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Archive for the ‘culture’ Category

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s excellent Twitter feed directed me to this story:

Electronic cigarettes don’t burn and don’t give off smoke. But they’re at the center of a social and legal debate over whether it’s OK to “light up” in places where regular smokes are banned. Despite big differences between cigarettes and their electronic cousins, several states, workplaces and localities across the country have explicitly included e-cigs in smoking bans.

Here’s a video overview for a typical e-cigarette:

The article notes that e-cigs are designed to “address both the nicotine addiction and the behavioral aspects of smoking — the holding of the cigarette, the puffing, exhaling something that looks like smoke and the hand motion — without the more than 4,000 chemicals found in cigarettes.” Since the smoke that is emitted is actually water vapor, users call the activity “vaping” instead of smoking.

So if it’s just water vapor, then how could e-cigs fall under smoking bans (about which I’ve written critically here). Well, the FDA says the liquid nicotine cartridges contain “detectable levels of known carcinogens and toxic chemicals to which users could potentially be exposed.” Not saying much really, but if even if e-cigs were toxic, smoking bans are ostensibly about second-hand effects, so what’s the harm in water vapor?

There’s no research to say if any of the ‘detectable toxins to which users could potentially be exposed’ might also potentially expose third-parties, but that’s not stopping the awesomely named American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation. In their view, e-cigs should be banned until it’s proven they “do no harm.” In that case, says the spokesperson with courageous unambiguity, “we’ll have to revisit” the ban.

Several days ago, Robin Hanson blogged about how the status of a risky activity seems to affect our desire to regulate it: climbing Everest is a deadly activity and no one thinks to call for a ban, but the far less dangerous lawn darts? Fuggedaboutit! This status-driven impulse might apply to smoking bans as well.  Smoking, while once considered classy and cool, has become so low-status that smokers often feel the need to apologize for their behavior every time they want to light up. Sure, there’s a defensible public health argument for smoking bans, but then how to explain this anecdote at the beginning of the article?

That’s not smoke coming out of Cliff Phillips’ mouth.

But that hasn’t stopped others from cringing, making remarks, waving their hands in their faces and coughing at the sight of the vapor from his electronic cigarette.

And:

Some e-cig users have even taken to “stealth vaping,” a method in which they hold the vapor in their mouth long enough for it to mostly dissipate or exhale the vapor discretely.

E-cigs are made to look like regular cigarettes, but functionally they are little alike.  In fact,  e-cigs are quite similar to nicotine inhalers.  If e-cigs were identical in every way except for the emission of water vapor, would they be causing such a hubbub? Or what if manufacturers agreed to model e-cigs to look like pieces of excrement? That way those who enjoy vaping can do so in peace, and restaurant and bar patrons can still look down their blissfully non-irritated noses at the habit.

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Personally I’ve never been one for indicating a dating relationship on Facebook. Dating is about sampling with a relative ease of entry and exit, so why add a complication to what’s supposed to open and free? The appropriate use of the relationship status is for the more consequential and permanent arrangements of marriage and the like, says I.

Strolling around Grant Park this evening, my neighborhood park at least until the end of my March, I was listening to this article on my iPod and thinking about Facebook’s introduction of “civil union” and “domestic partnership” to its list of relationship options.  It occurred to me that the very reason I dislike Facebook for casual relationships is exactly why GLAAD was glad to see the updated options: Facebook confers legitimacy to a relationship.

It took me .26 seconds to find this video:

The status update is done lightheartedly here, but wouldn’t this actually be the most culturally relevant ritual for most marriage ceremonies today? Isn’t it the case that modern marriages are made most tangible in the minds of friends and family not through certificate or ceremony, but cyberspace? Sure, relationship statuses are presumably almost always backed by government guarantee, but I wonder if that will ebb in importance as cultural norms trump state fiat.

The libertarian in me gleefully looks on.

 

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Every so often when I glance at my Facebook feed, I’m reminded at how many of my childhood friends have stayed put in the place where they’ve grown up.  And it’s not hard to see why, since the private Christian school we attended runs all the way from preschool to postgraduate. Whereas I parted ways after twelve years to go to a secular university somewhere else, most of my class–and all of my friends–opted to rollover into what I called the 13th grade. There’s a whole host of reasons why staying for college made sense for them, however, and so it’s only been after graduation where location decisions were less obvious that I’ve been surprised. Forget going ye therefore to different nations, or even states; Greenville County is home. To a lesser extent (and yes, I am just speaking in anecdotes based on my FB friends), many of my USC acquaintances have stayed in South Carolina and (perhaps most perplexingly) in Columbia, even if they’re not from the area.

