Sunday, March 31, 2013

Lucubratio (XVI)

Megan Gambino:

Cohen’s meticulousness pays off. While he could present a clear night sky taken at any latitude, he instead captures the very night sky that, in megacities, is hidden from sight. The photographer keeps some details of his process a secret, it seems. So, I can only suspect that Cohen takes his picture of a city, determines what the night sky looks like in that city on that day and then quickly travels to a remote area to find the same night sky viewed from a different location. This precision makes all the difference.

I still haven't experienced that sort of night sky directly, but those beautiful composite photos will suffice for now.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Never Let a Sense of Morals Prevent Me from Doing What is Right


If tomorrow, miraculously, everyone on planet Earth achieved enlightenment / nirvana / liberation / Buddha-hood, how would we then go about our lives? Remember, this would be the real deal – the reordering of consciousness, not a Hollywood transformation wherein we would all vanish in a flash of light. Despite realising our true Buddha nature, we would still need to live, society would still need to function. But how would a society of Buddhas organize itself?

...I posit that the society that emerges would look very similar to what is commonly described as Communist (and real Communism at that, not the cartoonish scare story paraded by the right).  I can’t for the life of me think of any other possibility, can you?

That depends. Is enlightenment a path or a destination?

Let me put it this way. When I started reading books about Buddhism in my adolescence, I quickly began to notice that there were two main types of them. One type was what I started to think of as "religious" Buddhism. There was a lot of recitation, in a more formal way, of the Three Jewels, the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, etc., a lot more emphasis on correct ritual behavior. The other type, which I greatly preferred, was what I thought of as "philosophical" Buddhism, exemplified in my eyes by people like Alan Watts, Steve Hagen, Stephen Batchelor, Sam Hamill and Owen Flanagan.

If I may generalize here for brevity's sake, the religious form is primarily concerned with ethics, with ending suffering in all its guises. This is how enlightened people should behave. Follow these rules to achieve these goals. The philosophical form, though, is more of a radical method of inquiry. It marries Buddhist insights and techniques to Western empirical reasoning. The goal of one's practice is to see reality as clearly as possible, whatever that may entail, and to avoid reifying abstract concepts. No action, however well-intentioned, will be of any real use if rooted in ignorance and hazy vision.

The religious form is a form of motivated reasoning. It takes for granted that the purpose of people's discipline and ritual practice is to bring them to the point where they accept the preordained conclusion. The philosophical form holds out the possibility that truth-seeking and ethical harmony may not be perfectly compatible. Sometimes truth and honesty can create conflicts. Sometimes lies and illusions can maintain peace and stability. Where is the perspective from which we can judge when one or the other is called for?

Nowadays, I find it gets closer to what I feel is the heart of the matter to think of this as a division between rationalism and empiricism, especially since the same division presents itself in many other contexts besides Buddhism (this is largely the reason why I'm curious to read Michael Oakeshott and see what his take on this was all about). Rationalism concerns itself more with internal consistency between principles, whereas empiricism is more content to accept contradictions or incoherence on an intellectual level as long as a situation "works" somehow. We can never have all the relevant information necessary in order to make a fully informed decision, and yet our imperfect decisions nonetheless create new ripples of causation in the world which multiply exponentially. We can never devise the perfect system which, when implemented properly and administered diligently, will eliminate conflict and inefficiency. We just muddle through the best we can, teetering and tottering in an attempt to keep our balance.

So I agree that universal Buddhist enlightenment and "pure" Communism would be very similar. However, I think that's because both of them are rationalist abstractions. They both dream of a grand synthesis in which all the conflicts of human society are resolved. They believe in the existence of an ultimate perspective which, when obtained, will reconcile dramatically different human desires, with each individual recognizing exactly what needs to be done in their own lives toward that shared goal. In their own ways, both views see life as a problem to be solved.

Sam Harris, while promoting his book The Moral Landscape, used an example to illustrate the difference between questions that are answerable in theory vs. answerable in practice. How many birds are in flight above the Earth at this moment? The answer, whatever it is, does indeed exist, even if we don't know it. There are a finite number of birds on Earth, and if we had the means to monitor every inch of the planet and its atmosphere, we could conceivably find a true answer to that question. Obviously, though, the practical obstacles to doing so are insurmountable.

And that's a situation which would only require the relatively straightforward actions of observing and counting. Imagine, then, the infinitely more complicated scenario of trying to anticipate every single situation that could bring individuals or groups of people into conflict and trying to enact preventive measures. Even if it is conceivable in theory, it doesn't seem remotely possible in practice.

Ruairí's original question implied that enlightenment was a state of being that, when authentically realized, necessarily resulted in harmoniously integrated human interactions. But what if enlightenment is simply the realization that conflict and suffering are ineradicable ingredients in life, which can only at best be contained, never overcome completely? What if, instead of ironclad logical necessity, enlightenment reveals neverending Sisyphean struggle?

You Lifted a Bus Once!

Melanie Tannenbaum:

People look at an issue like marriage equality, and the first inclination is to set prescriptive norms. We should do something, the justices should rule a certain way, you should support a given cause. But based on everything that we know about our brains and their bafflingly strong desires to fit in with the crowd, the best way to convince people that they should care about an issue and get involved in its advocacy isn’t to tell people what they should do — it’s to tell them what other people actually do.

And you know what will accomplish that? That’s right. Everyone on Facebook making their opinions on the issue immediately, graphically, demonstrably obvious. That is literally all that it takes to create a descriptive norm: Publicly acknowledging your belief along with the thousands of other people who are also publicly acknowledging theirs.

So, no. The fact that you’ve replaced that picture of yourself mugging for the camera with a red square and an equal sign will not cause Justice Kennedy to bang his gavel or stomp his foot and say that he’s come to a final decision on the matter, and that it’s all because of your new profile picture. Changing your Facebook image will not have a direct impact on our legislation.

But a widespread descriptive norm implying that it is socially acceptable to advocate for same-sex marriage and that most people in contemporary American society seem to be pro-marriage-equality? Now that just might.

Way back in the day, I remember reading a newsletter from the people behind Vegan Outreach, in which they outlined their plan for the veganization of the world. You see, if each person reading this could simply convince five other people to become vegan, and then each of those five people could convince five more apiece, well, you get the idea. The whole world would be vegan by the year such-and-such. Of course, the obvious objection that even I was able to articulate at the time was that, in real life, most people's social circles are tightly constrained enough so that without some seriously die-hard witnessing to hostile audiences, most of these activists were just going to end up talking to each other. The circles expand outward to a certain point, and then the walls just become higher.

The Spleen: What? What are you talking about? You lifted a bus once!
The Blue Raja: Yes, precisely! That story's legend'ry!
Mr. Furious: Yeah... It was really more of a...
[waves hand sideways]
Mr. Furious: ... a push, really, than a lift.
The Shoveler: That still takes INCREDIBLE super-human strength.
The Blue Raja: Indeed, it does! To push an entire bus out of the way.
Mr. Furious: Well, actually, the driver kinda had his foot on the accelerator... JUST in the beginning; just to get it going. Then it actually was me. But he kinda...

