There Is a Big Problem with How We Talk about Othello

content note: murder, specifically murder related to sexual jealousy

This summer, I saw a performance of Othello. It was the first time I had seen or read the play in over ten years. And I was a bit shocked, because even though I knew the story of the play perfectly well, when I had seen or read the play before, I had never consciously thought about the fact that Othello thinks it is okay to kill his own wife because of infidelity. And everyone else in the play, except Emilia, seems to agree with him. The characters treats the murder of Desdemona as a tragedy because she was chaste, if she really had been engaging in an extra-marital affair, they would have been fine with Othello murdering her.

Othello’s final line came across as especially creepy, the one where he describes himself as being “one that loved not wisely, but too well.” Wanting to kill one’s wife because of jealousy counts as ‘loving too well’? Really? And if that is not what Othello means, then what does he mean? (note: I hope that people who consider killing their own wives because of jealousy to be an expression ‘love’ will never, ever love me)

In an English class in high school, we studied Othello. We analyzed the play extensively, from various different angles. We had in depth discussions of Othello’s feelings. Yet amid all of that analysis and discussion, I don’t recall anyone asking the question ‘if Desdemona was really having an affair with Cassio, would it be okay for Othello to kill her? Is the problem that Iago tricked Othello into thinking she was unchaste, or is the problem that Othello wanted to kill Desdemona ~at all~?’ And in retrospect, I am shocked that I have no memory of any discussion like that happening in my high school English class. If my memory is accurate, and we did not talk about that, then what does that imply about our values?

The most memorable part of studying Othello in that high school English class was hearing the teacher describe her Real Life Soap Opera. She shared with us the story of how a woman had an affair with one of her brothers, causing him to divorce his wife, then she had an affair with another one of her brothers, causing him to also divorce his wife, and then this woman had an affair with my teacher’s husband, which ruined their marriage, leading my teacher to legally separate from her husband and stop cohabiting with him. In addition to doing everything short of divorce to break up with her husband, my teacher played some mean-spirited pranks on the woman who had the extra marital affairs with her brothers and husband. My teacher was very proud of her pranking skills, and that she made the woman break down in tears. I got the impression that our English teacher really sympathized with Othello.

Legal separation and ending cohabitation are ethical and reasonable responses to infidelity. Mean-spirited pranks are not necessarily ethical or reasonable, but at least my English teacher (as far as I know) never threatened that woman with violence.

When Othello came to the conclusion that Desdemona was unfaithful, why did he immediately decide to murder her? Why not divorce, or legal separation? Or even mean-spirited pranks?

Maybe you’re thinking that we do not discuss whether it would have been okay for Othello to kill Desdemona even if she had been unfaithful because the answer is obviously ‘no, of course it would not be okay’. Sadly, I can tell you that it was NOT obvious to all of my high school classmates.

This is a true story. I don’t want to reveal these people’s real names, so I am going to use the following names: Sara’s Classmate, Girlfriend, Friend, and Victim. Sara’s Classmate became convinced that his Girlfriend had some kind of sexual flirting with Victim. Therefore, with the help of Friend, he kidnapped Victim. Sara’s Classmate said that he wanted to kill Victim, and had a loaded gun. Though Friend was willing to participate in the kidnapping, Friend did not want to be an accomplice to murder, so he came up with a scheme to deceive Sara’s Classmate into thinking that Victim is already dead. I would like to think that my classmate would have come to his senses in time, and not actually carry out his murder threat, but I think it is very possible that, without Friend’s deception, Sara’s Classmate would have killed Victim.

The obvious parallels between this true story and Othello are Sara’s Classmate = Othello, Girlfriend = Desdemona, Friend = Iago, and Victim = Cassio. However, whereas Iago deceived Othello so that Desdemona and Cassio would die, Friend deceived Sara’s Classmate in order to save Victim’s life.

Though my classmate and I were not in the same English class, I know he also studied Othello in his English class because all of the 10th grade English classes at my high school studied Othello. I suppose it’s possible that in his English class they discussed whether or not it would have been okay for Othello to kill Desdemona if she had been unfaithful, but … I doubt it.

We were classmates in theater class, and I definitely know that he studied Othello in our theater class because he performed a monologue from the play. Specifically, this monologue:

OTHELLO:
It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul,—
Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars!—
It is the cause. Yet I’ll not shed her blood;
Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow,
And smooth as monumental alabaster.
Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men.
Put out the light, and then put out the light:
If I quench thee, thou flaming minister,
I can again thy former light restore,
Should I repent me: but once put out thy light,
Thou cunning’st pattern of excelling nature,
I know not where is that Promethean heat
That can thy light relume. When I have pluck’d the rose,
I cannot give it vital growth again.
It must needs wither: I’ll smell it on the tree.
[Kissing her]
Ah balmy breath, that dost almost persuade
Justice to break her sword! One more, one more.
Be thus when thou art dead, and I will kill thee,
And love thee after. One more, and this the last:
So sweet was ne’er so fatal. I must weep,
But they are cruel tears: this sorrow’s heavenly;
It strikes where it doth love. She wakes.

