February 22, 2005

January 06, 2005

Philosophical Investigations

Posted by shonk at 07:47 PM | permalink | 3 comments

As promised, quotations from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations are now available. Again, both German and English versions of each are reproduced, though the task was made considerably easier than in other cases by the fact that the edition I used was a dual-language edition.

I (like, I suspect, many others) find Wittgenstein simultaneously fascinating and annoying. On the one hand, he makes interesting and insightful observations on all sorts of phenomena; on the other, he never really synthesizes those observations into a single, coherent argument. For example, when he says that “Uttering a word is like striking a note on the keyboard of the imagination” (I§6) or that “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our language” (I§109) or that “The fluctuation of scientific definitions: what to-day counts as an observed concomitant of a phenomenon will to-morrow be used to define it” (I§79) I find myself saying “Right on!”; but I also find myself frustrated by the fact that he can’t even decide on what, exactly, his purpose in writing this all down is. For example, at one point Wittgenstein claims that his “aim in philosophy” is “To shew the fly the way out of the fly-bottle” (I§309), while elsewhere he says: “My aim is: to teach you to pass from a piece of disguised nonsense to something that is patent nonsense” (I§464) and still elsewhere he suggests that he’s merely making obvious remarks that presumably everybody already knows:

What we are supplying are really remarks on the natural history of human beings; we are not contributing curiosities, however, but observations which no one has doubted, but which have escaped remark only because they are always before our eyes. (I§415)

As I say, this can be frustrating, but, in a way, is also understandable. In one sense, Wittgenstein isn’t trying to provide answers, but rather to show that there aren’t really any problems (as he says in Philosophical Grammar: “While thinking philosophically we see problems in places where there are none. It is for philosophy to show that there are no problems.”). And why aren’t there any problems? Because “philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday” (I§38); our problems derive from an inability to properly express ourselves.

(INTERPOLATION: This isn’t stated very well, so I want to expand just a bit. The idea, as I understand it, is that we ask too much of language; that is, we ignore the fact that “Explanations come to an end somewhere” (I§1), that, as quoted below, “language itself cannot be explained”, but, rather, that it can only be understood by its use. In failing to recognize this, we find ourselves unable to express the explanations we seek.)

Within this context, I think Wittgenstein’s thesis (to the extent that he even has one) boils down to the following:

What we have rather to do is to accept the everyday language-game, and to note false accounts of the matter as false. The primitive language-game which children are taught needs no justification; attempts at justification need to be rejected. (II.xi)

Or, from a different direction:

“So you are saying that human agreement decides what is true and what is false?”—It is what human beings say that is true and false; and they agree in the language they use. That is not agreement in opinions but in form of life. (I§241)

Viewed from this perspective, then, it is, perhaps, not so surprising that Wittgenstein has a tendency to be frustratingly vague at times; after all, as he himself says, “What is most difficult here is to put this indefiniteness, correctly and unfalsified, into words” (II.xi). Personally, I find his perspective compelling, but I can understand why some might find it rather superficial, especially since it can lead to seemingly-trivial statements like: “One wants to say: a significant sentence is one which one can not merely say, but also think” (I§511).

All this aside, though, there are two other things I really like about Wittgenstein. First, the fact that he has a real sense of humor and isn’t afraid to deploy it. For example, I couldn’t help laughing aloud at reading this:

Think of a picture of a landscape, an imaginary landscape with a house in it.—Someone asks “Whose house is that?”—The answer, by the way, might be “It belongs to the farmer who is sitting on the bench in front of it”. But then he cannot for example enter his house. (I§398)

Of course, it probably helps that his sense of humor has that bone-dry, literalistic bent that is characteristic of mathematicians (if you don’t see the humor in the above, re-read the last two sentences like a died-in-the-wool literalist). Which brings me to the second appeal Wittgenstein has for me: he has at least some understanding and awareness of mathematics. And, of course, I can’t help but be excited when someone seems to agree with my own quasi-Intuitionist perspective:

Of course, in one sense mathematics is a branch of knowledge,—but still it is also an activity. And ‘false moves’ can only exist as the exception. For if what we now call by that name became the rule, the game in which they were false moves would have been abrogated. (II.xi)

And, though it doesn’t explicitly refer to mathematics, Wittgenstein’s initial (or final, depending on how you look at it) conclusion has a distinctly mathematical feel to it (especially within the context of Russell’s paradox):

What is spoken can only be explained in language, and so in this sense language itself cannot be explained.

Language must speak for itself.

(Actually from Philosophical Grammar, but echoed throughout Philosophical Investigations)

Okay, enough book-reviewing; check out the quotations.

December 17, 2004

Everybody loves sunsets

Posted by shonk at 10:31 PM | permalink | comment

A little picture I took a few weeks ago; click the below image for the full view:

Moon over Philly

November 27, 2004

Not so much a howl as a low murmur

Posted by Curt at 06:46 AM | permalink | 1 comment

I’ve only met one real hippie in Paris. Some of the American students I know here would have been surprised by that upon first arriving here. One in particularly, a friend of one of my friends back at school, much attached to wearing plaid sport jackets with corduroys and basketball shoes, a champion of the harmonica as a respectable instrument and, of course, still trying to act as a latter-day John the Baptist for Bob Dylan, I think expected more. I imagine he thought that the absence of large numbers of fundamentalist Christians and Republicans, combined with the usual French attitude towards our most obvious sacred cows meant that France would be a paradise of free love, joint-smoking on the sidewalks and philosophy mixed with jam sessions: in other words, the American college experience without disapproval from the elders. Well, the girls are out of range, the philosophy comes rapidly but angrily and smoking a splif (no real joints here) in public will practically get you sent to the military brig. I’ve almost come to think that obsessive rule-abiding here is itself the source of the need for periodic revolutions. After all, if the government hadn’t still been persecuting Jews in 1904 in the name of the official Catholic religion, the public might not have instigated the massive public backlash which led to the establishment of official secularism. It may be that if one does not bend the rules constantly, they become brittle more often, and must be broken and re-formed. It’s a form of progress which is more official and less personal.

Anyway, naturally the only hippie I’ve met here was an American. I was at a party hosted by a number of Italian political science students in some back-alley in the 15th, one of those overlooked residential neighborhoods between les Invalides and the river.

A Spanish girl I was talking to said: “Oh, but there’s another American here!” I suppose expecting me to be thrilled, because, after all, Americans come to live in France to meet more Americans. But I had to admire the sheer anachronism before me. I thought I might be having an imagined memory of meeting my youngest uncle back in the ’60s, maybe shortly after he got married in a Hawaiian shirt in a Buddhist ceremony on some hill-top. He wasn’t in France legally, he said (I suppose he would have been ashamed if he was). I bit my lip as he related the wonders of self-discovery to be found in Hermann Hesse, and advised me to consult “the teachings of the Native Americans.” Only the North Americans, he helpfully qualified, since “the South American cultures were fucked-up” (I think Samuel Huntington, Pat Buchanan and maybe one or two others may possibly share this view). The Native American tribes, you see, had devised the perfect social system. No more risking the huge errors that can result from electing leaders by means of popularity contest, or the similarly low probability of decent leadership arising from the uninterrupted line of progeny in a hereditary lineage. No, the Native Americans simply adopted the most blatantly obvious means of securing good leadership by always selecting the wisest member of the tribe as chief. What simplicity! What genius! As for man’s individual search for meaning, he earnestly enjoined me to study Buddhism. The confusion of values and truth in our present age is illusory. Norhing can be more easily resolved: according to the Buddha, all truth is necessarily incomplete. It is only by taking one belief and its antithesis that we can perceive the truth (Hegelian dialectic sounds so much less romantic). The contradiction between our beliefs and the converse is a guarantor of the truth that lies within them! Now I would never dismiss the possibility of these ideas, but does it not at least seem likely that the chiefs of Native American tribes had a vested interest in propogating the belief that the leaders are always the wisest members of the tribe, and that taking contradiction as a principle of truth makes only the truth untrue?

November 24, 2004


Posted by shonk at 06:11 PM | permalink | 6 comments

As most of you have no doubt noticed, I tend to buy a lot of books. Aside from the fact that I’m something of a compulsive reader, I’m really enamored of the whole ritual of owning a book, from the initial purchase to the freedom to dog-ear and underline to the imposing solidity of a well-stocked bookcase.

That’s all completely irrelevant to my point, other than to establish that I buy a lot of books. And, increasingly, the books that I buy, especially books published in the last decade or so and aspiring to literary merit, are adopting a sort of rough matte finish as a necessary part of good cover design. Apparently there’s something about matte finish that graphic designers think screams this book has literary merit.

Now, admittedly, there’s something more compelling about the matte-finish-and-chiaroscuro-graphics school of cover design than the glossy-cover-and-embossed-letters school that reigned supreme in the ‘80’s and still dominates in the thriller/romance sector of the market. The understated look certainly suggests greater intellectual depth.

But I wonder if it’s necessary to make the matte so rough that it actually gives the book a distinctive, gritty texture. The other day I bought five books at the local Barnes & Noble, and four of the five had a distinctly gritty texture to them. As I held them in my hand and the covers lightly scraped against eachother, it almost felt as if sand had gotten lodged in between the books in the stack. Call me old-fashioned or obsessive-compulsive, but there’s something vaguely unsettling about that.

Personally, I blame book critics. You see, I have this fear that the graphic designers at all the big publishing houses have read too many reviews of over-pretentious pseudo-literature; you know, the sort of reviews that overuse terms like “metafiction” and “narrative” and always manage to call something or someone “dysfunctional”. Well, these graphic designers, as I envision them, notice that words like “gritty”, “textured” and “chiaroscuro” are overused in positive contexts in these sorts of reviews as well, and say to themselves: “Hell, we’ll give ‘em gritty, textured and chiaroscuro. Just use that rough matte and take some soft-focus pictures of something indistinguishable and we’ll be all set to go.” And sure enough, there you go, a book with a distinctively gritty texture with an indecipherable cover photo.

Of course, I’m probably overreacting. But then again, maybe not:

When you pick up the front page of any news publication, you are looking at someone’s attempt to win a design contest; everything that comprises that page—the words, the images, and even the white spaces between those words and images—are nothing more than props. In the eyes of the modern newspaper designer, all of those elements have equal value. This is not an exaggeration; stroll past any newspaper design desk and you will hear people talking about the “creative use of white space.” This means people are discussing ways to better utilize the parts of the paper that are blank (this includes the gaps between columns and the borders at the top and bottom of a page). Just think about that for a moment: People are literally discussing the creative significance of nothingness.
—Chuck Klosterman, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, pg. 216

(Speaking of books, this past summer I was bored one day and decided to compile a complete list of books I own. That list is now available for your perusal and is permanently linked from the Books sections. I’m willing to lend virtually any of the books on that list to people I trust will return them.)

