Monday, August 29, 2011

Be There Now

We Americans take fierce pride in our individualism, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at our subdivisions and shopping malls. From Boston to Burbank, we buy the same nationally advertised products at the same chain stores and restaurants, happily embracing conformity as we proudly proclaim our uniqueness.

Why does our self-image fail to reflect reality? Researchers led by University of Virginia psychologists Shigehiro Oishi and Felicity Miao offer an intriguing answer. They argue our willingness to move far from home leads us to crave the comfort of sameness in our immediate surroundings.

Or, as Alan Watts grumpily observed:

We want to abolish the limits of time and space. We want to get rid of space. We call it the conquest of space. We want to be able to get from San Francisco to New York in nothing flat. And we are arranging to do just that. We do not realize what the result of doing that will be: San Francisco and New York will become the same place, and then it will not be worth going from one to another.

When you want to go on vacation, you want to go someplace that's different. You might think of Hawaii, where you imagine sandy beaches, the lovely blue ocean, and coral reefs. But tourists are increasingly asking of such a place, "Has it been spoiled yet?" By this they mean, "Is it exactly like Dallas yet?" And the answer is "Yes." The faster you can get from Dallas to Honolulu, the faster Honolulu is becoming the same place as Dallas and the less reason there is to make the trip. Tokyo has become the same place as Los Angeles. As you go faster and faster from place to place on the earth, they are all becoming the same place.

Effing the Ineffable (Slight Return)

James Wood:

The New Atheism is locked into a similar kind of literalism. It parasitically lives off its enemy. Just as evangelical Christianity is characterised by scriptural literalism and an uncomplicated belief in a "personal God", so the New Atheism often seems engaged only in doing battle with scriptural literalism; but the only way to combat such literalism is with rival literalism. The God of the New Atheism and the God of religious fundamentalism turn out to be remarkably similar entities.

Etc., etc. Stop me if you've heard this one bef— oh, you have? Countless times already? Yeah, me too.

In case I've never made it abundantly clear before now, I am perfectly in sympathy with the awkwardness of the lifelong struggle to fully grasp our deepest perceptions, let alone give eloquent voice to them. But when it comes to this thing people variously call God, religion, or spirituality, it seems to me that the so-called New Atheists are merely insistently asking two questions of people who profess to be believers: What do you mean by that? And How do you know? Maybe some perceptions don't lend themselves well to such direct statements, and would require grappling with in the form of literature, art and music. But I can't help but think that a lot of the flustered harrumphing over the audacity of these rude scoundrels is due to the embarrassment of finding themselves unable to even stammer out a passable answer because they've never been challenged before and don't even know what they think about what are supposedly the most pressing questions of our existence. Caught out in all their lazy glory.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Big Lie

Amazingly, despite all the scholarship of the last several decades that even a sciolist such as myself has easy access to, I still see things like this from time to time. From Francis Wheen's How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World:

Nietzsche was indeed Hitler's favorite philosopher, but he was not a philosopher of Enlightenment: He belonged to the Romantic tradition, a reaction against demythologizing rationalism.

Hitler had almost as little fondness for Nietzsche as he had for Ludendorff's and Rosenberg's ersatz religions. As became evident at a strained visit to Nietzsche's sister Elisabeth, Hitler was not at all an admirer of the philosopher. In a conversation he held with Hans Schemm and Otto Wagener during the Kampfzeit, Hitler derided paganists and "the rubbish they dredge up from German prehistory! Then they read Nietzsche with fifteen year-old boys." Hitler's mentor Dietrich Eckart had rejected Nietzsche as early as 1917: "We Germans, who profess through and through our faith in the Christian worldview, reject this despiser of our religious foundations." Even Rosenberg, in his Mythus, barely mentioned Nietzsche, and he showed little engagement with Nietzsche's philosophy when he did.

Neither Nietzsche nor Hitler could be easily classified as Romantics anyway, though elements of it were in each man's worldview (proving how much Romanticism has simply become part of our basic cultural and intellectual atmosphere, period). But just to add a dash more spice to the "Wheen doesn't know what the sweet fuck he's talking about" stew we've got simmering here, I liked this bit as well:

Just as Hitler had no time for Rosenberg's plans to create a new, mystical religion to replace clerical Christianity, so he found Himmler's dilettantish religious explorations absurd. As he told a circle of confidants, "What nonsense! Here we have at last reached an age that has left all mysticism behind, and now he wants to start that all over again....To think that I may one day be turned into an SS saint!"

Hitler was equally dismissive of Himmler's forays into German prehistory: "Isn't it enough that the Romans were erecting great buildings when our forefathers were still living in mud huts; now Himmler is starting to dig up these villages of mud huts and enthusing over every potsherd and stone axe he finds."

I see a blurb on the back cover of Wheen's book from The Economist, though, that asserts "...Mr. Wheen is an accomplished stylist and his writing leaps off the page." Well, perhaps, but it's too bad his writing, in its overeagerness, somehow managed to tie its shoelaces together first.

Lucubratio (IV)

Their dying is long and hard to finish: hard to surrender what you never received.
Their exit has no grace or mystery.
It's a little death, hanging dry and measly
like a fruit inside them that never ripened.

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

Stephen Cave:

The real question posed by the “Torchwood” scenario is: what would happen to all our death-defying systems if there were no more death? The logical answer is that they would be superfluous. We would have no need for progress or art, faith or fame. Suddenly, we would have nothing to do, yet in the greatest of ironies, we would have endless eons in which to do it. Action would lose its purpose and time its value. This is the true awfulness of immortality.

Let us be grateful that the elixir continues to elude us — and toast instead our finitude.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Ain't No Doubt Jesus Sees Us Acting Foolishly

Yeah, so I remembered seeing this earlier this month, but I was too busy to comment on it at the time:

Last night, Jon Stewart waded into the ongoing atheists vs. "9/11 Cross" debate brought on by a lawsuit by the American Atheists alleging that a cross-like beam that will be memorialized at Ground Zero doesn't give equal representation to all faiths. The Daily Show host would have none of the atheists argument: "why do you give a s**t?" he quipped. He then added little more nuance to the sentiment: "It was found at Ground Zero, it has come to mean something to people who view it as a symbol of comfort. If it really bothers you why not just think of it as a metal T-shaped thingie?"

