On effusive praise

In college I knew a couple who looked good on paper. The boy, we’ll call him K, was effusive in his praise for his girlfriend, whom we will call H. He frequently bought her pink roses, pearls, tea sets and things he knew she adored. They were often pictured together at formal events where she could indulge her love of dressing up.

This boy, K, was the younger brother of a boy that I was dating. I met K first, but I felt so much closer to his brother. I did watch the relationship of K & H from the beginning though, and comparing it to my own, was sometimes envious. My boyfriend did not buy me things, take me to fancy parties, or gush over me in his blog. I wondered if I had made the wrong choice. Not out of materialism, but I dangerously let myself ask whether my boyfriend felt strongly about me at all.

But I was wrong. Here is the rest of their story.

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On Beauty

I chose my first boyfriend for his attractiveness. Tall, pretty blue-green eyes, dramatic pouty lips, and soft emo hair. That was a mistake because it turned out that it was harder to hold a conversation with him than with an inanimate object. At seventeen, he still didn’t know what mathematical integration was. He also believed so strongly in the evils of GMOs that he spent a series of Saturdays designing and making a papier mâché costume of corn with a lobster head and claws to wear in an anti-GMO parade. I told him merely that if such a thing existed I’m sure it would be delicious.

Since then I’ve had many discussions on the merits of choosing a partner based on beauty. The strongest argument against has been that it shouldn’t be relevant because it is neither a lasting feature, nor indicative of anything else about the person.

I agree with the first reason, but I’m less convinced of the second. There has been research (mentioned in the article linked below) that seems to indicate a few interesting things:

1. Perception of beauty is innate: babies reliably prefer more beautiful faces long before society has a chance to tell them what they should find beautiful.

2. Beautiful children are treated better by their parents. They are looked after more carefully, and less likely to be abused.

3. Beautiful children are better adjusted, more popular, and more intelligent.

I think findings 2 and 3 need to be carefully controlled for things like socio-economic status of the parents, and I haven’t read the original papers, but I would not be surprised if they were true. I see the same bias in myself: ascribing positive traits (interesting, intelligent, kind) to people because I find them beautiful. I pay more attention to them. Confirmation bias and the Pygmalion effect are at play, but I’m not sure it matters. Just like it doesn’t matter if my headache is cured by a placebo.

Perhaps there is a reason that the French language has no notion of beauty that doesn’t also have connotations of goodness.

The Evolution of Beauty

On the importance of diction

Mathematicians are spoiled. They’re spoiled because the truth of their statements is all that matters. There are verbose or terse ways of stating the same facts, but in the end, no one really cares as long as the statements themselves are true. No matter how much you despise the particular mathematician, his true statements remain true.

The more ambiguous the notion of truth is in a field, the more room there is for other things to matter. In those more subjective fields, it is a fact that tone matters. Perhaps more than content. If the goal is to ever convince anyone who is either ignorant or unconvinced, diction, tone, and the overall ability to be taken seriously all matter.

If you’ve ever read The Little Prince, you may recall the anecdote about the Turkish astronomer who wasn’t taken seriously until he put on a suit.

It’s the same with race issues. If it’s easy to dismiss someone as rabid, angry, unreasonable then their content doesn’t even matter! Even word choice is important. Using popular race studies buzzwords like oppression, marginalization, privilege, intersectionality, derailment, safe space, institutionalized racism, bigotry, entitlement makes it easy for the reader to write someone off as simply frothing. A couple of examples. Hyperbole doesn’t help either. Just the way that after you’ve heard the VP of engineering say he’s “SUPER EXCITED” about something for the 20th time in the last 10 minutes, it becomes meaningless.

I’m not saying I know better. In all of my writings on atheism, I’m sure I’ve been guilty of the same slogan-slinging. But it becomes more evident that there is something I can learn from just about anyone. Social justice warriors included. That is this: if you want to convince someone who isn’t on your side, you have to speak their language. Otherwise you’re just preaching to the choir.


Dolly: Nigel? Nigel where are you I need your help.

Nigel: Heavens alive, I’m right here. Don’t have a fit. What do you need, little girl?

D: Someone told me, “You are the most selfish person I know.” I don’t think of myself as particularly selfish. I don’t understand. It bothered me. Why?