In the case of gay marriage, the driver's had his foot on the accelerator for a few decades now, and it's more than a bit absurd to see people desperate to justify their clicktivism by reframing the story around the "push" they gave it. Social conformity and peer pressure can certainly help solidify gains, but those gains themselves require a lot more than just bumper-sticker proclamations of belief.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Not a Critique of Reason But a Defense of It

Graham Macdonald:

Several of Oakeshott’s essays were re-published in Rationalism and Politics in 1962. They argued against the influence of a certain kind of ‘rationalism’, an ideology infecting much of modern life and politics in particular. It had surfaced clearly in the works of Francis Bacon and René Descartes, but was furthered by many French Enlightenment writers such as Voltaire. The essays indicted the ‘sovereignty of technique’ and the rationalist faith ‘in unhindered reason’ as ‘an infallible guide in political activity’ capable of application to any situation. Oakeshott countered that the study of politics involved contemplation of ‘practical’ activity and not ‘scientific’ investigation.

Rationalism in Politics brought him to a wider but still limited audience. His readership was not broad, especially in America, where conservative thought was, and remains, of a more evangelical or economic libertarian bent. The book reinforced a central thesis that a widespread style of rationalism informing much of post-Renaissance culture failed to acknowledge that experience of human affairs was a far better guide to action than the resort to ideological formulae.

Kenneth McIntyre:

So what is rationalism, in the Oakeshottian sense of the term?  First, it involves the claim that the only adequate type of knowledge is that which can be reduced to a series of rules, principles, or methods—and thus it is also a claim that “knowing how” to do something is nothing more than “knowing that” the rules are such and such.  Second, because of this denigration of practical knowledge, it is a claim that rational action can only take place following the creation of a theoretical model. As Oakeshott once observed, modern rationalism is literally “preposterous” because theoretical reflection can only occur after a practice already has made itself distinct and more or less concrete.

Finally, as Callahan points out, since rationalism is a mistaken description of human knowledge and its relation to human activity, it is also an impossible way of acting, politically or in any other sphere. Human action, including political action, is inherently an engagement of practical reason working within a particular tradition or and attempting to follow through on some of the inchoate suggestions that the vagueness of the practice offers. The opposite of rationalism for Oakeshott is not irrationalism but authentic practical reasonableness. Thus, and contrary to many of his reading-impaired critics, his critique of rationalism is not a critique of reason but a defense of it against a false modern conception of it.

To use one of Oakeshott’s favorite examples, if one has no knowledge of cookery, a cookbook is useless.  If, on the other hand, one is an experienced chef, a cookbook is superfluous. The cookbook is relevant only in a situation where either the great majority of cooks are relatively inexperienced and there is a dearth of connoisseurs or in a situation in which the traditions of cookery are in a state of confusion and a reminder is needed of some of the tradition’s neglected resources.

Oakeshott used the term “ideology” to describe the attempted application of this rationalistic style to political activity. The rationalist’s or ideologist’s desire is to solve permanently the problems of political life and leave everything else to administration. Yet politics isn’t concerned with the search for truth. Instead, as Oakeshott noted, “it is concerned with the cultivation of what from time to time are accepted as the peaceable decencies of conduct among men who do not suffer from the Puritan-Jacobin illusion that in practical affairs there is an attainable condition of things called ‘truth’ or ‘perfection.’”

John Kekes:

The most difficult of Oakeshott's works is On Human Conduct. Its argument is complex and couched in a technical vocabulary borrowed from Latin. Not surprisingly, it has been widely misunderstood. O'Sullivan's essay is a most illuminating explanation of what the book is about. I recommend it without reservation to all who want to understand Oakeshott's magnum opus. One of the many virtues of O'Sullivan's essay is that it avoids the obscurity of the book. But it is far more than merely exegetical. It considers the main criticisms of Oakeshott's argument and shows that they either rest on misunderstanding, or are easily countered by a deeper understanding of the argument. O'Sullivan then states and considers what he takes to be the most serious problems with Oakeshott's argument. Chief among them is Oakeshott's realization, reached during the years before his death, that the likelihood is virtually non-existent that the political arrangements he has favored would be approximated in the conditions that prevail in the Western world. O'Sullivan movingly describes the disappointment and sadness to which this realization had led Oakeshott and would lead those who share his political outlook. The emerging view is not tragic, but an elegiac lament for what might have been but will not be.

I've been seeing Oakeshott's name crop up on a regular basis recently, including a couple parallels drawn between his work and Isaiah Berlin's, so I'm looking forward to checking him out sometime. I'm given to understand that Andrew Sullivan considers himself something of a disciple, which in itself is hardly a glowing endorsement, but getting back to the plus side, I'm also interested to see how his critique of rationalism resembles Evgeny Morozov's recent writings on "solutionism".

All Life is Being Lived

And yet, though we strain
against the deadening grip of daily necessity,
I sense there is this mystery:

All life is being lived.

Who is living it, then?
Is it the things themselves,
or something waiting inside them,
like an unplayed melody in a flute?

Is it the winds blowing over the waters?
Is it the branches that signal to each other?

Is it flowers
interweaving their fragrances,
or streets, as they wind through time?

Is it the animals, warmly moving,
or the birds, that suddenly rise up?

Who lives it, then? God, are you the one
who is living life?

— Rilke

Tim Lott:

It was only after I finished studying history (or to give it another name, ‘Western notions of cause-and-effect’) and began to study Zen Buddhism that some kind of meaningful answer began to occur to me. No one could resolve the question of free will versus determinism because, fundamentally, it was the wrong question. The real question was not: Do I have a choice? Rather it was: Who is the ‘me’ that’s asking if I have a choice?

If there is no ‘I’ to make a choice, then there is only one process going on — that of existence as a whole. No one­ — no fate, or brute circumstance — is pushing you around because there is no one to be pushed around. Or to put it another way, you are both simultaneously the one who is doing the pushing and the one who is being pushed. To think of this process in another way, consider your breathing: are ‘you’ breathing, or is breathing happening to you?

Nods sagely, strokes beard.

I Used to Write Letters, I Used to Sign My Name

Evan Selinger:

Let’s face it: Technology and etiquette have been colliding for some time now, and things have finally boiled over if the recent spate of media criticisms is anything to go by. There’s the voicemail, not to be left unless you’re “dying.” There’s the e-mail signoff that we need to “kill.” And then there’s the observation that what was once normal — like asking someone for directions — is now considered “uncivilized.”

Cyber-savvy folks are arguing for such new etiquette rules because in an information-overloaded world, time-wasting communication is not just outdated — it’s rude. But while living according to the gospel of technological efficiency and frictionless sharing is fine as a Silicon Valley innovation ethos, it makes for a downright depressing social ethic.

People like Nick Bilton over at The New York Times Bits blog argue that norms like thank-you messages can cost more in time and efficiency than they are worth. However, such etiquette norms aren’t just about efficiency: They’re actually about building thoughtful and pro-social character.

Let's look at the cast of characters involved in this "thing" (since it appears to be an official thing now): that sociopath from a couple weeks ago in the NYT, a bubblegum-popping ditz from Gawker (is that redundant?), and some jerkoff from Slate being criticized (rightly) by a writer at Wired. Not a particularly representative slice of humanity, you might say. In fact, you might suggest, as I did, that it's really more a case of young, tech-savvy, social media narcissists talking to themselves, helping to convince each other that their narrow little fraction of a world is the only one that matters.

