Monday, May 28, 2007

"Morality: Morality is a way to stop players from playing the best strategy for themselves. Morality persuades the players to cooperate by increasing the costs from cheating. These costs take the form of "reputation costs". You try to be a nice friend, a loyal wife, devoted mother, or honest business partner, in order to avoid these reputation costs. Playing another strategy would have been more profitable without these reputation costs," taken from Miscallenous Lessons of Life.


Deepa Mehta's Water is a beautiful movie. It's about how religious rules and interpretations, purely based on practical reasons, become an instrument of abuse and subordination. They are accepted (or largely overlooked) not only by those who are favoured or remain unaffected, but also by the victims. The mere existence of the rule is supposedly enough to justify their undeserved suffering. The rule cannot be questioned or falsified, after all, it is to be believed in unconditionally. The cost of questioning or breaking the rule is to be reborn as a jackal.

The afterlife (or the role played by chance in this life, and everybody's vulnerability to bad luck) is nothing but a switch from an unrepeated game to a repeated one. Justice will be done: players will be rewarded for their submission and punished for their diversion.

Some rules do have a point, they are based on lessons taken from experience. They are there for a reason, you run the risk of hurting yourself or someone else if you break that rule. Unfortunately not everyone is responsible or thoughtful enough to be decent people without the fear of a penalty being imposed on them. (Here I must point out the importance of information exchange -gossip, that is!- in giving people a bad name!)

But some rules are just non-sense, no matter how hard people try to justify them. The mere existence of a rule is not enough for it to be meaningful. If a rule doesn't make sense to me, if it won't make me or someone else better off, I won't follow it. If it's not there to help me, then it is there to oppress me.

But then, I have a choice. A critical mind, however necessary, is not always enough to stand up against a rule. The costs are too high: Disapproval and even exclusion from one's family and community. Emotions tied to memory, home and tradition are strong.

I tried to explain in the Eye and Paternalism and Tolerance that simply telling people that their beliefs are wrong and backward will not convince them. They have to decide for themselves. Hence I'm against a headscarf ban in universities and public service. But I have to qualify that argument now, because I realize that some younger girls don't really have the choice. A headscarf ban for younger students would be in order to give them the time and freedom to make up their minds. The same argument justifies state intervention to make sure that young girls are sent to school.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Gözlerim gözünde aşkı seçmiyor
Onlardan kalbime sevda geçmiyor
Ben yordum ruhumu biraz da sen yor
Çünkü bence şimdi herkes gibisin

Yolunu beklerken daha dün gece
Kaçıyorum bugün senden gizlice
Kalbime baktım da işte iyice
Anladım ki sen de herkes gibisin

Büsbütün unuttum seni eminim
Maziye karıştı şimdi yeminim
Kalbimde senin için yok bile kinim
Bence sen de şimdi herkes gibisin

Nâzım Hikmet Ran 334 (1918) - Yaz - Kadıköy

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Question of the Day

There are 18 topics in a full-unit course, and the professor will ask 10 questions in the exam. (We assume each question is about one topic and only one question can be asked on each topic.) I'm supposed to answer 3 of these questions.

How many topics should I study for to make sure that I have studied for at least 3 of the topics that appear on the exam?

I know it is solved by combinations, but I don't know how! Help me out!

See the comments for the answer :)

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Life for Rent

I haven't ever really found a place that I call home
I never stick around quite long enough to make it
I apologize that once again I'm not in love
But it's not as if I mindthat your heart ain't exactly breaking
It's just a thought, only a thought

But if my life is for rent and I don't learn to buy
Well I deserve nothing more than I get
Cos nothing I have is truly mine

I've always thought that I would love to live by the sea
To travel the world aloneand live more simply
I have no idea what's happened to that dream
Cos there's really nothing left here to stop me

It's just a thought, only a thought

But if my life is for rent and I don't learn to buy
Well I deserve nothing more than I get
Cos nothing I have is truly mine

