Thursday, October 31, 2013

Quot Libros, Quam Breve Tempus (XII)

I'll stay in and do some seasonal reading tonight. If I had gone out, I would have been hard-pressed to decide between dressing as the Spirit of Jazz or the Hitcher.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Hashtag News Network


The news for Americans, especially Independents, lacks meaning, direction, ideology-- and they miss it, just like economically, they've been left behind.  Now the news is artificial drama,  just local crime stories blown up nationally, a natural disaster, the occasional Youtube video-- where's the Change, where are the upheavals, where are the riot police?  We don't have political riots here, we have high end sit ins near the Broadway Starbucks, and occasionally 20 motorcycles will attack a minivan.  "Is 'motorcycle' code?"  That's where we are right now, this is what the media has trained you for, detecting racism or hypocrisy or some other character flaw in the speaker as a proxy for the complexities of the issues so you don't have to think.  It is under these conditions that you expect John Boehner to "compromise" on something you don't at all understand, and scream for his beheading if he doesn't, all to the thrill of the media.  "See!  TLP is a right wing zealot!"  See, you're stupid.  And boy oh boy do I have the news network for you.

Master of Puppets, I'm Pulling Your Strings

Derek Powazek:

Say you’re a supervillian. Your goal is not to take over the world, but to create more unpleasantness. So you set out to create a device that would ensnare normal, rational people and turn them into ranting lunatics. What would your Argument Machine look like? How would it work?

...I’m not saying that Twitter was designed to create arguments. I’m just saying that, if you set out to create an Argument Machine, it’d come out looking a lot like Twitter.

I'm convinced. I'm also comfortable broadly asserting that no intelligent person with a serious point to make would ever choose Twitter as the forum for kicking off the discussion. (Someone like Richard Dawkins, I assume, is just indulging a newfound love of trolling.)

Monday, October 28, 2013

If You're Chillin' in the Dark and You're Lookin' Through a Telescope, You Will See Me Sleepin' Like the Soul of a New Hope

Lee Billings:

Not to be overly romantic, but I do think it’s true that spending lots of time stargazing or studying planetary climates or searching for habitable exoplanets will change anybody. Your view of nature and your place within it changes. Looking out at the night sky, you might feel small and insignificant, but then looking back from our present moment through the eons of life’s evolution here on Earth, you might justifiably feel you’re a part of the most meaningful thing in the known universe, something that could be the source of significance for countless past and future events.

People Swear About What They Care About

Melissa Mohr:

• In English, we don't really have a swearword for the clitoris. There's clit, but it's just not that offensive, and it is rarely used. If you call someone a clit, you'll probably get puzzled laughter, or even a pitying look. Perhaps English-speaking women should be insulted that clitface and clit for brains are more funny than shocking, that the clitoris doesn't register high enough in the cultural consciousness to deserve its own swearword.

• The verb irrumare involves pretty much the only other orifice available — it means "to penetrate the mouth." Irrumo is a bit different from the other verbs because, as we've seen, it usually carries a threat of violence. You might do it for pleasure, but part of that pleasure would be in humiliating the man you are forcing into fellatio.

...The poet Catullus assails some of his critics with irrumo too. Catullus was accused of effeminacy because he wrote about dalliances with women, the delights of long afternoons spent in bed, rather than about war or farming like the more manly Virgil. He asserts his impugned masculinity with a verbal attack, beginning one poem: Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo, "I will bugger you and make you suck me." Threatening to stick his penis into the assholes and mouths of other men is supposed to prove that he is a real man. Displaying too much interest in sex with women, in contrast, is what got him accused of effeminacy in the first place.

Those are just a couple excerpts, but I could have picked any number of others. It's a very entertaining and informative book. You should read it.

Useful Idiots

Mark O'Connell:

I’m equally ambivalent about the question of whether reading literary fiction really does make you a better person—not just about what the answer might be, but whether the question itself is really a meaningful one to be asking at all. It implies a fairly narrow and reductive legitimation of reading. There’s a risk of thinking about literature in a sort of morally instrumentalist way, whereby its value can be measured in terms of its capacity to improve us. There was a weirdly revealing quality, for instance, in the language that the Atlantic Wire used in reporting on similar research conducted in the Netherlands earlier this year. “Readers who emotionally immerse themselves with written fiction for weeklong periods,” David Wagner wrote, “can help boost their empathetic skills [...] Gauging the participants' empathetic abilities and self-reported emotions before and after such reading sessions, they found that the fiction readers got more of an emotional workout than the nonfiction readers.” It’s possibly unfair to put too much pressure on one writer’s choice of words in framing the discussion (particularly in a roundup blurb), but it hints at a certain view of literature that is implicit in this way of thinking about it—literature as PX90 workout for the soul, as a cardio circuit for the bleeding heart.

