Why Facebook is so addictive: the Like button

How did Facebook destroy the audience for the public Internet? Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked is a good place to start looking for answers:

Thirty-seven years after Zeiler published his results [on pigeons, in 1971], a team of Facebook web developers prepared to unleash a similar feedback experiment on hundreds of millions of humans. Facebook has the power to run human experiments on an unprecedented scale. The site already had two hundred million users at the time—a number that would triple over the next three years. The experiment took the form of a deceptively simple new feature called a “like” button. Anyone who has used Facebook knows how the button works: instead of wondering what other people think of your photos and status updates, you get real-time feedback as they click (or don’t click) a little blue-and-white thumbs-up button beneath whatever you post. (Facebook has since introduced other feedback buttons, so you’re able to communicate more complex emotions than simple liking.) It’s hard to exaggerate how much the “like” button changed the psychology of Facebook use. What had begun as a passive way to track your friends’ lives was now deeply interactive, and with exactly the sort of unpredictable feedback that motivated Zeiler’s pigeons. Users were gambling every time they shared a photo, web link, or status update. A post with zero likes wasn’t just privately painful, but also a kind of public condemnation: either you didn’t have enough online friends, or, worse still, your online friends weren’t impressed. Like pigeons, we’re more driven to seek feedback when it isn’t guaranteed.

Facebook was a great idea (from the Winklevoss twins, now Bitcoin billionaires), but it didn’t become a super-addictive idea until the Like button, according to the author of this book. Why do people love this so much?

Social confirmation, or seeing the world as others see it, is a marker that you belong to a group of like-minded people. In evolutionary terms, group members tended to survive while loners were picked off, one by one, so discovering that you’re a lot like other people is deeply reassuring. When people are deprived of these bonds, they experience a form of pain so severe that it’s sometimes called “the social death penalty.”

How can people break free of Facebook addiction? The authors suggest saying “I don’t use Facebook” rather than “I can’t use Facebook,” but mostly putting a dog’s shock collar on yourself: Pavlok. Another idea is to use Facebook through an interface that hides all of the metrics: a Demetricator.

How powerful is gamification?

[Ian] Bogost demonstrated the power of gamification with a social media game called Cow Clicker. He designed Cow Clicker to mimic similar games, like FarmVille, which had dominated Facebook for many months. The game’s objective was simple: click your cow during critical periods and you’ll earn virtual currency known as mooney. Cow Clicker was supposed to satirize gamification, but it was a smash hit. Tens of thousands of users downloaded the game, and instead of playing once or twice, they played for days on end. At one point, a computer science professor sat atop the leaderboard with a hundred thousand mooney. Bogost updated the game with new features, adding awards for reaching certain milestones (such as the Golden Cowbell for one hundred thousand clicks), and introducing an oil-coated cow to commemorate the BP oil spill. He claimed that Cow Clicker’s success was a surprise, but really it embodied many of the traits that made other games addictive: Werbach and Hunter’s points, badges, and levels.

… and it will only get worse:

Behavioral addiction is still in its infancy, and there’s a good chance we’re still at base camp, far below the peak. Truly immersive experiences, like virtual reality devices, have not yet gone mainstream. In ten years, when all of us own a pair of virtual reality goggles, what’s to keep us tethered to the real world? If human relationships suffer in the face of smartphones and tablets, how are they going to withstand the tide of immersive virtual reality experiences? Facebook is barely a decade old, and Instagram is half that; in ten years, a host of new platforms will make Facebook and Instagram seem like ancient curiosities.

More: read  Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked

Philip Greenspun’s Weblog

Pro-tax university professors find a tax that they don’t like

A lot of my Facebook friends are university professors. As such they get, as part of their compensation, free tuition for their children (or, oftentimes, partial payment for tuition if they send their kids to other colleges). Some of them have graduate students, who get their fictitious tuition paid when on research or teaching assistantships.

All of these folks publicly supported Hillary Clinton prior to the election, denounced the Trumpenfuhrer’s hints about shrinking the government’s role in our society, and generally advocate for higher tax rates so as to enable the government to fulfill all of our collective dreams.

How are they reacting to the latest proposed tax law changes? With desperate lobbying efforts to preserve their own tax exemptions. Examples:

To my California friends and family, especially those who have children to educate: Republican representatives in these CA districts near you have BIG influence over *which version* of the tax bill—including whether it taxes things like tuition remission, etc.—eventually gets approved. It’s not an exaggeration to say the future of American higher education is at stake.

A crucial decision remains to be made between the House and Senate versions of the GOP tax bill. So here’s a plea to everyone who cares about the future of American universities: not only must we CALL OUR REPS, we must urge our friends and family to do so as well! I’m calling not just my own reps and senators but others’ too, identifying myself as a professor and trying to convey my sense of urgency about this bill.