If my life is for rent and I don't learn to buy
Well I deserve nothing more than I get
Cos nothing I have is truly mine

While my heart is a shield and I won't let it down
While I am so afraid to fail so I won't even try
Well how can I say I'm alive

If my life is for rent and I don't learn to buy
Well I deserve nothing more than I get
Cos nothing I have is truly mine

If my life is for rent and I don't learn to buy
Well I deserve nothing more than I get
Cos nothing I have is truly mine
Cos nothing I have is truly mine
Cos nothing I have is truly mine
Cos nothing I have is truly mine


Sunday, May 13, 2007

"I try to create fantastic things, magical things, things like in a dream. The world needs more fantasy. Our civilization is too mechanical. We can make the fantastic real, and then it is more real than that which actually exists." Salvador Dalí

Surreal Things

In a dream you experience something that is not real, that is not happening and that has not happened. But why are you having that dream but not any other dream? Your dream must be connected to your waking life somehow. Each object in a dream takes on a meaning that is different than its real function. (Sometimes its meaning is related to its function, if not, why would that specific object be assigned that meaning?) The object becomes a symbol of your real experiences and feelings. Objects are like words, they make up a language that can tell you something real about you, more real than what you're aware of. Dream interpretation is really translation from that language.

As far as I understand, the clever, original idea that inspired surrealism was to give objects new meanings, just like in a dream. Objects stand in unusual, unreal settings and sequences. Each becomes a symbol of something other than itself, and the whole composition may be telling a story. (Maybe not, because some pieces didn't lend themselves to easy interpretation. Did they mean anything? I don't know.) In literature, too, things often exist and happen for a reason, there is a reason why they happen that is beyond their literal meaning.

Isn't the concept of "design" borne out of the effort to give objects a bigger meaning than their bare functions? We want our watch, our blouse, our jewellery, our car to tell something about us, to become symbols of us. We want them to tell a story - a story that is... us. We want to have something coherent, something unique and meaningful about us.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

I just wanted to tell that the below post was written in a moment of disappointment... Which is no excuse, and I'm still behind what I wrote. What is written is written and can't be taken back, but I don't feel that way anymore. May 21, 2007.

Girls' Code

I have a few regular readers and they make me so happy by coming back often. I only know some of them, and finding out the identity of the others might creep me out, so I want to thank you without asking any questions :) I don't want to disappoint you now, I want to write good stuff.

Today's topic is girl friendships. I'm sure there are books about this, but if they want a new one, they should commission me, for I am the expert. I grew up in a family with many women and relatively few men, and I've always been in large circles of girl-friends. In elementary school we used to have a talent show every year, where we danced to pop songs with my six or seven girlfriends. I was in another group in middle school, and our pastime was to call our crushes out of the blue and break into their lockers, but the group broke in half when we started high school and some of us proved to be more alternative-minded. I got into trouble for my girlfriends, too, I once got a disciplinary warning for having helped a friend write a hate-letter to a boy. Of course there was nothing in that for me, but I guess I was proud that my literary skills were being appreciated. She annoyed me much by crying the whole time we were getting scolded.

Since elementary school, the rituals of girl groups didn't change much. Pyjama parties where everyone tell their little secrets, little comments, little questions that aim to put the respondent on the spot, competition. And all those silly things I told you about. We are all way over 20 now, and still every conversation culminates in one topic. Those girls magazines and soap operas really shouldn't worry about coming up with anything new - we will read the same stories and relationship advice over and over as if we never heard them before.

Looking back on it, I realize how funny it all was. I was reading and writing and attending philosophy olympics and science fairs - and my friends did, too, but we also did those silly, childish, shallow things. It's no different from a gang of boys, who would do anything to belong to a group. We didn't have a mind of our own.

Why did we do that? The girls group provides a comfortable caccoon of social interaction and information. You stand in a hall of mirrors, all those girls in the mirrors understand you, reassure you, encourage you, tell you their weaknesses and desires, you tell them your weaknesses and desires, you find out everybody has the same weaknesses and desires. Everybody is loving and sharing and understanding.

