Monday, February 16, 2015

David Carr's last words

His final column, drawn from the syllabus for his Boston University communications school course, is full of life wisdom and sound pedagogy. I'll be cribbing from it from now on, beginning with the way he introduced himself:
"Your professor... hates suck-ups, people who treat waitresses and cab drivers poorly and anybody who thinks diversity is just an academic conceit. He is a big sucker for the hard worker and is rarely dazzled by brilliance. He has little patience for people who pretend to ask questions when all they really want to do is make a speech.
"He has a lot of ideas about a lot of things, some of which are good. We will figure out which is which together. He likes being challenged. He is an idiosyncratic speaker, often beginning in the middle of a story, and is used to being told that people have no idea what he is talking about. It’s fine to be one of those people... he will strive to be a lucid, linear communicator.
"Your professor is fair, fundamentally friendly, a little odd, but not very mysterious. If you want to know where you stand, just ask.”
He encouraged teamwork. “While writing, shooting, and editing are often solitary activities, great work emerges in the spaces between people,” David wrote, adding, “Evaluations will be based not just on your efforts, but on your ability to bring excellence out of the people around you...”
David warned there would be a heavy reading list. “I’m not sliming you with a bunch of textbooks, so please know I am dead serious about these readings,” he wrote. “Skip or skim at your peril...”
“Who you are and what you have been through should give you a prism on life that belongs to you only... Don’t raise your hand in class,” he wrote. “This isn’t Montessori, I expect people to speak up when they like, but don’t speak over anyone.”
“If you text or email during class, I will ignore you as you ignore me,” David added. “It won’t go well.” 
I'll bet most of his classes went very well. Gonna miss him too.

Gonna miss Jon Stewart

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Friday, February 13, 2015

The secret of happiness

"What do happy people do differently?"

Our school's news and media relations department passes along a happiness query, in response to which I'm running this up the flagpole. Salute?
Q: I'm looking for experts in happiness, positive living, and psychology to contribute at least three answers to this question to be featured in a long-form article (the more unique the response, the better, and the more likely your answer will be featured in our story): What do happy people do differently? 
A: To your query about what happy people do differently, I think the philosopher Bertrand Russell put it best in his 1930 book The Conquest of Happiness:

“The secret of happiness is very simply this: let your interests be as wide as possible, and let your reactions to the things and persons that interest you be as far as possible friendly rather than hostile.”

“The wise man thinks about his troubles only when there is some purpose in doing so; at other times he thinks about other things, or, if it is night, about nothing at all.” 

Also (a propos of Valentine's Day):
“Of all forms of caution, caution in love is perhaps the most fatal to true happiness.” 

But (a propos of every day, and of the hectic and noisy lives we live):
“A happy life must be to a great extent a quiet life, for it is only in an atmosphere of quiet that true joy can live.”  

American philosopher William James also had a great deal to say about happiness, much of which I tried to convey in my book William James's "Springs of Delight" (Vanderbilt Press, 2000). In sum, he said happiness is the bonus result of deliberately attending to our own personal "springs (as in wellsprings, but also perhaps as in springboards) of delight." 

It's perfectly natural for humans occasionally to experience a dip in mood and zest for living ("a falling dead of the delight"), but this can be managed and even overcome if we'll just learn to take note of the small and habitual activities that regularly return us enthusiastically to ourselves and our lives with renewed enthusiasm. Different strokes for different folks, of course. In my case, a daily walk usually does the trick. Others find their delight in music or art or other reliably repeatable diversions. Each iteration is a kind of "moral holiday" that gives us temporary release from worry and propels us back to life.
But, as another old dead guy who thought a lot about how to be happy said: Que sais je? What do I know? 
Image result for montaigne on happiness 

Monday, February 9, 2015

John Lachs's Practical Philosophy

I'm delighted to learn of an international conference in the works for next August 11-13 in Berlin, honoring my old Vanderbilt mentor and friend John Lachs.

"Johns Lachs's practical philosophy" deserves all the attention and support it can get. The list of speakers is already impressive, beginning with the honoree himself.

I hope it's not true that the plug's being pulled on John's legendary Intro Ethics course, a casualty of meddlesome administrative undersight. If so, Vandy does indeed have an ethics problem.