Nah, it's not unfair. The Atlantic Wire, as we saw only a few weeks ago, looooves this sort of superficial ego-stroking for the moderately-cultured, and Wagner in particular is exactly the sort of "journalist" you'd expect to find reporting on hashtag news. Anyhoo, yes, that's not to say that the whole moral-benefits-of-fiction idea is totally useless, however — knowing the vapid twits who are impressed by it allows you to avoid ever being trapped in conversation with them.

His Feelings About This are Constantly Evolving

• I’d rather affiliate with progressive theists (although I’d be carping at them constantly about their goofball faith) than with atheists who want to rationalize women into subservience. We’re in a fight for the soul of atheism — and I want atheism to be something worth fighting for.

• Atheism is ultimately going to have to be a progressive political force, fighting for inclusion, evidence-based policy, humanist values, and the goal of expanding knowledge and power for all. We’re hampered right now by a rather reluctant leadership that tends to focus on pettier issues in the name of unity.

So, Peezles has finally followed the logic, such as it is, of his recent conversion to its inevitable conclusion, namely, that atheism is meaningless unless it's one plank in a progressive political platform, with progressivism being, of course, the only rational choice by his famously circular, self-serving definition of rationality. Which, you know, fine, whatever. Lots of luck with that! Politics, as we all know, is about compromise, coalition-building and utilitarian solutions that leave everyone somewhat dissatisfied; Peezy and the rest of the social justards have never shown an aptitude for anything beyond adolescent temper tantrums, emo hysterics, Manichean moralizing and heaping invective upon anyone suspected of being part of the out-group. In all likelihood, those morons will never do anything more substantial than hashtag sloganeering, like every other slacktivist. Too bad, though; I imagine a Tea Party of the left would provide plenty of amusement, assuming they could even keep from savaging each other over arbitrary standards of purity long enough to work toward some sort of achievable political goal.

Even for an aspiring political animal, though, this is some incredibly brazen chutzpah:

If we are going to claim to have positions based on reason and the intelligent interpretation of the evidence, then the climate change denialists, the sexists, the racists, the narcissistic worshippers of the Holy Market…they cannot be regarded as representative. The ones who think the solution to Islamic theocracy is to bomb Muslim countries or deport brown people should be considered as lunatic and beyond the pale as atheists who advocate nuking the Vatican or ostracizing Catholics.

Yes, you read that correctly. Atheists who "ostracize Catholics" are beyond-the-pale-lunatics. This message brought to you by the imbecile most famous for sticking a nail through a Communion wafer, the very same unbelievably self-unaware clod who, less than a year ago, made this attempt at winning hearts and minds for the greater progressive good:

Fuck the Catholic church. Empty every pew, loot every coffer, disband every level of the hierarchy, take all their property and turn it over to secular authorities to be managed ethically and rationally.

And if you’re still attending church…what the hell is wrong with you?

Does that count as "nuking" the Vatican, or is he going to contradict himself yet again and stick to a strict dictionary definition of the word?

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Seek and Ye Shall Find

Justin Peters:

“To modern eyes, the chaotic and adversarial media environment of the 1640s has much in common with the Internet’s blogging culture,” he writes. “To modern eyes these tablets, with their flat writing surfaces surrounded by a wooden frame, look strikingly similar to tablet computers.” Well, I suppose if you’re looking for similarities between the primitive wax tablets used for correspondence by the Roman elite and the iPad, you can find them. But how similar are they, really, aside from their rectangular shape? The iPad is a commercial product from a multibillion-dollar corporation, marketed to middle-class consumers who use it to send messages, take photos, play games, compose marketing presentations, watch episodes of MasterChef, wake themselves up in the morning, and myriad other purposes. A wax tablet is a wax tablet.

Things that appear similar from a distance gradually reveal their differences on closer examination, and the more you think about some of Standage’s analogies, the keener the differences become. I quite liked the section about how the residents of ancient Rome would scribble messages on city walls—hotel reviews, sexual boasts, political endorsements—but I’m not entirely convinced that those messages actually constitute some sort of antediluvian Facebook wall. It certainly seems that, like today’s social platforms, Roman walls offered relatively unmediated spaces in which residents could interact, with nobody to direct the conversations or guide them toward productive ends. But there is a significant difference between messages that exist in a fixed physical space and those that exist only in digital form. A different format means a different user experience, and Standage’s failure to substantively address these differences makes it hard to actually gauge the value of the comparison.

