Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Night Was Always Coming

"Well, boys, do you see? It's all one, yes?"
"Yes—" someone murmured.
"Always the same but different, eh? every age, every time. Day was always over. Night was always coming. And aren't you always afraid, Apeman there? or you, Mummy, that the sun will never rise again?"
"Yesss," more of them whispered.

And they looked up through the levels of the great house and saw every age, every story, and all the men in history staring round about as the sun rose and set. Apemen trembled. Egyptians cried laments. Greeks and Romans paraded their dead. Summer fell dead. Winter put it in the grave. A billion voices wept. The wind of time shook the vast house. The windows rattled and broke like men's eyes, into crystal tears. Then, with cries of delight, ten thousand times a million men welcomed back bright summer suns which rose to burn each window with fire!

"Do you see, lads? Think! People vanished forever. They died, oh Lord, they died! but came back in dreams. Those dreams were called Ghosts, and frightened men in every age—"
"Ah!" cried a billion voices from attics and basements.
Shadows climbed walls like old films rerun in ancient theaters. Puffs of smoke lingered at doors with sad eyes and gibbering mouths.

"Night and day. Summer and winter, boys. Seedtime and harvest. Life and death. That's what Halloween is, all rolled up into one. Noon and midnight. Being born, boys. Rolling over, playing dead like dogs, lads. And getting up again, barking, racing through thousands of years of death each day and each night Halloween, boys, every night, every single night dark and fearful until at last you made it and hid in cities and towns and had some rest and could get your breath.
"And you began to live longer and have more time, and space out the deaths, and put away fear and at last have only special days in each year when you thought of night and dawn and spring and autumn and being born and being dead."

— Ray Bradbury, The Halloween Tree

All Hallows Eve

Fall fires burn 'neath black twisted boughs
Sacrifice to above
Smoke swirling quickly towards misting clouds
Offering of this blood
Into the flames and without shame
Consumed with howls and screams
Pumpkins grin in their despair
On All Hallows Eve

Cruel be the wind as it quells my words
I shout out to the rain
Incantations I so hope you've heard
That you live again
From deep Earth brings forth rebirth
Witness but I shan't believe
From below, a chilling glow
On All Hallows Eve

Bespiderwebbed and glazed in frost
She wears death beautifully
More stunning now than in her life
On a bed of autumn leaves
Into her eyes and quite surprised
I whispered don't you leave
Sing macabre songs and we'll dance 'til dawn
On All Hallows Eve

Saint Lucifer hear me praying to thee
On this eve of all saints
High be the price, but then nothing is free
My soul I'll gladly trade

Cold is the night in so many ways
Luna round, full and bright
Deep be the mud on the fresh dug graves
On yours I recite
An ancient spell I know so well
Success is guaranteed
I'll bring you back from where you've gone
On All Hallows Eve

— Peter Steele (Type O Negative)


In the season leaves should love,
since it gives them leave to move
through the wind, towards the ground
they were watching while they hung,
legend says there is a seam
stitching darkness like a name.

Now when dying grasses veil
earth from the sky in one last pale
wave, as autumn dies to bring
winter back, and then the spring,
we who die ourselves can peel
back another kind of veil

that hangs among us like thick smoke.
Tonight at last I feel it shake.
I feel the nights stretching away
thousands long behind the days
till they reach the darkness where
all of me is ancestor.

I move my hand and feel a touch
move with me, and when I brush
my own mind across another,
I am with my mother's mother.
Sure as footsteps in my waiting
self, I find her, and she brings

arms that carry answers for me,
intimate, a waiting bounty.
"Carry me." She leaves this trail
through a shudder of the veil,
and leaves, like amber where she stays,
a gift for her perpetual gaze.

— Annie Finch

Theme In Yellow

I spot the hills
With yellow balls in autumn.
I light the prairie cornfields
Orange and tawny gold clusters
And I am called pumpkins.
On the last of October
When dusk is fallen
Children join hands
And circle round me
Singing ghost songs
And love to the harvest moon;
I am a jack-o'-lantern
With terrible teeth
And the children know
I am fooling.

— Carl Sandburg

All Souls' Night, 1917

You heap the logs and try to fill
The little room with words and cheer,
But silent feet are on the hill,
Across the window veiled eyes peer.
The hosts of lovers, young in death,
Go seeking down the world to-night,
Remembering faces, warmth and breath—
And they shall seek till it is light.
Then let the white-flaked logs burn low,
Lest those who drift before the storm
See gladness on our hearth and know
There is no flame can make them warm.

—Hortense King Flexner

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Law of Jante

In any case, solitude and privacy are not just privileges. They are also compensations. People didn’t have modern selves in traditional society, but they didn’t need them, because they had family and community: extended families, face-to-face communities. They had an intricate structure of relationships, traditions, roles, and expectations to give content to their lives and direction to their efforts, to orient themselves in space and time. They didn’t need to go it alone or make up the world for themselves, so they didn’t need the equipment that enables modern individuals (if they’re lucky) to do so.

Now all we have is ourselves. The modern self is a consolation prize; it’s what we have to cling to—that and friendship, modernity’s central relationship. Intimacy is also a modern phenomenon, because it rests on privacy. When E. M. Forster said “Only connect,” he didn’t mean that’s all we need to do; he meant that’s all we could do: forge our horizontal bonds, because the roots are gone.

That image, in case you were wondering, as I'm sure you were, comes from this cool little project. Further explanation of the concept can be found here. The emphasis on individual achievement and success might come across as slightly Rand-y to American sensibilities, but more generally, it illustrates why many of us don't view our evolving bargain with modernity over our social relationships as quite so Faustian as all that. Thoreau was right about that much, at least: you never gain something but that you lose something. I'm fine with trading physical proximity for cerebral connection.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Bright October Days

The solemn fires are lit again
Upon the mountain's altar-places;
They rise above the kneeling plain,
And front us with unchanged faces.
The holy time of all the year
In silent worship there is flowing;
The autumn festival is near,
The bright October days are going.

Their tokens shine along the steep
Where every breeze is shaken splendor,
And where the sunshine lies asleep
On leaves with valley-shadows tender,
Into October's vintage cup
The last and richest wine is flowing;
And while the draught is brimming up
The bright autumnal days are going.

And but that every year doth hold
Its summers by a winter parted,
And every fiery autumn fold
A death beneath it, frosty-hearted,
Too perfect were these crowning days--
So rich the ebbing life is flowing:
Each dying in a sunset blaze,
The bright October days are going.

And in his royal robe and crown
The year awaits the spoiler hasting;
And scarce will lay his glory down
Before the foe whose touch is blasting.
Too few the golden days, alas!
So much with them is outward flowing;
They take the sunshine as they pass--
These bright October days, in going.

— Caroline Spencer

I'd Rather Be With an Animal

Heh heh. I wound up with seven, myself. But if I ever get the urge to get back into that kind of rescue work, I'll just add some more muscle tone and a few more tattoos and go join Rescue Ink.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Pierce the Veil

Spirituality: the last refuge of a failed human. Just another way of distracting yourself from who you really are.

— George Carlin

John Burnside:

If solitude does not lead us back to society, it can become a spiritual dead end, an act of self-indulgence or escapism, as Merton, Emerson, Thoreau, and the Taoist masters all knew. We might admire the freedom of the wild boar, we might even envy it, but as long as others are enslaved, or hungry, or held captive by social conventions, it is our duty to return and do what we can for their liberation. For the old cliché is true: no matter what I do, I cannot be free while others are enslaved, I cannot be truly happy while others suffer. And, no matter how sublime or close to the divine my solitary hut in the wilderness might be, it is a sterile paradise of emptiness and rage unless I am prepared to return and participate actively in the social world.

Damn. Do I at least get a "regrets only" option on this R.S.V.P.? I'd hate to be rude, but...