I will say this, though, about how the times-they-are-a-changing. Long story short, yesterday I found myself with a couple hours to kill before clocking in, so I went across the street to mosey through the mall. Both the bookstores, the B. Dalton's and Waldenbooks, that used to be there were gone, of course. So was the Sam Goody's music store that I used to haunt throughout my adolescence. But I counted four cellphone kiosks, a Best Buy Mobile store, a Radio Shack which seemed to be much more phone-oriented than I ever remember them being, and a cash-for-used-cellphone depository. I almost felt like falling into step with the elderly power-walkers making their morning rounds to share stories about the good old days.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Staring at the Wall, Sharing Your Skull With No One

Amanda Mascarelli:

“When we think about loneliness and social isolation, we often think of them as two faces of the same coin,” says Andrew Steptoe, a psychologist and epidemiologist at University College London, who led the study. But the findings suggest that a lack of social interaction harms health whether or not a person feels lonely, he says. “When you’re socially isolated, you not only lack companionship in many cases, but you may also lack advice and support from people.”

The findings contradict two recent studies that suggest loneliness is associated with declining health and increased mortality in older people. “I think it’s kind of a puzzle that we now need to solve,” says John Cacioppo, a psychologist at the University of Chicago in Illinois, and a co-author of one of the earlier studies. He says more work is needed to understand cultural factors that may influence results, such as differences in the way people report loneliness.

Cacioppo, eh? I remember him, and it looks like he still bears keeping a suspicious eye on. Look, buddy, I appreciate your concern, but as I demurred perviously, I get plenty of eudaimonic sustenance from online interactions, and frankly, I would gleefully trade a few additional years of statistical existence for the privilege of being left alone to enjoy the life I do have. The tone of this makes me think that sooner or later, somebody's going to be strongly urging that people like me make living adjustments for our own good as defined by somebody else.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Leisure Would be as Bad as Work

Mark Kingwell:

It is still worth distinguishing between the slacker, of any description, and the idler. Slacking lacks a commitment to an alternative scale of value. By contrast, the genius of the genuine idler, whether as described by Diogenes or Jerome K. Jerome, is that he or she is not interested in work at all, but instead devoted to something else. What that something else involves is actually less important than the structural defection from the values of working. In other words, idling might involve lots of activity, even what appears to be effort; but the essential difference is that the idler does whatever he or she does in a spirit of infinite and cheerful uselessness that is found in all forms of play.

Idling at once poses a challenge to the reductive, utilitarian norms that otherwise govern too much of human activity and provides an answer—or at least the beginning of one—to the question of life's true purpose. It is not too much to suggest that being idle, in the sense of enjoying one's open-ended time without thought of any specific purpose or end, is the highest form of human existence. This is, to use Aristotelian language, the part of ourselves that is closest to the divine, and thus offers a glimpse of immortality. To be sure, from this Olympian vantage we may spy new purposes and projects to pursue in our more workaday lives; but the value of these projects, and the higher value from which these are judged, can be felt only when we slip the bonds of use.

And thus the same old urge to strive after status and accomplishment reasserts itself. You see, I'm not merely lazy or unproductive, I'm an authentic genius who has realized the true purpose of life, scaled the Olympian heights in order to take in the breathtaking sight of human existence from its proper perspective. This is the sort of thing that drove Lao-tzu to the city gates, muttering to himself with his eyes on the mountains ahead.

I don't fundamentally disagree with anything he says here, of course. But when he takes such care to distinguish slacking from idling as if the former is merely the right action done for the wrong reason, it makes me just a bit leery. That way lies respectability and productivity. If you want to dissent from society's view on the value of labor, you have to accept the scorn and disregard that come with it.

Veblen, after his fashion a sharp critic of capitalism but always more cynical than the socialist dreamers, demonstrated how minute divisions of leisure time could be used to demonstrate social superiority, no matter what the form or principle of social organization; but he was no more able than Marx to see how ingenious capitalist market forces could be in adapting to changing political environments. For instance, neither of them sensed what we now know all too well, namely that democratizing access to leisure would not change the essential problems of distributive justice. Being freed from drudgery only so that one may shop or be entertained by movies and sports, especially if this merely perpetuates the larger cycles of production and consumption, is hardly liberation. In fact, "leisure time" becomes here a version of the company store, where your hard-won scrip is forcibly swapped for the very things you are working to make.


Monday, March 25, 2013

Bros Before Prose

Andrew Ervin:

What I’ve come to realize, thanks to VIDA and the Count, is that my feminist convictions do not make up for the low number of books by women I’ve reviewed. Not yet. Good intentions are not enough. It’s people like me, people aware of the persistent sexism of our society, who need to do a better job of promoting books by women. To ignore the gender disparity in publishing is to perpetuate it. I can’t do that any longer. Instead, I will continue to champion all of the books I love in every way I can—only now I will do so with a clearer understanding of just how far we still have to go in building the literary community that we all deserve.

You've gotta pity these poor bastards. I mean, imagine being so insecure, so incapable of contemplative self-confidence, so desperate for some sort of tangible proof of your non-sexist or non-racist intentions that you attach this overweening significance to whichever metric you can get your hands on. Yes! That's it! 43% of the music I listen to is created and performed by non-white non-North Americans! 51% of the books I read are by female authors! Woohoo, I'm winning at cosmopolitanism! Winning like Charlie Sheen! The numbers don't lie!

(Would it fuck with their heads too badly if someone were to suggest that obsessing over stats and pie charts is so typically white male?)

One thing I didn't mention the last time this topic came up: I find it interesting that it's just matter-of-factly assumed that male reviewers and readers would naturally gravitate toward the writings of other males. Why? Because of pheromones? No, seriously, every time I read one of these whinges, that's presented as the default, the unconscious state of things requiring education to overcome: men naturally consider other men's writing to be superior to women's even when it's "clearly" not. Conversely, though, white knights like this guy do seem to believe that women possess some sorts of unique ways of knowing, experiencing and communicating, which suggests that there's very little daylight between their views and those they scorn, like, say, V.S. Naipaul. The narcissism of small differences, indeed.

But leaving aside the extremely tendentious attempt to interpret everything from ideas to language as "gendered" by society, doesn't this quite literally — not figuratively, but literally — beg the question? Doesn't it, in other words, presuppose the existence of a more-or-less zero-sum struggle between men and women for power, status and resources, one which all the participants are instinctively aware of and one where their natural inclination is to stand in solidarity with their fellows? In other other words, aren't you simply finding the "proof" you set directly out in search of to begin with, that men see themselves as directly competing against women in the war of language and ideas because misogyny that's why? In a world of unlimited writerly wants and scarce publishing resources, we dudes are all brothers of different mothers, amirite?

Oh, well. This is just one of those things that gets magnified far out of proportion to its actual importance, most likely due to the massive overrepresentation of frustrated lit majors tweeting away on the social web, bitter over their lack of an actual literary career. The real fun will begin when the other dozen genders plus the otherkin start hollering about how they're being systematically overlooked by the cisbinary publishing industry, and the postmodern Ouroboros will finally finish what it started.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Ticking Away the Moments That Make Up a Dull Day

The friend was impressed. The others at the table were too.

This is life with the next big thing in tech strapped to your wrist.

My piece of technological wonderment is small and black and helps tell time like a watch. That’s because it technically is a watch, in principle, but it’s not like any you’ve ever seen. And it’s a whole lot more than just that.

Meet the Pebble, a piece of wearable tech that is part of an ever-expanding yet-to-be-released line of products lumped into the 21st-century category of “smartwatch.” The term implies, of course, that all other watches that came before are technophobic Neanderthals, capable only of ticking away the seconds toward their eventual irrelevance.

