Tuesday, June 29, 2010

cognitive surplus

The up-side of Internet overload: Clay Shirky applauds creative, cooperative, constructive public uses of  "dead time" not available to people in the pre-digital age. "Free cultures get what they celebrate," Shirky quotes Dean Kamen. That might be good news, if we can get over the infantile and inexplicable fascination with LOLcats and the like and really celebrate things that make a constructive civic difference. Time only will tell if it's Shirky's or Nick Carr's future, or something else entirely.

What you do with cats on your own time is still, of course, your own business. Up to a point.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Beat LA

This is not "important," nor is it of global interest even by FIFA standards. But, it's part of my personal narrative... I am the kind of person who cares about this kind of thing, for better or worse (and so is Roger Angell):

That was a terrific Yankee rally last night in Chavez Ravine. I don't bleed Dodger Blue after all, last Fall's short-lived experiment in transferred allegiances (when I went out and bought an LA cap after they whupped my Redbirds) notwithstanding. Too bad it spoiled the family reunion for Joe Torre, though, who I (like Roger) recall from an earlier time and a different uniform.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

a toast

To tenure. Cheers!

Bruce Wilshire

Bruce Wilshire's book on addiction, obsession, compulsion... Wild Hunger: The Primal Roots of Modern Addiction. "These days our relation to wilderness is strained and ambiguous," a rediscovery of native roots is overdue.

Bruce's other "primal roots" book on American philosophy is very good, too, and will be useful when we do the Native Wisdom component of Environmental Ethics next Spring.

Friday, June 25, 2010


Addiction has a bad name, and usually deserves it. Sometimes it can be channeled in positive ways. Probably not, though, in Robert Palmer's "Simply Irresistible" story, or Joel Fleischman's. (Did you know he was multi-lingual?) I mention them here self-indulgently, and in an attempt to discharge the memetic loop of that song in my brain triggered by thoughts on this topic. The song is  just fun, and the video just went up on YouTube in time to echo my obsession.

Another example of irresistible, bio-chemical compulsion: the Star Trek crew's addiction to a game, secretly and sinisterly a weapon. Is this what gets people lining up for iPhones et al? Hope not.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


I've fallen behind my stack of New Yorkers.

Yesterday I caught up with Rebecca Mead's Talk of the Town defense of liberal education in the June 7 issue. She notes that politicians, including the bright ones (like the President), tend to speak of education in strictly economic and vocational terms, i.e., in terms of jobs jobs jobs. They tend not to stump for education's value in enriching the quality of life. Then, she offers this example:
Consider Stephen Law, a professor of philosophy at the University of London, who started his working life delivering mail for the British postal service, began reading works of philosophy in his spare time, decided that he’d like to know more, and went on to study the discipline at City University, in London, and at Oxford University....
Stephen Law is an excellent philosopher, and his War for Children's Minds is an impassioned defense of childhood. 

Mead concludes that we really don't need more accountants and numbers-crunchers and bean-counters and cubicle-dwellers. (That's not exactly what she says, but it's my takeaway.) 

More thinkers, on the other hand, would be good. For "pragmatic" here, read "conventionally employable."
An argument might be made in favor of a student’s pursuing an education that is less, rather than more, pragmatic. (More theology, less accounting.) That way, regardless of each graduate’s ultimate path, all might be qualified to be carriers of arts and letters, of which the nation can never have too many.
Some of our best thinkers-- besides Steve Law, John Prine (That's the way that  the world goes round.. at the LoC) comes straight to mind-- were carriers too. We need both.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


Thinking about fathers and sons and daughters and passionate fandom reminds me of one of the great baseball memoirs, by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. She grew up in Brooklyn in the '40s and '50s following Jackie Robinson and 'dem Bums, before they moved to southern California and broke her heart.

There were no vuvuzellas in Flatbush back then, just the Sym-PHONY and Red Barber and lots of good-natured partisan wordplay in the stands. It's a game whose meaning takes explicit and constant symbolic form, until something unspeakably amazing (Jackie stole home!) transcends all notation. The lesson: write stuff down when you can, but don't let that interfere with your experience.

Our girls know how to keep score too, of course.

Monday, June 21, 2010


Happy Solstice, Happy Summer, and Happy Birthday to the novelist whose latest I've just begun: Ian McEwan, Solar.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

bricks in the wall

In The Next Fifty Years, computer scientist Roger Schank shares his vision of a time when there will be no need, apparently, for tenured humanities professors. I'm sure he's wrong about that.

But bring on the talking walls, why not? Just remember: being informative is not at all the same as being wise.

It's urgent for us to wonder right now, though, as the drumbeat for "distance education" and virtual classrooms-- cheaper in so many ways-- grows ever louder: in a half-century, will our institutions of higher learning still recognize or defend that distinction?