He doesn't name it as such, but this is obviously the bodhisattva ideal. The problem with it for me, as well as with other soteriological beliefs, both religious and secular, is the reification of abstractions such as a mystical, species-wide bond called "humanity", or the strange belief that suffering is an unnecessary and optional aspect of existence. You can't talk about the fundamental interconnectedness of all things without considering the vertiginous effects:

The power of moral prejudices has penetrated deeply into the most spiritual world, which would seem to be the coldest and most devoid of presuppositions, and has obviously operated in an injurious, inhibiting, blinding, and distorting manner... If, however, a person should regard even the affects of hatred, envy, covetousness, and the lust to rule as conditions of life, as factors which, fundamentally and essentially must be present in the general economy of life (and must, there, be further enhanced if life is to be further enhanced)—he will suffer from such a view of things as from seasickness. 

Friday, October 26, 2012

Quot Libros, Quam Breve Tempus (VII)

No picture of my current reading this time; no, I'm still working on the stack last pictured in this space. Maybe I'll add to it by year's end. Anyway, I just enjoyed reading this from Joe Queenan

A case can be made that people who read a preposterous number of books are not playing with a full deck. I prefer to think of us as dissatisfied customers. If you have read 6,000 books in your lifetime, or even 600, it's probably because at some level you find "reality" a bit of a disappointment...No matter what they may tell themselves, book lovers do not read primarily to obtain information or to while away the time. They read to escape to a more exciting, more rewarding world. A world where they do not hate their jobs, their spouses, their governments, their lives.

...None of this will work with a Kindle. People who need to possess the physical copy of a book, not merely an electronic version, believe that the objects themselves are sacred. Some people may find this attitude baffling, arguing that books are merely objects that take up space. This is true, but so are Prague and your kids and the Sistine Chapel. Think it through, bozos.

The world is changing, but I am not changing with it. There is no e-reader or Kindle in my future. My philosophy is simple: Certain things are perfect the way they are. The sky, the Pacific Ocean, procreation and the Goldberg Variations all fit this bill, and so do books. Books are sublimely visceral, emotionally evocative objects that constitute a perfect delivery system.

Electronic books are ideal for people who value the information contained in them, or who have vision problems, or who have clutter issues, or who don't want other people to see that they are reading books about parallel universes where nine-eyed sea serpents and blind marsupials join forces with deaf Valkyries to rescue high-strung albino virgins from the clutches of hermaphrodite centaurs, but they are useless for people engaged in an intense, lifelong love affair with books. Books that we can touch; books that we can smell; books that we can depend on. Books that make us believe, for however short a time, that we shall all live happily ever after.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

In Autumn

Withered vines cling to the old tree
where crows call in the dusk.

Beyond the bridge and stream,
a few thin shanties.

A lean horse braves the road and west wind
as the sun slowly descends.

The broken man
wanders earth's farthest ends.

— Ma Chih-yuan (1260-1324)

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Grow and Decay, Grow and Decay, It's Only Forever

Brad Warner:

When you call yourself a Buddhist, you invite people to define you according to all their preconceptions and prejudices about Buddhists. Of course this goes for any religion or for any group you choose to identify with. If you call yourself a Christian or a Republican or a Punk or a Polyamorist or any of those things, you’re inviting people to define you in the way they have defined those things in the past. You have to accept at least some aspects of the common definition of those things.

There are benefits to doing this as well as problems. If you want someone to know how you feel on issues like abortion, global warming and military spending without having to spend a lot of time going point-by-point through the issues you might simply say, “I’m a conservative.” If you’re trying to get people to buy your album and you know they’re not going to take the time to listen carefully to every cut, you can categorize it as “hardcore punk” — even if it ends with a nine minute song featuring sitar, sleigh bells and Mellotron like the new Zero Defex album. You also benefit by aligning yourself with a group whose ideals you agree with, or at least mostly agree with simply because there is strength in numbers.

Nobody ever agrees with every stereotype random passers-by might associate with whatever it is they’ve chosen to align themselves with. There are political conservatives who believe in women having the right to abortions. There are Born-Again Christians who vote for Obama. There are even Buddhists who supported the bombing of Iraq. People are full of surprises.

It's not just I.D. badges of tribal identity in particular, of course. There seems to be a general law of entropy in the noosphere as well — ideas and concepts are forever decaying into clichés, slogans and buzzwords. Heuristics designed to save time and facilitate easier conversation end up sacrificing the nuance that made point-by-point discussion so fruitful. Cooking from scratch is time- and labor-intensive, but when we find ourselves distractedly wolfing down prepackaged microwave dinners, we usually realize we lost something important along the way in our thoughtless pursuit of speed and efficiency. The same applies to thinking and writing. Too often, communication gets reduced to flashcard symbols and shorthand script.

No joke, I often spend a few hours working on a single post. Mainly, that's because I'm either struggling to articulate something I've never said in so many words before, or because I've read something that, in its power or novelty, forces me to consider it carefully, so that writing about it is simultaneously a process of figuring out what exactly I think about it. Clumsily thinking out loud like that doesn't make for the most eloquent posts, but if writing a post comes too easily, I take that as a sign that I've already covered this territory enough. If it's become second nature for me, it's too close to becoming a shtick, so it's time to move on. It should always be a bit of an uphill climb. I'm not trying to corner a niche market of punditry, or provide reliable content to build an audience so I can cash in on ad revenue. I write because I have to, because I can't imagine doing anything else.

Since I used a post about Buddhism as a springboard here, let me phrase this in Buddhist terms: This blog is my discipline, my practice. As Brad recently said about meditation, this activity is its own point, its own meaning. The six or seven people who read this post carefully aren't necessarily going to notice or care how long it took me to write it, but that's not the point. There are no goals to be achieved. The practice itself is what matters. I'd like to be a better writer and a more profound thinker, but there's no point at which I can claim to have arrived there. Practice lasts your entire life. I forget where I read it, I forget whom it was about, and I even forget the exact wording, but there's a quotation burning in my memory that went something like: "Writing allowed him to 'get right' with himself in a way that nothing else could." Yes. That.

Diogenes famously said that "Other dogs bite their enemies; I bite my friends to save them." I don't have any pretensions of "saving" anybody, but I do feel compelled to snap at complacency wherever I see it. I got so disgusted with the way things are done in the political blogosphere — you praise and link to your ideological allies, and you politely overlook their flaws in silence. Being part of a group or a movement compromises your independence, and in the case of blogging, where, for the most part, you have a bunch of people typing stupid shit on the Internet and deluding themselves into thinking they're changing the world as a result, it seems positively foolish to me to limit yourself like that. Sharing voting preferences, say, is not enough of a reason for me to consider someone as being on my "side". I may be more ascetic about it than necessary, but I want to avoid the sense of obligation and expectation that accompanies social relationships. I don't want to have to deal with the distraction from my practice.

I value anyone who stimulates or provokes me to the sort of thinking I love most, whether I'm personally well-disposed toward them or not. I'm most interested in people who surprise me with their restless zigzagging across boundaries. Complacency is the real nemesis.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Maybe I'm a Different Breed, Maybe I'm Not Listening

And while I shall keep silent about some points, I do not want to remain silent about my morality which says to me: Live in seclusion so that you can live for yourself. Live in ignorance about what seems most important to your age. Between yourself and today lay the skin of at least three centuries. And the clamor of today, the noise of wars and revolutions should be a mere murmur for you.

— Nietzsche

Brian raises a fair point in a recent comment: when criticizing an opponent, there's a chance that your criticism may be appropriated and used by other opponents of your opponent, whom you may find even more distasteful, all things considered. All right, but there's also another way to express that concept, one with which most of us will be familiar from recent political history: watch what you say, lest you give aid and comfort to the enemy. Why would you criticize the president when the terrorists are obviously worse? Why do you hate this, that or the other?