September 02, 2004

The decline and fall of the French tourism empire

Posted by Curt at 10:40 AM | permalink | comment

I too have been consistently absent for some time, but unlike Clay, I cannot promise a return to fecundity of entries anytime soon, thanks to the high price of Internet in Europe. Well, actually the Internet café where I am writing at the moment is free, but that will all come to an end in three weeks. Anyway, I’m in Tours, France, right now, which is a beautiful city, but seems to have a bit of a geo-cultural identity crisis. It seems to be a bit of northern and southern Europe at the same time. The temperatures in the morning would lead one to believe one was in northern Europe, whereas the temperatures at mid-day would incline one more towards southern Europe. Likewise, the stands of deciduous trees all around definitely incline more to the North, but the scattered palms and orange trees point more to the South. Add to the fact that many of the residents’ families immigrated fairly recently (by European standards) from other parts of France, and the makings of a hodge-podge are quite definite. In any case, at least decadence does not have to conceal its name here, and we can celebrate the chateaux which rise up across the land like upraised middle fingers directed at the peasants without even the discreeteness to disguise themselves as fortresses for the commoners’ protection. Or maybe they rise so far above our bourgeois notions of social justice that even the notion of such a thing as class antagonism seems a rather gauche motivation to ascribe to their creators. And I, riding the crest of five hundred years of contortion and revolution, can profit from their example without being subject to anything more severe than the 50% sales tax on Fanta. Anyway, I must be going, as the light waneth and my computer’s battery draineth, for as the French say: “Après le PowerBook muert, le déluge.”

July 18, 2004

Pictures from the land of socialized medicine

Posted by shonk at 02:08 PM | permalink | comment

summer in europe

Based on the counter, I see that some of you have already noticed, but for those that haven’t, Curt’s pictures from Europe are now available. Check ’em out and be sure read the descriptions at the bottom of each photo page. Of course, there’s also a permanent link on the photographs page

July 11, 2004

Voyage to the end of public transportation

Posted by Curt at 03:33 PM | permalink | 1 comment

As I may or may not have remembered to mention before I left, I have spent most of the last month in Europe, starting in Sweden (after a very brief but interesting stop-over in London), then to Norway, then to Barcelona, then to St. Petersburg, Russia by way of Helsinki. I could probably write a book about my impressions right now, but rather than burdening you with such a load, I thought that I might solicit questions from any of you that are curious about any aspect of the places that I visited or about my journey itself or really anything else. I thought about trying out this method because I was visiting the fringes of Europe, maybe what might be callled the extremes of Europe, northern Europe, southern Europe and eastern Europe, where, while certain traits commonly associated with Europe seem heightened or exaggerated, the environment is very different than that of the core of Europe, i.e. Britain, France, Italy, Germany and the Low Countries. Coupled with the fact that the places I visited are a bit less visited (at least by Americans) and a bit more out of the way than those countries, I thought some of you might be curious or interested in my opinions about them. Certain of the broad stereotypes regarding them are definitely false, such as the idea that families and the institution of marriage have dissolved in Scandinavia (I saw probably more parents walking infants in strollers, usually both parents together, than I have anyplace else that I have been, including America—an impression confirmed by a fellow-traveler from Costa Rica) or that Russia is a lawless, mafia-ruled gangland (I felt safer there than I generally do in any large American urban centers), while others are for the most part true—prices are indeed astronomical in Scandinavia and Russians will drink just about anything by the shot, including Grand Marnier. Anyway, if you would like to ask me a question about my trip, please leave one for me in the comment-box or e-mail me. Of course, if a few days go by with no response, I can always elaborate with long, rambling anecdotes, but I would at least like to try this little experiment with dialectical communication in the hope that I may be able to provide something a little more focused on what people are interested in.

p.s. There will also be pictues a subito.

July 09, 2004

Now playing...

Posted by shonk at 12:15 AM | permalink | 7 comments

Talking to George today, we came up with some band names that someone needs to use:

  • Seized By Apathy
  • Who Are These Guys? (so that when they show up at your favorite bar and refuse to play covers, the band name will be on everybody’s lips)
  • Creative Destruction
  • Boosted To Mediocre
  • The Occipital Lobe
  • The Gel Curve
  • Interspecies Powwow
  • Discomfort in the Afternoon
  • Tman Gets A Clue
  • The Dismal Scientists
  • Ayn Rand’s Malignant Lung
  • The Vegan Cannibals
  • The Use of Fools
  • The Unwitting Accomplices
  • Internal Dialogue
  • Gratuitous Post
  • The Categorical Imperative (stage costume: black turtlenecks, horn-rimmed glasses, berets)
  • Erectile Malfunction
  • The Underground Monorail
  • Skyborne Oil Deposit
  • Felonius Insult
  • G-String Theory
  • Shit Hemorrhage (chorus to their first single: “I went to take a shit but the shit took me…SHIT HEMORRHAGE!”)
  • Nocturnal Mission

Feel free to add your own.

June 25, 2004

Do you own that song?

Posted by shonk at 07:59 PM | permalink | 5 comments

I’m not going to comment on the Supreme Court’s latest decision, though I suspect most readers will be able to guess my opinion. I’m also not going to comment on the recent success of SpaceShipOne, though I agree with Dave Masten that, although this may not be the dawn of the space age, the eastern sky is definitely getting brighter.

Instead, I want to post a response I wrote today to someone who claimed that people who don’t recognize “intellectual property” do not have a “philosophy of property”. As you read this, keep in mind that this isn’t an issue completely settled in my own mind. As you’ll note, I do think that ideas can be owned, but I do not think that this ownership is as complete as many defenders of “intellectual property” would like to think. With that in mind, to the argument:

Nobody, but nobody, is claiming that you don’t own the products of your labor. Rather, anti-IP types are, by and large, simply arguing that the control implicit in ownership does not extend to a right to control the actions of others who are doing no harm to you.

Suppose, for example, that you come up with a catchy tune this afternoon. Now, this is the product of your mental labor, and hence you would surely argue that you own this tune. And that is entirely true. You have complete and utter control over what, if anything, you will do with this tune, and nobody, not even hypothetically, has the ability (let alone the right) to use this tune in a way not acceptable to yourself. Your ownership of this tune is more complete, at least in the sense of the degree of control you exercise over it, than your ownership of your car or your shoes or your nailclipper.

You may choose to simply keep the tune in your head, that you may enjoy it. You may choose to pick up your guitar and play the tune to yourself, allowing you to enjoy the tune aurally as well as mentally. You may choose to record the tune on some form of magnetic or electronic media, so that you may enjoy the aural experience passively. At this point, you still have complete and utter control over the tune.

Now, suppose keeping this tune to yourself isn’t as satisfying as you might like, and you decide to play the tune for others, or to give them a CD on which you’ve burned the tune. Now, we come into an entirely different realm. You no longer have complete control over the tune as a mental construct. The people to whom you’ve given a CD can now play it whenever they like, even if you might disapprove of them, say, playing it while they masturbate. By doing so, they are not damaging you in any way and so it would be illegitimate for you to assert control by way of force over them in an attempt to prevent them from playing the tune on their CD player while masturbating. In much the same way, if you toss a twenty dollar bill out the window, you have no right to assert that the person that picks it up is under an obligation to use it only to purchase products you approve of.

Similarly, you of course have the right to sell CDs with your tune on them, rather than giving them away. Again, though, you do not have a right to control where or when your customers play those CDs, just as you don’t have the right to prevent the person to whom you’ve sold your car from entering it in a demolition derby or driving it to Nevada (of course, all of these things can be specified by contract, but we’re arguing purely philosophically here, in a sort of legal vacuum).

Now, suppose one of the people to whom you’ve given or sold a CD decides that he will, in turn, sell that CD to someone else, rather than keeping it. Again, I think we would all agree that you have no right to prevent that person from doing so.

Suppose, instead, that instead of merely selling his copy of the CD, this person makes a dozen copies and sells them. Certainly, if he has legitimately acquired the CD, he has a right to do with it however he wishes, including inserting it into certain electronic devices that may transfer the data contained therein to other storage media. So nobody could reasonably claim that the copying itself is illegitimate. Rather, it must be the act of selling those copies which is anathema. Now, in our hypothetical, this person has obtained the blank CDs onto which he’s copied the tune legitimately, and he certainly has the right to sell those blank CDs unaltered, so, if we are to say that selling CDs onto which the tune has been copied is wrong, we must have a very good reason for doing so.

Specifically, it must be demonstrable that selling those CDs is causing actual damage to some other person (this is, after all, why stealing something is wrong; it’s not the moving of your car to another city, in and of itself, that’s important, but rather the damage I do to you by taking your car). And so, to demonstrate that the selling of those burned CDs qualifies as theft, it is necessary to demonstrate that somebody has been damaged by this sale.

Before we get into this particular issue, though, note how already the situation is different from that embodied by the theft of some material thing: when I steal your car, I’m depriving you of your car, and whether I turn around and sell the car or not is ultimately irrelevant to the situation; when I “steal” your tune, the claim is that the crime occurs at the time of dissemination (because, after all, I have every right to make a dozen copies of your CD for, e.g., my personal collection). More basically, when I steal your car, I deprive you of that car; when I “steal” your tune, I do not deprive you of your tune, as it still (presumably) resides in your mind and on the original CD that you made. This, in and of itself, makes “intellectual property” different from “ordinary property”; defenders of “intellectual property” claim that one can steal it without depriving the original owner of it. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that this is where many people stop: how can you steal something from someone when they still have the thing you supposedly stole? This is a very reasonable question, but I agree that it doesn’t completely put the issue to rest. After all, assault isn’t stealing (at least not without some contorted reasoning), but it’s still wrong. If it can be demonstrated that you, as the creator of the tune, are damaged by someone selling copies of CDs which will play that tune when used appropriately, then surely a crime has been committed, even if it’s not theft in the usual sense of that word.

The point is, the defender of “intellectual property” needs to demonstrate that the creator is damaged by the dissemination of his creation through undesired channels. Going back to our example, we would need to demonstrate that you are damaged by the sale of those 12 burned CDs. Now, it’s clear that those 12 CDs aren’t going to actually physically injure you, or take money from your bank account that you’ve already deposited, or in any other way damage the property you already own. And so, here arises the misleading concept of “potential damages”. That is, the notion that the sale of those 12 CDs has potentially prevented you from making money from selling your own copies, that your future earnings may be lower. However, this idea is flawed in two basic ways. First of all, these potential future sales are simply impossible to quantify. The only way to quantify them would be to turn back the clock and re-run time with everything exactly the same as it was with only one difference: that the sale of the 12 copied CDs never happened. This is clearly a physical impossibility. Maybe all 12 people who bought copied CDs would have purchased CDs from you, maybe a few of them would have, maybe none of them would have. Maybe those people turned around and sold burned copies of their own, maybe they only played those CDs in private, or maybe they played them at parties, thereby actually marketing the tune to people who would otherwise never have heard it, resulting in bigger sales for you. It’s simply impossible to tell, even if we grant the notion that you have a right to all revenue from sale of the original tune, which situation obtains in any given case.