[mass email to faculty at University of Chicago] Doubtless all of you are thinking about the potential effects of the Republican tax bill, which appears bent on directly attacking higher and lower education in the United States. …  The bill passed by the Senate *does not* include the grad student tuition waiver tax proposed by the House bill. …

For students like Mollie Marr, pursuing her M.D. and her Ph.D. in behavioral neuroscience in the OHSU School of Medicine, losing the tax waiver could mean dropping out of OHSU. Paying the estimated tax on top of her non-deferrable undergraduate student loans would leave her about $ 500 a month to live on. … students, staff and faculty to share their personal stories and perspectives about the impact of losing this tax waiver … Call and email your U.S. representatives and senators.  [official OHSU news release]

If universities actually are delivering something of value to professors’ children via tuition waivers, shouldn’t these good folks want to pay tax on that value? A core principle of U.S. income tax is that you pay tax on the fair market value of stuff that you receive in exchange for work. Also, if universities are delivering something of value to graduate students in exchange for work, why should a Walmart cashier have to work extra hours to make up for the tax not collected? (see Ugliest part of the Republican tax plan: What if universities were forced to calculate the value of a graduate education? for an exploration of what the imputed value of this tuition waiver should be, though)

These same folks have spent years on Facebook arguing for the government to collect more in taxes. Now they’ve found a tax that they don’t like!


Philip Greenspun’s Weblog

Long Like Me

A couple of months ago, I decided to do a little experiment. Frustrated with eight years swimming against the stream, I asked myself – – what if I went ahead and bought equal amounts of every single stock in my Bull Pen watch list (that is, stocks with good-looking bullish patterns)? So I set up […]
Slope of Hope

Why young people don’t like the Republican tax plan: they are planning to be W-2 wage slaves

The Republican tax plan makes it more rewarding to do business in the U.S., whether as a corporation or as a part-owner of an LLC or similar pass-through structure. The proposal does not seem to have caught on with young people. Why not? I’m reading a book by a psychology professor who studies American generations. This one is about Americans born since the mid-1990. From iGen:

As it turns out, iGen’ers are actually less likely to want to own their own business than Boomers and GenX’ers were at the same age, continuing a trend started by Millennials (see Figure 7.4). Just as they are cautious about driving, drinking, and dating, iGen’ers are cautious about going into business for themselves.

Entering college students show the same trend: in 2016, only 37% said that “becoming successful in a business of my own” was important, down from 50% in 1984 (adjusted for relative centrality). So, compared to GenX college students, iGen’ers are less likely to be drawn to entrepreneurship. These beliefs are affecting actual behavior. A Wall Street Journal analysis of Federal Reserve data found that only 3.6% of households headed by adults younger than 30 owned at least part of a private company in 2013, down from 10.6% in 1989. All the talk about the young generation being attracted to entrepreneurship turns out to be just that—talk.

So it makes sense that they don’t like business tax cuts if nobody among their peer group is involved in business, except as a wage slave.

[Of course, one could argue that a business tax cut makes it more likely that iGeners will have a W-2 job to begin with and that jobs will pay more because global business will be more enthusiastic about headquartering and operating in the U.S. But I wouldn’t expect the average American to see things that way. People seem to evaluate tax policy on the theory that everyone’s behavior will remain unchanged after a massive change to tax rates.]

Philip Greenspun’s Weblog

As Good as it Gets; Like 2000 With a TWIST

Preface from Tim which has nothing to do with the post below: if you missed my mentioning it earlier, SlopeCharts now has text notes and searching (try a search of “Top“, and you see lots of charts from me………obviously). I hope you check it out! ———————————————————————————————————- With the Semiconductor sector below but hailing its all-time […]
Slope of Hope

Market Slices through Fibonacci Grid like a Hot Knife through Butter

Wow, that was fast!  Stocks rebounded like a rocket off our 2,425 Fibonacci Pivot.

Let’s chart today’s @ES Fibonacci Grid in play:

Emini @ES Intraday Trend Reversal

I highlight these levels develop a game-plan for the next trading day for our members.

The prior gap-down (overnight) sent the market back to our 2,425 level and ended the session at our 2,448 “50%” pivot.

The next day (yesterday) took us UP toward our 2,458 pivot where the market closed.

Today we’re seeing a strong gap UP toward our “Final Fib” level of 2,469 at yet another key short-term pivot.

Remain bullish (playing for 2,500) if price remains firmly above 2,470 or else cautious within the Fibonacci Grids if price trades down away from 2,469.

Come join us to learn these tactics (beyond this simple/quick update) and have an evening game plan you can use effectively for the next trading day.

Afraid to Trade Premium Content and Membership

Follow along with members of the Afraid to Trade Premium Membership for real-time updates and additional trade planning.

Corey Rosenbloom, CMT

Afraid to Trade.com

Follow Corey on Twitter: http://twitter.com/afraidtotrade

Corey’s book The Complete Trading Course (Wiley Finance) is now available along with the newly released Profiting from the Life Cycle of a Stock Trend presentation (also from Wiley).”

Afraid to Trade.com Blog

Emini Plays the Fibonacci Levels like a Fiddle Aug 30

We finally got a breakout of our Fibonacci Grid!!!  Here’s today’s big update in price action.

Let’s chart today’s @ES Fibonacci Grid in play:

Emini @ES Intraday Trend Reversal

I highlight these levels develop a game-plan for the next trading day for our members.

Yesterday saw a gap-down to our 78.6% level (overnight) and a strong intraday rally back inside the highlighted range.

Today gave us a big breakout through 2,448 which set in motion a play UP toward our 2,457 level which is achieved right now.

For the rest of today, use 2,457 as your bull/bear pivot and play the departure from our target.

