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25 June 2016 @ 07:34 am
I'm seeing a lot of tweets, status updates and articles to the extent that even if we don't like the result of the UK referendum, we have to accept it because democracy. I'm also seeing pleas to avoid recriminations, but since these come almost entirely from the winning side, I think we can ignore them as just another case of people claiming the age-old right to do stupid things and not be held responsible for them. What interests me is the people on the Remain side saying we should accept the decision to leave the EU because that's what the majority of people want. Aside for the usual problems that come with referendums, I am not convinced by this for two reasons.

First, I didn't get to vote, having been resident outside the UK for too long. I would only feel bound by a decision I didn't get a vote on if it were a decision in which I have no interest (e.g., a fishing dispute between Norway and Sweden), and I obviously do have an interest in this one—possibly more than most British citizens, in fact. However, since only a handful of people are in my particular boat, I'll pass over this reason.

The main reason is that at the moment, I am a European citizen. I have the right to vote in European elections, and to live and work wherever I want in the EU. I also have a bunch of other rights, but these two are enough to negate the validity of the Brexit vote. I don't know any theory of democracy that says one group of citizens—even if they are a majority—have the right to strip other citizens of their citizenship. Put like that, it seems absurd; the only reason it was even contemplated in this case is that everyone concerned has dual citizenship: of the United Kingdom and of the European Union. But if British citizenship cannot be revoked at the drop of a ballot box, why should European citizenship be?

It's hard to find a precedent for this situation. The closest I can think of is the decision by the southern states to secede from the Union, which obviously didn't work out too well. The problem with this analogy is that despite talk of states' rights, it was pretty obviously all about slavery, and it's hard to take such a glaring issue out of the equation. However, even if we can imagine that there was no slavery in the southern states but they wanted to secede because of, say, whisky taxes, the decision is still problematic because it would mean that people who had citizen's rights at one level (state) would suddenly lose them at another level (federal). If there were a referendum on secession, and if the secessionists won, the Unionists would still have a pretty strong case for ignoring the result. The counter-argument would presumably be that if you don't like it in Louisiana, you can always go north, but that wouldn't apply in the Brexit case because our right to go and live elsewhere in Europe is what is being denied.

In other cases of secession, it's usually been the case that the country in question never wanted to be part of a union in the first place. This is what happens when empires break up, or ethnic minorities form breakaway states. Naturally that doesn't apply here, since a large majority of British citizens voted to join the EU. But even in these cases, there is often an opportunity for those who opposed independence to keep their citizenship of the parent country. If I had the opportunity to keep my European citizenship, I might regard Brexit as democratic; as it is, I feel no obligation to "respect the wishes of the people" when those people are depriving me of my rights. For the same reason, parliament is neither legally nor morally obliged to pass any legislation on leaving the EU.
08 June 2016 @ 04:22 pm
Happy birthday, chr0me_kitten!
24 May 2016 @ 08:06 pm
In class a student giving a presentation asked if any of us had any secret vices, or at least things that jarred with our public image. I answered "Project Runway." It's not that I feel ashamed of liking Project Runway, but it certainly doesn't go with the kind of shows I recommend to my students, which include Game of Thrones, Vikings, Jessica Jones and suchlike—basically, fantasy violence, historical violence and superhero violence. Apart from the fact that there are a lot of men in skirts, they're not what you'd call fashion forward. Neither, for that matter, am I. Sure, I like to wear nice clothes, but it's not like I look forward to the latest Armani collection. What I like about Project Runway, apart from the opportunity to spend (low) quality time with my significant other, is watching people who are really good at what they do, doing creative and challenging things. I'd probably be just as happy if it were an industrial design competition.

My other not-really-fitting-my-image show is Survivor, which I got back into watching because my extra course load left me so brain dead that after working till 10 p.m. I'd just watch an hour of people surving then fall into bed. However, I found that this season the two shows have gone in opposite directions. I'm losing interest in Survivor (Turkish version) because all the contestants I really like have been eliminated, and the show could be renamed Catfight in the Caribbean. In contrast, Project Runway left us with a final at New York Fashion Week with our four favourite contestants, Kelly, Candice, Ashley and Edmond. (Yes, in Turkey we've only just finished season 14, though fortunately we were able to avoid spoilers to the extent that I only just found out it finished in November everywhere else.) So basically, there was no one we'd have been really pissed off to see win.

Nevertheless, we had our favourites, both as designers and as people: Kelly Dempsey and Candice Cuoco. Because, like most people, I tend to exaggerate the talents of people I happen to like, I was especially careful to establish that they did indeed have the best designs (check them out in the links in the last sentence if you don't believe me). OK, I know it doesn't make a nanodifference what I think, but it's good mental training IMHO. The other two contestants had pretty good collections (and Edmond had one absolutely stunning dress) but our lasses were well out in front; when the show was over and the jury got to talk, it was a toss-up between Kelly and Candice.