Similarly, I question whether Martin Luther’s experiences are all that relevant to our understanding of modern viral content. Yes, the speed with which Luther’s arguments spread somewhat resembles the way that modern causes can find huge support in a small amount of time. But isn’t the difference that something actually came of the 95 Theses? Luther fractured Christendom. He sparked the Reformation. Modern social campaigns come and go in days, as flighty Tweeters move on to the next big cause or petition, or simply turn their attention to hot new photos of dogs wearing hats. That’s not to say that Twitter and Facebook and the rest could never be used to galvanize significant social change. It’s just that today’s social media platforms are so much busier and broader than those in Luther’s era that it’s hard to attempt any sort of direct or useful comparison. If Luther had issued the 95 Theses today, they would be forced to compete for attention with lists of 95 Great Places to Eat in Wittenberg; which do you think would be more popular?

Yeah, that's pretty much what I had in mind.

Friday, October 25, 2013

I'll March No Longer, I'm Done With War

Tibor Krausz:

At its best atheism cultivates a sober, clear-eyed scientific view of the world as it is, not as we might wish it to be, while seeking to improve the fortunes of people, individually and collectively, through the propagation of rationality, tolerance, altruism, personal freedoms, and social responsibility. At its less stellar, atheism inspires smug, self-righteous bombast and cliquish chauvinism.

As many believers can attest, humility, forbearance and altruism aren’t just attitudes; they’re habits. Alas, being an atheist can be nothing but an attitude, and not a pretty one at that.

As recently as a couple years ago, a pugnacious essay like this would have landed upon my sensibilities like the sting of a leather glove across the cheek. Now, though, it only makes me nostalgic. I mean, he's complaining about what arrogant jerks "New Atheists" can be. New Atheism! Oh, those were the days! I don't disagree with his opinion — many godless people are just looking for a socially acceptable excuse to be obnoxious assholes — but fuggit, I can't even muster up the energy for a devil's advocate defense of atheism as a movement. The rudeness and arrogance of the mid-aughts are nothing compared to how online atheism has recently become a haven for couch-fainting, panty-sniffing, witch-hunting, ressentiment-driven caricatures of political correctness, exemplified, of course, by the psychological basket cases and moral-panic-profiteers that populate the FTB/Skepchick/A+ common area. Atheism's no more significant to me now than eye color.

The Fruits of Your Labors Have Fermented Into Wine

New Escapologist:

It is the hope of New Escapologist that disenfranchised employees and sleepy commuters the world over — drones with dreams — will adopt this symbol for themselves. It will quietly say “I may be consigned to pointless toil today, but I’ve got plans”.

The pieces have been maneuvered into place, my friends. The endgame is about to begin. We've crunched the numbers and had the strategy sessions. By this time next year, the plan is for me to have left behind the heavy yoke of daily labor and moved into full-time writing and editing, which should also free up more time for me to tag the alleyways of the Internet with my digital graffiti.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Verily, Verily, I Say Unto Thee

I recommend reading this interesting article on the ethos and potential future of Aeon, just like I recommend that you check them out each weekday. Consistently good stuff, both intelligent and approachable.

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Name Game

Eric Levenson:

The controversy over the Washington Redskins' name escalated on Monday in a piece from The Onion provocatively titled "Redskins’ Kike Owner Refuses to Change Team’s Offensive Name." The five-sentence story and its anti-Semitic language are so startling that journalists and bloggers aren't even sure how to react.

Wow! If you're anything like me, you're desperate to know what some white people think and feel about what other white people are saying about this insensitive abstract symbol of this nation's indigenous people, a shocking number of whom are currently living in pockets of Third World-level squalor and hopelessness, a grim reality which, of course, doesn't lend itself so well to snarky, outraged retweeting — I mean, doesn't it feel weird and icky to "like" or "+1" an article about rampant alcoholism and a life expectancy decades below the national average? — nor easily allow Myrrhkins to get on with the business of enjoying their entertainment with plausibly clear consciences — I mean, what if my white peers think less of me? — so, uh, yeah, this is a very good article for all the latest in white people's thoughts.

An Offer You Can't Refuse

And most of the harmful consequences of beliefs stem from the insistence of believers that everyone agree with them.

