Wednesday, January 30, 2013


Mark Rowlands:

Aristotle first identified the problem. Suppose your life is made up of things you do for the sake of something else — you do A in order to get B, and you do B only to get C, and so on. Therefore A has no value in itself; its value lies in the B. But B has no value in itself: that value lies in the C. Perhaps we eventually encounter something — call it Z — that’s valuable for what it is in itself, and not for anything else. The grim alternative is that we encounter no such thing and satisfaction is always deferred, always just around the corner (indeed many would argue that this is the treadmill of consumerism). If our lives are to mean anything, there must be something that’s valuable for what it is in itself and not for anything else it might get you. This, in the parlance of philosophers, is called intrinsic value. Most obviously, we should be able to find intrinsic value in the other people in our lives. If we focus just on our activities — on what we do — then it is clear that it will not be found in work (in my sense above, of things we do for something else) but only in play. It is play, and not work, that gives value to our lives.

Alan Watts talked about this sort of thing a lot:

When we make music we don't do it in order to reach a certain point, such as the end of the composition. If that were the purpose of music then obviously the fastest players would be the best. Also, when we are dancing we are not aiming to arrive at a particular place on the floor as in a journey. When we dance, the journey itself is the point, as when we play music, the playing itself is the point.

I wasn't exaggerating when I said that woods-moseying was my "purpose" in life. Of course, I could just as easily have named reading, blogging, watching soccer games or listening to music, too. Am I suggesting that everyone should be similarly lacking in worldly ambition? No, I'm saying that there is no "should" to begin with, no categorical imperative, no final destination toward which all our efforts are aimed. I'm saying that my conception of the good life involves activities which exist simply for their own sake, as reflecting pools, pools in which such progressivist, teleological delusions of ultimate purpose can drown.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Those Winter Sundays

Sundays too my father got up early
And put his clothes on in the blueback cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?

— Robert Hayden

Don't Stop Believin'

Joy provides emotional closure, which we never got after 9/11 and the distraction in Iraq. Maybe this joy at Osama Bin Laden's death can provide that for us. And maybe then we can finally have politicians say that we won, and so we can finally shut down the illegal prisons, the ongoing war, and maybe even the ridiculous security theater at airports. But if we scold and silence the joy away, we'll never get a chance to find out.

That was AmandaPanda almost two years ago, urging us to be reborn in the cleansing blood of another Middle Eastern apocalyptic lunatic, and needless to say, all her predictions came true despite the best nonexistent efforts of the scolds and killjoys, because if they hadn't, we'd have to conclude that she's still as much of an idiot as she's ever been, and we can't have that, now, obviously.

Now, I had vaguely resolved this year to stop wasting time reading empty-calorie sites like Salon, Slate, the Atlantic Wire, FfTB, etc., but I was tricked by Jacob into clicking on her latest column, unable to resist finding out who the hell could be so goddamned dumb as to write this:

Hopefully the greater inclusion of women into the military will help us all see that violence and war is learned behavior—it's not inevitable. Women entering combat roles isn't feminism acquiescing to male values, and women don't have a unique duty to overturn the glorification of violence and power that leads to war.

Ahahahaha. "Hey... why did they let so many of us in?"

Raise the Drawbridge, Lower the Portcullis, Drown Them in the Moat

Bora Zivkovic:

Commenting is a privilege, not a right. You have to earn it.

While early bloggers were generous, giving their rare online spaces up to public discussion, there is no need to feel so generous any more. Starting one’s own blog is easy these days, and ranting on social media is even easier. There is plenty of space for people to discuss stuff, and that does not have to happen on your site – the era of such generosity is mostly over, and most veteran bloggers have severely tightened their commenting rules over the years.

And yes, some blogs are still rich with vibrant commenting communities – e.g., Atrios, Pharyngula, etc. They have people there who talk to each other every day, often ignoring the topic of the actual post. 

I just thought those last two lines were extra-amusing. Yeah, uh, the lush, green grass above my septic field is due to similarly "rich" and "vibrant" soil, if you know what I mean. Nothing more needs to be said about the Jonestown that Peezus's comments have turned into, beyond what he's said himself, but honestly, Eschaton? If there exists a more content-free blog with an even larger group of babbling dimwits in the comments, I seriously don't want to know about it.

Heywood said the other day that he'd like to have a more active comment section; I told him he should be careful what he wishes for. You can argue with me all you want, but lemme just warn you, the day you bastards show up here just to gab to each other about your personal lives is the day I release the hounds.

Monday, January 28, 2013

You Tell Me You're an Unbeliever? A Spiritualist? Well, Me, I'm Neither

Tom de Castella:

But for some, spirituality is a byword for irrational beliefs and a sense that anything goes.

The comedian David Mitchell mocked the tendency, writing a column imagining a spiritual summer camp. "From reflexology to astrology, from ghosts to homeopathy, from wheat intolerance to 'having a bad feeling about this', we'll be celebrating all the wild and wonderful sets of conclusions to which people the world over are jumping to fill the gap left by the retreat of organised religion."

Alan Miller, director of the thinkers' forum NY Salon, wrote that "'spiritual but not religious' offers no positive exposition or understanding or explanation of a body of belief or set of principles of any kind".

Another group of people likely to be dismissive towards the "spiritual but not religious" mindset might come from organised religion.

"People have wanted to see how they fit into the big picture, which is really fantastic," says Brian Draper, associate member of faculty at the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. But there's a smorgasbord-like array of beliefs and many are built on "pseudo-science", he argues.

"I don't just choose spirituality as a lifestyle choice to enhance what's there, there's an element of self sacrifice to Christianity. The danger is you use spirituality as a pick and mix from consumer culture."

Humanists are deadlocked over the issue of the "spiritual" category. Andrew Copson, chief executive of the British Humanist Association, accepts that for many people it's a shorthand for saying "there must be more to life than this". But he finds its vagueness unhelpful.

"It can be used for everything from the full Catholic mass to whale songs, crystals, angels and fairies." As a humanist he prefers to avoid spirituality.

Humanism is about the belief "that human beings find value in the here and now rather than in something above and beyond". "People have social instincts and as a humanist it's about reinforcing those instincts," he explains.

I've made my own criticisms of what I, too, see as the consumerist aspects of the SNR phenomenon, so I'll take a different tack this time and say that pace Miller, not everything needs to be capable of being summarized in a list of rational principles or goals to have value; to expand a bit on what Oliver Burkeman says earlier in the article, much of human experience is non-conceptual, beneath the attention of conscious awareness. And pace Copson, not all of us are interested in reinforcing anything more than the bare minimum of social instincts; I, for one, could make no bones about a "spirituality" based upon an inhumanist perspective.

Speaking of species-wide commonalities, though, I suspect there's something fundamental to human psychology that makes us seek security by situating ourselves squarely in the middle of a group. W.H. Auden wrote the lines, "Any heaven we think it decent to enter/Must be Ptolemaic with ourselves at the center." George Carlin noted how, when driving, everyone who goes slower than you is an idiot, and everyone who goes faster than you is a maniac. And Dan Ariely suggested that we only know what we want when we see it in context; like an airplane pilot landing in the dark, we want to see runway lights on either side of us before touching our wheels down. Most of us can probably acknowledge how amazingly often we manage to frame a situation so that we're the only sane, reasonable people involved, beset on all sides by lunatics who fail to recognize our wisdom. Perhaps it's a lingering evolutionary instinct from our days avoiding predators on the African savanna: we intuitively feel it's terribly dangerous to hang out on the fringe.

Along those lines, I'll suggest that the widespread, amorphous concept of spirituality in our culture is an expression of that same quest for stable, safe middle ground. The purpose isn't philosophical truth-seeking so much as psychological comfort-seeking, defining oneself in relation to others rather than by a conceptual pole star.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Breaking the Law, Breaking the Law

Tom Jacobs:

The researchers believe such youngsters tend to congregate with peers who have similar musical tastes, creating cliques that are cut off from mainstream influences and behavioral norms. “In peer groups characterized by their deviant music taste, norm-breaking youth may ‘infect’ their friends with their behaviors,” they speculate.

If they’re right, it isn’t the music per se that leads kids into delinquency (although anti-social lyrics could conceivably play a role). It’s more the fact that kids who gravitate to other nonconformists at a young age miss out on the benefits of being part of mainstream society—including the positive influences of popular peers.

So if your preteen is listening to Metallica, some early intervention may be in order. On the other hand, if he or she is into Mozart or Monk, fear not: Such kids may also be outside the mainstream, but this isolation does not manifest itself in a negative way.

In other words, if your kids are already displaying self-assuredness and independence of thought and taste by age twelve, there's perhaps a slightly greater chance that they may end up coloring slightly outside the legal lines as they continue to mature and experiment with the boundaries of their free-spiritedness. Now, I realize that this is just one of those baked cheez-puffs of ephemeral news you can't use, the sort of study from the Institute for Stating the Staggeringly Obvious that constitute three-quarters of the posts on sites like Pacific Standard and Big Think, but I found it particularly funny for a couple reasons. One, the earnest tone, which makes me imagine the author going up to a group of misfit teenagers to ask them if they've heard the good news about the benefits of fitting in with the popular kids. And two, the idea that, almost twenty-two years after the release of the eponymous Black Album, Metallica can still be considered by anyone to be outside the mainstream.

You Don't Drink, Don't Smoke, What Do You Do?

Soraya Roberts:

In high school, I lied about why I never drank. "I don't want to lose control,” I said. The truth—I don’t want to be like you—would no doubt have been less palatable.

I vividly remember being about four years old and asking my dad about the beer he was drinking. He offered me a tiny sip. I didn't have the words for it at the time, but years later, I decided that "cold urine" was probably a reasonable approximation of its taste (I've never been tempted to perform the necessary experiment to validate my hypothesis, content to let it rest as conjecture). That was good enough for me. Whatever his motivations may have been, he largely ensured that I made it through adolescence without ever feeling the need to participate in that rite of passage.

Well... if I'm honest, I have to admit that being antisocial was an even greater factor. I would have agreed even then that it would be unfair to assume all drinks would taste like generic American beer. But my innate inability to feel comfortable in groups of people, though more passive in those days than it is now, made me recoil from the aggressively gregarious bonding. "I want you to promise me that you'll at least try some kind of drink this summer. Please, just try it!" That was my classmate Ian, shortly before the end of our junior year, sounding for all the world like the newly-converted Christian teens who would plead with you that listening to Van Halen and the Scorpions put your eternal soul at risk.

For people who live unthinkingly, security comes from situating oneself in the middle of a group. Encountering a person who has chosen differently can carry an implicit rebuke, a reminder that there are possibilities one hasn't considered, a demarcation of their narcissistic reach. Loners like me feel importuned by the pressure from those who blithely assume that of course any normal person would like the things they like. People like Ian feel uncomfortable by being forced to entertain the notion that others could see them clearly, understand them plainly, and gently deflect their invitation nonetheless. But that is one of the fundamental steps toward a meaningful individuality: the ability to be genuinely unconcerned with the approval of others, the possession of an inner compass that allows one to make one's way without needing to constantly check the constellations of others' tastes and opinions. I'm old enough now to feel reasonably confident in saying that a lot of people never seem to attain that ability.

True story: I encountered Ian again a few years later in community college. He was spending a few semesters there to save money, or so he said. Protesting the unfairness of his situation, he lamented, "I'm not a loser like —" he gestured around at some of the people in our vicinity in the cafeteria — "these people; I'm an economic loser!" What exactly he thought I was doing there, I don't know, but he must have assumed I shared his plight, a future world-beater temporarily, and only temporarily, brought low, because he then suggested we should try to join a fraternity at UVa. You know, a real college for successful people. Where we could get drunk among equals.

Looking back, it might have been maliciously fun to tell him the simple truth: I didn't want to be like him.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Life Is a Waterfall, We're One in the River and One Again After the Fall

Dale DeBakcsy:

The impermanence of the outer world seems more solidly founded. Five billion years hence, I'm pretty sure that this novelty shot glass next to me is not going to exist in any sort of recognisable novelty shot glass form. Nothing in this room will functionally persist as long as you only admit my Use Perspective as the only relevant lens of observation. The matter and energy will both still exist, but they won't exist in the configuration which I am accustomed to. And that, apparently, is supposed to fill me with a sense of existential dread. But it doesn't - at all - and this is the weakness of the conclusions that Buddhism draws from an impermanence theory of the external world. It supposes that I cannot hold in my mind at the same time both an appreciation and attachment to an object or a person as they stand in front of me right now AND a recognition that my use of a particular configuration of matter and energy at the moment doesn't determine how it will exist for all time. Buddhism's approach to use-based impermanence attempts to force us into a false binarism where we must either be the slaves of attachment or the cold observers of transience, and that only one of these offers us a way out of suffering. Compelled by the forced logic of its myopic perspective on self-analysis that we saw above, it opts for the latter, and presents that choice as an inevitable philosophical conclusion.

There certainly are those who see Buddhism as a means of escaping this vale of tears, but this criticism could equally apply to nihilism. Or Stoicism. (Not to panta rheism, though, which dissolves all such conceptual conundrums in its endlessly flowing waters.)

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Cut Is Very Tough, You Bit the Big Bluff. Take Another Bite.


The problem isn't with women in the Senate, but rather its celebration, which these dummies blindly participate in.  Is it putting on a face for the American public, the way the first face I see on Goldman Sachs's website is a black woman?   Is it cosmetic?  She's probably proud, she should be proud, that she made it to GS, but for the rest of blacks and women, what is the significance?  It may be regressive to ask this, but it is illuminating: "hey.... why did they let so many of us in?"

This is part of a larger, systemic problem with the way power has shifted not from Group A to Group B, but from ground up to top down, and top down works in a very specific way: it concedes the trappings of power while it retains the actual power.

And so, while browsing various sites, I likewise can't help but notice all the chattering about The Significance of women in combat. As with gays and atheists, the problem isn't with the right to participate, but with the dummies celebrating it.

And then I watch the Daily Show, and see Jon Stewart yukking it up with some drone — 'scuse me, unmanned aerial vehicles, they're not stupid — expert from M.I.T., who assures us, in between jokes about FedEx and UPS delivering packages like bombs, or Death Stars, that the military has lots of regulations, even an entire conference which spends a lot of time discussing the ethics of remote warfare. Oh, good. You wouldn't want to belong to any club that couldn't discuss Augustine and Aquinas like civilized folk, after all.

And Br'er Rabbit smiles contentedly in his briar patch.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

I Got the Consciousness! You Let Me Speak!

H. Allen Orr:

Nagel’s chapter on consciousness is a concise and critical survey of a literature that is both vast and fascinating. He further extends his survey to other mental phenomena, including reason and value, that he also finds recalcitrant to materialism. (Nagel concludes that the existence of objective moral truths is incompatible with materialist evolutionary theory; because he is sure that moral truths exist, he again concludes that evolutionary theory is incomplete.)

Nagel concedes that many philosophers do not share his skepticism about the plausibility of reducing mind to matter. And I can assure readers that most scientists don’t. I, however, share Nagel’s sense of mystery here. Brains and neurons obviously have everything to do with consciousness but how such mere objects can give rise to the eerily different phenomenon of subjective experience seems utterly incomprehensible.

Despite this, I can’t go so far as to conclude that mind poses some insurmountable barrier to materialism. There are two reasons. The first is, frankly, more a sociological observation than an actual argument. Science has, since the seventeenth century, proved remarkably adept at incorporating initially alien ideas (like electromagnetic fields) into its thinking. Yet most people, apparently including Nagel, find the resulting science sufficiently materialist. The unusual way in which physicists understand the weirdness of quantum mechanics might be especially instructive as a crude template for how the consciousness story could play out.

Physicists describe quantum mechanics by writing equations. The fact that no one, including them, can quite intuit the meaning of these equations is often deemed beside the point. The solution is the equation. One can imagine a similar course for consciousness research: the solution is X, whether you can intuit X or not. Indeed the fact that you can’t intuit X might say more about you than it does about consciousness.

And this brings me to the second reason. For there might be perfectly good reasons why you can’t imagine a solution to the problem of consciousness. As the philosopher Colin McGinn has emphasized, your very inability to imagine a solution might reflect your cognitive limitations as an evolved creature. The point is that we have no reason to believe that we, as organisms whose brains are evolved and finite, can fathom the answer to every question that we can ask. All other species have cognitive limitations, why not us? So even if matter does give rise to mind, we might not be able to understand how.

To McGinn, then, the mysteriousness of consciousness may not be so much a challenge to neo-Darwinism as a result of it. Nagel obviously draws the opposite conclusion. But the availability of both conclusions gives pause.

David Barash:

Perhaps a bit of definitional clarity would help. Or at least a gesture in that direction, a modification, if you like, of the US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s oft-repeated observation about pornography: we might not be able to define consciousness, but we know it when we experience it. I propose that consciousness can be defined as a particular state of awareness, characterised by a curious recursiveness in which individuals are not only aware, but aware that they are aware. By this conception, many animals are aware but not strictly conscious. My two German shepherd dogs, for example, are exquisitely aware of and responsive to just about everything around them — more so, in many cases, than me. I know, however, that I am conscious because I am aware of my own internal mental state, sometimes even paradoxically aware of that about which I am unaware.

I know I am conscious, and I also know that my dogs are aware. But are they conscious? Frankly (and speaking now as an animal-loving human observer, rather than as a scientist), I have little doubt that they are conscious, and that my cats are, too, and my horse as well … although as a biologist, I can’t prove it. A more satisfying stance, therefore — empathically, as well as ethically — is to give in to common sense and stipulate that different animal species possess differing degrees of consciousness. This might be more intellectually satisfying as well, since postulating a continuum of consciousness is consistent with the fundamental evolutionary insight of cross-species research: organic continuity. Most likely, consciousness ranges across a spectrum rather than being a special state that only humans experience.

...One possibility — a biological null hypothesis if you like — is that consciousness hasn’t been selected for at all. Maybe it is just a nonadaptive by-product of having brains bigger than is strictly necessary for bossing our bodies around. A single molecule of water, for example, isn’t wet. Neither are two, or, presumably, a few thousand, or even a million. But with enough of them, we get wetness — not because wetness is adaptively favoured over, say, dryness by the evolutionary process, but simply as an unavoidable physical consequence of piling up enough H2O molecules. Could consciousness be like that? Accumulate enough neurons — perhaps because they permit its possessor to integrate numerous sensory inputs and generate complex, variable behaviour — wire them up and, hey presto, they’re conscious?

The marketing department informs me that at least 33% of the regular readership here report being "deeply interested" in this very topic, so, having nothing substantial to add to the discussion here beyond some sagacious chin-stroking, some judicious brow-furrowing, and some well-timed "Hmmm's", I will recommend both of these fine essays for your perusal and go about my merry way.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Zhuāngzi Hermit

Benjamin Cain:

After all, what doesn’t seem much appreciated in Western societies is that so-called omega men are secular counterparts of the mystical ascetics who’ve been revered especially in Eastern societies. Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain ascetics, as well as Gnostics, ancient Jewish hermits and Christian monks renounced worldly pleasures as degrading or illusory, often with elaborate theological rationales... Ascetics have no place in secular postmodern societies, although the American beat generation and hippies, as well as the communists of the last century expressed similar anti-natural or transhuman sentiments. Still, introverts or men with few if any advantages in the social Game, who thus have little incentive to compete in it, seem to reach conclusions similar to the religious mystic’s, about the indignities of the popular social condition and the delusions needed to sustain the secular pursuit of happiness.

...As for the insinuation that the omega isn’t a real man, unlike the alpha or beta man, if “real man” means the one defined by scientific theories, then we’re assuming that a human is a naturally selected mammal; a vehicle for transmitting genes in the furtherance of a mindless, morally neutral biochemical process; a mortal cursed with the intelligence to understand all too well the likelihood of our species’ doom, the ultimate fruitlessness of our individual efforts, and the inevitability of our body’s decay. In that case, surely the omega man should take that emasculating insult as an unintentional compliment. Perhaps the omega is an inchoate transhuman, whose stubborn renunciation of natural reality is a precondition of a radical alteration of that reality which requires an inner transformation of hitherto “real” men and women. Only an alienated outsider could be motivated to combat all the evils of the natural dominance hierarchy, and thus to preclude the need for distinctions between alpha, beta, and omega men.

To clarify, I’m not so foolish as to recommend that all men be omegas. What I maintain is that the popular dismissal of omega men as weak-willed losers is complicated by the comparison of these losers with the perennial class of mystical ascetics. The problem with modern omega men is that the traditional defense of asceticism has few roots in Western societies, and so these drop-outs are doubly alienated--from natural forces and from non-omegas. More than anyone else, omega men (and women too!) need a version of mysticism that’s compatible with modern science and with philosophical naturalism. Certain forms of Buddhism are popular options, as are New Age bastardizations of Gnostic and Eastern religious traditions.

Thanks to Brian for the link. Reclaiming the omega male label as a positive ideal has been a topic in my wheelhouse before, and is closely related to my identification as a Bartlebesian and a Berliner, as well as my more general guiding principles of santutthi and bonsai minimalism. But if it's a mystical sheen you want, well, I found something interesting the other day on Wikipedia while browsing:

Scholars such as Aat Vervoom have postulated that Zhuāngzi advocated a hermit immersed in society. This view of eremitism holds that seclusion is hiding anonymously in society. To a Zhuāngzi hermit, being unknown and drifting freely is a state of mind. This reading is based on the “inner chapters” of the self-titled Zhuangzi

I'm okay with that one, too. Beneath notice, beneath contempt, beneath status anxiety and cultural competition, beneath even the need to frame one's insignificant irrelevance as inverted, disguised superiority. Silently through and out of the world.

Jain's Addiction (Slight Return)

Rhys Southan:

If our intergalactic superiors landed here, but had no interest in eating us or our fellow animals, the first thing they could do is rob our stores, homes, farms, and warehouses of all our fruits, vegetables, beans, grains, and vegan convenience products. Without violating any vegan principles there would be no limit to the amount of food vegan aliens could steal from us — vegan ethics allows for humans using all the plant matter they want in the world, no matter how many animals starve as a consequence. Aliens could cause the worst famine humanity has ever seen, but it would be entirely compatible with vegan ethics. That’s because it would all fall under the rubric of ‘good intent’. They wouldn’t be killing us deliberately to eat us, but rather because they wanted our food and had the power to take it — our starvation would be a foreseeable, yet accidental, side effect. We might try to fight the vegan invaders over this mass plunder, but then they could kill us outright for threatening their lives. That’s because humans killing animals in self-defence is also no crime in veganism, even if we’ve wandered onto the animals’ own territory.

Since veganism doesn’t stop us from wrecking animal habitats to make space for ourselves, vegan aliens could knock down all our buildings to construct new ones that better fit their pan-galactic design aesthetic. They could evict us from our homes, businesses and veganic farms without compensation, and then, to keep us from returning, they could set up fences, noise barriers and other humane deterrents. To them, we would be hungry pests who threaten their vegan food supply, so they might even be justified in trapping us or killing us with poisons if we got too close. Humans would now largely be without food and shelter, but the vegan aliens wouldn’t need to lose sleep over it, since none of this contradicts any vegan tenets.

His point seems pretty clear to me — simply by existing as such a hyper-fertile species with a boundless appetite for space and resources, humans directly cause an incalculable amount of animal suffering whether we ever kill them for food and clothing or not. But I'm afraid you can't even take refuge in the consolations of misanthropy here. Schopenhauer, ferzample, a misanthrope par excellence, not only anticipated Tennyson's famous line about nature being red in tooth and claw, he turned it into a whole series of graphic novels, elaborating in detail just how much pain and suffering would exist in the world even if humans were removed from it. Agonizing violence and injustice permeate the animal kingdom, and humans, despite their best efforts to believe otherwise, are very much animals, a product of the "natural" world.

Commenters, though, seem to largely take issue with what they perceive as his implication that vegans aren't also committed to environmental and social issues beyond the ethics of using meat and leather. I suspect that the misunderstanding, if not exactly deliberate, is entirely predictable, almost preordained. People understandably don't like to be reminded that the values and efforts in which they take so much pride are largely vanity, and nothing is more vain than the belief that human effort and ingenuity will manage to unravel life's tapestry and reweave it minus the threads of suffering that constitute so much of it. I know from my own experience that many vegans are indeed interested in other social justice issues. I question the point, not the depth, of their commitment  They're not myopic because they focus on too few areas of activism, they're myopic because they claim to believe that a world in which domination, exploitation, violence, injustice and suffering no longer exist is actually achievable.

Need it be said? Ahh, I'll do it regardless. No, the ultimate futility of efforts to eliminate suffering does not imply that suffering should be ignored or even encouraged. As with nihilism, attempting to draw such a conclusion is a last-gasp attempt to reassert some sort of universal law that can be blindly, faithfully obeyed. The point, rather, is to question what it would mean to make our peace with the presence of suffering as a necessary, ineradicable part of life.

Monday, January 21, 2013

One Repays a Teacher Badly If One Remains Only a Student

Erik Davis:

It’s a complex gotcha. On the one hand, he proves the sceptical core of Kumaré’s message: the guru they knew was nothing more than their own projections (albeit onto his own crafty dissimulation). The disenchantment, however, comes coupled with the palliative, even self-empowering message that they are therefore responsible for their own insights and transformations. But this only begs the question that Gandhi — in the film’s greatest conceptual error — refuses to ask: is the guru’s theatre of transformation sometimes necessary, even if it is a ruse?

A pragmatic look at spiritual leadership through the ages — of shamans with their legerdemain, tribal leaders with their initiation dramas, Zen masters with their anarchist tricks — would answer yes. One might invoke the placebo effect, but to identify the placebo as the ‘cause’ of transformation does not end the discussion. Or the spiritual tutelage. While the history of religions is of course dominated by an often pernicious authoritarianism, not to mention tremendous earnestness, there is also an undercurrent of crazy wisdom that understands enlightenment or transformation to occur in a zone of compassionate pranks, iconoclastic mirroring, and sacred irony.

...The chain-smoking 20th-century Hindu master Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj claimed, for example, that the true guru ‘will constantly bring you back to the fact of your inherent perfection and encourage you to seek within. He knows you need nothing, not even him, and is never tired of reminding you.’ Nisargadatta taught radical nondualism, which means that he took that ‘all is one’ stuff seriously enough to revel in the inevitable paradoxes rather that sweeping them under the feel-good carpet. Like many non-dual teachers — and Gandhi himself was raised partly with the nondual Vedanta — Nisargadatta also proclaimed that spiritual seeking itself is part of the problem, because searching outside yourself is ultimately alienating. So what does the spiritual teacher do in such a situation? Ironically, the ideal spiritual teacher must frustrate the operation of seeking itself, and somehow help dissolve the whole relationship into liberation.

In other words, how do you teach someone to outgrow their need to depend on a teacher? On what authority do you urge people to stop looking to authority figures for justification? Alan Watts addressed this topic, too:

There is a saying that "anyone who goes to a psychiatrist ought to have his head examined." In exactly the same way, in the Buddhist culture, anybody who goes to a guru, a spiritual teacher, a Zen master, or whatever, ought to have his head examined. As the old Chinese master Tokusan put it, "If you ask any question, you get thirty blows from my stick. If you don't ask any question, you get thirty blows just the same." In other words, "What the hell are you doing here defining yourself as a student and me as a teacher?" You raise a problem when you do that, and in the Zen way of training, this problem is very clearly emphasized.

...This is the situation of everyone who feels that life is a problem to be solved. Whether you seek to solve that problem through psychoanalysis, integration, salvation, or buddhahood, you define yourself in a certain way when you see life as a problem to be solved.

The real desire that everybody brings to these teachers can be stated this way: "Teacher, I want to get one up on the universe. I feel I am a stranger in this world and that life is a problem. Having a body means that I am subject to disease and change and death. Having emotions and passions means that I am tormented by feelings I cannot help having, and yet it is not possible to act on those feelings without creating trouble. I feel trapped by this world and so I want to get the better of it. Is there some wise man around who is a master of life and who can teach me to cope with all this?" That is what everybody is looking for in a teacher: a savior who can show you how to cope with life. But the Zen teacher says, "I don't have any answers." Nobody believes that because he seems to be so confident when you look at him. You cannot believe that he has no answers, and yet the consistent teaching of Zen is that it has nothing to say and nothing to teach.

Rather than combining different materials to create something new, a sculptor sees the potential finished form contained within the raw material and chisels away all the excess that prevents it from being seen. Similarly, some forms of teaching involve removing the perceptual and conceptual excess rather than adding more layers of it.


Sally Davies:

The Roman orators Cicero and Quintilian believed that "paronomasia", the Greek term for punning, was a sign of intellectual suppleness and rhetorical skill.

...But regardless of its rationale, punning is clearly more than a mere linguistic fillip. And there may be reason to hope that the internet will restore its reputation. The efflorescence of punnery on social networking sites like Twitter, Tumblr and Reddit, which bulge with the fruits of meme generators, suggests that puns have become acceptable as part of the online conversation.

It may be only a matter of time until the pun rises once again. But for now, its future is an impunderable question.

There is a triune nature to my standard of what constitutes an excellent post. First, it has to be about something I genuinely find interesting; I'm not going to post something just for the hell of it. Even if I don't have anything to add, the excerpt has to be something I find thought-provoking. Second, of course, is satisfaction with what I've written. I might be happy with having said well whatever point I had to make, or I might just feel content with attempting, however clumsily, to develop a new line of thought.

Last, and by no means least, is choosing a title. Words or phrases that contain a certain poetic symmetry are always good. Apt song lyrics are even better. A delicious pun, though, adds what I feel to be an indispensable element of absurd humor, a heyoka-style reminder to not take anything, least of all oneself, all that seriously.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

No Animal Shall Kill Any Other Animal Without Cause

Gary Francione:

Singer recognizes that “[a]n animal may struggle against a threat to its life,” but he denies that the animal has the mental continuity required for a morally significant sense of self. This position begs the question, however, in that it assumes that the only way that an animal can be self-aware is to have the sort of autobiographical sense of self that we associate with normal adult humans. That is certainly one way of being self-aware, but it is not the only way. As biologist Donald Griffin, one of the most important cognitive ethologists of the twentieth century, notes, if animals are conscious of anything, “the animal’s own body and its own actions must fall within the scope of its perceptual consciousness.” We nevertheless deny animals self-awareness because we maintain that they cannot “think such thoughts as ‘It is I who am running, or climbing this tree, or chasing that moth.’ ” Griffin maintains that “when an animal consciously perceives the running, climbing, or moth-chasing of another animal, it must also be aware of who is doing these things. And if the animal is perceptually conscious of its own body, it is difficult to rule out similar recognition that it, itself, is doing the running, climbing, or chasing.” He concludes that “[i]f animals are capable of perceptual awareness, denying them some level of self-awareness would seem to be an arbitrary and unjustified restriction.”

It would seem that any sentient being must be self-aware, in that to be sentient means to be the sort of being who recognizes that she or he, and not some other, is experiencing pain or distress. When a sentient being is in pain, she necessarily recognizes that it is she who is in pain; there is someone who is conscious of being in pain and who has a preference, desire or want not to have that experience.

We can see the problematic nature of the Singer-Bentham position if we consider humans who have a condition known as transient global amnesia, which occurs as a result of a stroke, a seizure or brain damage. Those with transient global amnesia often have no memory of the past and no ability to project themselves into the future. These humans have, in the words of neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, “a sense of self about one moment—now—and about one place—here.” Their sense of self-awareness may be different from that of a normal adult, but it would not be accurate to say that they are not self-aware or that they are indifferent to death. We may not want to appoint such a person as a teacher or allow her to perform surgery on others, but most of us would be horrified at the suggestion that it is acceptable to use such people as forced organ donors or as non-consenting subjects in biomedical experiments, even if we did so “humanely.”

On a related note, and as a counterbalance to such human-centric rationalizations, I'm very much looking forward to John Gray's book that's due out later this year:

The Silence of Animals is consistently fascinating, filled with unforgettable images and a delight in the conundrum of our existence—an existence that we decorate with countless myths and ideas, where we twist and turn to avoid acknowledging that we too are animals, separated from the others perhaps only by our self-conceit. In the Babel we have created for ourselves, it is the silence of animals that both reproaches and bewitches us.


O Winter! frozen pulse and heart of fire,
What loss is theirs who from thy kingdom turn
Dismayed, and think thy snow a sculptured urn
Of death! Far sooner in midsummer tire
The streams than under ice. June could not hire
Her roses to forego the strength they learn
In sleeping on thy breast. No fires can burn
The bridges thou dost lay where men desire
In vain to build.
        O Heart, when Love's sun goes
To northward, and the sounds of singing cease,
Keep warm by inner fires, and rest in peace.
Sleep on content, as sleeps the patient rose.
Walk boldly on the white untrodden snows,
The winter is the winter's own release.

— Helen Hunt Jackson

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Noospheric Entropy


The problem, I think, is critical shorthand-- when terms or tropes are used as a way to avoid doing the work of careful, specific criticism. Effective and fair criticism always proceeds from making as sympathetic an interpretation as possible before recounting flaws. Such an accounting can't happen if criticism is expressed in a predigested idiom, especially if its one that is explicitly mocking and reductive. Being a critic entails, to me, a lot of responsibility, a lot of integrity. And since every piece of art is unique, each deserves the respect of a unique appraisal.

William Deresiewicz:

But we are all Bill Maher today. His simulated dinner parties aren’t that different from a lot of the ones that I’ve been to myself, or the virtual ones we convene every day on Facebook. Much has been said about the Balkanization of public discourse, how we only ever listen now to people who share our views, and what that means for our capacity to communicate across partisan lines. But we should also consider what it means for our ability to think in the first place. Opposition, said William Blake, is true friendship. Never being challenged leads to smugness, complacency, and mental stasis. Maher is right: anyone who disagrees with him is an idiot. And so is anyone who doesn’t.

Both of them are talking about a sort of complacency that reassures itself that all the heavy mental lifting has long since been done, there's nothing new under the sun, and no need to pay attention to anything longer than the time needed to file it away in the appropriate folder. Or, as some foolosopher once said, ideas and concepts are forever decaying into clichés, slogans and buzzwords.

To reiterate a point from just the other day, many people are happy to pay lip service to "truth" and "accuracy" as long as doing so bolsters their self-image or gains them status. If they feel their reputation or basic identity to be threatened by those ideals, though, they'd just as soon invest their energy in defending a beautiful lie. In recent months, I've seen bloggers whom I used to respect turn into laughingstocks — engaging in transparently dishonest propagandizing, deleting even mildly critical comments, reinforcing groupthink and demonizing opponents. Obviously, they've allowed themselves to become convinced that the righteousness of their cause trumps the principles they used to espouse, and having staked all their intellectual credibility on this, sunken-cost fallaciousness comes into play, keeping them hanging on until the bitter end.

The easy thing to do is laugh at them for having succumbed to delusions to which you feel immune. The more important thing is to reflect on where your own blind spots might be, to wonder which issues are so emotionally charged as to short-circuit your own clear thinking. How can you know them until someone else points them out to you? And how do you prevent a temporary fit of madness, born of devotion to your biases, from causing you to perceive even loyal opposition as a treacherous enemy?

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

I've Been Searchin' So Long to Find an Answer; Now I Know My Life Has Meaning

Nicholas Carr:

In its new design, Google’s search engine doesn’t push us outward; it turns us inward. It gives us information that fits the behavior and needs and biases we have displayed in the past, as meticulously interpreted by Google’s algorithms. Because it reinforces the existing state of the self rather than challenging it, it subverts the act of searching. We find out little about anything, least of all ourselves, through self-absorption.

To be turned inward, to listen to speech that is only a copy, or reflection, of our own speech, is to keep the universe alone. To free ourselves from that prison — the prison we now call personalization — we need to voyage outward to discover “counter-love,” to hear “original response.” As Frost understood, a true search is as dangerous as it is essential. It’s about breaking the shackles of the self, not tightening them.

There was a time, back when Larry Page and Sergey Brin were young and naive and idealistic, that Google spoke to us with the voice of original response. Now, what Google seeks to give us is copy speech, our own voice returned to us. It’s a great tragedy.

A tragedy, no less! No, it's actually like Marx said: the first time we heard this complaint, it was a tragedy. Now, it's just a farce.

Google, like any corporation, is in the business of profiting off of consumers, not elevating people's souls and instructing them in the art of cosmopolitan citizenship. And leaving aside the ridiculous fear that they could ever develop an algorithm so precisely-tuned as to imprison us each in our own solipsism forever, ask yourself this: if they weren't trying to personalize your search results based on your browsing history, what else would they offer? Wouldn't the safe thing to do, as a company providing a service, be to aim for the lowest common denominator, a utilitarian standard that stands the best chance of appealing in the broadest way to the widest number of people? How does knowing the thoughts and interests of most people on any given subject encourage creativity, serendipity and exploration? And yet, somehow, those things occur regardless. I dare say as long as people are capable of experiencing the fundamental human condition of boredom, they will always be dissatisfied with what's right in front of them and go looking for more.

Ironically enough, for someone so (rightly) concerned about the dangers of self-absorption, Carr seems especially prone to identifying his particular subjective experience as the essence of a cultural malaise.

Monday, January 14, 2013

There Ain't No Good Guys, There Ain't No Bad Guys, There's Only You and Me and We Just Disagree

Marek Kohn:

The shibboleth was a test of who was on whose side; and that, according to the evolutionary psychologists Leda Cosmides, John Tooby and Ray Kurzban, is what group markers are really all about. Signs of affiliation help to turn a melee of floating faces and animated bodies into meaningful patterns. They let individuals understand who is with whom and what is going on. Humans are not simply social beings but political ones. From playgrounds to corridors of power, they are constantly forming, modifying, ending and generally complicating alliances. Stable cues that signal alliance, such as speech traits or styles of dress, offer regularities that help people orient themselves in the social whirl.

Tauriq Moosa:

Like many issues, regardless of what “side” you support, a failure to recognise that your opponents are not monsters, are indeed striving moral beings like yourself, is an unhelpful, immoral attitude to hold when engaging in discussion. What occurs from this lack of humanity, aside from unnecessary character attacks, stereotyping, ad hominems, and Strawmanning, is an inaccurate assessment of your opponent’s view: being inaccurate means being wrong. This is primarily why I defend, so strongly, a principle a charity.

I want to be right, just as I assume we all do. To mount an argument that, in fact, does nothing or little to counter what your opponent actually says would be exactly doing it wrong. Thus, to be charitable has nothing to do with being “nice” but being accurate. I care more about my arguments being accurate than whether I come off as a guy you want to have a beer with: hence, my attempts at charitable reading are focused on accuracy, not friendliness.

Demonising, character attacking, mockery and so on are indicators of knee-jerk responses that provides no insight into the debate itself - only into your personal reactions, which, save your diary or loved ones, are of no concern to us.

Tauriq is correct in that, if you care about truth above all else, you should be impatient with distractions from pursuing it and extremely wary of the cognitive and emotional biases that will prevent you from perceiving it. But the problem is, most people are willing to ignore, distort, or otherwise subordinate truth to their psychological needs (and they're not necessarily wrong to do so). Thinking hard and researching take a lot of time and effort, and honestly, a lot of mistaken or ignorant opinions "work" in the context of everyday life. That is, people can be anywhere from slightly to completely mistaken on a wide range of issues without it dramatically affecting their lives in a negative way. Even the most reactionary fundamentalists can live a life in which their most basic needs are met; they can enjoy luxuries, know love, and reinforce their identities within a community of like-minded people. Seeking truth, however much some of us may value it, is only one of many supplementary "purposes" humans have come up with to justify their existence.

In any context involving an audience, especially in the fishbowl environment of social media — where, if a person expresses an opinion and it isn't liked, plussed or rewteeted, can it even be said to exist? — posturing for attention and approval is going to count for just as much, if not much more, than suspending judgment and being careful about facts. Sam Harris makes a controversial, counterintuitive claim about gun control. As is usually the case, people react to the presence of a discomfiting idea the same way they would to signs of contagious disease in their neighbors, by panicking and seeking to quarantine him. In this context, Ian Murphy's aggressive bluster is a way of reassuring everyone that this intruding idea is so ludicrous as to not be worth considering for a second, while not so coincidentally gaining status for himself as the guy who told us what we desperately wanted to hear. The emotionally-charged invective serves as psychological cement to fill in any logical cracks that appeared in our worldview. We don't need to think about it as long as we make ourselves feel better for now.

I overcome this urge in myself by reminding myself of my own powerlessness and insignificance. I don't mean that in a twisted, debasing way. I just mean that I stop, take a deep breath and acknowledge that I am merely one antisocial individual with no power, wealth, ambition, prestige or influence, and I have nothing better to do with my time than attempt to understand things as fully as possible. My opinion doesn't count for anything, so I don't need to feel pressured to add it to the chorus, and the possibility of revising it doesn't feel like a threat of having a limb amputated.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Sold On the Excess, Chasing Their Tails to the Cage

David Cain:

This is a pretty normal financial position for me. My life, the way I live it, is affordable, except when unpredictable expenses overlap. Just a little bit more income, say 10% more, would theoretically stop this from happening. But I’ve been thinking that for years, and my income is nearly double what it was seven years ago.

Parkinson’s Law is mostly responsible for this. We have an almost automatic tendency to increase our standard of living the moment our income increases. If you’re like most people, when your pay increases by another $500 a month, the first thing you decide is what additional $500-per-month thing you can now afford to enjoy, which is the same as deciding what additional $500-per-month expense you now wish to take on.

Every time that happens, your financial situation doesn’t really change, even as you climb through tax brackets. Ephemeral details of your life — what you are wearing, where you are eating, the sleekness of your furniture — do change, but the feeling of your financial situation doesn’t, and it is this feeling that determines whether your financial situation feels stretched, or ample.

My parents set a good example of being frugal, for which I'm grateful. I had plenty of time to deeply absorb the understanding that it was the height of madness to spend money you don't have on things you don't need. But I'm also grateful for what appears to be an accident of fate: a congenital need to keep my life determinedly spartan. As with honesty, so too with belongings: I want as few moving parts involved as possible. Thoreau famously said "Simplify, simplify." I think, Yeah, well, you could have expressed the same message while slashing your verbal expenditures by 50%.

Some of it is due to a combination of laziness and extreme caution. I still use an ancient desktop from 2003, the only improvement to which was the addition of a wireless keyboard from Kmart. My pants have to put me at risk of arrest for indecent exposure before I'll consider replacing them. I waited for six months last year before shelling out $50 on a pair of shoes I wanted. But some of it is also the conscious realization that you can only do so many things in a day, at least if you want to do them well and enjoy them. The vast majority of my free time is taken up merely by reading, writing and watching soccer games. I really don't know where I'd find time or energy to do much else.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Winter Trees

All the complicated details
of the attiring and
the disattiring are completed!
A liquid moon
moves gently among
the long branches.
Thus having prepared their buds
against a sure winter
the wise trees
stand sleeping in the cold.

— William Carlos Williams

It's My World, Burn That Attention Span

One Maria by way of another:

As neurologist Marcus Raichle learned after decades of looking at the brain, our minds are wired to wander. Wandering is their default. Whenever our thoughts are suspended between specific, discrete, goal-directed activities, the brain reverts to a so-called baseline, ‘resting’ state — but don’t let the word fool you, because the brain isn’t at rest at all. Instead, it experiences tonic activity in what’s now known as the DMN, the default mode network: the posterior cingulate cortex, the adjacent precuneus, and the medial prefrontal cortex. This baseline activation suggests that the brain is constantly gathering information from both the external world and our internal states, and what’s more, that it is monitoring that information for signs of something that is worth its attention. And while such a state of readiness could be useful from an evolutionary standpoint, allowing us to detect potential predators, to think abstractly and make future plans, it also signifies something else: our minds are made to wander. That is their resting state. Anything more requires an act of conscious will.

The modern emphasis on multitasking plays into our natural tendencies quite well, often in frustrating ways. Every new input, every new demand that we place on our attention is like a possible predator: Oooh, says the brain. Maybe I should pay attention to that instead. And then along comes something else. We can feed our mind wandering ad infinitum. The result? We pay attention to everything and nothing as a matter of course. While our minds might be made to wander, they are not made to switch activities at anything approaching the speed of modern demands. We were supposed to remain ever ready to engage, but not to engage with multiple things at once, or even in rapid succession.

Many people will tell you they feel harried, frazzled, overworked, and vaguely dissatisfied by their inability to live deeply and suck the marrow out of life. True, an inability to control that novelty-seeking urge she mentioned plays a role in that, but there are probably several other factors to consider too. Some people may have never been fortunate enough to take an introductory philosophy course as youngsters, and thus were not encouraged to "know thyself", to think hard about what "the good life" actually entails and what would be needed to attain it. Others may be laboring under an overly-romantic notion of the meaning and purpose of work. Maybe the discussion of what to do about this widespread soul-sickness should center on the possibility of conceiving and implementing humane alternatives to consumer capitalism, or, less ambitiously, the various ways in which individuals can opt out of the system. Perhaps some people should consider severely curtailing their professional ambition, or maybe we should all consider consigning the ideal of the one-or-two-income nuclear family to the dustbin of postwar history. I'm just halfheartedly riffing here; you can probably think of other angles to approach this from. Point is, there's a lot of fertile ground to cover from psychology to culture to economics, if we're serious about making changes.

Or we could just pick up a copy of The Shallows and blame our malaise on those brain-eating technological gadgets. I swear, I'm still seeing effusive praise for that book almost every other day.

We Must, We Must, We Must Increase Their Trust

Susan Jacoby:

Today’s secularists must do more than mount defensive campaigns proclaiming that we can be “good without God.” Atheists must stand up instead of calling themselves freethinkers, agnostics, secular humanists or “spiritual, but not religious.” The last phrase, translated from the psychobabble, can mean just about anything — that the speaker is an atheist who fears social disapproval or a fence-sitter who wants the theoretical benefits of faith, including hope of eternal life, without the obligations of actually practicing a religion. Atheists may also be secular humanists and freethinkers — I answer to all three — but avoidance of identification with atheism confines us to a closet that encourages us to fade or be pushed into the background when tragedy strikes.

We must speak up as atheists in order to take responsibility for whatever it is humans are responsible for — including violence in our streets and schools. We need to demonstrate that atheism is rooted in empathy as well as intellect. And although atheism is not a religion, we need community-based outreach programs so that our activists will be as recognizable to their neighbors as the clergy.

With all due respect to Ms. Jacoby, we needn't do anything other than follow our consciences, like anyone else. If you want to participate in community service, great. If you want to honestly proclaim your lack of belief when asked, that's one thing, but if you want to set up shop across the street from the Salvation Army in order to announce yourself as a competing brand (same great social service, now 100% deity-free!), well... I'll just say that, in my opinion, the life of a propagandist or aggressive salesman is not a noble one. Just let your good deeds speak for themselves. No one's particularly interested in hearing your life story or motivations.

I'm an atheist, sho nuff. There's nothing particularly special about it, though. It doesn't make me smarter or more reasonable overall. My loyalty is to a patchwork quilt of individuals, not to groups, not to ideologies, and certainly not to "atheism". If the FTB/Skepchick/A+ axis of idiocy is the future of public atheism, fine, they can have the name. I've got a backup plan.

Change Is Never Fine. They Say It Is, But It's Not.

I'm just messing around with some aesthetics here; I may make some more adjustments as the muse demands. Please excuse my dust. If you absolutely must offer some opinions, I promise to provide, if not careful attention and consideration, at least a reasonable facsimile thereof.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Memories Tangled In the Spokes That Make My Wheel

Dennis Johnson:

The only logical conclusion one can draw from all this, of course, is that if B&N goes down the entire industry is fucked. Booksellers, publishers, authors, agents, librarians, and oh yeah, readers …

But brace yourself because it’s gong to happen, and in a big way. Not only is B&N going to get out of its brick-and-mortar business — as I say, the process is clearly already underway — but the other shoe seemed to drop last week, when the company released its holiday sales report, revealing that its plan to become a digital bookseller is in shambles, and the whole enterprise is in jeopardy.

...Perhaps the most disturbing thing about all this is the fact that, as with the demise of Borders, the demise of B&N has nothing to do with what its customers actually wanted, what’s best for mother literature or free speech, or anything other than made-up trends covering for killer capitalism. There’s still plenty of evidence that people like bookstores, for example, and even sales of hardcovers — let alone print books — are holding on. And so the lust for higher margins — whether from Godiva chocolates or ebooks — turned into fool’s gold for B&N. It’s perhaps a typical death in the Free Trade era, when companies lose all sight of their identity in the blinding light of the bottom line … but it’s the wrong death for a bookseller.

But as I say, right or wrong, for this bookseller, it’s coming. (A highly placed Big Six exec I respect to no end told me to look for the death of B&N in two to three years. That was two years ago.) Publishers are on a crash course learning how to survive without any volume booksellers, and in an environment with one retailer (oh, guess) representing as much of its business as — well, who knows? Eighty percent? More? That alone is likely to make publishers give up on printing books — there’s no sense in printing books if your main outlet isn’t going to order any until they sell them — and join the digital “revolution.”

In short, B&N’s scorched earth policy of the 1990s has ultimately left us with, well, scorched earth. If the book is going to survive it, it’s going to take some real revolutionary activity, indeed.

Louis Llovio:

But the past several years have been difficult for Plan 9 — and other music retailers — as consumers have changed how they buy, turning to the Internet to purchase and download music. Revenue at record stores is expected to decline 6.6 percent this year to $1.6 billion, according to the research firm IBISWorld. That would mean sales have dropped an average 16.2 percent in the five years through the end of this year.

It’s not just digital downloads that are hurting the industry. Music buyers are increasingly turning to big-box retailers for music purchases. IBIS said in a different report that record stores, along with textile mills, video rental shops and photofinishing, were among the industries having the most difficult time in the economy.

Consumer buying habits combined with the economic downturn that began in 2007 helped undercut Plan 9. Since 2009, Plan 9 has closed stores in Williamsburg, Roanoke, Harrisonburg and Lynchburg, as well as Winston-Salem, N.C. The only remaining store, other than the one in Carytown, is in Charlottesville in the Seminole Square Shopping Center. The lease on that store expires early next year, and Bland said he hopes to renegotiate the terms.

...But as Bland’s business exits bankruptcy court protection and looks to begin anew, he’s cautiously optimistic about what’s next.

“We still believe we have the potential for a little more business than we have now,” he said. “There’s still a business, but it’s not what it used to be. By any means.”

I don't go out much, and there aren't many places I really enjoy for their own sake. But when I used to live in Charlottesville, Plan 9 and Barnes & Noble were my two favorite stores to visit. Every Christmas, I'd request the same things from anybody who asked: gift cards to both those stores.

I know, I know: convenience, progress, the market, adapt to survive, etc. (And unlike Nicholas Carr, I know better than to try to talk myself into wishful thinking.) Still, some things are irreplaceable no matter how foolish it sounds, and I feel old and sad tonight.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

The Eighty-Fourth Problem

The larger point is this: God knows we all need more help, but possibly we need less self. That has long been the political response to the self-help movement, and it is also, in a different sense, what Buddhists believe. Curiously, Buddhism is simultaneously a burgeoning influence on the Western self-help movement and entirely at odds with it: anti-self, and anti-help. It is anti-help insofar as it emphasizes radical self-acceptance and also insofar as it emphasizes remaining in the present. (Improvement, needless to say, requires you to focus on the future.) It is anti-self in that it treats thoughts as passing ephemera rather than as the valuable products of a distinct and consistent mind. The journalist Josh Rothman once wrote a lovely description of what a cloud really is: not an entity, as we perceive it, but just a region of space that’s cooler than the regions around it, so that water vapor entering it condenses from the cold, then evaporates again as it drifts back out. A cloud is no more a thing, Rothman concluded, than “the pool of light a flashlight makes as you shine it around a dark room.” And the self, the Buddhists would say, is no more a thing than a region of air with thoughts passing through.

This reminds me of something from one of Steve Hagen's books:

"Everybody's got problems," said the Buddha. "In fact, we've all got eighty-three problems, each one of us. Eighty-three problems, and there's nothing you can do about it. If you work really hard on one of them, maybe you can fix it — but if you do, another one will pop right into its place. For example, you're going to lose your loved ones eventually. And you're going to die some day. Now there's a problem, and there's nothing you, or I, or anyone else can do about it."

The man became furious. "I thought you were a great teacher!" he shouted. "I thought you could help me! What good is your teaching, then?"

The Buddha said, "Well, maybe it will help you with the eighty-fourth problem."

"The eighty-fourth problem?" said the man. "What's the eighty-fourth problem?"

Said the Buddha, "You want to not have any problems."

Panta Rheism™

Brad Warner:

I imagine my opinions on this matter will upset some people. But take heart! As far as I can see I am clearly on the losing end of this battle. It seems to me that those who want to establish a Church of Zen “with teeth,” are going to be the victors. That’s just the way stuff goes. What I’m saying here today will, in the future, be remembered (if at all) only as the ravings of someone who didn’t understand what the Church of Zen now knows to be true. You folks reading in the future can vouch for me on this one.

When that happens, real Zen will go underground and start calling itself something else. That’s also the way stuff goes.

Yep, that's the way stuff goes. Everything flows. And don't worry, Brad, we don't even require official robes.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

We'll Burn Fires and Lights and We'll Talk of the Old Ways

Razib Khan:

Nicholas G. Carr, purveyor of high-brow neo-ludditism and archeo-utopianism, has a piece out in The Wall Street Journal, Don’t Burn Your Books—Print Is Here to Stay. The subtitle is “The e-book had its moment, but sales are slowing. Readers still want to turn those crisp, bound pages.” Here are some of his rancid chestnuts of un-wisdom:

I know it's a little awkward to end that excerpt right there, but I don't care. I just had to include that last line. Anyway, please continue!