The more fundamental flaw, however, addresses this last notion. You do not have the right to all revenues from the original tune. Saying you do equates to the notion that, if you toss a twenty out your window and the guy who picks it up invests in a stock that’s about to blow up, that you have a right to the money he made by selling the stock. Or, to take another example, if you sell me some scrap aluminum that I make into a sculpture, you don’t have a right to my earnings from the sale of that sculpture (and, similarly, gun manufacturers should not be liable for what their customers do with their products).

You have no right to compensation for your labor; you are free to get the best price you can for it, but society is not obligated to reward you for your labor. If I dig a hole and then fill it in, I don’t have a right to compensation. Labor is not innately valuable. You have the right to try to get as much as you can for your tune, but if you don’t get as much as you think you should have gotten, you are not being damaged by that fact. Perhaps I’m not explaining this very well, but my question is simple: On what grounds does one have a claim to something that isn’t real? Potential future earnings are not, to put it bluntly, real; they’re potentialities, dreams of a future that may never come. In fact, the argument that you own the potential future revenues of your song is basically saying that you own the future decisions of others and that they have an obligation to purchase your song.

And so on…

April 19, 2004

Nearest book

Posted by shonk at 12:51 AM | permalink | 6 comments

Someone’s trying the ol’ meme-spreading game (via Beck); I’m always game for such shenanigans, so here goes:

  1. Grab the nearest book.
  2. Open the book to page 23.
  3. Find the fifth sentence.
  4. Post the text of the sentence in your journal along with these instructions.

Here it is:

The property of being 1-1 means that no two elements of A correspond to the same element of B (no two judges are playing the same position), and the property of being onto ensures that every element of B corresponds to something in A (there is a judge at every position). (Understanding Analysis, by Stephen Abbot).

Technically, this wasn’t the absolute closest book at hand. That honor goes to a calculus textbook, but pg. 23 contains 64 graphing problems and not a single actual, complete sentence. The fact that I was disappointed that the nearest non-calculus book at hand was a lightweight undergrad analysis textbook probably says something about me. Something like, “You need to get out of the house more.”

March 29, 2004

Europe gets a head start

Posted by shonk at 10:35 AM | permalink | comment

Something I never realized until I was talking to Petya today: Europe starts Daylight Saving Time a week before the States do. I’m guessing that means there are a lot of people, like myself, very confused today.

March 27, 2004

Religious polemics? To the hatchet-mobile!

Posted by Curt at 02:26 PM | permalink | 9 comments

My brother’s opinion on the merits of a statistical argument for atheism pretty much suffices; the argument is wholly without merit and ought to be a source of embarassment for those who employ it. It is almost as bad as the “scientific” or “historical” proofs of atheism which try to use biology, physics, the archaeological record, etc. to prove that the events of scripture could not have occured as described. This is clearly missing the point, even though I do not for a minute go in for the weak-kneed religious defense that all the scriptural stories are actually metaphorical and are not to be taken literally. That is clearly hogwash: these were the explanatory stories about the world for entire cultures through many epochs, and it is only since the truth of scriptures have come under questioning scrutiny that their adherents have begun using this argument for the, shall we call it, poetic merits of scripture. Nevertheless, proving the ridiculousness of certain points of scripture does not bring us any closer to the proposition that God does not exist, any more than a belief that God does exist requires one to accept each one of those dogmatic points of scripture.

In any case, both the statistical and “scientific” arguments are equally based on the deplorable literalism which also characterizes religious fundamentalism, which is to say that they take the words of the sacred books to be the most important issue, rather than the status of the wider theological question, a point that I tried to make as an addendum to my fulminating about “The Passion.” One other point, which is somewhat implicit both in what I have just written and in my brother’s response to the statistical argument, is that atheists do not simply, as the e-mailer claims, “question a claim,” presumably that God exists; if they did, they would be like my brother and I, agnostics. Instead, the posit a counter-claim, “God does not exist,” which is no more logically defensible than the converse and possibly ethically less so. In fact, the very statistical argument which the e-mailer so confidently predicts will validate his atheism would actually indicate that atheism is almost certainly wrong, because whatever particular sect people adhere to, the vast, vast majority of humanity believes in the existence of some sort of God/deity/supreme being/whatever, while only a small number are actually atheists. So the dilemma for the atheist who wants to use the statistical argument is that it is either a) invalid or b) valid, but actually indicates that atheism is wrong. Obviously I think that the argument is crap, so it should simply be dropped, but the difference (all too often forgotten by atheists) between belief in the existence of God and adherence to a particular sect at least deserves notice. Further, almost every one of the skeptical arguments regarding the existence of God (i.e. humans are not equipped to know the truth of the matter, etc.) apply equally well to the atheistic counter-proposition, as far as I know.

Of course, in defense of both theists and atheists, the existence of God is a question upon which it is difficult to remain neutral, regardless of whether it is a matter upon which one can have any rational insight or knowledge. Further, as anyone who reads Hume knows well, if one really really applies the principal of empirical skepticism rigourously, only accepting that which logically obtains from experience, well, the result is solipsism, because one can not really know or prove the existence of anything except one’s own thoughts (and maybe not even those, grazie a Freud). And Hume seems to suggest that it is inevitable that we accept the existence of the outside world despite ultimately having no rational grounds for doing so; one could even suggest further that if the employment of reason exclusively truly results in solipsism, and gives no grounds to know anything except one’s thoughts, than reason is perhaps not always the best means of evaluating the objects of the world. It may be that way with theism, too: one may not be able to justify belief in the existence of God logically, but that does not in itself prove that logic is the supreme criterion for judgment on the issue, hence does not prove that faith is necessarily a bad criterion for belief. Since most people who listen to people like Richard Dawkins nod and smile and go on merrily believing in God, I can only suspect that this is a common subconsious line of thought (although, pace Tolstoy, that does not necessarily argue for the merits of this way of thinking either). And in any case, even if atheism really were a skeptical view, like agnosticism, one cannot be skeptical about everything. Even we agnostics are dogmatic in our own way: we are like the truth-seekers in Nietzsche who subject every idea and belief to scrutiny except the existence and value of the truth, which passes as an a priori value.

And so all things in moderation: skepticism and belief are really twin poles of abstraction. One cannot be entirely skeptical any more than one can believe whole-heartedly, I don’t think. I suspect that the most fervent devout catches himself possessed by doubts about his central points of belief just as often as the avowed skeptic catches himself in the course of his day passing uncritically through the world, but if the devout is healthy-minded he will not flagellate himself for these doubts but will welcome the chance to reassess his beliefs and either return to them strengthened in conviction or abandon them, counting himself fortunate for being rid of his illusions, just as the self-honest skeptic will realize that to apply his skepticism universally and constantly is not only an impossibility, but a misery, the misery of uncertainty and unrest about everything. I think we all have to learn to live with the persistence of the unexamined belief just as we do the gnawing doubt that surrounds even the things which seem most certain to us.

March 21, 2004

PowerPoint sucks!

Posted by shonk at 05:14 PM | permalink | 3 comments

While in Bulgaria, I attended a public discussion on new media. Since I don’t speak Bulgarian, I had plenty of time to think about the style of the presentations; specifically, what I see as being the deficiencies of the standard PowerPoint presentation.

I have to admit, my ruminations were spurred by Petya, who turned to me early in the first presentation and whispered “I hate PowerPoint presentations”. I had never really thought about it, but I tend to agree. In his article “PowerPoint is Evil” (be sure to click the link, for the hilarious image, if nothing else), Edward Tufte spells out some reasons why:

In a business setting, a PowerPoint slide typically shows 40 words, which is about eight seconds’ worth of silent reading material. With so little information per slide, many, many slides are needed. Audiences consequently endure a relentless sequentiality, one damn slide after another. When information is stacked in time, it is difficult to understand context and evaluate relationships. Visual reasoning usually works more effectively when relevant information is shown side by side. Often, the more intense the detail, the greater the clarity and understanding. This is especially so for statistical data, where the fundamental analytical act is to make comparisons.

A rather vivid illustration of Tufte’s point is that PowerPoint helped cause the Columbia catastrophe (unfortunately, only an abstract is still available for free).

Back to the public discussion in Sofia for some more examples: a couple of the presenters used PowerPoint (or, in the case of one, AutoPilot) to relatively good effect, but several exhibited the classic defects of substandard PowerPoint presentations: an emphasis on design over content, letting the medium dictate the message, presenting spurious graphics irrelevant to the presentation, etc. My God, a couple of the presentations had literally dozens of screenshots of the same website, which the speaker methodically clicked through in a rather unfortunate attempt to highlight the features of that site. And let’s not even get into the presenter who didn’t even know how to use PowerPoint, or the fact that all but two of the speakers showed their slides in edit mode rather than as a full-screen presentation.

Of course, as The Bofe Blog points out, PowerPoint can be used effectively, but, like Flash intros, I’d have to say the failures outnumber the successes by a pretty large margin.

If you must use PowerPoint, at least keep in mind the following advice from The Bofe Blog:

Visual aids should only be used when they are needed. This sounds like common sense, but you would be surprised how many MS Clipart-ridden presentations with clunky animations are being presented in the world of Higher Education. PowerPoint’s interface makes it very easy to get caught up in the aesthetics of your presentation (theme, clipart, etc) without focusing on the content.

Tufte generalizes this principle:

At a minimum, a presentation format should do no harm. Yet the PowerPoint style routinely disrupts, dominates, and trivializes content. Thus PowerPoint presentations too often resemble a school play -very loud, very slow, and very simple.

The practical conclusions are clear. PowerPoint is a competent slide manager and projector. But rather than supplementing a presentation, it has become a substitute for it. Such misuse ignores the most important rule of speaking: Respect your audience.

So, okay, maybe PowerPoint doesn’t suck, but let’s not try to use it beyond the scope of its capabalities.

March 19, 2004


Posted by shonk at 01:12 AM | permalink | comment

For whatever reason, this used-up matchbook I found in the street today is both strange and wonderful:

is what you're smoking LEGAL?

March 17, 2004

Ranting about Sewanee

Posted by shonk at 10:56 PM | permalink | 8 comments

I hate to keep flogging the Sewanee horse, but this was too good to pass up: Virtuosity Online is shocked and appalled that the Sewanee Purple had some sexual content. For those that don’t know, the Sewanee Purple is the official student newspaper at Sewanee, which is the Episcopal Church’s only university.

Now, I haven’t seen the offending issue (since it’s not available online; more on that in a minute), but, although it sounds rather tasteless, the “evil” sexual content sounds pretty tame by the standards of college newspapers (a picture of someone putting a condom on a banana and so forth). However, the level of lewdness really isn’t my concern: rather, the folks at Virtuosity need to realize that, although the paper receives funding from the school, it doesn’t represent official university policy, it is not reflect the policies of the Board of Trustees and its content does not represent the opinions of anybody other than the people that write for it. Given that Sewanee has plenty of non-Episcopalians and even non-Christians both as students and on the faculty, I see no reason why anybody should expect the student newspaper to toe the orthodox party line.