John Gray:

They think human life would be vastly improved if only everyone believed as they do, when a little history shows that trying to get everyone to believe the same thing is a recipe for unending conflict.


• The surest way of ruining a youth is to teach him to respect those who think as he does more highly than those who think differently from him.

• Ah! How reluctant I am to force my own ideas upon another! How I rejoice in any mood and secret transformation within myself which means that the ideas of another have prevailed over my own!

• Even if we were mad enough to consider all our opinions true, we should still not want them alone to exist: I cannot see why it should be desirable that truth alone should rule and be omnipotent; it is enough for me that it should possess great power. But it must be able to struggle and have great opponents, and one must be able to find relief from it from time to time in untruth – otherwise, it will become boring, powerless and tasteless to us, and make us the same.

• Whatever kind of bizarre ideal one may follow, one should not demand that it be the ideal, for one therewith takes from it its privileged character. One should have it in order to distinguish oneself, not in order to level oneself.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Don't be Afraid of the Green Light

You should already know that I'm a fellow who takes his Halloween seriously. And so I must ask: who the fuck decided that garish purple should take the place of toxic, radioactive green as one of the official Halloween colors? You still see plenty of stores selling strings of orange lights, but green ones are an Internet-only product, it seems. Replaced by purple. What's eerie or scary about that? Have you ever seen purple slime? Or a purple glow from a witch's cauldron? This is just an insult. Get me a spot on Fox so I can talk about the War on Halloween, goddammit.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Blank Blank Brain Blank Blank Like Cocaine

Yes, this again:

Oreos can be as addictive to the brain as cocaine, the authors of a scientific study have claimed.

Well, yeah, if you're stupid enough to snort or inject them, duh. Stick to smoking them and you won't get hooked.

I'm sorry, you're right, the horrible results of cookie addiction are no laughing matter.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Still Just Rats In a Cage

Cole Carter:

To get one’s news in such a highly mediated fashion is clearly dangerous. The ersatz dialogue which occurs on Twitter can give the misleading impression that all opposing opinions have been given a fair hearing, and thus that the dominant opinion at the end of the day must be the inherently superior one. No need to weigh the various arguments yourself, Twitter already did the work for you. Touted for its promotion of decentralized and democratic dialogue, Twitter more often enables the rapid formulation and dissemination of orthodox opinion. At the same time, if you maintain a bit of critical distance, watching the construction of conventional wisdom on Twitter can teach you plenty. You can see which arguments trump others, which positions are taken to be unassailable, what affect works best. Taken as a whole, it’s an unprecedented wealth of sociological data.

Observing Twitter in this way, one quickly notes that an addiction to outrage seems to afflict writers across the political spectrum. Opponents are castigated for being insufficiently scandalized by the atrocity of the hour, and authors of offending posts are roundly demonized and ridiculed. Silver linings are rarely sought in bad news, common ground with adversaries seldom found. The right is arguably more reliant on this Manichaean rhetoric, but the left has a strong habit too. As opinion crystallizes on Twitter, posters become increasingly uncompromising, attracted to whichever position most strongly attributes moral purity to their own side and depravity to the other. Meanwhile, anyone who would criticize an outraged writer’s moralistic tone risks appearing too callous or naïve to realize the enormity of the crime at hand—whether it’s Obama’s visit to an Amazon warehouse or a university’s experimentation with MOOCs. Outrage may look like moral bravery but, on Twitter at least, it is safe as can be.

Twitter, hell; it was always like that on blogs, too. That whole system of social media provides a neverending supply of cheap stimulation for adrenaline junkies, as well as a permanent stage where they can perform their manufactured outrage for an appreciative audience. One of my favorite aspects of this faux-moral performance art is when, lacking the usual visual cues of authentic real-life anger, the performer is required to simulate hizzorher vein-popping, carpet-chewing, spittle-launching fury — in text form, which obviously requires a certain amount of both mental and physical composure. It never fails to tickle my absurdist funny bone, imagining someone sitting quietly at their computer, composing a fictional representation of barely-controlled psychotic rage (with no typos or misspellings, even!), and then taking pleasure in the plaudits. What did these people do before there was a twitosphere to provide them with some semblance of meaning in their empty lives?

Monday, October 14, 2013

You Must Change Your Life

Greg Stevens:

If there is a disease at work in the obesity epidemic, it is the disease of laziness. People want a quick fix to solve all their problems, and they don’t want to have to do anything differently… even though the things they have always done are what caused them to end up being overweight and unhappy with themselves.