Unfortunately, attempting to caricature an opponent's argument or perform a reductio ad absurdum is a time-honored rhetorical practice. But the strategy for navigating such highly charged arguments is the same prosaic one it always is: be as thorough, clear and precise as you can in your communication, be charitable in your interpretation of others, use your best judgment in the frequent absence of certainty, and have faith that eventually, truth will out. Weigh arguments on their merits, not their political utility. Be highly suspicious of anyone who insists on the inevitability of ends that require the means of sacrificing inconvenient truths, especially when the precise nature of those ends and the precise means for reaching them are still very much up for debate. Practice the humility of admitting "I don't know," and don't let anyone else do your thinking for you.

When I insist that I do not consider myself a political animal, I don't simply mean that I'm sick of reading about politicians and elections per se. I mean that I don't primarily identify as a member of any collective movement pursuing sociopolitical goals. I'm not interested in being on anyone's team. I am a Berliner. I am an insignificant individual, neither having nor seeking power or influence, which leaves me free to speak the truth as I see it without having to worry about inconveniencing anyone else's plans or disrupting any fragile coalitions. I take it for granted that the handful of you reading this already share my basic belief that racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. are bad things, and that you aren't here because you need me to reinforce your convictions for you. There are plenty of bloggers who are trying to build a brand, rehearse a shtick, sell you something, or write the same post about the same things that everyone else has already written about. I'm not one of them.

So, when I criticize or mock the acolytes of Atheism+, for example, it's because it amuses me for now. I'm not concerned that by doing so, I'm somehow weakening the foundations of atheism in America, or diminishing all progressive activism by proxy. I'm laughing at a specific group of stupid people saying stupid things, made that much funnier by the fact that atheists — it must be admitted — have a not-completely-undeserved reputation for taking smug pride in their intellects. There's a non-partisan, slapstick humor in watching people like that step on the end of a loose board and take it full in the face. I used to primarily make fun of religious believers, but then that started to feel trite and predictable. Now, there's a certain fascination with watching a mad experiment in group psychology play out right before my eyes. In a few months, assuming anyone still wants to even be associated with the movement, it, too, will likely have become boring, and I'll find something else to occupy my attention.

Most people have enough of a social instinct to want to be involved in whatever's going on. They want to be heeded, respected and included. They feel compelled to keep up with the conversational zeitgeist, which means accepting and using the same heuristics as everyone else. In other words, when they themselves are unsure or ignorant about the details of a particular issue, they allow themselves to be persuaded by authority figures or an atmosphere of collective certainty among the rest of the tribe. (Again, people think differently on their own than they do as part of a group, for reasons that have nothing to do with reason.) To me, it's imperative to avoid any kind of social pressure that could compromise intellectual integrity. If that means being ignored or scorned, so be it.

I would rather be the same taciturn, mildly misanthropic, autism-spectrum-dwelling mofo I am in offline life, moving at my own methodical, tortoise-like pace, scrutinizing details that others deem insignificant and unworthy of their time.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

I Am the 84%

Will Oremus:

Granted, all of this appeals mainly to the subset of the population that truly cares about politics. That’s part of why Twitter, for all its notoriety, is used regularly by just 16 percent of the U.S. adult population, according to a recent Pew study.

...It borders on an obsession for many media and PR types, celebrities and athletes, comedians and wonks, who want to broadcast their ideas to a wider audience. But the average working person would rather relax in front of the TV with a beer most nights than engage in an online battle of wits and one-liners.

Twitter knows that, and it has a plan. Rather than encouraging more people to embrace the service as an active medium, the company wants to push the site as a passive experience. Twitter started as a social network, then became a real-time news feed and sounding board for public figures. Its new goal is to become everyone’s default second screen for everything, from presidential debates to the Arab Spring revolutions to the NFL. In short, it wants to be a chatty, illuminating, digital companion to all of the news and entertainment you consume. And it has been tweaking its site in recent months to make sure that you never have to tweet anything yourself, or even sign up for Twitter, to take part.

Yes. Because that's what I've been missing. An obnoxious, motormouthed, borderline-stalker of an idiot companion who thinks in sentence fragments and communicates in acronyms to share major events with. A permanent soundtrack of babbling bedlam every time I open my laptop or turn on my TV.

That is an amazing correlation, though — only 16% of the population are users, yet something like 99% of the people online whom I consider to be boring morons seem to belong to that category as well.

Shelf Awareness

Geraldine Brooks:

For most couples, this would be thin gruel for a contretemps. But my sister is a bibliophile and married a man of similar passions. They had just completed a house renovation, a feature of which was a magnificent bookshelf that spanned two floors. All had gone well as they placed their novels, histories, memoirs. But schism had arisen over the biographies. She wanted to shelve them alpha by subject, on the grounds that she wouldn’t necessarily be able to recall the author’s name. (Since she is, herself, a biographer, this view seemed both pragmatic and un-self-aggrandising.) But that notion was anathema to her husband, who wanted to follow proper library practice. Heated words had been exchanged.

I've had a frank exchange of views on this topic with my own girlfriend, although tempers and conversational temperature remained in check and unheated, respectively. Apparently she considers my method a benevolent sort of madness, though she finds it cruelly amusing to occasionally threaten to organize my shelves by alphabetical order when I'm not around.

You see, I combine a certain aesthetic rigidity with its polar opposite, a full-blown touchy-feely mysticism. On any given shelf, a certain pattern will be unerringly followed: tallest books on the ends, sloping gently down to the shortest books in the middle. All other schematics, such as author's name, book title, or subject matter, are absolutely subordinate to this rule. Occasionally, I'll attempt to group a single author's works together, but if doing so would disrupt the even, proportional harmony of tall-to-short, then they'll just have to settle for sharing the same shelf.

Over the years, I got new bookcases as the need presented itself, and proceeded to fill them chronologically; i.e., books went on the shelf in order of purchase. Glancing over a shelf could trigger a strong memory of, say, the winter of 2002, seeing all the associated reading material of that time period arranged together (and if I were a frustrated lit major, this would be the place to insert a Pretentious Proust Reference). Most of my bookcases were either mismatched secondhand-shop orphans, or affordable big-box particle-board types.

But several years ago, I inherited two beautiful handmade walnut cases as a housewarming gift. Their superior quality and irresistible symmetry dovetailed perfectly with their placement in the great room, and so I did something uncharacteristically bold and radical — I rearranged my books in order to house all my favorites within them. I imagined these shelves as conversation pieces — leaving aside the fact that I rarely have visitors, let alone visitors who share my reading taste, but never mind all that, just humor me here — and thought: which books best combine aesthetic appeal with substance? Which arrangement would both catch the eye and stimulate the brain of any casual browser?

And so I began the laborious process of choosing sentimental favorites and arranging them together in new tall-to-short relationships, seeking to feel some sort of poetic feng shui as I casually ran my eye over them. Once things were arranged to my liking, I committed them to my intermittent eidetic memory, only making the occasional changes after rigorous consideration. Really, I consider this discipline to be akin to bonsai sculpture; I'm just using tree byproducts rather than actual trees.

Yesterday, when I wanted to quote the epigraph to Ray Bradbury's The October Country, I went to the spot where it had always been — in the middle of the second shelf down, on the white bookcase beside my bed. It wasn't there. It wasn't on any of the shelves in that case. A couple of her books were in that spot, in fact. I finally found it in one of the bookcases out in the great room. It was arranged by size, in the middle along with other mass-market paperbacks, but still... "Do you remember moving it there?" she asked, the picture of innocence. "No," I replied, though now I'm not as sure.

I've got my eye on her now. I suspect gaslighting.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The October Country

...that country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and midnights stay. That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun. That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain....

— Ray Bradbury

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Skimmington Ride

Ariel Meadow Stallings:

Over the past couple years, I've watched the rise of this new form of online performance art, where internet commenters make public sport of flagging potentially problematic language as insensitive, and gleefully flag authors as needing to check their privilege.

...Increasingly, I've started recognizing this kind of behavior for what it is: privilege-checking as a form of internet sport. It's a kind of trolling, with all the politics I agree with, but motivations and execution that turns my stomach. It's well-intended (SO well-intended), but when the motivations seem to be less about opening dialogue about the issues, and more about performance, righteousness, and intolerance for those who don't agree with you… well, I'm not on-board.