Yes, it’s the monologue shortly before Othello kills Desdemona. When I was in that theater class, and saw my classmate perform this monologue multiple times, I had no idea that in a few years he was going to try to do something like this in real life. In retrospect, it is hard to believe that it is a coincidence that he chose this monologue, and then later attempted to murder someone because of jealousy.

To be clear, I’m not saying that Othello inspired him to perform kidnapping and attempted murder – if anything, I think the reverse is more likely, that he chose this monologue because he already had fantasies of doing something like this in real life. However, in English class, and even in theater class, there were opportunities to discuss whether Othello’s conduct would have been okay even if Desdemona were guilty, and those discussions, as far as I know, did not happen. And maybe, if that discussion did happen, my classmate may not have tried to imitate Othello.

The last time I had seen or read Othello was before my former classmate committed his crimes. This year, when I watched the play on stage, I was thinking of my former classmate quite a bit.

And my former classmate is not an isolated anomaly. At least one third of all women murdered in the United States are murdered by a male initmate partner, and that is not counting people like Cassio or Victim, who were suspected of being the women’s lovers, or attempted murders which did not result in death. I could not find statistics indicating how many of those murders were related to sexual jealousy, but I suspect it is a high percentage.

I am not opposed to reading or studying or performing Othello. On the contrary, I think it can be useful for provoking discussion. But, in my observation, the discussion of whether murder due to jealousy is ever justified usually does not happen. I certainly noticed no traces of that discussion around the production of the play I saw this summer.

Compare that to The Merchant of Venice. I studied the play in a college class, and my college class did not ignore the anti-semitism. On the contrary, the anti-semitism was one of the most discussed aspects of the play. And whenever there is a production or adaptation of The Merchant of Venice in the contemporary United States, the way the anti-semitism is addressed tends to be the focal point of the producer’s, the performers’, and the audience’s attention. I disagree with some of the common ways the anti-semitism is addressed, but at least it IS acknowledged and addressed, people aren’t silent about it. To a lesser extent, this is also true of the way readers, directors, actors, audiences, etc. treat the misogyny in Taming of the Shrew.

I do not think the play Othello itself is dangerous. I think ignoring the way the play tacitly supports murdering unfaithful wives (conditional on the wives being truly unfaithful, unlike Desdemona) is dangerous.

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The Visitor Perspective vs. the Residential Perspective

The book cover of Want

I read two novels back to back, Want by Cindy Pon and Ann Mary, Contraception, and the Pope of Rome by Nancy Taforo-Murphy. Both of these novels are centered in a particular city – Want is centered on Taipei, and Ann Mary, Contraception, and the Pope of Rome (which from now on I will abbreviate as ‘AMCatPoR’) is centered on San Francisco. Reading these two novels one after another – and my familiarity with these two cities – made it apparent that these books are not only about two different cities, but they are presenting those cities from very different perspectives.

I have an odd relationship with Taipei. I lived in Taipei for a few months, and I worked in Taipei for years (my job in Taiwan was split between Taoyuan, Taipei, and Hsinchu), not to mention all the times I went to Taipei to run errands/meet with people/make a transit connection. On the one hand, I got to know Taipei very well because I commuted there so often, but it never became ‘home’ to me the way that Taoyuan did.

In any case, I definitely noticed that Want focused very much on the touristy parts of Taipei and ignored anywhere which was not touristy. For example, they go to the touristy Shilin Night Market, but not the more-popular-with-locals Shida Night Market (confession: I went to the Shilin Night Market more often than the Shida Night Market, but that was only because I went to the Shilin District often – everyone I knew who lived in Taipei preferred the Shida Night Market). I was almost expecting them to go to the National Palace Museum at some point. They go to Snake Alley, which is a place you pretty much only go to if you are a tourist or you are with a tourist. They go to Yangmingshan, the most touristy mountain in Taipei, rather than one of the many other mountains around the Taipei Basin.

Meanwhile, there are many features of Taipei which I found prominent, but the novel ignores. I was amazed by all the rivers in Taipei because I had never lived in a city with a river before, let alone FOUR rivers (yep, there are four rivers in Taipei – the Dahan river, the Keelung River, the Xindian river, and the Tamsui river). Yet the novel hardly ever mentions the rivers at all, not even to say something along the lines of ‘the rivers were such toxic polluted messes that they all had been buried in tunnels to prevent their corrosive chemicals from destroying the buildings whenever there a flood’ (yeah, this is a dystopia novel).

I know that Cindy Pon was born in Taipei. I don’t know how much time she has spent in Taipei, but the novel read like it had been written by someone who had visited Taipei, but never immersed themselves in the city.

