Saturday, March 31, 2012

They Call Me the Wanderer, Yeah, the Wanderer

Recently on Big Think:

A Wandering Mind Is an Intelligent Mind

Resent research suggests that mind wandering is associated with good working memory, itself a measure of intelligence, reading comprehension and IQ score.


Why Day Dreaming Is Good For You

"A wandering mind can protect you from immediate perils and keep you on course toward long-term goals," says The New York Times. Researchers find benefits to being a bit airy. "There’s an evolutionary advantage to the brain’s system of mind wandering, says Eric Klinger, a psychologist at the University of Minnesota and one of the pioneers of the field.


Wandering Minds Unhappier

A study has found that daydreaming is not good for your mood. "Volunteers were unhappier when their thoughts were elsewhere. Statistical tests showed that mind-wandering earlier in the day correlated with a poorer mood later in the day, but not vice versa, suggesting that unhappiness with their current activity wasn't prompting people to mentally escape. Instead, their wandering minds were the cause of their gloom."

It's true; those of us out here on the evolutionary vanguard with high IQs and super-sticky memories are nonetheless prone to spells of melancholy. The pressure and expectations just get to you, you know? Ah, fie; fie upon't.

Seriously, if I didn't spend so much time daydreaming while listening to music, it might be fun to carefully read Big Think and Miller-McCune just to keep track of all the irrelevant and hilariously contradictory studies they report.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Ah, Now We See the Violence Inherent In the System

Just a few weeks ago, I offered what I knew to be a futile message to the Internet:

I know it's an almost-irresistible fantasy, that your cool little consumer products are also lawful good agents that allow you to shape history for the better without even having to leave your comfy seat, but social media sites are simply fulcrums and levers, indifferent to the moral nature of the mass opinion they leverage into action. Blinding speed of communication can just as easily facilitate the spread of rumors and lies. I almost can't wait for some reactionary group to dramatically utilize Facebook and Twitter for their own ends just to finally put an end to all this inane boosterism.

Hmm. Well, I guess this will have to do for now:

An elderly couple have fled to a hotel room after their Sanford-area address was mistakenly linked to George Zimmerman, who shot and killed Florida teenager Trayvon Martin last month.

Director Spike Lee retweeted the false address to his more than 240,000 followers last week and the address has continued to spread on social networking sites. He later deleted the retweet.

The 70-year-old Elaine McClain and her 72-year-old David McClain began receiving unwanted visits from reporters and hate mail. The couple said they feared for their lives.

On the bright side, maybe Spike will be duly chastened now and get to work on trying to make a good movie for a change instead of inciting vigilante mobs. And with any luck, this kind of thing might disabuse the rank-and-file Twittards of their most self-important delusions of heroic grandeur. Yeah, I know. I cracked up as I wrote that.

Eisejesus

Mary Liz:

After services, I chatted with the youth minister about Christianity’s current image problem. “Oh, you mean the whole ‘If you don’t agree with everything I say, you’re going to hell’ thing?” she asked. “Yeah, that gets old.” And my mother-in-law, a retired minister, agreed. “Certainly traditional Christianity talks about judgment,” she said. “But I think the stronger emphasis in the Bible is love and grace. Some of the last words Jesus spoke were of forgiveness. That’s my faith.” And she added that it’s a faith that we as Americans are supposed to enjoy without ramming down anybody else’s throats. “Roger Williams left Plymouth because he didn’t want to adhere to all the dictates imposed on people by the Puritan group,” she said. “When the state and the religion became the same, he fled. He established the basic principals (sic) on which our country was founded — the freedom of religion and the separation of church and state.”

...I’m not out to convert anybody. And though I’m raising my children with our prayers and religious traditions, I’m also constantly challenging them to ask questions, express their doubts and figure things out for themselves. I’m trying to bring them up — in the truest sense of that phrase – in a community where we’re all free to look at the universe differently, as Christians and Jews and Muslims and atheists, without derision.

At a reading earlier this week, the author Stephen Elliott said something to the assembly that resonated deeply for me. He said, “Your truth is different from my truth. And we’re both right.” In a culture of arrogance and self-righteousness on either end of the dial, it’s a tough concept to embrace. But coexistence is only possible when we’re not screaming at each other, smugly pronouncing the other guy either sinful or stupid. All that many of us, as non extreme Christians, want is to simply be treated with the same respect and tolerance that our faith teaches us to give to others. Because whatever else we all believe, how can we ever go on as a diverse, thriving culture if we don’t believe first in each other?

As it happens, I had ample opportunity to think about this last weekend while on a trip up north with my dad and girlfriend to the ancestral homeland. My paternal side of the family was Amish until only about three generations ago, and my great-grandfather was the first president of a Bible college. We had book business at said college as well as a church, and while refamiliarizing ourselves with old haunts and landmarks, we made time to visit the Ephrata Cloister (I would have gone to Roadside America myself, but I got outvoted).

Even if I think asceticism is, for all practical intents and purposes, a form of insanity, I can somewhat respect the devotion and seriousness involved in traveling thousands of miles to carve out such an existence. Ducking under doorframes that were purposely cut low to force entrants to bow their heads in humility, seeing the fifteen-inch-wide wooden boards and small blocks that served for beds and pillows, hearing about the demanding routine of work and prayer on one meal a day; it was all a clear example of what it means to take your religion seriously enough to arrange your life around it, to sacrifice contentedness and genial relationships if need be, for what you perceive as truth. Inarguable, undeniable truth.

Afterward, my dad asked about an offhand comment our tour guide had made, suggesting that William Penn was responsible for establishing freedom of worship in the colonies. Rifling through memories of having done a dress-up presentation/book report on the man in seventh grade, I couldn't remember enough about him to say for sure how much credit, if any, he deserves for his contributions to modern religious tolerance. Penn founded the colony as a "holy experiment", and many pacifist, quietist sects settled there. All well and good. But I suspect that the sort of "freedom of religion" that the pre-Revolution colonists were interested in was a more libertarian-ish version, a "Leave me alone to do what I want" type. The majority of colonial Christians were Calvinists to one degree or another, after all. And as long as you were willing to brave the frontier, you could go as far as you needed to find a place to worship whichever derivative of Protestantism you wanted without having to fear being made into kindling.

Which kind of gets back to the earlier point. These people were still arguing over truth, which was, of course, presumed to be a Christian truth. There was no general concept of everybody's path being just as valid as anyone else's. Dissenters left their communities because they were sure that the establishment had lost its way in worldliness and falsehood (and sometimes because their fanatical self-righteousness made them insufferable to be around). For a universal ideal of tolerance open to anyone simply on the basis of their shared humanity and enshrined in the rule of law, you need Enlightenment idealism. If you want to give credit to someone for instituting the sort of tolerance that we moderns take to be common sense, look to Jefferson and Madison. The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was the product of Enlightenment values, not biblical study:

When Jefferson's bill came up again in 1786, it passed by a vote of 60 to 27. In an attempt to give some kind of official recognition to Christianity, some assemblymen tried to insert an acknowledgment of “Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion.” Jefferson took pleasure in the fact that “the insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan, the Hindoo, the infidel of every denomination.”