N: Ah, there is a certain amount of discomfort that comes with the dissonance between how we perceive ourselves and how we are perceived by others. Did this person give examples?

D: No, but our relationship was the one during which I tried the hardest not to be selfish. This meant doing a lot of things I would rather not have done. I thought that was the way to create something lasting.

N: What did that get you? I presume, not the intended outcome…

D: I’ve been taught that I’m not supposed to think about it that way — in terms of what I can get, so I didn’t think about it. In retrospect, acting the way I did locked me into an uncomfortable set of expectations that I would continue to do all the things I didn’t really want to do or explain myself about what has changed. Either continue or get into fights.

N: The special becomes standard. The standard is expected. Any deviation will be a problem because humans are loss adverse. 

D: I don’t understand. I should give as little of myself as possible?

N: Don’t be absurd. Give yourself in a way that you can sustain — in a way that is honest. Do what it pleases you to do. There is a common misunderstanding, that “doing as you want” is necessarily in opposition to the desires of everyone around you. But I am sure you can think of examples where others delight in the things you choose to do.

D: Sure. Baking. Playing the piano. Reading interesting things so I can tell them interesting things. Having fabulous hair… Oh, only joking.

N: Right, steady on there. You’ve spent nearly your whole life alone. You know what you like. You know who you are. Don’t try to impress anyone. Don’t apologize or try to make yourself anything else to please someone because you know that whatever mask you wear cannot last forever. Then you won’t like the accusations of lying, but you’ll richly deserve them.

D: No. I’ve always had you. With you, I am never alone. You don’t let me get away with a damn thing, Nigel. But on issue of impressing people — I once took a bunch of hard classes I wasn’t qualified for to impress a boy. I didn’t regret it. It was like being refined by fire and I would  never have found that motivation in myself.

N: Did doing that keep you from doing things you would rather have been doing?

D: No? I took them in addition to all the classes I wanted to take, and then forced myself to be twice as efficient so I could still do all of the frivolous things I loved. It was beautiful.

N: Here again, a misunderstanding. This is inspiration, not forcing yourself to do something you don’t want to do in order to impress. Had this boy been interested in World of Warcraft, would you have played to please him?

D: No way. Do you even need to ask.

N: There. Then all along, what you said you did to impress him — those were things that you wanted to do. You weren’t trying to impress him. He helped you fly.

D: I see. That’s interesting. But doesn’t this way of thinking seem closed off? What about trying new things? Especially new things that I never had any interest in before? But now, perhaps I know someone who is very enthusiastic about something. Is it bad to let that enthusiasm affect me, and to try the things they love?

N: You don’t need me, you’ve answered the question yourself. If their enthusiasm awakens something in you, makes you curious, then that is again you wanting to try something. Remember to be driven by you, though. Don’t do it to please them, because they keep pestering you, or any of that.

D: It sounds like you think I should be waiting to win the lottery. Just wait for someone who wants exactly what I happen to be. And in turn, who is exactly as I want already.

N: Not precisely, but you’re getting closer. You’re an optimizer. It’s not fair for you to pretend to work for a paycheck with anyone. Your fickle heart will run to the person who fits, who understands better, no matter how many rules and obligations you’ve used to tie yourself down. I’ve taught you better than that. You know how to be alone. Be alone. Wait to win the lottery… and even when you think you’ve won, accept that that person may not feel the same about you.

D: How depressing. At least I’ll always have you.

N: Yes, darling, forever and always.

On lists for liking

Nigel: What are you doing, little girl?

Dolly: I’m trying to make a list, Nigel.

N: Hmm. I can see that. To what end?

D: I’m making a list of reasons I like someone to see if they are valid reasons to feel the way I feel about them.

N: Oh! How droll. You seem to be having some difficulty though. Why?

D: Well, I don’t know what reasons are valid, and even if I did, I’m not sure what weight to give them.

N: That does seem like a problem. Maybe I can help. Just list anything that comes to mind and we’ll sort through it together.

D: Good idea. Nigel, you’re the best. Okay. I have a boy in mind. In no particular order, I like his eyes, his hair, his ribs, brushing him and the way he smells. He’s a pretty boy.

N: Darling, you can’t be serious. Those things are ephemeral. You can’t possibly base a meaningful relationship or friendship on those things.