Several months ago, I was incredulous and scornful of the idea that anyone could honestly attempt to argue that emailing was a time- and labor-intensive process. Now, after reading the above article, which teeters vertiginously on the ledge of self-parody, it seems obvious to me that I've actually been observing something strangely akin to the famous paradox of Achilles and the tortoise, in which ever-shrinking divisions of time are proportionately overhyped in a futile attempt to close the distance on a life containing meaning and significance.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Corporate Fonts Still Suck

Stephen Coles:

The independent foundry has also cemented its place as the new foundation of the industry. Most of this year’s selections are from very small shops, several of which are entirely new to the market. It’s also significant that, in addition to offering their fonts through retailers like FontShop, MyFonts, and the newly revived, most of these indie foundries now sell directly to customers through their own sites. In some cases they have eschewed outside distribution altogether. The “majors” have not simply laid down, however. Monotype, Linotype, Font Bureau, FontFont, and H&FJ are all represented in this year’s list, each with releases that are remarkably characteristic of their respective brands.

What, font hipsters weren't already insufferable enough as it is? There's an indie/majors divide in the typography industry too? The things you learn that you wish you hadn't.

Reason In, Garbage Out

Dale DeBakcsy:

On February 11, 2011, children the world over gathered about their television sets to watch a new episode of the smash hit cartoon My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. On this particular program, one of the ponies manifests the ability to predict the future and Twilight Sparkle, the show's resident rational positivist, sets out to debunk the phenomenon. What follows is that she is physically and intellectually humiliated at every possible turn of the process, resulting in a climatic breakdown in which she finally rejects her own role as a rational observer and declares that, "I now realize there are wonderful things in this world you just can't explain, but that doesn't necessarily make them any less true. It just means you have to choose to believe in them."

DeBakcsy is concerned about what he sees as a recurring theme in cartoons. You know me; I'm too sanguine to worry about the political ramifications of wrongthink in popcorn entertainment. Reason and the scientific method are made of sterner stuff than that, and overly literal-minded propagandists often fail to reckon with the creative detours their supposedly-unambiguous message can take in the minds of the audience.

Pan-Amoebic Algebra Breed Bizarre Bacteria; What to Do? Oh, What to Do?

Kevin Fong:

Within my working lifetime, the pattern of antibiotic resistance in healthcare has transformed from a rare but notable event, to a problem of epidemic proportion. If we are to avoid a return to the pre-antibiotic landscape with all its excess mortality we must be bold. To squander the advantage we have so recently gained against microorganisms in the fight for life would be unthinkable. 

Undesirable, sure; unthinkable, huh? It's always been the bacteria's world, we just live in it. Now pardon me while I return to paranoiacally monitoring my incisions for signs of infection and whimpering softly.

It Was Quite the Display of Girl Power

No, the insightful criticism isn't that they didn't artificially include a black woman, it is that they artificially excluded Asian women-- that this photo could only be made by actively denying a reality: among women, Asian women are proportionally overrepresented in successful positions, especially tech jobs, especially Silicon Valley, and yes, Apple Maps, India is in Asia.  Putting this shot together is like staging an NBA publicity photo without any neck tattoos or handguns.  "What?"  When I was in my 3rd year of medical school and we all had to select our tax bracket, the Asian women went into surgery, ophthalmology, or the last two years of a PhD program, you know where the borderline sleeves went?  Pediatrics, which I think is technically sublimation but I'm no psychiatrist. The logic was straightforward: they wanted kids, and, unlike surgery, pediatrics offered future doctor-moms a bit of flexibility, while the Asian women apparently didn't worry about working late because their kids would be at violin till 9:30.

This porno, for the Time et al demographic, cannot allow this bit of reality to be shown, because the moment you see Padmakshi or "Megan" at the table it is too real,  it undermines the entire sexism thesis and suggests that something else may be going on, it's like watching an awesome gangbang and suddenly noticing all the empty Oxycontin bottles and that they're speaking Serbian.  "That just makes it hotter!"  I just logged your ip address.  This doesn't mean Asian women don't experience sexual discrimination, it means that when an Asian woman succeeds, the other women in the office don't get to experience sexual discrimination, so they're left only with sexual harassment.  Read it a couple of times, it'll make sense and you won't like it.

It's always good to read a new Last Psychiatrist post, especially after a week filled with the looking-glass surreality of Donglegate and the equally hilarious spectacle of Peezus Myers, having spent so long staring into the abyss, experiencing the abyss staring back into him.

Symphonic with Mental Activity

John Jeremiah Sullivan:

If we put aside the self-awareness standard—and really, how arbitrary and arrogant is that, to take the attribute of consciousness we happen to possess over all creatures and set it atop the hierarchy, proclaiming it the very definition of consciousness (Georg Christoph Lichtenberg wrote something wise in his notebooks, to the effect of: only a man can draw a self-portrait, but only a man wants to)—it becomes possible to say at least the following: the overwhelming tendency of all this scientific work, of its results, has been toward more consciousness. More species having it, and species having more of it than assumed. This was made boldly clear when the “Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness” pointed out that those “neurological substrates” necessary for consciousness (whatever “consciousness” is) belong to “all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses.” The animal kingdom is symphonic with mental activity, and of its millions of wavelengths, we’re born able to understand the minutest sliver. The least we can do is have a proper respect for our ignorance.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Man Alive, the Jive and Lyrics

It's been a busy week, and I've gotta cap it off with some outpatient surgery tomorrow, so I guess that explains how a new Clutch record managed to sneak up on me. Luckily, I was alerted to it via this article devoted to one of the best things about the band: Neil Fallon's lyrics. Even if you don't like their bruising, bluesy rock (or their more hardcore early sound), I still recommend reading the lyrics just as surreal poetry. In factcome to think of it, I'm pretty sure they've inspired more post titles here than any other single source. Also. Furthermore. Too. And. Plus. Moreover. In addition.

I believe I also share a birthday and a magnificent beardedness with Fallon, so there's that.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

What a Buzz, What a Song

Why not just legalize cocaine, then?

Delivered in a black packet emblazoned with a skull and crossbones, the coffee is said to have ’200 per cent’ more caffeine than your standard cuppa. ‘This is not your regular morning coffee.  This is not your store bought coffee.  You will not find this coffee at your local diner or at your sissy Starbucks,’ its disclaimer reads.

Ain't that America. Anyway, I just wanted to use this opportunity to make you all listen to the Wildhearts:

Monday, March 18, 2013

I Need a Hero, I'm Holding Out for a Hero

Eric Boehlert:

Twitter could have helped puncture the Beltway media bubble by providing news consumers with direct access to confront journalists during the run-up to the war. And the pass-around nature of Twitter could have rescued forgotten or buried news stories and commentaries that ran against the let's-go-to-war narrative that engulfed so much of the mainstream press.

Considering the central role the lapdog media played in helping to sell President Bush's pre-emptive invasion, I wonder if Twitter could have stopped the Iraq War.

Granted, I don't really read political blogs anymore, but I still suspect that if, say, Obama had been shamed by the Twittards into relinquishing his unilateral authority to use flying death robots to destroy anyone he considers a terrorist at any time for any reason, I would have heard something about it through the grapevine by now. When you add in any of the other imperial adventures we've engaged in since 2009, unhindered by outraged citizen journalists, I feel that one rhetorical question deserves another: I wonder if Boehlert really is as fucking stupid as he sounds.

The Brightness Of A New Page

Andrew Byers:

The Spiritual/Not Religious category is not only insufficient for our sin-streaked realm; it is also grossly unoriginal. A spirituality divorced from communal life and eviscerated of a deep tradition is a predictable product of secular American consumer culture. It's custom-made, says Daniel, for a "bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating."