Come join us to learn these tactics (beyond this simple/quick update) and have an evening game plan you can use effectively for the next trading day.

Afraid to Trade Premium Content and Membership

Follow along with members of the Afraid to Trade Premium Membership for real-time updates and additional trade planning.

Corey Rosenbloom, CMT

Afraid to Trade.com

Follow Corey on Twitter: http://twitter.com/afraidtotrade

Corey’s book The Complete Trading Course (Wiley Finance) is now available along with the newly released Profiting from the Life Cycle of a Stock Trend presentation (also from Wiley).”

Afraid to Trade.com Blog

Encouraging young people into STEM is like boring folks at a cocktail party?

A day without a James Damore-related post is like a day without sunshine…

“I’m An Ex-Google Woman Tech Leader And I’m Sick Of Our Approach To Diversity!” is way more hostile to Google’s diversity crusade than James Damore ever was. The author, Vidya Narayanan, shades into infidel territory rather than being merely a heretic:

I can tell you that our obsession with diversity and attempts to solve it are only fucking it up for the actual women in tech out there!

  • What do I mean by this?
  • We get upset about the state of gender diversity in tech
  • We make a pact to hire more women
  • The pool has (a lot) more men than women
  • After some rounds of low to no success, we start to compromise and hire women just because we have to
  • These women show up at work and perform not as great as we want them to
  • It reinforces to the male population that was already peeved by the diversity push that women aren’t that good at tech after all
  • They generalize that observation on the entire women in tech community
  • Sooner or later, some such opinions get out there
  • The feminists amongst us go crazy
  • The diversity advocates are caught in a frenzy and make a pact to hire more women (again)
  • This loops. Infinitely.

In the name of diversity, when we fill quotas to check boxes, we fuck it up for the genuinely amazing women in tech.

[I.e., the female ex-Googler says the thing that Damore was wrongly accused of saying: “women on the tech job at Google actually are inferior because they were hired to fill quotas.” Yet nobody is outraged by Ms. Narayanan’s statement.]

The topic of today’s post is part of Ms. Narayanan’s conclusion: “Go out and talk to freshmen and sophomore women about why they should pursue a career in tech.”

My comment:

But why should they? Why is a career as a software engineer better than a career in health care or finance or law or something else? Why is selling undergraduates, regardless of Gender ID, on programming doing them a favor? Wouldn’t young people be more likely to find careers that suit them if we provide neutral information?

Personally I love to program in SQL and Lisp, but this weekend when my friend’s daughter said that she wanted to be a screenwriter I set her up with some friends and cousins who work in Hollywood. It didn’t occur to me to try to sell her on the beauty of E.F. Codd’s relational model or lambda calculus. I also love helicopters, but I didn’t say “Instead of screenwriting, you could be a Robinson R44 instructor and then move up to medevac AStar pilot. Let’s spend the next two hours talking about helicopter aerodynamics because everyone should know about angle of attack, retreating blade stall, and dissymmetry of lift.”

What’s the definition of boorish behavior at a cocktail party? Someone who comes up to you and starts talking about what is interesting to them without first checking to see if it is interesting to you. How is it good manners to wade into a sea of college students studying premed and talk at them about the wonders of software engineering?

Narayanan responded reasonably:

The reason to go out and talk to students (all the way from middle school to college) about tech is to dispel the myths that it is a tough field for girls/women. That there is no such thing as tech is for boys/men. All the way from long haired pretty princesses, the image is all messed up for girls! And it takes a lot to correct it really.

Legitimately, after showing the possibilities that tech can bring, if someone makes a choice it’s not for them, that’s totally fine. The point is not that tech is superior to any other field?—?it’s just that there isn’t enough talk about tech for girls and women to even form an opinion about it.

Is she correct? On the one hand, being an engineer or computer nerd is common (1.1 million software developers alone, according to BLS, plus a range of related subcategories within nerdism and then millions of workers within engineering per se) that women within the field are commonplace even if they are a minority of nerds. On the other hand, there is a constant drumbeat of material from do-gooders in politics and the media highlighting that women and nerdism are not compatible. “Until I came to the U.S. and started reading the New York Times,” said one female immigrant, “it never occurred to me that women were intellectually inferior when it came to math and science. But all of the articles saying ‘women aren’t inferior’ have made me doubt myself.”

Readers: What do you think? Can we consider ourselves to have helped young people by telling them about why they should abandon their current dreams and embrace C++? And do we have an obligation also to point out that we have colleagues who haven’t been to find work after age 50 or who haven’t enjoyed their lives in tech? Would it be more reasonable to tweak ““Go out and talk to freshmen and sophomore women about why they should pursue a career in tech.” to “Go out and talk to freshmen and sophomore women about what it is like to have a career in tech“?

Related 1: An MIT graduate in the mid-1990s couldn’t figure out what to do with herself so she got a job at the MIT Admissions Office. One of her responsibilities was traveling around to talk to high school students about how to apply to MIT and what the school was looking for. She was given a standard response to questions about race discrimination in admissions. MIT definitely did not have quotas or different standards for white versus black applicants. In the spring, however, she sat at the big table with stacks of folders, one for each applicant. A collaborative process terminated with about 1,500 folders in an “Admit” pile. The director of admissions asked “How many black students did we admit?” She didn’t like the answer and said “Pull 50 black students from the Reject pile and add them to Admit.” Our young friend later asked “Doesn’t this mean we’re using a quota?” The answer turned out to be “no.”

