Loneliness and revealed preferences

Philip Greenspun starts a post:

Nearly everyone in the U.S. has Internet access. Many online dating services are inexpensive or free. Many people are single and say that they would prefer to be partnered and/or married.

From the above facts I think it is reasonable to infer that online dating services are not very effective (see my 2011 posting on the subject).

I left a comment, however:

1. The term “revealed preferences” was invented for moments like this.

2. Most people would probably prefer to be partnered and/or married with a person of sufficiently high status, however the first party defines “status.” But many if not most of us have contradictory desires or preferences or dreams.

3. People who can make reasonable compromises do not appear to spend much time alone, especially because they tend to find other people who can make reasonable compromises. We live in a society that valorizes rejecting the existing order and heroically going it alone. In some circumstances that is probably good and probably works, but in many others it’s probably bad and doesn’t work real well.

From points 1 and 2 I infer that the online dating industry may be working reasonably well but that a) search costs are high, b) people don’t want to admit who they can “get” given what they bring to the table, c) a lot of people want novelty more than security regardless of what they say to others, and d) a lot of people are full of shit.

Links: Drinking among faculty, demography, arrests, Michel Houellebecq and more!

* “Think binge drinking is bad among students? Try going to a faculty party sometime.” This hits a point that I often make: teenagers and adults often want to do the same things, for the same reasons.

* Famous Rolling Stone article about alleged campus rape is actually made up.

* “Demography Is Rewriting Our Economic Destiny,” an underappreciated and significant issue; this can be read profitably in tandem with Bryan Caplan’s Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think.

* Welcome to paradise, on legalized prostitution in Germany.

* “Decades-long Arrest Wave Vexes Employers: Companies Struggle to Navigate Patchwork of Rules That Either Encourage or Deter Hiring Americans With Criminal Records;” if a third of Americans have arrest records something is seriously wrong with our society.

* “The Department of Labor’s “American Apprenticeship Initiative” (AAI) Shows Some Forward Thinking by the Feds” is the rare Grant Writing Confidential post likely to interest Story’s Story readers too.

* The new Michel Houellebecq novel, which is of course self-recommending.

* Purity of Essence: One Question for Nell Zink, author of The Wallcreeper, which I ordered based on the interview:

Whatever I was writing at the time, I knew there was no market for it and never would be, because there’s never a market for true art, so my main concern was always to have a job that didn’t require me to write or think. So after I got out of college I worked construction, mostly. I waitressed some in winter. I was a very excitable waitress, but management valued me for my strange talent of taking drink specials seriously. They would order us to sell fuzzy navels at lunchtime, and I would obediently sell twenty fuzzy navels while the other waitstaff ignored them. My life changed forever in 1989, when a friend of my mother’s shanghaied me into taking the U.S. Office of Personnel Management’s test of clerical aptitude. Apparently 98.9 percent was an unusual score. As I recall, it was a test of visual acuity and short-term memory involving long sequences of numbers. I started getting these blind, cold-call job offers in the mail from places like the Defense Logistics Agency. Working full-time in construction was really wearing me out.

Sharp Objects — Gillian Flynn

The first time through Sharp Objects I though it totally absurd, since the characters in it behave like fantastical morons perpetually rolling on ecstasy or akin to faeries from Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. The plausibility of the plot is so low that I almost gave up, exasperated.

But I kept reading the first time and was curious enough to reread the second time and realize that Sharp Objects is not about a realistic story of realistic detection; instead, it’s a mythic-Freudian* work about the anxiety that comes from two related phenomena: transitions to adulthood and the muddying of lines between the generations. Camille, the protagonist, is supposed to be an adult (she’s a reporter for paper, she covers murders, she pays the rent) but around her mother she acts like a child and around her 13-year-old sister she acts like a peer.

Sharp_ObjectsOnce this alternate reading became clear, Sharp Objects became pleasant. It’s not supposed to be realistic (or, if it is, it fails so badly at its purpose that it might as well be read my way). It’s a fairy tale with a bit of media critique thrown in, and it says that girls and women have the dark urges that are often absent from fiction and from the news. Camille needs to reconcile her family relationships and her family’s history in order to understand the murders she’s investigating. Conventional reportorial skills and abilities are of little use; at best one might say she employs some aspects of New or Gonzo Journalism, since she does in fact drop ecstasy at one point.