Firstly, you've gotta appreciate a good zinger. Secondly, while a lot of SNR themes tend to reflect bright-sided rationalism too much for my taste, I think it might be too early to dismiss it as insufficient. Time will tell. I think the neither-fish-nor-fowl, hybrid nature of the phenomenon indicates the fact that many people still have yet to fully grasp the significance of Jefferson's razor.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

I Will Count All the Ratios, and Count Them All Again


This is not the first time I've seen one person's personal pledge treated as a targeted judgment against other people. It's not the first time I've seen men ignite the argument by being defensive. I find the argument of gender blindness suspect. I find most arguments about whether gender impacts someone's reading choices oblivious at best, and a bunch of dressed up, internalized, misogynistic malarky at worst, like we're some kind of post-feminist society and people making these claims sit on the board of High Overlords of Genre Progressives.

I rarely see general disinterest. I rarely see things like "That's cool, bro! Good luck!", followed, in my magical fantasy land, with some recommendations of books by ladies attached. What usually results from these "I just read whatever I want!" proclamations is more insidious. "I don't see/care about gender." gets attached as an faux-progressive rider and the resulting calls of bullshit on that antiquated gem leads to these people just chomping at the bit to prove they just read what interests them. They claim they don't make it about gender in exceedingly creative, offensive verbal acrobatics that erases the very real struggle a lot of women in genre communities are still dealing with. So we have to live with the bile of defensive arguments foaming from the mouths of otherwise level-headed reviewers as they transform into Misogyny Monsters and start flipping tables because they have never learned to stop and think about why their first response is to grow defensive or disclaim their position. It's as if they've never learned to stop and listen. Women can face problems in every step: getting published, read, listened to. It can be a trial to be heard as widely as their male counterparts; to write, or do, or say something and watch everyone walk past it for the same thing written, done or said by one man, or two, or three. Listening is a key component in learning new and fascinating things about people who have different life experiences from you. Listening is a progressive act. Gender blindness is not.

And the obvious response is, what happens when someone listens, considers, and still disagrees with you? Haha, trick question. In this context, "listen to the women" means "shut up and let the self-appointed arbiters of women's interests lecture you until you agree." Peezus Myers, with his usual ham-fisted, dunderheaded subtlety, said it flat-out: by definition, there can be no rational grounds for disagreement with his social-justice interpretation of feminist truth. Sorry, dudebro, but your hyperskeptical objections have already been anticipated and defined out of valid existence.

No doubt she'd disagree, but I hear what she's saying. I've heard it before, expressed without the snark so as not to make anyone feel defensive, and yet I disagreed with it then, too. I simply do not feel that achieving gender parity in terms of authors getting published and reviewed in high-profile outlets is an important, let alone morally significant, issue. As it stands, it may not be fair, and it may not be a pure meritocracy, but it's not like it's a civil rights issue either. A 50% ratio of female authors whose SF/F books get reviewed by influential journals is not going to improve anything beyond the self-satisfaction of guilt-ridden people who yearn for such tangible metrics to reassure themselves that they aren't unwittingly contributing to someone's oppression. I feel that fixations with imposing such perfectly-divided pie charts onto various human endeavors, especially art, is rationalism taken to a ridiculous extreme. I don't believe that the trendy cultural-studies obsession with privilege and axes of oppression has any relevance outside a broad, abstract context of dry statistical analysis, and most certainly not on the level of individual preference. And most damning of all, I don't accept that my maleness predisposes me to those opinions, nor do I accept the unfalsifiable, Freudian-style attempts to read my mind and tell me why I really think like that. I don't care in the slightest if that's a "progressive" stance, all I care is that it's not deluded.

Seeing this kind of argument actually offends me. I mean, whether we're talking about genre fiction or lit-rah-chur, it's all on an artistic continuum to me. Popular art can be just as capable of opening up wide vistas of imagination for fans. There's no telling what sort of prose or imagery will leave a profound impression on an individual reader, or how exactly it will inspire them. And so, to see it treated as if the most important thing about a novel is the gender of the author or the protagonist, as if the main incentive to identify with a novel is to claim the author or the hero as a member of your "team", as tally marks on an irrelevant scoresheet, irritates me to no end. It's no less crass or philistinic than seeing some hack blog-pundit analyzing a blockbuster movie in order to claim it as a parable in support of whatever fucking news-cycle effluvia is currently occupying the web's ephemeral attention span.

Let me take a little detour here: I listen to a lot of music. Much of it could be loosely placed on the "rock music" family tree, especially when I was younger and tended to favor British/American groups of young guys in four-or-five-man bands with guitars and keyboards. Even then, though, I was often frustrated by the way my musical taste was dismissed by uninterested people like my parents, who said it was all just a bunch of noise. What was wrong with them? How could they not hear or feel the obvious differences between aggressive thrash metal and mainstream hard rock? How could they lump bluesy rockers in with punks? How could they be so blind and deaf to the liberating, consciousness-expanding nuances that I perceived everywhere?

Nowadays, my palette is much wider, and even though the common denominator of a lot of my taste could be described as popular music performed by bands or singer/songwriters, the variety in styles and sensibilities makes a mockery of such crude reductionism. There are entire worlds contained in my musical collection. Only a fatuous, facile fuckwit, or a writer for a shallow pop-culture blog, but I repeat myself, would think that all music made by white and/or male artists somehow presents a monolithic perspective.

It's no different when it comes to books. It's an exotic fetishizing to see, say, female or black authors as in possession of some unique perspective by simple virtue of their gender or race, as if they've all had the same experiences across the board, as if those experiences are so specific to one demographic that no amount of sympathetic imagination by an outsider could approximate them.

Friday, March 15, 2013

How Quickly the World Owes You Something

JP O'Malley:

Gray has been labelled as a cantankerous-doomsday-know-all in many intellectual circles. His critics point out that while he does not subscribe to any dogmatic ideology per se, he contends that history is essentially a series of accidents, with no trajectory as such. Human beings, in Gray’s worldview, can never really progress beyond their primordial, animalistic, selfish instincts, particularly when factors beyond their control make them more fearful. The central argument in most of his books refutes the idea – that has been put forward by ideologues on both the left and the right – that history is a series of stages that will incrementally lead to a better outcome for humanity.

As Gray sees it this optimism is simply giving people false hope. There has been no utopian society as Marx or Lenin foresaw; nor has the neo-conservative doctrine of universal American global capitalism, as envisioned by Francis Fukuyama in his book The End of History, come about. The progressive rationalist society that atheists like Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker predict is on the way, once we all stop believing in God and discover the true merits of science, is, for Gray, yet another illusion.

Progressive-minded people predictably tend to interpret this as nihilism. But it's not that nothing ever changes, or that nothing is ever worth doing, it's just that even beneficial changes tend to quickly become the status quo, which no one is ever content with, seemingly as a psychological rule. It's closer to what Theodore Dalrymple called "existential pessimism". Anyone who's lived to adulthood should have experienced this. As an adolescent, I used to imagine that being a musician would be the ultimate dream job, but it was impossible to ignore that the seeming-awesomeness of what I imagined it to be didn't square with the fact that many people who were actually living the life were still confused, miserable and self-destructive. Every consumer product that provided me with the thrills of anticipation and novelty quickly became taken for granted. My life is, in many respects, much improved over the last couple of years alone, but I still fret about the bills, lose my temper over annoyances, and intuitively feel like things overall are pretty evenly split between enjoyable and problematic. We don't exist in gratitude for everything we have; we acknowledge it when prompted and quickly get back to business.