Well, what the fuck, you know. Constantine saw a flaming cross in the sky before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge all those centuries ago and dutifully conquered in that sign. We might as well plunk a cross down in memory of two big buildings too. Architecture, Jesus, and homicidal lunatics; they just seem to be inseparable.

Now then, I'm more atheist than all y'all, and I really don't care about this particular issue either. I daresay I don't want to be equally represented in a memorial to an event that will primarily be remembered as the trigger that sent us on a decade-long-and-going-strong global mass murder spree. Hell, if, as a subversive atheist, I wanted to put Myrrhkah's infamous tartuffery on even more prominent display to further discredit Christianity, I'd be all for this.

But let's take a moment here, shall we? In the wreckage of a couple skyscrapers, they found a piece of metal that just so happened to be in the form of a cross? OMG WHAT ARE THE ODDS? Clearly, as we all should have learned in geometry class, if two perpendicular steel beams intersect, therefore Jesus therefore freedom therefore war woohoo fuck yeah. Honestly, anyone who's enough of a simpleton to be comforted by a random piece of twisted metal needs to be taken out back where George can soothingly tell them about the rabbits again, if you know what I mean.

A Celtic cross; now, that would have been impressive. But then the Druids would become insufferable assholes, I guess.

Different in Our Hearts; Same Planet, a World Apart

Ultimately, however, it is indifferent whether the herd is commanded to have one opinion or permitted to have five. Whoever deviates from the five public opinions and stands apart will always have the whole herd against him.

- Nietzsche

Back when I was first in punk rock, the thing that irked me the most, and finally drove me out of punk rock altogether, was the fact that the philosophy we espoused was all about questioning things. And yet you were not allowed to question punk rock itself. It was great to question Reagan and nuclear proliferation and the cops and school. But if you started asking things like, why do we all have to wear leather jackets, or why can't we have vocal harmonies in some of the songs, or why can't I grow my hair long if I want, that was taboo.

American Buddhism as it stands today is pretty much the same way. Buddhism isn't that way. But the stuff that lotsa people call "Buddhism" is. It's a subtle distinction, I know. But an important one.

So when I started calling bullshit on the idea of mindfulness, and skillfulness and "dharma talks," the reaction was almost identical to what used to happen when I'd go onstage at hardcore shows in the early 80s with long hair and bell-bottoms. You can't do that! We can challenge everything in the world, but don't you dare challenge us!

If Buddhism can’t be challenged it isn’t Buddhism anymore.

I grew up with heavy metal myself, but it's the same story. I'll always be grateful for what that music did for me at that juncture of my life, but gods above, you couldn't find a more cloistered, homogeneous group of people than my fellow metalheads. Unless you count the goths. Or the punks. Or any others who form a group identity based on their marginalization from mainstream society and proceed to become more xenophobic than those who provoked their rebellion.

That kind of strong identification with musical genres, like with Buddhism-as-an-'ism', served as a raft for me. I'm on dry land now and don't need them anymore.

Saturday Shuffle

  1. VAST -- Bruise
  2. Mushroomhead -- The Wrist
  3. Glen Porter -- Forgive Me
  4. The Four Horsemen -- Nobody Said It Was Easy
  5. G. Love & Special Sauce -- Hobo Blues
  6. Fatboy Slim -- The Journey
  7. Soundgarden -- Zero Chance
  8. Ladytron -- Sugar
  9. Omid -- Chemical Wedding
  10. Ziggy Marley -- Tomorrow People
  11. Carolina Chocolate Drops -- Hit 'Em Up Style
  12. Yeah Yeah Yeahs -- Maps
  13. Alabama 3 -- Way Beyond the Blues
  14. The Cardigans -- Slow
  15. Down -- Jail
  16. Rose Chronicles -- Visions
  17. Masters of Reality -- Lover's Sky
  18. Quicksand -- Freezing Process
  19. Thao and Mirah -- Folks
  20. Saigon Kick -- Down By the Ocean

Friday, August 26, 2011

Another Worldly Device That May Ruin Me

Chase Night:

Artificial thoughts aren’t limited to manufactured desire for certain products. No, it’s much worse than that. Our heads are being filled with manufactured desires for all manner of nonsense. Crazy religions. Psychotic politics. Sleazy new social mores. Consumerism is just the tip of the iceberg really. (Because these other things are often behind the push of consumerism.)

This is why it is imperative to practice an Ecology of the Mind. Spending time outdoors – where the only incoming messages are from the wind and the flowers and the birds – is an excellent first step in cultivating an unpolluted mental environment.

But as human beings lucky enough to live in developed countries, there is never a lasting respite from the relentless attempts to insert artificial thoughts into our brains. It’s apparently just part of the price way pay for running water and central heat and air. We might throw out our TV or radio or even unplug the Web at home, but as we move through the world we will be subjected to a constant onslaught of manufactured desires. At those times, awareness is our armor.

This is really one of the primary purposes behind Unbridled Existence: to make people think about the things they’re thinking.

Reminded me of a recent essay from Micah White:

Since Zola, however, mental environmentalism has been stuck in a philosophical morass. To claim that advertising is metaphorically mental pollution is one thing, namely an easily dismissible rhetorical flourish. To say that advertising is literally a kind of pollution and that TV commercials and highway billboards are more closely related to toxic sludge than to speech is another matter entirely. And while mental environmentalists have always tried to make the latter argument, they have more often been forced to retreat to the former. Where is the evidence that advertising is a species of pollution? Isn’t it obvious that a corporate slogan is nothing but glorified, commercialized speech?

Into this difficult question has stepped one of the greatest living philosophers, the eccentric Michel Serres, who has written the inaugural philosophical work of the mental environmentalist movement. Malfeasance: Appropriation Through Pollution? is a radical reconception of pollution that cements its primal relation to advertising. The big idea of this recently translated book is that animals, humans included, use pollution to mark, claim and appropriate territory through defiling it, and that over time this appropriative act has evolved away from primitive pollution, urine and feces, to “hard pollution,” industrial chemicals, and finally to “soft pollution,” the many forms of advertising.