Furthermore, so far as I can tell, contraception does not run contrary to Anglican dogma, so I’m not even sure what party line Virtuosity is toeing here. In fact, “The Voice of Global Orthodox Anglicans”, as Virtuosity apparently styles itself, has got some bigger fish to fry, if you ask me. The old saw that “wherever there are four Episcopalians you’ll always find a fifth” has plenty of truth to it in my experience and the number of country club Episcopalians I’ve met in my life is pretty staggering.

In fact, if they’re looking to stick their noses somewhere it might actually do some good, here’s a suggestion for those orthodox Anglicans: why don’t you express some outrage that enthusiastic, highly-educated and -motivated young people with experience in church-oriented social work are being actively discouraged from attending seminary while borderline alcoholic thirty-somethings who have yet to mature past the undergraduate worldview receive scholarships to attend seminary? Why don’t you express some outrage that many of the seminary students at Sewanee have a reputation as lushes? Why don’t you express some outrage that deans of your seminaries are (or at least have been in the recent past) sexually harassing female seminary students (one of which happened to be married to a member of the College of Arts and Sciences faculty)? You ever stopped to consider that maybe the reason the students at Sewanee are publishing sexually provocative articles in the student newspaper is because their religious role models have been either massive hypocrites or totally incompetent?

Okay, that’s not really the reason the student newspaper has sexual content. The real reason is that college students are obsessed by sex—always have been, always will be (which is to say that they’re just like everybody else). But if the church is looking to reign in the libidos of the young and the restless, it seems to me the place to start would be with the drunk and disorderly elements of the current and future clergy, who are, after all, the ones in charge of transmitting the church’s message to the laiety.

That all having been said, the Sewanee Purple usually deserves any and all criticism levelled at it. Quite simply, the paper is a joke and every student who wasn’t on the editorial staff knew it while I was at Sewanee (and I suspect things haven’t changed very much in the last year). As such, it’s both fitting and relieving that the Purple is not available online (well, it was available briefly in the Spring of ‘01, but hasn’t been updated since).

Of course, that really shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, given the rather curious approach Sewanee takes to technology. Despite trumpeting the incoming students the availability of high-speed internet in every dorm room and the wonders of the Academic Technology Center, the university’s bandwidth is notoriously inconsistent and insufficient, the ATC’s “lounge” is, in my opinion, unacceptably deficient in the “available computers” department, software upgrades are virtually unheard of (as of July neither OS X nor Windows XP was running on any public computers) and, as of last year, a student could neither check his grades, order a transcript, nor register for classes online. Even IRC doesn’t work properly on the University’s network.

I mean, I love the Sewanee and all, but get with the times, people!

And now, back to our regularly-scheduled programming…

March 07, 2004

Why I am not an anarchist

Posted by Curt at 05:46 PM | permalink | 4 comments

Among the many benefits of writing a weblog (other than Google celebrity) is the opportunity for spontaneous exchanges of views, with people whom one did not seek out and who come of their own accord to start stimulating discussions about various matters. One of the more prevalent views I notice expressed by many people who read this site (and by my co-author and brother, as well) is a fairly pronounced and seemingly genuine anti-governmental sentiment (as opposed to anti-governmentalism of the “I hate payng taxes but I’ll be damned if I give up my social security checks” variety), which seems to span a somewhat murky spectrum from simple libertarianism all the way to full-fledged anarchism (for those of you well-versed in the distinctions among these various terms I apologize for my inexact usage, but it will become apparent that these differences do not greatly affect my purpose). I too share a decidly skeptical view of the machinations of power, as well as the quasi-perverse desire to destroy the idealistic illusions surrounding hierarchical power structures, like democracy for example, in order to expose the veritable oppressiveness that really characterizes them. For all that, I simply cannot move all the way over into some sort of positive political counter-philosophy, like anarchism or something of the sort.

The problem, it seems to me, is not the ideal of a world without hierarchical power structures, where the powerful do not institutionally oppress everyone else. A fine idea that (and almost a universal among political philosophers, by the way), but the problem is in the relative applicability to human society of such an idea. Specifically, anarchistic philosophies (in all their many incarnations and varieties) seem to proceed on the assumption that humans can exist in a state in which the powerful do not bind the weak to them in order to exploit them, and in this way in my opinion runs into the same problem that plagues Rousseau’s conception of “free” primitive man. Rousseau seemed to believe that humans are (or at least were at some point) basically solitary, misanthropic beings (like Rousseau himself, or myself for that matter) who could avoid oppressive social structure simply by steering clear of each other. However, all the evidence of human societies in any era seems to indicate the converse, namely that humans are fundamentally social, and simply cannot help forming hierarchical structures for the most part. This conclusion is open to dispute, of course, but I suspect anyone wishing to take it up will have a long search through the archaeological record before they uncover anything of use to them.

So much for specific difficulties. The more general problem is one that all ideologies share, more or less, which is their ultimate feebleness. I don’t mean intellectual feebleness, but rather historical feebleness: again, as far as history is my guide, ideologies rarely provide anything more than the pretext for the mechanisms of power. Remember, almost all the various sorts of socialism, including Marx’s, although communalistc rather than individualistic, originally conceived of governments eventually being dissolved into voluntary associations of long-minded men. And yet lo and behold, when such an ideology was ostensibly implemented on a nation-wide scale for the first time, in Russia, the ambitious power-seekers among the revolutionaries simply used Marxist/socialist ideology as a Trojan horse under the cover of which to re-fashion the tsarist state, albeit with themselves, naturally, in power, spouting the rhetoric of “liberty” and “equality.” Of course, this is not an intellectual argument against any particular ideology, but simply my rather apolitical conclusion that political ideologies rarely serve as more than the figureheads, the clowns, which co-opt the periodic explosions of discontent and angst among the people at large so as to allow the movements of power to continue on exactly as they always and always will. Hence, any ideological ideal of change seems to me as generally no more than a pernicious illusion which seduces us into the belief that we are involved with, and partly responsible for, our current condition.

In light of all this, my earlier comment that I find the idea of a state-less, non-hierarchical world pleasant is perhaps somewhat misleading. As a “vision of heaven,” or something of the sort, I find it pleasant enough, but its real-life correlaries somewhat less so. As I have said before, places such as Somalia and Afghanistan should be evidence enough that violence, brutality and oppression can subsist just as well in conditions of state-less anarchy as in highly centralized bureaucratic states, if not more so. I am sure that proponents of anarchism would reject these cases as illegitimate examples of their theory in practice, but one ought perhaps nonetheless ponder whether the economic and cultural benefits we enjoy in this politically emasculating society do not to some degree depend on the stability and order created by that very political trivializing of the individual. As for myself, who knows what is the most superior mode of living, either personally or collectively, but at the least I do know that I detest politics and those who participate in it, even those who do so ostensibly in the service of an ideology that seeks to put an end to it, and it seems far preferable to me to withdraw from such participation on a personal level than to seek to effect some change on the world-historical level, as is the practice of those ego-maniacal scourges of the earth, the idealists.

p.s. Food for thought: it occurs to me that HTML works very well as a conceptual example in support of an argument for Berkeley’s idealism, but I don’t quite have the energy to explain my reasoning at the moment to those for whom the connection isn’t evident.

March 05, 2004

It's been interesting...

Posted by shonk at 02:34 AM | permalink | comment

It’s been an interesting week for me personally and it’s about to get a whole lot more interesting. I’m leaving for Bulgaria this morning (of course, what with trains, plane connections, layovers, etc. I won’t actually get there until Saturday afternoon). It looks like I may have a little bit more free time than I did the last time I went over, but I still probably won’t post very much, if at all. Hopefully Curt will drop in a few times, but odds are you won’t see me around here for about a week. Have a great week everybody.

February 16, 2004

L'habit seul fait le moine aujourd'hui

Posted by Curt at 04:10 PM | permalink | comment

It seems to me that the sociologists may have it right that racism is increasing today, but not as a result of the standard litany of rote causes. We certainly obsess about the idea of race probably more than at any other time in the history of humanity, certainly more than anyone did in the segregated South except possibly Joe Christmas. Perhaps I should reach back a little further. A strange thing has happened in the world: there was once a time in which the majority of people in the world were animists, that is believed that every sensible object in their view was possessed by, or under the influence of, a guiding spirit, a living thing which interacted with us. The world was a great mystery, but endlessly stimulating, inspired by the interaction with new and unknown personalities every day, in the trees, in the grass, in the building stones. Then came the long shadow of Plato and his age. He did not deny the existence of true forces and animating powers in the universe, but he consigned them to some distant netherworld, far removed from the empty shapes and illusions of ours. This was only compounded by the relentless monomania of Christianity, Islam, and the like, with their reduction of all cause and force to the sheer singularity of an omnipotent God, like the single animating eye of the sun in the desert. And finally we have arrived at the era of Nietzscheanism, with its dictum that “behind the masks lie only other masks,” and now we are literally unable to comprehend the possibility of real substance in the world in which we interact, and instead resort to investing meaning in purely arbitrary and incidental appearances. It is no wonder, then, that we should fix on race as a talisman of cultural and existential significance (this is as true of academics and activists chanting “Black is beautiful” as it is of any confirmed racists); if ideas, principles, passions, or even simple intuitions no longer hold any significance, then why not build up something as utterly meaningless as skin color into a founding determinant of personality? It should be clear that I do not view this fixation as a disease limited solely to the subject of skin color implied by the term “racism” but rather as a product of the time-bred suspiciousness and nihilistic idealism of centuries of academic thought.

February 06, 2004

Écrasez toutes les autres infâmes!

Posted by Curt at 02:55 PM | permalink | 4 comments

Recent postings on anti-trust law have set me to thinking, as is my wont, in a very unhinged way. My brother claims below that a definition on the part of the government as to what constitutes fair competition and an open market is a real travesty of arbitrary imposition on business. But it would seem to me that our real national problem (or perhaps global problem) is not that markets are being forced open by the government but that the government is itself the grandest of violators of the principle of openness and competition. It seems to me furthermore that it is due to a lack of real contemplation of these concepts which leads to an expansion of governmental mandate into so many areas of social life. The social contract is clearly an absurdity, a farce, a delusion. Were we the least bit serious about the issue, no one would be a citizen save those who actually do sign a contract, put themselves under the jurisdiction of the law and take in the benefits that accrue to them from it (an agreement, by the way, which they ought to be allowed to dispense with whensoever they choose to), and hence children, for example, would not be considered citizens of a nation, though they ought to be granted the benefits of citizenship until they may decide whether they wish to carry on so. This constitutes my response to the grave failing of all political philosophy, which is the impossibility of true choice. Every government appropriates total control of a certain piece of the earth, and while one I suppose has the choice of leaving one to submit oneself to the authority of another, there is no such thing as true autonomy. Don’t come to me with objections as to whether the children of non-citizens would be included within a government’s purview or not, or whether restrictions should limit economic interaction between citizens and non-citizens—these can only be the objections of a compromised partisan, not of a truly reflective mind. All this cavilling is about only subsidiary issues—the real choice must be whether one wishes to submit oneself to the Mandate of Heaven or not. But of course this is all a delusion on my part—no one, not even the founding fathers, really believed a fig in the social contract; it was all a land grab of the spirit, and the greatest coup of all was in convincing so many people in the reality of the social contract, that they themselves had chosen to live in such a way—which I suppose they actually have, but not consciously and not seriously.