People like Johann Beissel came here to get away from the endless religious wars in Europe, like the Thirty Years War which had left around 40% of the German population dead a century earlier. In the decades just prior to the French Revolution, right around the time that Jefferson and Madison were developing their ideas, people like Jean Calas and Jean-François de la Barre were still suffering the sort of torture and execution we associate with the Dark Ages centuries earlier. Almost 1500 years of Christianity being synonymous with the state, and that sort of thing was still happening. I stress this point because it's become a core part of the spiritual-not-religious mythology to claim that Jefferson's legacy, our current understanding of religious tolerance, the one that allows "the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan, the Hindoo, the infidel" to live and let live without fear of violent coercion, has been the guiding ideal of religion all along. This would be laughable if it weren't so intellectually dishonest.

I mean, even Hinduism and Buddhism haven't been completely immune to sectarian strife and violence; it takes immense stores of chutzpah and ignorance to claim that monotheism's record of the same is all an aberration from the "real" message, which, as always, corresponds exactly with the speaker's opinion. And with monotheism, the exclusivity is the entire point. The joys of the afterlife are only available to those who believe. We have the truth. You can either accept it or we can kill you. There will be no peaceful coexistence with heresy and willful perversity. Sin is not just another lifestyle choice.

Among many similar passages, Jesus said he was the way, the truth and the life, and that no one came to the Father but by him. If you're not with him, you're against him, and if you don't gather with him, you scatter. I have yet to hear of any alternate gospels where he added, "But, y'know, really, as long as you try your best and don't act like too much of a dick, it's all good. I don't really care. Peace out." If you don't believe in sin and its consequences, there's nothing to be saved from, the entire narrative makes no sense, and Jesus is just one more apocalyptic Jewish prophet eagerly anticipating the end of the world. You want everyone to just get along? Great. You don't agree with the Manichean overtones in the Bible and Quran? Wonderful. You want to just refer to them occasionally as culturally shared sources of non-denominational, inspirational aperçus? Well, I might have to say that you have terrible, unimaginative taste in literature, but sure, okay, fine. All I ask is that you own up to the responsibility of taking such a rebellious step.

I can respect people who put themselves through immense hardships for what they feel to be the truth. I can respect biblical scholars like Bart Ehrman who have a passion for truth and knowledge instilled in them by their faith, but when their pursuit of truth leads them to the crossroads where it parts ways with faith, they have the integrity to keep going even as they wistfully look back in sorrow. But I can't respect people who only hear what they want to hear; people who ramble on and on about higher truths greater than themselves while simultaneously stretching the word "truth" until the elastic in it snaps; people who use texts not as portals to an unknown way of experiencing the world, but as mirrors to reflect their own face back at them.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

You've Been Taken But You Don't Know It Yet

Oh, Al Jourgensen:

“That’s what I want people to do. Get up, get out, and vote. Now, if they had any brains, they would hit the “D” button. I mean, c’mon, look at these Republican knuckleheads. It’s like a goddamned clown car with more goofy ass clowns coming out each week. They’ll probably be having their damn primary though the summer at this rate (This interview took place in late January. The Republican presidential primary currently still has four main contenders for the nomination). It’s a fucking joke. I hate Republicans.”


“To me, the guy that makes the most sense out of all those guys is Rick Santorum,” Mustaine said. “He just looked like he could be a really cool president, kind of like a JFK kind of guy.” Indeed, Santorum is Catholic, as was JFK. Mustaine also clarified that he believed U.S. Pres. Barack Obama was not born in America, while denying that he was a “birther,” further proving that Dave Mustaine doesn’t know what words mean and that we shouldn’t take any of his political opinions seriously and should just drown it out to the riff from “Hangar 18.”

See what heroin and crack do, kids? They make you take partisan politics seriously.

Atropos, Please

It was three years ago today that I got the completely unexpected news that one of my dogs had lymphoma, so reading this essay from Joe Yonan was especially poignant for me:

At age 7, Red had been otherwise healthy when he started wheezing one day last October. The vet thought he had allergies and advised me to return if he didn’t get better within a couple of weeks. Two weeks later, a chest X-ray showed a mild pneumonia, and the vet sent Red and me home with antibiotics that she hoped Red would respond to within a few days. I gave him a dose at about 1 p.m. and went to work; when I returned that evening, he was dead.

It’s too painful to describe the extent of my immediate reaction, or really the reactions that unfolded over the following days, weeks and even months. But I will say that when Gromit was dying, I kept repeating the words, “Thank you.” In Red’s case, too late for him to hear, I kept repeating, “I’m sorry.”

The fact that our pets are so dependent on us makes it all too easy to second-guess our decisions and descend into a pit of guilt. Shouldn’t I have known? Did I do everything I could? If I had just . . . what? Taken him to the vet sooner? Insisted he be hospitalized? What if I had been home? I might not have been able to save him, but at least in his last moments he would have known I was with him, and maybe that would have made it a little easier for him if not for me.

Three and a half months later, my oldest dog woke up from a nap doing what they call "reverse sneezing", with a thin trail of snot leaking out of his nostril. It turned out to be a tumor in his sinuses, which was inoperable and basically untreatable. I set myself to nursing them both through to the end as best I could.

The younger dog died as well as anyone can die -- at home, in good spirits, quietly and uneventfully. My vet came out to my house to make it as easy on me as much as him. We sat on the screened-in back porch with him that chilly October morning and held him, listening to his breath, until there was only silence.

The older dog hung on another fifty-five days. By Thanksgiving week, every day was spent agonizing over my inability to do anything for him, endlessly debating with myself over when it would finally be time. On Monday evening, I finally gave him some heavy-duty painkillers out of desperation, and to my surprise, it seemed to make him feel much better. Tuesday morning, we got home from work (he always went with me when I worked in the newspaper biz), and he was energetic, almost playful. Later that day, a guy brought firewood out to my house, and he dutifully stood in the kitchen window and barked at him while we unloaded it.

Within a few hours, he seemed to look uncomfortable again. We would later deduce that he must have had an allergic reaction to the painkillers.

The next morning, I could barely rouse him. His forehead on one side was swollen and lumpy, and his eye seemed to have moved off-center, probably from the pressure of the tumor. His breathing was labored. While driving around, I kept turning around to check on him, half-expecting to see him unconscious and not breathing. But he made it back home, where I made a tearful call to my vet.

We decided to meet at the clinic, even though she wasn't working that day, because she wouldn't be able to make it out to my house anytime soon. I hated not being able to offer him that comfort, since he hated the vet clinic, but circumstances being what they were, I figured I had to make the sacrifice, and I didn't want to have to make an even worse trip to the emergency vet on Thanksgiving and deal with complete strangers. We agreed that maybe it would be a suitable compromise if I kept him in the car, and she could come out there to give him the shot, rather than stress him out by bringing him inside the clinic.

So that's what we did. She gave him the first shot in his rear leg to knock him out, and went back inside to give us a few minutes alone with him while he drifted off. I crouched down in front of him and began stroking his head and back and saying all the things I wanted to say to him while he could still hear me.

I wasn't thinking about the fact that he had been having trouble sleeping as the tumor grew, because it was interfering with his breathing, of course. He was constantly hacking and snoring, unable to sleep for long before waking up, sort of like when you have the flu.

So as I was crouched there, nose-to-nose with him, his eyes suddenly flew wide open. His head raised up, his mouth stretched in a grimace, and he started frantically clawing at the seats. Blood and pus started oozing from his nose and even his eyes as he thrashed violently. "I'll hold him. Go, go!" my stepson said, as I stared in horrified shock, before I turned and ran into the clinic to get the vet.