Related 2: A programmer friend in Silicon Valley said “Lawyers always come up as some of the least happy workers [Forbes], but programming is an even worse job. It’s just that programmers can get into the field faster and quit once they realize how bad it is. Lawyers, on the other hand, get trapped by three years of law school. It is too late for them to quit by the time they find out what working as a lawyer is like.”

Philip Greenspun’s Weblog

Concise summary of what privatized American air traffic control would look like: Amtrak, FannieMae

I wrote a longish post about the idea of the government privatizing air traffic control (at least some members of Congress are still pushing this). But the Institute for Liberty has done a better job:

what we do not support are the creation of entities that are some bizarre hybrid of governmental and private, since these generally contain the worst practices of both worlds (few, if any, of the incentives to innovate or compete, no oversight in how the public actually benefits or how the entity is governed, etc). One need only look at examples like Amtrak, the US Postal Service, or FannieMae and FreddieMac to see just how disastrous these hybrids can be over the long term.

(most easily viewed on SCRIBD)

[Separately, I think it is unfortunate that the analogy comes from an “Institute” that promises to deliver to Americans precisely the opposite of what they repeatedly vote for (i.e., a planned economy and Great Father in Washington taking care of most of their needs). But, nonetheless I think that their analogy might be persuasive to people on all parts of the political spectrum (well, at least those who have ridden an Amtrak).]

Philip Greenspun’s Weblog

What does the Socialism-to-Capitalism transition feel like?

Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets is available is available in an English translation. The transition of wealthy economies from a market economy (“Capitalism”) to a welfare state (“Socialism”) has apparently pretty painless for most citizens. Nearly half of the U.S. economy is now centrally-planned or taxpayer-funded and people pay their property tax, sales tax, gasoline tax, payroll tax, Medicare tax, income tax, etc. without complaining too much.

Alexievich interviewed people in former Soviet republics, including Russia, to find out what it was like to go in the other direction: from Socialism to a free-market Capitalism that demands much more of citizens than the U.S. or Western Europe.

Everything below is a quote from someone she interviewed:

Today, people just want to live their lives, they don’t need some great Idea. This is entirely new for Russia; it’s unprecedented in Russian literature. At heart, we’re built for war. We were always either fighting or preparing to fight. We’ve never known anything else—hence our wartime psychology. Even in civilian life, everything was always militarized. The drums were beating, the banners flying, our hearts leaping out of our chests. People didn’t recognize their own slavery—they even liked being slaves. I remember it well: After we finished school, we’d volunteer to go on class trips to the Virgin Lands, and we’d look down on the students who didn’t want to come.

So here it is, freedom! Is it everything we hoped it would be? We were prepared to die for our ideals. To prove ourselves in battle. Instead, we ushered in a Chekhovian life. Without any history. Without any values except for the value of human life—life in general. Now we have new dreams: building a house, buying a decent car, planting gooseberries… Freedom turned out to mean the rehabilitation of bourgeois existence, which has traditionally been suppressed in Russia. The freedom of Her Highness Consumption.

My wife and I graduated from the Philosophy Faculty of St. Petersburg (back then, it was Leningrad) State University, then she got a job as a janitor, and I was a stoker in a boiler plant. You’d work one twenty-four-hour shift and then get two days off. Back then, an engineer made 130 rubles a month, while in the boiler room, I was getting 90, which is to say that if you were willing to give up 40 rubles a month, you could buy yourself absolute freedom. We read, we went through tons of books. We talked. We thought that we were coming up with new ideas.

There were new rules: If you have money, you count—no money, you’re nothing. Who cares if you’ve read all of Hegel? “Humanities” started sounding like a disease.

There was so much love! What women! Those women hated the rich. You couldn’t buy them. Today, no one has time for feelings, they’re all out making money. The discovery of money hit us like an atom bomb…

Before, I had hated money, I didn’t know what it was. My family never talked about it—it was considered shameful. We grew up in a country where money essentially did not exist. Like everyone else, I would get my 120 rubles a month and that had been enough. … Back then, books replaced life… This was the end of our nightly kitchen vigils and the beginning of making money then making more money on the side. Money became synonymous with freedom. Everyone was completely preoccupied with it. The strongest and most aggressive started doing business. We forgot all about Lenin and Stalin. And that’s what saved us from another civil war with Reds on the one side and Whites on the other. Friends and foes. Instead of blood, there was all this new stuff… Life! We chose the beautiful life. No one wanted to die beautifully anymore, everyone wanted to live beautifully instead. The only problem was that there wasn’t really enough to go around…

The Soviet was a very good person, capable of traveling beyond the Urals, into the furthest deserts, all for the sake of ideals, not dollars. We weren’t after somebody else’s green bills. The Dnieper Hydroelectric Station, the Siege of Stalingrad, the first man in space—that was all us. The mighty sovok! I still take pleasure in writing “USSR.” That was my country; the country I live in today is not. I feel like I’m living on foreign soil.