D: But Nigel. What about living in the moment? I also hear that all of the time. Live in the moment, enjoy the moment. I can’t be thinking about when he loses his pretty eyes in an accident, and all his pretty hair to baldness or disease. I can’t worry about whether he’ll become so obese I never see his ribs again. Right? Enjoy what exists for just right now?

N: Dolly — those words don’t mean what you’re playing at. You know better. They mean that you shouldn’t fret about losing what you have, the way that your favorite sonnet does. But nothing you listed there has any predictive power about anything else. Don’t you like anything about him that gives you insight about who he is?

D: I like the way he looks at me, I like his company, I like how he makes me feel. He is sweet.

N: But you are trying to inform your feelings for him, right? Attempting to correct the magnitude of your feelings to factual observations and using unassailable logic? In that case, it rather begs the question to mention how you feel. All of these are about your own feelings. Try for facts, but deeper ones than the first ones you gave.

D: I don’t know very much more about him. He purrs continually when I sit near him.

N: Dolly. Dolly, are we talking about a cat? Please tell me we aren’t talking about a cat.

D: Yes! Here’s a picture. Every time I see him I want to take him home with me he’s such a darling old gentleman. Just the best lap cat I’ve ever met. I mean, there isn’t much more I can know about him, right? Isn’t it enough that I just like him?

N: …

Why did I ever think you could be serious. Even for a moment. I think I need tea…

This thought experiment has been cute, but I would question the need for such a system. Surely its use would not be to try to convince yourself of someone’s worth once you already felt they were a waste of your time? If you had the most robust list of valid attributes, an impeccable metric, and the coolness of mind to apply it, would you use it in this way? Would you force yourself to admit you had unfairly dismissed someone as someone you couldn’t date or be friends with?

D: No, I don’t think that’s an intended purpose of this system.

N: Right. So it is only to force yourself in the other direction: to reign in strong feelings that you determine, by these measurements, that you have no right to have. 

D: I think that’s the purpose, yes.

N: That would imply that there is no use for feelings at all. Nothing that can’t be accounted for cleanly by looking at the facts and pushing all of them through to their logical conclusions. But then you have that! What happens if two people look the exact-same on paper, but yet you feel differently about them? Is that extra information invalid — and you have to ignore it? Because there is a world of information that comes in with no conscious effort. Information we have no ability to explain, information we aren’t conscious of, but nonetheless have bearing in some way. For example, we are more attracted to people with complementary immune systems and we can “tell” this by their pheromones — we think they smell good. 

D: Don’t be tiresome, Nigel. I know about pheromones. But those are for the purpose of reproduction, right? What if your focus is on long term compatibility? Don’t you have to ignore factors like that and the initial rush of dopamine and other happy neurotransmitters?

N: The answer isn’t to ignore any of it. Or to peg feelings to the set of conscious information. But maybe, realising that there is so much that you aren’t aware of, credit the non-conscious information for what you may think is an irrationally strong feeling. Have you figured out the motivation for using such a system? Rationalizing feelings out of existence?

D: I’m not sure. But perhaps it’s to never have to look back and say, “I was possessed to say that. Now I have to explain why it’s no longer true.”

N: Oh, for heaven’s sake. Dispense with list-making. Dispense with quality-measuring. Leave the metrics to the mathematicians. All that you need is to keep that nonsense to yourself. If you need to declare anything, declare it to me, little girl. I’ll write it down for you and we can throw it in the fire and watch it dance.

D: Sounds like a plan! What if it’s something that I ought to say? Something that someone needs to hear from me?

N: Nonsense. What’s meant to be will be. A person who belongs with you will never need to hear you say a single damned thing. He or she will read it in your eyes, your touch, and in the nuances between your words. Don’t forget your motto. We finally found one that fit. Let’s say it together and get on with our day, shall we?

In every way implied but never stated.

Death note

I was a child with a penchant for the macabre and recall writing my will every few years. In this childish document, I’d apportion out my finest possessions to my friends. The only things ever worth anything were an iPod and iBook in college.

Naturally, I was intrigued when I saw a headline about a soldier’s goodbye letter to his wife [linked below]. I would be absolutely gutted to receive a letter like that. Not because my love is dead, and not because the letter is touching. It’s only heartbreaking because it sounds like it was written by Hallmark. Perhaps you can purchase this in the card aisle, right after “Condolences” and before “Happy Birthday from Grandma” — it’s in the “Goodbye Letter to Wife” section. It could have been for anyone. If I were to use the CIA’s black highlighter to redact tired, overused statements, both letters would have no content.