Friday, June 18, 2010


Transhumanism? "Live long enough to live forever" etc.? Camus would be amused, and-- I must imagine-- happy.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

young at heart

The fictional Thomas Kurton, part Ray Kurzweil ("Humans Are So Yesterday")and Aubrey de Grey, part Craig Venter, part Jean-Paul Sartre ("existence precedes essence") thinks aging is a disease. He's desperate to cure it. His rival colleague is closer to the mark, I think: the disease  is desperation itself, the cure is generational. There are qualities of childhood that can make us better, if we don't kill them first. If we don't kill ourselves.

Aging is not what's really killing us. That's an immature equation. But we can still reasonably hope to die before we get old. Generosity again:

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

hyperthymia, hypomania

They are real conditions, sometimes indistinguishable from the outside but experienced very differently within. Hyperthymia may be what William James had in mind when he discussed the "once-born" in Varieties of Religious Experience, with their child-like cheerful openness, acceptance, and affirmation of existence . Hypomania is symptomatic of bi-polar disorder. Happy forever after is storybook. Is real happiness something else? Guess it depends on what kind of an ogre your nature and nurture have made you.

Richard Powers draws the distinction in Generosity:

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


People who live in straw houses...

The barmaid had a lot more to say in the previous installment, about affirmative atheist values.

Monday, June 14, 2010

bright kids

I've begun trying to observe a digital Sabbath, and yesterday was successful (if you don't count that tweet about Radnor Lake).

Then, the immediate and unrelenting morning heat propelled the dogs and me onto our morning walk earlier than usual today. There's no promise of relief in the forecast.

That's why I'm just now getting around to notching our weekend on the old memory-stick.

It was supposed to be sleep-away basketball camp across town for Younger Daughter all weekend, beginning Friday, but she and her roomie worked one another into a frantic case of the homesick blues. The weekend thus got off to a sleep-disrupted start for us all.

I recall my own youthful bout of homesickness at sleep-away camp. I was younger, camp was out of state. It didn't occur to me then, in the self-reliant '60s, to request a ride home.  I was age nine, it was a Southern Baptist camp in the Blue Ridge mountains of Carolina, and I toughed out three (or was it five?) long weeks of the first and worst plague of poison ivy the Lord has seen fit to visit upon me.

My faith was feeble but my endurance was impressive. I don't know if it was a growth experience, or if it planted the seed of my hostility to that denomination. Watered it, for sure, and gave me the best guilt card a kid could ever ask for. I don't think I overplayed it, through the years. But into adulthood all I ever had to do was whisper "poison ivy" and Dad (the Vet) would have a shipment of first-rate,canine-grade prednisone speeding its way to wherever I found myself afflicted-- one year it was up on Monteagle Mountain, at the sight of the famed Highlander Folk School.

But back to the weekend: Younger Daughter, to her credit, wanted to go back the next morning, and the next. Wouldn't have blamed her if she'd decided to mimic her friend and stay away for the duration, she'd already had a hard week of basketball practice with her school team and she wasn't enjoying the camp experience. But she chose to persevere, with a little help from her taxi driver. Glad to oblige.

Older Daughter had a hard week, too, volunteering with her friends the Presbyterians. They put in long hours working with disadvantaged kids, and doing hard physical work under an unrelenting sun. They spent an afternoon, for instance, cleaning up broken glass and debris on and near a playground. At week's end she mounted the pulpit to offer some very mature reflections on her experience and what it meant to her. She'd discovered a "depth" to people she'd previously misconstrued, and she came to realize that our smallest acts of kindness really do make a difference.

I'm  very proud of them both, for their commitment and perseverance and will. I don't care what the headlines say, the view from right here says the future looks bright.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Whole Nukes

Speaking of necessary debates: here's one now. Stewart Brand trusts us to play with the nuclear genie. Is that really "ecological pragmatism," or short-sighted desperation? The catalog is not what it used to be.

Thursday, June 10, 2010


Surprisingly-many of my students have expressed real concern about the Mayan calendar and the alleged end of the world as we know it in just a couple of years. So, for the record: the world's not about to end, not at least on account of anything a long-gone ancient world thought it knew about last things. Here's the lowdown on 2012...

If college students are confused about this, no wonder younger kids are too. ("Children Waiting for the End of the World") Science education (and critical thinking, and philosophy) are more urgently needed at every level of our curricula than ever before.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

lucky us

Christopher Hitchens was on the Daily Show last night. He gave a good and positive accounting of himself, I thought, much in keeping with the epigraph he chose for his memoir-- We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born...-- read here by its author.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Call

We apparently can't "plug the damn hole" so let's find something we can fix.

There really is nothing to debate: the umpire blew the call and admits it. The commissioner can fix it. So, Bud: reverse the damn call! 

