28 May 2004

"I'm sorry Mrs. Marks, I'll try to be more careful next time."

While in Westchester, I'm renting a room from Mrs. Marks, a diminutive but feisty German octogenarian. I arrived while she was travelling, but in the first two days of her being back, here's what I've been yelled at for:
  • Not parking my car far enough forward.
  • Leaving the light on in the bathroom. (She left a note saying that if it happened again I wouldn't be allowed to use the bathroom anymore; then found on me on the porch to personally deliver the message.)
  • Using a metal fork to stir pasta in an enamel pot instead of a wooden chopstick.
  • Using a plastic (salad) fork to scoop rice out of a pot instead of a wooden spoon. (Followed up three minutes later by a somewhat quieter "Didn't your mother have different salad and serving spoons?")
  • Throwing tissues in the trash can in my room without putting a garbage bag in.
  • Letting pasta boil over, and dropping bits of dried pasta on the floor (can't argue with these).
  • Putting my cup in a random part of the dishwasher instead of lined up with the others.
  • Using too soft of a sponge to clean rice out of a pot.
  • While sitting on the porch at night, opening the door too wide so that moisture would come into the house.
  • Inadequately making my bed in the morning (She left a note "Welcome back, but have you forgotten how to make beds??").
  • Sitting in her chair in the TV room. (This was not actually due to Mrs. Marks, but one of the other "inmates" (yes, that's what she calls boarders here) who warned me that she'd be displeased if she found me there.)
Mind you, I've had a few summers to get used to her. Hopefully this will all be worth it when Mrs. Marks lets me take pictures of her wielding her chainsaw.

25 May 2004

rational economic agents

We consume largely to fill psychological needs ("false needs" as Marx would say) and not material needs. Economically, we're like drunk giants crashing through the world unaware of our power and how we're using it. Advertisers understand this implicitly, but economists and other social thinkers don't seem to talk about it much.

A few examples

1. Giving to charity: When soliciting people in Lobby 10 recently to give money to Sudanese refugees and IDPs, one man asked me "Well, how much would you like me to give?" He clearly had somewhere to be, so I said "people have been donating $10 or $20 lately, but you can give whatever you want" and he handed me a five dollar bill. (I started a conversation with another guy, or maybe the same one, with me: "Do you want to help Sudanese refugees?", him: Sure. What do you want from me? me: Mainly money. [He reaches for his wallet.])

He asked me how much to give because he wanted to know what would satisfy me. I was the one who had made him feel guilty about not helping (previously unknown) Sudanese refugees, so if he paid me off I would stop bothering him and he could stop thinking about the issue. Giving money would simultaneously relieve his guilt and end the awkward social situation in which I was demanding his attention.

Giving money is a clear way out, but he still needed to know how much was necessary. If I could have answered him honestly, I would have said something like "The WFP has asked for $98 million to feed everyone through the rainy season. I'd like you to think carefully about their appeal, research the alternatives, think about what your money means to you and decide yourself how much, up to $98 million, is appropriate." But this would violate all the rules of the game. Instead I told him how much money would make him fit in with the other donors, so that he could avoid both appearing stingy or easily manipulatable.

This may seem an uncharitable (haha) view of this donor's motives, but I would bet that many people give money away for similar reasons, even after devoting more serious thought to it.

Our fundraising methods ended up being affected by this, as we started to think more like advertisers. For example, should we ask people to write checks to our student group, which we would then donate to the WFP a week or so later, or ask them to donate directly on the WFP web site? If the former, we get the satisfaction of knowing how much we've raised; they get the instant gratification of our thanks, which is especially important if we were the cause of their guilt a minute earlier. (Also people might not follow through after promising to donate in person.) On the other hand, donating at home would mean larger and faster donations, which were especially important in this case since the rainy season would make aid much harder to deliver as time went on.

Our campaign tried to make people aware of how their donations would be used, but there were plenty of these small compromises with expendiency and public relations.