(I was also wondering the whole time what was going on in other parts of Taiwan. I understand why the writer wanted to keep the action focused on Taipei, but the way they never, ever mentioned anywhere else in Taiwan, not even places like Tamsui or Kaohsiung, was weird. People who live in Taipei often do reference other parts of Taiwan in everyday conversation. On the other hand, people who do not live in Taiwan often do not know about any city/town other than Taipei itself, so the complete lack of recognition any part of Taiwan ex-Taipei contributed to the feeling that this was a shallow outside perspective).

Book cover of Ann Mary, Contraception, and the Pope of Rome

By contrast, AMCatPoR offers ample description of San Francisco, yet barely mentions any touristy areas, and on the rare occasion it mentions a touristy place, it does so in the same context that a local resident would think about the touristy place. In particular, AMCatPoR focuses on the Sunset District. I grew up on the outskirts of the Sunset, and I can tell you that this novel offers a very accurate picture (even though I grew up in a different part of the Sunset than where the novel takes place). I cannot judge if it presents 1940s Irish-American Catholic culture accurately, but it obvious that it was written by someone who knows the Sunset very well.

There is also the matter of audience. Want is written in English, and most people in Taipei do not read novels in English, thus the people of Taipei are not its target audience. AMCatPoR, based on the reviews I’ve found, is mostly read by people who are long-term residents of San Francisco, and I suspect it is to a large extent aimed at San Franciscans. That may be another reason that Want (in spite of having protagonists who spent their whole lives in Taipei) reads like a tourist guide, whereas AMCatPoR reads like a native San Franciscan engaging in nostalgia.

Mind you, I’m not saying that writing about a city from a visitor’s perspective is bad. For example, if I am a traveller, I want my guidebooks to be written from a visitor’s perspective. And in fiction, if the protagonist is a visitor to the city, then a visitor’s perspective is probably appropriate.

I am very used to media presenting San Francisco from a visitor, rather than a residential, perspective, which is why I am so sensitive to whether a writer is writing about San Francisco from the perspective of a visitor or the perspective of a resident. This is the first time I’ve seen Taipei in a fictional presented from a visitor’s perspective, which might be why it was a bit jarring.

I’m not sure if I would have picked up on this if these novels were set in cities I do not know well. I wonder if it possible to write about a city from a resident’s perspective without ever having been a resident. I think it is, but would require good research, and most of all, to mentally put oneself in a resident’s shoes (i.e. ask oneself whether a resident of Taipei would ever want to go to Snake Alley, or whether a resident of San Francisco would ever want to go to Fisherman’s Wharf).

The Density Debate: Infrastructure (Part 2)

Find Part 1 here.

If I am understanding the anti-density advocates arguments about the sewage system (and infrastructure) in general, then they predict that, if San Francisco’s population increases, either the degradation of our sewage system will accelerate, or if more resources are put into maintaining/upgrading the sewage system to accommodate the increase in population, diseconomies of scale will cause sewage bills to go up (i.e. the costs will be so high that, even with a larger base of ratepayers, the SFPUC will still have to charge more PER PERSON).

But what do I know? While more people means more stress on the sewage system, it also seems like a lot of the costs of the sewage system are fixed, not dependent on population. Even if San Francisco’s population does not increase, having a bunch of 100-year old sewers failing would still be a problem. Maybe having a larger base of ratepayers to cover the fixed costs will help even out the marginal costs incurred by a larger population. I’m definitely not enough of an expert on sewage systems to judge this one.

And then there is transportation. Traffic is bad in downtown San Francisco, and the streetcars / buses going to downtown are quite crowded during rush hour. I think the problem of crowded streetcars and buses could be solved by hiring more drivers and buying more vehicles and increasing frequency, but I know that is expensive, and that there are also logistical obstacles to buying more vehicles (even when the public transit agency tries to buy more vehicles, they sometimes fail, and have to repair the old vehicles instead – it’s complicated). The pro-density people say that increasing density would help alleviate congestion because more people could live close to their workplaces, and the anti-density people say that more people means more congestion and overloaded public transit.

Does population density increase or decrease congestion? Methinks the devil is in the details. It is true that there is a correlation between population density and congestion within San Francisco. Chinatown, which is densely populated, is also one of the most congested neighborhoods, the buses tend to be full, and I don’t even want to think about parking in Chinatown. In Forest Knolls, one of San Francisco’s least densely populated neighborhoods, I do not recall ever seeing a traffic jam, the buses tend to be less than half full, and parking is not so hard to find (by San Francisco standards). But that does not mean I think transportation is better in Forest Knolls than in Chinatown. In Chinatown, the buses are frequent, whereas the buses are not frequent in Forest Knolls. Also, Chinatown has a lot of grocery stores and restaurants, whereas I cannot think of a single convenience store, let alone a grocery or restaurant, in Forest Knolls, so one basically has to leave the neighborhood to buy food, and that is a transportation problem (and one of the main reasons I would rather live in Chinatown than Forest Knolls). I’ve seen some people from Forest Knolls protest against building more housing (i.e. increase population density), and while I think some of their concerns are valid, I do not think their concern about how it would impact public transit is valid. I actually would like to have more people living in Forest Knolls because then there would be more an incentive to increase the frequency of the bus lines there (and the buses going through Forest Knolls almost always have plenty of seats anyway) (and if you’re wondering how I know so much about buses in Forest Knolls, it’s because I used to use those buses to get to school).