The desire for a magic answer ends up creating a psychological barrier to progress. Because people want a quick, magical solution, even good medical advice is translated into bad, ineffectual behaviour.

The science of obesity is not complex, but cutting through the noise requires some common sense. If you are obese, then losing weight is simple. You need to gradually decrease the amount of food that you eat, and gradually increase the amount that you exercise, so that over time your body adapts to having less “fuel”. If you do this, you will gradually lose weight.

But there are no short cuts. There is no special food that you can eat, or exclude, and have the pounds melt away with no other change in your lifestyle. Eating organic or “additive free” food won’t help you if you eat 4,000 calories a day. There are no magic pills.

To hear the twitosphere tell it, seven out of every four people run a triathlon every week while restricting themselves to 500 calories a day, but still somehow manage to become obese by the biased standards of Western so-called medicine. Well, as in so many other areas, I find that good ol' David Hume's rule of thumb regarding miracles applies here: which is more likely, that basic laws of physiology suddenly cease to function in modern society, or that people tend to bullshit themselves in flattering ways to avoid facing up to uncomfortable truths? If you've been reading this blog longer than five minutes, I'm sure you know what my opinion of human nature is. Rare exceptions exist, I'm sure, but like it says on the label, they're rare.

For those of you who can't be arsed to watch the video (it's okay, I'm right there with you most of the time), Louis goes to the doctor at 40 years old with a sore ankle. The doctor suggests doing certain stretches for half an hour each day. Louis wonders how long that will take to fix it. The doctor says, no, this is just a new thing you do now. Regular, necessary maintenance to stave off the worst of the inevitable decrepitude until death's merciful release. Comic exaggerations aside, I'd basically agree.

Half a lifetime ago, in peak physical condition, when I did yoga, worked out (got a Soloflex for Christmas when I was sixteen, and I still use it today) and played soccer regularly, I was about 160 pounds. In community college, there was one phys ed course I took which gave you three credits for essentially having a gym membership at the school. One day, the instructor, Steve M., walked in the weight room while I was finishing some bicep curls and gave me an appraising look. "You know, Scribbler, I envy you," he said while wagging his finger at me. Uh, say what? "No, seriously. You have the kind of body that you could sculpt into anything you want. A lot of people don't have that. I couldn't do that. You're very lucky." I'm not sure what he was basing that opinion on, but ah, youth, if only I had been able to fully appreciate my apparent good fortune then.

In the course of three and a half years of undiagnosed rheumatoid arthritis, I was getting treated mainly with steroid injections, which caused some fluid retention, and, thus, weight gain, up to around 182. After I had recovered enough flexibility and mobility thanks to medication, I converted the sturm und drang of a prolonged breakup with my ex into exercise fuel and dropped as low as 149. A few years after that, heartbroken over the deaths of two of my dogs in quick succession, lethargic and giving no fucks in general, I got as high as 207. Moderate exercise after that lowered me back into the lower 190s, and during the summer I worked as a satellite technician, I starved and sweated away more than fifteen pounds in a month and a half, back to the upper 170s. This past summer, I started the new job, one of the biggest benefits being the reliably steady schedule, which meant I could finally set up a consistent workout routine and stick to it without interruption. I quickly dropped fifteen pounds in the first month just through treadmill walking and a reduced diet — I'll usually have a smoothie for breakfast (I especially like Bolthouse Farms), followed by two or three miles of walking, then something light for lunch, like bananas, tofurkey sandwiches, and/or more smoothies, and a regular dinner in the late afternoon. If I absolutely must snack at any point, I'll have another piece of fruit or yet another smoothie. As I've added weightlifting back into the mix every other day, feeling sufficiently recovered from hernia surgery, I've noticed the weight dropping off more slowly, though I can obviously eat more without it turning into fat. Eventually, I'll probably start spending some time kicking a soccer ball around the yard and practicing some old drills, to get some more aerobic exercise and get all the muscles working in concert again.