Speaking of meddling: the Daily Beast ran a nice piece on Lachs's latest book recently. It continues to sound the affirming theme present in all of them.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

A walk to nowhere

Why do some people find it harder to run or walk on a treadmill?
...the most likely explanation for any drudgery associated with treadmill exercise is psychological. Treadmills are indoor machines, and many studies show that people generally prefer outdoor workouts. In various experiments, people have reported experiencing less fatigue, more vitality and greater pleasure after walking outside compared with on an indoor treadmill.
Also, treadmills typically provide a walk to nowhere, which may be demoralizing. In a study published last year, volunteers who set out to walk a course that had no clear finish line felt more fatigued afterward than when they covered the same distance with an obvious finish line ahead on which to focus.
So the lesson may be that, if you can, find a treadmill with a monitor and video programing showing an outdoor walking course with a beginning and, most important, an end.
Still, "the nectar is in the journey" - not the destination. The trouble with treadmills may simply be that they lack both. It's not so much that they go nowhere, as that they don't go at all.

Monday, February 2, 2015

A note from Michael Pollan

The food ethics guru notes his return to a theme he explored in Botany of Desire, which we read a while back in Environmental Ethics. He's lately
been immersed for much of the last year in a new project, the first fruits of which appear in the February 9 issue of the New Yorker, out today.  I’m eager to share this piece with you because the research has been some of the most exciting I’ve done. “The Trip Treatment” is a long narrative exploring the current renaissance of scientific and medical research into psychedelic drugs. My story looks at several recent and ongoing trials of psilocybin–the active ingredient in magic mushrooms—at Johns Hopkins, N.Y.U. and Imperial College in London, through the eyes of both the researchers and the volunteers. The U.S. trials involve giving cancer patients a guided psychedelic journey to help them cope with their fear and anxiety; most of the volunteers I followed found that the mystical experience they had on the drug radically altered their thinking about life and death.  Psychedelics are also being used to treat addictions (for smoking and alcohol); to explore the neuroscience of spirituality, and, in conjunction with various brain scanning technologies, to try to answer some fascinating questions about the self and consciousness. Here’s a link to the article, which is posted today: This might at first seem like a departure from writing about food. But those who have followed my work for some time know I’ve also had a longstanding interest in altered states of consciousness. I wrote about cannabis in The Botany of Desire and opium in Harper’s Magazine.  For me, these remarkable molecules are part of the same co-evolutionary story, products of nature with the power to change us.
And with such power comes the possibility of changing our environment and how we engage it. CoEvolution thus becomes companion to CoPhilosophy.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Walk, and write about it

It's always nice to have your personal predilections validated by science. But I'll keep on walking and writing whatever the peer-reviewed research says. My own private study is confirmation enough for me.
To combat afternoon slumps in enthusiasm and focus, take a walk during the lunch hour.
A new study finds that even gentle lunchtime strolls can perceptibly — and immediately — buoy people’s moods and ability to handle stress at work.
It is not news, of course, that walking is healthy and that people who walk or otherwise exercise regularly tend to be more calm, alert and happy than people who are inactive.
But many past studies of the effects of walking and other exercise on mood have focused on somewhat long-term, gradual outcomes, looking at how weeks or months of exercise change people emotionally.
Fewer studies have examined more-abrupt, day-to-day and even hour-by-hour changes in people’s moods, depending on whether they exercise, and even fewer have focused on these effects while people are at work, even though most of us spend a majority of our waking hours in an office.
So, for the new study, which was published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports this month, researchers at the University of Birmingham and other universities began by recruiting sedentary office workers at the university...
 The responses, as it turned out, were substantially different when people had walked. On the afternoons after a lunchtime stroll, walkers said they felt considerably more enthusiastic, less tense, and generally more relaxed and able to cope than on afternoons when they hadn’t walked and even compared with their own moods from a morning before a walk... "The Benefits of a Lunch Hour Walk," nyt
The scientific research on the benefits of so-called expressive writing is surprisingly vast. Studies have shown that writing about oneself and personal experiences can improve mood disorders, help reduce symptoms among cancer patients, improve a person’s health after a heart attack, reduce doctor visits and even boost memory.
Now researchers are studying whether the power of writing — and then rewriting — your personal story can lead to behavioral changes and improve happiness.The concept is based on the idea that we all have a personal narrative that shapes our view of the world and ourselves. But sometimes our inner voice doesn’t get it completely right. Some researchers believe that by writing and then editing our own stories, we can change our perceptions of ourselves and identify obstacles that stand in the way of better health.
It may sound like self-help nonsense, but research suggests the effects are real... "Writing Your Way to Happiness"
Experience suggests the same.