In the novel Camille is dispatched by her editor to her home town to investigate a murder that becomes a series of murders of girls. The novel signals its intentions early. Camille is describing the home town she came from, and she ends the first chapter with this:

When I was still in grammar school, maybe twelve, I wandered into a neighbor boy’s hunting shed, a wood-planked shack where animals were stripped and split. Ribbons of moist, pink flesh dangled from strings, waiting to be dried for jerky. The dirt floor was rusted with blood. The walls were covered with photographs of naked women. Some of the girls were spreading themselves wide, others were being held down and penetrated. One woman was tied up, her eyes glazed, her breasts stretched and veined like grapes, as a man took her from behind. I could smell them all in the thick, gory air.

At home that night, I slipped a finger under my panties and masturbated for the first time, panting and sick.

The blurred mental lines between sexuality, animals, reproduction, and early age remain a theme that runs through the novel.

Attention is also a scarce resource in the novel: Camille constantly seeks it from her mother, even at the risk of being dangerous, and also seeks it from men (at least at first). Her sister is repeating Camille’s experience. Parents are either absent (from page 21: “I wondered where their mother was”) or overwhelming. Family sexuality recurs; here is one early example, from Camille’s narration:

The Victorians, especially southern Victorians, needed a lot of room to stray away from each other, to duck tuberculosis and flu, to avoid rapacious lust, to wall themselves away from sticky emotions. Extra space is always good.

“Stray” is an exact quote. And if extra space is always good, why then does Camille go to her mother’s house? She returns to a point of danger in search of information, like Little Red Riding Hood entering the Wolf’s house. The novel itself keeps pointing to Fairy Tales. Amma, Camille’s sister, says:

now we’re reunited. You’re like poor Cinderella, and I’m the evil stepsister. Half sister.

A few pages later, Camille speaks with a boy who says that he saw a “woman” take the second girl, who turns up murdered. She thinks this of him:

What did James Capisi see? The boy left me uneasy. I didn’t think he was lying. But children digest terror differently. The boy saw a horror, and that horror became the wicked witch of fairy tales, the cruel snow queen.

No one believes that the killer is a woman because women don’t behave that way. But wicked and evil women are pronounced in fairy tales.

This details occurs in Camille’s mother’s house:

Walking past Amma’s room, I saw her sitting very properly on the edge of a rocking chair, reading a book called Greek Goddesses. Since I’d been here, she’d played at being Joan of Arc and Bluebeard’s wife and Princess Diana—all martyrs, I realized. She’d find even unhealthier role models among the goddesses. I left her to it.

There are more. These are enough.

Seemingly no one grows up in Sharp Objects. Nearly every woman in Wind Gap still gossips like she’s in high school. Growing up is hard and harder for some of us than others. Perhaps we never fully leave childhood behind. Camille can’t. Her sister Amma is in some ways eager to leave childhood (she behaves like a pro when it comes to the inciting the desires of men) but in other ways wants its protections. In our culture, she can legally at least get both,** and she behaves in both ways. At one moment Amma is behaving like an infant:

Amma lolled sleepy as a newborn in her blanket, smacking her lips occasionally. It was the first time I’d seen my mother since our trip to Woodberry. I hovered in front of her, but she wouldn’t take her eyes off Amma.

In others she doesn’t, as when she says that after her mother takes care of her, “I like to have sex.” Then:

She flipped up her skirt from behind, flashed me a hot pink thong.
“I don’t think you should let boys do things to you, Amma. Because that’s what it is. It’s not reciprocal at your age.”

Camille’s counsel is distinctly odd, coming from someone who did similar things at similar ages and, it would appear, for similar reasons. But she doesn’t at this moment have the power to break the familial cycle, with its hints and implications of incest. That waits until later.