Socialism isn’t just labor camps, informants, and the Iron Curtain, it’s also a bright, just world: Everything is shared, the weak are pitied, and compassion rules. Instead of grabbing everything you can, you feel for others. They say to me that you couldn’t buy a car—so then no one had a car. No one wore Versace suits or bought houses in Miami. My God! The leaders of the USSR lived like mid-level businessmen, they were nothing like today’s oligarchs. Not one bit! They weren’t building themselves yachts with champagne showers. Can you imagine! Right now, there’s a commercial on TV for copper bathtubs that cost as much as a two-bedroom apartment. Could you explain to me exactly who they’re for? Gilded doorknobs… Is this freedom? The little man, the nobody, is a zero—you’ll find him at the very bottom of the barrel.

A cult of money and success. The strong, with their iron biceps, are the ones who survive. But not everyone is capable of stopping at nothing to tear a piece of the pie out of somebody else’s mouth. For some, it’s simply not in their nature. Others even find it disgusting.

Did I believe in communism? I’ll be honest with you, I’m not going to lie: I believed in the possibility of life being governed fairly. And today… as I’ve already told you… I still believe in that. I’m sick of hearing about how bad life was under socialism. I’m proud of the Soviet era! It wasn’t “the good life,” but it was regular life. We had love and friendship… dresses and shoes… People hungrily listened to writers and actors, which they don’t do anymore.

Everywhere you look, you see our new heroes: bankers and businessmen, models and prostitutes… managers… The young can adapt, while the old die in silence behind closed doors. They die in poverty, all but forgotten. My pension is fifty dollars a month…[ She laughs.] I’ve read that Gorbachev’s is also fifty dollars a month… They say that the Communists “lived in mansions and ate black caviar by the spoonful. They built communism for themselves.” My God! I’ve shown you around my “mansion”—a regular two-bedroom apartment, fifty-seven square meters. I haven’t hidden anything from you: my Soviet crystal, my Soviet gold…

The first thing to go was friendship… Suddenly, everyone was too busy, they had to go out and make money. Before, it had seemed like we didn’t need money at all… that it had no bearing on us. Suddenly, everyone saw the beauty of green bills—these were no Soviet rubles, they weren’t just play money. Bookish boys and girls, us house plants… We turned out to be ill suited for the new world we’d been waiting for. We were expecting something else, not this. We’d read a boatload of romantic books, but life kicked and shoved us in another direction.

More: read Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets

Philip Greenspun’s Weblog

What would a polygamous France look like?

Submission by Michel Houellebecq imagines France’s transition to Islamic law and, therefore, legal polygamy (the U.S. has already transitioned, de facto if not de jure!). He starts off describing the legacy Western model:

Mostly I had mistresses—or rather, as people said then (and maybe still do), I had girlfriends, roughly one a year. … They would start at the beginning of the school year, with a seminar, an exchange of class notes, or what have you—one of the many social occasions, so common in student life, that disappear when we enter the workforce, plunging most of us into a solitude as stupefying as it is radical. … When we came back from summer vacation and the school year began again, the relationship would end, almost always at the girl’s initiative. Things had changed over the summer. This was the reason they’d give, usually without elaboration. A few, clearly less eager to spare me, would explain that they had met someone. Yeah, and so? Wasn’t I someone, too? … The way things were supposed to work (and I have no reason to think much has changed), young people, after a brief period of sexual vagabondage in their very early teens, were expected to settle down in exclusive, strictly monogamous relationships involving activities (outings, weekends, vacations) that were not only sexual, but social. Yet there was nothing final about these relationships. Instead, they were thought of as apprenticeships—in a sense, as internships (a practice that was generally seen in the professional world as a step toward one’s first job). Relationships of variable duration (a year being, according to my own observations, an acceptable amount of time) and of variable number (an average of ten to twenty might be considered a reasonable estimate) were supposed to succeed one another until they ended, like an apotheosis, with the last relationship, this one conjugal and definitive, which would lead, via the begetting of children, to the formation of a family.

I had made only very occasional forays onto escort sites, usually during the summer months as a sort of stopgap between one student and the next.

