i woke up with this ill-formed idea in my head about emotional norms and baselines, and i keep seeing stories like this one in the NYT on teaching self-compassion to teenagers. chris hardwick on ID10T has been talking about a similar idea-- when do we get to relax, and be done beating up on ourselves? at what level of success do you finally feel like "This is it"? his conclusion: "There is no finish line!" but that doesn't work for me, and that definitely doesn't work for right now. americans are under so much strain. establishing norms and context and baselines is so important in a time when propaganda, misinformation, and disinformation run rampant.
since i started this blog to discuss "what is normal" and "how do we know what we know" it seems like a good time for a somewhat drawn-out stream of thoughts. i'm basically just talking myself tired, here, and i don't come to any conclusions, so just stop reading once you get bored.
i'm a statistician, so i really love a good baseline. most of my career has been in testing and experimentation. i love testing. i love learning.
one not-really-convenient feature of this life is that i really find it hard to pass up an elegant test design. i recognize that this is a maybe terrible thing to admit, not least because it makes me look like a dork (this is fine), but because i almost can't stop thinking about test design, even in my personal life.
some maybe inappropriate baselines i've developed over the years
let me put this another way: if i ever had the opportunity for a near-perfect a/b test, say... dating identical twins? i'm pretty sure i'd find it REALLY hard to resist the possibility of at least gathering some leading indicators. i mean, like, nothing past first base, but other, more socially acceptable indicators? yeah. especially if the opportunity to test blindly came up.
it's just a coincidence (trust me), but one of my close friends, and my now-husband are fraternal twins. no tests were necessary in either situation-- i picked the superior twin both times. that was super easy, come to think of it.
last example, on the subject of Impostor Syndrome: i hate, hate when people give career advice that involves "Don't worry about feeling like you're an impostor- we all feel like that! That feeling isn't real, so ignore it!" Maybe we should ignore feelings of inadequacy of "I am not sure why I'm successful and my former classmates are not"-- but I don't understand why the feeling isn't real. "Nothing makes any sense and hasn't for a while!" I heard a film star say today of his own success. THAT makes sense to me. thank you, film star, for admitting that some levels of success just don't feel real and 'rolling with it' doesn't have to mean attributing your success to something very specific and special about you versus your neighbor. i'm a fan of this probabilistic-minded film star. and now a little mad i didn't know there were people like that in that industry. though it makes sense.
i digress. my point was: baselines are good.
Ugh, no, baselines are boring and you're boring and stop talking to me
well, fine. you don't have to keep reading.
yes, sometimes the way statisticians talk is kind of boring-- somehow, when a statistician says "baseline," it's an instant soporific. so i prefer to think of it this way: statisticians are just philosophers who figured out how to market themselves better. going into college, philosophers and statisticians seem pretty much the same (to me). you may not find philosophers that interesting, either, but at least they're closer to being artists than to being actuaries. actuarial science seems SUPER interesting, by the way, and i'm sad actuaries have such a boring rep.
here's how i picture the freshman-year delineation of students who will become philosophers versus students who will become statisticians. They both start out with the same goals:
'i want to know about knowledge. i want to know how to know, and then once i know that, i want to know tons and tons of stuff and understand the human experience better. and maybe after that, i'll have wisdom, or maybe even happiness. right?"
so up to that point, we're the same. but the wheat is really separated from the chaff when half of us hear the word "epistemology" in philosophy 101. for us future statisticians, our life just flashes before our eyes in this moment. we diverge. and the divergence looks like us thinking, "um, greek is probably not a good use of my time, if i'm choosing between drinking and sobbing in the stacks at 3am before my greek final." so we go in a different direction.
statisticians are the cool ones in that scenario, somehow
so as boring as stats are to most people, consider that we're literally the cool kids in that scenario. we did at some point cut our losses in the nerd game, even if the cutting decision was done through an optimization function. no horn rim glasses for us, or if we did wear them, it was definitely cool when we did it. we prefer our blazers double-vented and armpatch-free. we aren't getting through life crying to movie portrayals of our professions that can never match up to reality. and it's not philosophers' faults. society doesn't value thought.
in fact, it's more than just 'not valuing'-- because basically, this is society when we have a thought:
anyway, back to baselines.
some ranting about how much my work has changed in the past decade
here's something that's changed so radically since i started working. when i started working, in 2008, google had been around for a bit, the 'information age' machine had been revved, but to me, a college student, it still really felt like the internet was mostly about collecting knowledge and storing it for the purposes of sharing it. it didn't seem like a place for CREATING information. video games being, duh, a huge exception. i couldn't imagine a world where the internet was substantially more than a reference tool, or maybe a bit of a discussion/entertainment tool. i definitely couldn't imagine a world where 2 billion people log onto the exact same website every day.
one amazing thing i've enjoyed between 2008 and 2018: i've seen work that would've literally taken me 10 years to complete at 2008 rates become work that i can do in a month in 2018. the amount of fullness and access and processing of data has improved so radically in that time. and it's not anything to do with techniques. those are all old. it's literally that 1) storage space has become insanely cheap, and distributed computing has become really cheap too and 2) people will not stop wasting their lives on the internet.
so that's been amazing.