2. Driving: People get an emotional rush from driving far beyond the mere joy of travelling the 5 miles to Walmart in 12 minutes rather than an hour and a half. While a Zipcar model of car ownership might make sense economically and environmentally, Americans like to express personality and status in their choice of car. Cars are associated with independence, freedom, power and excitement. Nevermind that often the opposite is true; with public transportation you don't sit in traffic, worry about parking or have to watch how many drinks you have. More to the point is how people transfer their other desires onto their cars, so that they'll buy a sports car because of a mid-life crisis.

3. Smoking: Nearly 20% of deaths in the U.S. are caused by a need that is mostly social and psychological. Or do people actually start smoking because they want to get a buzz from it? Supposedly when sex was taboo in movies, filmmakers would use smoking as a metaphor for it. Now some people in Congress want the MPAA to give movies an R rating for smoking.


We fill our actual needs inefficiently. Since the needs persist, growth becomes an addictive behavior, like drinking to deal with emotional problems. Domestic violence ensues.


Maybe if we had a lot less money we'd take it more seriously? Maybe there needs to be some sort of social movement to explicitly raise moral questions about how we spend? Maybe the environmental movement could be this movement, if they'd stop pretending it's enough to make everything cleaner and more efficient? Quizas, quizas, quizas...

07 May 2004

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

by James Thurber

"WE'RE going through!" The Commander's voice was like thin ice breaking. He wore his full-dress uniform, with the heavily braided white cap pulled down rakishly over one cold gray eye. "We can't make it, sir. It's spoiling for a hurricane, if you ask me." "I'm not asking you, Lieutenant Berg," said the Commander. "Throw on the power lights! Rev her up to 8500! We're going through!" The pounding of the cylinders increased: ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa. The Commander stared at the ice forming on the pilot window. He walked over and twisted a row of complicated dials. "Switch on No. 8 auxiliary!" he shouted. "Switch on No. 8 auxiliary!" repeated Lieutenant Berg. "Full strength in No. 3 turret!" shouted the Commander. "Full strength in No. 3 turret!" The crew, bending to their various tasks in the huge, hurtling eight-engined Navy hydroplane, looked at each other and grinned. "The Old Man'll get us through," they said to one another. "The Old Man ain't afraid of hell!" . . .

"Not so fast! You're driving too fast!" said Mrs. Mitty. "What are you driving so fast for?"

"Hmm?" said Walter Mitty. He looked at his wife, in the seat beside him, with shocked astonishment. She seemed grossly unfamiliar, like a strange woman who had yelled at him in a crowd. "You were up to fifty-five," she said. "You know I don't like to go more than forty. You were up to fifty-five." Walter Mitty drove on toward Waterbury in silence, the roaring of the SN202 through the worst storm in twenty years of Navy flying fading in the remote, intimate airways of his mind. "You're tensed up again," said Mrs. Mitty. "It's one of your days. I wish you'd let Dr. Renshaw look you over."

Walter Mitty stopped the car in front of the building where his wife went to have her hair done. "Remember to get those overshoes while I'm having my hair done," she said. "I don't need overshoes," said Mitty. She put her mirror back into her bag. "We've been all through that," she said, getting out of the car. "You're not a young man any longer." He raced the engine a little. "Why don't you wear your gloves? Have you lost your gloves?" Walter Mitty reached in a pocket and brought out the gloves. He put them on, but after she had turned and gone into the building and he had driven on to a red light, he took them off again. "Pick it up, brother!" snapped a cop as the light changed, and Mitty hastily pulled on his gloves and lurched ahead. He drove around the streets aimlessly for a time, and then he drove past the hospital on his way to the parking lot.

. . . "It's the millionaire banker, Wellington McMillan," said the pretty nurse. "Yes?" said Walter Mitty, removing his gloves slowly. "Who has the case?" "Dr. Renshaw and Dr. Benbow, but there are two specialists here, Dr. Remington from New York and Dr. Pritchard-Mitford from London. He flew over." A door opened down a long, cool corridor and Dr. Renshaw came out. He looked distraught and haggard. "Hello, Mitty," he said. `'We're having the devil's own time with McMillan, the millionaire banker and close personal friend of Roosevelt. Obstreosis of the ductal tract. Tertiary. Wish you'd take a look at him." "Glad to," said Mitty.