I’m not talking about gas or electricity because I know even less about electrical grids and gas delivery than I do about water and sewage and transportation.

I do agree with the broader point of the anti-density activists that at some point the diseconomies of scale outweigh the economies of scale, and that increasing population density beyond that point means either paying a lot more for infrastructure or living with crappier infrastructure. And maybe San Francisco is at that inflection point, at least for some infrastructure systems.

I have lived in Taoyuan, a city in Taiwan. Just about any city in Taiwan with a population > 150,000 people is much more densely populated than San Francisco, and infrastructure in Taiwan, including Taoyuan, is generally crappier than the infrastructure in San Francisco (is the infrastructure crappy BECAUSE the population density is so high? I don’t know – I’m just saying that the population was much higher AND the infrastructure was crappier). I’ll be more specific – I drink water straight from the tap in San Francisco, whereas I did not dare do that in Taoyuan (I did not even take showers in the tap water in Taoyuan, I used a shower filter, the water is that bad). After hearing all of the horror stories about how crowded BART (a transit system in the San Francisco region) is during rush hour, I tend to be pleasantly surprised when I do end up riding BART during rush hour, because it is not as packed as the trains going in and out of Taoyuan. I can only recall one occasion when I took a bus within Taoyuan city (as opposed to an intercity bus) because the bus system in Taoyuan is much more limited than the bus system in San Francisco. And during all my decades of living in San Francisco, I have never encountered awful traffic like the awful traffic of Taoyuan (to be fair, Taoyuan appeared on a list of five Taiwanese cities with the worst traffic, so it may not be representative of Taiwanese cities). Sewage – well, the sewage system in Taoyuan could not handle toilet paper. Garbage? In San Francisco, garbage gets sent to a landfill outside the city. In Taoyuan, because Taiwan has a much higher population density than California, there is no space for landfills, so garbage is incinerated, which reduces air quality. Electricity – actually, in my experience, electricity was more reliable in Taoyuan than San Francisco, so I guess maybe Taoyuan did not ~always~ have inferior infrastructure.

Taoyuan was also lacking in some of the less obvious types of infrastructure. For example, San Francisco has a system to limit the number of stray cats, and the few stray cats who live in San Francisco tend to be relatively healthy. If Taoyuan had any kind of system to limit the number of stray cats, it was failing badly, and while I generally enjoyed watching the stray cats of Taoyuan, I could see that some of them were suffering.

Heck, the sidewalks of Taoyuan were so thoroughly awful that, even as an able-bodied person, I sometimes felt they were an obstacle course (and it is worse for people who are not able-bodied). I now have a much better appreciation of San Francisco’s sidewalks, and the local ordinances which require that sidewalks not be obstructed. I am also aware of the cost of such ordinances, since when the sidewalk outside our home was in such bad condition that it violated ordinances, my mother, as the property owner, had to pay for the repair.

And yet, the crappier level of infrastructure in Taoyuan did not ruin my life. Though it definitely helped that I lived in downtown Taoyuan, which meant that groceries, restaurants, my workplace, the library, and the train station were all within walking distance of my apartment – that allowed me to ignore most of the traffic congestion (though I still got tripped up – sometimes literally – by the crappy sidewalks). I was just as capable of attaining happiness and fulfilment in Taoyuan city as in San Francisco. I do not consider relatively crappy infrastructure to be as unspeakably awful as some of the anti-density activists imply. At the same time, I think it is something which needs to be considered, and something which the pro-density activists tend to not pay enough attention to.

In short, I agree with the anti-density people that increasing population density may lead to a crapification of at least some types of infrastructure. If increasing the population density of San Francisco brings enough benefits, I would be willing to accept a crapification of infrastructure – but the question of whether or not increasing population density brings substantial benefits is beyond the scope of this post.

The Density Debate: Infrastructure (Part 1)

There has been a long, ongoing debate about population density in San Francisco, and whether or not it is a good thing to build lots of new housing and increase the population density. It is a complex subject with many nuances, so it would be impossible to do the subject justice in a single blog post. Thus, I am singling out one aspect: infrastructure.

