On bright red hair

I dyed my hair bright red last week.

I’m unaware of any conscious motive for my having done so, and believe I just did it on a whim. Despite this, I fully intend to maintain the color, as I think it suits me. Plus, it turns out that people are capable of expressing a wide variety of reactions to something so seemingly innocuous as bright red hair, and I confess that I’m interested to see just how many different reactions will continue to surface.

Most reactions were positive or neutral, but I was surprised by how many reactions indicated that people have some very strong intuitions concerning bright red hair.

Within a few hours of having adopted bright red hair, I was called various homophobic slurs on three separate occasions in an area of town that is imagined to be tolerant. While I thought such a reaction was possible, I didn’t exactly expect it, and certainly didn’t expect the accusations to be so frequent!

The other reactions I’ve experienced weren’t so aggressive. Many people simply gawked, while others took to explaining to their curious children that it was somehow rude to acknowledge my admittedly unconventional hair color. Other parents subtly distracted their children from gaping at my hair, as if to dissuade them from getting any wise ideas. (I have faith in these children.)

Of course, of all these reactions, I thought the young maniacs shouting homophobic slurs were the most interesting1. Briefly I wondered why they would believe that hair color would be any indication of one’s sexual predilection, but I think they wanted to say more than that. I think they wanted to talk about gender expression. They wanted to say that decent people are not supposed to have bright red hair, and boys that do are just a little too delicate.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve never put much stock in this notion of gender. As best as I can tell, the concept is used as a kind of proxy for a wide variety of complicated things: behavior, personality, interests, attitudes, and so on. Just as there is an INTP or ENJF, there are boys and girls and other genders too.

I don’t question that the concept may be useful or helpful in some circumstances for some people, but I am sure that it can also be quite harmful.

It seems to me that much of the enterprise of gender consists in inventing fictional kinds of people who are supposed to exhibit certain groupings of behavior, personality, interests, attitudes, and so on. Deviation outside certain acceptable ranges is answered with punishment, while conformity is met with approbation.

So, a boy with close-cropped hair is fine, but if the hair becomes a little too long (or a little too bright red), then there’s a problem. Just how great a problem it is depends partly on time and place.

Of course, all this is a very poor model of human identity and expression, and so when people invariably deviate from restrictive social norms, new terms will need to be coined to denote such people.

I think such terms may be useful for practical and political purposes; they can help such people find one another, and organize for common causes. However, ultimately, they’re probably pretty poor descriptors, and probably don’t capture some deeper reality.

Many people are much better acquainted with these issues than me, and face far more serious consequences for aspects of their persons that are much more important than hair color. But for my part, perhaps my bright red hair will serve as a helpful reminder.

  1. I think the fact that there are any reactions to bright red hair at all is interesting, and is probably a sign that we’re all a little more boring than we ought to be. Apparently, just as one may ignore the elephant in the room, one may pay significant attention to something as silly as hair!

The investigative mindset

Fellow Automattician Lance Willett on the investigative mindset:

Knowing where to look for answers is more important than memorizing a set of requirements or rules…

Rules and requirements change, and the context I work in is constantly changing. I’m more productive in my work by making good, informed decisions—not by the book. I can work smarter, gaining a new awareness of how everything works…

Often, the investigation takes me out of bounds—out of my “area”—that’s OK, and natural. I talk to other people outside my team, and I learn a bit more about how it all works together. I fill in the gaps in my knowledge. I’ve raised my awareness.

The investigative mindset is useful in many occupations, and is also indispensable in life outside work. It’s a shame that our schools offer only superficial training in this regard, instead opting to focus on its opposite: The assembly line mindset.

To emphasize something I believe Willett alludes to: The investigative mindset is nurtured, and is perhaps only possible, when we take on problems that are slightly outside our reach.

If the problems are too close to our grasp, there isn’t much investigation necessary. If the problems are too distant, we must reformulate them before we can begin our investigation.

This is all in contrast to the assembly line mindset where there’s only what’s given, irrespective of where we stand in relation to it.

On buying a house

@ George Bernard Shaw wrote that “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world, [while] the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”1

In my first month as a homeowner, I’ve realized both the pleasures of fitting one’s environment to oneself, and the terrible pains of doing the same. Beyond pains, you soon realize that there’s something fundamentally unsound about your project, but that the alternative is probably even less tenable.

As the owner of an old house previously occupied by tenants, you have the privilege of restoring old wooden floors to their former state. Your confidence in your ability to manipulate objects in the physical world increases, as you remove white paint from planks that haven’t been touched since Kennedy was in office, only to refurbish wood that was around when Emily Dickinson was alive. In some way, you’re contributing to history.

At the end of the day, however, you’ve only changed the surface on which you walk. It’s not objectively very impressive.

Still, it’s your surface, and you will not compromise.

  1. Maxims for Revolutionists, Man and Superman (1903)

Letter to Target

This is one of several letters I will be writing to companies, primarily for my own amusement, secondarily for your amusement, and tertiarily in hopes of some justice.