It strikes me that "natural/artificial" is one of those almost subconscious distinctions that brook no opposition, much in the way that politicians talk about America -- yer either fer it or agin it, and you dang sure ain't agin it, is you, boy? Likewise, who wants to argue for nuance when it comes to all things "natural"?

But I don't feel like making an issue out of literal nature-romanticism here. And I certainly am in favor of people "thinking about the things they're thinking", which happens to be one of my favorite definitions of philosophy. I just find this arbitrary Platonic (of course) divide to be so tiresome and silly: here, in this column, we have the true, the good, the beautiful wants and needs; for community, close-knit family, love, meaningful work and peaceful worship. In this column, the false, the contrived, the greed, the jealousy, the petty vanity and feuding. The ones that don't "naturally" exist, of course, having been smuggled into Eden via some nefarious scheme that always goes unexplained. If only people would get in touch with their "true" nature, blah blah blah.

I trust I don't have to remind you what I think about consumerism, the contemplative life, etc. All I want to offer here is an observation that I suspect a lot of people would find terrifying if they really took it to heart; namely, that your "self" is much more fluid and malleable than you're likely willing to admit. The thoughts and desires you count as "yours" are part of the cultural atmosphere, likely absorbed from your parents or peers and are simply ones you've become habituated to over your lifetime; they predated you and will outlast you. Mental evolution, like its biological counterpart, is about adaptation, not progress. Perhaps the vast majority of people want a world of bright lights, sleek gadgets and an ever-changing array of personal accouterments. Maybe the "purpose" of human activity is to prepare the ground for a super-race of radioactive cockroaches to rule the planet for eons, didja ever consider that?

They Said All Teenagers Scare the Living Shit Out of Me

What concerned me as much as my students’ disdain for their teachers, though, was the quality of their writing. Potential ideas lay dormant and undeveloped on the page; basic rules of grammar and punctuation went unheeded; logic was all but absent. After reading that first round of essays, I began annoying my friends with dire, unprovoked brooding on the dismal state of high school education in this country. More than one friend warned me against committing what I have come to call the Breakfast Club fallacy. In that flawed, but seminal, ’80s high school film, the assistant principal is complaining to Janitor Carl that the kids have changed, gone bad, turned on him. “Bullshit,” replies Carl. “The kids haven’t changed. You have.” That’s the Breakfast Club fallacy: the kids aren’t getting worse; I’m just getting older and more cantankerous.

Maybe so. My own high school was hardly a proving ground for intellectual inquiry. Still, I’m concerned, and for the same reasons that led George Orwell to write the essay “Politics and the English Language”: bad writing leads to bad thinking, and vice versa; uncritical acceptance of others’ prejudices can lead to people marching around with signs displaying Hitler mustaches on an African-American president. In fact, the entire faith we put in democracy as a form of governance rests on the fragile assumption that, in the realm of free and open debate, conscientious thought will more often than not carry the day. And that assumption, as Thomas Jefferson saw more clearly than the other founding fathers, rests in turn on a viable system of public education.

At the risk of generalizing, it seems to me that two of the more serious problems afflicting American adolescents today are the fear of not fitting in and an astonishing lack of curiosity about the world beyond their cell phones. Popular culture instills high levels of passivity among its most vulnerable targets, the young. There is, to take one pervasive example, not a single item for sale at my local mall that asks the consumer to do something, make something, or master a skill (the store that sold telescopes and chess sets recently closed). Yet American teenagers have on average one hundred dollars a week of disposable income, which they typically spend at the mall. What they consume helps them adopt an easy, off-the-rack persona, but it does little to cultivate real self-invention, the unfolding of one’s nature that Emerson called the “chief end of man.” This passive shaping of the self leads, I think, to a flimsy narcissism that results in a lack of curiosity about the world outside the self: real life.

Isn't a "fear of not fitting in" more or less universal? Do most adults ever outgrow it? Have adolescents in particular ever been immune to to it? Aren't there a fair number of people for whom a world of constant entertainment and shiny gadgets would represent the ne plus ultra of human existence? Is the Jeffersonian vision of pure, rationally informed democracy just as much of a naïve pipe dream as his vision of America as a loose confederation of agrarian states defended by citizen militias?

Well. These are all perceptive queries, and I congratulate myself for asking them. But I'd merely like to state for now that even I, misanthrope that I am, don't see any added reason to fear for the human race in general, let alone Western culture, American culture, however else you choose to subdivide it. The majority of people, whether due to the limitations of genetics or social class, have always been stupid and unreflective. With seven billion people on the planet, there's simply a lot more of them to notice and despair over.

A Pair o' Pathetic Peripatetics

Jesse Miller:

The proponents for why we should be walking (and Solnit and Careri can certainly be counted among the first of their ranks) extol the act for its ethical, political and environmental implications: walking as a defense of free time against the dark arts of technology, walking (as the urban and environmental conservationists claim) as a practice that will get us out of air conditioned cars and away from computers so that we can begin to live together “in the whole world rather than in interiors built up against it.” Walking that will cause us to remember to remember the world around us, to take some time to smell the roses and rivers and historic buildings and thus begin to care about what happens to them. And for these advocates there is no better or more important time to walk than now, when the processes of globalization, the ascendancy of car culture, and the ubiquity of cheap communication technology are increasingly alienating us from our environments, our neighbors, and ourselves. Both histories are written in such a way that they place the reader at the end of the historic road, hand off a baton, and say, now it’s your turn, walk, you’re our last and only hope.

But in taking such an untempered romantic, nostalgic, and somewhat regressive stance towards walking and its relationship to technological progress, these writers fail to encompass the complexity of the issue in ways that contemporary art and literature of walking has. The narrator of Sergio Chejfec’s recent novel My Two Worlds sums up the dominant discourse on walking when he writes, “Even before I could understand it with any certainty, in all likelihood I sensed that the main argument in favor of walking was its pace; it was optimal for observation and thought, and furthermore it was the corporeal experience with the best syntax to accompany one in life.”