She and a tech rushed out and hurriedly finished the procedure while we restrained him. I stood with my hand on his head, weeping over the unfairness, the indignity of it all, the inability to even usher him out comfortably like I had wanted, before I collapsed on the car and sobbed until I was exhausted.

The massive sedatives had allowed him to sleep more deeply than he had in months, enough so that it prevented him from consciously adjusting to breathe better. He essentially started suffocating. My vet tried to assure me that "he" wasn't really there; it was all just an unconscious reaction of brute biology. But I looked into his eyes while he was desperately struggling, and I'm not so sure. I mean, it's easy to say when you'll never get to ask him what he was aware of in those moments. And I don't believe in such a sharp, clean distinction between "you" and "your body". The possibility of even one brief second of his conscious mind surfacing above the narcotic waves, terrified and looking for me to help him, is too much for me to bear; it will haunt me for the rest of my life. The thought that he might have died in fear and confusion makes me feel like a failure. Amor fati, hell; I'd rearrange my whole life to make that day easier for him.

I've told him I'm sorry countless times since then, and probably will countless more. An act of penance that can never be acknowledged and never expiate.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Eph-em-er-i

I realize there's a shiny-object novelty to all things neuro right now, but I'm still amazed that people think brain scans are telling us something qualitatively different about identity and agency that the psychologists, philosophers, novelists and marketing/advertising executives haven't already noted. Watching people freak out over a perceived threat to their incoherent notion of free will is just as oddly amusing as watching people subtract God from Universe and end up with Nihilism as an answer.

Oh, Descartes and Kant, what long, haunting shadows you cast over our lives.

Horses to Water

Seth Mnookin:

The problems start with Eagleman’s premise, which is so vague and broad as to be practically meaningless. There are, he writes, just “a handful of reasons” that civilizations collapse: “dis­ease, poor in­for­ma­tion flow, nat­u­ral dis­as­ters, po­lit­i­cal cor­rup­tion, re­source de­ple­tion and eco­nomic melt­down.” Lucky for us (and Eagleman does offer readers “[c]ongratulations on living in a fortuitous moment in history”), the technology that created the web “obviates many of the threats faced by our ancestors. In other words...[t]he advent of the internet represents a watershed moment in history that just might rescue our future.”

On the other hand, it just might not: In order to make his point, Eagleman either ignores or doesn’t bother to look for any evidence that might undercut it. The first of six “random access” chapters that make up the bulk of Why The Net Matters is devoted to “Sidestepping Epidemics,” like the smallpox outbreak that helped bring down the Aztec Empire. In the future, Eagleman writes, the “protective net,” in the form of telemedicine, telepresence (“the ability to work remotely via computer”), and sophisticated information tracking, will save us from these outbreaks. That all sounds lovely, but what of the fact that we’re currently experiencing a resurgence in vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles...a resurgence which is fueled in no small part by misinformation spread over that very same “protective net”?

I can scarcely believe my good fortune, but this book seems to be a hybrid of two of my favorite genres of writing -- the "It Gets Better" school of historical analysis, and techno-triumphalism. Human nature is either changing for the better, or if not, our technological inventions will neutralize our flaws. It's strange, isn't it, this -- what should we call it? -- this crackpot meme-geneticism that only "good" ideas will produce offspring in the form of consequences; the bad ones will apparently wither away like the state under Communism. It's strange, this belief in intellectual alchemy, this idea that if you just compile ever-greater quantities of data, it will somehow morph into wisdom.

It's pretty widely accepted that reading books is a sign of virtue, of being a more all-around intelligent, nuanced thinker. But I can tell you that some of the books I've recently come across that were both profitable and possessed of a high sales rank were pseudoscience like The Bell Curve, books on feng shui and homeopathy, and books on lunatic conspiracy theories. Educated people with disposable income and Internet savvy buy these books. What I'm saying is, information, speed and efficiency are, in and of themselves, amoral. Knowledge is not simply the result of rational consumers surveying a balanced marketplace of ideas and making a dispassionate choice.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Words Like Violence Break the Silence, Come Crashing In, Into My Little World

David Brooks:

De Botton believes that secular people should create communal restaurants that mimic the Passover Seder. Atheists would sit at big, communal tables. They would find guidebooks in front of them, reminiscent of the Jewish Haggadah or the Catholic missal. The rituals of the meal would direct diners to speak with one another, asking questions of their neighbors like “Whom can you not forgive?” or “What do you fear?”

I'm on the road again, which partially explains the lack of posts this week. But anyway, having just eaten at a "family-style dining" restaurant where you're seated at a long table with at least two other groups of people and introduced to each other by your server, let me just say that de Botton himself is the person whom I cannot forgive. If I may be so blunt, I would add that I currently have a visceral urge to pummel that silly bastard all about his bald, oblong head. What do I fear? I fear being trapped and expected to feign interest in a group of strangers telling me about the awesome biblical musical they just saw while hoping I don't have to answer busybody questions about the lack of meat on my plate, that's what I fear. Thanks for asking.

Alain, I'm terribly sorry for your unresolved daddy issues, sorry that you feel lost without the shepherding authority of religion, but seriously, just speak for your fucking self. Some of us are made positively miserable by forced socialization and inane small talk.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Splitters!

Hemant Mehta:

It’s not very often we see this many people come together under one banner to show the nation there are a lot of non-religious people out there, and we don’t all fall into the “angry older white guy” stereotype, and we want to see church/state separation upheld, and we don’t want to be ignored anymore. The fact that we have people on the stage who hold views we find unreasonable or objectionable just shows we’re not a uniform group.

If we want to get attention for a rally like this, we need big-name celebrities to attend. We need politicians to speak. Sure, we can have a rally with PZ Myers and only the people he wants to invite, but it won’t draw the same numbers and it won’t get the same level of attention.

You can argue that the Rally needs higher “standards,” but you’re missing the point. This isn’t just about us. This isn’t just about spreading science and atheism. This is about drawing attention to our movement. This is about getting media attention. This is about getting all those people not attending the rally (or who don’t even know there are so many other atheists out there) to notice us and maybe — just maybe — get the courage to come out of the closet or attend a local atheist gathering.

Personally, I'm indifferent to the whole shebang. I might go, since I'm only a few hours away, but I'd be most looking forward to seeing Tim Minchin, if anything. My greatest fear is that it would just be hours of standing around in unseasonably warm weather, listening to live versions of those boring "Why I Am an Atheist" stories. Either way, I'm pretty sure there won't be any historically significant, MLK-style speeches, so, yeah, some people could stand to ease up on the ideological purity tests. The atheist movement, such as it is, does not have to spring forth upon the national consciousness fully formed like Athena from Zeus's forehead, displaying perfectly proportioned diversity and a uniform message.

The sad thing is, I happened across the link to this post on another blog, where it was accompanied by an all-too-predictable snarky comment about the number of older white guys who got invited to speak, with the obvious implication that this is prima facie a bad thing. Well, you go to rallies with the prominent atheists you have, not the ones you wish you had. The old white guys are not the issue, dude. Also, dude, old white guy is not the preferred nomenclature. Elderly Caucasian-American, please.

Seriously, if you want to protest every single injustice and inequality simultaneously, there's probably an OWS encampment nearby. Stick to the basic rah-rah-atheism theme for this particular event, and save all the identity politicking for later.