This is the second time this year I've read a brilliant analysis of this kind of spectacle:

1. John Scalzi publishes the post, which has the explicit purpose of making it easier to convince white straight men of their privilege and, in doing so, perhaps reduce racism, sexism, and homophobia a little. You know. Improve social justice, that sort of thing.
2. Straight white men show up in the comments of the post and, as is frequently the case, say stupid, misguided stuff, about how they're the real victims, sexism isn't real, etc. In other words, they announce themselves as precisely the people who need educating about privilege.
3. Scalzi does not educate them. He mocks and dismisses them. His supportive commenters either lavish his post with praise, engage in the mockery themselves, or both. Scalzi publishes an entire post which has no function other than to mock the (admittedly ignorant and wrong) men who he claimed to want to educate. Given human nature, they are likely to be less willing than before to admit their privilege or to consider racism, sexism, and homophobia. Again, commenters sympathetic to Scalzi participate in mocking the rubes and fall over themselves praising him.

...There appear to be two rational explanations for this behavior. One is that Scalzi and the commenters who aped his behavior have a simply atrocious grasp on psychology, human behavior, and politics, and sincerely believed that mocking people would lead to their enlightenment. The other is that John Scalzi's purpose was never to actually contribute to education and social justice, but rather to demonstrate his superiority to those people he claimed to want to educate, and in doing so show what a brilliant and enlightened guy he is to the liberals he is in cultural competition with.

The idiom that Scalzi has used to present his case is no doubt familiar to you. It's the default language of  many prominent liberal or leftist publication when the talk about racism, sexism, or homophobia: self-aggrandizing, pawing at a kind of witty derision, choked with condescension, and invoking a tribalism of the enlightened. That this kind of discourse is a profound rhetorical failure-- that it is the kind of language that is never going to convince anyone of anything-- appears to be of no consequence.

Of course, the race and/or gender of both authors can and will be used to dismiss the argument out of hand by anyone so inclined. So it goes. Comments on Ariel's post accuse her of attempting to police the dialogue in such a way as to favor her privileged perspective, and the ace up the sleeve is the invocation of the righteous anger of the oppressed, which, of course, has no obligation to humble itself in order to cater to the comfortable norms of the oppressors. Really, it all just sadly reminds me of the postmodernist assertion that reason itself is a tool of Western heteronormative phallocentric white supremacist imperialism, and should therefore be abandoned in favor of analyzing social relations as a zero-sum power struggle, or some other such Foucauldian bullshit.

I'm sure there are people who genuinely want to have informative discussions about privilege. They just don't seem to be the ones who dominate the commenting on posts where the topic comes up. It's amazing how many of them claim to have no time or energy to address someone's objections in detail, whereas they will gladly reiterate, dozens of times, how tired they are of having to read what they consider to be stupid objections that have long been refuted. Which makes perfect sense, if it's understood as a performance for one's in-group rather than an attempt to actually change anyone's mind. The eye-roll, the exasperated sigh, the condescending derision are merely attempts to embarrass someone into silence. Understanding is less important than acquiescence.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Autumn Evening

David Burleigh:

The reasons for the focus on spring and autumn, Shirane suggests, derived partly from their importance in the farming cycle, and partly from the influence of China. By the eighth century, "a larger grammar of seasonal poetry" began to emerge, according to which emotions were not expressed directly, but implied through seasonal references instead. This required a sophisticated understanding of their usage and became what we think of now as Japan's traditional poetic art.

Speaking of which, how about some seasonal haiku from the Japanese masters?


A crow
has settled on a bare branch—
autumn evening.


Autumn evening—
there's joy also
in loneliness.


The holes in the wall
play the flute
this autumn evening.

Equity Must Come With Clean Hands

Rob Beschizza:

I just don't buy it. Who can, hand on heart, prefer the "honest depravity" of a prolific victimizer of the weak over the "hypocritical" journalism that exposes him? It's an entirely too abstract--and too privileged--viewpoint.

He's talking about Freddie deBoer's post:

No, it's not sympathy for ViolentAcrez that moves me, but rather contempt for the deep hypocrisy of Gawker, along with its always-hilarious sanctimony of convenience. I would argue that, in fact, Gawker's writers and audience partake in essentially the same thing that many Redditors who frequent the uglier sub-Reddits do: being titillated, in various ways, by content that they simultaneously disclaim and enjoy. Gawker, after all, comments on any and all sex scandals and questionable behavior, most certainly including those involving underaged women. Perhaps Gawker doesn't host, say, the latest photos of a scantily-clad Miley Cyrus, but it has certainly linked to them, and its readers certainly click those links.... And when they do, they have the all-encompassing excuse that permits essentially all Internet behavior undertaken by the chattering class: when they look at the latest Nickelodeon star to be exposed in her bra and panties, well, there's something very meta about it. They aren't like the serial masturbators on those dirty Internet forums, no. When they get their rocks off by looking at questionable content online, they're doing it the classy, socially approved way.

...Ultimately, I doubt anyone thinks that the world is a markedly safer or less misogynistic place for the downfall of ViolentAcrez. Perhaps some people will witness the outing and change their behavior in fear. I'm willing to bet that in fact it will simply provoke more from those who were already likely to engage in it; this kind of behavior, after all, thrives off of the perceived oppression of those who undertake it. And those who are so inclined will likely just be more careful and more circumspect. I'm sad to say that this is the kind of issue where you aren't likely to beat the Internet. This kind of behavior, ultimately, is the purest expression of web culture. Change won't come from a few high profile outings but from a general change in the tenor of a culture that continues to view women as repositories of sexual pleasure. But perhaps that ultimately is the reason for all the celebration of this. It is the ultimate in the kind of empty social progressivism practiced at Gawker Media: it does nothing to materially improve the human condition but rather establishes the relative social value of the people expressing anger. It is a conduit not for change but for actor sorting.

Too abstract, too privileged. I love that. Look, buddy, we're just simple farmers, people of the land, common clay, you know; we just want to hiss at people who are too gauche and crass in the way they go about leering at tween sideboob pics. Don't go muddlin' our heads up with all your tu quoque fancy-talk now.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Hats Optional

What is this religious fascination with head gear? Every religion's got a different fuckin' hat. Did you ever notice that? The Hindus have a turban, the sheiks have a tall white turban, Jews have a yarmulke, Muslims have the keffiyah, the Bishop has a pointy hat on one day and a round hat on another day, Cardinal has a red hat, Pope has a white hat, everybody's got a fuckin' hat! One group takes them off, another group puts them on. Personally, I would not want to be a member of any group where you either have to wear a hat or you can't wear a hat. I think all religions should have one rule, and one rule only: hats optional!

You ever notice that? Any time you see two groups of people who really hate each other, chances are good they're wearing different kind of hats. Keep an eye on that, it might be important.

- George Carlin

Of course, "religion" is just another name for a certain type of ritual behavior common to people in groups; to wit:

After Al Stefanelli’s departure from Freethought Blogs, FtB boss PZ Myers posted a non-tribute to Al that spent more time calling Al’s friend Reap Paden a racist than it did remembering all the good things Al had done at Freethought Blogs.

A couple of Mr. Myers’ followers wasted no time in joining on what they saw as a Myers-sanctioned dogpile on Al, noting that you could tell the disabled author and journalist was “a douchebag” because of what he chose to wear on his head.

That's not a joke, unfortunately; at least, not a consciously intended one. Here's a composite of three comments by one member of the horde:

• Having never read Al’s blog (indeed, rarely reading much of FTB that isn’t linked back here in the various roundups), I decided to investigate.

So, pulling his up, the first thing I’m greeted with is his photo. The way he chooses to represent himself to the world.

White fedora, black plastic framed tinted lens glasses.