First, I suggest at least quickly skimming this essay, which has a proposal for how to build a large number of homes in San Francisco for just $50,000 per unit. You may notice that it completely ignores the question of water, sewage, and electrical grids, though it does address transportation to some degree.

Meanwhile, I’ve seen a presentation by people who are strongly opposed to increasing the population density of San Francisco, and one of their major arguments is that San Francisco’s infrastructure is already at capacity. If we increased the population of the city without major investments in new infrastructure, they claimed, our infrastructure will fail. They especially focused on water, sewage, and transportation.

I’m going to make a gross simplification: with increasing population density, there are economies of scale for infrastructure, UNTIL a certain point is reached, and then there are diseconomies of scale (or more accurately, before the inflection point, economies of scale > diseconomies of scale, after the inflection point, economies of scale < diseconomies of scale).

To illustrate what I mean, I'm going to give a hypothetical example. Let's say there are a network of villages where nobody uses wheels, let alone any motorized vehicle, and there is also no water transportation, thus all travel is done by foot. Trails are the infrastructure which facilitate inter-village travel. If the population density is very low (villages don't have many people & are far apart) trail maintenance really is not worth the bother, it is better to just go cross-country when someone needs to get from one village to another. As the population density increases (more people in the vilages / villages closer together) the collective effort it takes to maintain trails is less than the collective effort it takes to travel cross-country, so it makes sense for the villages to break and maintain trails. As the population density gets higher, the trails get clogged with traffic, so it makes sense to break and maintain even more trails to accommodate the higher traffic. But if there are too many trails, the terrain becomes eroded, and the erosion threatens the villages' livelihood (it degrades the villages' water supplies or it threatens to bury the villages with landslides or something like that). Once it reaches the point where additional trails will cause destructive erosion, if the villages wish to preserve themselves, they either make do with trails that are clogged with traffic, or they limit inter-village travel.

I know that the people who designed San Francisco's water and sewage system thought that San Francisco might eventually have a million residents, and planned accordingly. Meanwhile, the water and sewage system is roughly a hundred years old, and the current population is about 880,000 (which actually blows my mind, because I always think of San Francisco as having a population of 750,000). Though I do not know enough about the workings of the water and sewage system of San Francisco to judge the claim 'San Francisco's water and sewage system is already maxed out', I think the claim is at least plausible.

Of course, a higher population would, presumably, increase the economic activity of San Francisco, and either through water & sewage bills or taxes, there would be more money for improving the water and sewage system. The question is, is the cost for expanding the capacity of the water and sewage system higher or lower than the economic benefit of having more people? And is there an inflection point where the marginal cost of accommodating more people with infrastructure shoots up?

Given how viciously expensive it is just to repair and maintain the current system, my guess is that any attempt to increase the capacity is going to be very costly. For one thing, California is prone to drought, and there is already intense competition for water in California, so increasing San Francisco's water supply beyond the water that San Francisco already has water rights for would be difficult (yes, San Francisco sells water to many other Bay Area communities – but even though San Francisco holds the water rights, the communities which buy water from San Francisco have very long-term contracts which would be difficult to break without serious consequences – and even if those contracts were broken, San Francisco would only be 'gaining' water by depriving other Bay Area communities of water). That is one reason why local groundwater is being added to the tap water supply – a lot of people are opposed because the local groundwater is much more polluted that the water from the Hetch Hetchy reservoir, but the local groundwater is the only additional supply of fresh water that San Francisco has an indisputable right to use.

Not all ways of increasing the capacity require ~building~ more infrastructure, but they still would come with high indirect costs. The simplest method is simply to impose strict water rationing, and as the population increases, to reduce the per-capita ration. That said, I think it is obvious that water rationing would impose numerous costs on residents.

Sometimes, I envy the water situation of Marin County, just north of San Francisco. Marin County is mostly self-sufficient in water – it has just about enough high-quality water within its borders to supply its residents (unlike San Francisco, which depends on water from the Sierra Nevada mountains), so its water system is much less entangled with other counties, and it is also less prone to drought than most parts of California. Marin County can only pull this off because it has a much lower population density than the highly-populated Bay Area counties – if Marin County's population substantially increased, it would also depend on water sources outside its own boundaries.

Sewage has its own issues. The Southeast Treatment Plant is old and basically at capacity, which is why partially untreated sewage is sometimes dumped into the bay. There are numerous ways to solve this problem, and all of them are damn expensive. Increasing sewage usage in the part of San Francisco served by the Southeast Plant would definitely make these problems worse. The plant is going through a multi-year renewal process, which is a) damn expensive and b) for the most part is just going to maintain current capacity, not dramatically increase capacity (for example, seismic retrofitting is necessary to prevent the sewage plant from being destroyed by the next big earthquake, but does not increase capacity). The Ocean Sewage Treatment Plant is newer and, as far as I know, not at max capacity, but it only serves about 20% of the population of San Francisco, and buildings can't be shifted from one sewage plant to the other because of San Francisco's geography (if it were possible to do so, I'm sure it would have already been done). If sewage were the most important matter, then this would be a strong argument for allocating all population increase to the catchment area of the Ocean Plant and not having any population increase in the Southeast Plant catchment area – but sewage is just one of many issues.