This statement sounds remarkably similar to Solnit’s when she writes, “I know these things have their uses, and use them—a truck, a computer, a modem—myself, but I fear their false urgency, their call to speed…I like walking because it is slow and I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour. If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness.”

Many of my favorite writers and thinkers have extolled the virtues of walking. I like the idea of it, it's true. But alas, if I am honest with myself, the peregrinator's progress is not conducive to the kind of thinking I like best. For some reason, I much prefer driving on long, lonely highways, and if I do go walking, preferably in the woods, I inevitably settle down before too long in a comfortable spot and stay there. Hiking for the sake of hiking smacks too much of striving, accomplishment, that good old Protestant busy-busy-busy bullshit. No, I just like to wander aimlessly at a disjointed pace. Hey, wait, am I talking about walking or life in general?

Lucubratio (III)

Still reading Peter Watson's mammoth book on the history of ideas. Here's another section I found interesting, presented without comment:

To give another example, 'Mountain big' is a complete sentence in Chinese. It is not necessary to use the verb 'to be'. "Without the subject-predicate pattern of sentence structure," says Zhou Youguang, "the Chinese did not develop the idea of the law of identity in logic or the concept of substance in philosophy. And without these concepts, there could be no idea of causality or science. Instead, the Chinese develop[ed] correlational logic, analogical thought, and relational thinking, which though inappropriate to science, are highly useful in socio-political theory. That is why the bulk of Chinese philosophy is philosophy of life."

Thursday, August 25, 2011

A Lamp Unto Yourself

Joshua Rothman:

Flanagan isn't talking about Buddhism as it's actually practiced around the world, in a bewildering array of different traditions. His subject is "Buddhism naturalized" -- that is, Buddhism stripped down to a core set of philosophical (and, crucially, non-supernatural) claims. Naturalize Buddhism, and you're left with a basically materialist, deterministic view of the world. If it existed, the "Buddhist Credo," Flanagan writes, would be something like: "I believe that everything is impermanent, that everything (including my state of mind) is subject to the principles of cause and effect, and that given that I am among the things-that-there-are, I am impermanent and subject to the laws of cause and effect." Physicists, biologists, philosophers, and neuroscientists would agree. Today, it's a scientific fact that human beings live in a material, determined world, and are themselves determined and material.

...The real value of Buddhism, in short, is that it finds moral meaning in our material world. That, Flanagan points out, makes our Western obsession with "happy" Buddhists seem pretty shallow by comparison. Buddhism isn't about being happy, but about seeing the world as it is, and figuring out how to respond to the facts responsibly. Our Western moral systems, upended by the Scientific Revolution, are still figuring out how to do that -- for Buddhists, there was never anything to upend. In fact, Flanagan argues, Buddhist tradition records 2,500 years worth of "experiments in living" with materialism.

I agree fully. My conception of Buddhism is one informed by Western scholars and practitioners of the last half-century. But that's also why I don't bother identifying as a Buddhist, because I don't feel like answering for the myriad other variations on the theme, becoming some sort of multi-hyphenated Buddhist (which seems to be just another way of reinforcing the ego anyway). There was a time when I got a sense of community and solidarity from immersing myself in Buddhist terminology and symbolism, but now it's enough for me to know that someone - doesn't even matter who - put these ideas out into the noosphere, where they transmogrify through endless permutations to adapt to different circumstances, as they should. Me, I'm not anything. I just exist for now, and move on.

Two Legs Tasty

David Sirota:

Although the stereotype imagines vegetarians sententiously screaming at any meat eater they see at the lunch counter or dinner table, I've found quite the opposite to be true. In my personal life, I go out of my way to avoid talking about my vegetarianism while I'm eating with friends, family or work colleagues, but nonetheless regularly find myself being interrogated by carnivores when they happen to notice that I'm not wolfing down a plate of meat.

Yes indeed. He goes on to detail the sorts of accusations and responses that inevitably accompany discussions of food and ethics. However, I don't know about you, but I've had enough of that for one lifetime. I don't care at all to convince or even argue with anyone about it anymore. Now, I just have two stock responses on hand for when I find myself confronted by curious/defensive carnivores:

1. No, I don't have anything against eating meat. I just fucking hate fruits and vegetables and enjoy killing them and devouring their corpses.

2. Why am I vegetarian? Because cannibalism isn't legal yet, and brother, let me tell you, when you've feasted on the most succulent flesh of all, you have no interest anymore in the paltry substitute of other animals.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Whereof One Cannot Speak

Rob Goodman:

But I don’t want to be so hard on Malick’s failed comforter: there’s painfully little any of us can say to grief, or to any of the other human needs that inspire religious feeling. And I think it’s an inability or unwillingness to recognize that fact that is the deeper mistake of bad religious art: it wants to argue us into faith. It won’t rest without a moral, a message, a lesson to take home. But religious persuasion can’t work that way—because religious thought doesn’t work that way.

When we reach for our most fundamental beliefs—whether these are beliefs about a deity, or politics, or family—we aren’t likely to find words there. We’re much more likely to find images, metaphors, memories, half-felt impressions. We’re likely to find, that is, something far more slippery, more vague, more illogical than discursive argument. Words come afterwards—but the fact that they so often rest on a foundation of images goes a long way to explain why the most seemingly persuasive arguments fail so often: why we seek out evidence that confirms our beliefs; why we ignore evidence that does not; why being caught in contradictions often makes us hold on to them even tighter. Arguments rarely touch our central beliefs where they live, and the most perceptive religious thinkers understand this.

All true, and yet, and yet... I don't think the chasm is quite so wide as all that. Arguments can serve as channels through which all that torrent of desire and emotion can be redirected. They can frame reality in a different way, even if it takes time for one's perception to adjust, as in artwork where the figure is blended against the ground. People don't change their minds on the spot when presented with an opposing argument, but given enough time, it may produce a subtle shift in their thinking. Persuasion is still worth the effort, is what I'm saying.