...If Nicholas Carr truly believes what he’s saying, I’m curious if he’d be willing to make a bet on the market penetration of e-books in 2017. I suspect the reality is that op-eds such as this are expressions of his sentiment and preference, not a genuine prediction rooted in an understanding of how the world is, as opposed to how an individual might want the world to be.

The fact is, most people stop reading as soon as they escape the clutches of teachers who force them to do it. The book-buying public has always been a relatively small group. Carr's big idea, though, appeals to a much larger group: those who would like to think of themselves as readers, as deep thinkers, even though they actually spend most of their time sending texts and playing games on their phones. Those who have been raised with the assumption that they have unlimited potential, but have never done anything particularly impressive with it. See, you've never gotten around to writing the Great American Novel or reading all the classics, not because you've never distinguished between whether you really want to do it or if you just think it's the sort of thing you should aspire to, or because you shrink from the necessary sacrifices and don't want to admit it, but because your gadgets have rewired your brain.

In other words, it's not surprising that a guy who has made quite a career for himself by telling people what they want to hear might succumb to the temptation to give himself some of that sweet reassurance.

Friday, January 04, 2013

I Shot the Serif, and They Say It Is a Capital Offense

Seth Stevenson:

When did we all become amateur typography experts? Perhaps we should credit Steve Jobs, a calligraphy buff who built a bunch of cool typeface options into early Macs. By the time I got to college, any sophomore worth her salt had firm feelings about whether Palatino or Garamond looked better on her Classic II. And any professor worth her salt knew that a term paper printed in 12-point Courier was a desperate attempt to stretch eight thin pages to the required 10.

While it's certainly plausible to suggest that insufferable typography snobs are direct descendants of some of the earliest practitioners of insufferable Internet snobbery, the Ur-snobs, if you will, the more prosaic forces of materialist determinism should probably take precedence over romantic mythologies of noble lineage. Less Steve Jobs, more Need Jobs, in other words. What else are you going to do while you wait for that worthless degree in graphic design to reap financial rewards? Might as well share all that useless information with everyone online and devote your energy to desperate attempts to invest the vagaries of fashion and taste with deep significance. Lowercase letters with slightly flaring terminals? Glyph widths, stroke weights, ascender heights? Uh-huh, uh-huh. Well, at least you have your health!

It Is Always a Silly Thing to Give Advice

Victoria Beale:

Alain de Botton has become the self-help guru to the British middle-class—a life coach pitched at those who might read The Guardian on an iPad, buy ethical chocolate, and assert an interest in the Booker shortlist. If you’re a certain kind of amateur intellectual with self-improving impulses, it’s less vulgar to entrust your anxieties to a Cambridge- and Harvard-educated pop philosopher who speaks three languages than to the hearty exhortations of Tony Robbins or Oprah.

Another new year, another TNR article sneering at the great unwashed for artlessly trying to rise above their station in life. The rest of the review goes on to select what she considers the most tellingly jejune examples of de Botton's self-improvement tips. Those are all gratuitous, though, as the attentive reader has likely already discerned from the condescending tone of this paragraph and its crude character sketch that a de Botton reader is nothing you want to be. Wait, you mean reading a certain newspaper on a tablet signifies something essential about your character? Ethical chocolate implies some sort of faux pas? The Booker shortlist indicates some sort of gauche social climbing? Ohmigod, am I a pseudo-intellectual too?!

There, there, it's all right. You're reading a serious publication, aren't you? The author's addressing you like an understanding confidant, is she not? You're not like those swine, gracelessly rooting through the classics of literature for tasty tidbits, oblivious to the pearls contained within. Or, at the very least, you know better than to admit it now.

My own perspectives on de Botton have run the gamut from favorable to exasperated to everything in between. (In the grand scheme of things, that means I appreciate him as a source of stimulation and provocation.) And I've even been dyspeptic about those who get too grabby with art for self-help purposes. But I do agree that a large part of the animus toward the genre is probably classist and snobbish, a way of jeering at oafs who weren't fortunate enough to be brought up reading Tolstoy and Shakespeare, who don't know how to give off the impression of appreciating such high culture effortlessly:

Still, just because there’s plenty to criticize doesn’t mean that there isn’t plenty that’s worthwhile, too. As Gretchen Rubin points out, all branches of knowledge have their quacks: “When you have your astronomy, then you get your astrology—and we have our own astrologers in this neck of the woods.” Nonetheless, “the greatest minds throughout history have thought about things like self-knowledge and self-control and how to live a good life. I don’t know why it’s now branded as snake-oil stuff.” Even the most over-the-top books offer a real benefit: they encourage the virtue of self-examination. To read self-help is to take stock of one’s self and to ask what kind of life one wants to lead.

These are profound issues, and what the genre’s critics sometimes miss, too, is that self-help readers are well equipped to explore them. That’s because the people who buy these books are, like all book buyers, “pretty comfortable,” says John Duff of Penguin. “It’s going to be that middle-class person, reasonably well-educated” and in “very rarefied” company, as “our market for all books is really very limited. Most people stop reading when they leave school.” Those who don’t stop probably have their acts together. Call it the paradox of self-help. “The type of person who values self-control and self-improvement is the type of person who would seek more of it in a self-help book,” Whelan says. “So it’s not the unemployed crazy lady sitting on the couch eating potato chips who reads self-help. It’s the educated, affluent, probably fairly successful person who wants to better themselves.”

Consequently, self-help readers rarely do everything that a book advises; after examining their own lives, they use their judgment to decide what’s worth trying. Rubin reports that her readers “pick one or two things and they feel good about it. They pick the things they feel are right for them.” Hyperbole from gurus like Robbins is best viewed not as serious advice but as motivation for the hard work of personal change.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Marx Via Clown College

John Gray:

Tismaneanu confesses to being baffled by what he describes as “the still amazing infatuation of important intellectuals with the communist Utopia”. “It is no longer possible to maintain and defend a relatively benign Lenin”, he writes, “whose ideas were viciously distorted by the sociopath Stalin.” Unlike Stalin, Lenin showed no signs of psychopathology. Rather than being an expression of paranoia, methodical violence and pedagogic terror were integral features of Bolshevik doctrine. By their own account, Lenin and his followers acted on the basis of the belief that some human groups had to be destroyed in order to realize the potential of humanity. These facts continue to be ignored by many who consider themselves liberals, and it is worth asking why.

I found this extra-amusing, having just seen this interview with squee, ermahgerd, "the coolest and most influential leftist in Europe":

Are there historical figures that you relate to?

Robespierre. Maybe a bit of Lenin.

Really? Not Trotsky?

In 1918-19, Trotsky was much harsher than Stalin. And I do like this in him. But I will never forgive him for how he screwed it up in the mid-’20s. He was so stupid and arrogant. You know what he would do? He would come to party meetings carrying French classics like Flaubert, Stendhal, to signal to others: “Fuck you, I am civilized!”

You write that we need to think more and act less. But in the end you identify with Lenin: a famed man of action.

Yes, but wait a minute! Lenin was the right guy. When everything went wrong in 1914, what did he do? He moved to Switzerland and started reading Hegel.

Oh-ho, what a zany fellow indeed. Take care if you read the whole thing; you just never know what boorzhwa-shocking thing he's going to say next!

Personally, I find his ideas are best absorbed in all their profundity while listening to "Yakety Sax" on a loop.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

A Warning to My Readers

Do not think me gentle
because I speak in praise
of gentleness, or elegant
because I honor the grace
that keeps this world. I am
a man crude as any,
gross of speech, intolerant,
stubborn, angry, full
of fits and furies. That I
may have spoken well
at times, is not natural.
A wonder is what it is.

— Wendell Berry