And that is just the sewage plants, not the sewers themselves. 60% of all sewers in San Francisco are 80+ years old, and some sewers date back to the 1860s and frequently fall into disrepair, stressing the whole system.

To make all of this EVEN MORE COMPLICATED, San Francisco is the only city in California (aside from the oldest part of Sacrameto) with a combined sewer system. That is because San Francisco has such a high population density that, unlike other cities in California, it could not afford to separate its sewage and stormwater systems, and that is a large part of why San Francisco sometimes dumps partially untreated sewage into the bay. Though combined sewer systems cause less water pollution than separated systems (except when the system is overwhelmed and partially untreated sewage is dumped in the bay) it is a system with higher maintenance costs.

This post is so long I split it into two parts, and I'm just ending Part 1 here because this is about halfway through the original post.

Do Flavored Tobacco Products Cause Significantly More Youths to Get Addicted?

In June, San Francisco voters will vote on Proposition E, which would ban flavored tobacco products in San Francisco. Here is the Yes on Prop E campaign and here is the No on Prop E campaign.

I’m not going to state my opinion of Prop E in this post. Instead, I’m interested in the question – do flavored tobacco products cause significantly more youths (in this post, I will define ‘youth’ as someone who is less than 18 years old) to get addicted to tobacco than would otherwise happen?

The proponents of Prop E claim that the answer is ‘yes’. Their evidence is that most youths who use tobacco started with flavored products, and that a high percentage of youths who use tobacco used a flavored product within the past month. However, it’s possible that, in the absence of flavored tobacco, they all would have just been using unflavored tobacco instead.

Though flavored tobacco products have been around for a really long time, tobacco flavored with anything other than menthol has only been widely available in the United States recently
(because there already is a ban on flavoring cigarettes with anything other than menthol, and the popular alternatives to cigarettes are fairly recent). So if these new flavored products are causing lots of youth who would otherwise not use tobacco to start using tobacco, I would expect to see a spike in tobacco use among youth.

Based on the information I could find, the percentage of youth in the USA who smoke cigarettes at least daily has dramatically decreased since I graduated from high school (I don’t want to reveal what year I graduated from high school; suffice to say, it was a year when a lot more youth were smoking cigarettes daily than in recent years). There is less information on e-cigarettes because they have not been around very long, but the percentages they report … look roughly like the percentages for daily cigarette use when I was in middle school and high school. Except they count any youth who used an e-cigarette in the past 30 days, whereas only cigarette smokers who used on a daily basis were counted.

With these numbers, it does not look like flavored tobacco products are actually increasing tobacco use in youth – it looks like it’s just substituting the use of unflavored tobacco with flavored tobacco. That is consistent with what I remember from high school. A lot of my classmates in high school were cigarette smokers – in fact, I suspect my high school had a higher percentage of cigarette smokers than what that link reports. There were certainly a lot of smokers in my peer group, though maybe not all of them smoked every day, or maybe some teenagers do not answer these surveys honestly. Some of my peers in the 12th grade also went to hookah bars and got flavored smoke – but only if they were 18, because otherwise they could not get in the hookah bar, and they had been smoking cigarettes before their turned 18.

However, this is just the surface. I’m far from an expert on any of this, and it is possible that there are important factors that I do not know about.

There is a study (Villanti AC, Johnson AL, Ambrose BK, et al. Use of flavored tobacco products among U.S. youth and adults; findings from the first wave of the PATH Study (2013-2014)) which found that “81 percent of current youth e-cigarette users cited the availability of appealing flavors as the primary reason for use” but since I have not seen the study itself, I’m not sure how to interpret this. Do these youth mean that the main reason they use e-cigarettes INSTEAD OF CIGARETTES is the appealing flavors, or do they mean that they would not be using tobacco AT ALL if ‘appealing flavors’ were not available? I don’t know.

I know little about e-cigarettes. I suppose they may be way more horrible than cigarettes in some way, but that is not the case that the Yes on E campaign is trying to make. Based on their arguments, e-cigarettes are bad because they are a ‘gateway’, they are not claiming that e-cigarettes are worse than cigarettes in any other way.

The one piece of evidence I have found that leads me to think that flavored tobacco products may actually induce people who would not otherwise use tobacco to use ironically comes, not from the proponents of the ban, but from the opponents. Specifically, it the fact that storekeepers are so adamantly opposed to Prop E, and that the opponents of Prop E emphasize that banning flavored tobacco would hurt small business. I understand that the small-business storekeepers have a tough time making a living in San Francisco, and that tobacco products are an important source of revenue for them. The fact that they are so vehemently opposed to me indicates that THEY think that a significant portion of people will stop buying tobacco if flavored tobacco is no longer available (or does flavored tobacco have a much higher profit margin than unflavored tobacco? Or do they think they will just lose all of their customers to the internet? I do not know). It is also possible that this will primarily influence adults, not youth.

In short, based on the evidence I’ve seen, I’m not convinced that flavored tobacco products lead to significantly higher usage of tobacco among youth than would otherwise exist, but I admit that it is possible that flavored tobacco products are hooking more youth than unflavored tobacco products would hook.

Odyssey of a New Bed, Part 1

I wrote this post about my tent having toxic flame retardants. As I was writing the post, I was dimly aware that a lot of furniture in my home probably has toxic flame retardants too, and that objectively, the flame retardants in my home were probably harming much more than flame retardants in my tent. However, I had a mental block. Why? Because I’m not used to choosing furniture in my home.

Until now, I’ve basically never exercised any choice about furniture in my home (except maybe something on the scale of moving a chair). I currently live in my childhood home, which means that pretty much all of the furniture was chosen by my parents, not me. I’m used to having them make decisions about adding or removing furniture, not me. In Taiwan, I only lived in furnished apartments, which meant that my landlord chose the furniture in my home (which I liked because it saved me the bother and expense of having to buy and move furniture).

By contrast, I’ve generally picked out my own camping gear, so I am used to taking responsibility for whether the camping gear suits my needs and preferences.

Until very recently, my bed was literally five different mattresses piled one on top of the other, all on top of a metal bed frame. I did not even know how many mattresses there were until I removed them one by one. Those mattresses have been there ever since I returned to the United States in late 2014. Were they there before I left the United States? I don’t remember. I didn’t pay attention to what my parents did to my bed when I was absent.

When I returned home after my big trip this summer (2017), I noticed that the top mattress has springs which were poking through the fabric and thus poking me. This made it difficult to sleep. So I did the rational thing and … piled some extra sheets on top of the mattress to cushion it, and then pulled out my lightest sleeping bag to sleep inside it on top of the sheet pile. It was a decent kludge for when I wanted to go to sleep and didn’t have time/energy to do anything about the mattress. However, instead of trying to change the mattress, I just kept on using the kludge for more than two months.

I took this photo while I was in the process of paring down my old bed. The mattress which was poking me in the back is leaning against the wall on the left side. Inside that mattress protector in the back of the picture was the bad feather mattress. The red thing in the foreground is a quilt which I am still using now.

It eventually sunk in that, if I were concerned about exposing myself to toxic flame retardants, I could do a lot more to reduce my exposure by changing my bedroom than changing my tent. And it sunk in that changing mattresses would probably lead to better sleeping than just keeping the sheets piled on pokey bedsprings. So I finally decided to get rid of ALL of those mattresses I had been sleeping on and buy a brand new mattress.

Fortunately, I made this decision just in time for Black Friday. Thus, I was able to get a traditional Japanese futon mattress (also known as ‘shiki futon’) that was made purely from organic cotton grown in Texas for less than 300 USD (including taxes). If you have any idea how expensive organic cotton is, then you appreciate what a bargain this is. Specifically, I bought this futon (Twin XL size, 3 inch, organic cotton case).

Why organic cotton as opposed to ‘conventional’ cotton. This explains the difference in environmental impact. In addition to the general environmental reasons, if I’m trying to avoid toxins, it makes sense to avoid the toxins used in processing ‘conventional’ cotton. I’ve also noticed, when I compared organic cotton fabric to equivalent conventional cotton fabric, that the organic cotton fabric is higher quality and lasts longer. I think it’s worth paying triple the price to get organic cotton (I have seen a new conventional cotton shiki futon for sale for about 100 USD).

I was surprised to learn that this futon is made in San Francisco. I was even more surprised to find myself visiting their factory and showroom in order to buy the futon. I have since learned that there are several businesses with mattress factories which operate in San Francisco, not just this one. Like must of the United States, San Francisco, which once had a lot of manufacturing, has been deindustrialized. Though this was not the deciding factor, I think it’s cool that I now sleep on a mattress which was made in the very same city where I’m using it, which is also the city where I’ve spent most of my life.

The factory, of course, is in southeast San Francisco. I consider southeast San Francisco to be part of the rust belt. First of all, there is literally lots of rust – people who love rusty abandoned industrial buildings can have a great time in southeast San Francisco. Deindustralization has hit southeast San Francisco hard. When I hear or read about cities such as Detroit, Youngstown, Buffalo, etc., I imagine them as being like southeast San Francisco but with more land area, cheaper housing, less gentrification, and worse infrastructure. My mother expressed concern about me going to the factory/showroom – especially since it’s just a block away from Potrero Terrace, one of San Francisco’s ‘most distressed’ public housing projects – but I wasn’t worried, especially since I’ve never had a problem when I’ve walked through Potrero Terrace before (you can see what Potrero Terrace looks like in this video). Like the rest of the rust belt, southeast San Francisco has a reputation for being full of poverty and crime.