Why does music serve me in the same way as religion as described above? Why does it provide me with comfort, catharsis, inspiration, ecstasy and awe? I don't know and don't care, really. Those feelings don't go away as one becomes more skeptical, and they don't need to. But "religion" is not necessarily the answer for everything we can't put into words. Arguments, words, as limited as they are, have made me aware of the futile, inherently confused nature of so many traditional yearnings: for gods, afterlives, and ultimate teleological meaning. I could never go back to those kind of simplistic narratives. But there's so much more beyond those...

Also, I haven't actually seen The Tree of Life, but here's another interesting meditation on it in a similar vein:

For me this film is about how everything is sacred. The film clearly treats every second, every person, every thing as a thing of beauty. Every fleeting moment of life, whether it be the birth of a star or a family meal is as important and intertwined into the fabric of being as everything else. All these moments have an effect on how things unfold, no matter how large or small. The fragility and smallness of human life is blown up onto a grand a scale as the creation of everything itself. The film opens with the question of grief, and responds by showing us the vast complexity of everything, by some way of a non-verbal answer.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

So You Can Point That Fuckin' Finger Up Your Ass

Joshua Rothman:

Once you know how to spot it, "anticipated reproach" is everywhere, and it bedevils people who want to lead morally. Argue on behalf of an environmental cause, and non-environmentalists, anticipating your moral reproach, will think you're stuck-up and self-righteous. Often, the anticipated reproach -- driven, as it is, by fear -- is exaggerated and caricatured: vegetarians, Monin finds, aren't nearly as judgmental of meat-eaters as meat-eaters think they are. Unfortunately, one or two genuinely judgmental do-gooders can put everyone else on a hair-trigger, twisting discussion about moral issues into a vicious circle, in which both parties anticipate reproaches from one another, and put each other down in advance.

It's not just taking an active stance on moral issues, though. Even passive resistance can elicit suspicious defensiveness. What's wrong with me? Why don't you want to do things the way I do them? Why don't you like what I like? You think you're better than me? So tiresome. This is why I prefer to be a hermit.

'He forgets nothing but he forgives everything' — in that case, he will be doubly hated, for he makes doubly ashamed -- with his memory and his magnanimity.

- Nietzsche

I always wondered if he had Jesus in mind with that aphorism. And the above excerpt makes me wonder even more along those lines: how do people reconcile this deeply ingrained psychological resistance to being judged and found wanting with their professed worship of a man who supposedly embodied a "neither do I judge you" philosophy while simultaneously standing as the figure who will judge us all, and most of us harshly at that, for eternity? I wonder how much secret loathing many Christians harbor in the back of their mind for Jesus, how much of their effusive praise is merely the obsequious flattery all cringing underlings display out of self-preservation, even as they grind their teeth over the insult to their pride.

You Shook Me Not That Long

I was in town running errands this afternoon, but I never heard or felt a thing. In the grocery store, I started hearing people jabbering about the earthquake and wondered what the hell they were talking about. I shrugged it off as the usual ado about nothing, gaining more drama and apocryphal detail in each retelling. Then I get home and find that Shanna has been trying to get hold of me and find out if I'm all right. I get back to her and reassure her that I somehow managed to miss the collapsing buildings, overturned vehicles in flames, zombie hordes, looting and giant radioactive lizards stomping through downtown.

Then she mentions that they had to evacuate the Pentagon, and I got a little weak in the knees. Imagine! Oh gods, imagine how sweet it would be if that giant concrete canker sore disappeared into Mother Earth's gaping maw! Imagine the theologians of American exceptionalism reduced to stammering simpletons as they try to justify God's mysterious ways! Imagine the president gravely declaring war on unlawful seismic activity, a modern-day version of Caligula ordering his soldiers to attack the English Channel, as we desperately try to figure out how we can bomb the earth's crust in retaliation! A fellow can dream...


Anonymity can be a positive force. The idea, as expressed by people like Google CEO Eric Schmidt, that "if you've done nothing wrong, you've got nothing to worry about," just doesn't hold up. It assumes an infinitely just world, and not simply in legal terms, but also in social norms and political interests. It ignores the fact that voicing opinions and unflattering facts can have consequences.

...Online, there is another good reason for protecting the anonymous commons: it increases the diversity of people who speak up. To speak publicly is to take a risk. What if you say the wrong thing? What if you insult somebody? What if your words are misconstrued? Every spoken phrase could be measured up against your current and future employers, your friends, your family, your reputation. Only those without much guilt or shame - either by way of purity, nihilism, or sociopathic narcissism - are left to voice their opinions. They control the conversation. Whereas in the anonymous world, there is no ego to feed. There are no Sarah Palins.

It's funny that, despite my well-known antipathy to Plato, I derive so much pleasure from the contemplation of ideas for their own sake. A large part of what I love about the Internet is the ability to bypass all the sensory input I have no interest in and get right to the heart of the matter: words and thoughts. I love the pure democracy of it, even, the way any basement-dwelling "loser" or bored, unattractive cubicle drone can enrich and enliven my day by writing in their free time.

Despite the cultural lip service paid, most people don't really love the interchange of ideas or the concept of free speech, though. Most people seek out affirmations and a hive-mind to comfort them, and treat dissenting ideas as a personal attack on their identity. Speak too freely, and you guarantee that someone will dutifully make note of your words in a dossier to be used against you should the need ever arise. It's not that most of us have anything horribly repulsive to say anyway, but anonymity gives us the chance to speak off-the-cuff without suffering vindictive reactions from a culture in which giving offense has become a mortal sin.

At The Derek Zoolander Center for Children Who Can't Read Good and Wanna Learn to Do Other Stuff Good Too...

I saw this ad in the sidebar of an article at Salon:

National Geographic, ferfucksakes. Is our children learning?

Dirty Black Summer

My last week on the job came to a premature end with a good injury; i.e., the kind that looks dramatic, gets you a trip to the E.R. and a month's supply of Vicodin and Valium, but doesn't really do any damage. Stay off my feet? No heavy lifting or contorting my back? At least three days off? YEAH BABY WOOHOO I mean, uh, oh, darn. What a shame. Such bad luck.

