The Result of University Cost-Cutting Measures . . .

the Plausible Deniability Blog takes up where the PostModernVillage blog left off. While you'll see many of the same names here, PDB allows its writers and editors a space away from financial strum und drang that torpedoed the PMV blog.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

On "Innovation" and the Exploitation of the Middle Class

by TS DeHaviland

Let's do a little thought experiment. Let's pretend it's before the Internet was really a “thing,” perhaps the late 1970s or early 1980s.

A group of entrepreneurial upstarts who are upset with the high cost and relative difficulty of finding cabs decide to do something about it. They run ads in local newspapers for a new directory of individuals willing to give cheap rides in their own, private vehicles at a moment's notice.

Thousands of laid-off blue-collar workers and bored housewives sign up. The new guide, let's call it “Ridebook,” is inexpensively printed and made available in airport, railway and busline newsstands for a dollar apiece. A weary traveler has merely to buy the most recent book, drop a dime in a pay phone, and be on his way.

This hypothetical is merely a way to demonstrate that Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar are not actually technology companies. The hypothetical model I just presented could be done with a few people with IBM Selectrics, a few multi-line phones, and a Rolodex. While Ridebook would be a little more clunky, and users would have to go through a few numbers, perhaps, before they found someone who was at home beside the phone, there's no online component needed to do it, no cell phones or slick apps required.

So if these companies aren't really technology companies, what are they? They do, of course, use new technologies: certainly the use of smart phones and web-apps has created the occasion for these companies' founders to think them up; such concepts are easier when the path is more convenient and clear.

But, as our hypothetical implies, Uber, Lyft, Sidecar, and companies like Airbnb are really companies that exploit the declining incomes of the middle class and the use of remaining middle class material possessions. You may not have the job you once had, but you still have your car and and some real-estate sucking you down with what you still owe on them? Sign up with Uber and Airbnb and make those millstones move in your favor. What was once used for the private enjoyment of middle class people is now turned toward the commercial sector.

There's nothing new about this either, as every creaky Victorian house with an added-on outdoor staircase attests: the Great Depression pressed extra rooms into service as cheap apartments, and ads were placed in local papers to find boarders to fill them.

But wait, you say—your hypothetical example costs money and Uber and such are free! Of course they're not: you just don't pay up front. You pay a percentage as provider of the service, a cost that may or may not be passed on to the “customer” who gets the ride. If it isn't, then the actual customer of the service is the person who lists the property or drives the car, and she is merely using the service to capture the customer or find the fare. Furthermore, anyone who uses a smartphone pays all the time in the form of a data plan. Uber-type companies don't get money from that data plan directly, but they do get the advantage of opportunity cost being paid by the smartphone user. We don't think of data plans as the cost of doing business online because we get used to paying them, and they quickly grow natural to us. Our hypothetical traveler using Ridebook invests only $1.00 and a few dimes here and there.

We tend to think of companies like Uber and the like as technology companies because they fit a few favorite scripts. The first one is “OMG the Intr0webz changes everything!” This favorite of traditional media is probably driven by their own fear and lack of understanding about how the Wild and Woolly Web really works. After 20 years, it's also high time we gave up on it. It changes what it changes, and it doesn't what it doesn't. I think we've largely gotten that figured out by now. The second is that “every new company that uses anything even remotely cell phone or webbish is an innovation company,” which both isn't true and masks the way these supposedly innovative companies look very traditional when they start to get big and compete with one another.

While Uber and Airbnb-type companies provide great opportunities for many people, the tragedy of not seeing them as indications of how far the middle class has declined shows how unwilling we are to fight back for decent wages and to organize on our own behalf. These companies will provide us work-arounds for as long as they remain small. Then they too—just like Amazon and Apple—will fall into putting downward pressure on wages and compensation, start outsourcing, and begin doing all those bad things big companies are expected by their shareholders to do.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Statistics vs. the Obvious in the Painting of Bob Ross

by Lael Ewy, MFA

In a recent essay in the statistics blog FiveThirtyEight, Walt Hickey attempts to use statistical analysis to learn something about the work of Bob Ross, whose show The Joy of Painting can still be seen on PBS nearly 20 years after his death. While the Hickey's piece does help us understand statistics, it does little to illuminate painting and is an object lesson in how statistics can muddle common sense when misapplied.