All of which is to say: my own experience tells me in no uncertain terms that if I don't want to feel bloated and flabby, I have to make time to exercise and eat well. Barring the most incredibly fortunate genetic inheritance, or the most physically strenuous job, anyone who doesn't want to gain weight will have to do that. Yes, that means setting aside at least six to eight hours a week to walk and lift weights. Yes, that's time that I could be using to read and write more. Yes, yes, processed foods, lack of time, arbitrary cultural beauty standards, etc. No, it's not fair, and no, it's not always fun and invigorating. It is, however, what it is, and like Louis's doctor said, it's just a thing you have to do now. Deal with it or don't. All that stuff my dad used to say about the necessity of discipline and cultivating good habits was right on, however bourgeois that may sound.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Spiritual Saturnalia

Samuel Butler via Michael Gilleland:

Faith was far more assured in the times when the spiritual saturnalia were allowed than now. The irreverence which was not dangerous then, is now intolerable. It is a bad sign for a man's peace in his own convictions when he cannot stand turning the canvas of his life occasionally upside down, or reversing it in a mirror, as painters do with their pictures that they may judge the better concerning them. I would persuade all Jews, Mohammedans, Comtists, and freethinkers to turn high Anglicans, or better still, downright Catholics for a week in every year, and I would send people like Mr. Gladstone to attend Mr. Bradlaugh's lectures in the forenoon, and the Grecian pantomime in the evening, two or three times every winter. I should perhaps tell them that the Grecian pantomime has nothing to do with Greek plays. They little know how much more keenly they would relish their normal opinions during the rest of the year for the little spiritual outing which I would prescribe for them, which, after all, is but another phase of the wise saying—Surtout point de zèle (above all, avoid zeal).


‘Once I have said I will do a thing, I do it’ – this mode of thinking counts a sign of possessing character. How many actions have been done, not because they were chosen as the most rational, but because when they occurred to us, they in some way tickled our vanity and ambition, so that we stuck with them and blindly carried them out! In this way they increase our belief in our own character and our good conscience, and thus in general our strength; while the choice of the most rational course keeps alive skepticism towards us and to this extent a feeling of weakness.

— Nietzsche

Maria Konnikova:

Why is the stability of our own identities, or even our life choices, so important? One possibility has to do with simple rationalization: Once we make a choice, we want to justify it—especially if it’s one we don’t see ourselves unmaking. In other contexts, we see this phenomenon play out all the time: We value objects more once we’ve purchased them, and hold offhand opinions far more strongly once we’ve stated them out loud. “It makes sense to me that people are motivated to believe that their current lifestyle decisions are superior to other options,” says social psychologist Eli Finkel, whose own research focuses on interpersonal relationships and conflict, “rather than an arbitrary choice draw from those options.”

Thursday, October 10, 2013

October 10

Now constantly there is the sound,
quieter than rain,
of the leaves falling.
Under their loosening bright
gold, the sycamore limbs
bleach whiter.
Now the only flowers
are beeweed and aster, spray
of their white and lavender
over the brown leaves.
The calling of a crow sounds
loud—a landmark—now
that the life of summer falls
silent, and the nights grow.

– Wendell Berry

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Listen Up, All You Masqueraders

Stephen Marche:

It's not just you, Sinead. It's all open letter writers. You're writing open letters because it makes you seem like an important person. You're writing open letters because you feel that you are a historical figure whose communication should not be limited to the mundane reality of either personal one-on-one missives or online opinion publication. That's what ordinary people do. They write arguments when they disagree with somebody's opinion, and they write letters when they want to address another person. And that is what you should do, too.

I get it. I really do. Writing an open letter connects you to the world of grand intellectuals. I mean, Emile Zola wrote "J'accuse" as an open letter. A great French novelist calling out his nation on their anti-Semitism. Who wouldn't want to be like Emile Zola? But here's the thing: The more times you use the open letter format, the less open letters in general matter. We have now arrived at the current position where pop singers are using a series of open letters to address soon-to-be-washed-up pop singers about their clothing selections in music videos. What I'm saying is that we've reached the low point. Subjects are not going to get any smaller or more irrelevant to the public interest. They insult the glorious history of the open letter.

Hear him, hear him! The fact that the comments are almost uniformly negative makes me laugh all the more. Mocking people for pretentious, passive-aggressive attention-seeking seems to rustle some jimmies on the social web; imagine that.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Upward Dog

Gregory Burns:

In dogs, we found that activity in the caudate increased in response to hand signals indicating food. The caudate also activated to the smells of familiar humans. And in preliminary tests, it activated to the return of an owner who had momentarily stepped out of view. Do these findings prove that dogs love us? Not quite. But many of the same things that activate the human caudate, which are associated with positive emotions, also activate the dog caudate. Neuroscientists call this a functional homology, and it may be an indication of canine emotions.

The ability to experience positive emotions, like love and attachment, would mean that dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child. And this ability suggests a rethinking of how we treat dogs.