Or so we thought. Then the word came up: "plus-size". Ashley Tipton specialises in plus-size clothing, and her runway show had plus-size models, which means somewhere between "curvy" and "obese". Now Ashley's work wasn't at all bad (unlike some of her previous entries, which were hideous) but it wasn't in the same league as the other contestants unless you really, really, like lacy pastelly skirts and blouses that make you look fat—sorry, I mean, "celebrate your womanness". Am I being bitchy here? Yes, of course I'm being bitchy; this is Project Runway. But back to the point. Up to this point, the other designers were in with a chance, but then the other word came up: "inclusive". That's when we knew they were doomed. Having plus-size models would be inclusive, you see. (Having a Black guy win wouldn't be inclusive enough, I suppose, and the other contestants were just skinny White Trash.)

Now you'd think I'd be all for inclusiveness in fashion as everywhere else, and indeed I am. But just as in other areas, inclusiveness shouldn't ride roughshod over talent, especially where here it's largely a case of the fashion industry defending itself against largely justified claims of distorting female body images. Sure, it's nice to see some big models for a change, and it's great that people are designing clothes for big women, but please let's not think that we're better people because we try to balance a pile of size zeros with a few XXLs. That just reinforces the message that fashion is primarily for women with eating disorders. What would be really nice (as well as seeing the most talented people win, of course) would be for the fashion industry to acknowledge the middle of the bell curve once in a while. One of the best episodes was when the designers had to create a look for the members of the technical crew. That really got the message across—not that "real women have curves" but that real women actually come in all shapes and sizes.
07 May 2016 @ 02:00 pm
I have an ambivalent relationship with Malcolm Gladwell (a relationship of which he is naturally unaware). On the one hand, I love his ability to seize on apparently insignificant details (Goliath's myopia, varieties of spaghetti sauce, the Norden bombsight) and draw interesting conclusions from them. I love his amazing enthusiasm, which translates into wonderful talks that break several rules of presentations (a phenomenon I've dubbed "the Gladwell effect"—if you communicate enthusiasm about your topic, it doesn't matter if you say "umm" all the time, have a lousy Powerpoint or let your shirt come untucked at the back). On the other hand, it's not a good thing that such a wonderful writer and speaker manages to get things spectacularly wrong in ways that a little critical reading of the data could have prevented. Gladwell attracted some criticism for his attribution of New York's falling crime rate to Giuliani's "No broken windows" policing when in fact New York's crime fell more because crime across the whole of the developed world was falling. (To his credit, Gladwell admitted he "oversold" the idea.) Now, belatedly, his famous "10,000 hour rule" has been deflated by Anders Ericsson, the very person he got the idea from.

As a naturally lazy person, I was inclined to be skeptical of the 10,000 hour rule as soon as I heard about it. I was also reminded of my time as a music student. Gladwell's claim was based on research by Ericsson that found the best students at a music school in Berlin had, on average, put in 10,000 hours of practice by the time they were twenty. What I observed as a music student, though, was that beyond a certain point, the amount of practice my fellow students put in didn't correlate particularly strongly with their performance. Some people were just good, and only had to practice enough to stop their technique from getting rusty. Some people could practice all day and would never be more than competent, because actually being a great musician isn't primarily about technique; it's about feeling. (I'm speaking here as less-than-great musician; as my teacher at the time put it, "You're playing virtuoso material, but you're not a virtuoso yet." Ironically, I was one of the ones who might have benefited from those 10,000 hours of practice.)

Another person I admire (but also take with a grain of salt) is Tim Ferriss. In The Four-Hour Chef he points out the problems with the idea that 10,000 hours of practice are necessary (let alone sufficient) to master any skill. Firstly, we can't say anything on the subject without a clear idea of what we mean by "master". Is your standard for mastering golf the best player at your local course, a national champion, or Tiger Woods? (Ferriss takes being in the top 20% world-wide, which I think is reasonable.) Secondly, the amount of effort, practice or talent necessary to master a skill varies according to the skill being practiced. As Anders Ericsson himself points out, "Steve Faloon, the subject of an early experiment on improving memory, became better at memorizing strings of digits than any other person in history after only about two hundred hours of practice." At a more modest level, I've used YouTube to relearn several skills, from peeling a banana to tying my shoelaces. I can say with some confidence that I've mastered them (except for folding fitted sheets—I've got a way to go there) but it certainly didn't take 10,000 hours of practice.

Most importantly, Ferriss queries the cause-effect relationship. Remember that the data come from intensely competitive fields, as Andersson says: "The reason that you must put in ten thousand or more hours of practice to become one of the world’s best violinists or chess players or golfers is that the people you are being compared to or competing with have themselves put in ten thousand or more hours of practice." But as Ferriss notes, if you're in a highly competitive field where everyone is practicing like crazy, you are likely to practice like crazy too, regardless of how much practice you actually need to do. Maybe it's not just that practice makes perfect but also that perfectionism makes you practice.
22 April 2016 @ 10:20 am
I have just received some academic spam entitled "Top Ten Reasons to Submit Your Paper to Textile Research Journal". Apart from the fact that this sounds like an article from Cracked.com, how about the top reason not to: my knowledge of textiles is limited to not putting my sweaters in the same wash as my jeans.
10 April 2016 @ 09:45 pm
I've decided my social media fast doesn't apply to Instagram, because I need cute puppy pictures to calm me down before I go to sleep, and LiveJournal, because it predates the term "social media".
02 April 2016 @ 10:23 am
Happy birthday, miss_next!
10 March 2016 @ 07:30 pm
Happy birthday, asteriskhere!
I used to use yoga as a reductio ad absurdum of cultural appropriation, but it turns out some students are actually protesting against yoga classes on these grounds. Following the fashion of the hyper-privileged banging on about oppression, some students at Ottowa University lambasted the free yoga classes on campus, stating that many of the cultures Yoga comes from "have experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and western supremacy … we need to be mindful of this and how we express ourselves while practicing yoga." With the pusillanimity we have come to expect of universities these days, the administration reacted by cancelling the classes, though it was at pains to point out that this email was not the sole reason. Suuuure.