February 05, 2004

Cubism Pisses Bill O'Reilly Off

Posted by shonk at 11:43 PM | permalink | 3 comments

Over at mock savvy, Neil points out how silly Bill O’Reilly’s concern about the erosion of values is:

He goes on to fret over secularization, and the attrition of “values that made - and still make - our nation great.” What values might those be? The Protestant work ethic so dutifully instilled by our slave driving forefathers? The sanctity upheld by our witch-burning Colonial demigods?

The point here is not to nitpick America’s tarnished past, but rather to discern the fallacy of nostalgia for some apocryphal American Utopia. I can vaguely understand the sanguine desire for a society of tried and true moral absolutists, but for God’s sake spare me the banality of this variety of feigned reminiscence.

My opinion is that O’Reilly is just nostalgic for the days when public dissemination of nudity was called “art” and people who spent all day looking at it were considered sophisticated. In that light, his is a self-interested call for the demise of non-representational art.

Of course, Maddox has a more concise interpretation: Bill O’Reilly is a big blubbering vagina.

January 23, 2004

Spending the Weekend Offline...

Posted by shonk at 02:12 PM | permalink | comment

…because tomorrow is my birthday and I’m going out of town. Have a good weekend, everybody.

January 02, 2004

Chapter 2. In which various polemical causes are advanced

Posted by Curt at 03:55 AM | permalink | 1 comment

In an earlier entry I criticized a pro-globalization scholar for concentrating solely on material well-being as the criterion for the success or failure of globalization, while failing to address equally important, though admittedly less verifiable, questions about spiritual and social happiness. These issues certainly trouble me, and this passage, from Theodore Dalrymple’s Life at the Bottom certainly gave me a pause:

“the squalor of England [is] not economic but spiritual, moral, and cultural…nothing I saw [in Africa]…neither the poverty nor the overt oppression-ever had the same devastating effect on the human personality as the undiscriminating welfare state. I never saw the loss of dignity, the self-centeredness, the spiritual and emotional vacuity, or the sheer ignorance of how to live that I see daily in England…I and the doctors from India and the Philippines have come to the same terrible conclusion: that the worst poverty is in England—and it is not material poverty but poverty of soul.”

Now in a certain way this passage does not bear directly upon the issue of globalization, because the welfare state is a different sort of beast than international capitalism, perhaps even opposite in kind. But Dalrymple is speaking of the same sort of frightening duality that I hinted at myself, though I certainly did not go so far or so boldly: the idea of material wealth co-existing with, perhaps even causing, utter spiritual poverty. In any case, I think the central issue is the spiritual vacuity created by an existence in which nothing is at stake.

In a condition in which material wealth, even at its most meager level such as welfare, virtually rules out the possibility of starvation or other sorts of physical misfortune, for those who do not have other compelling goals in life there would seem almost inevitably to ensue a sense of aimlessness, or as Dalrymple says “a limbo in which they have nothing to hope for and nothing to fear, nothing to gain and nothing to lose. It is a life emptied of meaning.” Because, as he says, “In the welfare state, mere survival is not the achievement that it is, say, in the cities of Africa, and therefore it cannot confer the self-respect that is the precondition of self-improvement.” And yet if such a system ruins individual lives by infantilizing them even as it virtually guarantees their indefinite perpetuation, one must ask what purpose such a scourge of a system is designed to accomplish. The answer has already been stated: the unconditional guarantee of the preservation and prolongement of human life. But is this a worthwhile value? It is not my purpose to infer a criticism of the welfare state, because of course its existence is simply a symptom of what is at root a philosophical view. And that philosophical view appears in some form even as far back as the U.S. Constitution, long before formulation of the idea, let alone the reality, of the welfare state. For in the U.S. Constitution man is famously guaranteed his “rights” to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Of course the framers of the Constitution were following principally Locke in his insistence on the sanctity of life, liberty and property. Now surely Locke and the framers were thinking principally of guarding against the unjust violation of these by another: i.e. murder, theft, enslavement, etc. But still, one can find the root here of all the absurd ephemera that are defended in the U.N. Charter as “fundamental rights of humanity,” as well as what will doubtless be an even longer and more tiresome list in the still-uncompleted EU Constitution. The U.N Charter goes almost so far as to guarantee every individual a four-door sedan and a duplex in the suburbs as a fundamental right of human beings (except of course that those are not stylish).

This might all be no more than a bit of airy boilerplate, except that if Dalrymple is right there has been immense loss brought about by this insistence on the exclusion of death and discomfort. That which I think has led modern society to this morass is a confusion of object with means, i.e. requiring that people not only be able to enjoy their rights but that they must, in fact, enjoy them. To put it more simply and broadly, generally speaking when people talk about rights today they do not mean what they should not be hindered from obtaining for themselves, as they used to, but rather what should be given to them. Hence, the dogmatists and pedants of our age have become convinced that the “right” to life, property, etc. means not only that individuals ought not be hindered by others from enjoying these things, but also that each individual ought be given them if they do not possess them and forced to keep them if they do. It can be no accident that such a ludicrous thing as a law against suicide exists in our country. Of course, the Enlightenment thinkers sanctified the pursuit of happiness, not its attainment, and in any case possessing a right does not necessitate its exercise. And as for these “natural and fundamental rights” of humankind—attempting to prevent individuals from imposing their wills unjustly on others, as the founders did, fine, but what could be more unnatural than holding death and discomfort, as we do, themselves to be unjust?! As for me, I eagerly await the time when all debilitating, illusions about “rights” disappear except for the right to the exercise of one’s will.

December 29, 2003

More Traveling

Posted by shonk at 02:01 PM | permalink | comment

I’m off to Bulgaria in a couple hours. Needless to say, updates will be a sporadic thing, though I’m hoping Curt will pick up the slack I’ll be creating. I’ll try to keep a record of my impressions and take some pictures, to be posted either while I’m there or when I get back, depending on Internet availability. I hope everyone has a happy new year.

December 17, 2003

I'm a Travelin' Man

Posted by shonk at 01:55 PM | permalink | 3 comments

Updates may be spotty (or not) the next few weeks. I’m leaving in a few minutes for the airport to fly back to Colorado for Christmas, then I’ll be going to Bulgaria for ten days later in the month. I’ll try to update as often as possible, but we’ll have to see.

December 03, 2003

Me, Style Savant

Posted by Curt at 09:25 PM | permalink | comment

Unsolicited fashion tip of the day: unpainted brushed-steel cars and zippers on formal jackets. Somebody should make it happen. As for the most oppressive and infamous artificial form that mankind has devised, I choose the barred or gridded window, which constricts the field of vision without developing any feeling of mystery or concealment.

December 01, 2003

Aye From the Back Bench

Posted by Curt at 02:33 PM | permalink | comment

I think that Clay's most recent post delves through many of the epistemological issues I have been fighting with of late, but at the same time the the quote from Wittgenstein that he provides at the end indicates to me why the philosophical psychology always comes in second place, rationalizing what is already done and past rather than creating and causing. What seems to be prized above all else after the waters have been sufficiently "muddied by discourse," as my brother puts it, is tranquillity of mind which will permit one to continue on in life without being reduced to terminal pensive indecisiveness and blank incredulity. Which may perhaps indicate that the very concepts of rationality and logic have been stretched too thinly, made to stand in for God or some other absolute which can support the necessary assumptions of life (but are they really necessary?) and dispel the frightening inscrutabilities.

Articulation and Reason

Posted by shonk at 12:31 AM | permalink | comment

In the comments section associated with Aaron Hartter's post on free will at No Treason I posted the following in response to a claim made by someone calling himself "The Serpent" that belief in free will is irrational because "free will" is a concept that cannot (at least in his opinion) be precisely articulated:

Though I suspect nobody will completely agree with me, I have issues with the serpent's implicit claim that belief in something that cannot be precisely articulated is irrational.

For example, I believe that 2+2=4, which most people would consider rational, even though I cannot precisely define what "2" is in a way that seems obvious to the non-mathematician. However, at least in this instance I can precisely define the concept (though there's a strong argument to be made that the structure of logic is, at best, tenuously connected to reality, whatever that is). More troubling, I think most of the choices I make in the course of a day are rational in the sense that, among the possibilities available to me, the course of action I choose is the one that maximizes my perceived personal utility. But I tend to think that it would be metaphysically impossible for me to precisely articulate what my "personal utility" is to another person.

Now, I know I'm putting the cart before the horse a bit with that last example, but the real kicker is this: I think the one thing we could all agree on is that it is rational for me to think that I exist and that I have a mind. However, I am not at all certain that I could precisely articulate what my mind is. Ultimately, all such definitions come down to is the following: "My mind is me". Which is rather circular, if you ask me.

My point is not to be a sophist, but rather to explain why the "precisely articulated" standard is probably far too rigorous as a judge of what is rational.

Now, I know this is bucking my recent trend of merely rehashing posts made by others, but I want to explore this idea a bit more and get back to the pseudo-intellectualism that is my usual modus operandi.

Before I do so, though, I probably need to back up a bit and explain a little about my metaphysical framework, because I think it's both a bit unusual and much more common than is usually appreciated. This explanation is far from complete, is perhaps even contradictory and I'll probably disagree with the whole thing by the time I re-read it tomorrow. I get back to the point in the third-to-last paragraph, so feel free to skip ahead.

In the past, I've described myself as a "probabalist" because it's the most accurate, though somewhat misleading, title I can think of. Basically, I think we can only have probablistic, rather than absolute, knowledge. For example, I think, with a high degree of certainty, that the sun will rise tomorrow because it has risen every day that I can remember, because all astronomical models I know of predict that it will, etc. However, I have to add the qualifier "with a high degree of certainty" because I acknowledge the possibility that the sun may not rise tomorrow, either because it could explode between now and then, because I may have been deceived into thinking it has risen every day that I can remember even though it really didn't, because maybe the astronomical models are all wrong. This sounds pedantic, but really all I'm doing is acknowledging that everything we see, read or remember is only accurate to a probability that is strictly less than 1.

Again, I feel like I'm not making this point as clearly as I would like. Suppose, for example, that I'm 99.9999% sure I'm not living in a solipsist's universe, because everything I've experienced is in accordance with the idea that there is a universe outside of my brain that I (imperfectly) sense through sight, sound, touch, etc. Right there, I've reduced my certainty that anything I see or experience is in accordance with reality from 100% to 99.9999% and, since any knowledge I have about the exterior world is based on this assumption, that probability serves as an upper bound on the certainty I may have in anything I claim to know.