In the operating room there were whispered introductions: "Dr. Remington, Dr. Mitty. Dr. Pritchard-Mitford, Dr. Mitty." "I've read your book on streptothricosis," said Pritchard-Mitford, shaking hands. "A brilliant performance, sir." "Thank you," said Walter Mitty. "Didn't know you were in the States, Mitty," grumbled Remington. "Coals to Newcastle, bringing Mitford and me up here for a tertiary." "You are very kind," said Mitty. A huge, complicated machine, connected to the operating table, with many tubes and wires, began at this moment to go pocketa-pocketa-pocketa. "The new anesthetizer is giving away!" shouted an intern. "There is no one in the East who knows how to fix it!" "Quiet, man!" said Mitty, in a low, cool voice. He sprang to the machine, which was now going pocketa-pocketa-queep-pocketa-queep . He began fingering delicately a row of glistening dials. "Give me a fountain pen!" he snapped. Someone handed him a fountain pen. He pulled a faulty piston out of the machine and inserted the pen in its place. "That will hold for ten minutes," he said. "Get on with the operation. A nurse hurried over and whispered to Renshaw, and Mitty saw the man turn pale. "Coreopsis has set in," said Renshaw nervously. "If you would take over, Mitty?" Mitty looked at him and at the craven figure of Benbow, who drank, and at the grave, uncertain faces of the two great specialists. "If you wish," he said. They slipped a white gown on him, he adjusted a mask and drew on thin gloves; nurses handed him shining . . .

"Back it up, Mac!! Look out for that Buick!" Walter Mitty jammed on the brakes. "Wrong lane, Mac," said the parking-lot attendant, looking at Mitty closely. "Gee. Yeh," muttered Mitty. He began cautiously to back out of the lane marked "Exit Only." "Leave her sit there," said the attendant. "I'll put her away." Mitty got out of the car. "Hey, better leave the key." "Oh," said Mitty, handing the man the ignition key. The attendant vaulted into the car, backed it up with insolent skill, and put it where it belonged.

They're so damn cocky, thought Walter Mitty, walking along Main Street; they think they know everything. Once he had tried to take his chains off, outside New Milford, and he had got them wound around the axles. A man had had to come out in a wrecking car and unwind them, a young, grinning garageman. Since then Mrs. Mitty always made him drive to a garage to have the chains taken off. The next time, he thought, I'll wear my right arm in a sling; they won't grin at me then. I'll have my right arm in a sling and they'll see I couldn't possibly take the chains off myself. He kicked at the slush on the sidewalk. "Overshoes," he said to himself, and he began looking for a shoe store.

When he came out into the street again, with the overshoes in a box under his arm, Walter Mitty began to wonder what the other thing was his wife had told him to get. She had told him, twice before they set out from their house for Waterbury. In a way he hated these weekly trips to town--he was always getting something wrong. Kleenex, he thought, Squibb's, razor blades? No. Tooth paste, toothbrush, bicarbonate, Carborundum, initiative and referendum? He gave it up. But she would remember it. "Where's the what's-its- name?" she would ask. "Don't tell me you forgot the what's-its-name." A newsboy went by shouting something about the Waterbury trial.

. . . "Perhaps this will refresh your memory." The District Attorney suddenly thrust a heavy automatic at the quiet figure on the witness stand. "Have you ever seen this before?'' Walter Mitty took the gun and examined it expertly. "This is my Webley-Vickers 50.80," ho said calmly. An excited buzz ran around the courtroom. The Judge rapped for order. "You are a crack shot with any sort of firearms, I believe?" said the District Attorney, insinuatingly. "Objection!" shouted Mitty's attorney. "We have shown that the defendant could not have fired the shot. We have shown that he wore his right arm in a sling on the night of the fourteenth of July." Walter Mitty raised his hand briefly and the bickering attorneys were stilled. "With any known make of gun," he said evenly, "I could have killed Gregory Fitzhurst at three hundred feet with my left hand." Pandemonium broke loose in the courtroom. A woman's scream rose above the bedlam and suddenly a lovely, dark-haired girl was in Walter Mitty's arms. The District Attorney struck at her savagely. Without rising from his chair, Mitty let the man have it on the point of the chin. "You miserable cur!" . . .