But let's assume that the university, after consulting with all parties (i.e., anyone who can invent a grievance), decides to resume the courses in a more ideologically sound manner. How exactly would we be mindful of oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas while practicing yoga? Should I be thinking about the British-inspired famines in India while relaxing in Savasana? Or should I be thinking about how Mr Patel who runs the corner shop has been diasporised? (As well as being a cultural stereotype, of course.) FFS, do you think about the Greek diaspora every time you eat feta cheese?

This aside, an indication that the person who typed the mail was simply vomiting rhetoric rather than actually thinking is the claim about "cultural genocide." It is sometimes meaningful to talk about cultural genocide, though personally I avoid the term, as I think it lessens the impact of the word "genocide", which in my humble opinion should only be used for actual genocide. But yoga comes from India, and India has not suffered cultural genocide; on the contrary, it has a vibrant, self-confident culture which it has exported worldwide, one manifestation of which is yoga.

In more specifically Canadian political silliness, the yoga teacher offered to rename the classes "mindful stretching" but that was dropped because they couldn't translate it into French.
18 November 2015 @ 01:46 pm
One of the sillier commentaries on the Paris attacks I have read so far is Niall Ferguson's "Paris and the Fall of Rome". It's ironic that it comes from a historian, given its romanticised view of history. The author draws an analogy between Daesh/ISIS's attack on Paris and the Goths' sack of Rome, quoting Gibbon to illustrate the savagery of both:
In the hour of savage license, when every passion was inflamed, and every restraint was removed … a cruel slaughter was made of the Romans; and … the streets of the city were filled with dead bodies … Whenever the Barbarians were provoked by opposition, they extended the promiscuous massacre to the feeble, the innocent, and the helpless.

Apart from the fact that you can't really compare the sack of a whole city with a terrorist attack, Gibbon was, as usual, playing to the gallery. As it happened, the sack of Rome, far from being an unprecedented act of barbarity, was mild by the (admittedly brutal) standards of the day. Certainly a lot of Roman civilians were killed or enslaved, but that wasn't the Goths' main aim; their aim was to show the government in Ravenna who was boss, and carry off loot. The city was not put the torch and there was no systematic massacre. The Goths didn't want to destroy the Roman Empire but to be part of it, preferably the part that was ruling it.

Ferguson also goes along with the pop-history narrative whereby empires fall because they get soft and decadent. In this view, empires are started by hardy, plain-living folk who epitomise the manly virtues (think of those hunky guys in 300). Their descendants become victims of their own success, succumbing to luxury and debauchery, throwing orgies and eating big bunches of grapes. (It's a trope in historical/fantasy films that soft people eat soft fruit.) Too effete to practice the arts of war, they are overthrown by manly barbarian hordes, and so the cycle continues. Like Rome, Ferguson warns, Europe will be overrun by barbarians because we let our martial prowess droop.

There are two things blatantly wrong with this argument. The first is that the Roman Empire became more, not less, militaristic as time went by. From the end of the second century, the empire was basically a succession of military dictatorships, with the most powerful general becoming emperor. (Incidentally, "imperator" was originally a title bestowed on successful generals by their troops.) Late Roman field armies could wipe the floor with anyone—the problem was that there weren't enough of them because there weren't enough Romans. (The reasons for that are up for debate; poor agricultural practices, a slave economy and even lead poisoning have been suggested.) When the empire split into East and West, the depopulated, impoverished West didn't stand a chance, while the wealthy, populous Byzantine Empire carried on for centuries.

The other mistake is to think that Europe, because it has been relatively peaceful, is militarily weak. European states played a considerable role in the adventurism that brought about the current mess, from Iraq to Syria. It's true that mounting a full-scale invasion of a Middle Eastern country would be beyond the capability of any European state, but then wars these days are fought by coalitions, and a coalition of EU states, even without American support, could probably take out any of Europe's neighbours except for Russia. In any case, if we're talking a fall of Rome scenario, then Daesh would have to come over here as an army, not a handful of serial killers, and such an army wouldn't get further than the Turkish border. Alarmism about Europe's supposedly weak defences is no more useful now than it was during the Cold War.

It may be true that those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it, but we need to learn the right lessons. We also need to learn what things are different. Europe is not the Roman Empire, its neighbours are not barbarian hordes, and modern warfare is a world away from the Dark Ages.