Speaking of effective messaging, though:

If one of the Republican presidential candidates wanted to voice his support for our right to assemble, and our right to not believe in god, and his belief that we’re just as American as religious people, I hope we’d give that person a mic, too. Because more Americans need to hear that message.

Already happened, actually. Come to think of it, that guy's schedule seems a lot more open these days; maybe someone should check and see if he'd be willing to reprise his statements. For that kind of entertainment value, I would definitely attend.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Agit-Flop

Jennifer Koons:

Twitter and Facebook have been widely credited with enabling citizens to upend dictatorial regimes.

But while oppressive governments were initially caught off guard by the new media tools, those still in power appear finally to be catching on. In some cases they are happily embracing social networking to play Big Brother in a way never before possible.

Many governments struggling with dissent appear to be using a double-barreled strategy to fight back against the so-called Facebook revolutions: classic repression and by promoting their own views using the very same platforms.

Awww, that's no fun! Without our pretensions of facilitating heroic revolution, we're just going to be a bunch of generic, self-absorbed jagoffs with expensive toy phones! Hmmph! Oh, well, at least I've still got my kewl Che t-shirt.

Seriously, it would have been nice if Koons could have mentioned Evgeny Morozov's book on this very topic, though.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

To Live Well, You Must Live Unseen

Sam McDougle:

Do humans, especially children, have a built in bias that tells them where the self is, and if so, how and why would this have evolved? Paul Bloom and Christina Starmans, of Yale Univeristy, published a clever research article last week in the journal Cognition, arguing that children and adults tend to assume the self is in and around the eyes.

...Why we would people have this eye bias? What is it about the eyes that gives them the honor of Official Self Palace?... Think about it – if you’re trying to really understand what’s going on in someone’s head, you can’t just focus on what they say – you have to stare them in the eye. That’s why so many poker players wear sunglasses.

...I would venture a guess that the evolution of the language of the eyes predates verbal language. There’s something more universal, primal, and emotional about looking into someone’s eyes — it’s a language of the reptilian brain, not the cortices of complex thought.


Introversion – along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness – is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology. Introverts living under the Extrovert Ideal are like women in a man's world, discounted because of a trait that goes to the core of who they are. Extroversion is an enormously appealing personality style, but we've turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform.

If you're an introvert, you also know that the bias against quiet can cause deep psychic pain. As a child you might have overheard your parents apologise for your shyness. Or at school you might have been prodded to come "out of your shell" – that noxious expression that fails to appreciate that some animals naturally carry shelter everywhere they go, and that some humans are just the same. "All the comments from childhood still ring in my ears, that I was lazy, stupid, slow, boring," writes a member of an email list called Introvert Retreat. "By the time I was old enough to figure out that I was simply introverted, it was a part of my being, the assumption that there is something inherently wrong with me. I wish I could find that little vestige of doubt and remove it."

Now that you're an adult, you might still feel a pang of guilt when you decline a dinner invitation in favour of a good book. Or maybe you like to eat alone in restaurants and could do without the pitying looks from fellow diners. Or you're told that you're "in your head too much," a phrase that's often deployed against the quiet and cerebral.

Or, as Lao Tzu said, you like to be forgotten by the world and left alone. I agree with Robert Butler: not everyone wants validation and approval, thanks anyway.

Taciturn and retiring, sequestered in the farthest corner, in unremarkable drab clothing, my hat pulled low, my hair and beard shrouding my face, my eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses. I become an opaque eyeball; I am nothing; I see all.

Saturday Shuffle

  1. Girlschool -- Demolition Boys
  2. Alabama 3 -- Converted
  3. Spirit Caravan -- Lost Sun Dance
  4. Eisbrecher -- Treiben
  5. Dark Tantrums -- Damage
  6. Cornershop -- We're In Yr Corner
  7. Masters of Reality -- Rolling Green
  8. The Chemical Brothers -- The Devil Is In the Beats
  9. Gomez -- Army Dub
  10. Rammstein -- Ohne Dich
  11. Ministry -- Let's Go
  12. Loreena McKennitt -- The Gates of Instanbul
  13. Raven -- Don't Need Your Money
  14. The Dresden Dolls -- Gravity
  15. Clutch -- 10001110101
  16. School of Seven Bells -- Dial
  17. Grouplove -- Tongue Tied
  18. Into Another -- Splinters
  19. Junkie XL -- Booming Right At You
  20. Kyuss -- Apothecaries' Weight

Friday, March 16, 2012

So, the People With the Books, They Went and Stood Up On the Mountain to Get Away From the People With No Books

Lisa Guidarini:

Between you and me, I wish I'd been born much earlier, even long enough ago I'd be turned to dust by now. Because I'd rather not have lived to see all that's happening. Words can't describe how much I hate what's being lost. Call me old fashioned, or backward, or whatever you'd like. Honestly, I don't care. What I dread is the day I have a grandchild who grows up without need of a bookcase, because all s/he needs is a pouch to hold an e-reader.

I was talking to my dad the other day about the publishing industry, print media, and the like. In response to his asking me if I had any interest in e-readers, I said that I only saw a couple possible advantages to them -- they could be useful for voracious readers who have limited living space or those who travel frequently. Being able to download a book instantly is nice, but of course that's only a convenience, not a necessity. I always have enough to read at any given time that I don't need that temptation, and I'm philosophically inclined to appreciate the wait for a book to arrive in the mail, anticipation being the sweetest part of acquisition, after all. Until that day comes when certain titles simply aren't made available in paper-and-glue format, I doubt I'll ever see the need to own one.

The irresistible force of my bibliophilic appetite runs up against the immoveable object of my slacker ethos, though, so I do buy a lot of my books from library sales and individual sellers on Amazon or Barnes & Noble so as to avoid penury. Personally, I appreciate receiving online recommendations based on my purchases; I've found many books that way that I didn't know existed. But these last couple days, I had business to tend to that brought me within shouting distance of my local B & N, so I stopped in for old time's sake.

I guess it's been a while since I last did some serious brick-and-mortar browsing because, let me tell you, I was overwhelmed by how many fascinating books I found that I had no knowledge of. I mean, I read a lot of literary blogs these days, and I thought I was staying fairly au courant with new releases. Not only was I wrong, but my recent abstinence helped throw something into sharp relief for me: there just isn't any substitute for browsing in the store. I'm serious, I was almost jittery/giddy with emotion. Quot libros, quam breve tempus! I just wanted to gather armloads of them up and scurry off to a corner of the store, snarling at anyone who dared disturb me. Were you ever told those possibly-apocryphal stories about Soviet citizens who would break down in tears upon coming to the land of freedom and encountering their first supermarket, struggling to believe that anything so wonderful could actually exist? It was sort of like that, only weirder, because I'm around books all the time. I guess it was just some sort of harmonic convergence, where I happened to be in the right frame of mind to be receptive to all the stimuli and have a transcendant experience.

What it was, actually, was a stark reminder that I'm one of those people for whom a "book" is a nexus of associations -- the beauty of the cover design, the feel of the dust jacket, the thrill of an interesting topic, the smell of coffee, the sound of classical music. I stood there and gazed at the shelves and felt as profoundly moved as I ever have from viewing art. I glanced at a copy of Alain de Botton's Religion for Atheists and laughed at the idea that this wasn't a "religious" experience for being unstructured and private. I made a hastily-scribbled list of what turned out to be thirty-two books to add to my wish list, and I resolved to make this a ritual visit again.