Hickey's use of the word “given” indicates that some certain image in a Bob Ross painting can be statistically correlated with another, showing conditional probability. Here's an example:

“The biggest pitfall people often face is assuming the two probabilities are the same. The probability that Ross painted a cloud given that he painted the beach — essentially, how many beach paintings have clouds — is (0.07)/(0.09), which is 78 percent. The vast majority of beach scenes contain clouds. However, the probability that Ross painted a beach given that he painted a cloud — or, how many cloud paintings contain a beach — is (0.07)/(0.44), or 16 percent. So the vast majority of cloud paintings don’t have beaches.”

In common usage, of course, “given” represents not a statistical correlation but a real relationship—one in which we reason deductively, not inductively. We might say “Given that car's charging system is working properly, the problem probably isn't the alternator.” So far so good: Hickey is just helping us understand how statisticians use the word.

But here's where things start to get sort of silly. Bob Ross is creating paintings, not taking snapshots. Since this is art, the first thing we might want to consider is Ross's aesthetic, which is representational. He presents lots of clouds because he's painting landscapes, and, interestingly enough, you kind of have to depict the sky in a landscape. And one way that people know it's a sky and not, say, blue water, is by putting clouds in it.

And while his paintings are distinctly representational, he's also presenting a Romantic idea along with his paintings, not just putting random objects together on a canvas: clouds are a much more pleasing aspect of, say, a mountain scene than they are of a beach scene. People associate good times at the beach with cloudless days; mountains are impressive because they're up among the clouds. In order for Ross to meet the expectations of the aesthetic situation he is presenting, he's going to be doing things this way as a matter of course. There's no need for a complex statistical analysis in this case; all it requires is a pretty simple aesthetic one.

Along these lines, if Ross is going to present things representationally, he is bound also to present, for example, more than one tree (since they tend to hang out together in forests) and more than one mountain (since they tend to hang out together in ranges). As Hickey puts it,

What is the probability, given that Ross painted a happy tree, that he then painted a friend for that tree?
There’s a 93 percent chance that Ross paints a second tree given that he has painted a first.
What percentage of Bob Ross paintings contain an almighty mountain?
About 39 percent prominently feature a mountain.
What percentage of those paintings contain several almighty mountains?
Ross was also amenable to painting friends for mountains. Sixty percent of paintings with one mountain in them have at least two mountains.”

Again, all this really reveals is that Ross was a representationalist, something patently obvious to anyone who has ever seen his show. It also may suggest that Hickey has never seen a forest or a mountain range. Perhaps someone should give him permission to back away from his spreadsheets for long enough to go visit some of these places—or at least look them up on Google Images. He might be surprised to find that they look a whole lot like the paintings of Bob Ross.
Hickey goes on to break down how often Ross painted certain types of clouds (“Given that there is a painted cloud, there’s a 47 percent chance it is a distinctly cumulus one.”), water (“About 34 percent of Ross’s paintings contain a lake, 33 percent contain a river or stream, and 9 percent contain the ocean.”), and, notably, cabins:

“About 18 percent of his paintings feature a cabin. Given that Ross painted a cabin, there’s a 35 percent chance that it’s on a lake, and a 40 percent chance there’s snow on the ground. While 72 percent of cabins are in the same painting as conifers, only 63 percent are near deciduous trees.”

This again fails to take into account the Romantic aspect of Ross's work. Cabins on lakes and cabins in the snow are simply more pleasant from a Romantic point of view than cabins, say, surrounded by the dirt and grime of the city or, for instance, cabins engulfed in flame because they've just been bombed by the Luftwaffe.

