Stereotypes: good at a distance but lame up close

I appreciate and am delighted by the regularity with which people conform to stereotypes, but if I get to know a person well and this conformity seems to persist then it isn’t delightful anymore, it’s annoying and disappointing.


On tattoos

Tattoos (and piercings and other similar body modifications, alluded to in this post collectively under the term “tattoos”) are by now far too popular for me to say that people who get them are bad or indecent in any way, even in terms of those people’s general ability to make choices about their bodies. There are simply too many people who are smarter, healthier, more moral, more attractive, etc. than me–and covered in tattoos–to make such a claim.

So it definitely is without judgment of people who have tattoos when I say I don’t want my kids to grow up thinking of tattoos as OK for themselves. Yes, this makes me a stodgy hold-out from an earlier time, opposed to and out of touch with the direction of my generation. What else is new?

The skin my kids–and really, all kids–were born with is as good and as beautiful as it can possibly be. Markings on the skin can be expressive and fun, but that’s what temporary tattoos or skin paint is for. Tattoos are a permanent alteration and they can only leave the skin in a worse condition aesthetically and potentially otherwise.

No sane, loving parents have ever held their newborn child, inspected its body, and found a place where they longed to put a tattoo. There’s also no reason why this sense of rightness about our children’s skin should fade after children grow up. There must be a part of every parent that grieves when their child goes out and gets a tattoo. I feel sorry for the parents of every tattooed person I see.

Similarly I never could imagine looking down at a fresh tattoo on my own skin and thinking “Good, that part of my skin looks better now than it did before.” That’s the main reason I don’t have any tattoos. (There are other reasons too, ranging from the logical to the spiritual, but they are less fundamental and less important; they are nothing I could stand on when urging my kids to avoid tattoos.)

Studies report varying rates of (obviously hard to measure) tattoo-regret, but how could anyone feel they are improved by a tattoo unless they suffer from some body dysmorphic disorder? Given the popularity of tattoos, it might be interesting to find out whether BDD is more widespread than we think.

As much as I may try to urge my kids to avoid tattoos, it is like many other aspects of their rearing: an uphill battle against the surrounding culture. Not impossible, and in fact I have confidence they will eventually display the same characteristics that kept me from getting tattoos–but the trick is trying to keep them from getting tattooed until then.

I don’t remember my own parents ever talking about tattoos one way or another, though of course they hardly needed to since tattoos didn’t really start to become popular until I was almost through high school. So I don’t know how, from experience at least, to apply the model of “don’t push the kids too hard toward X or they’ll push back toward -X vs. don’t not push them toward X because if you don’t nobody else will and it’s all -X out there.”

Guilt by descent

1. You have a time machine that can take you 200 years into the future.

2a. You steal or otherwise con decent people out of a bunch of money. You use the ill-gotten money to open up a trust fund for your not-yet-born grandchildren, then you step into the time machine.

2b. You work hard, save scrupulously, and employ your wits and innovative skills, resulting in some extra money you put aside to open a trust fund for your not-yet-born grandchildren. Then you step into the time machine.

3. You get out of the time machine. Your grandchildren are long gone, but they used their trust funds to build a kind of empire. Their descendants are now an elite class: influential, productive, innovative, generally of superior health and intellect than the rest of the world, the driving force at the leading edge of much human endeavor, the model of civility, cooperation, high functioning, etc. But you hear these people talk, and they are ashamed of their endowment. They are wracked with guilt at the possibility of having had an innate advantage over anyone else. Many of them see their heritage as a curse, and basically always refer to their ancestors in negative language. You have some emotional response X to this.

Question: Does X drastically change depending on whether you took course 2a or 2b?

Thoughts on giving advice

Recently I watched a person ask for advice and then, one by one, shoot down the various reasonable, actionable, easy-to-follow suggestions that well over a dozen people gave him. Most of the advice-seeker’s arguments for why he couldn’t follow some piece of advice or another sounded like lame excuses. In the middle of all this, one of the people who had given a suggestion got exasperated and said he couldn’t understand why anyone kept giving this guy advice.

Giving advice seems to be an activity many people are attracted to, regardless whether they receive feedback indicating their advice was followed or even seriously considered. It’s a phenomenon that powers much of the internet! I don’t know why that phenomenon of advice-giving exists, but here are some of my guesses:

  • It makes us feel like we are experts at something.
  • It shows others that we are helpful and therefore worthy of the space we take up.
  • Requests for advice present a kind of puzzle, and the problem-solving muscles in our minds enjoy hammering away at puzzles. (Each excuse for why a piece of advice can’t be followed presents a follow-up puzzle!)
  • We imagine we are turning a sort of dharmic wheel; good advice can be extremely valuable, so by our giving it to someone for free the universe (or maybe even the advice-seeker himself in some cosmic way) now owes us a reward.
  • It scratches an obsessive compulsive itch to put things to order.

It also seems strange that someone would ask for advice and then give every indication that he isn’t open to anyone’s suggestions. Here too I have my guesses for why this happens:

  • The request for advice is really a request for validation; the person actually wants to hear “Don’t worry, the way you’re doing it right now is just fine. You shouldn’t actually change after all.”
  • Each suggestion presents a kind of puzzle; solving it means finding a way it can’t be followed. The problem-solving muscles in the advice-seeker’s mind enjoy hammering away at all the little puzzles people are giving him.
  • The advice-seeker intuitively knows what the right course of action is to resolve the situation he’s in, but for whatever reason (fear, laziness, etc.) does not want to take it. So he asks for advice as a way to prove to himself he is taking steps toward resolving his situation. Then when the advice starts to pour in, he shoots it down so that he won’t actually have to take any steps whatsoever–but it will feel like he at least tried.

These two sets of biases–those of the advice-seeker and those of the advice-givers–complement each other, creating a feedback loop. That is where the phenomenon gets its power.

(This of course doesn’t mean all requests for advice are fraudulent or that giving advice is necessarily a waste of time.)

Life without the news

I no longer actively consume journalism. Occasionally I’ll read a headline if it passes before my eyes, but I never do anything with the goal of getting a headline in front of me. And I can’t remember the last time I sought out and read what was under a headline. It must be more than a year or two at this point.

This means I haven’t heard about what weather-related catastrophe is afflicting people in that place where people are currently afflicted. I don’t know what’s the latest thing Trump or his critics did or said that I’m supposed to be outraged about. I don’t know who’s leading in the NBA finals. I don’t know what horrendous crime was committed across town. I couldn’t tell you where was the latest terrorist attack or what it entailed. I have no clue which countries are currently bombing each other. I won’t know what new store is going to open in my city until I see the grand opening signs as I’m driving by.

Not knowing these kinds of things has not affected me at all. When I hear people discuss the news I get a giddy sensation of lightness and unencumberedness. The inside of my head feels clear and unsullied.

I strongly recommend this lifestyle change to anyone who reads more than one news article per week. If you try it for a month and don’t think it noticeably improves your life I will be very surprised.

Virtual commons: designed for tragedy

One problem with the web is that it is largely built by people who are generally optimistic and naive; they think the whole world is like their college dorm was, or like neighborhood or workplace is, where everyone they meet is courteous, conscientious, or at least tidy and bright. (Silicon Valley bigwigs have a left-libertarian streak, of course.) In reality though, humans by and large are glorified apes, so you wind up with everything devolving toward 4chan and Facebook killers.

ACTUAL related posts:

For those who learned nothing from nature documentaries

Empathy is tragically uncommon

A spreading mold

Website or platform?

What if free speech online was a mistake?