Can I do better? I will do better in my next entry, and by gosh and by golly, my goodbye letter will be to my kitten, Cecilia.

Soldier’s heartbreaking goodbye letter


Is that what I should think about sex?

After reading and liking Alain de Botton’s Manifesto for Atheists (also known as the “Atheist 10 Commandments”), I found out he had written a book about sex and society entitled How to Think More About Sex.

My first impression was “My, these are oddly specific examples. I wonder if they come from his personal experience?” That made me uncomfortable, as if I were reading the diary of some middle aged, balding man. His tone is academic, but his examples give too much unnecessary detail. A search for porn included phrases like “slutty teenagers fucking” and he gives strange details, as evident in the following:

… all he wanted was to stay home in his room with the curtains drawn masturbating to the memory of a woman’s profile that he had glimpsed on the way out of the newsagent’s.

The writing was distracting, and most of the example stories unnecessary (we know that people can type all manner of filthy things into google to search for porn without these things being listed for us), but I forced myself to finish and found he had a few worthwhile points.

On art and attraction

He attempts to answer the question “why are we attracted to certain people but not others?” After controlling for reasons evolutionary biologists would give (health, symmetry, etc), that is. Here he mentions the work of German art historian Wilhelm Worringer, who argues that we grow up missing certain things in our environment (or ourselves), and what we find beautiful in art reflects these deficits. For example, someone who is hopelessly purposeless and whimsical might revel in the beauty of Dutch still lives in their photo-realism and rigid rules, while someone who is realistic and responsible may love the dreamy work of the Impressionists.

He goes on to say that perhaps being attracted to beauty isn’t shallow and meaningless — that the face, like art, reflects something we are missing. I like the way this idea excuses our inclination to equate beauty with goodness, but there doesn’t seem to be much evidence to these claims.

On sex vs love

Here he expounds on Freud, who he quotes

Where they love, they have no desire, and where they desire they cannot love.

We learn about love from people we are forbidden to have sex with. And from people who put all of the work into maintaining that love. We focus on the wrong thing:

By overwhelming consensus, our culture locates the primary difficulty of relationships in finding the ‘right’ person rather than in knowing how to love a real — that is necessarily unright — human being.

Apparently, we have only expected that sex and love be merged in one person since the mid 18th century, and we have the bourgeoisie to blame for it. Prior to that it was accepted that there might be specialization. He mentions the troubadours of 12th century Italy as an example of people in love with romantic love who didn’t necessarily desire sex, and the libertines of early 18th century Paris as people who cared only for sex. That there should be specialization seems obvious to me —  I even wrote an childish essay in high school claiming this.

On porn

His treatment of pornography was laughably heavy-handed. While I agree that it’s a huge waste of time and resources, I’m not sure there is a good way to channel those urges into something more productive. We’re agreed that it should be a goal. He seems to be in favor of internet censorship, saying dramatically “the wrong pictures may send us down a fatal track”. Unless he’s talking about auto-erotic asphyxiation, fatal may be a bit dramatic. What would he suggest as a replacement? Porn that is more like art. Or perhaps, masturbating to religious artworks. Yes, he does call the virgin Mary (as depicted in some paintings) “sexy”. I’m unsure whether using Boticelli’s The Madonna of the Book for this purpose would make people more or less disgusted with themselves after the fact.

On adultery

He takes the interesting tack that we shouldn’t make such a big deal when our spouses cheat. That on the contrary, maybe it’s the wronged spouse who should apologize for being boring, ill-tempered or “simply failing to evolve and enchant.” Reflecting on wedding vows and basic expectations of monogamous relationships — it seems strange that there is so much emphasis put on faithfulness, and so little put on helping one another learn and grow. Sexual jealousy is an evolved trait that is all but useless now. Unfortunately, it still seems to figure large in most relationships.

To end this too-long book report/review, I’d like to share a wedding vow he proposes:

I promise to be disappointed by you and you alone. I promise to make you the sole repository of my regrets…. I have surveyed the different options for unhappiness, and it is you I have chosen to commit myself to.

Not terribly romantic, but it is charming in its honesty.