Camille’s decision to enter this cauldron of weirdness reinforces the idea that Sharp Objects is more about family patterns and dynamics than detection. In one of the flimsier rationales in the book, Camille stays with her mother, her stepfather, and her adolescent sister, ostensibly for the sake of saving the paper money, but this decision is insane given her relationship to the family. That she continues to stay as events become more and more macabre and surreal are equally insane and implausible. Camille should leave, and that’s obvious to any sane reader and should be obvious to her. That she stays anyway indicates that the story has motives different than the ones I initially assumed.


* Freud has a much stronger mythic element to his work than is commonly supposed—and so I’m justified in using myth and Freud in this way. Much of his work is unfalsifiable, giving what is nominally a scientific body of work a distinctly literary quality, and the supposed universality of many of his concepts (the death drive, the Oedipus complex, etc.) are not supportable.

* Let me reproduce the footnote at the link:

As Judith Levine notes in Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex: “One striking pair of contradictory trends: as we raise the age of consent for sex, we lower the age at which a wrongdoing child may be tried and sentenced as an adult criminal. Both, needless to say, are ‘in the best interests’ of the child and society.” And, as Laurie Schaffner points out in a separate essay collection, “[…] in certain jurisdictions, young people may not purchase alcohol until their twenty-first birthday, or may be vulnerable plaintiffs in a statutory rape case at 17 years of age, yet may be sentenced to death for crimes committed at age 15 [….]”

Laws [. . .] reflect race and gender norms: white girls are the primary target of age-of-consent laws, while African American youth are the target of laws around crime and delinquency. The contradictory trends are readily explained by something rather unpleasant in society.

I didn’t elaborate on what the “unpleasant” thing may be and won’t here, either, but you’re welcome to take a shoot at your best interpretation in the comments.

Links: Cops and murder, the need for justic, computers, William G. Tapply, and more!

* “The smart against the dumb: The new Cold War;” usually I avoid posting political stuff but will make an exception given the entertainment and insight of this piece.

* “Why It’s Impossible to Indict a Cop,” which is well paired with Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces

* Someone found this blog by searching for ‘”jake seliger” “global warming.”‘ I have no idea why.

* “A letter to … the girl who accused me of rape when I was 15.”

* “What should a Bayesian infer from the Antikythera Mechanism?“, which is highly recommended though you may not recognize some words in the title.

* “Only Yesterday” by William G. Tapply, which describes his use of notebooks; I took his novel writing seminars at Clark University.

* A weapon for readers; regular readers surely know that is how I read.

Life: Heroes, normals, and TV edition

“‘Heroes are much better suited for the movies,’ Alan Ball said. ‘I’m more interested in real people. And real people are fucked up.'”

—Brett Martin, Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad. The book is recommended.

P.S. A friend asked why I’m reading today of all days, and I replied that every day is a good day to read.

Tuft & Needle is doing good things for mattresses:

A friend wrote me to say, “I actually got s bed from tuft and needle (the 10 inch one) on your blog recc and it’s great!”

Admittedly the link wasn’t in the email, but the fact that she likes the bed says good things about the company and the for possibility that they might disrupt the very nasty mattress industry.

Links: Dwellings, drugs, don’t be a writer, Thiel, code, and more!

* “The best cure for wage stagnation nobody in Washington is talking about;” the larger absence of this issue among most of the commentariat is bizarre to me.

* “Why Are So Few Blockbuster Drugs Invented Today?” Weirdly, the article doesn’t mention Alex Tabarrok’s Launching the Innovation Renaissance.

* Pulitzer prize-winner has no money; contemplate this when making your own life choices.

* Inside Peter Thiel’s mind, an interview between him and Ezra Klein.

* “ A Cautionary Tale of Learning to Code. My own,” or, why you should do things the easy way when possible.

* In “New Factor in Campus Sexual Assault Cases: Counsel for the Accused,” the New York Times describes how men accused of rape or rape-like offenses are getting lawyers. But the writer, Ariel Kaminer, doesn’t observe the obvious: serious crimes should be dealt with by cops and courts, not campus committees.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,370 other followers

%d bloggers like this: