Saturday, December 31, 2011

Saturday Shuffle

Let's end the year in song, shall we?

  1. Fever Ray -- Concrete Walls
  2. The Wildhearts -- The Revolution Will Be Televised
  3. Silversun Pickups -- Melatonin
  4. Vive la Fête -- Jaloux
  5. The Knife -- Got 2 Let U
  6. SONOIO -- Heartbeat
  7. Planningtorock -- I Wanna Bite Ya
  8. Alice in Videoland -- Something New
  9. Cansei de Ser Sexy -- Believe Achieve
  10. MNDR -- Caligula
  11. Meat Beat Manifesto -- Guns N Lovers
  12. London Quireboys -- 7 o'clock
  13. Corrosion of Conformity -- Buried
  14. The Black Keys -- When the Lights Go Out
  15. Siouxsie and the Banshees -- Peekaboo
  16. Zeromancer -- Clone Your Lover
  17. Suicidal Tendencies -- Tap Into the Power
  18. Brad -- We
  19. Danzig -- Dominion
  20. Joachim Witt -- Die Flucht

Creatio Ex Nihilo

George Steiner:

What is the mystery that triggers creation? I wrote Grammars of Creation to understand it. But at the end of my life, I still don’t understand.

But would understanding mean that you miss out on the art?

In a sense, I am happy that I don’t understand. Imagine a world where neuro-chemistry could explain Mozart... It is conceivable, and I find it frightening.

Mozart can be "explained" in terms of musical theory, vibrating strings, displaced air molecules, and the structure of the inner ear as it is; would it really make a difference to add neurochemical jargon into the mix? Or more importantly, would it make the total experience of Mozart's music any less enthralling to have a conscious inkling of how all these different systems interact to produce it? And how does it follow that art must magically come unbidden from a vacuum in order to have any power at all?

We Have Burned Our Tongues While We Burned Your Ears

Holly Brubach:

Reading “Crampton Hodnet,” a Barbara Pym novel set in North Oxford, Epstein gets the sense that “gossip traditionally has worked best in a small, one might even say tight, community.” I can’t help wondering how many citizens of small communities whose destinies are not in Barbara Pym’s benevolent hands would agree.

In any case, we all live in a small town now. Epstein acknowledges the power to libel and “wreck lives” made so widely available by the Internet. But he cites no more than a handful of online gossip’s casualties, in examples ranging in gravity from Malcolm Gladwell’s reputation (after his inclusion in a database of bad tippers) to a Rutgers student’s suicide (after video of his encounter with another male student was streamed online). Nor does Epstein seem particularly interested in gossip’s relationship to power, though he suggests it may have a role in revolutions. What for him constitutes a kind of spectator sport has been (and still is) for the disenfranchised a means of reconnaissance, a way of acquiring information crucial to their status and survival. It’s not for nothing that the two groups most notorious for trafficking in gossip have been women and gay men. Epstein quotes Leo Lerman, who said he kept a gossip-filled journal “because I am always interested in the disparity between the surface and what goes on underneath.”

Well, I suppose. Pascal Boyer wrote in Religion Explained about what he called "strategic information" -- essentially, knowing what other people are doing and saying when they might not want you to know it. He suggests that deities and other lesser spirits are extrapolations from that concept -- we humans are always limited in our access to strategic information, but wouldn't it stand to reason that there could be some who have unlimited access? As circumstantial evidence, he notes that "gods" always seem to be primarily interested in who's sleeping with whom, who's telling lies, who's stealing, and any of the myriad other behavioral concerns so typical of small communities, rather than in more abstract knowledge ("Does God know what every insect in the world is doing at this very moment? Does he know the contents of every refrigerator in the world?") Interesting theory.

Anyway, I just feel like acknowledging here how grateful I am to the age of digital anonymity for allowing the freedom to choose your relationships to a much larger degree. I can't help but think that people who romanticize small-town life must either be incredibly straitlaced and boring, or they've never actually lived in one.

Dance, Baby, Dance Like the World Is Ending

Daniel Baird:

The difficulty with prophecies — whether based on passages from the Bible or ancient calendars, on solid climate science and economics or the visions of the Mongolian shamans Lawrence E. Joseph visited while researching his books — is that they are almost invariably wrong. Human beings are remarkably bad at predicting even relatively short-term, simple occurrences, such as the weather on Monday or the price of gold on Friday, much less something as vast and complex as the future of humanity. Many important events of the recent past came as a surprise to most people: World War I, the stock market crash of 1929, the Cold War, the computer age, the economic meltdown of 2008, the Arab Awakening, even the Occupy Wall Street movement. Part of the problem, as Scottish philosopher David Hume pointed out in the eighteenth century, is that we are equipped with a concept of “cause” that constitutes little more than an association of things or events in the past — and projecting the patterns of the past onto the future is perilous. We read books of narrative history and biography and get the impression that what made things happen, what shaped the story, was always sharply defined and clear, when in fact it wasn’t and more likely still isn’t. The real problem with the future is that it doesn’t yet exist, and the forces that bring it into existence are too complicated, too subtle and volatile and fractal, for us to know in advance — or ever.

And yet we continue to try. Why? Because we need to have a sense that we control our fates, even if all that means is that we know our fates. And because we need to believe we are part of a story with a larger meaning, that vice is rewarded with punishment, that redemption is possible, that history is not random and empty, that a higher power (whether Isaiah’s wrathful God or simply the natural world) exacts the final judgment.

I've got the book Longing For The End in the stack of books waiting to be read, as it happens. Guess I better hurry up and get it done before next December if I want to at least die in the comforting embrace of wisdom!

I think the second paragraph sums it up pretty well, but I would also add in a dash of Nietzsche: "However, the fact that generally the ascetic ideal has meant so much to human beings is an expression of the basic fact of the human will, its horror vacui [horror of a vacuum]. It requires a goal—and it prefers to will nothingness than not to will."

Friday, December 30, 2011

Cuckoo for Foucault

Jerome Roos:

I first encountered the work of Michel Foucault in college. Intrigued but confused, I decided to look for videos of the intellectual giant explaining his theories in a way that might be more intelligible than his obscurantist writings. To my excitement, I encountered a fascinating debate between Foucault and Chomsky aired on Dutch television in 1971. The exchange between the figureheads of the European and American Left, respectively, was a true clash of titans. By the end of it, however, I had lost most of my short-lived obsession with Foucault and had sided instead with the radical linguist Chomsky.

Later, while doing graduate studies in Paris, I was taken aback by the extent to which intellectuals are still revered in French culture, as if they were some kind of postmodern priests. Thinking back of Foucault, it struck me how ironic it was that the founding father of discourse analysis should be praised for speaking a discursive dialect that no sane person could believably claim to fully understand. What is the point of criticizing the reproduction of power through academic institutions if you willfully reproduce that same very power through your own unintelligible language?

Given the fact that Foucauldian discourse analysis is meant to reveal the obscured power relations undergirding social interactions in everyday life, there must have been an exclusionary purpose to Foucault’s flamboyant style of writing and speaking. In my own discourse analysis of Foucault, his was a desperate attempt to turn commonsensical statements about the role of language into seemingly profound truths backed by the culturally-respected veil of social theory — common sense dressed up in the hot air of ‘philosophy’.

Or, as Chomsky himself would later go on to say:

Quite regularly, “my eyes glaze over” when I read polysyllabic discourse on the themes of poststructuralism and postmodernism; what I understand is largely truism or error, but that is only a fraction of the total word count. True, there are lots of other things I don’t understand: the articles in the current issues of math and physics journals, for example. But there is a difference. In the latter case, I know how to get to understand them, and have done so, in cases of particular interest to me; and I also know that people in these fields can explain the contents to me at my level, so that I can gain what (partial) understanding I may want. In contrast, no one seems to be able to explain to me why the latest post-this-and-that is (for the most part) other than truism, error, or gibberish.

I remember a cashier at Barnes & Noble ringing up a book by Nietzsche for me and enthusiastically asking if I liked Foucault too. "No, I tried reading him, but it just seemed... I dunno... pointless." I knew Foucault considered himself in intellectual debt to Nietzsche, and I really wanted to find something of value there, but my youthful gut response still holds true for me. People I respect like Brian Leiter seem to think highly of him, but I just couldn't find any there there.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Quot Libros, Quam Breve Tempus (IV)

Oh, no, I haven't finished all the ones from the last picture I took. These are just the ones I've added to the list since then.

I did finish Spook last night, though. It was well written and laugh-out-loud funny at times, but it ended up on that annoying note of supercilious evenhandedness so typical of people who write about religion and science as if reconciling them is the most important thing. Like this:

"I guess I believe that not everything we humans encounter can be neatly and convincingly tucked away inside the orderly cabinetry of science. Certainly most things can—including the vast majority of what people ascribe to fate, ghosts, ESP, Jupiter rising—but not all. I believe in the possibility of something more—rather than in any existing something more (reincarnation, say, or dead folks who communicate through mediums). It's not much, but it's more than I believed a year ago... Perhaps I should believe in a hereafter, in a consciousness that zips through the air like a Simpsons rerun, simply because it's more appealing—more fun and more hopeful—than not believing. The debunkers are probably right, but they're no fun to visit a graveyard with. What the hell. I believe in ghosts."

Not to mention that she approvingly cites "Maria's shoe", of all things, as being the closest thing to a "dazzle shot"; i.e., a case that would be extremely difficult to refute.

One of These Things Is Not Like the Others (II)

Wasn't I just writing this morning about intellectual inconsistency? As before, bumper stickers give you all the proof you need that people don't always patiently follow their thoughts to a logical conclusion. I saw these on a car in town today:

• Peacemonger
• Dictionary definition of liberal (image)
• The Earth Does Not Belong to Us, We Belong to the Earth
• John Galt Is Coming


When I first read the Jesse Bering column that Chris Clarke parodied the hell out of, it took me a few minutes to decide whether it was for real. I mean, I vaguely recall having read some dumb stuff from him before, and I guess I knew in the abstract that there were people who come off like a fundamentalist combination of Freud and Darwin, but I couldn't say I'd ever encountered one in the wild. Maybe he was being at least somewhat tongue-in-cheek?

Anyway, yeah, if there were any doubts, they're gone now.

Faith Is Believing What You Know Ain't So

Three years ago, Dr Rowan Williams wrote a book about the 19th-century Russian novelist, in part, he says as a reaction to the attacks on Christianity by Richard Dawkins and others. The Archbishop felt that when he spoke to atheists about faith they seem to be talking about something very different to him. In their eyes, faith was seen as "a rather second-rate theory to explain why the world is the way it is or a second-rate psychological crutch for people who can't bear the weight of reality".

Dostoevsky wrote that if you tried to get a group of people to agree that two plus two equals four, they were almost bound to say "why not five?" There was something stubborn and perverse in the human imagination that wanted to go beyond the obvious. Dr Williams says, "I turn to Dostoevsky and think, well that sounds more like what I think faith is than what Richard Dawkins thinks faith is."

Eighteen minutes in, Dr Williams sums up the connection between fiction and faith:

Fiction helps you to understand that whatever the principles, whatever the sort of standing rules and perspectives on the moral and the spiritual life, human beings are every bit as unpredictable as Dostoevsky sets out, that they resist rational cataloguing and categorisation, and they often resist reasonable solutions. And you don't begin to understand humanity unless you understand that thread of wildness that's in it all.

Most people I know believe blatantly contradictory things. There's nothing wrong with that, of course; none of us are aiming to fit our lives perfectly under a system of rational organization. But most people don't have the self-assuredness to stand proudly in the intellectual nude with Walt Whitman and let their non-sequiturs dangle in the breeze. They'll still feel a sense of embarrassment if you point out those contradictions and will attempt to resolve them, something that probably wouldn't happen if they were simply being creative or rebellious. Methinks the archbishop is refusing to distinguish the exuberance of imagination from the shame of incoherence.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Plus Ça Change

But ask yourself: Is it preferable for ten people in a group of 1,000 to die violent deaths or for ten million in a group of one billion? For Pinker, the two scenarios are exactly the same, since in both, an individual person has a 99 percent chance of dying peacefully. Yet in making a moral estimate about the two outcomes, one might also consider the extinction of more individual lives, one after another, and the grief of more families of mourners, one after another.

Today's higher populations also pose a deeper methodological problem. Pinker plays down the technical ability of modern societies to support greater numbers of human lives. If carrying capacity increases faster than mass murder, this looks like moral improvement on the charts, but it might mean only that fertilizers and anti­biotics are outpacing machine guns and machetes -- for now.

There is also a more fundamental way in which the book is unscientific. Pinker presents the entirety of human history in the form of a natural experiment. But he contaminates the experiment by arranging the evidence to fit his personal view about the proper destiny of the invdividual: first, to be tamed by the state, then, to civilize himself in opposition to the state. The state appears in Pinker's history only when it confines itself to the limited role that he believes is proper, and enlightenment figures as the rebellion of intelligent individuals against the state's attempt to exceed its assigned role.

There's much, much more in what I suspect is the definitive takedown of Steven Pinker's latest book by Bloodlands author Timothy Snyder.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Tongue That's Bitten Through

Phil Oliver:

But the real problem is not an absence of good will in search of demonstrable objectivity, by conscientious religionists, humanists, naturalists, theists, and atheists. They can search all they want without finding that.

No, the real problem is a failure of empathy and an appreciation for the subjectivity of those who experience the world differently. It’s James’s perennial blindness in human beings who insist on treating the spectrum of belief and nonbelief as a catalogue of others’ errors… except, of course, for one’s own privileged experiences and inerrant beliefs.

Spirituality. The word itself heralds a creeping rhetorical fog that permeates everything it touches, doesn't it? I mean, what exactly does one have to do to display empathy and appreciation? Isn't it a fool's game to allow other people to sit in judgment of whether you're being demonstratively warm and openminded enough? How quietly must one sit, how long must one listen, and how carefully does one have to couch objections in the softest language possible before they're allowed to simply say, "I'm sorry, but there's no reason to think that's true," with the nonnegotiable implication being that we should all care about what's true?

There are many, many areas of human experience where I'm thrilled to discover people who think and feel differently than me because of the chance to broaden my own horizons, art being perhaps the most obvious. And even when it comes to the big questions, I still understand the natural human tendency to want to fit experience into a self-flattering narrative, to find external meaning and purpose to their lives. But it doesn't mean I want to coo soothingly and nod along as they tell me about the divine message behind a happenstance occurrence, or their conviction that cows communicate psychically if you know how to listen. People who are insecure about believing silly shit are always going to think anything less than wholehearted assent is being unfair.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Do You Hear What I Hear?

Due to the financial and temporal constraints of this topsy-turvy year, I wasn't able to track down as much new music as I would have liked. However, there were some notable releases that made my world a better place, so let me offer paeans to Audysseus, the god of songwriting:

Awolnation, Megalithic Symphony

I had heard the song "Sail" on the radio and meant to check them out, but forgot about it for a while, until my friend Sandi mentioned them and reminded me. Thanks, Sandi! Glad you said something, because this was one of my two favorite records of the year, and I went ahead and put it first on the list due to the novelty factor giving it a slight edge. Musically, it veers hyperactively from rock/metal to dance to aggressive electronica, but Aaron Bruno puts so much heart into his singing that it becomes a unique beast, something greater than the sum of its parts, if that makes any sense.

Favorite songs: Pretty much all of them. Seriously, there's three short instrumental tracks that don't really need to be there, but that's just quibbling.

Ladytron, Gravity the Seducer

My co-favorite record of the year. They don't tinker much with what they've been doing all along, they just keep getting better and better at it.

Favorite songs: White Elephant, Mirage, White Gold, Ambulances, Transparent Days, 90 Degrees

Rob Crow, He Thinks He's People

The record that aurally defined my autumn. I had to furtively look for time alone so that I could listen to songs like "Tranked" on extended repeat without sending other people screaming out into traffic just to make it all stop.

Favorite songs: Tranked, Locking Seth Putnam In Hot Topic, Sophistructure, So Way, Hangnailed, I'd Like To Be There

16Volt, Beating Dead Horses

I would love to hear Eric Powell branch out from industrial metal, because he has such a knack for catchy melodies and interesting arrangements even within those somewhat tight confines, so much so that the more straightforward metal riffs and paint-by-numbers depressed lyrical themes sound flat and uninspired sometime, almost like he just put them in there out of habit or to meet expectations. Again, though, I'm quibbling. The dude just keeps on churning out great records.

Favorite songs: The Wasteland That Is Me, Fight Or Flight, Burn, Breathing Water, Ghost, Dissembler, Somewhere New

Maximum Balloon, Maximum Balloon

Technically, this came out last year, but I only discovered it in January, so I'm counting it. A sorta-side-project of Dave Sitek from TV On the Radio with various vocalists contributing. Speaking of which...

Favorite songs: Groove Me, Young Love, Communion

TV On the Radio, Nine Types of Light

It took me forever just to get past the first three songs on this disc long enough to listen to the rest of it.

Favorite songs: Second Song, Keep Your Heart, You, Killer Crane

• Elbow, Build a Rocket, Boys

The mournful post-Radiohead Brits haven't let winning the Mercury prize cheer them up, and that's a good thing. Keep moping, boys.

Favorite songs: The Birds, The Night Will Always Win, High Ideals, With Love

Kasabian, Velociraptor

These Brits are neither mournful nor in any way resembling Radiohead. They've never recaptured the magic of their debut, but I still like them.

Favorite songs: Neon Noon, Re-Wired, I Hear Voices, Velociraptor, Days Are Forgotten, Man Of Simple Pleasures

The Beastie Boys, Hot Sauce Committee Part 2

Licensed to Ill was the first record (cassette, actually; remember those?) that I got as my own, the first music that my parents didn't already have or even want to know about, back when I was thirteen. So the Beasties have always had a special place in my heart. This wasn't even anywhere close to my favorite disc of theirs (that would be Hello Nasty), but hey, it's still the Beastie Boys. It's going on the list, goddamnit.

Favorite songs: Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament, Tadlock's Glasses

Saturday, December 24, 2011

When I Want Your Opinion, I'll Give It to You

Tim Padgett:

Yes, Christians believe that Jesus' nativity was a virgin birth and that he rose from the dead on Easter. But if you were to show most Christians incontrovertible scientific proof that those miracles didn't occur, they would shrug — because their faith means more to them than that. Because in the end, what they have faith in is the redemptive power of the story. In Evelyn Waugh's novel Brideshead Revisited, an agnostic says to his Catholic friend, "You can't seriously believe it all ... I mean about Christmas and the star and the three kings and the ox and the ass."

"Oh yes, I believe that. It's a lovely idea."

"But you can't believe things simply because they're a lovely idea."

"But I do. That's how I believe."

I'm willing to bet it's how most believers believe. Before Hitchens died at 62 from esophageal cancer, he made a point of declaring he was certain no heaven awaited him. But that swipe at the faithful always misses the point. Most of us don't believe in God because we think it's a ticket to heaven. Rather, our belief in God — our belief in the living ideal of ourselves, which is something even atheists ponder — instills in us a faith that in the end, light always defeats darkness (which is how people get through the wars and natural disasters I cover).

I don't see a need to dwell on the many ludicrous points contained here, because honestly, I'm just in a hurry to to take that bet before he changes his mind. My life savings are on the table whenever you're ready, Tim. "Most" believers, yes? Before we shake on it, you might want to take a moment and consider that not everyone is an educated, cosmopolitan, sophisticated fellow like yourself, and you might be unpleasantly surprised at how many of the great unwashed take their "stories" completely seriously.

It's atheists who are arrogant, though, remember. And yet you see this so often from the sophisticated believers, this blithe, serene self-assurance that the author or speaker has been appointed to represent everyone else's thoughts and feelings. I tried last night to start reading a book I picked up at a library sale last month, Poetry As Spiritual Practice, by Robert McDowell. This was in the introduction:

All human beings—Christian, Jew, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Taoist, animist or atheist—seek spirituality in their daily lives whether they know it or not. We seek truths greater than ourselves, our individual beings.

Perhaps it will come as no surprise to you that I already gave up on the book. No, really, he just gets worse from there. Please, take my word on it.

It's not just that "spirituality", that endlessly elastic word that manages to be simultaneously ubiquitous and meaningless, is defined here as "anything other than strict solipsism", apparently; it's the eye-popping, jaw-dropping, heart-stopping way he refuses to allow the possibility of anyone truly disagreeing with him. You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile. I would consciously acknowledge the irony of being lectured on "truths greater than ourselves" by someone who repeatedly throughout the book makes it clear that other people only exist as screens, canvases and receptacles for him to project his thoughts and feelings into and upon, but I'm afraid that the sheer ironic density of it would act as a black hole and tear a hole in the fabric of space/time.

Seriously, though, I may be at least slightly misanthropic, standoffish and elitist, but I at least avoid treating other people as if they need me to tell them what they really think. Which do you prefer, honest rudeness or smarmy patronizing?

When Out on the Lawn There Arose Such a Clatter

My friend Arthur passes along a bit of subversive holiday cheer that he wrote years ago:


December 24, 2011 -- Santa Claus was arrested today on charges of animal abuse after police and FBI agents raided his reindeer ranch outside of Anamoose, North Dakota and found Donner and Blitzen passed out in a pool of their own vomit.

Guided by loud snoring sounds, law enforcement officers had little trouble locating the prostrate pair of oversized ungulates inside a corral stinking of urine and littered with empty Schnapps bottles.

An FBI source said authorities were acting on a tip from a disgruntled elf. “Some pissed-off midget dropped a dime on the old fart, for sure,” said the agent.

A neighbor of the well-known children’s idol and Consumer Age mega-icon, speaking on condition of anonymity, admitted that he frequently caught glimpses of celebrity reindeer Rudolf on the grounds of the fenced compound, sometimes grazing unsteadily, sometimes guzzling avidly at a large bowl.

“That red nose should have tipped me off that ‘the Antlered One’ had a major league drinking problem,” said the neighbor. “No way you get a neon schnoz like that unless you’ve been hitting the happy sauce big time. The pressure of stardom, it was obviously getting to him, and Santa, that enabling a-hole, he was always leading the poor dumb critter to that industrial-sized punch bowl, you know, sort of egg-nogging him on. I wanted to call an animal control officer or something, but this Santa guy, yeah, he’s real jolly and stuff when he’s sober, but Christ, what a mean drunk! When the Clausmeister’s liquored up, watch out, dude, he’ll pull that stick of his bag and beat the living bejeezus out of you before you can say, Ho-ho-holy crap! Try to run away and he’ll bonk you upside the head with big-ass chunk of coal. Got an arm like Johnny Unitas, that fat bastard. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus and he’s a total asshole!”

Reporters caught sight of the obese, mystically ubiquitous shopping mall shill as he was being led away by police, clad only in stained long-johns, his white beard dyed a distinct shade of yellow, apparently by nicotine stains. With bags under his eyes, a puffy face, and cheeks several hues redder than rosy, he bore little resemblance to the kindly nocturnal visitant sometimes caught on camera eating cookies and drinking a glass of milk with a sheepish grin in affluent households across the country. “I got your badge numbers,” he was heard to shout in what seemed to be an advanced state of inebriation as he struggled with the arresting officers. “Don’t worry, you fucking pigs, I’ll be keeping a list and checking it twice. You like presents? Boom! Ka-Pow! A bunker-buster straight down the chimney, how’s that for a stocking stuffer, blue boy?”

Several elves were also taken into custody on suspicion of being illegal aliens. It appears that many of Mr. Claus’ underpaid and overworked assembly line workers were smuggled here from the Land of Oz. Two of these cuddly sociopaths have been the subjects of a year-long Munchkin-hunt. Police say the pair are wanted on charges of pixie-dust trafficking.

Mrs. Claus, who has been separated from her husband since 1996, declined to comment on the incident when contacted at her home in Boca Raton, Florida.

Mr. Claus’s attorneys have told reporters that they will be issuing a statement tomorrow. A hearing is scheduled for some time next week.

Let's Do It Like They Do on the Discovery Channel

Chris Clarke makes me laff. Also, I'm embarrassed that I never thought to use "humanitarian" as a dietary descriptor before.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

This, Then, Is the Mark of the Man, the Beard

In the spirit of the season, I can forgive Shmuley Boteach his religious beliefs in order to come together in agreement on the issues that really matter:

A full beard is a sign of the robust mountain man... Second, a bearded man is an honest man by choice and not by circumstance... The bearded man knows he can avoid liability for any untruths. He can hide behind his muttonchops, and no one would be the wiser. But he chooses to have his words mimic his heart. His beard lends him conviction. Third, a beard is also the sign of patience and commitment in a man... Fourth, a beard represents confidence and individuality. A man who grows a beard is a man who is sure of himself. A man who grows a beard is not afraid to stand alone. He does not let himself be swayed by the opinions of his wife ("Oh, no honey, not a beard!") or of American pop culture. A bearded man knows what he wants and sets out to get it... So, in a moment of half-seriousness, let me say that it seems that so many trail-blazing individuals throughout history have born beards. From literary giants like Allen Ginsberg, Ernest Hemingway, and Walt Whitman, to business visionaries like Andrew Carnegie to the entirety of the Impressionistic Art movement... Of course only bearded men can be artists. They have to fashion that facial hair every morning into something presentable, a challenge and a pleasure that the devilish clean-shaven man will never know... And my final point: a bearded man has the perfect paradoxical relationship between raw instinct and careful cultivation... And only a man with a beard can combine the bohemian and the bourgeoisie in a manner that we can read upon his face. Literally.

Surrounded by the Sounds of Saxophones

Tim de Lisle:

If there was a contest to find the most derided instrument in rock music today, the saxophone would be a prime contender. After ruling the airwaves in the Eighties, it was chased out in the Nineties by grunge, and these days it often feels as if the only person still playing the sax in public is Lisa Simpson... Roxy Music were the first great rock band in which a woodwind player was a central member (Andy Mackay, on sax and oboe; there has still, arguably, been only one more: Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, featuring the late lamented Clarence Clemons).

At times like this, I wish I knew how to spell that stunned sound of disbelief that cartoon characters make when they shake their heads rapidly. Uh, Tim? Meet Dana Colley, the invalidation of your entire thesis. Even if you don't count Twinemen and Bourbon Princess as major bands, Morphine alone - before, during, and after the heyday of grunge - did more to display the creative potential and importance of the saxophone in rock music than all of the superfluous '80s soft-rock hits put together.

Sit Back and Look for the Warnings; the Future's Bright and Alarming

The Economist:

But turn again to those living 100 or 500 years ago. How would they have viewed civilisation today? Think of all the animals, languages, and societies that have since gone extinct. Modern lives might seem like a vision of hell. The coastal, urban corridor along which I live now is horribly changed from its condition a century ago. Those of us who live along it spend the vast majority of our time indoors and only rarely glimpse anything that could honestly be called nature. The food we eat is highly processed and often unidentifiable as one plant or animal versus another. Many of us rarely see many of our close friends and family, and communicate with them only through the tinny interfaces of our electronic devices. "Some life!", a resident of the past might conclude. Yet how many of us would switch places with those who lived centuries ago? A century from now, much more of the world will likely have been despoiled. Humans might live in underground bunkers eating lab-grown meat. But who's to say they won't prefer their lot to ours?

That excerpt's not really the main point of the article. I just thought it was interesting in and of itself.

Blood Is on the Table, the Mouths are Choking

Here we go again. "If you really care about animals, you'd eat them." Is this topic what the kids like to call "trending"? Someone must have sent out a memo.

I see two direct conclusions to the contrarian logic here which are nonetheless surprisingly absent. One, the most overall balanced lifestyle for humans is hunting/gathering. Good luck with selling that. Two, the most overall balanced state for the planet itself would require a few billion less humans on it. But I suppose only a Malthusian fascist or whatever would point that out.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

There Are Known Knowns; There Are Things We Know We Know

In lieu of a pertinent thought of my own
Two links - within rhyme! - on what's rationally known.

We Are Trees for Yielding a Sweet Death

Dying is strange and hard
if it is not our death, but a death
that takes us by storm, when we've ripened none
within us.

- Rilke

Alberto Manguel:

The Cranach painting led Stan and me into a discussion on whether we would like to extend the time of our lives, if such a thing were possible. I said that the foreseeable end did not frighten or worry me; on the contrary, I liked the idea of living with a conclusion in mind, and compared an immortal life to an endless book which, however charming, would end up seeming tiresome. Stan, however, argued that living on, perhaps forever (provided he were free of sickness and infirmities), would be an excellent thing. Life, he said, was so enjoyable that he never wanted it to end.

When we had that conversation, I was not yet fifty; this year, I turned sixty-three, and I am more convinced than ever that an endless life is not worth living. Not that I think I have many decades to go. Of course, it is difficult to be certain without holding the entire volume in my hands, but I’m fairly sure that I’m on one of the last chapters. So much has occurred, so many characters have come and gone, so many places have been visited, that I don’t suppose the story can continue for many more pages without petering out into an incoherent and incontinent babble.

...As Petrarch understood it, the intimate conviction of readers is that there are no individually authored books: there is only one text, infinite and fragmented, through which we leaf with no concern for continuity or anachronism or bureaucratic property claims. Since I first started reading, I know that I think in quotations and that I write with what others have written, and that I can have no other ambition than to reshuffle and rearrange. I find great satisfaction in that. And, unlike Stan, I’m convinced that no satisfaction can be truly everlasting.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Constant Entertainment for Our Restless Minds, Constant Stimulation for Epic Appetites

Maria Russo:

I guess you can’t fault Andersen for wanting culture to be an adventure – though he also seems to think that means providing him with endless stimulation. But what is really lost if the shock of the radically new doesn’t show up every 10 years to give him pleasure and make it easy to differentiate decades? Notably absent from the essay is an acknowledgement that all the rad stylistic innovation that ended sometime in the early 1990s had to be paid for with borrowed money. Andersen is a child of the Great American Financial Expansion that crashed and burned in 2008, groaning under the weight of the millions of spacious, elegant homes now inhabited by Boomers, and the pressure of the post-9/11 Boomer wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and drip drip drip of the barrage of needless medical tests performed every time a Boomer has a headache. Of course the party’s over. The money has all dried up.

Technology is definitely making lifestyle — and the expense associated with acquiring it — less relevant. (Which is fortunate for those of us who can no longer afford much of one, anyway.) Much of what Andersen prizes from the allegedly more innovative American past is just display. But when your life — public and private, working and leisurely — revolves around a MacBook and an iPhone, and constant, disembodied exchanges of information in placeless cyber realms… well, you don’t need to overturn the Aeron chair, do you? Nor do you need to fixate on the status-symbolism of where you live. Best of all, you don’t need to worry about what you buy and what it says about you, because you may buy very little.

Andersen believes we’re stopped innovating culturally because it’s just all become too, too much. Sheltering ourselves has become our collective defense against meltdown in the searing heat of technological advance. “[T]hese stagnant last couple of decades may be a secular rather than cyclical trend, the beginning of American civilization’s new chronic condition, a permanent loss of appetite for innovation and the shockingly new,” he writes.

Or maybe external change isn’t what we’re all about anymore.

I had been mentally chewing on Andersen's essay since I first saw it, wondering how to phrase exactly what bothered me about it, but I can't really improve on that. I would also throw in what Josh Rothman said about it: the rapid rate of cultural change that Andersen takes as the natural order of things is actually a very recent aberration.

Lucubratio (X)

I'm guessing this is supposed to be some devastating satire of atheism, a reductio ad absurdum, but all it makes me think of is the kind of kid who would complain to his mom that he shouldn't have to clean his room because it's just going to get dirty again.

Friday, December 16, 2011

No, Dylan Thomas, No


As atheists, I think none of us can find solace in the cliches or numbness in the delusion of an afterlife. Instead, embrace the fierce strong emotions of anger and sorrow, feel the pain, rage against the darkness, fight back against our mortal enemy Death, and live exuberantly while we can. Confront mortality clear-eyed and pugnacious, uncompromising and aggressive.

My, such hostility! It's practically a parody of a tragic poet, what with all that sturm und drang. Well, I'll leave the professor to his fist-shaking at the heavens and stroll over here to converse more casually with you all.

You know the old saw about how living well is the best revenge, I'm sure. I think the basic principle applies here, too. All you can do is live. Live exuberantly, if you wish. Or with your passions on a slow simmer. Either way, just enjoy yourself and don't worry overmuch about death; it'll arrive at its own sweet pace. Confront it, fight it, rage at it, whatever. It don't make death no nevermind.

And what's the point of maintaining this antagonistic relationship with it anyway? Would you seriously want to live forever? Do you honestly believe disease can or should be entirely eradicated? Death is the necessary coda that keeps existence from sprawling out into endless, atonal meaninglessness. Its nature is such that it's never dignified or convenient for you and I personally, but as a general rule, we couldn't do without it. Wise men at their end know dark is right.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

I am Superman and I Know What's Happening

Michael Holroyd:

I enjoyed bringing out Shaw's humour, his hidden generosity and outstanding deficiency in mechanical matters – such as controlling his typewriter, his bicycle and his cars – all of which humanised the public figure who had come to exist in many people's imagination as a remote Superman. It was impossible not to warm to someone who replied to an actress claiming that since she had the most beautiful body and he the most brilliant mind they should produce a child of genius: "But what if the child inherits my body – and your brain?"

Yes, that's certainly witty. But, as John Gray once put it:

Throughout his life, the great playwright argued in favor of mass extermination as an alternative to imprisonment. It was better to kill the socially useless, he urged, than to waste public money locking them up. This was not just a Shavian jest. At a party in honour of his seventy-fifth birthday held in Moscow during his visit to the USSR in August 1930, Shaw told his half-famished audience that when they learnt he was going to Russia his friends had loaded him up with tinned food; but - he joked - he threw it all out the window in Poland before he reached the Soviet frontier. Shaw taunted his audience in full knowledge of their circumstances. He knew the Soviet famines were artificial. But he turned a jovial eye on their victims from the considered conviction that mass extermination was justified if it advanced the cause of progress.

Speaking of which, his criteria for determining the socially useless sounds indistinguishable from that of my teabagger relatives:

You must all know half a dozen people at least who are no use in this world, who are more trouble than they are worth. Just put them there and say Sir, or Madam, now will you be kind enough to justify your existence? If you can’t justify your existence, if you’re not pulling your weight in the social boat, if you’re not producing as much as you consume or perhaps a little more, then, clearly, we cannot use the organizations of our society for the purpose of keeping you alive, because your life does not benefit us and it can’t be of very much use to yourself.

Lysenkoism. Anti-vaccination. He had the intellectual's unfortunate tendency to follow a trail of convoluted abstract thinking to absurd conclusions that would have been apparent to the straightforward common sense of the simpletons he derided so much, as well as the inclination toward becoming a True Believer according to Eric Hoffer's taxonomy: a zealot by nature jumping from cause to cause, never letting failure or embarrassment temper his enthusiasm for the sort of moral crusading that his attention to Nietzsche should have helped him see as a lingering inheritance of Christianity (along with his fervent wish for teleological redemption to come in some glorious future); instead, he superficially rebelled by insisting on treating Christmas as just another workday, which, of course, was the official position of the actual Puritans, thus bringing us around full circle in a neat illustration of John Calvin's malignant influence. O irony!

Make no mistake, I'd like to read the biography. The most interesting people do tend to contain multitudes. But even when I agree with him, as on vegetarianism, he strikes me as a tiresome prig with a thorny stick wedged in his nether regions. Fascinating to know, perhaps, but exceedingly difficult to "warm to".

Monday, December 12, 2011

We Got a Kinder, Gentler Machine Gun Hand

Shannon Gilreath:

But having gotten to where we are—to a place at which the law no longer bars Gays’ entry into the armed services, the question of whether Gays should serve stands out in bold relief. This is, at bottom, a question of priorities. The modern “gay rights” movement, at least since the 1970s when the Gay Activists Alliance split from the Gay Liberation Front, has been governed by a politics that values only that which is paradigmatically straight and, accordingly, has striven mightily to get Gays into the two institutions through which most of the world’s violence is accomplished—the state sanctioned home and the military—without much critical analysis of how participation in these institutions actually affects Gay people.

Yup. I recently read an interview with David Graeber where he said that the only plausible scenario where a genuine revolution can occur is when the forces of order refuse to shoot. A preliminary to that would be for more people to refuse to join the forces of order and pick up a gun in the first place.

Things Which Are Not Seen

Sabrina Golonka:

While there is agreement that the visible part of the person refers to the body, there is considerable variation in how different cultures think about the invisible (psychological) part. In the West, and, specifically, in the English-speaking West, the psychological aspect of personhood is closely related to the concept of "the mind" and the modern view of cognition. But, how universal is this conception? How do speakers of other languages think about the psychological aspect of personhood?

In Korean, the concept "maum" replaces the concept "mind". "Maum" has no English counterpart, but is sometimes translated as "heart". Apparently, "maum" is the "seat of emotions, motivation, and "goodness" in a human being" (Wierzbicka, 2005; p. 271). Intellect and cognitive functions are captured by the Korean "meli" (head). But, "maum" is clearly the counterpart to "mind" in terms of the psychological part of the person. For example, there are tons of Korean books about "maum" and body in the same way that there are English texts on "mind" and body.

The Japanese have yet another concept for the invisible part of the person - "kokoro"."Kokoro" is a "seat of emotion, and also, a source of culturally valued attention to, and empathy with, other people" (Wierzbicka, 2005; p. 272). To illustrate the contrast between "kokoro" and "mind", Wierzbicka gives the following example: A Japanese television programme proclaims, "The 21st century should be the age of kokoro. Let's make a point of meeting with other people" (Hasada, 2000: 110). If an English speaker declared the 21st century to be "the age of the mind" then "meeting with other people" probably would not be a priority - thinking and knowing would be. In contrast to the Korean "maum", "kokoro" is not associated with will and motivation ("hara" meaning belly serves this purpose in Japanese). But, "hara" is not associated with the psychological component of the body, the way "kokoro" is. In other words, "maum" is all about motivation and "kokoro" is all about feelings and "mind" is all about thinking.

Interestingly, Russia, which kind of sits between East and West uses "dusa" as the counterpart to the psychological part of the person. "Dusa" is often translated as "soul", but also sometimes as "heart" or "mind." "Dusa" is associated with feelings, morality, and spirituality. The "dusa" is responsible for the ability to connect with other people. This meaning seems to lie somewhat more with the Eastern conception than with the highly cognitive concept of "mind." In a larger sense, the fact that there seems to be a universal belief that people consist of visible and invisible aspects explains much of the appeal of cognitive psychology over behaviourism.

You Don't Want the Truth

A thinker is now that being in whom the impulse for truth and those life-preserving errors clash for their first fight, after the impulse for truth has proved to be also a life-preserving power. Compared to the significance of this fight, everything else is a matter of indifference: the ultimate question about the conditions of life has been posed here, and we confront the first attempt to answer this question by experiment. To what extent can truth endure incorporation? That is the question, that is the experiment.

- Nietzsche

For a nation of talkers and self-confessors, we are terrible when it comes to talking about God. The discourse has been co-opted by the True Believers, on one hand, and Angry Atheists on the other. What about the rest of us? The rest of us, it turns out, constitute the nation’s fastest-growing religious demographic. We are the Nones, the roughly 12 percent of people who say they have no religious affiliation at all. The percentage is even higher among young people; at least a quarter are Nones. Apparently, a growing number of Americans are running from organized religion, but by no means running from God. On average 93 percent of those surveyed say they believe in God or a higher power; this holds true for most Nones — just 7 percent of whom describe themselves as atheists, according to a survey by Trinity College.

Nones are the undecided of the religious world. We drift spiritually and dabble in everything from Sufism to Kabbalah to, yes, Catholicism and Judaism. We Nones may not believe in God, but we hope to one day. We have a dog in this hunt.

Nones don’t get hung up on whether a religion is “true” or not, and instead subscribe to William James’s maxim that “truth is what works.” If a certain spiritual practice makes us better people — more loving, less angry — then it is necessarily good, and by extension “true.” (We believe that G. K. Chesterton got it right when he said: “It is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.”)

It's like a cat managing to always land on its feet. You just have to marvel at how fatuous twits, upon being dropped into a crucible of doubt, reflection, and despair, will always manage to make everything about them, to convince themselves that their every banality is profound, and that whatever holds true for them during this particular snapshot of their life must be synonymous with timeless verities. Maybe it just needs to be pitched to him on the sort of mushy self-help level that appeals to so many like him: dude, you seem to have some serious issues with commitment and decisiveness.

I like the Nietzsche excerpt because it's such a sharp riposte to the typical apologists who claim that the sugar-coated errors and self-centered illusions of religion are necessary to preserve people's ability to function at all. The impulse for truth has proved to be also a life-preserving power.

Friday, December 09, 2011



"These Native Americans [in the south-west] believed that nature was filled with spirits. Each form of life, such as plants and animals, had a spirit. Earth and air held spirits, too. People were never alone. They shared their lives with the spirits of nature."

While the account tries to show respect, Loewen argues that it reduces the believers to simple-minded caricatures. Their beliefs are presented as childish make-believe. A similarly literal version of Christianity would offend believers:

"These Americans believed that one great male god ruled the world... They ate crackers and wine or grape juice, believing that they were eating their [god's] son's body and drinking his blood. If they believed strongly enough, they would live on forever after they died."

Loewen points out that textbooks never describe Christianity this way. The reason is not hard to find: believers would immediately recognise that such literalism fails to convey either the symbolic meaning or the spiritual satisfaction of sharing in the beliefs and practices of a religious community. Rather than reducing their faith to a listing of the bizarre and the irrational, researchers need to pay as much respectful and sympathetic attention to the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of the underdogs of the world as they do to those of the orthodox elites and the powerfully established.

You know what? I'm just going to let the brilliance of these two Jesus and Mo cartoons speak for me here.

Playing to the Groundlings

Despite my best efforts, I have yet to drive off my most dedicated readers, my longtime blog-companions. So at this festive time of year, I feel I should probably reward their stubbornness and masochism with stuff that they might actually enjoy reading and commenting on, as opposed to my usual hobbyhorses.

So for Noel, here's an article on the usefulness of hallucinogens in treating various mental illnesses. For research purposes only. Not that he would know anything about that himself, persistent, scandalous rumors to the contrary.

For Brian, here's an article about how cyclists are a bunch of rich elitist snobs who should all be steamrolled.

And for Shanna, here's something about some plucky Canadian musicians taking the Billboard charts by storm. Canada has its own rock bands? Aww, that's so adorable!

Discuss, pontificate, fight, do as the spirit moves you.

Where the Fleshless Abide

Ed Yong:

The goggles I wore displayed the view from a camera pointing at my back. Ehrsson tapped my chest with one plastic rod while using a second one to synchronously prod at the camera. I saw and felt my chest being prodded at the same time as I saw a picture of myself from behind. Within ten seconds, I felt as if I was being pulled out of my real body and was floating several feet behind it.

A year after removing his subjects from their own bodies, Ehrsson learned how to trick them into acquiring new ones. This time, the volunteers' goggles showed them the view from a camera on the head of a mannequin looking at its own plastic torso. Simultaneously poking the arm or stomach of the mannequin and the volunteer a few times was enough to convince the subjects that they were the dummy. They could even stare at their old bodies from their new ones and shake hands with their old self, all without breaking the spell. “It really is very intense and incredibly fast,” says Mark Hallett, a neurologist from the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, who experienced it first hand.

In his latest trick, published in May, Ehrsson convinced people that they had jumped into a tiny Barbie doll. When he prodded the doll's legs, the volunteers thought they were being prodded by giant objects. And when Ehrsson tested the illusion on himself and a colleague touched his cheek, he says, he looked up and “felt as if I was back in my childhood and looking at my mother”.

...He also occasionally gets angry letters from people who have had out-of-body experiences themselves. “They believe that their souls have left their bodies, and they feel threatened that a similar experience can be induced in a lab,” says Ehrsson. He offers a diplomatic response, saying that he has “no way of disproving their ideas”. Metzinger is more forthright. “Henrik's work speaks to the idea that there is no such thing as a soul or a self that's independent of the brain,” he says.

Hee hee. It's like Schopenhauer said -- if forced to choose between a personal deity and personal immortality, people would turn atheist in a heartbeat. Who cares about arguing over God's nonexistence? It's far easier to disprove the idea of an immaterial soul, and far more devastating to traditional religious conceptual frameworks. Even most theodicy has to rely on some invocation of God's mysterious ways, which aren't readily apparent to the untrained eye. Few believers would be willing to allow an average life on Earth, bounded by the physical events of birth and death, to stand as proud affirmation of the inherent worth of existence.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

"Was That—Life?" I Shall Say to Death. "Very Well, Once More!"

Reviewing familiar principles and maxims in the face of mortal illness, Christopher Hitchens has found one of them increasingly ridiculous: “Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” Oh, really? Take the case of the philosopher to whom that line is usually attributed, Friedrich Nietzsche, who lost his mind to what was probably syphilis. Or America’s homegrown philosopher Sidney Hook, who survived a stroke and wished he hadn’t. Or, indeed, the author, viciously weakened by the very medicine that is keeping him alive.

Or, as George Carlin said, much more succinctly:

Here’s more middlebrow bullshit philosophy. “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.” I’ve got something more realistic: “That which does not kill me may sever my spinal cord, crush my rib cage, cave in my skull and leave me helpless and paralyzed, soaking in a puddle of my own waste.” Put that in your T-shirt, touchy feely New Age asshole!

Yeah, it's a bit of a shame that of all the things Nietzsche wrote, this should be possibly the bite-sized quotation that's become part of the collective consciousness. He wrote much more profound stuff, really! But I think Hitchens is right in saying that all he really meant by it was to attempt to affirm the few periods of pain-free existence he had as he aged, in keeping with his thoughts on the eternal recurrence and all that. And the romantic in me can sympathize with the proud, defiant gesture of it. Like the eternal recurrence, treat it as a thought experiment rather than a factual statement, a brave attempt to hold on to all that gives your life meaning even when facing unbearable suffering, and I think it sounds a lot less facile.

...adding, this is just fucking stupid. Of course it's not "true". Is logical positivism suddenly back in vogue? What simpleton ever took the phrase literally in the first place? And what is this "atheist list" of maxims from which it must be scratched? We have our own official list of U.S.D.A. certified godless aphorisms now? Is it a list of sayings by atheists, for atheists, or both? What are the penalties for quoting unapproved sources?

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Black Flowers Blossom

Ingrid Norton:

Pinker recognizes World Wars I and II as big problems for his thesis that modernity lessens violence. Though far from the only mass atrocities in human history, these conflicts entail some of the most densely violent years in the annals of bloodshed. Pinker asserts that despite this, the détente that occurred afterwards was more durable: The “enduring moral trend of the [20th] century was a violence-averse humanism that originated in the Enlightenment, became overshadowed by counter-Enlightenment ideologies wedded to agents of growing destructive power, and regained momentum in the wake of World War II.”

Confirmation bias much? Yeah, I have to agree with what others have said about this book: it's more than a little specious to pretend that "the Enlightenment" only encompasses those strains of thought that happen to appeal to us today. As Isaiah Berlin stressed repeatedly, a large number of Enlightenment thinkers accepted that Newton's accomplishments in physics could be duplicated in ethics, that "true" answers to normative questions could be obtained through rational inquiry, and that if one persisted in clinging to worldviews which had been discredited scientifically, they were not simply mistaken but possibly perverse, and perhaps a liberal application of force was needed to make them see the error of their ways, or at least clear their outdated detritus off of the shining path of progress.

Some thinkers who epitomized the sort of Enlightenment ideals that Pinker values, like Voltaire and Fontenelle, hewed to an "original sin" conception of humanity as hopelessly corrupt and weak, needing strong, enlightened guidance from elites. Jacobins, Bolsheviks and Maoists followed suit. Even Nazism wasn't quite the "counter-Enlightenment" movement that Pinker seems to imply. Opposed to ideas of toleration and personal freedom, yes; but they shared a belief with many progressives of the age in eugenics in particular, or more broadly, in the application of science to purify humanity in order to achieve its glorious future destiny. There really isn't a neat dividing line between the Enlightenment, the Romantics, progressives, and reactionaries, and no reason to think that one will ever appear.

Monday, December 05, 2011

People Talkin' About Us, They Got Nothin' Else to Do

Issac Chotiner:

Epstein finds these stories irresistible, as he phrases it, “A man or woman without any interest in gossip may be impressive in his or her restraint, but also wanting in curiosity, uninterested in the variousness of human nature, dead to the wildly abundant oddity of life, and thereby, in some central way, deficient.”

Deficient, huh? Well, this is where I just like to invoke the vague autism-spectrum thing to explain my failure to evince interest in the salacious details of other people's peccadilloes. But in fairness, when I read that, it occurred to me that perhaps this also applies to my lack of interest in reading fiction. Seriously, I'm the most fiction-deficient person you know. I hardly have any novels on my shelves, except for escapist Forgotten Realms fantasy stuff. I'm intensely interested in issues and ideas, especially in philosophy and history and psychology, but not so much in particular individual characters. Interesting.

But yeah, gossip per se doesn't hold any attraction for me. It was strange over Thanksgiving, not having seen my family much for several months, to notice how jarring it felt to hear my mom and brother indulging in petty, somewhat mean-spirited gossip about people we knew. I didn't realize how little I missed being around it. My brother told me something about a former co-worker of ours, who he claimed was having some sort of trouble in his twenty-year relationship. I found myself both embarrassed and irritated at even having to listen to it. And that makes me wonder about the accuracy of Epstein's description -- doesn't it take a more nuanced, experienced understanding of human nature to hear a rumor like that and immediately think, yeah, well, maybe his wife is cheating on him, and he's always seemed like a super-swell guy, but what the hell do I know about what their relationship has been like for almost two decades? There's always more to the story than what you first hear. People change and grow apart, interpreting the same situations differently until one day they suddenly realize that a hairline crack in their shared experience has widened into a unbridgeable chasm. It doesn't always lend itself well to the gossipy tendency to paint a heroes-and-villains kind of story.

The thing I associate most with gossip isn't being titillated by dirty little secrets; after all, a lot of gossip is benign, just a way to fill the air with words and create some sort of common bond. It's what most people would think of as the mindset of a small town, where everybody knows everybody else, and more importantly, seems to take it for granted that they have a right to be in everyone else's business. My family is very small and I only have two living relatives outside of the area; we've never been very tight-knit. But my ex had a larger extended family, and it was always expected that you would put in regular appearances, especially at holidays, and there was something unsavory about you if you didn't. I could never get over my instinctive revulsion at the presumption, the expectation that I was obliged to keep everyone informed about what I was doing, and again, the embarrassment at having to hear about whatshisname's gambling problem and so-and-so's mental illness.

I wish we had an acceptable social category that encompassed the feeling of "You're a pleasant enough person, but we're only associating through external circumstance, we really don't have anything in common, and we should just be adults and accept that we don't want to spend any time around each other without anyone feeling insulted." Maybe the Germans or the Japanese have a word for that.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Tattoos with Meaning, American Spirit Lights

Tim Donnelly:

Midtown is not exactly a hotbed of tattoo activity at any time of day, let alone at 11 p.m. on a Tuesday, but that turned out to be the saving grace that prevented me from becoming a hypocrite. As I accidentally discovered online a few days later, getting a tattoo can be about as vegan as having a rib-eye sewn to your arm. The ink and processes at your average shop contain a veritable buffet of animal detritus: charred bones of dead animals in the ink, fat from once-living things in the glycerin that serves as a carrying agent, enzymes taken from caged sheep that go into making the care products.

..."I've never found anything that works as well," said Karr, who dabbles in ink-making himself. "It sucks that you can't live your life completely vegan. Where do you draw the line? It's really difficult to remove all the elements from your life."

In times of ethical crisis like this I turn to my friend J.P. Piteo, a coworker and compendium of cruelty-free esoterica. In addition to being the longest tenured vegan in my quiver (13 years), she's tattooed from ear to ankle. She didn't learn about the ink issue until five years after her first tattoo and well into her vegan career.

"In the moment you are permanently decorating yourself with a tattoo, you can also choose how you make an impact on the environment," she told me. "And we all know how pollution works and how it's largely irreversible, just like your new tattoo. That's supposed to be a part of what veganism is about, that big picture."

It's funny how those who are most likely to espouse platitudes about everything being connected, all being one in the circle of life, never seem to firmly grasp just how true that really is, and how devastating it is to our egocentric experience of the world.

Aiming to minimize needless suffering is a great thing, of course. Doing your best to be aware and compassionate is a commendable thing. But you see it in descriptors like "hypocritical" -- this is where veganism as an ideology is just one more ego bath, taking overweening pride in abstractions like consistency and rationality, nowhere near as radical as its proponents like to style themselves.

It's simply impossible to remove yourself from samsara so that you are not contributing a single molecule in thought or deed to perpetuating suffering. I don't care who told you otherwise; Buddha, Jesus, whoever, they were flat-out lying through their yellow teeth. It's a delusion to insist on seeing suffering as an unfortunate side effect that can be prevented with enough diligent maintenance like a homeowner keeping the cedar siding from getting warped and mildewed, rather than a fundamental attribute of life. Even the purest vegan body is going to replenish the soil which will nourish the plants which will be eaten by the herbivores who will fall prey to the carnivores who will feed the worms and insects who will be snapped up by the birds and lizards and on and on as it's always gone, as it always will even once we are gone (thanks to Shanna for the recommendation; that is indeed a fascinating book), until the Sun vaporizes the Earth and all of this sound and fury turns back into basic atoms scattered across endless space. And that's the crux of it -- veganism as an ideology is just one more way of desperately trying to convince ourselves that we ultimately matter, that we're special, that through our self-centered willpower, we can save and be saved.

You Cannot Trust a Single Thing I Say

Religious people distrust the world’s estimated 500 million atheists as much as rapists, a study found Friday in the wake of a poll that said less than half of Americans would vote for an atheist president.

“Where there are religious majorities — that is, in most of the world — atheists are among the least trusted people,” said lead author Will Gervais, a doctoral student in psychology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

...“While atheists may see their disbelief as a private matter on a metaphysical issue, believers may consider atheists’ absence of belief as a public threat to cooperation and honesty.”

Not to tie the faith-minded up in logical Gordian knots, but who would a believer consider more trustworthy, then: an atheist who tells you so up front, or one who publicly makes a minimal gesture toward piety while privately rolling their eyes at what they need to do to appease the simpletons? Doesn't matter, I suppose; they're both equally flammable.

Still Waters Run Deep

Nigel Featherstone:

Part of the allure of reading is finding fictional worlds more interesting than the predictable day-to-day of real life. But books haven’t simply offered escape. They have given me depth, they have given me perspective, the sense that my days and nights have expanded, opened out.

...The fact is that at the age of forty-three years and twenty-eight days I have a room that can rightly, justifiably be called a library. It’s a physical thing as much as a brain and heart thing; it’s a space, a place, a room all of my own, in every possible way. It is without question my favorite room in the house, the most important room, as archaic as that sounds, as archaic as it probably is, but I really don’t care. My library is my anchor, it’s my look-out, it’s my lighthouse.

I was just talking with a friend about our respective literary nerdisms; mine history, hers fantasy/sci-fi. I said that I didn't want to live my own life, I just want to spend it reading about everything else that's ever happened. But I don't mean it as a disparaging comment on the quality of my everyday life. I just cheerfully accept that I'm an ordinary, nondescript schmo with no good stories to tell, and it's more fascinating to read the greatest stories of humankind's adventures during our brief time at the pinnacle of existence. And yes, I, too, would like to have an entire room I could justifiably call a library, rather than a dozen or so mismatched bookcases scattered throughout the house. Someday...

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

This is the Autumn, It Will Break Your Heart

Matthew Gallaway:

These days when I go out in the garden, I’m reminded of how, as a kid, I used to feel at the end of August, when the start of school loomed and you could already hear the gates to freedom and laziness clanking shut. As an adult, it’s a dread of winter tempered by the last of the color; the brightness is all the more striking for being found in a web of leafless, grey vines and branches. There's a certainty that what remains is about to end.

...Then there are the conifers, which, for staying green all year round, must be considered the optimists of the garden (or perhaps the insomniacs). They actually look forward to the snow, which is why we must regard these trees with equal parts admiration and skepticism—they're not the kind of someones you'd necessarily want to start a business with. And finally it’s important to acknowledge the moss, which as it slowly creeps over the brick reminds us that all paths lead to the same end.

I've really come to appreciate November in particular among the triptych of my favorite months of the year. October gets all the attention due the standard-bearer of all things beautiful about autumn, and December, well, you know how that goes. But there's the middle child, November, overlooked and underappreciated by its more flamboyant siblings. Cold enough to be pleasant, not quite cold enough yet to make your bones ache. Smack dab in the middle of the holiday season, allowing enough time to have savored some while still anticipating others. And honestly, some years it seems that the leaves don't reach their peak display until the beginning of November anyway.

On the horticultural side of things, I've never felt saddened by bare branches and dead leaves. Some of my favorite childhood memories are of walking for hours during the Christmas break among the vast-to-my-young-mind expanse of conifers behind my house (many of which have been replaced by more and more houses in the last couple decades, to my chagrin every time I go back to visit my parents). I have several ringing my yard here, and I hope to plant more in the spring.

The last day of November already? I'm a bit sad, I have to say.

This is Not an Ad

When I was seven years old, I desperately wanted a pair of Zips shoes because I was always one of the smaller, younger kids in my grade, and not especially fleet of foot. I remember one of my classmates scornfully proclaiming that "Zips don't really make you run fast!" But trusting as I was, I still wanted to believe in the promise held out by those commercials, so I finally got a pair. I'm sure you don't need me to tell you that my wise-beyond-his-years Doubting Thomas friend (or, rather, Doubting Hank, since that was his name) was correct; I still came in second in an important relay race on Field Day at the end of that school year. Well, I may have had to settle for a red ribbon instead of a blue one on that sad day in May, but the lesson of armoring oneself with jaded skepticism toward people who want to sell you something has stuck with me all along.

So I dunno; I thought it was common knowledge (Adbusters has been going on about this kind of thing for as long as I remember) that advertising is all postmodern/ironic/de-signified/ultrameta nowadays. We all like to fancy ourselves savvy consumers, too worldly to be taken in by simple appeals to insecurities and impulses. Advertising had to morph in such a way as to let the consumer in behind the curtain. No, of course our product won't make you sexier or more popular or fill in that gaping hole in your psyche, but we're admitting that to you up front, so you know we're good guys. It's just another product among many, but we've got a sense of humor. We're all postracial, postsexual, whatever. We're just messing with these old cultural stereotypes from a detached distance, which we know you'll appreciate, because you have that same kind of rarefied, discerning awareness that we do. It's all just a big put-on, all of it. You know it, we know it. You want some cool stuff which is by no means the sum total of your unique personality, we want your money. Aboveboard, straightforward, no hard feelings. A'ight. Dap.

But, yuh know, go ahead and buy our stuff.

Also, this. I have a feeling that it's not so much any strong sort of moral conviction that ignites the outrage here, just the artless, transparently inauthentic way that Patagonia went about trying to appear above such base motivations. For the sort of New York hipsters who write for Gawker, the cardinal virtue is taking frivolous amusement in sneering at other people's dickishness while never appearing to be a dick yourself. We fake it so real we are beyond fake.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Fitful Dozing of Reason

Alan Ryan:

OWS, as it has come to be known, by contrast gives the impression of being constituted by entirely rational people, mostly young but afforced during daylight hours by writers, academics, curious bystanders and members of the Class of '68 eager to show solidarity with their grandchildren.

They do seem awfully rational at that, the utopians among them, at least. I often find that to be the case -- some people seem so earnestly convinced that deep down, we all want the same things, and with just enough effort and sitting down to to talk things out, we'll get there. It's like such a quaint little pocket of Enlightenment rationality, right here in the midst of all the bizarre incoherence that people continually prove themselves capable of. Speaking of which:

I once had a landlord who was an arch Republican with signed pictures of various Republican figures (George W. Bush, Jesse Helms, Ronald Reagan) on his walls. He was also an avid dowser, past-life regresser, and astral projector. He cured the neighbor’s apple tree of a worm infestation, found people’s lost objects over the phone, and attempted to heal my terror of snakes through a visualization technique that involved repetition and tapping on my sternum (the last one didn’t work and can’t speak to the second, but there weren’t worms in the apples when I lived there). He was an aficionado of conspiracy theories, a veritable archivist. I have never had so much fun talking to anyone with whom I disagreed so much. He was a truly marvelous person. But every time I try to describe the man to someone, the story is met with wonderment that a person could be both a conservative and a new age mage. Some sort of inauthenticity is implied in the discomfort. Yet why should it be so? What is our anxiety about dissonance? What is the landlord out of tune with but our own conceptions of harmony?

She goes on to sing the praises of seeming contradictions and the wonderful new possibilities they represent, but in this particular instance, I don't see much to wonder about. My mom is the same way, and my brother, to a much lesser extent. Rabidly conservative politics and completely loopy new age beliefs manage to spoon each other in a loving embrace in her mind. To me, the common thread between them is an extreme self-centeredness, which may not be one of the qualities immediately associated with the image of Age of Aquarius-types, but believe me, it's there in abundance. From their preoccupation with extending and customizing both their physical lifespan and the supposed afterlife to follow to their unshakable belief that the entire world exists as the backdrop to their own personal spiritual journey, New Agers have been some of the most narcissistic people I've ever met.

Monday, November 28, 2011

If You Wish to Strive for Peace of Soul and Happiness, Then Believe; If You Wish to be a Disciple of Truth, Then Inquire

Some Western Buddhists have argued that principles such as reincarnation, anatta, and enlightenment are not essential to Buddhism. In Buddhism Without Beliefs and The Faith To Doubt, the British teacher Stephen Batchelor eloquently describes his practice as a method for confronting—rather than transcending—the often painful mystery of life. But Batchelor seems to have arrived at what he calls an "agnostic" perspective in spite of his Buddhist training—not because of it. When I asked him why he didn't just call himself an agnostic, Batchelor shrugged and said he sometimes wondered himself.

All religions, including Buddhism, stem from our narcissistic wish to believe that the universe was created for our benefit, as a stage for our spiritual quests. In contrast, science tells us that we are incidental, accidental. Far from being the raison d'être of the universe, we appeared through sheer happenstance, and we could vanish in the same way. This is not a comforting viewpoint, but science, unlike religion, seeks truth regardless of how it makes us feel. Buddhism raises radical questions about our inner and outer reality, but it is finally not radical enough to accommodate science's disturbing perspective. The remaining question is whether any form of spirituality can.

Yeah, the article is almost nine years old, but it's new to me. And since I was just going on about the same topic, I had to excerpt it.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

But the Politics Were Too Convenient

Nathalie Rothschild:

On Black Friday, the true colors of the Occupy Wall Street movement really shone through. Premised on the idea that it speaks on behalf of 99 percent of Americans, the Occupy movement is in fact deeply contemptuous of the masses. In no way was this made clearer than through the alignment of the Buy Nothing Day campaign and the Occupy movement.

...But of course Occupy Wall Street never spoke for 99 percent of Americans. This was always a fantasy figure that lent itself well to sloganeering and to presenting a black-and-white view of the world, according to which the powerless masses struggling to get by are on one side, and the fat cat CEOs and reckless bankers are on the other. In this Star Wars-like narrative, the Occupiers serve as the heroes who will purportedly save the masses from their downfall by enlightening them and campaigning on their behalf.

The message that the Occupiers want to send through their anti-consumption campaign is that Americans have been brainwashed by corporations, that they have been induced to blind over-consumption and unthinking acceptance of the messages put out by 'the 1%'. This is the Occupier's Burden, a kind of re-vamped version of the civilising mission described by Rudyard Kipling: to 'de-program' Americans and, in the meantime, render them voiceless and clueless so that the apparently enlightened Occupiers can justify stepping in to define their interests for them and to speak on their behalf.

The message of Buy Nothing Day follows in this vein. Initiated by Adbusters, every anti-consumption hipster's must-have mag, the campaign is essentially promulgation for mass austerity -- a point well-made on the American Situation blog -- and it is an elaborate way of telling people they are stupid, irresponsible, greedy and shallow.

I'm not sure if she's more upset by the anti-consumption message or the masked elitism, but she does apparently write for Spiked, so maybe she just has to be contrary the way most people have to breathe.

Anyway. The idea that there can ever be a perfectly horizontal social movement, appearing everywhere at once from nowhere in particular, is indeed a silly one. It's impossible to get even a tribe or a village to move as one without some type of coercion being involved; it's a pure pipe dream to think that a nation of 310 million could possibly be run through General Assemblies and consensus and mic checks. Anyone with the sort of grand vision and charismatic personality to set themselves up as revolutionary leaders should probably be tranquilized and confined before they freedom and liberty the shit out of you for your own good.

But there's nothing hypocritical about pointing out that within American society itself, the overwhelming majority have indeed been getting brutally fucked over and made to pay for the privilege by the unrestrained greed of the ultra-rich, while within the global community, Westerners in general and Americans in particular have been benefiting from the misery of a few billion other people in order to fill their empty, grasping lives with shit they don't need, financed by money they don't have.

Frankly, a lot of this kind of tired gotcha-style accusation could be buried if people would finally stop acting as if the very concept of elitism is radioactive, but I guess that's a whole 'nother topic.

All the Little Birds on Jaybird Street Love to Hear the Robin Go Tweet, Tweet, Tweet

Bill Gurley:

Twitter suffers from two key misperceptions that need to be resolved before the business can reach its true potential. The first misperception is that Twitter is simply another social network, like Facebook. People commonly think of Twitter as a variant of Facebook. The press frequently positions the two together as “leaders in social networking.” This pairing erroneously implies that the two services are used for the exact same thing, even though the two platforms are very different. Facebook is a few-to-few communication network designed for sharing information and life events with friends. Twitter, on the other hand, is a one-to-many information broadcast network. The only way magic happens on Facebook is through reciprocity: I friend you and you friend me back – then information flows. But on Twitter, I can get something out of following Shaquile O’Neil who has no social obligation to follow me back.

...In many ways, Twitter is much more of a competitor to other “discovery tools” and “information sources” than it is to Facebook. Facebook is unquestionably the number one resource for “sharing with the people in your life.” From this perspective, Facebook competes (extremely well) with email, instant messengers, and certainly other symmetric social networks like MySpace. Twitter, on the other hand, competes most directly with other tools that help you find important links, news, and information. It is in this broad, non-friend based crowd-sourcing and speed of discovery where Twitter truly shines.

Some who understand this point have suggested that Twitter is merely a “Better RSS reader.” While this analogy is directionally more accurate than the Facebook comparison, it greatly underestimates the power and value of Twitter. RSS feeds are simply computerized information “routers” that require complex setup, initialization, and maintenance. Twitter has three breakthroughs that make it dramatically more powerful than simple RSS. First and foremost, your personalized Twitter feed is human-curated by a potential universe of millions of curators. When you “check Twitter” you are looking at the specific articles and links purposefully chosen by people you have chosen to follow. That is powerful leverage. Second, it is easily extensible. Due primarily to the concept of “retweeting,” the simple act of using Twitter exposes you to new and interesting sources to follow. It evolves into a richer and more customized offering over time. You discover new people as well as new information.

Okay, I can get that. Three things, though. One, it greatly amuses me that anyone would choose Shaquile O'Neal as the prime example of someone from whom you can "get something" by following his random fun-sized thoughts. Two, I'm no Luddite, but all this jabbering about information, irrespective of quality and content as long as it's fasterfasterfaster, makes me want to go re-read Theodore Roszak's The Cult of Information. And three, I'm so old, I remember when people used to have these things called "blogs" or even "websites" where they could post news and essays of their own as well as link to other people's. If most tweets of value are just links back to more substantial fare, why not eliminate the middleman? I mean, I have a long list of blogs and sites I check every day, and that gives me all the food for thought I need, really. I just trust that anything worth my attention will eventually get caught up in that net without me having to go frantically searching for it the second it appears.