The complete idiocy of this model became plain to me only much later—rather recently, in fact—when I happened to see Aurélie and then, a few weeks later, Sandra. (But if it had been Chloé or Violaine, I’m convinced I would have reached the same conclusion.) The moment I walked into the Basque restaurant where Aurélie was meeting me for dinner, I knew I was in for a grim evening. Despite the two bottles of white Irouléguy that I drank almost entirely by myself, I found it harder and harder, and after a while almost impossible, to keep up a reasonable level of friendly conversation. For reasons I didn’t entirely understand, it suddenly seemed tactless, almost unthinkable, to talk about the old days. As for the present, it was clear that Aurélie had never managed to form a long-term relationship, that casual sex filled her with growing disgust, that her personal life was headed for complete and utter disaster. There were various signs that she’d tried to settle down, at least once, and had never recovered from her failure. The sourness and bitterness with which she talked about her male colleagues (in the end we’d been reduced to discussing her professional life: she was head of communications for an association of Bordeaux winemakers, so she traveled a lot to promote French wines, mainly in Asia) made it painfully clear that she had been through the wringer. Even so, I was surprised when, just as she was about to get out of the taxi, she invited me up “for a nightcap.” She’s really hit rock bottom, I thought. From the moment the elevator doors shut, I knew nothing was going to happen. I didn’t even want to see her naked, I’d rather have avoided it, and yet it came to pass, and only confirmed what I’d already imagined. Her emotions may have been through the wringer, but her body had been damaged beyond repair. Her buttocks and breasts were no more than sacks of emaciated flesh, shrunken, flabby, and pendulous. She could no longer—she could never again—be considered an object of desire. My meal with Sandra followed a similar pattern, albeit with small variations (seafood restaurant, job with a pharmaceutical CEO), and it ended much the same way, except it seemed to me that Sandra, who was plumper and jollier than Aurélie, hadn’t let herself go to the same degree. She was sad, very sad, and I knew her sorrow would overwhelm her in the end; like Aurélie, she was nothing but a bird in an oil slick; but she had retained, if I can put it this way, a superior ability to flap her wings. In one or two years she would give up any last matrimonial ambitions, her imperfectly extinguished sensuality would lead her to seek out the company of young men, she would become what we used to call a cougar, and no doubt she’d go on this way for several years, ten at the most, before the sagging of her flesh became prohibitive, and condemned her to a lasting solitude.

Don’t read this book if you’re enthusiastic about settling down in the suburbs:

Hidden all day in impenetrable black burkas, rich Saudi women transformed themselves by night into birds of paradise with their corsets, their see-through bras, their G-strings with multicolored lace and rhinestones. They were exactly the opposite of Western women, who spent their days dressed up and looking sexy to maintain their social status, then collapsed in exhaustion once they got home, abandoning all hope of seduction in favor of clothes that were loose and shapeless.

I thought about Annelise’s life—and the life of every Western woman. In the morning she probably blow-dried her hair, then she thought about what to wear, as befitted her professional status, whether “stylish” or “sexy,” most likely “stylish” in her case. Either way, it was a complex calculation, and it must have taken her a while to get ready before dropping the kids off at day care, then she spent the day e-mailing, on the phone, in various meetings, and once she got home, around nine, exhausted (Bruno was the one who picked the kids up, who made them dinner—he had the hours of a civil servant), she’d collapse, get into a sweatshirt and yoga pants, and that’s how she’d greet her lord and master, and some part of him must have known—had to have known—that he was fucked, and some part of her must have known that she was fucked, and that things wouldn’t get better over the years. The children would get bigger, the demands at work would increase, as if automatically, not to mention the sagging of the flesh.

Bruno and Annelise must be divorced by now. That’s how it goes nowadays. A century ago, in Huysmans’s time, they would have stayed together, and maybe they wouldn’t have been so unhappy after all.

Don’t read this book if you’re depressed about aging:

my body was the seat of various painful afflictions—headaches, rashes, toothaches, hemorrhoids—that followed one after another, without interruption, and almost never left me in peace—and I was only forty-four! What would it be like when I was fifty, sixty, older? I’d be no more than a jumble of organs in slow decomposition, my life an unending torment, grim, joyless, and mean.

Houellebecq’s novel predicts the outcome of the 2017 elections:

The National Front was way ahead, with 34.1 percent of the vote.

(Marine Le Pen actually won 33.9 percent.) He added that the Muslim Brotherhood was running as well (and ultimately prevails in forming a government). He also described the potential for voters to fail to obey instructions from the elites:

the widening gap, now a chasm, between the people and those who claimed to speak for them, the politicians and journalists, would necessarily lead to a situation that was chaotic, violent, and unpredictable.

French Christians are excluded from the country’s educational system:

It was two weeks before I received the letter from Paris III. According to the new statutes of the Islamic University of Paris–Sorbonne, I was no longer permitted to teach. Robert Rediger, the new president of the university, had signed the letter himself. He expressed his profound regret and assured me that this was no reflection on the quality of my scholarship. I was, of course, welcome to pursue my career in a secular university. If, however, I preferred to retire, the Islamic University of Paris–Sorbonne could offer me a pension, effective immediately, at a starting monthly rate of 3,472 euros, to be adjusted for inflation. I was invited to schedule a meeting with HR in order to fill out the necessary paperwork. I reread the letter three times in disbelief. It was, practically to the euro, what I’d have gotten if I had retired at sixty-five, at the end of a full career. They really were willing to pay to avoid any trouble. No doubt they had overestimated the ability of academics to make a nuisance of themselves. It had been years since an academic title gained you access to major media, under rubrics such as “tribune” or “points of view”; nowadays these had become a private club. Even if all the university teachers in France had risen up in protest, almost nobody would have noticed, but apparently they hadn’t found that out in Saudi Arabia. They still believed, deep down, in the power of the intellectual elite. It was almost touching.

But they react by converting to Islam. At which point dating and marriage procedures change…

“What about the girls?” [a former Christian colleague] grinned. “Obviously, that’s all changed. I guess you could say things are organized differently now. I got married,” he added, rather brusquely. Then he elaborated: “To one of my students.” “They arranged that for you, too?” “Not exactly. Let’s just say they don’t discourage the possibilities of contact with female students. I’m getting another wife next month.” With that he headed off toward the rue de Mirbel, leaving me openmouthed at the top of the stairs.