"Puppy biscuit," said Walter Mitty. He stopped walking and the buildings of Waterbury rose up out of the misty courtroom and surrounded him again. A woman who was passing laughed. "He said 'Puppy biscuit,'" she said to her companion. "That man said 'Puppy biscuit' to himself." Walter Mitty hurried on. He went into an A. & P., not the first one he came to but a smaller one farther up the street. "I want some biscuit for small, young dogs," he said to the clerk. "Any special brand, sir?" The greatest pistol shot in the world thought a moment. "It says 'Puppies Bark for It' on the box," said Walter Mitty.

His wife would be through at the hairdresser's in fifteen minutes' Mitty saw in looking at his watch, unless they had trouble drying it; sometimes they had trouble drying it. She didn't like to get to the hotel first, she would want him to be there waiting for her as usual. He found a big leather chair in the lobby, facing a window, and he put the overshoes and the puppy biscuit on the floor beside it. He picked up an old copy of Liberty and sank down into the chair. "Can Germany Conquer the World Through the Air?" Walter Mitty looked at the pictures of bombing planes and of ruined streets.

. . . "The cannonading has got the wind up in young Raleigh, sir," said the sergeant. Captain Mitty looked up at him through tousled hair. "Get him to bed," he said wearily, "with the others. I'll fly alone." "But you can't, sir," said the sergeant anxiously. "It takes two men to handle that bomber and the Archies are pounding hell out of the air. Von Richtman's circus is between here and Saulier." "Somebody's got to get that ammunition dump," said Mitty. "I'm going over. Spot of brandy?" He poured a drink for the sergeant and one for himself. War thundered and whined around the dugout and battered at the door. There was a rending of wood and splinters flew through the room. "A bit of a near thing," said Captain Mitty carelessly. 'The box barrage is closing in," said the sergeant. "We only live once, Sergeant," said Mitty, with his faint, fleeting smile. "Or do we?" He poured another brandy and tossed it off. "I never see a man could hold his brandy like you, sir," said the sergeant. "Begging your pardon, sir." Captain Mitty stood up and strapped on his huge Webley-Vickers automatic. "It's forty kilometers through hell, sir," said the sergeant. Mitty finished one last brandy. "After all," he said softly, "what isn't?" The pounding of the cannon increased; there was the rat-tat-tatting of machine guns, and from somewhere came the menacing pocketa-pocketa-pocketa of the new flame-throwers. Walter Mitty walked to the door of the dugout humming "Aupres de Ma Blonde." He turned and waved to the sergeant. "Cheerio!" he said. . . .

Something struck his shoulder. "I've been looking all over this hotel for you," said Mrs. Mitty. "Why do you have to hide in this old chair? How did you expect me to find you?" "Things close in," said Walter Mitty vaguely. "What?" Mrs. Mitty said. "Did you get the what's-its-name? The puppy biscuit? What's in that box?" "Overshoes," said Mitty. "Couldn't you have put them on in the store?" 'I was thinking," said Walter Mitty. "Does it ever occur to you that I am sometimes thinking?" She looked at him. "I'm going to take your temperature when I get you home," she said.

They went out through the revolving doors that made a faintly derisive whistling sound when you pushed them. It was two blocks to the parking lot. At the drugstore on the corner she said, "Wait here for me. I forgot something. I won't be a minute." She was more than a minute. Walter Mitty lighted a cigarette. It began to rain, rain with sleet in it. He stood up against the wall of the drugstore, smoking. . . . He put his shoulders back and his heels together. "To hell with the handkerchief," said Waker Mitty scornfully. He took one last drag on his cigarette and snapped it away. Then, with that faint, fleeting smile playing about his lips, he faced the firing squad; erect and motionless, proud and disdainful, Walter Mitty the Undefeated, inscrutable to the last.