but there's also been a major shift i still don't really grokk: at the job i worked in 2008, in media research, subject matter expertise was everything. vetting sources and compiling comparisons of methodology and bias from one data source to the next. almost ALL the data we were collecting was offline (radio, TV, newspapers, magazines). we saw the future coming in terms of how americans were changing the way they spent their time, but we did NOT see how much those changes would change the way we did our jobs.
now, everyone and their grandmas spend 8-12 hours a day on the fucking internet, sometimes on two or even three devices at once, and suddenly primary data might actually have a chance at being useful somehow. that said, it still isn't. you're all doing dumb shit and it isn't advancing knowledge or culture or society or humanity except in .001% of scenarios.
now it feels like most of the media analysis and research that i do is just tracking what people are doing while they float around on the internet, and sometimes it almost doesn't feel like the rest of the world outside is even real anymore. i don't really get this. i don't get what 'normal' is about this.
swarms of people online remind me of flocks of birds
one of the things that all this improvement in processing and computing speed has brought us: insight into just how fucking simple people are. to quote the gospel of Men in Black, scene 7, line 22, "A person is smart; people, are dumb, panicky animals-- and you know it."
there's an amazing model called Boids, and what it does is blowing my mind in all dimensions all the time. it uses 3 or 4 mathematical rules, a set of barriers, and basically a body count, to model in 3 dimensions the flocking and swarming behavior of birds and bats and whatnot. and it's amazing to watch-- it looks so fucking real it's amazing. and it's 3 rules. 2 environment scenarios.
here's one (i pulled this from this site):
and to me, that approximates reality WAY too well. that's a whole new baseline to me. seeing a computer figure out so quickly and so nearly what has literally baffled you your whole life. you thought this was magic, was a spiritual experience to watch, it made you really reflect on the beauty and mystery of nature-- and nature is full of beauty and mystery and this doesn't change that!-- but a computer can model it with 3 rules in nanoseconds now. in other words, while the world is full of mystery and beauty, some of the most impossible seeming things are actually incredibly simple and elegant and predictable, and we have absolutely no reason to assume that human societies are any different.
so, are there 3 rules for everything? where we're likely to shop, socialize, what we're likely to watch?
I think the answer to this is just "yes." I think Netflix and Facebook employees probably know the answer best.
what about the likelihood that i ever decide to augment my own body?
i'm going to use breasts as an example since it's the obvious implication when i use the word "augment."
i was born, well, uh, small? well, everyone is born small, but i never recovered. which isn't bad at all, just suffice it to say that someone sat me down when i was 15 to give me the "those will, at least, defy gravity, until you are a very old lady" talk because i was so obviously worried that i was dysfunctional somehow. that was comforting context, in a "you'll have the last laugh, but you'll be crying all the way until then" kind of way.
but looking back, you know what I think would have really been helpful context? someone telling me that "breast size importance" is a minor evolutionary detail put on 'roids by the Don Drapers and PornHubs of the world. giant breasts are actually just as weird, in the distribution, as tiny ones.
so again, i'm back to baselines. boob ones.
statistically, there is a fairly normal distribution of breast sizes in the world. maybe the distribution is skewed large because of augmentation surgeries? but also maybe not because who has that kind of money anyway,
why do we even do boob jobs?
i would literally enjoy burning a pile of $3K and snorting 100% of the ashes more than i'd enjoy using that amount of money to cut open my body and shove stuff in it. the process is way too BDSM for me-- but maybe that's just me? in my mind, breast size doesn't seem to impact a woman's likelihood to marry or have sex, except maybe in very early or very late age, or with men who are entranced by marketing. and they sound like fucking idiots to me anyway. so why would i feel the slightest temptation to go through expensive and painful surgery, for something that's meaningless to anyone i respect?
here's why i'm asking. two of my most intelligent and, irritatingly, my most unbelievably beautiful friends (yes, i'm a jerk who selects for these magical trifecta unicorns) are getting breast augmentation surgery. they're not dummies. they want the surgery for specific reasons in their own lives that they find valuable. i'm not 100% certain of this, but I have a horrible feeling that they feel pressure to do this for specific men in their lives-- who either insult them or praise them more for their looks than their other qualities. but i don't really know.
how do you predict who's going to get a boob job? are there 3 rules?
this is where context is EVERYTHING. to me, a man putting pressure on me to cut my body open and shove shit in it-- like, to me, that guy might as well be the marquis de sade himself. to me, cutting your body open and putting things inside it is weird and barbaric. i feel really strong feelings about it-- visceral disgust. i don't know that that qualifies as a 'belief' or if it's a product of a rational mindset. but i feel disgust towards a person who would want me to look at my body and think i need to spend a small fortune to change it. i don't care how cool you are, i don't care how many friends you have or how much money you earn. making another person feel like they need to cut their bodies open and shove shit in there is fucking demented. full stop. it's not going to make you more beautiful, it's not going to make you more attractive, and it's going to hurt like fuck. but people do it all the time.
so maybe your specific reason for wanting to get your boobs augmented for reasons that really are generalizable, or maybe you truly love this person who wants your body to look different so strongly and for totally fine reasons that this sacrifice seems negligible to you. i don't know what the 3 rules are in this case. i really don't. But i do think there are 3 rules. some ideas i had, that probably make me sound like a jerk, but i'm spitballing here:
rules for flocks are very simple, though. and flocks of people do this surgery, so it seems to me that there are probably 3 rules that i could use to predict or explain who does this and who doesn't.