E-readers are great for people who see a "book" as only a horse and buggy for transmitting information, to be unsentimentally phased out in favor of motor vehicles. Sacrificial offerings to the twin gods of speed and compact efficiency. I sympathize with Lisa, but there are too many things I appreciate about the Internet age to wish I weren't part of it. I'll settle for prolonging this unsteady balance as long as possible, for preserving some pocket, however diminished, where people like me can continue to indulge in books as something greater than that.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Blame It On My ADD, Baby

NYRB:

Why Finish Books?


Why Finish TV Shows?

Is this a thing now? Are our attention spans really that burned out? Is it contagious? Because I don't even know if I feel like finishing th

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Question Is Whether You Can Make Words Mean So Many Different Things


The difference between what Louis said, and what Rush said is this: in his apology, Rush made a point of saying that his personal attacks on Ms. Fluke, were not intended “as a personal attack on Ms. Fluke.”

In other words, when he specifically called Sandra Fluke a “slut,” “a prostitute,” and encouraged her to post sex videos of herself online so he could watch, it was not personal. It was, therefore, general. Which I, for one, believe because it fits perfectly within the larger context of Rush Limbaugh’s twenty-plus years of ad hominem attacks on “feminazis” and gratuitous comments about all female journalists as “news babes.”

With Louis, his insult was actually the opposite: it was a highly personal attack. The target of his insult, Sarah Palin, so infuriated him that he felt the need to call her the very worst name he could think of. His insult referred to a specific woman at a specific time and place.

"Cunt" is the very worst name he could think of? Well, if we're going to take people at their word:

No words are bad, but some people start using them a lot to hurt other people, and then they become bad. They become hard to--and there's words that I love that I can't use because other people use them wrong, to hurt other people... like, the word "cunt" is a beautiful word. To me, there's just beauty in that word, and I don't--I mean aesthetically. It has--it's like chocolatey and round on the ends. I just like the--cunt--I just like the way it sounds. And I don't use it as an insult. I'm alone in the laundry. I'm like, ♪♪ cuunt cuuuunt ♪♪

I just like saying it. I would never call a woman a cunt, except for my mom, 'cause she likes it for some weird reason. But it's a very misused word. It's supposed to mean vagina, which I don't think works at all, because vaginas are so sweet. They're little, pretty things with little flower petal-y lips and--I hear a piccolo in my head every time I see a vagina. ♪♪ Doodle-oodle-doo ♪♪ ♪♪ did-a-liddle-loo ♪♪ ♪♪ bliddle-liddle-liddle-loo ♪♪

Even vagina's too harsh for-- they should be called, like, a falalalala. [sings pleasant sounds] There should be a butterfly fluttering around every vagina all the time. Just all the time. Little butterfly. When you go to the doctor, he's like, "Well, the butterfly looks good, so we're in good shape." How do you look at something that pretty and say, "That's a cunt!" -- that doesn't fit at all. Maybe if it was a giant vagina and it was attacking a town and throwing busses around and knocking over telephone poles. Then you could say, "Hey, somebody shoot that cunt with a bazooka!"

I guess, then, that he either meant it as a compliment toward Palin, or he thinks she's Godzilla.

Anyway, the gist of what I've been seeing about this argument seems to be that people like C.K. and Bill Maher are just guilty of isolated transgressions, but Rush is a certifiable misogynist, or as one recent article put it, Rush Limbaugh obviously and unambiguously hates women. Is that true, though? It reminds me of being accused of "hating America" -- it's so all-encompassing as to be nonsensical. I mean, I'd say that, like all conservatives, he hates change, if anything. I'm sure he likes women just fine, as long as they share his politics or keep themselves confined to a largely subordinate role in society. On the other hand, liberals support general concepts of gender equality, but often have no problem using crude sexual or racial insults toward individual members of the group in question who dissent in some way. Does that make them misogynists and racists to whatever degree, or just jerks?

Or, as the A.V. Club wisely sums up:

And thus really, as always, this all boils down to who said what about whom and whether you already like them, and we're not even going to pretend as though we don't like Louis C.K. a whole lot more than Rush Limbaugh or Greta Van Susteren.

Monday, March 12, 2012

One Always Finds One's Burden Again

Philosophical biographies of Nietzsche: good. Philosophical biographies of Nietzsche that contain brief examinations of his similarities to Epicurus? Why, it's like when some genius thought to mix peanut butter and chocolate.

Through all phases of his career, Nietzsche speaks repeatedly of one's Aufgabe, one's 'task' or 'mission'... Part of what is involved here is the so-called 'paradox of happiness': just as playing the piano or typing goes better if one avoids thinking about where the fingers are going, so happiness is best achieved, not by aiming directly at it, but rather by absorbing oneself in commitment to some task other than the achievement of one's own happiness... This is a fundamental theme in all of Nietzsche's writing: to cultivate oneself fully, as an integrated person, one needs a life-unifying task that gives unity and coherence to all one's lesser projects... Nietzsche holds, I think, that genuine happiness is a matter of having an other-directed, life-defining task and feeling you are making a good job of it; making, as we say, 'a contribution'.

...Then again, in contrast to the frenetic pace of modernity and to its obsession with activity and production, the new culture will place a high value on 'idleness', will make a great deal of space for the 'vita contemplativa'. Active men are 'generic creatures', herd types: since they act rather than think, they have no chance of thinking, in particular, that there might be something wrong with the culture which they inhabit and which shapes their actions. Only thinkers have a chance of challenging the status quo, of becoming unique individuals.

...Nietzsche would not, of course, be Nietzsche if his philosophy were an exact repetition of Epicurus. The crucial respect in which he departs from the Epicurean injunction to 'live modestly' is his ongoing concern for the regeneration of culture, his mission to build—not by direct political action but by the quiet exercise of small-scale 'spiritual leadership'—a new society. Possessing a life-unifying 'task', a life-defining meaning, is, as we know, an essential ingredient of happiness as Nietzsche conceives it, and cultural regeneration—through the writing of his books— is his own life-task. This grandeur of ambition that is, in a broad sense, political seems to me something like the opposite of Epicurean inconspicuousness, of Epicurus's recommended 'inner emigration' from politics... Happiness has to be more than Epicurean ataraxia; it demands a life-defining task. Indeed, there cannot be ataraxia in the absence of a life-defining task.

Of course, striving for inconspicuous serenity in Epicurus's day was a bit of a neverending struggle itself, as Nietzsche himself recognized:

The Greeks, in a way of life in which great perils and upheavals were always present, sought in knowledge and reflection a kind of security and ultimate refuge. We, in an incomparably more secure condition, have transferred this perilousness into knowledge and reflection, and calm ourselves down with our way of life.

Nonetheless, I agree that happiness is a byproduct of fulfilling effort, not a goal itself, even if I suspect that Nietzsche's modest choice of cultural regeneration as his task reflects his ingrained Prussian/Protestant work ethic and high-strung temperament. It's enough for me to spend my days writing things that I'll never be quite satisfied with and recording songs that will never seem quite finished.

I Would Prefer Not To

T & V Buchholz:

We are a nation of movers and shakers. Pilgrims leapt onto leaky boats to get here. The Lost Generation chased Hemingway and Gertrude Stein to Paris. The Greatest Generation signed up to ship out to fight Nazis in Germany or the Japanese imperial forces in the Pacific. The ’60s kids joined the Peace Corps.