So, I'm done. Bruised and weary, but I don't have to go back except to return my gear. I already feel like a huge weight is off my back.

I walked outside this morning and was greeted with a noticeable chill in the air, enough to make my exhalations visible as vapor. I stood there for a few minutes, breathing it in, adjusting my senses to prepare for the coming of autumn after a brutally scorching summer in which I spent most of working outside. Me, a person who would never leave the house between April and October if he could help it. Chilly weather, though -- one brush with it, and I feel better already.

It's all good now. I have a few ideas to check out for obtaining filthy lucre, one that even involves books and working on the computer all day! But first, I think I'll take my first extended bit of time off since high school. Reading and blogging; oh, how I've missed you.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Talk Not to Me of Blasphemy, Man

Joel Marks:

It seems to me that what could broadly be called desire has been the moving force of humanity, no matter how we might have window-dressed it with moral talk. By desire I do not mean sexual craving, or even only selfish wanting. I use the term generally to refer to whatever motivates us, which ranges from selfishness to altruism and everything in between and at right angles. Mother Theresa was acting as much from desire as was the Marquis de Sade. But the sort of desire that now concerns me most is what we would want if we were absolutely convinced that there is no such thing as moral right and wrong. I think the most likely answer is: pretty much the same as what we want now.

For instance, I used to think that animal agriculture was wrong. Now I will call a spade a spade and declare simply that I very much dislike it and want it to stop. Has this lessened my commitment to ending it? I do not find that to be the case at all.

That's why I've never had any legitimate use for the term "evil", except as joking hyperbole. It's an attempt to give metaphysical weight, transcendent backing, to an all-too-human perspective. It disingenuously smuggles in an assumption that there are certain thoughts or deeds so foul and abhorrent that they rend the very fabric of the universe with their wrongness, adding a dissonant note to an otherwise natural celestial harmony. But "right" and "wrong" only make sense in the context of a shared language of common values; they are not independently existing categorical absolutes. Support what you will, oppose what you must. But your only strength lies in numbers of like-minded believers. The universe itself doesn't care.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

If We Had Ham, We Could Have Ham And Eggs, If We Had Eggs

Mat Honan:

Ask any cable company executive why they need a multi-hour appointment, and they'll give you the same dumb explanation: That their techs don't know what they'll encounter when they arrive at a location.

That's a lame excuse. What could possibly be so unexpected that it can't reasonably be estimated? Boxes? A mess? Sasquatch? If after 20 or 30 or 40 years in business your employees can't survey a job site and reasonably estimate the time required to complete a job, you need to train them better.

Sure. There may be holes that need to be drilled or some wire that needs to be pulled. There may be an old TV set that needs to be hooked up to a new DVR. But most of that can, and should, be sussed out in advance. Ask the customer what he's got before you send Johnny Cablequest over to his pad. Moreover, technicians encountering problems should be equipped to report back to home base so that the company can adjust. Is this particular job going to take all day? Might be a good idea to assign that technicians queue of appointments to another cable guy. Just a suggestion!

...All too commonly, a tech has a schedule of appointments to follow for a set day. One technician will be assigned a list of jobs. The tech gets backed up on one, and all the others are late. Charter, for example, was busted several years ago for not only not knowing where its techs were in the field, but also lying to its customers about when they'd arrive. That's a paddlin'!

By contrast, Comcast now uses dynamic dispatch, which effectively lets it triage installs. A tech arrives at an appointment and reports back from the scene how much time is expected for the work order. As the job progresses, the company can make adjustments on the fly things start getting behind. It's a technology solution to a human problem.

"Giving all our techs laptops and handhelds is helping us shrink the appointment window," says Moyer.

But dispatch needs to be done right. Cablevision also uses dispatch, but only for critical calls. While that likely helps reduce no-shows and late arrivals, it won't necessarily help shrink a window. Without a good dispatch system, things can get sideways, quickly.

But at least it's a start.

Look, cable companies. We know that sometimes things take longer than you expect. We know that you may get into a home and find antiquated AV systems or line problems or bees or whatever. But we also expect you to take steps to try to fix that. We expect you to use a dispatch system to get your techs out on time, to call us when you're running late, and to compensate us for our time if you are.

Allrighty. Having worked as a satellite technician for the last few months, I can authoritatively say that this is one of the dumbest things I've read in a long time. This is so dumb, I'm still undecided, as I type this very sentence, whether or not I should even elaborate on that statement or just stare at the above excerpt in astonishment, marveling at it like you would at a two-headed animal skeleton in a pickle jar on a dusty shelf in some ramshackle roadside souvenir shop in a flyspeck town. It's so dumb, I'm pissed off at Ms. Cauthen for teaching me how to read in first grade, thus paving the way for me to inflict this upon myself all these years later and be possessed by a sudden desire to make like Oedipus and carve my eyes out with a spork for having fed the information to my brain. That's how dumb this is.

But okay, let's do this thing. I'll just start from the top:

What could possibly be so unexpected that it can't reasonably be estimated? Boxes? A mess? Sasquatch? If after 20 or 30 or 40 years in business your employees can't survey a job site and reasonably estimate the time required to complete a job, you need to train them better.

What, indeed. How about a brief list of some of the things I've personally encountered in a short period of time that have slowed me up considerably? Customers who didn't describe their setup very well to the operator they placed an order with. Customers who are in the process of moving in and haven't got any of their stuff unpacked or arranged yet. Customers who change their mind about what they want after you've arrived, and expect you to magically produce a revised order, or spend an hour making a round trip to go get the equipment you need. Customers who want to argue about custom labor fees. Customers who don't want new cables run through a wall or floor. Wasting time trying to contact and get permission from a landlord because the customer didn't do it themselves. Supervisors who drop two more jobs on you halfway through the day, fucking up whatever unimportant plans you thought you had. A family of hoarders. Dangerous twelve-pitch roofs in hundred-degree-plus temperatures. Gag-inducing crawl spaces, possibly occupied by snakes or black widows. Old, outdated cable that needs to be replaced. Equipment that doesn't work right out of the box. Lost tools. Incoherent directions or places so far out from civilization that GPS can't find them. Lack of cellphone/handheld service for closing orders. Remember, this is a brief list. Off the top of my head.