A typical suburban household.

What to make of all this? At first, my quick-draw explanation was to throw in some combination of status-quo bias and path dependence. Applying the status-quo bias I imagine is straightforward enough, but path dependence less so: here I’m using it to mean that the longer one stays in one place, the more geographically-bound his social network becomes, thus also binding his options to wherever he happens to be. Plainly put, people stay in a rut because there’s nothing strong enough to pull them out, and the longer they stay in, the deeper the rut becomes.

As I was googling around on this topic, however, I also came across two related psychological effects which might also apply. The first is the appealingly-named propinquity effect, which says that closeness (in one way or another) matters a lot for attraction. Similarly, the exposure effect holds that “people tend to develop a preference for things merely because they are familiar with them.” Perhaps then the status-quo bias is powerful because people like where they because that’s where they are.  Ain’t nothing like social science to make intuition sound complicated, is there?

How then have I managed to overcome the mighty propensities of my brethren? My city of residence has, after all, changed once every six months on average since graduating from college.  There are the Adamsian reasons, yes, but those are probably just cover for the real–but less noble and wise–motivations to signal how cool and cosmopolitan I am.  Something about this story is awry, however, because every time I move (Happy New Year!) I still feel a need to explain that I’m not cuckoo bananas.

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Matt Yglesias points my attention to voter intimidation within a McDonald’s franchise:

The letter doesn’t elucidate what laws are being broken, so I’m curious to know what the legal argument is and where else it might apply. If you drive by my office, for instance, you’ll see half a dozen campaign signs for every applicable Democratic election in the front lawn. If you step inside, you might hear, as I have, off-handed remarks about how Republican candidates are crazy and evil. Today in the office, I was encouraged to vote and facetiously reminded that Republicans vote Wednesday. That stuff I can take in stride and good humor because I don’t really give a damn, but mightn’t it intimidate some? Keep in mind I’m interning for a corporation (albeit mononational), a fact which Mr. Schulman’s letter indicates is terribly relevant.

As it happens, I don’t think the paycheck handbill is appropriate, just as I don’t think the lopsided signs in front of my office are appropriate (though if I indulged my subversiveness, I suppose I could always hammer in a Republican picket sign without fuss). Yet I think it’s inappropriate because it’s incongruous with the larger workplace culture, not because there’s something immoral or illicit about it. Given that the threat (giving the handbill its least charitable reading) is ultimately empty because voting is anonymous, what’s the issue? Repression or intimidation alone, in explicit print? If an atheist were working as a secretary at a church office, does he have a legitimate grievance if he’s always asked to join in office prayer?

These workplace wickets are stickier than that mayhaps, but in the end the lesson everyone seems to agree on is to keep tacit things tacit.

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I don’t intend to make juxtapositions of the US and Rwanda a running theme here, but some of the issues raised in an Economist briefing sprang forth to me like a con out of an unlocked cell:

Many [US] laws, especially federal ones, are so vaguely written that people cannot easily tell whether they have broken them.

Here’s an article written by my friend about the arrest of a US lawyer in Rwanda for “genocide denial”:

Ngoga declined to give details of what Erlinder is accused of saying, other than that the statements were made outside Rwanda.

However, the legal source said they concerned remarks made about President Paul Kagame, who has led Rwanda since the 1994 genocide in which 800,000 people died.

(…)

According to New York-based Human Rights Watch, those found guilty of genocide denial — grossly minimising or attempting to justify the genocide — are liable to 10-20 years in prison.

(…)

Rights groups say the law against hate-speech is vague and frequently used by the government to silence opposition.

That sounds kind of crappy, don’t it? But in the US the problem is worse, because you get vagueness and abundance!  Back to the briefing:

“You can serve federal time for interstate transport of water hyacinths, trafficking in unlicensed dentures, or misappropriating the likeness of Woodsy Owl.”