But Generation Y has become Generation Why Bother. The Great Recession and the still weak economy make the trend toward risk aversion worse. Children raised during recessions ultimately take fewer risks with their investments and their jobs. Even when the recession passes, they don’t strive as hard to find new jobs, and they hang on to lousy jobs longer. Research by the economist Lisa B. Kahn of the Yale School of Management shows that those who graduated from college during a poor economy experienced a relative wage loss even 15 years after entering the work force.

Perhaps more worrisome, kids who grow up during tough economic times also tend to believe that luck plays a bigger role in their success, which breeds complacency. “Young people raised during recessions end up less entrepreneurial and less willing to leave home because they believe that luck counts more than effort,” said Paola Giuliano, an economist at U.C.L.A.’s Anderson School of Management. A bad economy can boost a person’s weighting of luck by 20 percent, Ms. Giuliano found.

Notice how popular the word “random” has become among young people. A Disney TV show called “So Random!” has ranked first in the ratings among tweens. The word has morphed from a precise statistical term to an all-purpose phrase that stresses the illogic and coincidence of life. Unfortunately, societies that emphasize luck over logic are not likely to thrive.

Your information economy revolution is over, Buchholz. Condolences. The bums won. Maybe their sense of community outweighs their need for adventure. Maybe they're content to live with less. Maybe they're sophisticated enough as consumers to be suspicious when authors of books like Rush: Why You Need and Love the Rat Race try to sell them the same old Protestant work ethic, now with extra fear of cultural decline. Or maybe they just aren't listening and don't care what you think. Good for them.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

J'accuse...!

Conservatives take offense to admittedly obnoxious language from an entertainer and start talking about boycotts. I'm going to hazard a guess that this is, like, totally different and unfair somehow.

I did like this from John Cook, though:

I am sick of spending all my time talking about how we talk about what we talk about when we talk about policy, instead of talking about actual policy. I am sick of recriminations and demands for retractions and counter-retractions and shocked outrage and line-drawing and line-crossing and apologies and non-apologies and boycotts and petitions. I am tired of watching every national debate inevitably pirouette out of the realm of morality, or merit, and into a rhetorical funhouse where insults bounce from mirror to distorted mirror. It's our dominant mode of political debate now: We don't evaluate arguments for their logic or elegance or force (or lack thereof), but for their appropriateness relative to metrics of racism, sexism, patriotism, religious bigotry etc.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Textual Harassment

Chad Wellmon:

For Heinzmann, late eighteenth-century German readers suffered under a “reign of books” in which they were the unwitting pawns of ideas that were not their own. Giving this broad cultural anxiety a philosophical frame, and beating Carr to the punch by more than two centuries, Immanuel Kant complained that such an overabundance of books encouraged people to “read a lot” and “superficially." Extensive reading not only fostered bad reading habits, but also caused a more general pathological condition, Belesenheit [the quality of being well-read], because it exposed readers to the great “waste” [Verderb] of books. It cultivated uncritical thought.

...Carr’s recent and broadly well-received arguments wondering if Google makes us stupid, for example, rely on a historical parallel that he draws with print. He claims that the invention of printing “caused a more intensive” form of reading and, by extrapolation, print caused a more reflective form of thought—words on a page focused the reader.

...Even the form of intensive reading held up today as a dying practice, novel reading, was often derided in the eighteenth century as weakening the memory and leading to “habitual distraction,” as Kant put it. It was thought especially dangerous to women who, according to Kant, were already prone to such lesser forms of thought. In short, print did not cause one particular form of reading; instead, it facilitated a range of ever-newer technologies, methods, and innovations that were deeply interwoven with new forms of human life and new ways of experiencing the world.

Well, huh; I did not know that reading often and widely had ever been seen as anything less than a virtue. Learned something new today!

The widespread anxiety over the Internet age that people like Carr have profitably exploited is understandable. The pace of modern life does seem to be constantly accelerating. The robots and jetpacks we were promised have never materialized, and we work longer and harder for less reward. The basic principles of sustained concentration and deep thought that Carr seems to want to rescue are unobjectionable; I just think he's being ridiculous in acting as if they are fundamentally incompatible with being online. Perhaps he's even being a bit too generous in assuming that the majority of people who allow themselves to be easily distracted and overwhelmed while working on the computer were ever going to be sitting around composing sonnets and rondeaus, discussing science and listening to chamber music.

I value that sort of contemplation and reflection myself, of course. But I think I manage to engage in it fairly often despite being online many hours a day. I find plenty of arresting material online that captivates my attention and forces me to concentrate and contemplate, and I still manage to set aside a couple hours before sleep to read dead-tree books. Carr is almost determinist in his insistence that technology inevitably warps anyone who allows themselves to be contaminated by it. Yes, of course it requires time and effort that could be spent playing with our phones and checking our Facebook walls to sit down and write like this, but is it really the gadgets that eat up all of our time or is it the entire matrix of assumptions and purposes that accompany them?

In other words, without checking to see how much more eloquently Ellul and Mumford have already said this, the system that produces social media and smartphones is following a logic of its own, devoted to capital above all else, which has led us to this state where we work longer and harder than ever for less reward and security. If you're frazzled and stressed and can't sit still long enough to finish a long article, maybe your life is just too complicated and unbalanced. Maybe you're like countless other people who work too much to afford a bunch of shit they never have time to enjoy because they work all the time. Are you willing to make the sort of professional and social sacrifices it would take to have enough free time to read great books and write substantial letters to your friends? Are those Epicurean standards of refined, rarefied pleasure worth enough to you to become an underemployed hermit if need be, or are you fine with banal company and frivolous conversations? Yes, I'm afraid it's true -- people often want contradictory things, or they even profess to want one thing for the sake of respectability while secretly wanting another.

I mean, I agree that Twitter is like kudzu, but it's not like there's really a shortage of good long-form writing out there; someone's gotta provide the substantial content for all the twits to link to. I agree that it represents a fetishization of novelty above all else, a sea level of discourse, but in my experience, most people don't talk about much besides gossip and trivia in everyday life anyway. It's one of those unquestioned cultural understandings, that we should want to value contemplation and deep conversation while taking time to smell the flowers, but we're mostly content to just pay occasional lip service to it while continuing to live distractedly and suck the marrow out of a KFC Bucket Meal. But we don't ever ask ourselves if we really are the kind of people who value such things, and if not, whether that truly is some sort of moral failing. Blaming the nature of the Internet is itself just another way to procrastinate instead of pursuing that line of thought.

What annoys me about Carr's shtick is that it panders to the sort of educated suburbanites who like to flatter themselves as the sort of people who would write short stories and villanelles for pleasure but never seem to actually get around to doing it, the sort of people who have achieved the professional career, the nice house and family, but still have a nagging sense that they're missing out on something vital and a sense of guilt for finding themselves drawn to superficial entertainment in their free time. Instead of a more penetrating look at the necessity of our work and what we expect from it, or how far we're willing to go in sacrificing bourgeois respectability and success for the sake of personal contentment, we get this "Oh noes the Internet is eatin mah brainz" trendy neuropop.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

I'll Make You Smile, Smile, Smile, Smile, Smile

Dwight Schrute: I never smile if I can help it. Showing one's teeth is a submission signal in primates. Whenever someone smiles at me, all I see is a chimpanzee - begging for its life.