Train them better? Oh, jeepers, Pollyanna, if only you could hear my cynical, bitter belly-laugh right now! We, as technicians, especially as subcontractors, are just numbers. This company in particular has been through over 140 techs between me and my boss, the most recent hire before me still working. It's cheaper to throw us out in the field with a half-assed understanding of what we're doing and hope for a fucking miracle than it would be for the company to bother training us properly for a couple months. If we can't get it done, they'll just shovel dirt on our worn-out corpses and bring in the next batch of guys willing to work like prisoners on a chain-gang for no benefits.

Ask the customer what he's got before you send Johnny Cablequest over to his pad.

The people you talk to on the phone when you order cable or satellite television are call-center minions somewhere across the country, or even the world. They only see a spot on a map when they tell you that you can have service, and they only exist to make sales. They have no idea what your house looks like, or what sort of things could present obstacles for a tech. They throw a laundry list of material on the work order and leave it up to us to figure out the details of what the customer actually wants and needs when we show up. And most customers, through no fault of their own, simply don't know what they've got, what it does or how it works. I've been tipped in cash by effusively grateful people for hooking up component cables to their DVD player, because they didn't know how to do it. They don't know how to follow menu prompts on their screen. Asking them techie questions over the phone is destined to end in tears (probably mine).

Moreover, technicians encountering problems should be equipped to report back to home base so that the company can adjust. Is this particular job going to take all day? Might be a good idea to assign that technicians queue of appointments to another cable guy.

Home base? You mean to my supervisor, who's busy working several jobs himself even though he's been told a couple times this week he won't be routed so that he can be on hand to help the rest of us out? Another cable guy? You mean the other handful of guys who are also struggling under the weight of four, five or six jobs a day? What, you think there's a bunch of us being paid to sit around on call 24/7 in case someone needs help? A cryogenic storage chamber full of techs ready to be thawed and sent out? Hell, for that matter, when you get paid by the job, not the hour, as we do, there are quite a few guys who would not want to see their next three jobs taken away and given to someone else, even if it did get them home earlier.

By contrast, Comcast now uses dynamic dispatch, which effectively lets it triage installs. A tech arrives at an appointment and reports back from the scene how much time is expected for the work order. As the job progresses, the company can make adjustments on the fly things start getting behind. It's a technology solution to a human problem.

"Giving all our techs laptops and handhelds is helping us shrink the appointment window," says Moyer.

We use a dispatcher, laptops and handhelds as well. Of course, those handhelds are slower than molasses, can't pick up service in half the places we go, and lose battery power pretty quickly. (And they take ten dollars out of every check for the privilege of using them!) The dispatcher becomes one more annoyance to deal with, one more loss of several minutes when you're desperately trying to finish a job, and half the time, we don't know when the fuck we're going to get to the next stop anyway, so we generally don't call anyone, customer or dispatcher, unless we know beyond all doubt that we're not going to make the appointment timeframe.

Word of advice: if you ever have to make a service appointment, whether it be for plumbing, electrical work, cable or satellite, and they offer you the eight to twelve, twelve to four, four to eight options? Take the early one if at all possible. By the last timeframe, the technician is almost guaranteed to be starving, thirsty (what, you think we get lunchbreaks or something?), mentally exhausted, royally pissed off, and ready to take any shortcut to get the fuck home as quickly as possible. (And if they ask to use your bathroom, let them. You don't even want to know how many of them proudly admit to relieving themselves in someone's crawlspace after being denied use of the facilities. Same principle as not sending food back in a restaurant, basically. Hey, I'm just reporting what I've seen and heard, that's all.)

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

You Can't Fire Me Because I Quit

Reached my limit, gave my notice. Come next week, I'm free. I don't know what the future will hold, money-wise, but maybe at least it will be rich in blogging once more. Watch this space.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011


Alan Jacobs:

While virtually anyone who wants to do so can train his or her brain to the habits of long-form reading, in any given culture, few people will want to. And that's to be expected. Serious "deep attention" reading has always been and will always be a minority pursuit, a fact that has been obscured in the past half-century, especially in the United States, by the dramatic increase in the percentage of the population attending college, and by the idea (only about 150 years old) that modern literature in vernacular languages should be taught at the university level.

...The extreme reader, to coin a phrase, is a rare bird indeed. ("I have done what people do, my life makes a reasonable showing," Lynne Sharon Schwartz writes. "Can I go back to my books now?") Such people are born, not made, I think; or mostly born and only a little made. They take care of themselves; they always do go back to their books.

...Rose's book is largely a celebration of autodidacticism, of people whose reading—and especially the reading of classic texts, from Homer to Dante to Shakespeare to the great Romantic poets—wasn't imposed on them by anyone, and who often had to overcome significant social obstacles in order to read. "The autodidacts' mission statement," Rose writes, was "to be more than passive consumers of literature, to be active thinkers and writers. Those who proclaimed that 'knowledge is power' meant that the only true education is self-education, and they often regarded the expansion of formal educational opportunities with suspicion."

It's easy to lament the ignorance of the masses, and worse, their indifference to being so, but I do remind myself that reading, writing, and words in general are abstractions, and a deep love of them is a rarefied passion; erotic, really. Reading for me was an escape from a world I'd rather not interact with, and accumulating knowledge, even of a practically useless kind, was a way to excel at something, despite having no interest or aptitude for what most people thought life was all about. Books weren't forced on me in a way that would ruin the enjoyment for me, nor handed to me on a platter so as to make me take the privilege of leisure for reading for granted, and the concomitant need for them has helped sustain my lifelong burning passion for them.

Perchance to Dream

“Thought,” Bachelard says, “is reverie brought to a center. Reverie is thought turned loose.” One of the lessons of reverie is that you have to sleep with your eyes open occasionally so that knowledge can find the path hearts take...
Because it generously accords the world the absentmindedness it deserves, reverie is light years distant from being a distraction, which does reality the considerable honor of turning its back on it. In fact, reverie celebrates the rediscovery of understanding and imagination, sets free the secret of disinterest which, because it lets you see beauty without your consent and see nature without ego, invests the world with intense interest.