Hickey goes on to speculate about how these things showed what Ross did or didn't like in a painting. One may presume that a person's overall aesthetic approach is based on personal preferences, but there are also a set of expectations within that aesthetic approach that help guide the artist. “Like” isn't a terribly deep description of an aesthetic approach, but once that approach is understood, it's generally predictive. A statistical analysis works the opposite way: by trying to figure what is generally predictive from looking at masses or classes of individual instances. This can be quite useful, but it sort of misses the point when it comes to painting and art.

Hickey was so interested in this idea of figuring out what Ross liked that he went and asked Ross curator and business partner Annette Kowalski about his work. One the one hand, this is good: Hickey realized the limits of what his data could actually reveal. Kowalski noted that what's striking about the work from Ross's show was what they largely left out, which was people.

Here's where we look at the other hand. First, we can go back to Ross's clearly Romantic aesthetic: being surrounded by people rather than happy trees and majestic mountains and such is a total downer from the Romantic point of view. Wordsworth didn't get all poetic about bankers and bricklayers; because he was a Romantic, he trended toward daffodils buffeted by breezes.

But even though he mentions it, perhaps the most obvious thing Hickey and Kowalski seem not to be taking into account is that Ross's show was a teaching program, in which he created a fully-realized oil painting in a 30 minute format, and almost in real time. In other words, Ross is going to choose the forms that a novice painter could easily replicate and that he could easily demonstrate within the confines of the program. He may have avoided people simply because figure painting is notoriously tricky, expensive, and time-consuming, which is why they have separate classes on it in art school. The show was, after all, the Joy of Painting, not What a Pain in the Butt It Is to Paint People. Further, figure painting often requires live models, frequently nude ones, which adds a layer of logistics and cost, and which would have been difficult to get by PBS censors.

What the statistics don't show, then, are the more-or-less obvious aesthetic, pedagogical, temporal, and financial realities Bob Ross faced.

As helpful as statistical analysis can be, it's misused if it's a substitute for common sense. It's also ill-used if applied by people who simply don't understand their subjects and the principles by which those pursuing those subjects act. These principles are generally obvious to those who understand the subject matter, or they are clearly stated by the people engaged in them. Statistics might reveal when a person is being deceitful—for example when a politician's voting record, statistically, doesn't match her rhetoric. But there's no indication that Bob Ross was doing anything other than painting joyfully, and with his audience squarely in mind.

Friday, July 4, 2014

On the Limitations of Moral Systems

by EW Wilder

No one “deserves” what they get. We're all struggling with our circumstances and our choices (or lack thereof) the best we know how—and what we learn about how to engage in this struggle is rarely adequate to the circumstances we are dealt. Woe be to the teenager so coddled as to never have been overwhelmed prior to being faced with adulthood.

Perhaps instead of trying to apply a predetermined system of justice on a universe that doesn't recognize its relevance, we should look at the situation a person is in and ask “What is the best way to alleviate suffering for everyone involved?”

I suppose one could argue that even the principle upon which this idea rests—that suffering should be addressed, and, if possible, overcome—implies a system of justice. And perhaps it does. But the point of reducing things to a simple maxim is to avoid wasting time and energy trying to place the blame, to avoid propagating waves of anger and resentment by casting forth punishments and rewards based solely on statute, faith, or opinion.

For all our apparent abundance, we actually have a dearth of resources in personal energy and time, and, increasingly, in physical resources as well: in food, clean water, secure housing. The notion that we have much to spend on doling out holy edicts ignores the desperate realities faced by suffering people and, in the end, circles back on us and dooms even we who have pledged to “help” make the world a better, more prosperous place.

The most we can do for justice is to stop believing we have a monopoly on defining it and to stop imposing its outcomes in ways that reinforce our own sense of superiority.

On the Happiness of the Three-Legged Dog

by Lael Ewy

A three-legged dog can be perfectly happy with a juicy bone and a friendly hand to pet him. But a human being can be perfectly miserable in the midst of absolute luxury. The same ability to continually reflect on what's wrong, to compare in our minds our current situation to an imagined ideal, is also the key to our success as a species: the ability to imagine into being technology and art, to ponder great ideas and see them out.

We are fated to be simultaneously brilliant and unhappy, at once astoundingly successful and stultifyingly dissatisfied.  

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Meritocracy Is Morally Bankrupt

by EW Wilder
Bakhtin Professor of Literary Economics at Purewater University

Today's leaders are haunted by the bad ideas of the 1990s.

From banking deregulation to globalization, the Clinton/Obama-wing of the Democratic Party and what was once known as the “mainstream” of the GOP seem to agree on a core set of principles that became ascendant in the last decade of the 20th Century. These ideas cleave to the aspirational motives and related governmental policies that foster the habits of mind of the so-called “strivers”: people whose life stories have been cast and recast as exemplars of the “American Dream” of overcoming the odds and succeeding (almost always financially) despite hardship and through hard work and dedication.

At the core of this ideology is the notion of the “meritocracy.” Thomas Frank recently described the meritocracy as the idea that the most competent people would (read “should”) get promoted in the workplace, and presumably, by extension, in the social world. Variously, the same idea has been used to justify giving a pass to “talent” of all sorts, even in the face of demonstrable disasters caused by the application of said “talent,” not the least of these on Wall Street over the last 15 years.

For most people my age and younger, the meritocracy is something of a joke. We have seen hacks take over everything from the music industry to academe, from publishing to the presidency itself.

Generation X was, after all, the first generation since the Great Depression to do worse than the generation before, not because we were “slackers,” as everyone said, but because of ever-narrowing opportunities—many of those narrowings justified by the very bad ideas of the '90s that are still in vogue. The stats need not be repeated here, but ought to be touched on: American corporations have outsourced nearly all their manufacturing capacities overseas, content to only own brands and not actually make stuff; Walmart and other massive retailers have put downward pressure on ordinary work, to the degree that a grocery worker is now making exactly the same wage in real dollars that she made in the late 1970s; and the tech jobs that promised us fun workplaces and scads of leisure time disappeared with the tech bust of the early 2000s.

But as ballyhooed as these facts have been, particularly by the liberal press, the facts have always been against meritocratic principles. Even in the halcyon days of US manufacturing, it was still a good idea to know somebody in the factory if you wanted to get work there: despite what our high-school guidance counselors told us, we were always better off relying on the strengths of our networks than the persuasiveness of our résumés.

And here we have hit upon the most practical of the problems with the meritocracy: it doesn't, and can't, exist as advertised. First of all, those deciding what merit is tend to be of the same caste of rich and powerful elites as have always been in place. Does anyone seriously think that they would define “merit” in any way other than one that would protect their own children and promote their own power? For the meritocracy to work as its supporters claim, “merit” must be broadly and democratically defined; it must be flexible enough to apply to any given individual's set of potential talents. Nowhere that I have been able to find has “meritocracy” been defined along these lines. In fact, the very vagueness of how it is defined speaks loudly about why meritocratic ideals have been able to so dominate socio-political debate. We'd all like to think that we have what it takes to make it. The meritocracy appeals to shared American ideals that hard work, self-improvement, and self-confidence will actually get you somewhere. But none of those things matter if the very parameters upon which someone is said to have merit are rigged to begin with. Your ability to survive as a single mom of color by working three jobs and managing complex familial and social relationships in order to make sure your kids stay alive are admirable, but they're not what the managerial class wants, which begins with the sort of good credit score and job stability and student internships that your single-mom of color existence most likely excludes. This is not an accident; it is one of the many ways exclusion is baked right into the system.