As with individuals, so with societies. I'm sure that if progressive activists got even half of what they're currently agitating for, people would still be complaining like this soon thereafter:

Priorities Straight

Michael Gilleland provides an excerpt from Henry Ward Beecher:

If on visiting the dwelling of a man of slender means we find that he contents himself with cheap carpets, and very plain furniture, in order that he may purchase books, he rises at once in our esteem. Books are not made for furniture, but there is nothing else that so beautifully furnishes a house. The plainest row of books that cloth or paper ever covered is more significant of refinement than the most elaborately carved étagère or sideboard.

Give us a house furnished with books rather than furniture! Both, if you can, but books at any rate! To spend several days in a friend's house, and hunger for something to read, while you are treading on costly carpets, and sitting upon luxurious chairs, and sleeping upon down, is as if one were bribing your body for the sake of cheating your mind.

Let's see — my bedroom desk chair was found sitting out by the dumpster in the office park. My living room recliner was bought for $50 at a secondhand store. The coffee table next to it, likewise, for $25 about fifteen years ago. The dresser with the cracked mirror was a hand-me-down from relatives, as was the sofa, which is usually only occupied by the dogs anyway. One video-gaming armchair/ottoman combo was inherited from a deceased relative, and its companion, the Grand Classic (minus the wooden frame), was bought new for me as a present when I was a teenager. The kitchen table and two chairs were snagged at a yard sale for $10. My office desk chair is the relative newbie of the lot, at only a decade old and bought new at an office supply store (though still a basic, no-frills model at around $60). The most extravagant furniture purchase I've ever made, then, would have to be the new bed I got six years ago when I moved.

I keep stuff clean, and none of these things are in bad shape (the coffee table has some accentuating toothmarks that weren't there originally, due to a couple of the dogs over the years going through an otherkin phase and pretending they were termites, but it still has its structural integrity). I just have no interest in furniture beyond its functionality. But, by god, I sure do got me some books. I'll sit on beanbags, cinderblocks and boards if that's what it takes to afford more books.

And My Presence is Not Needed

I read this interesting comparison by Lin Yutang regarding methods for achieving worldly independence:

Hence, the distinction between Buddhism and Taoism is this: the goal of the Buddhist is that he shall not want anything, while the goal of the Taoist is that he shall not be wanted at all. Only he who is not wanted by the public can be a carefree individual, and only he who is a carefree individual can be a happy human being. In this spirit Chuangtse, the greatest and most gifted among the Taoist philosophers, continually warns us against being too prominent, too useful and too serviceable.

Or, to invert another cultural assumption, "Light is to be concealed, not revealed."

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Medium Eats the Message

Twitter is to nuanced, intelligent discussion as a blindfolded, three-legged race is to Olympic sprinting. It is a syringe full of Novocaine in the mouth of a public speaker. Why, why?

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

You Want Big News, You Have to Have Big Fights. A Superhero Needs a Supervillain.

Cole Stryker:

This reasoning is absurd. The structure of the site is designed to allow for thousands of forums on subjects as diverse as home brewing to uh, feminism. Saying that Reddit is sexist because it has a "Men's Right's" forum is like saying the internet is sexist because this guy exists (an argument for another day). The differential Adrian ignores is the money. The chick asked for cash, the dude didn't. Shouldn't anyone raise an eyebrow when a stranger asks them for money? On the internet? Chen completely glosses over this distinction because without the sexism angle his argument falls apart.

I doubt it really has anything to do with "reasoning" or "arguments". Don't we have a term for "journalists" like Chen and his co-panelist Rebecca Watson? Ah, yes, that was it.

But okay, so whining about Reddit is apparently a thing now among certain types of vacuous Internet activists. I'm so hoping we can get another hilariously ineffective progressive boycott out of it somehow. Does Jeebus love me that much?

Monday, March 11, 2013

We're Like Ink and Paper, Numbers On a Calculator

This rant about digital-era etiquette is mainly just a roundabout way for the author and his peers to congratulate themselves on being cutting-edge and oh-so-terribly important. The only interesting part to me was the recurring use of phrases like time-wasting, cost, burden, cheap, faster. It's like he's been reading relationship advice columns written by efficiency consultants. I mean, I'm as taciturn and private as the next hermit, but I don't expect my standards to apply across the board. Sure, some people are thoughtless and imposing. Some people don't know how to shut up, in speech or in text. But some people innocently assume that personal familiarity includes at least a little "pointless" chatter, and even I wouldn't begrudge them that.

Inefficiency in personal interaction will always be with us for the same reason that irrationality will: because life isn't a problem to be solved neatly with no remainder.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

I Live My Life in Widening Circles That Reach Out Across the World


Now, a lot of people I disagree with have, in fact, articulated a theory of change. They believe in the idea of the widening circle: that a group of people taking a very strong stance against sexism, racism, and homophobia will create a social expectation that certain attitudes, behaviors, and utterances are socially unacceptable. As time goes on, more and more people become aware of that expectation, they will find themselves within the circle, and will declare themselves part of it by participating in the expression of judgment against these behaviors. Over time, the circle grows to the point where most everyone with political power recognizes the realities of sexism, racism, homphobia, and privilege, and then works to address material or structural inequalities.

At this point, I don't think that this frame is working. I think the evidence against it is present both in the continued intractable racial inequalities we can statistically assess, and in a more anecdotal sense in which I perceive growing skepticism and resistance to social liberalism among people who are not within a certain social or demographic cohort. I think that the reason for this failure is partially explained in this post by Rich Juzwiak, though of course I don't claim to speak for him. The danger with the expanding circle is the potential that, rather than the circle actually expanding, its walls simply become higher and higher; rather than more and more people getting pulled inside, the people inside and the people outside become more and more divided. Each develops a deeper sense of resentment towards the other. More perniciously, those inside develop a social or cultural value in being separated. Because being inside the circle is associated with righteousness, and this righteousness provides social cachet, the incentive is not to draw more people into the circle but to keep them out. And without intending to, essays like the one Juzwiak criticizes become more and more oriented towards elevating people within the inner circle-- and in so doing, make being within the circle less appealing or possible to those who most need to be convinced. When I watch people showily and ritualistically displaying offense on Twitter, I observe exactly this dynamic.

That first paragraph is probably the best possible expression of that idea, the most generous framing of it (or, if you prefer, more cynically, you could say it's a self-serving way to pretend that engaging in petty Internet drama is actually Civil Rights 2.0). Perhaps needless to say, though, I agree with the second paragraph: in reality, such idealism turns into just another method of establishing status. Just look at how quickly the supposed devotees of the elevated ideals of Atheism+ interpreted the practice of such to consist of endless purification rituals and screaming FUCK YOU FUCK YOU CISSEXIST MISOGYNIST HETERONORMATIVE SCUM FUCK OFF AND DIE at any poor naïf who makes the mistake of trying to engage them in actual dialogue. Bug or feature? Which is more likely: that proponents of this theory genuinely believe in it and simultaneously believe that the best way to bring others on board is to attack and humiliate them, or that people recognize that professing such a belief makes for good P.R. and allows them to take partial credit for any positive change without doing any work beyond acting like an asshole online? The latter indicts them for being cynically self-serving, but at least it grants them self-awareness; the former necessitates an incredible level of pure stupidity on their part.