David Dobbs:

What can we do with this information? Gutman offers suggestions. Smile. Smile at strangers. Smile at yourself. Smile the first thing on waking. Smile when you’re skydiving. Smile while you’re giving natural childbirth. Offers one smiley devotee, “I smiled through my natural, drug-free labor and fully believe it transformed the whole experience. I recommend smiling to all women going through childbirth.” I would love to have seen this woman recommend that to my wife as she was being wheeled down the hall for a c-section after 40 hours of labor and 4 hours of pushing. In fact, to test the astonishing power of this recommendation, I just now read it aloud to my wife. Her reaction makes me long to see this woman offer her this advice even now. She wouldn't be smiling when she finished.

I don’t mean to be cruel. I’m actually fairly smiley myself. But this book, which as a TED book is supposed to be about "a powerful idea," is a fatty concoction of neuropop, adventure travel, self-help, California woo, and Palo Alto entrepreneurial gush. It pushes positive thinking across some mathematical warp zone that renders it negative. I suspect it would make even the father of positive thinking, Norman Vincent Peale, just fwow wight up.

Eschew Obfuscation

Pat Healy: My real passion is my hobby.
Mary: Really, what's that?
Pat Healy: I work with retards.
Mary: Isn't that a little, uhm, politically incorrect?
Pat Healy: Well, heh, to hell with that... no one's going to tell me who I can and can't work with, right?


A state legislator introduced a bill to remove the word "retarded" from California's law books on Wednesday, calling the word outdated and demeaning. State Senator Fran Pavley's legislation would replace all references of mental retardation with the more accepted term "intellectual disability."

In an official capacity, that's fine. You expect bureaucratese to be as bloodless and obtuse as possible. But to believe that changing the name of the condition somehow changes the condition, as George Carlin famously ranted about, you'd have to be an idiot. Or a moron. Or an imbecile, or any of the other words that mean the exact same thing as calling someone a retard.

"Intellectual disability" or "mentally challenged" describe the exact same reality as "retarded", one in which a human being's intellectual capacity is damaged, limited or deficient, which any honest person would agree is a condition no one would willingly choose. And I'm sure schoolchildren are busy right this moment using even those terms in a demeaning and pejorative way toward their peers. Words are empty vessels; mean-spirited insults can inhabit any of them.

Never Underestimate the Power of Stupid People In Large Groups

Scott Mendelson:

Bill Maher famously lost his television show on ABC after outcry over commentary that one of his guests made (which he agreed with) concerning the 9/11 hijackers not being cowards, given that they were willing to kill themselves in pursuit of their mission. It was this statement that famously led President George W. Bush's press secretary at the time, Ari Fleischer, to state that "all Americans ... need to watch what they say, watch what they do." Never mind that Maher didn't even utter the offending statement, or that it was technically correct (suicide bombers, come what may, aren't cowards in the strictest sense of the term), the post-9/11 "sensitivity" caused his comments to create a firestorm of (arguably) manufactured controversy that forced his show off the air even as ratings had gone up after the 9/11 attacks. And let's not forget any number of "controversies" that were sparked during the run-up to the Iraq invasion in 2002 and 2003. Let's not forget the outcry over Natalie Maines' comments that she was ashamed that President Bush was from Texas (which led to death threats and mass album-burning), or the politically motivated firing of Phil Donahue from MSNBC because his liberal ideology didn't fit with the nationalistic fervor (never mind that he had the highest-rated show on the network at the time). And that's not counting the various "scalps" that the GOP has claimed during Barack Obama's first term (Shirley Sherrod, Van Jones, etc.). Yes, there is a difference between the above incidents, which allegedly had behind-the-scenes government support, and what appears to be a purely grassroots effort in feminist (and humanist) activism, but it's still almost scary how fast the fire spread.

I don't have any profound conclusions to draw from this, nor do I have any "answers." I guess what I'm saying is that, having lived through 10 years of countless liberal/progressive or just-plain-not-crazy people being targeted and/or persecuted because they said something that was deemed inflammatory, like when Michael Moore was targeted for murder purely for making an anti-war statement at the 2003 Oscars (after winning his Oscar for making an anti-gun-violence documentary), I can only take so much pleasure with the shoe being on the other foot.

I don't have anything profound to add, myself. I just detest mob mentality by its very nature, regardless of what the inspirational cause is. When the argument becomes about the righteous intensity of our feelings instead of what we can know, the right to free speech is just a hollow formality. Fine, you can have your megaphone. We'll just take away your soapbox and quarantine you somewhere out of earshot.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Daddy's Little Girl Ain't a Girl No More

Southern Christian girl seduced by the bright lights of Hollywood takes up dope-smoking, starts licking big, black, uh, cakes, and turns her back on Jesus. It's as if early 20th-century America somehow converted the sheer intensity of its collective fears into mass and manifested them in an avatar.

Here We Are Now, Entertain Us

David Haglund:

By and large, though, the whole little game, briefly diverting and occasionally amusing as it was, essentially proved Franzen's point. While he had attempted to make an argument—albeit an off-the-cuff and ham-fisted one—about the negative aspects of Twitter, the partisans of the micro-blogging platform reduced that argument to a meaningless punchline.

...I have to side with those who believe that emotions are indeed complex enough to merit 600-page novels, and cannot be fully conveyed in an emoticon. I don't think emoticons and 600-page novels are mutually exclusive; it appears that the universe is capacious enough to include both these phenomena, and I don't intend to choose sides. But if people start making teams, I know which one I would rather be on.


For Erin Faulk, a 29-year-old legal assistant and voracious reader in Los Angeles, the era of e-readers has had one major effect: she has accumulated many more books that she categorizes as “DNFs” — Did Not Finish. But she is also buying more books, she said, and she thinks that all the interruptions have, in a way, made her a more discerning reader.

“With so many distractions, my taste in books has really leveled up,” Ms. Faulk said. “Recently, I gravitate to books that make me forget I have a world of entertainment at my fingertips. If the book’s not good enough to do that, I guess my time is better spent.”

Exactly. I can't tell you how many times I've thought, "Y'know, what this book really needs is an RSS feed or some kitten videos." Authors, attend: if you want to remain relevant, your writing needs to compete with YouTube and Angry Birds.

As for Twitter, well, what do you expect. The kind of people who hate being reminded that the world doesn't actually revolve around their toy phones are the same ones who think supercilious irony and clever put-downs make one a public intellectual.

Feh. If you need me, I'll be busy lugging all my books over to the monastery.

...adding, Roxane Gay complains that Franzen simply doesn't understand what Twitter is for, then proceeds from the apparent assumption that Twitter primarily consists of writers promoting their work, which strikes me as dubious, to put it mildly.

Allow me to me suggest that it is perfectly consistent to acknowledge the utility of a medium that enables fast, convenient communication while disparaging its outsized influence on public dialogue and the limitations it places on nuanced expression. Let me further add that jokes about old geezers and their lawns are about as fresh and witty as jokes about people living in their parents' basements, and anyone caught using either of them from now on should be forced to take a one-month time-out from the Internet.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

If I Could Just Keep My Stupid Mind Together

Brad Warner:

But there's another way to take this statement. And I honestly believe it's the way most people would take it. They'd look at it and say, "Gosh. I'm not mindful enough. I'm not concentrated enough. Because when I look at a sunrise, I just shade my eyes so that I can get through this traffic jam on West Market Street without running over any of the kids from Our Lady of the Elms. Sunrises kind of annoy me. They give me a headache. I better get more concentrated and more mindful so that I can be more like Thich Nhat Hanh and let the beauty of the sunrise be revealed to me."