Not always. Sometimes they do or say something that makes you realize that your friend isn't so benevolent, after all. They bring up something you shared with them long ago. They ask you a question and you know they know the answer, but they take the pleasure of hearing it from you. What's the point, I used to ask myself. I always wondered, what's the point in all this meanness? Aren't they scared of losing their friend? How will I trust this girl again?

There's always that underlying competition, there's always schadenfreude, but shouldn't we try to go over and beyond that and genuinely wish each other well? Maybe I'm kidding myself. Too many times I took pride in being better than a girl in something or another. Too many times I was bitter that I did worse than my friend. I tried to hide it as well as I could. When inequalities grew larger, we could no longer sustain the friendship. It was no longer reassuring and comfortable, one of us had grown out of the caccoon.

Maybe this is how it should be. Being good for the sake of being good is out of fashion. People see relationships as sources of personal fulfillment, and they don't feel much responsibility towards a relationship that isn't fun and light. Maybe I shouldn't expect anyone to go out of their way not to hurt my feelings. I shouldn't expect anyone to constrain themselves for me.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Smartening up

After plenty of disappointment (ok I must be just here, I have SO MUCH to be thankful about), I am now faster at seeing when something is not feasible. I don't even have to be told something is not working. Before this I would somehow manage to believe otherwise until I actually hear it from various credible sources. I would believe that things always had the potential to turn out for the better. I believed things happened for a reason.

This must be learning by doing, this is maturity, realism, rationalism. Now I know what I expect, and I know I won't be able to expect less (why should I?), I know what's realistically possible and what's not, so there's no point in naivete and stupidity. And I don't even need to be told that. Silence is enough. How convenient is that?

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Economics and Identity

Last week I went to George Akerlof's lecture on Economics and Identity. It was about how people's identity shapes their utility functions. People's views on how they should behave and how others should behave determine the utility they get out of their actions, and hence their choices.

Classic economists would agree that people's identity matters in the utility they gain, but they would claim that it is already accounted for in the utility function. People's unique tastes (and hence their identities) are reflected in their unique indifference curves. One's tastes and identity are nobody's business and taken as a given.

Akerlof, on the other hand, thinks identity can be economists' business. A person's (or group's) identity and the ways it plays into the utility function can be identified. Identity is not simply tastes that inexplicably differ from person to person. Members of the same group expect similar things from themselves and life. It is a systemic element of the utility function.

Akerlof gave examples. The first one was the high school drop-out, unemployment and crime rates among African Americans. The identity, the alternative culture reinforces itself, low expectations lead to low performance where success becomes the exception.

The example on housewives was especially telling because it showed how identity can change over time. There was a time when women could live up to the society's and their own expectations by tending to their children and husbands. They were happy. Expectations shifted over time. Now women in the western societies are expected to live up to their "potential," both in their private life and in the workplace. They are the most fierce judges of themselves. Their happiness depends on success on both fronts, and they make their choices accordingly.

People's ideas on how they should behave and how others should behave can change. If such a change is desirable for economic, political or social purposes, policies can be designed to make that change come along. This gives policy-makers a chance to alter people's utility functions, which wouldn't be possible if they were just seen as tastes. Another example Akerlof gave was school policies that failed to change students' identities because they simply catered to them.

This idea has striking parallels with constructivism in political theory. Constructivism argues that without any material change in the pay-offs associated with different options, people can still change their minds because they view these options differently. One idea goes out of fashion and another one replaces it. Of course, this takes away from the prediction power of a theory that would simply assume rationality.

The contribution Akerlof makes is in the same vein as Daniel Kahneman's. Kahneman showed that people cannot objectively judge the utilities they will gain from different options. Therefore an economist will find it very difficult to predict a person's actions correctly by simply assigning each option a utility value.

Akerlof's explanation not only adds to the scope of policy making, but it may actually improve the explanatory power of economics, because it allows a peek into the utility function. Only if economists are open-minded, of course.