Friday, January 9, 2015


Good words from Ken Paulson.
So what happens when the rallies end?
We've seen a heartening response to the brutal assassination of journalists at Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical newspaper. Around the globe, people outraged by the brutal attack have gathered under the "Je Suis Charlie" banner. The same "We are Charlie" sentiment has been echoed by millions across social media.
But what happens when the town square is empty and "Charlie" is no longer trending? What happens when cartoonists sit back down at their drawing boards?
In the United States, we're blessed with the First Amendment, a constitutional guarantee of a free press. But the amendment only protects us against government censorship or punishment for what we write. It offers absolutely no protection against bullets.
In this country, we often talk about free speech in the context of controversial art or movies, or when debating the merits of incendiary tweets, or the spectacle of Kim Kardashian's backside on a magazine cover.
But consider the exercise of free speech by the editors and cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo. In 2011, the newsroom was firebombed. Threats against the paper's editorial director Stephane Charbonnier led to police protection. Despite the daily threat of violence, the newspaper continued to publish provocative cartoons and content. Freedom prevailed over fear.
So often we confuse the right to express ourselves with the courage to do so.
It took courage in the 1830s for crusading abolitionist newspaper editor Elijah Lovejoy to continue publishing the Alton (Ill.) Observer. Time and again, pro-slavery mobs destroyed his printing presses, but he kept printing. On Nov. 7, 1837, a mob marched on a warehouse where a press was hidden, determined to set fire to the building. Lovejoy was shot to death as he rushed to protect his press.
It took courage for African-American Ida B. Wells to editorialize against lynchings in the 1890s and for Alice Paul to demonstrate for women's equality a century ago, despite being sentenced to prison for seven months in 1917. It took courage for artists like Pete Seeger to sing songs challenging authority after being blacklisted and for Lenny Bruce to perform after repeated arrests.
It took courage for Salman Rushdie to write "The Satanic Verses" and face a death sentence from Iran, and for Dutch Artist Theo van Gogh to make a film challenging the treatment of women in Islam, a movie that led to his murder.
And it took courage for American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff to report at great personal risk on events in Syria. Both were beheaded by Islamic extremists last year. Many other journalists also died in pursuit of the truth. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that worldwide at least 60 journalists were killed in 2014, with almost half of them murdered.
Free speech can lead to threats. And imprisonment. And death.
We owe a debt to those who stand up for what they believe, reporting, writing and expressing themselves, regardless of personal consequence.
I'll admit I love the idea of the free world, standing as one, declaring "We are Charlie." I only hope we're that brave.
Ken Paulson is the president of the Newseum Institute's First Amendment Center in Nashville and the dean of the College of Mass Communication at Middle Tennessee State University. Nashville Tennessean 

Thursday, January 8, 2015

George Eliot

Yesterday I came across two independent salutes to Brit Lit's George Eliot (aka Mary Ann Evans). Guess I need to read Middlemarch. I'll put it on the nightstand, right under War and Peace and The Phenomenology of Spirit.*
...the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs. 
That's how Middlemarch ends, marvelously. I was alerted to it by her greatest fan, Rebecca Mead, who also shines a light on Eliot's philosophical smarts. For instance:
“Love does not say 'I ought to love'—it loves. Pity does not say, 'It is right to be pitiful'
—it pities. Justice does not say,'I am bound to be just'—it feels justly.” She goes on 
to say that dependency upon a rule or theory only  when moral emotion is weak. "We think experience, both in literature and in life, has shown that the minds which are pre-eminently didactic—which insist on a lesson and despise everything that will not convey a moral, are deficient in sympathetic emotion,” she writes. My Life in Middlemarch
Score that for Hume, against Kant, and against all hyper-intellectualism in philosophical ethics.

The other salute came from Robert Coles in his intro to volume 7 of William James's Correspondence,  noting Eliot's (and Tolstoy's) superior psychological acuity to that of most professional psychologists. Probably true still, certainly so in their time.

*Existential Comics - The Return Counter
I can give you the regular version, or for an extra $2.50 you can get the original Russian.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Jury duty

I dutifully reported for jury duty this morning. The jury coordinator eventually reported that there would be just one criminal trial jury seated this day, so "cross your fingers."

Older Daughter finds the whole situation tweetably amusing.
My dad is texting the family about what a miserable time he is having actually adulting. Sorry Dad, you had to grow up today.
I wasn't miserable, just unsettled. Off my routine. No dog-walk this morning.

But isn't it interesting, how she (like many of her peers, I'll bet) equates misery with adulthood? Classic Peter Pan syndrome. It's true, I'm rarely miserable. I mostly enjoy life at work and at home during breaks from school, when "adulting" includes picking up after the kids and running their taxi.

Anyway, back in the jury room...

After about 45 minutes' wait I was relieved to miss the cut, but was detained along with 24 other potential reserve jurors. May have to go back to the courthouse in an hour. Fingers still crossed. Still not miserable. Just trying to stay young at heart.


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