The astute reader will quickly realize that this outlook leads to a rather nasty problem, namely that every bit of knowledge is based on an infinite chain or ladder of probabilities, each less than 1. Getting back to the question of whether the sun will rise tomorrow, my knowledge that the sun will rise tomorrow is based on the 99.9999% probability mentioned above that I'm not living in a solipsistic universe. But it's also based on the probability that my memory of the sun rising in the past is accurate (say 99.999%). In turn, I have to assume that past events are good predictors of future events; but this assumption is based on my confidence that I can extrapolate from past events - the induction principle, which I am, say, 99.99% confident in. Before I can even apply this confidence in the induction principle, though, I have to assert that this is a reasonable situation in which to apply the induction principle, an assertion I might only have a 99.9% confidence in. One might think that at this point I can merely multiply the stated probabilities and then say that I know, with 99.8% certainty, that the sun will rise tomorrow. Unfortunately, it doesn't stop there. Now, I have to assign a probability to the likelihood that my evaluation of this probability is accurate. And then a probability to the evaluation of this probability, and so on, ad infinitum. Troublingly, as I iterate this process, I arrive at an infinite product of terms each of which is positive and less than one. Which product will tend to zero. And even at that, the whole thing is contingent on how likely it is that my understanding and application of mathematics is accurate and the probability that mathematics has any relevance to the real world.

By this point, if you're still reading, I'm sure this sounds like a huge, sophistic boondoggle, but I'm not convinced that it is. On a practical level, we don't need to worry about this infinite chain of probabilities. If some piece of knowledge seems accurate with a high degree of certainty, we can just say that we "know" it and move on. And this accords with how people really think and act. When I'm hungry, I don't go into metaphysics, I eat something. When I'm tired, I don't reason from first principles, I go to bed because I know that doing so is likely to make me feel better even though I know, practically, that sometimes when I'm tired, I can't go to sleep.

We can even deduce morals from this framework and I would argue that doing so more accurately reflects the way we really make moral judgments. For example, I knew that killing was wrong long before I was exposed to rigorous philosophy. In making that judgment, I was intuiting in a probabalistic sense rather than reasoning deductively. In that sense, the whole approach differs quite a bit from the usual relativist cliché, since it allows for one to know that something is wrong without having to engage in abstract deduction.

Anyway, getting back to the original point, it should be obvious why I don't think it's necessary for something to be precisely articulated in order to make belief in that thing rational. However, even if you vehemently disagree with the (admittedly imprecise and non-rigorous) metaphysics described above, I think there's good reason for rejecting the notion that rational belief requires precise definition.

The reason is this: nothing (that I'm aware of) can be defined precisely enough that there can be no quarrel about that definition. And yes, I'm aware that if you take that statement too literally, it leads to a paradox. Most everybody would agree that it's rational to believe murder is wrong, but no two people that I've encountered have exactly the same definition of what constitutes "murder". Is abortion murder? Many would say yes, others would say no. Is a soldier killing another soldier on the battlefield murder? Even the most diehard militarist would probably agree that it depends on the war, on the soldier and on the situation. Is it murder when a woman shoots a man attempting to rape her? Well, how did she know he was going to rape her? What about when a man shoots a burglar? Or when a man shoots the meter-reader, thinking he was a burglar?

I think the problem I'm trying to express is twofold. First, so far as I know, nobody's knowledge is complete. One can always think of situations where a person's imperfect knowledge would lead him to do something that an "objective" observer would consider wrong. Second, amazingly accurate and reflective of reality though it is, language is imperfect. When we call something "murder", we are trying to apply a label to an abstract concept, but the only way of understanding this label is by allusion or comparison. As another example, when I use terms like "government" or "the State", I'm referring to an abstract concept, but the mental image that most people get is of some concrete exponent of that abstract concept: the White House or the roads or a congressman or the DMV or a ballot or the police. Language, in a sense, is general, whereas our experience is particular; for this reason definitions are never really precise, except perhaps in abstract or artificial environments like mathematics or logic.

As I have, by now, thoroughly muddied the waters of discourse, I'll leave you with two quotes from Wittgenstein's Philosophical Grammar:

What is spoken can only be explained in language, and so in this sense language itself cannot be explained.

Language must speak for itself.

Philosophical Grammar, pg. 40

(While thinking philosophically we see problems in places where there are none. It is for philosophy to show that there are no problems.)
Philosophical Grammar, pg. 47

November 27, 2003

Check out...

Posted by shonk at 02:07 AM | permalink | 1 comment

-Tuesday Morning Quarterback's NFL.com debut, because we may look back on this as the column in which TMQ officially jumped the shark.

-Urbandictionary.com's definition of "shonk", even though it's not very accurate, if you ask me.

-elgooG, the Google mirror, because, as Flip Phillips says, it is strange and wonderful.

-My playground for the next three days.

November 01, 2003

Alcohol Makes Me Ramble

Posted by shonk at 03:47 AM | permalink | comment

Random observations after a few Mackesons:

- Will blogs have a big impact on the 2004 presidential election? Probably a little, but, since the majority of people aren't into the blog scene, I don't think it'll be particularly noticeable unless the election is extremely tight. Excellent observation from the article:

A managed community works about as well as a managed economy. So the challenge is to find a way to build community without the community feeling built.
The first sentence is right on, the second a reminder that the author has forgotten his own lesson.

- I walked by what I assume was the Philadelphia Critical Mass Halloween ride on my way home from the office today. They were blocking all three lanes of Walnut over the bridge, riding as slow as possible, most in costume. I have to admit it was pretty funny, especially when I overheard one driver growling that "they oughtta be locked up".

- On that same bridge, I noticed that the crushed and increasingly weather-exposed box of Club crackers I first noticed on Monday was finally gone tonight. That thing survived a major rainstorm and a couple of minor ones, plus the considerable foot-traffic that crosses the bridge in the course of a week. Maybe that says something about Philly's street-cleaners. Or maybe it says something about the hundreds of people that walked around and over that green box without a single one thinking to toss the thing (myself included). Okay, that was only funny to me, I guess.

- Math jokes can be funny. But only the ones on the Simpsons. I've heard more than my share of groaners, but was disappointed to hear from an older grad student the other day that "they only get worse the longer you're here."

- If you're disappointed that I have links to so much literature in Spanish in my "Literature Online" section, you'll be heartened to hear that Spanglish is going to take over. The author of Spanglish, Ilan Stavans, identifies one of my fascinations with language and linguistics:

Language is the most democratic of human endeavours. It is by the people and for the people
As opposed to, say, that other thing that had that label applied to it.

- We've passed over into November, but the sickness to the stomach that millions of kids are surely feeling now as a result of eating their Halloween candy too quickly probably serves as little consolation to Moscow's disappointed trick-or-treaters. Of course, Halloween is an imported holiday in Russia, so that probably makes it easier to ban. I'm just waiting for the protests against the Peace Corps volunteers that introduced it: "They're infiltrating our schools, brainwashing the minds of elementary school kids with their satanic propaganda, rotting their teeth with candy, etc."

- How exactly does a civil union, currently legal in Vermont and being proposed in many other states, vary, other than in terminology, from a marriage? I'm convinced this is newspeak invented by politicians so that they can claim to be against gay marriage (appeasing the religious right), while actually proposing to make gay marriage legal. Needless to say, I'm not surprised it seems to be working. Nor do I applaud this rather gutless tactic; grow a pair, will ya?

- Speaking of politics, how fitting is it that some bit of regulation is a major reason why the Southern California fires got out of control?

- Finally, it seems only appropriate to end this post with a link to an end-of-the-world animation. As usual, I'm blaming the French (and feeling sorry for Hawaii).

October 25, 2003

This Site Certified 31% Evil

Posted by shonk at 01:38 AM | permalink | comment

Honestly, I was hoping for more evil.

On a related note, I'm apparently headed for the 2nd Circle of Hell, the level of the lustful. Who's coming with me?

The Fulton County School District thinks Rachel Boim is headed for the 7th circle. I'd comment further, but I think, by now, you should be able to anticipate my objections.

Also, I just want to state, for the record, that four months ago I was proposing exactly the sorts of "collaborative-filtering capabilities" discussed at the bottom of this article on aggregators to someone who was looking for a way to cash in on the blog craze. And I have a witness! Not that this was a particularly profound recommendation; the progression was so obvious that even a mathematician would call it "natural".

And, finally, if you have just happened upon my site and haven't yet seen the About or Photos pages, you'll be relieved to know that you could have correctly determined that I'm male simply by plugging this post into the Gender Genie (be sure to check out the New York Times article, the Nature article or Koppel and Argamon's paper).

October 21, 2003

Class Reunions

Posted by shonk at 02:06 AM | permalink | comment

I've always thought class reunions are odd phenomena. I suppose the idea behind them is that, by attending, you get a chance to see all the people you didn't keep in touch with after high school/college that you wish you had. But I think that's the optimistic side of me talking. I suspect the bigger draw is the opportunity to see all the people you didn't like while you were in school, with the secret hope that they've been failures with their lives. I mean, it was common knowledge that the bully would turn out to be a criminal, rapist and child-molester, right? So why not go to the class reunion and see for yourself? Not to rub it in his face, mind you, because you're way too mature for that, but just to prove to yourself that you were right all along, that you were much better off not hanging out with him (conveniently ignoring the fact that you didn't choose not to hang out with him - nothing would have made you happier - but rather that you were too shy or uncool to try). Or maybe the appeal is just to reassure your permanently damaged psyche that, subconsciously, you knew that the whole "cool" thing was so shallow, again conveniently ignoring the fact that your insecurities were just as shallow.

At any rate, I guess what I'm trying to say is that the majority of us are constantly trying to justify our past behavior, even if just to ourselves, and that maybe class reunions are an exponent of that.

Now, I know that there are probably a lot of people that go with the sole intention of seeing the people they used to enjoy hanging out with, but not quite enough to stay in touch. Not having ever been to a class reunion, I don't know. And I'm sure there are others that are still friends with lots of old classmates and decide to go as a group, knowing that, at the least, they'll have fun hanging out together. But I have to imagine there's a strong desire among many to show people "I may not have been cool in high school, but look how successful I am now" or to see the mighty brought low.

Why am I rambling about class reunions when I haven't even passed the fifth anniversary of my high school graduation? Well, in the class news being circulated by Sewanee, I just found out that the most annoying person I've ever met is now engaged. Now, this is the kind of guy that would specifically send that information to the alumni office just to prove to all the people he graduated with what a successful guy he is, in graduate school and engaged to a sweet Southern girl. And I, for one, hope she's either very sweet or very crazy, because otherwise she's going to be miserable. Anyway, he's the guy everyone hated that would show up at a class reunion just to rub everyone's face in what a success he is (not that a master's degree from a third-tier school is going to impress much of anyone), which is what got me started on this rant in the first place.