I hesitate to say “everyone who wears a fedora is a complete douchebag.” I’m sure someone could find a counter example, if they looked hard enough. I’d like, if I could, to put a finger on why it seems such a surefire marker of awfulness, but I’m struggling with that. I think perhaps it is the contempt it shows for contemporary fashion. Now, I’m no fashionista by any stretch of any imagination. I am in poor shape and t-shirt and jeans tend to be the limits of my wardrobe on most occasions. But the fedora thing seems different. Rather than simply bowing out and refusing to play the fashion game, it feels like insisting that your individual judgment of what looks good and cool somehow supersedes the judgment of the rest of society. Which is quite a different expression. I don’t know, this isn’t really a fully formed thought. But the modern fedora, in all it’s t-shirt matched “glory” is a particular marker which says something specific, even if I cannot put my finger on precisely what it says.

• Just saying. I know in person 5 people who regularly wear fedoras. Like all the time. All are white males. They are all varying degrees of misogynist. 3 of them are Ron Paul supporters.

• Sorry to have so offended you and your fedora, but choice of hat is not a protected group. And like Juggalo makeup, Beats By Dre headphones, and popped collars, people are both allowed and encouraged to draw inferences from the messages you send in fashion. This is why one does not wear sweatpants to a job interview.

Rather than praise, however, this overzealous attempt at ingratiation only earned a rebuke from the Peez himself:

Oh, and what’s with this idiocy about hats? Lots of different kinds of people wear fedoras…you can’t judge them by what they wear on their heads. My son has a very nice dark gray pinstriped fedora, and he’s a liberal campaigner for the Minnesota DFL. I’ve eyed a few hats now and then, and think a fedora is a nice classic design.

Ooo, that's gotta sting. Honestly, though, take a close look at this piece of work; it's quite amazing. He starts off by admitting that he only reads other blogs on the network when PZ tells him to. All he knows of Stefanelli is that he is apparently now on the FTB shitlist. He then constructs a rant around having seen one picture of him and having browsed three of his recent posts. He pauses, in a brief moment of self-awareness, to inform the reader of what they have likely concluded already, that he really hasn't put any thought into what his fingers are typing, before he figures, fuck it; in for a penny, in for a pound, and tops it off by suggesting that wearing an article of unfashionable clothing is a perverse assertion of ignorant individuality against the collective wisdom of society, as if there has ever been a decade whose fashions weren't viewed in hindsight with a mixture of amusement and horror. Well, I guess when you normally go to such ascetic extremes to avoid judging, stereotyping and giving offense to anyone for the "wrong" reasons, feeling liberated to indulge those urges at the expense of an official enemy must cause a massive rush of blood to the head.

This is actually a perfect encapsulation of what I hate about people, the Internet, and people on the Internet. This is what I mean when I repeatedly complain about posturing — people with nothing to say wasting so many words pretending to have deeply-felt, wittily-expressed opinions about irrelevant matters of taste so as to be accepted by whomever they're trying desperately to impress. Of course he doesn't really give a vague fuck about the supposed moral significance of fedoras, any more than most people give a vague fuck about Comic Sans, Nickelback and Creed, the shame of being a BlackBerry/Myspace/AOL user, or any of the other cheap and easy heuristics that they deride in lieu of saying something interesting. He just thought he saw an opportunity to make himself look clever. O nonexistent gods, deliver me from status-seeking, sycophantic morons attempting to be clever.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Autumn In Her Flaming Dress of Orange, Brown, Gold

The Onion:

“Nothing beats autumn in New England,” said His Excellency, the Duke of Fall, who began the day swaddled in a warm flannel blanket, gazing out the window at the golden-hued landscape, as is his custom this time of year. “Everywhere the leaves are changing and the temperature is starting to drop off. You can smell it in the air.”

“Tonight it may even dip into the 30s,” added the cozy autumnal personage, who at several points wrapped both hands around his warm container of coffee and inhaled deeply. “Perfect weather for building a fire.”

Mr. Fall, who sources speculate loves Thanksgiving, butternut squash soup, homecoming parades, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” apple-picking, and haunted hayrides, emerges reliably every year around this time in his traditional uniform, sometimes alternating his iconic sweater with a fleece vest or pullover.

The Autumnal Ambassador is also believed to be an avid consumer of seasonal produce, his home and hearth redolent of roasting Indian corn, gourds, and other root vegetables.


I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to get my hands on some fucking gourds and arrange them in a horn-shaped basket on my dining room table. That shit is going to look so seasonal. I’m about to head up to the attic right now to find that wicker fucker, dust it off, and jam it with an insanely ornate assortment of shellacked vegetables. When my guests come over it’s gonna be like, BLAMMO! Check out my shellacked decorative vegetables, assholes. Guess what season it is—fucking fall. There’s a nip in the air and my house is full of mutant fucking squash.

I may even throw some multi-colored leaves into the mix, all haphazard like a crisp October breeze just blew through and fucked that shit up. Then I’m going to get to work on making a beautiful fucking gourd necklace for myself. People are going to be like, “Aren’t those gourds straining your neck?” And I’m just going to thread another gourd onto my necklace without breaking their gaze and quietly reply, “It’s fall, fuckfaces. You’re either ready to reap this freaky-assed harvest or you’re not.”

I consider both of these pieces to be worthy of inclusion in my recent theme of posting seasonal poetry.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Damnatio Ad Bestias


But the test of anyone’s life is his whole life. Not just the darkest, most terrible things in it but what he does with himself afterward. Who he molds himself to be from those things he’s done, and whether or not he can reach into himself and be a force for change — not in spite of his crimes but because of them. Because when he speaks of evil, he speaks with authority. And because, as the terms of his parole surely understood, the only way to know whether a man has reformed is to give him the opportunity to prove it.

Wow. I've always thought Mary Liz was one of the most airheaded hacks on the Internet, but I've gotta say, it takes guts to defend Jerry Sandusky like that and demand that he be released from prison and given the chance to supervise an after-school sports program.

Ha, just kidding, of course. She's talking about Michael Vick, again. Because dogs are just inanimate props in what's truly important here: the story of one functionally-retarded athlete's struggle for redemption in a cold world that merely offers him fame and immense wealth to fill the gap in his soul that was formerly occupied by thinking up creative ways to maim and kill dogs for his entertainment. Because tell me, what kind of monsters would we be if we were willing to dismiss the inherent worth of a walking colostomy bag of genetic material whose only socially-approved talent is throwing a football with reasonable accuracy? I mean, if we're not going to allow him the chance to indulge his true calling in an arena worthy of his ability, that is.

Besides, if he breaks this dog, then Mary will absolutely, positively, no-backsies give him a stern lecture and a disapproving shake of the head. Several dozen dogs seized by the authorities and who knows how many killed is understandable, but one more, well, that would just try the limits of her Christian patience, mister!

You Will Never Find a More Wretched Hive of Scum and Villainy. We Must Be Cautious.

Apparently the ranty professor hasn't heard it said that "no publicity is bad publicity":

But then the hyperskeptics kicked into action. I got dunned with people claiming that the slymepit really wasn’t that bad, how dare I damn them with this accusation, I should research the place before making such accusations (never mind that I’ve had past experience with it, that I see its denizens commenting all over FtB, and that it’s fucking called the fucking Slymepit).

...Oh, well. I am vindicated, and next time some blinkered asshole tells me to hyperskeptically examine my well-founded assumptions about the slymepitters, I’m just going to direct them to this post, because I’m not going to read that vile collection of misogynistic scum again, no matter how hard they try to guilt me into it.

As I hope I've made abundantly clear by now, I hate groups of people. By definition. With rare exceptions. Any group of, say, more than four or five people, unless they happen to be a rock band. But as I said the other day when making fun of the increasingly-ridiculous Adam Lee (who, not to be outdone, recently called the Slymepit a "hate site"), I've read the blogs at FTB and the A+ forums and been repulsed by the tendentious politics and the group dynamics among the commentariat. I also went and read several dozen pages at the Slymepit to see for myself what all the vitriol was about, only to conclude that reports of their infamy were greatly exaggerated. If anything, they seem more possessing of the anarchic spirit of irreverent mockery that certain atheists used to be known for until they started believing their own press about how they're going to change the world. I'm not sure giving them free advertising is going to have quite the effect he thinks it will.