“You’re (probably) a federal criminal,” declares Alex Kozinski, an appeals-court judge, in a provocative essay of that title.

We’re all illegals criminals in some way or another—ooo, a tingle just went down my spine.

When the US lawyer was jailed for several weeks in Kigali, every new article about it from The New Times had a quote from someone or another within the criminal justice system pretty much like this:

“The Prosecution of Peter Erlinder is not a political tactic; it is an act of justice. If critics disagree with the Rwandan laws against the denial or defence of Genocide, we invite and welcome that debate.

(…)

“The Government of Rwanda takes no pleasure from Mr. Erlinder’s plight, but this needs to be understood; flagrant and orchestrated breaches of our Genocide ideology laws will be met with the full force of the law,” Mushikiwabo said.

“Perhaps Mr. Erlinder thought that his citizenship, academic standing or media profile woul protect him — why else would a law professor so knowingly and deliberately break the law by entering Rwanda? But he failed to understand that Genocide defenders and deniers — however rich, powerful or well connected — are regarded by Rwandans as serious criminals hell-bent on destabilising our nation”.

Last week, Mushikiwabo said that Rwanda would not short-circuit legal procedures and release the lawyer, despite a request by the United States to release him on compassionate and humanitarian grounds.

President Kagame has echoed this position in interviews with western media: our laws may not suit you in some ways, but we’re not going to just ignore our laws and let lawbreakers run amok.  One is tempted to argue that justice is better served by a different attitude toward law,  but the fresh aromatics of water hyacinths can be so distracting…

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The 4th of July is a holiday in Rwanda, too. There they celebrate Liberation Day, which commemorates the symbolic end of the genocide in 1994 when the Rwandan Patriotic Front led by now-president Kagame captured Kigali. As the name attests, they were patriots, too, fighting for the freedom of their people. You might even say they were fighting, as were we, against colonial oppression, which had lingered long after most of the colonials had left in the form of a deeply inculcated mindset which emphasized differences among man more arbitrary than man can usually tolerate. But blood and violence changed that, and a new mindset prevails.  A “liberated” one, Kagame called it today.

Who knows what being liberated means to Kagame, but my year in his country did give me a better sense of what being liberated meant to me.

Americans, especially on days like these, fancy themselves the freest of the free (we’re at least in the top ten, anyway). But this emphasizes a loud fife-and-drum conception of liberty from some tyrannical control, when the real beauty of it is found in a quiet evolved respect for the individual prerogative. The more I jaunt around the globe–itself a wonderful benefit of liberty–the more I’ve come to appreciate the ability to act alone.

In Rwanda, for instance, as in many places around the world, an individual never stops being accountable to and responsible for the family from whence he came. His decisions may not be coerced with the threat of violence, but they aren’t made freely because of the powerful cultural forces at play. He may prefer to live the life of a penniless artist, but can’t because he’s expected to support some lazy cousin and his wife. Liberation from the repression of a culture isn’t even an option, because it may well never occur to the person he’s being repressed. Minorities everywhere are victimless victims.

Wonderfully, liberty does not embrace tradition, though that is the conceit of conservatives. To be liberated is to question always and to be suspicious of settled ways. Decisions are inevitably framed by biases both cognitive and cultural, a fact I understand well coming from a childhood thoroughly saturated with religion. But even in this relatively (for America) repressive environment, I was able to leave it without too much distress. Cultural values were strong, but not omnipotent.

And I could have returned from my rumspringa rather than stayed astray. Though I doubt many Rwandans are liberated by my definition, I may be mistaken. And if nothing else, what provides me the most comfort about liberty is it recognizes confusion, complexity, and all the rest, and makes the most provision for being wholly wrong.

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Sieg

Here’s what I wrote two years ago:

Standing in a crowded marketplace and watching Germany lose pitifully to Croatia in the Eurocup, I began thinking about two things:

  1. Given that a few early wins by Germany in the 2006 World Cup triggered a surprising surge of national pride and patriotism, would it be possible that a World Cup victory in 2010 would so stir German self-confidence that a shift to a more aggressive, American style of foreign policy might occur?
  2. It is amazing to what extent footballers determine male fashion trends in Europe.

Here’s Nassim Taleb:

Ruh Roh!

Halbfinale wir kommen.

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