So, you see, it's not all sports and pseudo-intellectualism; we try to round it out with some good old-fashioned gossip, too.

October 15, 2003

Goin' to Pot

Posted by shonk at 02:39 AM | permalink | comment

First off, some good news on the medical marijuana front. The Supreme Court declined to review a ruling that doctors can discuss medical marijuana with their patients. That doesn't mean the feds won't continue to go after growers and sellers, but doctors won't lose their licenses for discussing the possible benefits of marijuana with cancer patients.

From the article:

In their appeal, federal prosecutors argued that doctors who recommended marijuana were interfering with the drug war and circumventing the Government's judgment that the illegal drug had no medical benefit.

Which is, of course, correct. Just because the State says that a drug has "no medical benefit" does not mean the drug has no medical benefit, though I've long been of the opinion that the purported benefits of medical marijuana are vastly overblown by its supporters. I don't have any scientific data to support that opinion, but it seems to me unlikely that there aren't any other nausea inhibitors or pain-killers out there that could work. At the same time, I understand why supporters hype the medicinal aspects of marijuana, as medical-marijuana laws provide a foot in the door for the fight against the wholly irrational and indefensible Drug War.

Since I'm on the topic of pot, I figured I would point out a couple of the detrimental aspects of habitual pot use, since some people of my acquaintance seem convinced that marijuana is a consequence-free drug. First off, pot can render you infertile; it seems that, in addition to reducing seminal fluid volume and sperm count, marijuana makes sperm move "too fast, too soon" so that they run out of energy long before they can penetrate the ovum. This seems related to the fact that sperm apparently have cannibinoid receptors.

Also, and this might be more worrying to the adolescent males that seem to be the most committed pot-smokers, pot can make you grow breasts. This is probably a result of the fact that pot seems to reduce testosterone levels in males. As this relatively balanced site says:

In males, marijuana can decrease the testosterone level. Occasional cases of enlarged breasts in male marijuana users are triggered by the chemical impact on the hormone system.

The women will be disappointed to know that heavy pot use won't increase their cup size; in fact, as FADAA warns:

Marijuana use by females increases the amount of testosterone in the body, causing an increase in acne and such male characteristics as body and facial hair, and flattening of the breasts and buttocks.

Now, I don't like the ONDCP very much, but it seems like publicizing this stuff would scare teenagers much more than those hokey ads they currently use.

So there. How's that for redirecting the conversation?

October 10, 2003

Triumphal Return

Posted by shonk at 12:35 AM | permalink | comment

I'm back from Toronto after an amazing and very relaxing weekend. I'll try to post something later tonight. In the meantime, I've been informed that I ought to make an "About" page so that random visitors can acquire a stylized impression of who I am without reading through all the archives (Curt can have one, too, if he feels like it). Any ideas on what I should say about myself?

October 08, 2003

Heart Palpitations

Posted by shonk at 03:03 AM | permalink | comment

Two minutes ago, I was screaming and cursing, convinced I'd accidentally obliterated the preceding post by closing the wrong window in my browser. You can't imagine my relief when I realized that I'd already saved it.


Posted by shonk at 02:52 AM | permalink | comment

The Policy Analysis Market is back on-line, this time supposedly "free of government involvement". The site, suspiciously, gives no real information on what will be legitimate to place bets on, probably as a hedge against media reaction (you may recall the uproar surrounding the initial launch of this DARPA brainchild*). Despite the claim of no government involvement, I imagine you might find yourself in a world of hurt if you accurately guessed a big, unforeseen disaster. Of course, I'm a cynic. And, incidentally, I have a hard time thinking this thing is likely to provide much useful information, but it is interesting to note that, in promoting this program, DARPA is essentially admitting that the state's information channels are for shit. Not that that should come as a big surprise.

People I know likened the original PAM to Assassination Politics, the brainchild of the currently-incarcerated Jim Bell (needless to say, most journalists and politicians had never heard of AP). The basic idea of AP is to establish a secure online venue to "bet" on the date of a politician's death. As in, you put in $10 on Senator X dying on October 13, 2003 and then, if he actually does die on that day, you and the other people who bet on the day split the pot. The trick behind AP is that you can buy multiple "shares" so if, for example, you plan to kill Senator X on October 13, you would buy as many shares as you could afford in order to get as big a piece of the pot as possible. The goal, of course, is to encourage hits on politicians, which Bell was (maybe is?) convinced would revolutionize politics. Of course, Bell was also convinced that Assassination Politics would be "perfectly legal". Most sane people, of course, agree with Bell, but think a working AP system (which many dispute is even possible) would revolutionize politics in the direction of totalitarianism rather than minimizing government. I'd link to some articles, but, honestly, the whole thing sickens me. Anyway, the point is, the fact that DARPA was and sort of still is trying to institute a similar (though not identical) program suggests that the doubters had a more realistic assessment of AP's likelihood of success.

In other news, I'm sure you've all noticed by now that Ah-nold will be the next governor of California. My girlfriend was incredulous ("i can't believe it!" were her exact words), but I have to admit that this registered about a 0 on my Shock-O-Meter. Let's face it, popular politics only has value as entertainment, anyway, so why should it be a surprise when an entertainer (and, given Arnold's net worth, an extremely popular one) succeeds in politics. Not that this is a new phenomenon. Look up Sonny Bono or Ronald Reagan for precedent.

I know some of you object to the first part of that last statement, but it's true. Let's face it, in any election that anyone gives a damn about, your vote ain't worth squat. The odds of your vote being the deciding one in a gubernatorial or presidential election are significantly less, even in a hotly contested election, than the odds of your dying in a car crash on the way to and from the polling booth. And, as was demonstrated in Florida three years ago, if the vote ever gets that close, the thing will ultimately be decided by courts, not voters, anyway. The point is, your vote and your interest in "the candidates" only has utility as a function of entertainment (or, I suppose, assuaging your misplaced guilt), so it should be no surprise when people vote on the basis of entertainment value rather than that mythical "civic responsibility" they beat us about the head with in high school.

This probably isn't the time to go into my critiques of democracy as an idea, but I'll just point out that, if the whole Arnold thing pisses you off, it's merely an example that the majority isn't always right. Whenever someone waxes sentimental to me about democracy, I'm reminded of a Chevy commercial from the early '90's (I can't remember for which model; the Lumina or the Cavalier, I think. Let's assume it was the Cavalier): the ad glorifies the sales volume of the Cavalier, concluding with the slogan "20 million people can't be wrong." Well, I got news for you: yes they can. The Cavalier was your classic piece-of-shit car, purchased only by idiots and xenophobes. So, yes, 20 million people can definitely be wrong. Incidentally, "Kevin Miles" says the same about Def Leppard; needless to say, he's wrong, too. If that anecdote doesn't convince you, I recommend a healthy dose of public choice economics.

Lest anyone confuse my point, I'm not saying there's no place for the democratic process, merely that it's not the panacea that it's so broadly assumed to be. What really amazes me is that such a broad range of people who make this assumption: radical communists, social democrats, moderates, conservatives, neo-conservatives (remember part of the justification for invading Iraq was to "bring democracy to Iraq", as if democracy automatically entailed freedom) and libertarian/Constitutionalist types.

* Although the new PAM is supposed to be less specific, you can see what the PAM website looked like by downloading this reconstruction. These screenshots show possible multiple-event trading, market interface and supportive entry.

Update: I've just noticed that the white supremacists have just started up their own version of Assassination Politics. Actually, it's really not. It's just a website with a bunch of "enemies" listed and some not-so-subtle recommendations to add these people to the "ash heap of history".

October 05, 2003


Posted by Curt at 09:02 PM | permalink | comment

Recently I was looking over the mass of papers I wrote while at Italian school this summer, forbidden to speak English or otherwise communicate except in writing. Here is one remark I jotted down in an idle moment:

A philosopher in any other age would not be a madman or a saint, but rather a lawyer, and a very silly one who does not even take payment for the services he enters into--perhaps more a loving prositute, then.

September 23, 2003

Nocturnal Lifestyle

Posted by shonk at 01:47 PM | permalink | comment

I was going to write about the virtues of the nocturnal lifestyle (which I wholeheartedly embrace), but there are really no objective advantages to it. In fact, there are some distinct disadvantages, as the nocturnal worker often finds himself working while others are sleeping or partying, which both limits your ability to collaborate and puts a cramp in your social life.

Nonetheless, the best job I've ever had was the research job during the summer of '02; it didn't matter when I worked, so long as I did. Needless to say, I was usually going to bed as the sun was coming up and often had to set my alarm to make sure I could make it to my daily 3:00 meeting. Of course, that meant that my social life was pretty much restricted to talking with other night-owls on IRC, but I needed a good introverted summer, anyway.

I haven't quite been able to duplicate that experience since, though having no teaching responsibilities this year means I don't ever really need to get up before 11:00, so I've been staying up until 3:00 or 4:00 most nights this fall. Of course, I'll be expected to start teaching next fall, which means I'll probably get stuck with a bunch of 8:00 recitations. I'm not sure how well I'll adjust to the diurnal lifestyle.

September 13, 2003

The Triumph of the Bill by Al-Curtizini

Posted by Curt at 03:24 AM | permalink | comment

As most of us are aware by now, tensions have recently escalated between the entertainment-media conglomerates who wish to make all consumers pay for use and the consumers who nevetheless side-step around this archaic and monopolistic supply-model through a dizzying array of proxy vendors, with no resolution in sight except a long string of lawsuits. I am speaking, of course, about the used-textbook market, and the shell game between textbook manufacturers and students willing to go to great lengths to avoid using their hamsters as collateral in order to come up with $130 for an intro. psych. book. Hence the used-textbook market, which, for those of us sensuously connected to our books, presents rather a dilemma. There is little inherently desirable about a used book. The notes are generally rubbish, good for nothing except practice for future archaelogists. Defaced pages, cracked spines, the absence of any but a soured book-smell--these books seem more like dilapidated, graffitied temples, and I far prefer my rapport with a brand-new book, pristine, which has saved all its special secrets for me alone, or at least me first. I would not call this expereience priceless: it has a very definite price, generally between $30 and $50 over the price of a poor degraded Used, which, when I am not paying for my textbooks, can even in me awaken the bee which but rarely troubles my bonnet, which I sometimes call a conscience. Therefore, I demand an armistace in the textbook war: I demand that textbook publishers stop preparing new editions every single year, resulting in a line of succession longer than the Bourbon dynasty and even more incestuous, so that when reading Hegel's "Philosophy of Right" I am not forced to decipher the dialectic of the finite Will through and around a hand-written scrawl entitled "Fifty variations on the word 'echinacea'"

September 03, 2003

Classes Start

Posted by shonk at 09:26 PM | permalink | comment

I went to my first graduate class today, and I'm pleased to report that I actually knew what the hell was going on. I'm sure at some point in the near future (like tomorrow) the concepts will start flying over my head and I'll get that underwater-with-no-air-tank feeling. You know, the one where you don't know if you're ever going to understand what's going on and start questioning your motivations, your career goals, the personal and financial implications of failing out of school and so on. No doubt, I will soon be checking out the webpages of economics, philosophy and linguistics departments around the country in hopes of finding something less impossible, but I think that sort of thing is normal, probably even healthy. After all, doubting the path you've chosen, but ultimately sticking with it shows a greater level of dedication than never having doubted at all. Plus, it means you're challenging yourself (or that what you're doing is too easy, I suppose, but I tend to doubt that will pertain).