Sitting Alone On an Autumn Night

Sitting alone in the empty hall
late at night, I remember other temples.
Fruit ripens and falls in the mountain rain.
Insects call in the lamplit grass.

Nothing can be done about my whitening hair.
No alchemy produces yellow gold.
Struggling against inevitably growing old,
one can turn only to the dharma.

— Wang Wei (701-761)

There's Got to Be Just More to It Than This, or Tell Me, Why Do We Exist?

Brad Warner:

That being said, a lot of people who do meditation make exactly the same mistake as these scientific researchers. These meditators think that the Big Moments that sometimes happen during the course of meditation are the point of meditation. If that’s what you think, it’s easy to conclude that drugs might be a more efficient way of producing the same results. There are entire schools of meditation, some quite old and respected, that have enshrined the view that the purpose of meditation is to have some great moment of awakening. So it’s no surprise to find people who have approached meditation in this mistaken way concluding that “either hallucinogenics or meditation can take you to very similar, if not the same, experiences,” as Gary Weber says at the end of his article referenced above.

The core of the mistaken belief that drugs and meditation are doing the same thing is this belief that meditation is about results. But in the real world there are no results. There is only this.

It amuses me when I see people invested in the idea that not only is there some kind of absolute metaphysical truth, but that it should be exotic and otherworldly, a violently transcendent experience as if God were to stick his finger down through their skulls and stir their brains into soup. Do what you want, but whenever you guys get tired of cerebral thrillseeking, there's wood to be chopped and water to be carried.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Enjoy the Silence

Sheldon: Your shoes are delightful. Where did you get them?
Howard: What?
Sheldon: Bazinga, I don't care.


She found (or verified) that Germans really don't do small talk, those little phrases so familiar to the British about the weather or a person's general well-being, but which she describes as "empty verbiage". In academic language, this is "phatic" conversation - it's not meant to convey hard information but to perform some social function, such as making people feel good.

The German language doesn't even have an expression for "small talk", she says. It is so alien that in the German translation of A Bear called Paddington - Paddington unser kleiner Baer - it was omitted.

...For their part, the British have what House calls the "etiquette of simulation". The British feign an interest in someone. They pretend to want to meet again when they don't really. They simulate concern. Saying things like "It's nice to meet you" are rarely meant the way they are said, she says. "It's just words. It's simulating interest in the other person."

From a German perspective, this is uncomfortably close to deceit.

Ah, my father's people, you make me so proud.

On a related note, I thought it was funny that I should happen across this very theme in a different context only shortly after reading this article:

Wittgenstein's aim had been to stamp out posturing and empty verbiage, and his preference throughout his Cambridge career was for papers to be short as possible... English manners being foreign to Wittgenstein, he expressed many of his forthright views about Russell bluntly to his face. These included his low opinion of all Russell's philosophical work since the First World War.

Monday, October 08, 2012

The Haunting Fear That Someone, Somewhere, May Be Irrational


But wait, you’re thinking — atheists don’t believe in ghosts and ghoulies. How can I reconcile being a rational, materialistic, hard-nosed scientist and atheist with an appreciation of a holiday dedicated to the supernatural? How can I go even further and claim that not only is it compatible with naturalism, but is a great atheist holiday?

Actually, what I was thinking was that if there's anything more tiresome than monomaniacal ideologues subjecting everything from art to entertainment to holidays to the Procrustean bed of their ideologies, I'm powerless to imagine it. I'm related to people like that — the closest thing approximating joy in their lives is the never-ending chore of categorizing every experience as For or Against their particular fixation and reacting accordingly. Knowing full well that no matter how anodyne your opening gambit, you will be aggressively placed into conversational check within moments, you eventually avoid engaging with them at all, which they no doubt interpret as an admission that you can't handle the truth.

...I think I’d be able to enjoy every religious holiday if it were merely a celebration of cultural history and traditions, if instead of being burdened with the weight of supernatural significance, it was recognized as nothing but a fantasy. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone saw Christmas the same way atheists do, as completely comparable to Halloween, where the freight of myth was seen as irrelevant to the fun of the celebration?

I dunno; maybe the lack of genuine belief is why Halloween has no music comparable to Christmas carols. I'm fine with people believing in silly shit as long as we get some choral music out of the deal! Seriously, I realize this question isn't really a genuine proposition, so much as a thoughtless expression of the common and equally thoughtless belief that all the world's problems would be solved if only everyone agreed with me (leaving aside the fact that trying to get everyone to believe the same things has been a reliable source of endless conflict throughout history). But still, what the fuck do I care how earnestly or literally other people celebrate Christmas? You don't have to be sympathetic to the truth claims of Christianity to recognize that not all believers are creationists and Christian Reconstructionists.

Sunday, October 07, 2012


When my hills stand ablaze with gold and red,
And I can hear the harsh-voiced leader cry
As wild geese, like a necklace on the sky,
Are seen for a brief moment overhead,
Then I remember what my lover said.
No bird of Spring, however joyously
Singing arpeggios on a lilac tree,
Can speak to me so plainly of the dead.
October, bringing gaudy mysteries,
With smell of burning leaves and dripping sound
As frost freed nuts come dropping to the ground,
With late, red apples glowing on the trees
Like lanterns at some feast of memories,
The spell of death and silence has unbound.

— Louise Driscoll

We Are Building a Religion, We Are Building It Bigger, We Are Widening the Corridors and Adding More Lanes

Adam Lee:

What’s more, we refuse to believe that skepticism and critical thinking can be usefully applied only to claims about the supernatural. We believe that it’s equally valuable to apply them to real-world power structures that perpetuate inequality and injustice. Thus, the goals of Atheism Plus: We are atheists and skeptics, plus we defend women’s rights and reproductive choice, plus we fight against sexism and racism, plus we oppose homophobia and transphobia, plus we call for equality of opportunity and economic fairness, and so on.

Honestly, maybe they'd have better luck with their rebranding if they stopped calling themselves atheists and instead started marketing themselves as a continuation of the Protestant Reformation. Like, "We share with Christianity the same extreme preoccupation with radical equality and caring for the downtrodden of society; we just consider supernatural belief in God to be akin to the sort of accumulated corruption Luther wanted to cleanse from the Church. We're not destroying Christianity, we're improving it!"

The other major complaint is that A+ is fostering a black-and-white, with-us-or-against-us attitude among its adherents. This, too, is easily disproved by perusing the A+ forums and discussion threads. There are many prominent atheists who choose not to identify with A+ for various reasons, and there’s no chorus of demands that they be blackballed. Nor do we expect that every existing atheist organization will take on the full range of social-justice issues. What we do expect is that all atheists will treat each other with basic respect and decency, and that we’ll do whatever’s reasonably in our power to make the movement as welcoming and diverse as possible, without giving up the vigorous, sprawling debate over ideas that defines us.

Ahahahaha. Oh, man, that's rich, especially coming right on the heels of this recent shitstorm. Okay, I have to admit, I haven't been back to the FTB cult compound that frequently in the last couple months, but unless some of you snuck up behind Richard Carrier with a net to tackle him and stab a syringe full of thorazine into his buttock, just to name one famous example, that is some brazen P.R. Poor Adam. He used to be an interesting writer. Now, I guess he's just going to be the A+ equivalent of a White House press secretary.

I do fully concur, though, that you should spend some time perusing their forums and discussion threads. No, really, go see for yourself. Secondhand descriptions won't do it justice. And those of you who have a strong tolerance for alcohol poisoning can make a drinking game based on the number of times someone mentions "privilege".