Letting it stand as a monument to intransigent tradition would be stupid, on a par with defending the Iraq war because it's the latest in a loooong line of indefensible American foreign policy blunders. "My country right or wrong" is wrong. Obviously.

Monday, June 7, 2010

generation 0

"Should This Be the Last Generation?"

I'm glad my parents did not seriously ponder that one. Peter Singer does, in his guest column for The Stone.

Bill McKibben went out on a limb a few years ago with Maybe One: A Case for Smaller Families. Peter Singer goes him one better. How about none? Zero? What if we just let ourselves be the end of the human line? And what if, contrary to fact, everyone could be encouraged to join us in this mass species suicide?

I wonder what the Times's non-academic readers will make of the philosopher's dispassion towards the prospect of universal, self-inflicted euthanasia?

Thought experiment or not, I find it unsettling to weigh the very existence of homo sapiens (and of life in the universe, for all we know) in so coldly calculating a fashion. Singer does arrive at the right conclusion, but is this really the right way to get there?
I do think it would be wrong to choose the non-sentient universe. In my judgment, for most people, life is worth living. Even if that is not yet the case, I am enough of an optimist to believe that, should humans survive for another century or two, we will learn from our past mistakes and bring about a world in which there is far less suffering than there is now. But justifying that choice forces us to reconsider the deep issues with which I began. Is life worth living? Are the interests of a future child a reason for bringing that child into existence? And is the continuance of our species justifiable in the face of our knowledge that it will certainly bring suffering to innocent future human beings?
There are clear limits to the value of a calculus that tries to translate everything into a statement about the stipulated utility of separate individuals. These are good questions, but there are better ones. For instance: what is life going to make of itself, not just during my own brief stint on the ground but much further on?

And, how do we calculate the relevance of that eventuality? I don't know, but I do know we ought to give it some thought..

Saturday, June 5, 2010

old man

We had to decline an opportunity to see Neil Young playing country music's Mother Church the other night, the ticket price was just out of our league-- but here's a review and a slideshow for nothin'. He's become the old man he serenaded way back when, and last June in Hyde Park.

And here he was in 1971.

Friday, June 4, 2010

real generosity

The great Richard Powers' last novel, Generosity, prescinds from a familiar quote from Camus-- "real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present." Sounds very wise, but what it means in practice is an ongoing experiment and challenge. I don't think we can afford to ignore the future, but of course the present is the bird in hand we must attend to.

Then, Powers offers an epigraph from Kay Redfield Jamison:
Exuberance carries us places we would not otherwise go— across the savannah, to the moon, into the imagination — and if we ourselves are not so exuberant we will, caught up by the contagious joy of those who are, be inclined collectively to go yonder.
Exuberance, generosity, presence... to me they all point forward, but they're also all prime markers of the wilderness of childhood: a place, an imaginative space of play in which mere reality does not constrict the dreamscape. More on this to follow.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

routine, or rut?

I love my parents, bless their mortal souls. And I do think I've veered, in my life, in a significantly different direction. I also think Jennifer Hecht is on to something. But what do I think about it?

The patterns we grew up in have a way of re-insinuating themselves into our lives as we age. This is not entirely a bad thing. She thinks it's a pretty good thing, on balance. My question today: does this phenomenon bode well or ill for the future of childhood, and the future of the mature spirit of childhood? In other words, can we embrace routine in adulthood without squinching the spontaneity and fun-loving freedom of childhood at its best?
Whether you love or hate your parents, you probably think that you operate pretty independently of them. I say that because psychology is so out of favor these days that some of its best truths are not part of the modern conversation.
The thing is, if your folks never gardened, you don’t much either. If you spend your spare time fixing electronics at home, and your parents didn’t, ask yourself if they did something that looked a lot like it. Did they sit at the kitchen table for hours with a set of tools and a bunch of items? Or were they always out skiing? Skiers who deny a patrimony of skiing still likely had parents who went outside and did stuff a lot. 
Was one of them at his or her desk all day? Are you at your desk all day? Did they have parties for their big life events and now do you? Did they take a lot of walks or not so much? You?
We think we branch off, and we do. We do. We go in some opposing direct, so as to exist. But we are still the same wood, same bark, same berries. 
They were lawyers, we are outlaws, or vice versa. Still, our basic behavior is a simple copy of theirs, because when we do things that feel, to our bodies, like the way our parents acted when we were growing up, we feel at home.
We can do other things, the things they never did, but we do not feel at home. Most of the time, as we get older, though we liberate ourselves from some of our inherited craziness, we also get weary of fighting against what feels right. So though we used to go listen to music in parks with hundreds of other people, and we did like it, we who were not raised doing it don’t much do it anymore.

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