Dogs have long been considered property. Though the Animal Welfare Act of 1966 and state laws raised the bar for the treatment of animals, they solidified the view that animals are things — objects that can be disposed of as long as reasonable care is taken to minimize their suffering.

But now, by using the M.R.I. to push away the limitations of behaviorism, we can no longer hide from the evidence. Dogs, and probably many other animals (especially our closest primate relatives), seem to have emotions just like us. And this means we must reconsider their treatment as property.

Seems a ludicrously roundabout way to "prove" something readily apparent to anyone who's ever spent a sympathetic moment around dogs, but whatever; maybe something useful will come out of the trendy obsession with brain scans after all.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Can't Find a Better Man

In other words, by forcing you to think, empathize, and assume instead of handing you prototype characters whose actions and personalities can be squarely understood, literary fiction is literally making you a more caring and emotionally intelligent person.

And another study has shown that writing this type of self-serving horseshit on idiotic pop-culture blogs, or being the type of moderately-educated would-be snob who will immediately rush to share the link to such self-serving horseshit with other similarly-described simpletons through social media and thus momentarily validate hizzorher otherwise empty existence, is literally making you a much stupider person. I kid, of course. No one's gotten around to doing that study yet, though I'm certain my suspicions will be confirmed. In the meantime, here's Charles McGrath expanding upon the most obvious criticism one could make:

And the disconnect between art and morality goes further than that: not only can a “bad” person write a good novel or paint a good picture, but a good picture or a good novel can depict a very bad thing. Think of Picasso’s Guernica or Nabokov’s Lolita , an exceptionally good novel about the sexual abuse of a minor, described in a way that makes the protagonist seem almost sympathetic.

Yet art, when you experience it, seems ennobling: it inspires and transports us, refines our discriminations, enlarges our understanding and our sympathies. Surely, we imagine, we are better people because of it. And if art does this much for those of us who merely appreciate it, then it must reflect something even better and truer and more inspiring in the lives and character of the people who actually create art. We cling to these notions — especially that art morally improves us — against all evidence to the contrary, for as the critic George Steiner has famously pointed out, the Holocaust contradicts them once and for all. “We know that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening,” Steiner writes, “that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning.” Or as Walter Benjamin once wrote: “At the base of every major work of art is a pile of barbarism.”


Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Our Whole Lives are Experiments; Let Us Also Want to be Them!

Brian Patrick Eha:

When he began writing the manuscript that became the Zibaldone, the nineteen-year-old poet had little idea what he had embarked upon. His first entry is a piece of scene-setting reminiscent of Thoreau’s journals: “Palazzo Bello. Dog in the night from the farmhouse, as the wayfarer goes by.” From this point on, however, he rarely records scenes of daily life, preferring instead to chart the progress of his thought. He writes a penna corrente, quickly, as the pen flows and as inspiration dictates. The searching, questioning nature of the diary, never resting in easy solutions, derives from Leopardi’s dissatisfaction with the received wisdom of his day, and his determination to think everything through again for himself, starting at the beginning, which is to say, with the ancient Greeks. He was trying to teach himself how to live. And not only how, but why. For Leopardi, life in itself, mere biological existence, is of no importance. What matters is living well and happily, or at least not living badly and unhappily. Philosophers, academics and other experts “should teach people first how to make life happy, and then how to prolong it.”

The Divine Decomposition

As I have noted above, Gregory wants to claim that we must consider medieval Christendom a failure when we judge it in accordance with its own internal criteria. Now, when Gregory examines the modern predicament of liberal and hyperpluralist society today, he says that he is only interested in applying the same technique; that is, he is supposed to apply an internal criterion for failure here too. The problem is that he does nothing of the kind. For, according to Gregory himself, it is one of the distinctive features of secular society in the modern West that it has abandoned the expectation of a comprehensive and shared metaphysics that was a governing principle of medieval Christendom. This is not a technical point. According to Gregory, the social ideal of caritas could make sense only within a teleological conception of the universe according to which everyone and everything was thought to be the creation of a benevolent God whose goodness was the object of veneration and the paradigm for one’s own conduct. Strong conformity was an intrinsic part of that ideal. But one of the distinctive features of modern liberal culture is that it seems to be abandoning the expectation that its members share any single metaphysical vision. In a modern liberal society, the strong conformity that was a requirement in medieval Christendom no longer plays a determining role.