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Parti Pris

Patrick Deneen:

Bloom made an altogether different argument: American youth were increasingly raised to believe that nothing was True, that every belief was merely the expression of an opinion or preference. Americans were raised to be “cultural relativists,” with a default attitude of non-judgmentalism. Not only all other traditions but even one’s own (whatever that might be) were simply views that happened to be held by some people and could not be judged inferior or superior to any other. He bemoaned particularly the decline of household and community religious upbringing in which the worldviews of children were shaped by a comprehensive vision of the good and the true. In one arresting passage, he waxed nostalgic for the days when people cared: “It was not necessarily the best of times in America when Catholic and Protestants were suspicious of and hated one another; but at least they were taking their beliefs seriously…”

He lamented the decline of such true belief not because he personally held any religious or cultural tradition to be true—while Bloom was raised as a Jew, he was at least a skeptic, if not a committed atheist—but because he believed that such inherited belief was the source from which a deeper and more profound philosophic longing arose. It wasn’t “cultural literacy” he wanted, but rather the possibility of that liberating excitement among college-age youth that can come from realizing that one’s own inherited tradition might not be true. From that harrowing of belief can come the ultimate philosophic quest—the effort to replace mere prejudice with the quest for knowledge of the True.

Near the beginning of Closing, Bloom relates one telling story of a debate with a psychology professor during his time teaching at Cornell. Bloom’s adversary claimed, “it was his function to get rid of prejudices in his students.” Bloom compared that function to the activity of an older sibling who informs the kids that there is no Santa Claus—disillusionment and disappointment. Rather than inspiring students to replace “prejudice” with a curiosity for Truth, the mere shattering of illusion would simply leave students “passive, disconsolate, indifferent, and subject to authorities like himself.”

Bloom relates that “I found myself responding to the professor of psychology that I personally tried to teach my students prejudices, since nowadays—with the general success of his method—they had learned to doubt beliefs even before they believed in anything … One has to have the experience of really believing before one can have the thrill of liberation.” Bloom’s preferred original title—before being overruled by Simon and Schuster—was Souls Without Longing. He was above all concerned that students, in being deprived of the experience of living in their own version of Plato’s cave, would never know or experience the opportunity of philosophic ascent.

Interesting. Again, I'm intrigued by the apparent nuances in this book that were apparently brushed aside at the time in the rush to append it to a coarser political argument.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

An Autumn Evening

Dark hills against a hollow crocus sky
Scarfed with its crimson pennons, and below
The dome of sunset long, hushed valleys lie
Cradling the twilight, where the lone winds blow
And wake among the harps of leafless trees
Fantastic runes and mournful melodies.

The chilly purple air is threaded through
With silver from the rising moon afar,
And from a gulf of clear, unfathomed blue
In the southwest glimmers a great gold star
Above the darkening druid glens of fir
Where beckoning boughs and elfin voices stir.

And so I wander through the shadows still,
And look and listen with a rapt delight,
Pausing again and yet again at will
To drink the elusive beauty of the night,
Until my soul is filled, as some deep cup,
That with divine enchantment is brimmed up.

— Lucy Maud Montgomery

The New Dealers and the Hope Fiends: A Parable

The ongoing discussion from a recent post made me think of this scene:

Stringer Bell: Doin' good out there, D.

D'Angelo Barksdale: We'll be doin' even better when we get that new package.

Stringer: *scoffs* New package same as the old, man.

D'Angelo: Say what?

Stringer: Ain't no new package. We're just gonna put that same shit out with a different color gelcap, is all. We might spike that shit with some procaine, or some caffeine, but otherwise it's the same.

D'Angelo: String, man... people already comin' back on us, tellin' us that shit is weak.

Stringer: I know, shit is weak, but, you know, shit is weak all over. The thing is: no matter what we call heroin, it's gonna get sold. Shit is strong, we gonna sell it. Shit is weak, we gonna sell twice as much. You know why? Because a fiend is gonna chase that shit no matter what. It's crazy. We do worse, and we get paid more.

The Recline of Western Civilization (Slight Return)

I fear I'm becoming a meta-blogger. As in, I fear that I've already sat through an entire cultural cycle of the Eternal Recurrence and the only thing left to do is link to things I've already written about stupid shit that never dies. Okay, I exaggerate a bit, but what has it been, all of eighteen hours since I was just joking-but-not-really about this?

Data from the Buzzfeed network has found many fewer page views are coming from email than they used to, as other modes of sharing, like Facebook and Twitter have taken off. Since the beginning of this year, all the sites included in that network, including TMZ and the Daily Mail, have seen drop in email shares, with a big drop-off in May 2012, as the chart below via Buzzfeed shows. We have a theory for why: People are emailing around links less because it takes too much effort. Think about the many steps it takes to compose an email, even from a news site, compared to social sharing it.

Unlike email, mainstream social media platforms are automatically connected to pretty much all of the Internet. Sure, someone with a New York Times subscription is automatically logged in via their email to the paper. But that's not a norm across the whole of the world wide web in the same way it is with Facebook and Twitter. Because of that, social sharing takes one, maybe two clicks. Facebook "liking" something doesn't even involve typing a single word and voile its shared with your entire feed. Email on the other hand, involves, inputting your own email, choosing a recipient, knowing their email off the top of their head, and maybe writing a note. Or, one could copy and paste the link into Gmail and send it that way. Either way, it's effortful.

No, actually, it's not, not even by the most generous definition of "effort". It may be faster by a few precious seconds (which you will no doubt put to valuable use), but there is no meaningful way to quantify a difference in "effort" between clicking a mousepad several times as opposed to once or twice. By my count, it takes me all of six clicks (and less than ten seconds) from this page to have an email addressed with a subject line and ready to be typed. (I suppose this could be a different process if you're the kind of person who basically lives inside their smartphone screen, but then again, a smartphone screen is basically a useful playpen to contain people whose minds aren't developed enough to play with weighty thoughts yet, so we can safely disregard them.)

Now, I recognize, along with John McWhorter, that the nature of texting and tweeting is such that it makes more sense to see them as derivations of talking rather than bastardizations of writing; i.e., it's not that our culture has suddenly taken a nosedive in literacy because people would rather use three-and four-letter acronyms than coherent paragraphs to communicate, it's that people are no longer limited to physical proximity when they want to chatter idiotically to their friends. I am under no illusions that, prior to the Internet and all its gadget offspring, the people who now spend their time downloading ringtones would have been sitting around "reading Tolstoi spelled with an i and writing sestinas and villanelles instead of shopping lists." Most people have always been silly and stupid and content to pass the time chattering with their friends.

But I will be godfuckingdamned if I let this sorry excuse pass by unremarked upon. I don't doubt there are people who feel that way, but how in the world does someone actually type those paragraphs in order to rationalize those feelings without being overcome with shame and embarrassment over their pathetic laziness? You would consciously admit that the, uh, effort, the cognitive burden involved in the Herculean task of reading something interesting, holding it in your mind for a moment's reflection, and sharing it with a friend while addressing them in a little personal detail, is too exhausting for you? You have been so thoroughly captured by the internal logic and rhythm of your stupid fucking gadgets that you obsess over saving irrelevant fractions of time, only so that you can fill those fractions with other equally impulsive, unconscious, pointless activities? Jesus. I'm afraid I might have to tentatively, grudgingly side with Nicholas Carr in this instance — there's something wrong with you.

Well, hell; we do live in an age where "Internet addiction" is being talked about as a genuine mental disorder, so maybe this is something similar. Let's call it "cerebral bulimia"— a compulsive, joyless urge to gorge oneself on tidbits of trivial junk and effluvia before sticking a finger down one's throat and vomiting it onto Twitter, undigested.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

I Have Nothing to Sell

Razib Khan:

In the course of conversation I expressed frankly what I actually do hold to be a rough & ready approximation of my attitude toward discussion: I have almost no interest in persuading anyone of the truth of my particular views on any issue. This was relevant in that context because on occasion people try and draw me out as to the details of my disagreement with the consensus on an array of topics, when I often have no interest in expending the mental energy to do any such thing.