I'm not an activist, a socialist or a humanist, and I have increasingly less patience with the trendy, gossipy, amateur political/pop-culture punditry that comprises most of the social web. Nonetheless, if I did have a cause that I wanted to devote my time and energy to, I would go into it understanding that in order to create actual change, it would be better to spend my time patiently engaging with those who were neutral as well as directly opposed to my efforts. Losing my temper and venting my spleen would only be a waste of a time and a hinderance to the cause. I've read blogs where regular commenters will sigh exaggeratedly and insist that they "don't have time" to explain everything that's wrong with someone else's comment. Yet they'll somehow find the time to reiterate this exasperation dozens of times in thread after thread. They'd rather spend their energy distinguishing themselves among their peers by coming up with clever new ways to express their disapproval. Nobody should care that I personally find it irritating to have to explain, for the umpteenth time, a concept that I take to be self-evident. The plain fact is, for many people, it's not self-evident and they need to be convinced. That's the task at hand. I could either get to work on it, or I could hopefully have the sense to fuck off and quit posturing. Treating them with sneering "read the fucking manual" condescension may make me feel superior, but it will also turn what could be a productive exchange into a zero-sum, face-saving battle. I would want bystanders and opponents to be persuaded by my arguments and mollified by my unruffled approach, not coerced into agreement through a form of peer pressure.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Me, a Long-Haired, Overfed, Leaping Gnome

Why, yes, I have already pre-ordered this book:

The basic idea of a retreat from society for the sake of contemplation goes far into the past. The Tang Dynasty scholar-official writing affectionate poetry about his rude bamboo cottage is a familiar image. Even such sophisticates as the author of the Georgics enjoyed imagining being a farmer. The draw of a primitive life, one perhaps offering spiritual refurbishment, has always been strong. What was new in the 18th century was the decorative aspect. To the gardening gentleman or lady of the time, it was the idea of a hermit that attracted, not the prospect of being a hermit oneself.

As Campbell makes plain, the impetus behind the advent of the garden hermit was a taste for the gothic and the picturesque sponsored by such trendsetters as Alexander Pope and Horace Walpole. Melancholy was suddenly considered admirable. Deliberate gloom implied deep thoughts and an affinity with nature. Where better than in the garden to express it? And what better expression of a dedication to melancholy than a real hermit's cell occupied by a real hermit?

...The hermit fad petered out by the early 19th century, but not the fashion for eccentric garden inhabitants. Gordon Campbell ingeniously sees gnomes as logical descendants. And though unoccupied, hermitages continued to be built, and are still being built today. Deep in the woods at Highgrove, Prince Charles's Cotswolds estate, there is a tiny structure that would suit. Anyone for solitude?

I said I was up for it last year, and I'm still waiting for some millionaire to take me up on it.

There's a Hole in My Bucket, Dear Liza, a Hole

William Giraldi:

Emerson believed that nature was a better teacher than history or man-made authority. Wordsworth saw “mind” at work in daffodils and ferns, artwork underway in every forest. And this is what Thoreau means by “Nature is a greater and more perfect art.” More perfect than what? Than anything we are capable of crafting from plastic, from iron, from words. I’ve felt the truth of those eternal sentiments since I was a boy, years before being blessed by Wordsworth and Thoreau. At the age of ten, I needed to leave home in order to punish my father for some perceived injustice or other. I crept down the block and disappeared into the pine forest, barefoot and wearing a backpack stuffed with survival gear and crackers. That pine forest spoke to me of simplicity and purity—of haven—long before I had an accurate notion of complexity and contamination. And what worries me now about Ethan is that when it comes time for him to run away in order to make me ache, he will not have a pine forest whispering to him about sanctuary and salvation. If I’m lucky he’ll flee to the Museum of Fine Arts and lose himself in quite a different, albeit lesser, breed of sanctuary. If I’m unlucky he’ll walk into Harvard Square to befriend the pierced vagabonds huddled in a reek at the entrance of the T. What I want for him, really, is religion, and not that species of belief available cheaply in every one of Boston’s churches, but the religion that is already a part of him, pulsing within him—if only he is allowed to experience it as such.

Liam Heneghan:

The connection between children and nature has taken on considerable urgency in recent years. Evidence is accumulating that access to outdoor experiences is vital for children’s physical and mental health. The absence of such opportunities manifests itself in ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’, a term coined by the American writer Richard Louv in Last Child in the Woods (2005). Viewed from this perspective, Winnie-the-Pooh and the biographical elements the book imports from Christopher Milne’s life are an informative case study of the connections between a child and a landscape. Inside the house, Pooh is just a stuffed animal being dragged along by a cartoon boy; outside, all comes to life.

Neither of these pieces could fairly be classified as back-to-nature romanticism. And I'm all about the deep, powerful connection with natural landscapes. But while reading these, I couldn't help remembering something Steve Hagen said about our notion of the simple life:

I once spoke at a retreat in which people had gathered to examine, among other things, the idea of simplicity — more precisely, living the "simple life". One of the speakers was a woman who had spent a number of years living in the countryside in Wisconsin, raising a family. Many years ago, she and her husband decided that they would go off to the country and live a simple life. By choice they didn't have a phone. They didn't have electricity. They didn't have plumbing. They raised two children. And they surely led a simple life because, having so limited their activity, they made few demands upon their environment and upon the world.

Most of us at the retreat probably had a clear sense of what is meant by a "simple life". It meant living unpretentiously, humbly, and efficiently; above all, it meant being self-sufficient and not tied into or dependent on some massive, external "infrastructure". Yes, we all knew what the simple life was, even those of us who didn't live so "simply". But as we discussed the idea of simplicity, we began to see a great deal of complexity in it. After all, here were our friends, clearly leading a simple life — we all recognized that they did — but when it was time to do the dishes, they had to have already cut some firewood, which had to already have been cured and hauled into the house. They then had to stoke a fire, pump their water from the well, heat the water on the stove, pour it into a pan, and regulate its temperature by mixing it with more cool water from the well. Then they could do their dishes — after adding some homemade soap.

By contrast, those of us who don't live quite this "simply" load our dishes into the dishwasher, add store-bought soap and push a button. Yet we most often think of the lifestyle which includes a dishwasher as being the more hectic and complicated one. We call the first lifestyle the simple life, the second a rat race. But where's the simplicity? Where's the complexity? Clearly they are two. But if they are two, how are they two?

So, yeah, I awoke at around 4:30 Wednesday morning to the sound of one of the dogs bonking the bedroom door with her nose, freaked out by the shrill chirping noise the smoke detector makes when the power has been lost. The snow had started falling the previous evening, and being heavy and wet, it had downed trees and power lines before ending late Wednesday.

At least one day off from work, no Internet or TV to distract me, roads impassable under twenty inches of snow, so I says to myself I says, might as well make the best of it and catch up on some of my reading! I bet I can knock out at least a couple books before this is over!

Actually, what I spent the majority of my time doing was going outside with a pitcher to collect snow to melt in the several cooking pots on top of the woodstove for all of our water-related needs. That is, when I wasn't trudging out to the woodshed through thigh-deep drifts to collect four or five logs at a time, aiming to keep a supply of about twenty on the back porch. Or using a combination of snow shovel and sumo-wrestler stomps to flatten down something like a path through the snow for the dogs to walk on. Or walking to the end of a seventy-or-so yard driveway to shovel out the snow in front of the cars so that we could leave at some point. Or monitoring the frozen foods on top of the stove so as not to overcook them. Or "relaxing" in the tub with a pot of warm water which has to suffice for washing hair, bathing and shaving. Most of this stuff, of course, needed to be done while there was daylight enough to see, which meant that much of my reading was actually done by flickering candlelight, making it a bit more difficult. Long story short, I'm still on the same book I started reading on Monday.