Work is easing up for me, thank you for your concern. But I still aim to carve out more space for exactly the sort of thing Enthoven poetically muses about here. A lot of my writing comes from having the time to read a plethora of different sources and let the resulting ideas germinate. Even when I have time in the evenings to get online, it takes a while to shift my consciousness into a receptive state for absorbing new thoughts and letting them work their magic in my head. I need to spend a lot of time being useless to the world to feel useful to myself, it seems.

Friday, August 05, 2011

If I Could Be All By Myself I Could Be Me

Chris Colin:

There’s an essential freedom in being alone with one’s thoughts, oblivious to and unpolluted by anyone else’s. Diminish that aloneness and we start to doubt our own perspective. Do I really think Blue Bottle coffee is that great? Or Blazing Saddles that funny? Do I really not like that pizza place because it isn’t authentic New York-style? Sure, it’s entirely possible to arrive at one’s own opinion amidst a cacophony of others. But it’s also possible to bend, unknowingly and imperceptibly, toward a position not naturally our own.

Not "naturally" our own? When do we ever have our own "natural" opinions, uncolored by the years we spent as impressionable youths, unknowingly and imperceptibly absorbing the ideas, prejudices and social mores of everyone from our parents to our teachers to our peers to the commercials during our Saturday morning cartoons? And why is he talking as if we are born with preexisting, uncorrupted, pure opinions on consumer products anyway?

Of course, I don't dispute that it's a good thing to try to consciously resist going along with advertising campaigns or the mob's collective opinion, but the idea that we ever develop our sense of selves outside of our context as social animals is ludicrous. Every idea you have has been thought of in some form by someone else before. The language you use to formulate your thoughts and express your hopes and wishes has been a work in progress for thousands of years with contributions from countless other people. As the Zen koan says, show me your original face before you were born.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Break Glass in Case of Emergency

I know I might be wrong
But I'm sick of pretending
I've listened to you too long
And nothing's ever mending

- Helmet

"You're ready to quit, aren't you? I can hear it in your voice."

That was my boss talking to me last night around ten o'clock. I was filling him in on the maddening details of the last job I was on, which I was going to have to leave unfinished. I told him he probably didn't want me to answer that right then.

Thursdays are my one day off. The other six days have all been 12-15 hours long for the last few weeks. Of course, I spend most of Thursday trying to get as much shit done as I possibly can that I don't have time to do during the rest of the week, so it's not necessarily a day of rest.

So I had a strategy session with the parental units this morning. I told them I didn't think I could take another five to six weeks of this frantic, ceaseless pace, especially in hundred-plus degree temperatures, and I want to withdraw several thousand of my savings to live off of for a few months while I find something less brutal. My dad urged me as strongly as he could not to quit one job before having another lined up, but there's the rub: when the hell do I have time to do a sustained job search, let alone go in for interviews or training? There are many nights when I literally don't have time to eat when I get home; it's all I can do to wash off the day's sweat and grime before collapsing into bed.

I appreciate the wisdom of trying to plan ahead for retirement; thanks for all your help, Dad. But at this point, I'm more concerned with trying to make it to 40 without being a physical wreck and a mindless zombie; to hell with worrying about what my life will be like at 70, even assuming that my savings don't disappear in the next several cycles of recession/depression as the nation continues circling the drain here. So today, I'm going to be making inquiries and calling in favors to see if I can find a way out of this hamster wheel existence.

Plus, I have got to get back to regular writing.

...Also, let me nick several lines from the welcome return of IOZ:

Well, look, I will not be the first to point out the near-total spiritual impoverishment of Homo economicus, but it's a point that bears infinite repeating; if the most essential function of each individual human life is that it be employed to do something, anything, for four decades of its existence, if that is the true measure of man, then we should all commit suicide forthwith. There is no reason to go on living. There is naught but despair and untimely death. Better to pick the manner of one's own departure. If the final purpose of your being is to toil for sustenance and then to die, then you are among the lowest orders of animals, a bare step beyond a paramecium. Look, I am tired of telling you that Democrats are ridiculous, that Republicans are ridiculous, that Barack Obama is a murderer, that Thomas Friedman is dumb, that Matthew Yglesias is silly, that teevee rots your brain. Beyond the merely pecuniary and the venial: what does your life mean to you beyond your paystub and your appetites?

Your Body is the Temple

Mark Edmundson:

Health should manifest itself as a means to an end. We want to be healthy so we can get something practical done—or better still, something divine, something celestial. But now, since we do not know what we are doing here, do not know what we want or need, health has become an end in itself. People pursue health for its own sake. Why do you want to live? we ask the compulsive exerciser. The answer is not So that I can finish the work; so that I can make the discovery; so that I can find enduring love. The answer now—implicit, but to me, alas, unmistakable—is that I want to live simply to go on living. With the disappearance of tenable ideals, life, simple life, has become the great goal.

...All of the energy that once went into the pursuit of the ideal is now dormant, for almost no one can believe in ideals anymore. A quest for artistic perfection? Absurd. A search for true and absolute knowledge? A joke. A life's dedication to compassion and lovingkindness? You must be kidding. So what is to be done with the power of human will that might once have sought after these things? It is redirected to more quotidian business. People now pursue a means—staying alive—as though it were an end in itself. Epic measures of energy invest a rank banality, for in truth there is no sustaining meaning to be had, no triumph to be achieved, simply in the maintenance of biological life.

I agree that the effort to simply prolong existence has become a raison d'être for many people, but I think he's overlooking how fanatical health regimens provide one of the few socially acceptable opportunities for condescending, judgmental moralizing, at least among the class of people who have the time and leisure to carefully tailor their diet and exercise for maximum benefit. Not to mention how it allows for the reappearance of that good old Protestant work ethic, and the accompanying smug pride in knowing you're one of the saved, the elect. The temple might be biological these days, but priests will always be with us in some form, it appears.