Yet on a one-on-one basis I am much more likely to be open to a deep and thorough exchange. Why? The dynamic of signalling and group conformity is strongly dampened by removing third party observers from the interaction. With that tension removed I myself often feel less irritated if I have to invest a great deal of background information to make my own position clearer. Similarly, I often feel that my interlocutors are much less likely to trot out hackneyed and unpersuasive, but group approved, arguments. There is quite often idiocy in crowds.

This nicely supplements what I was trying to express recently. It also illuminates some of what I find annoying about so much writing in the blogosphere, especially in the age of social media: people are always writing with an audience in mind, always putting on a performance, always playing to the groundlings. I appreciate my small group of readers for their attention and input, I do, but I also don't take them into consideration at all when I'm writing. As a rule, I aim to write as if I'm having an email conversation with an individual, where, as Razib says, the lack of an audience's attention allows more energy to be devoted to substance rather than posturing and competing for status.

I am not a Zen Buddhist; I'm not advocating Zen Buddhism; I'm not trying to convert anyone to it. I have nothing to sell: I'm an entertainer. That is to say in the same sense that when you go to a concert, and you listen to someone play Mozart, he has nothing to sell except the sound of the music. He doesn't want to convert you to anything, he doesn't want you to join an organization in favor of Mozart's music as opposed to say Beethoven's. And I approach you in the same spirit: as a musician with his piano or violinist with his violin, I just want you to enjoy a point of view which I enjoy.

— Alan Watts

I don't know if I've ever expressed this clearly or not, but just because I'm opinionated, it does not mean that I want to persuade anyone else to agree with me. What I enjoy most is encountering new perspectives on familiar subjects, especially well-written ones; I have no interest in making them converge with mine. And this is an entirely selfish pursuit, this blog. Essentially, I'm just talking to myself in a public space here, without taking much heed of the voyeurs and eavesdroppers. The mere act of writing about whatever interests me at any given time sustains me, especially if I meet my aesthetic standards while doing so. I know when I've written something good, which isn't often enough for my liking, but still, it doesn't detract from my satisfaction to know that only a few people will ever see it. I make no claims to be especially knowledgeable about anything important, but I'm secure enough in what little I do know that I don't feel the need to gather allies for support. If too many people started agreeing with me and attempting to flatter me, I'd either pick an argument with them in return, or use another pseudonym and start trolling my own comments to tell myself how much I suck.

Hell, I even resent the fact that Blogger's recent template overhaul refuses to allow me the option of removing that goddamned G+ Share button up on the toolbar. If you lazy fucks want to share something I've written, you can damn well walk to your email client like we did back in the old days!

Be Wary of Any Man Who Keeps a Pig Farm


Investigators aren’t ruling out the possibility another person could have been involved.

“Due to the unusual circumstances, the Sheriff’s Office is investigating to determine if foul play may have resulted in the death of Mr. Garner,” District Attorney Paul Frasier told KCBY.

Pigs are omnivorous, and have previously been known to feast on people.

Wow! Is that true, Brick Top?

You got to starve the pigs for a few days, then the sight of a chopped-up body will look like curry to a pisshead. You gotta shave the heads of your victims, and pull the teeth out for the sake of the piggies' digestion. You could do this afterwards, of course, but you don't want to go sievin' through pig shit, now do you? They will go through bone like butter. You need at least sixteen pigs to finish the job in one sitting, so be wary of any man who keeps a pig farm. They will go through a body that weighs 200 pounds in about eight minutes. That means that a single pig can consume two pounds of uncooked flesh every minute. Hence the expression, "as greedy as a pig".

Monday, October 01, 2012

Immortal Autumn

I speak this poem now with grave and level voice
In praise of autumn, of the far-horn-winding fall.
I praise the flower-barren fields, the clouds, the tall
Unanswering branches where the wind makes sullen noise.

I praise the fall: it is the human season.
No more the foreign sun does meddle at our earth,
Enforce the green and bring the fallow land to birth,
Nor winter yet weigh all with silence the pine bough,

But now in autumn with the black and outcast crows
Share we the spacious world: the whispering year is gone:
There is more room to live now: the once secret dawn
Comes late by daylight and the dark unguarded goes.

Between the mutinous brave burning of the leaves
And winter’s covering of our hearts with his deep snow
We are alone: there are no evening birds: we know
The naked moon: the tame stars circle at our eaves.

It is the human season. On this sterile air
Do words outcarry breath: the sound goes on and on.
I hear a dead man’s cry from autumn long since gone.

I cry to you beyond upon this bitter air.

— Archibald MacLeish

Cosmetic Palette

William Deresiewicz:

No, what I can’t stand is the way that “diversity” has become a badge of moral superiority. Somehow you’re a better person if you happen to live in a place that has a lot of blacks and Latinos—even if that circumstance is no thanks to you, even if you live there for entirely different reasons, even if you don’t actually know any of those people, even if the groups are segregated economically (and even though your presence, ipso facto, reduces the level of that diversity). “I can’t stand Vermont—it’s so white.” Vermont’s white? You’re white, you idiot.

Diversity isn’t equality. It isn’t even integration. It is merely demographics. It has nothing to do, in this context, with the well-being of people of color. It’s not a moral issue; it is, precisely, an issue of lifestyle. White people like it because it enables them to feel good about themselves. When they see a black person in their neighborhood, they give themselves a gold star.

Well, bam! Nothing like a little bracing pugnacity early on a Monday morn. Switching contexts, while still speaking of vague feel-good gestures toward demographics, I saw this shortly thereafter:

Such is the question of why, in many major publications, far more books by men are reviewed than books by women. Probably the best-known set of statistics comes from an organization called VIDA, which has created a feature called "The Count." That feature consists of pie charts that track the number of women and men both doing the reviewing and being reviewed. For instance, in 2011, they found that The New York Review Of Books reviewed 71 female authors and 293 male authors. In The New York Times, it was 273 women and 520 men.

Now, this kind of thing could be happening for lots of reasons, and like a lot of really complicated problems, it likely doesn't involve anything that anybody is doing on purpose, and therefore it doesn't lend itself to easy solutions through simple resolve. How several hundred books make it into a publication in a given year is the result of countless conscious and unconscious choices by readers, by authors, by book publishers, by reviewing publications, by reviewers and editors — it's an incredibly complex and unwieldy problem to try to get your arms around. You don't have to believe anyone is out to get women writers in order to think it's important to ask the question of what the factors are that bring us to that point and to suggest that it's not a great place to be.

No, you don't, but skeptical as I am, I suspect that a loaded question like that arrives with certain presuppositions and unsubtly implies a very narrow range of permissible answers. Having already framed the disparity as a moral problem, anything less than apologies and promises of solutions will be seen as evidence of bias. There's a sort of Freudian aspect to these kinds of arguments that bothers me — when you start suggesting unconscious bias as a motivation, what counts as evidence against it? If the NYRB comes back and says, "Well, we've rigorously examined our book reviewing standards and process, and no, we're sorry, but we don't see any reason to believe we've been unfairly biased with regards to gender," will that be accepted? Again, I'm skeptical. For people inclined to see any ratio, in any context, favoring a privileged group as evidence that someone must be getting oppressed in the process, the conclusion is foregone.

The only way anything like numerical parity would be achieved is for it to become a conscious goal of reviewing publications, at which point book reviewing would subordinate the effort, however flawed, to apply disinterested aesthetic standards, however imperfect or historically contingent they may be, to activism.

Does Not Compute

Tom Jacobs:

Two of the experiments involved humor. In one, 29 European Americans and 26 East Asians wrote about either death or dental pain, then read a series of Calvin and Hobbes comic strips and rated how funny they found them.

East Asians who had been contemplating their own mortality found the strips funnier than those who had been thinking about dental pain. The reverse was true of Westerners.

Clearly, something was wrong with the methodology, because the absolute, unrivaled hee-larity of Calvin and Hobbes transcends both nationality and uncomfortable circumstances. I mean, that's just a scientific fact.