Anyway, back to my new organic cotton shiki futon. Why that and not some other non-toxic mattress?

First of all, it was the second cheapest new non-toxic/organic mattress I was able to find (I will discuss the cheapest, and why I decided against it, in a future post in this series).

Second, it’s consistent with washitsu style. During my extensive travels in Japan, I slept in washitsu-style rooms many times and became rather fond of them. I don’t intend to converting my entire bedroom into an authentic washitsu room, but for years I’ve thought it would be nice to incorporate some of that aesthetic. And now I have.

This washitsu room is actually in Rueisui, Taiwan, not in Japan. However, this inn was built when Japan ruled Taiwan to serve Japanese guests, and the innkeepers have maintained its original Japanese style. I remember that I had to pull out a futon and blankets from the closet and lay them on the tatami floor myself.

Third, it did not have wool. A lot of the nontoxic mattresses use wool because it is naturally fire-resistant and a way to comply with federal fire safety laws without using toxic chemicals. However, I do not want wool because a) I do not want to exploit sheep that way and b) I don’t want a repeat of the moth infestation I experienced in my bedroom as a child.

Fourth, it does not contain latex. I am only allergic to synthetic latex (or more accurately, the chemicals which are sometimes mixed with synthetic latex), not natural latex, but I still feel more secure avoiding natural latex.

Fifth, I like the idea of having a portable bed. My new shiki futon only weighs about 30 pounds (14 kg) so I can easily move it without assistance. I’m going to discuss why portability is important to me in the third post in this series.

The next post? I’m going to talk about what the purpose of a bed actually is.

AAWFC 2017: Musings on “Ace Representation in General”

This is for Asexual Awareness Week Fandom Challenge 2017 (even though I am not on Tumblr – if you are on Tumblr, feel free to share a link to this post under the #AAWFC tag).

Sat 28th, Day 7: Post about asexual representation in general. What does it mean to see asexual/spectrum characters in the media you consume? Why is it important to you to see asexual/spectrum characters in the media you consume? What sort of stories/plotlines would you like to see about asexual/spectrum characters? What genre do you really want to see asexual/spectrum characters in? How would you like to see asexual/spectrum people represented?

Such a simple set of easy-to-answer questions, isn’t it? I don’t think I could give a full answer to this prompt in a single blog post, so I’m only going to answer the parts I want to answer right now.

For some reason, the vast majority of human beings want to see themselves in others. I don’t know why that is. Maybe it’s simply a trait we have because we evolved to be a social species who tends not to survive individually if we do not belong to a group of humans. Anyway, that is how almost all of us are.

I am no exception. I like being able to recognize myself in the fiction I read (or watch, but I read more than I watch). For example, I generally think it’s cool to see characters in fiction who grew up in San Francisco (unless it’s obvious that the writer did not do their research on San Francisco). Do I crave more of this? Maybe a little. Narratives about San Francisco tend to be dominated by people who moved to San Francisco, which is a bit different from being from San Francisco (though YA set in San Francisco does tend to focus on characters raised in San Francisco). But finding stories about people from San Francisco is a very low priority for me.

However, even though many people react like I’m some rare species of bird they were lucky enough to encounter in the wild when they find out I am from San Francisco, there is a general awareness that some people do grow up in San Francisco. There is no need to have a ‘People Who Come from San Francisco Awareness Week.’

Perhaps I want to see aces represented in fiction because that is an aspect of who I am who which I do not see in stories as often as I would like.

Except … in the past year, I HAVE read a lot of stories with ace characters. I don’t think I would want to read more stories with ace characters per month than I have. The thing is a) I had to specifically seek ace stories to pull that off and b) many of those stories would have had little interest for me without the ace character and c) many of those stories do not have ace representation which satisfies me. Obviously, I want more.

It would take a lot of words for me to say what kinds of stories/plotlines I would like for ace characters, so instead I will point out this old post and list the ace tropes which I particularly like and wish to see more often in fiction: The Ace Group, Not Having Words, Ace/Ace Romance, and When Do I Tell Them I’m Ace. One could also look at the ace fanfic (even though there are problems with the ace fanfic I’ve written, they do represent a lot of the things I want to see in ace fiction).

What genre do I really want to see ace characters in? I want ace representation in all genres because readers of all tastes could benefit from being exposed … blah blah blah, that’s all true, but who am I kidding, I especially want to see ace (and aro!) characters in the wuxia genre, which I’m sure is no surprise to anyone who follows this blog. I do not think it is a coincidence that I headcanon some wuxia characters as being ace but I currently do not have ace headcanons in any other genre.