In other words, the concept of "mindfulness" gets in the way of the sunrise. It becomes a big obstacle between what we think of as our self and what we think of as the sunrise. And we make our efforts to try to overcome the obstacle we've placed in our own way. Most of the time I hear or read the word "mindfulness" it sounds to me like an obstacle.

Pretty much all of our religions and our various self-help practices are based on the idea that what we are right now is not good enough. We then envision what "good enough" must be like and we make efforts to transform what we are right now into this image of ourselves as "good enough." We invent in our minds an imaginary "mindful me" and then try to make ourselves into that. The problem with this kind of effort is right at its very root. We are setting up a habit of always judging ourselves as being not whatever it is we want to be.

Alan Watts said something similar about excessive self-awareness becoming more like paralyzing self-consciousness:

For feeling blocks action, and blocks itself as a form of action, when it gets caught in this same tendency to observe or feel itself indefinitely—as when, in the midst of enjoying myself, I examine myself to see if I am getting the utmost out of the occasion. Not content with tasting the food, I am also trying to taste my tongue. Not content with feeling happy, I want to feel myself feeling happy—so as to be sure not to miss anything.

"Mindfulness" to me only means setting aside time to allow the chattering monkeys of the mind to fade away on their own, but I take Brad's point. It flatters our culturally inherited work ethic to see mindfulness as a reward to be achieved through devoted effort and delayed gratification. Meditation for those people is still an opportunity to flex the cerebellum, to be active and positive and in control, to keep pursuing the egocentric fantasy of being masters of their fate, captains of their souls.

I Love Only That Which Is Written With Blood

Stephen Elliot:

An email felt different, it didn’t feel right. When you write a letter, it’s such an incredibly personal exchange between two people. It’s really intimate, even if you’re writing a letter to 2,000 people, which is what we are doing. The person gets your letter and opens it and reads it and takes time with it. You never do that with an email.

...When you sit down to write a letter, you really think about it. When I used to write letters, I would go to a café, sit there all day. When I receive a letter, I wouldn’t just open it, I'd sit down, get a coffee, get everything ready so I could really experience it. When you’re on the computer, you’re never fully paying attention, you’re jumping around. With a letter, you walk away from everything. You open it and read it. It’s just you and the letter. It’s an entirely different experience.

Dude, you and Nicholas Carr can speak for your goddamn selves. If the world is too much with you, that's your problem, not the medium's. I often spend hours per day on posts and emails -- writing, rewriting, reading aloud, checking references, supplementing with links, and just generally letting myself get completely absorbed in the joy of crafting sentences. Most importantly, I make time to do it.

Being clairvoyant, I already anticipated and responded at length to this more than two years ago. Here, I'll just admit that I, too, used to be a devoted letter-writer in my teens. I used to intersperse them with phone calls, saying that one of the advantages of letters was that no one ever came bursting into your room, saying, "Get off the pen! I need to use the pen!" Sadly, maybe my friends just weren't literary enough, but their responses were few, far between, and left a lot to be desired as far as intimate, personal exchanges go.

Those very same friends are currently terrible about returning emails as well. You know, there's a common denominator here, and it's not soulless, impersonal technology. Motivation and conscientiousness do not inhere in ink and stationery like ghostly essences.

Shut Down the Devil Sound

Slate's Brain Trust:

Did Social Media Take Down Rush Limbaugh?

On Monday, AOL announced in a Facebook post that it was joining the flood of advertisers pulling their spots from the Rush Limbaugh Show... At Slate, we’ve been arguing about the role of social media in the corporate backlash against the conservative host. Are Limbaugh’s advertisers deserting him because he pushed the envelope further than he ever had before, or was he felled by a lethal combination of offensiveness, Twitter, and Facebook?


The link they provide for evidence tells us that the "flood" of advertisers amounts to seven (now eight, I suppose), and adds:

For now, the ad boycott is uncomfortable but not crippling for Mr. Limbaugh, who is estimated to make $50 million a year and whose program is a profit center for Premiere Radio Networks, the company that syndicates it. The program makes money both through ads and through fees paid by local radio stations, and while it often has sparked outrage during more than two decades on the air, efforts at ad boycotts in the past have had no measurable effect. Liberal groups and activists, however, hope that this time is different.

Oh. So... neither taken down nor felled, then. Uh, well, hyperbole in defense of righteousness is no vice, or something. Anyway, Daniel Engber has one of the only intelligent remarks in the discussion:

There's an attribution bias here. Twitter and Facebook are buzzing about all sorts of things, every day of the week. Whenever one of those things has real consequences, we want to trace it backwards to Twitter and Facebook. But what about the zillions of trending topics that don't go anywhere?

Seriously. I know it's an almost-irresistible fantasy, that your cool little consumer products are also lawful good agents that allow you to shape history for the better without even having to leave your comfy seat, but social media sites are simply fulcrums and levers, indifferent to the moral nature of the mass opinion they leverage into action. Blinding speed of communication can just as easily facilitate the spread of rumors and lies. I almost can't wait for some reactionary group to dramatically utilize Facebook and Twitter for their own ends just to finally put an end to all this inane boosterism.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Pogonophobia

Fiona Macrae:

It is a finding that Brad Pitt might do best to take on the chin: women don’t find beards attractive. Men were rated more highly when they shaved their beards off, a study found. Being bearded also made them seem older and more aggressive. But there is some good news for gents who are fond of their facial hair – having a beard commands respect, particularly from other males.

Fine with me. Let the naysayers have their irrelevant opinions so long as they fear me. I even prefer wearing sunglasses as much as possible to create extra tension. For God's sake, dear, avert your eyes! You can't see what he's looking at! You don't know what he's thinking, his face all swathed in mystery like that! He might snap at any moment!

But let us move away from the realm of idiosyncratic taste to the objective territory of science:

Science gives us various theories as to why men are able to grow beards, from protecting the delicate facial skin from sunlight to buffering blows to the jaw in a fight.

Two questions. One, women's facial skin isn't susceptible to the damaging effects of UV light? And two, has any man outside of a Chuck Norris joke ever grown such a magnificent bramble patch upon his face that it could absorb punches? This is something I would surely like to see.

It is even suggested that a beard is a sign of a strong immune system. The theory goes that disease-carrying parasites thrive in body hair and so if a man can sport a beard without getting ill, he must be extra healthy.

This is true; my immune system is so strong that it started beating itself up for want of any viruses or bacteria worthy of posing a true challenge. Still, this slanderous association of hair with disease is, unfortunately, all too typical of the propaganda you'd expect from Big Electrolysis. Those bastards won't rest until all men look like giant walking thumbs.

I have severe reservations about the methodology here, though: this study defined a "full beard" as six weeks of growth with no trimming. No trimming? I'm sorry, what kind of clinical depressives or barbaric hill folk are we talking about here? Is this really representative of the population? I trim mine every week! I daresay any fellow who lets his beard grow that wild and unruly encounters more wildlife than human females in a given day, or he's simply given up on life altogether.