I realize that because this was only a short-term situation, it was thus prone to a lot more ad-hoc scampering around. With planning, it could surely be done a lot more efficiently. But it definitely reminded me that it's not so much a case of "simple" living so much as it is having your horizons sharply truncated. Your world may get much smaller, but it doesn't really get less busy.

The book I've been reading, by the way? Ian Mortimer's The Time-Traveler's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century. Fascinating book, but goddamn, between that and Old Man Winter's wrath, I've never been more thankful for modernity than I am this week.

· · · — — — · · ·

We got buried under almost two feet of snow, and the power's been out since the wee hours of Wednesday morning (I'm currently using the library's wifi). Keep the faith, I shall return.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Dirty Little Dopers On Dope


Take drugs for example. It’s high on the libertarian list of things they want legalized. I say no way in hell. Now yes, I do say that I want personal responsibility, but what I really mean by that is I want every person to act responsibly and if you have to inject or ingest, snort or smoke something to feel good about yourself, you are not acting responsibly. And for you people who say you’re just doing it to “feel good”, too bad. If you have to resort to some form of artificial stimulation to get your jollies, just for the sake of having your jollies, you’re an idiot.

The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that a large portion of the libertarian population is just delusional. They clearly don’t understand human nature, they think mankind can live without government, will automatically do the right thing and that there are magical rights floating around out there that they cannot explain how they came to be, but they can sure tell you what they are. Maybe worse yet, so many of them are absurdly cocksure of themselves, like they’re coming down from the mountain bearing stone tablets. I keep making references to people’s political beliefs being far too similar to religious beliefs for my liking, I think libertarians, at least some of the most vocal of them, just have too much faith. I don’t assent to faith in religion, I sure won’t do it in my politics.

Brett Aho:

Archaeologists have uncovered widespread evidence of drug consumption in ancient communities across the globe. The oldest evidence of beer consumption dates back to around 5000 BCE in what is now Iran, while wine consumption goes back even further, to about 6000 BCE. The consumption of betel nut, the fourth-most used drug in the world after nicotine, alcohol, and caffeine, dates back 13,000 years ago in Timor, and 10,700 years ago in Thailand. Coca was domesticated in the western Andes close to 7,000 years ago, and the consumption of tobacco in the Americas, pituri in Australia, and khat in Eastern Africa already represented ancient practices when European colonists made first contact, perhaps dating back 40,000 years or more. Most anthropologists agree that human drug consumption predates human civilization.

Bolded parts mine. I trust the jokes are obvious enough that I don't have to bother typing them.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Hetero Sapiens

Nigel Warburton:

Cynicism evolved into Stoicism, and aspects of Diogenes’ cosmopolitanism found eloquent and refined Roman defenders in Seneca, Cicero and Marcus Aurelius. But it was Hierocles in the second century who provided the most useful way of understanding the basic concept. He described a set of concentric circles. The individual self was at the centre, then came the immediate family, then the extended family, neighbours, nearby towns, your nation, and eventually, on the outer ring, the entire human race. The task before us, Hierocles believed, was to draw these circles ever more tightly towards the centre. We were to move from a state of near-indifference to humanity as a whole, to a state where humankind was a major part of our daily concern.

This target-like image vividly captures the problem for anyone attracted to cosmopolitanism. How can we see ourselves as citizens of the world when we seem so naturally drawn to the centre of Hierocles’ model? Indeed, why would we even want to, since it seems to be going so much against our natural inclinations?

Strangely, he never seems to answer his own question; he merely asserts later that it would be "better for all" if we did. There's a pleasing symmetry to the abstract idea of such a neat, mathematical progression in caring, sure, but I still see no reason to accept the leap of faith required to make "humankind" a sacred concept. "Indifferent with an option to care" seems fair enough to me.

I Don't Wanna Work for the Corporation, But They're Tryin' to Tell Me That I Must


Right now I have what by any criteria would be considered a good job. I'm paid decently, I have basic benefits, and the position is as close to Stable as jobs get these days. Yet I'm not happy because I'm expecting the job to make me happy. I expect it to not suck, when in reality on many days it does suck because it's a goddamn job. Nowhere was I promised that it would be rewarding and fun all the time, or that it wouldn't be frustrating, or that I would have days where I come home and wonder why I bother. I bother because they pay me, and getting paid is very useful to me. But that's it. That's the deal: I show up and fulfill my responsibilities, and then I get a check. Nobody said anything about fun.

As often as I give this advice to other people, I give it to myself lately. What I can't figure out is why people in my age group (or younger) have this idea that the task for which they get paid will also be personally enriching. Is it because we lack fulfillment in our personal lives? Is it because we're spoiled, believing that the working world owes us self-actualization in addition to a means of supporting ourselves? I'm not sure. What is certain is that we should be careful what we wish for. Those factory jobs that no longer exist start to look pretty appealing as our Career-as-Spirit Quest theory runs into reality.

I'm not sure if he's just asking rhetorically, but I'll answer. Speaking as a fellow Gen Xer, we had that idea because it's what we were told by our parents. You can be anything you want (so it better be something suitably impressive)! Hell, when it came time for us to be summarized for marketing purposes, it was presented as our defining characteristic: we were going to be the first generation to not exceed our parents' standard of living, ominous gong. It was an absurd, ahistorical delusion to think that such lifestyle customization could keep endlessly going onward and upward, but there you go. I blame the Enlightenment.

Friday, March 01, 2013

Need Somebody to Shove

Ann Friedman:

I can’t figure out why I don’t like Anne Hathaway. Or rather, why we don’t. In all the social-media fallout from the Oscars, the Best Supporting Actress winner also almost won Most Detested Figure of the Night, finishing just behind Seth MacFarlane and the idiot at The Onion who tweeted a slur about 9-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis.

...Does EVERY WOMAN ON THE INTERNET baselessly hate Anne Hathaway? I took a quick straw poll. “She is that theater kid with good intentions but secretly annoys the shit out of you,” said one friend, adding, “You want to be excited for her and you are but deep down you are kind of rolling your eyes.” Another replied, “I think someone told her she was America's sweetheart and she believed it.” One friend placed her in the category of “really affected drama queens,” saying, “I can imagine her non-ironically yelling ‘Acting!’” In other words, she’s always onstage, always calculated — not someone with whom you’d want to party or share your deepest secrets.

Why is she hated? You mean, "explain your reasons"? You think there's some predictable algorithm that can be hacked to prevent the "wrong" people from ending up pinned down while popular culture makes them slap their own face? I dunno, why did Chuck Klosterman's classmates hate Ippy? Because of his/her voice. Because of his/her appearance. Because some verbal or physical or behavioral tic registered on a subconscious level with certain alphas and stimulated them to aggressive action, and a bunch of others who simply wanted to be included went along with it, and then people like Friedman came along to reinforce the narrative that hating Anne Hathaway is indeed a "thing" now, by getting meta-analytic about why it is that "everybody" (she and a few of her friends and a small percentage of people on Twitter, themselves a small fraction of the total population, who care about pop culture award shows and expressing their opinions about them) feels that way.

Of course, in the carnival mirror context of social media, "hate" is a performance, not a genuine emotion. It's absurd to believe that anyone truly hates Comic Sans Nickelback neckbeards cargo shorts inoffensive actresses, but it's very easy to accept that lots of people care deeply about being seen as members of the blognoscenti, about getting rich speculating on such cultural currency. It's almost like they're always onstage, like their behavior is always calculated...