This particular letter was written in collaboration with Elizabeth.

Dear Target,

The name of your company is apt, as we’re certain that many dreams across these United States involve hurling sharp projectiles at your architecturally uninspired retail locations. We assure you, however, that we’re unlike such dreamers.

We are unlike such dreamers, for we can no longer dream. Your company, which once inspired our love for weepuls and natural fibers, has left us:

  • Disillusioned,
  • Disempowered, and
  • Disenchanted.

You see, our loyalty has been based on your marketing yourself as a friendlier, more granola version of Walmart. A Walmart that supports gay rights, and also the color mustard. A Walmart that sells darling little doodads for the dorm rooms of doe-eyed college students. A Walmart that charges twenty percent more than the real Walmart, a premium that any self-loathing upper-middle class person is willing, even eager, to pay in order to help substantiate their fantasy that your employees earn a living wage.

Our complaint actually has nothing to do with any of this. Rather, it is with your cotton blanket selection.

At one point, Target, it was possible to purchase a twenty dollar cotton blanket from your housewares section. We’re often in the market for cotton blankets, as our domestic rabbit uses them for edible floor coverings.

Unfortunately for the past few months, whenever we run to Target for an emergency edible blanket, we’re confronted with aisles of polyester microfiber. Alas polyester microfiber is inedible, and no rabbit of ours will root around in it.

Now the only cotton bedding you offer is a fifty dollar “organic” cotton blanket. We’re willing to splurge for the benefit of our house rabbit, but fifty dollars for a blanket that will be consumed in two months is too high a price for assuaging liberal guilt.

We wouldn’t complain but we imagine many of your other loyal customers have infants, small children, spouses with sensitive skin, and adorable little rabbits named Thomasina, and that they would also prefer cotton to synthetic microfleece.

Elizabeth & Chris
Concerned Owners of a Treasured Pet

Letter to Barnes & Noble

This is one of several letters I will be writing to companies, primarily for my own amusement, secondarily for your amusement, and tertiarily in hopes of some justice.

Dear Barnes or Noble,

I’m not sure which of you will read this first, so I ask the one who does to inform the other. I ask this, because I cannot be sure which of you instituted the ban on baristas receiving tips, and to whom I should address my letter.

Earlier today I found myself in one of your stores1, looking for a copy of some book that you obviously do not stock. Convinced that I had to be mistaken, and that I only needed some rest before I would find it, I decided to take a break at the café, a passable place that one might believe to be affiliated with Starbucks2. After receiving my satisfactory beverage, I attempted to tip my barista.

They refused it, citing your prohibition, and left me to my fairly sufficient coffee substitute device. Surprised, I asked a manager about this strange practice of rejecting money, and they informed me that tips were not allowed, as it would produce envy among the booksellers. If baristas were allowed tips, the jealousy of booksellers would soon become intolerable, and there would be civil war in the store that sells some books but also puzzles and moderately interesting wall clocks.

Part of me is hesitant to write this letter, as I wouldn’t like to beat a dead horse (to bring a more literal meaning to the idiom). Your business model is quaint, and the Nook pursuit is probably a pleasant way to pass time. It’s all potentially respectable, but for these same reasons, I do not wish to treat you too harshly and ruin your fragile buzz, subtle and nearly imperceptible though it may be.

Nevertheless I write to you, hoping that you appreciate the implausibility of retail conflict, and ask that you allow your baristas to accept tips.


  1. This is a literal description of how I arrive at your stores; I simply find myself there. No intention on my part is to be inferred.
  2. Are your cafés affiliated with Starbucks? I truly do not know. It appears that you brew their coffee proudly; perhaps you are a party to some licensing agreement?

Letter to Lenscrafters

This is one of several letters I will be writing to companies, primarily for my own amusement, secondarily for your amusement, and tertiarily in hopes of some justice.

Dear Lenscrafter,

Most people don’t know that Spinoza was a lens-crafter. Most people do not know this, because most people are not familiar with the Dutch rationalist philosopher. Nevertheless, he was and he also existed.

If he existed today, I believe he would tell his colleagues at Lenscrafters that their policy of charging retail store visitors 30% more than their online counterparts is immoral. I believe he might also suggest that it feels farcical to ask a store to price-match themselves, although he has never (to my knowledge) used the word.

Your confrère, Spinoza, would probably further suggest that although what you do is immoral, you cannot be blamed, for it is simply in your nature to overcharge me for my contact lenses.

However I believe you are better than this, Lenscrafter. I believe you can change. I believe that someday you will find it in your entirely plastic heart to move beyond your failings, and offer your contact lenses at a reasonable price.


Letter to Commentary Magazine

This is the first of several letters I will be writing to companies, primarily for my own amusement, secondarily for your amusement, and tertiarily in hopes of some justice.

Dear Commentator,

Today I received an email from your company, offering me a discount on my renewal. While I appreciate the suggestion, I find myself conflicted.

Conflicted not primarily over your bloodthirsty politics, but over the question of whether it is possible to renew a magazine to which one has never subscribed.