I’d been waiting two or three minutes when a door opened to my left and in walked a teenage girl wearing low-waisted jeans and a Hello Kitty T-shirt, her long black hair loose over her shoulders. When she saw me, she shrieked, tried awkwardly to cover her face with her hands, and dashed back out of the room. At that very moment, Rediger appeared on the landing and came down the stairs to greet me. He had witnessed the incident, and shook my hand with a look of resignation. “That’s Aïcha, my new wife. She’ll be very embarrassed that you saw her without her veil.” “I’m so sorry.” “No, don’t apologize. It’s her fault. She should have asked whether there was a guest before she came into the front hall. She doesn’t know her way around the house yet, but she will.” “Yes, she looks very young.” “She just turned fifteen.”

At that moment the door opened, just in time to save me from having to answer. It was a plump woman, perhaps forty years old, with a kind face, carrying a tray of warm canapés arranged around an ice bucket. This held the promised bottle of Meursault. “That’s my first wife, Malika,” he said once she’d left. “You seem to be meeting all my wives today. I married her when I was still living in Belgium … Yes, my family’s Belgian. So am I, for that matter. I was never naturalized, though I’ve lived here for twenty years.”

“Islam accepts the world, and accepts it whole. It accepts the world as such, Nietzsche might say. For Buddhism, the world is dukkha—unsatisfactoriness, suffering. Christianity has serious reservations of its own. Isn’t Satan called ‘the prince of the world’? For Islam, though, the divine creation is perfect, it’s an absolute masterpiece. What is the Koran, really, but one long mystical poem of praise? Of praise for the Creator, and of submission to his laws. In general, I don’t think it’s a good idea to learn about Islam by reading the Koran, unless of course you take the trouble to learn Arabic and read the original text. What I tell people to do instead is listen to the suras read aloud, and repeat them, so you can feel their breath and their force. … even if his arguments were well rehearsed, that didn’t take away from their strength. And look at how he lived: a forty-year-old wife to do the cooking, a fifteen-year-old wife for whatever else … No doubt he had one or two wives in between, but I couldn’t think how to ask.

“Um, yes…,” [a different former colleague] answered, without my having asked him anything. “I took the plunge. Funny, I’d never thought of doing it before, but it’s actually very pleasant. I’m very glad to see you, by the way. How are you?” “You mean you’re married?” I needed to hear him say it. “Yes, yes, married, exactly. Strange, when you get right down to it—one flesh and everything. Strange, but awfully nice. And you, how are you?” He might as well have said he was a junkie, or a professional figure skater, nothing could really surprise me when it came to Loiseleur; still, it came as a shock, and I repeated stupidly, staring at the Légion d’Honneur barrette in the buttonhole of his revolting gas-blue jacket, “Married? To a woman?” I’d always assumed he was a virgin, a sixty-year-old virgin, which after all may have been the case. “Yes, yes, a woman—they found me one.” He nodded vigorously. “A student in her second year.”

The main character doesn’t think this is all bad:

Under an Islamic regime, women—at least the ones pretty enough to attract a rich husband—were able to remain children nearly their entire lives. No sooner had they put childhood behind them than they became mothers and were plunged back into a world of childish things. Their children grew up, then they became grandmothers, and so their lives went by. There were just a few years where they bought sexy underwear, exchanging the games of the nursery for those of the bedroom—which turned out to be much the same thing. Obviously they had no autonomy, but as they say in English, fuck autonomy. I had to admit, I’d had no trouble giving up all of my professional and intellectual responsibilities, it was actually a relief, and I had no desire whatsoever to be that businessman sitting on the other side of our Pro Première compartment, whose face grew more and more ashen the longer he talked on the phone, and who was obviously in some kind of deep shit. Our train had just passed Saint-Pierre-des-Corps. At least he’d have the consolation of two graceful, charming wives to distract him from the anxieties facing the exhausted businessman—and maybe he had two more wives waiting for him in Paris. If I remembered right, according to sharia law you could have up to four. What had my father had? My mother, that neurotic bitch. I shuddered at the thought.

He eventually submits…

Obviously, it’s very hard to come out and ask, What will you pay me? How many wives do I get?” “I already have some kind of idea about the pay.” “Well, that’s basically what determines the number of wives. According to Islamic law, wives have to receive equal treatment, which imposes certain constraints in terms of housing. In your case, I think you could have three wives without too much trouble—not that anyone would force you to, of course.”

“There’s something else … But, well, this is really awkward … The thing is, Islamic dress has its advantages, it’s made social life so much more restful, but at the same time, it’s very … covering, I’d say. If a person were in a situation where he had to choose, it could pose certain problems…” Rediger smiled even more broadly. “There’s no reason to be embarrassed! You wouldn’t be a man if you didn’t worry about these things … But let me ask you something that might sound strange: Are you sure you want to choose?” “Uh … yeah. I mean, I think so.” “But isn’t this an illusion? We know that men, given the chance to choose for themselves, will all make exactly the same choice. That’s why most societies, especially Muslim societies, have matchmakers. It’s a very important profession, reserved for women of great experience and wisdom. As women, obviously, they are allowed to see girls naked, and so they conduct a sort of evaluation, and correlate the girls’ physical appearance with the social status of their future husbands. In your case, I can promise, you’d have nothing to complain about…”

More: read Submission.

