the warm fuzzies.

No, in case you’re wondering: I don’t think this is my lamest post. Not quite.

Howls of outrage (6)

2006 03 20
What Constitution? What oath of office?

Via Mefi, a U.S. News and World Report article saying the Bushies want warrantless physical searches of private homes in U.S. Coming soon, the quartering of soldiers, extrajudicial executions, and the right of first night.

(Read the whole article, and then check out the comment thread at Mefi for clarification of e.g. the role of the Clinton administration in this.)

Nada (0)

2006 03 18

Posted by in: Anecdotal

I was walking the dog the other day, and a van pulled up beside me. Inside: two men dressed as clowns, including make-up. The driver asked for directions. I always panic when someone asks me for directions, so I started stammering and gesturing wildly, in my way, until I finally gave up and confessed that I didn’t know, though it certainly sounded near. Unfortunately, because I had my dog with me, it was obvious that I lived in the area. The driver clown gave me a disgusted look, rolled up the window and drove off in the direction opposite the one I had been pointing in. I’m not going to make any jokes about this or draw any conclusions from it. That’s what the comments section is for.

In other news, my father, step-mother and 10 year old brother are arriving shortly for a visit. I’ll be shepherding them about town; their condition will be one of total dependence on me since they really don’t know their way around NYC. May God have mercy on their lost, lost souls.

Howls of outrage (5)

2006 03 17
The Cost of the Iraq War

Interesting: In the same volume of the same journal, Scott Walsten figures it’ll be one trillion and Joseph Stiglitz says two trillion. That’s quite a difference, though either way it’s a lotta donuts.

Let’s hear it again from the pro-war crowd: “But it was all worth it, cause we sure can’t think of a better way to have spent all that money!”

Nada (0)

2006 03 16
Doorknobs in Paradise

Posted by in: Pundits

Ah, I see Mr. Radosh got to a New Yorker article before I could make fun of it myself. I’ve had to settle for throwing in my two cents in his comment section.

Nada (0)