I have never, you see, subscribed to what Woody Allen referred to as Dysentery in my life. Not even when I was negative twenty years old, and your magazine’s political orientation was merely unpalatable.

I do wish you the best with your renewal campaign, and am sure you will succeed in confusing many aging constituents of the New Left. Let us all hope they surrender their AARP dues to you with relative ease.


Self-censorship and social media

Everyone has an experience of not saying what’s on their mind. We censor ourselves when we praise a friend’s terrible cooking, and also when we remain silent on matters of social injustice. Some people believe self-censorship to be in itself roughly neutral, having both positive and negative uses. On the other hand, I think it’s usually quite negative and should be exercised sparingly, only where telling the truth would have a harmful consequence, and where the underlying issue is trivial.

A couple of recent studies1 examined how self-censorship manifests itself in social media. The results aren’t very surprising: About 70% of Facebook users censor themselves. (We might imagine that the study’s methods are insufficiently precise to register the remaining users’ tendencies.)

Self-censorship appears most prevalent in cases where the user’s audience is broad or vague. For example, a person may be less likely to share radical political beliefs if they fear that their conservative uncle will stumble upon the post. The studies advocate relieving such worries by allowing users to more precisely target their speech.

It seems a very strange tack, if the goal is to alleviate harmful self-censorship. If self-censorship involves crafting some persona for social approval, this approach only seems to encourage people to construct ever more elaborate personae for the praise of ever narrower circles.

There is an alternative. The studies seem to assume the existence of the audience as a salient fact. When you compose a post, it’s assumed that you’re considering that it will be read by someone or some audience. This assumption seems harmless enough, and it’s probably fair in an environment so saturated by likes, comments, and pictures of your friends. However, there are kinds of social media where the existence of an audience is not very salient.

As I write this, I’m only reminded of an audience by consciously and deliberately thinking of that audience. Their faces aren’t plastered all over the place, and if I’m not preoccupied with my site’s stats, I could plausibly deny to myself that I have any audience at all.

Even if I accept that I have some audience, my audience here would seem to demonstrate some interest in what I have to say, as they must be somewhat more deliberate about finding these words at all. If I wrote this on Facebook, my audience would practically be forced to read what I say. As such, I can feel a bit more comfortable about sharing my actual self here, as it seems something my entirely hypothetical audience (you understand) just might want.

And here lies, as far as I’m concerned, the beauty of weblogs and blogging. The weblog carries with it hardly any more assumptions than paper. You’re completely free to turn it into what you like: A socially aware Facebook analogue, or a plausibly private and only incidentally public notebook. Or anything in between.

It’s part of social and antisocial media alike, and Facebook could learn a thing or two from this.

On cultures and popular culture

Once in a while, I decide to look into popular culture, just to see if I’m missing anything.

In doing so, I learned that someone recently twerked in relation to someone else, and that everyone is very offended by this. Specifically, they are offended by the twerker, and not by the person receiving the twerk. This strikes me as curious, as I understand this second person to be an incredibly smug and foolish person. This person wrote the song playing in the background, perhaps the most popular song of the summer, a song about the terrible inconvenience of consensual sex1.

I know I have friends who are somehow interested by or in popular culture, and I can only imagine a couple reasons for their interest:

  • Some pseudo-democratic sentiment where they feel obligated to enjoy the products of popular culture just because it’s popular, or
  • Some elitist belief that their consumption and enjoyment of popular culture is actually ironic. It’s obvious that they’re above it, and their imaginary audience will perceive this, and celebrate them for their critical astuteness or courage.

Either way, it would seem the interest is totally cultivated and insincere.

Continue reading

  1. I’m not naming these persons because it’s totally irrelevant, and you can discover their names easily if you care.

The tragedy of the minimum wage

McDonald’s, in a partnership with Visa, recently published a sample budget for their employees, inadvertently revealing just how difficult it is to survive on minimum wage.

Or that’s how the story is widely being reported. In actuality, the sample budget presupposes a monthly income of $2000, or the proceeds of two full-time, minimum wage jobs.

Now, the concepts of “full-time” and “minimum wage” are fairly abstract. So let’s make this a bit more concrete: A person that’s spending nearly 50% of their life at work is just barely scraping by.

We can do better: A person that’s spending over 70% of their waking life at work is barely scraping by.

Still better: A person that’s spending over 80% of their waking life at work, or in commute to work, is barely scraping by.

So, depending upon how we calculate this worker’s toil, we find that 50%-80% of their life consists of activity that’s very likely to be unpleasant.

Maybe it’s still too abstract. Let’s consider that there’s probably some threshold where one decides that life is not very worthwhile anymore. Does spending 50%-80% of your time doing unpleasant things approach your threshold?

The real tragedy illustrated by the minimum wage has very little to do with money. It’s the cruelty intrinsic to the superstition that in a technological society, human beings must suffer in order to survive, and that the only question is how much. And it turns out, quite a lot. For some, 50%-80% of their lives.