Gregory seems to think this turn away from strong conformity is a bad thing because it signals our loss of any substantive notion of the good. Bereft of this normative principle we find ourselves thrown us back upon our own meager and subjective resources for deciding upon doing whatever it is we wish to do. Hyperpluralism is the inevitable result. Now, most readers will recognize that this is a slippery slope argument of the most drastic kind: It upholds one true standard for things going as they should, and when that standard is abandoned we are meant to conclude that nothing could possibly go right. The slope in this case is not just slippery, it is frictionless.

The real difficulty with this argument, however, is that it imports from medieval Christendom a criterion that has little place in modern liberal notions of social membership. Most of us today simply do not adhere to the ideal of a holistic social order and we no longer expect or even value the ideal of a society that grounds itself in a single metaphysical conception of the cosmic whole. In fact, many liberal theorists would say that it was the precisely the violence of religious persecution and religious conflict in previous centuries that helped to bring the idea of strong conformity into discredit. We want to arrange things in such a way that when our ideals are not shared we are less tempted than our medieval predecessors to resort to coercion. The ideal of a modern liberal regime (an ideal we have certainly failed to realize to any adequate degree) is one in which certain norms of cooperation can be endorsed by nearly all participants irrespective of their metaphysical commitments.

The Threat is Real

Glenn Greenwald during a Reddit AMA:

Do you ever worry about your safety?

All good journalism entails risk, by definition, because all good journalism makes someone powerful angry. It's important to be rationally aware of those risks and take reasonable precautions, but not fixate on them or, under any circumstances, allow them to deter you in doing what you think should be done. Fearlessness can be its own form of power.

Tsk, tsk. Listen to Glenn mansplaining to victims of harassment how they should feel, invalidating their lived experience, and flaunting his white male privilege of being considered a threat to the other white males who run the world's governments and spy agencies. If the Internet has taught me anything over the last couple years, it's that being mocked or insulted on Twitter is the equivalent of long-distance rape, and the only appropriate response is to curl up like a poor, persecuted little pill bug and bawl your eyes out. Sure, his activist journalism may have made enemies of some of the most powerful interests on Earth who have killed for much less, but has he known the wrenching agony of seeing his face Photoshopped onto some offensive artwork?

Not What You Thought from Above

Ryan Tate:

After leaving Twitter in 2011 and helping to incubate, among other things, the blog network Medium, Williams found himself rethinking his original formulation. Computers have proliferated and diversified, in size and function, to the point of being unremarkable. Information has become similarly abundant, rendering the term unsatisfyingly generic. And after 20 years, the types of people and groups you find online are basically identical to the people and groups you find in the physical world. What’s now important are the connections between the people and the machines.

...“The internet is not what I thought it was 20 years ago,” Williams said. “It’s not a utopian world. It’s essentially like a lot of other major technological revolutions that have taken place in the history of the world.” He compares it to, well, agriculture. “[Agriculture] made life better. It not only got people fed, it freed them up to do many more things — to create art and invent things.”

The rub is that we often take convenience too far. “Look at the technology of agriculture taken to an extreme — where we have industrialized farms that are not good for the environment or animals or nourishment,” he says. “Look at a country full of people who have had such convenient access to calories that they’re addicted, obese, and sick.” He likens this agricultural nightmare to our unhealthy obsession with internet numbers like retweets and likes and followers and friends.

That warning wasn’t so much a slam on Twitter, which Williams helped create, as it was an observation about human nature. People will be people. The internet wants to give them exactly what they’re looking for. And people who understand how to channel that tendency will be disproportionately powerful.

Further confirmation of my earlier thesis. And look, as we become more jaded and disillusioned, we've even got a new myth of the noble savage developing!

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Gotta Watch My Stories

Chez Pazienza:

What’s interesting about Salon’s ill-advised decision to wade into this, aside from the fact that it threatens to create an ouroboros of irony that might very well swallow all reality as we know it, is that the Gawker piece is asking regular people to determine, through a series of online votes, which group is the least privileged in America. Salon, of course, sees this kind of determination as something too important to be left to the unwashed; calling out privilege is strictly for professionals.

And nobody has elevated this kind of thing to a Ph.D-level position the way Salon has.

This whole privilege tournament brouhaha between some of the most ridiculous sites on the web has indeed been amusing, like watching a food fight break out in the cafeteria at the mental hospital (neurotypical ableism!!) I'm not sure that last sentence is true, though — Salon seems to have moved to corner the market on sappy personal stories about life lessons, often with a weird, voyeuristic bent to them. Stuff like, "I thought I'd left the BDSM lifestyle behind, but my skills as a dom saved my relationship with my neurotic dog." I think of it as soap opera salaciousness for the NPR crowd.