A good deal more damaging is the obvious fact (one nobody has bothered to point out), that the meritocracy is not democracy. Our most basic egalitarian principles are obviated by the notion that you should be judged socio-culturally by merit rather than by the simple virtue of citizenship. This does not mean that a company should hire just anybody for any position, of course, but meritocracy implies that those with merit ought to rule, and that is, quite simply, undemocratic. As much as I hate to say it, even idiots have the same rights as the rest of us, and they are also entitled to the same opportunities. The structure of our schools and terms of employment assure that this is not the case; in fact, some complete idiots are promoted by the idea of the meritocracy because they display those aforementioned presupposed talents, ones that may or may not actually be damaging to the companies, stock portfolios, or congressional subcommittees these idiots control.

But most damning is that the meritocracy is morally bankrupt.

With all due respect to Dr. King, his own Christianity does not say that we should judge others “by the content of their character.” It says, rather, “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” In fact, no major religious or moral system worth its salt says that we ought to treat people any better for having “merit” or any worse for not having it. Meritocratic ideals still perpetuate the notion that we need some system of ranking people, that what most aggrieves society is, somehow, the lack of a proper way to separate out the winners from everybody else. Indeed, the prime promoters of this idea are a class of people far more obnoxious than sore losers: sore winners. These are people who assume (with some degree of circularity) that whatever got them where they are is how merit is defined (see above), and they suffer immensely from accusations that they should in any way be beholden to those who happen to sully an otherwise happy species by not having the same characteristics they have. This is true even if those characteristics (and, again, Wall Street bankers come to mind) are downright dangerous to society as a whole. And yet, aren't those who lack these characteristics, in fact, most in need of our help? Won't those who possess “merit” do fine even without a system in place that rewards them for it, as, apparently, “merit” is the key to success anyway?

Compounding the moral emptiness at the heart of the meritocracy is the idea that competition is the means by which merit shows itself. As individuals compete for a place in society, for jobs, for respect and power, their talents will naturally sort them out. But even if we could assume that these competitions aren't rigged, we are faced with a problem: what do we, as a meritocratic society, do with all the losers? Is the teleological implication of a meritocracy that the losers ought to just, what, starve and die? In a meritocratic utopia are those without merit merely exiled, or are they actively killed? What happens to them? This promoters of the meritocracy seldom articulate. It's found only at the libertarian extremes, where the prospect of a bunch of people who don't have what it takes dying in the streets aligns with their social-Darwinist sense of justice.

But for those of us who purport to be guided by less draconian systems, this eventuality is abhorrent, to say the least. Our moral systems teach us exactly the opposite: rather than dismissing these people, the proper role of the “winners” is to use their superior powers—their status, their money, their talent—to help the losers out. If our system is based entirely—or even mostly—on competition, we've gone a long way toward recreating a Hobbesian “state of nature” of all-against-all within our society. And if that's what we want to do, then, well, why have a society at all? The whole point of cultural systems is to increase the odds its members will survive, not to recreate and reinforce ranking schemes along artificial and often arbitrary lines, and still less to do away with a whole class of people who don't “measure up” to the benchmarks those rankings set.

So what am I proposing? How about, instead of assuming that those with “merit” will win and those without will lose, we go about actually trying to create merit by leveraging the talents and abilities of individuals in order to meet social and market-based needs? How about, instead of a culture of competition that drives people out of what they can't do, we develop a culture of support that pro-actively helps people find out what they can do? How about, instead of looking for new ways to rank people, we look for new ways to understand people and their needs? How about, instead of judging worth on a person's “merit,” we assume a person's worth through the values of dignity and shared humanity?

All indications are that the future will be hard. Between climate change and market instability, between the flagging power of the US on the world stage and the dwindling of the planet's resources, we will need to develop ways of living that bring us closer together, that call on the hidden talents and the unfulfilled capacities of all of us. For the future to be a bright one, we will have to abandon “merit” and embrace mutuality, do away with systems of exclusion and create systems of radical inclusion. Together, even with our flaws, we live. Alone, even with our merits, we die.