Philip Greenspun’s Weblog

Social Security: How do you run a retirement system for people who spend like drug dealers?

MIT’s way of reminding the Class of 1982 (average age: 57) that we are going to be dying soon was to schedule Nobel-winning economist Peter Diamond to speak on the subject of Social Security at our reunion dinner.

Why should running a retirement system be challenging? Why not take citizens’ money, save it for them, and give it back to them, plus interest, when they’re old? Singapore does this:

In contrast to the majority of other publicly managed pension schemes, the Singaporean system operates on a fully funded basis. The CPF does not include social risk pooling and redistributive elements. Individuals rely exclusively on defined contribution funds accumulating in individual accounts. The CPF covers private and most public sector employees as well as the self-employed, who may join on a voluntary basis.

This kind of system is bulletproof.

FDR and his fellow politicians in the 1930s couldn’t do this, however, because in order to get votes they wanted to start ladling out the cash immediately, to people who had put next to nothing in. So we tax currently working Americans to pay currently retired Americans. (Essentially everyone born prior to 1940 got more than they put in.) This is sustainable only with either a growing population or a growing labor force participation rate. Despite spreading out the welcome mat for immigrants, our population isn’t growing fast enough to offset increased longevity. Our labor force participation rate is falling as Americans discover the wonders of SSDI and OxyContin and/or collecting child support or alimony. Thus Social Security is always at risk of crisis.

Sometimes the roots of the crisis are easy to understand. Professor Diamond explained that in 1972, for example, Congress approved an inflation indexing scheme for Social Security that the experts in the Nixon Administration knew would “over-index” payments such that recipients would actually be better off in a high-inflation scenario. At least some senators knew this as well. Congress cheerfully passed the scheme into law because everyone knew that the U.S. would never have high inflation rates. By 1977 the system hit a wall and another emergency fix was required in 1983. (Our next scheduled emergency is in 2034 (source), when the trust fund is forecast to run dry and benefits will exceed contributions.)

Why does it matter? There is no law against Americans saving for their own retirement. However, most Americans spend like drug dealers. Presumably part of this is our nature, but we have a lot of structural discouragements to savings. Married with kids? Save and you’ll be punished by colleges in the financial aid process. Getting paid child support or alimony? Savings could be used against you in court; if you’re able to save maybe you don’t need child support and alimony (amounts always discretionary with the judge) at the current levels. Income below the median? Savings could disqualify you from various means-tested welfare programs, such as free or subsidized housing. Want to save up and buy a house? You will just be cheating yourself out of the mortgage interest deduction.

The result is “Among elderly Social Security beneficiaries, 48% of married couples and 71% of unmarried persons receive 50% or more of their income from Social Security.” (source) I.e., a lot of older Americans don’t have significant savings.

Professor Diamond laid out the history of political arguments about how to patch the actuarial holes in the system. He said that, to a first approximation, Democrats always propose higher taxes and Republicans always propose cutting benefits, except on the poorest recipients, for whom Republicans would like to see higher payments. He explained that politicians are never candid (not to suggest that they might lie!) regarding these proposals, e.g., disguising a benefit cut as a delayed cost-of-living increase or an increase in retirement age.

As with most other government programs, it gets sold to the public as a way of taking money from the fortunate to help the unfortunate. Social Security is advertised as “progressive” because people who had a low income get a larger percentage of their contributions back than high-income participants. In fact, this is undone because high-income participants tend to live longer and high-income participants are more likely to have a nonworking spouse who gets a kicker “spousal benefit” (if Nadine Nevermarried and Meredith Married put in the same amount over the same number of years, but Meredith was super attractive and had a boytoy husband at home, Meredith’s household gets about 1.5X the payments from Social Security). On average, Social Security doesn’t do anything to address the income inequality that has come to obsess at least some Americans.

The latest magic for plugging the most obvious holes? Democrats want higher rates on everyone and a special tax on earnings about $ 400,000 (soak the 1%!). What if the 1% get motivated and, like Eisenhower, manage to convert what would have been regular income into capital gains? That won’t help them because Democrats also want to tax investment income to feed Social Security. Republicans are opposed to these higher taxes, but they can’t just go on TV and shock Americans with “you have to work if you want money.” Diamond said that the likely fix is that Congress will change the law so that Social Security can borrow, like the rest of the Federal Government. If Social Security borrows approximately 100 percent of GDP, the system can keep working for about 75 more years (assuming that there are no advances in medical technology that increase longevity, for example, nor any further withdrawals by Americans from the labor force).

Borrowing doesn’t seem like the obvious solution to a long-term systemic problem of overspending. Are we going to be way richer than forecast in the future somehow? Have fewer old people around? Nobody seems to think so. However, in Diamond’s opinion, borrowing is the one option that will be palatable to both Democrats and Republicans (and certainly the two parties have cooperated to borrow more than 100 percent of GDP already).


Philip Greenspun’s Weblog

What Would You Like?

I’ve got a reasonably-long list of “to do” items for my SlopeCharts product, but I’d like to throw the question out to the group as to the kinds of technical studies or features any of you would like to see. Please just say what you want in the comment section or, just as useful, click Like […]
Slope of Hope