I think that attitude is why I tend to have more respect for the likes of St. Augustine than of the stereotypical Benedectine monk; Augustine experienced the (enjoyable) things he ultimately rejected, whereas most monks in Medieval times were raised from birth with the expectation of becoming a monk, never having been very far outside of an abbey or convent and not having much exposure to the things they vowed to abstain from. On the other hand, modern monks typically have been exposed to what were once called "secular aims" and chosen to reject them with full knowledge of what that rejection implies. Which might explain why there were significantly more monks in medieval days than there are now (even though population has increased by a few orders of magnitude).

Okay, that was a bit off on a tangent. Needless to say, I didn't start writing this with the intention of delving into religion and monasteries, but it seemed appropriate at the time. And I think The Name of the Rose is affecting my brain.

September 02, 2003

Back to the Grindstone

Posted by shonk at 09:47 PM | permalink | comment

And no, you can't see the pictures. I haven't even seen them yet.

NOTE: My Sept. '01 - Aug. '02 Reading List is now available in a permalink to the right.

August 24, 2003

Found Stuff

Posted by shonk at 02:32 AM | permalink | comment

That picture, at least, is still in my possession, but even at that it'll eventually get out, because that's exactly the kind of nutty stuff you'll find if you really go through your dead relatives' things. In which case it's both nostalgic and eye-opening. For example, when my grandfather died, my mother made a conscientous effort to go through all of his and my grandfather's albums, books, correspondance, memoirs, quilts, etc. and preserve everything that was valuable or important. Since my grandmother was heavily into geneology, quilting and a number of other creative endeavors, we really learned a lot about the family history. And, of course, old pictures tell innumerable stories of their own. The point is, you can learn a lot about a person from the stuff they leave behind, but, for me at least, you always feel like you're missing something. There are so many pictures that don't make any sense but seem like they ought to (why was this common-looking bridge important? Whose house was this?). If you could ask the person what those pictures or those scribbled notes meant, maybe you could learn even more. But, then again, maybe they wouldn't understand them either, the meaning either having been lost to memory or never having existed in the first place.

There's always that fear, though, that the things you leave behind will tell others more than you wanted them to know. More, even, than they wanted to know. Bill Hicks expresses this viewpoint on one of his albums when he says,

I have this fear that I'm going to die before my parents and they're going to discover that porno wing I've been adding onto for years. My mom'll be looking through a box of old pictures, saying, 'Isn't my baby so cute in his cub scout uniform, with his li'l short pants? ... I wonder what's in this box?' There'll be two funerals that day, and I'll be the only guy in history to go through the gates of heaven with his mom spanking him.

Which is, I guess, the upside to internet porn. No boxes, no VHS tapes.

Okay, so lost or thrown-away notes and pictures can serve as a sort of personal narrative, but industrial and structural scrap can definitely serve as a kind of social or cultural narrative. Most of which is pretty ugly, but the Land of Evermore Park in Wisconsin serves as a rather astonishing testament to the fact that it need not be. Dr. Evermor sounds like a certifiable wack-job, but I would definitely check out the park if I'm ever in Wisconsin. And the Forevertron strikes me as a sort of industrial by-product and re-imagining of a Victorian spaceship - a photographic negative of the Victorian worldview.

August 21, 2003

Urban Eccentrics

Posted by shonk at 12:03 AM | permalink | comment

Despite the fact that I spend 23 hours a day either sleeping, reading or eating, I have had a few "big city experiences" (scare quotes added for those quivering in their suburbia purchased Timberlands). Most of the memorable ones revolve around what a friend of mine calls "urban eccentrics" - weird people you only see in big cities.

Actually, the term was originally coined as a euphamism for the all the gay guys that live near my buddy in a part of town that's close to a hip and upscale area, but is actually pretty low rent. However, it quickly became apparent that the aging, lower middle class gay guys and the sketchy gay priests did not, by any means, exhaust the possible forms of urban eccentricity, so the term has expanded to be thoroughly inclusive.

For example? Well, the guys I saw a couple hours ago in the gas station across the street. One was small, wearing faded, much-too-small and much-too-high jeans, jamming to the Muzak and tailoring his loud and frequent quips (like "This is my dinner!") to an uncaring and largely non-existent audience. For those who will understand the reference, he was like an older, smaller, unbearded Squeaks on speed. For the rest of you, that translates to something vaguely similar to Screech as portrayed on SNL. He was in front of me in line. The guy behind me was overweight, dressed in all black, had his long, seemingly braided, black hair up in some weird vertical ponytail that looked something like a rooster's comb after being tarred by sexually harassed hens, and wore both mascara and combat boots. Yes, you read correctly, mascara and combat boots.

These two guys sandwiching me in the line pretty much defined the term "urban eccentric". Of course, from anybody else's perspective, my Sewanee frat-boy uniform of khakis, flipflops and a party t-shirt probably appeared pretty damn eccentric, too. Since we were the only white people in the place, I wish I had a picture of the three of us lined up in a row to send to white supremacists as a counter-argument.

Or should I just go for the counter-counterculture statement next time and wear a bow tie and cordovan shoes?

August 20, 2003

Philadelphia, Part II

Posted by shonk at 02:08 PM | permalink | comment

Okay, I'm back in the saddle (so to speak). Internet has finally been installed in my apartment, and I'll hopefully be updating regularly from here on out. That being said, I promised myself I'd spend the afternoon studying for this huge, massively important test I'm taking on Tuesday. So any substantive updates will have to wait at least a few hours. Try to control your massive disappointment.

August 10, 2003


Posted by shonk at 08:24 PM | permalink | comment

After three days of driving, I'm finally in the outskirts of Philadelphia. Tomorrow I'll hopefully be able to pick up my apartment key and start moving my stuff in. Unfortunately, I have no idea when I'll have regular internet access, so who knows when the next real update will occur.


August 05, 2003

Frustrated Catholics

Posted by shonk at 08:07 PM | permalink | comment

I keep coming up with what I think are good, or at least interesting, ideas, only to realize moments later that somebody else has already come up with the same idea. For example, I was thinking today that, if the Catholic Church had an inclination, it could be one of the greatest operational organizations in the world. And by operational organization, I mean anything from the CIA to Amnesty International. After all, the sheer excess of energy available to it due to the pent-up sex drives of its celibate clergy is pretty overwhelming when you try to quantify it. You can see evidence of this in the number of languages spoken by the Pope, the academic achievements of the Jesuits, the rather amazing efforts of missionaries and so on.

Just when I sat down to write about this revelation of mine, I realized that this energy has already been tapped throughout European history. You've got the sheer organizational prowess and deviousness of the Inquisition, the massive output of the scholastics and the rather incredible deeds of the missionary priests in the new world (for good as well as ill; just look up Father de las Casas for evidence of the former). In fact, there is perhaps no other organization in the world that could have accomplished some of these things (which isn't to say that all of them should have been accomplished); the manic ministrations of the massively sexually frustrated are hard to match.

Usually, when confronted by the reality that my idea is not a new one, I push on ahead, expanding on the original theory in hopes of stumbling across something original, or at least shocking, despite the evidence suggesting that either is unlikely. Needless to say, this time is no exception. After all, one need only read The Decameron or Don Quijote or the history of Alexander VI's papacy to know that celibacy amongst the clergy has, in large measure, been a myth throughout most of history and the "common man" knew it. Perhaps, then, the celibacy rule was in earlier times more of a guideline or a long-term goal than a strict rule of behavior. On the other hand, it isn't hard to argue that, as powerful as the Catholic Church was in, say, medieval Spain, it wasn't necessary for its clergy to strictly follow the rules in order to garner respect, wealth and power, whereas in modern times, when competition, especially from fundamentalist sects, is much stronger, the church must appear to follow its own rules more strictly. In fact, one could argue that it is only the modern world's obsession with hypocrisy (due, in part, to attractive alternatives) that has resulted in the sorts of crises seen most obviously in the Boston Archiocese. A crazy theory no doubt (and supported by no citations), but something worth thinking about.

Existence Exists?

Posted by shonk at 12:13 AM | permalink | comment

In one of the bookstores mentioned the other night, my friend quoted a famous pseudo-philosopher's position on metaphysics: "Existence Exists" (no points if you know who the pseudo-philosopher is). My friend doesn't agree with this person's broader philosophic view, but claimed you "can't deny" this basic metaphysical statement. Being a bit contrary by nature, I did. Fortunately, the lady at the checkout counter called me up to pay before I had to explain why. I think I was going to go off on some absurd Idealist rant that I don't even agree with, which would have done nothing to help the situation.

Now, my flippant denial of the statement was intended more as a joke than anything, but I said it for a reason: "Existence Exists" doesn't really strike me as a particularly true (or at least well-formed) statement. I was going to give some reason why, but I've just googled it and found that someone else already stated most of my concerns here. I actually think there's something even more fundamentally fishy about "Existence Exists", but after struggling with it for almost two days and re-writing critiques at least ten times, I can't quite explain it. I'm pretty sure it has something to do with Russell's Paradox. Any ideas?

August 03, 2003


Posted by shonk at 03:12 PM | permalink | comment

I was away for the weekend, but did write a few things down. The next couple entries are from the last two days: the first from very late Friday night, so excuse its incoherence, and the second from Saturday.

August 01, 2003

Ego Stroking

Posted by shonk at 07:01 PM | permalink | comment

Last night, I met up with a friend I hadn't seen for nearly a year for a pleasant little Pearl Street get-together. Wait, hold on, let me preface this by saying that the Pearl Street aspect of things wasn't the determining factor in where we were going to meet. No, the important thing was to pick the part of town with the highest concentration of bookstores and ice cream carts. So it was really more of a bookstore crawl, which makes sense since we're both hopelessly addicted to purchasing books. That's not to say we don't occasionally read the books we buy, but the input/output ratio is a little lopsided.

Anyway, we meet in bookstore #1 which is huge, locally-owned and totally unsatisfactory. As usual (needless to say, we've done these sorts of bookstore crawls before), we leave quickly. Though not the only section I peruse, the philosophy section gives an excellent reason as to why: the number of New Age mystical books exceeds the number of actual philosophy books (and in this category I'm including everyone, even Hegel) by a staggering amount. Plus, since so many people in Boulder are obsessed with spiting chain stores, everything is hopelessly overpriced.

The next stop is a used bookstore several blocks away, in the unfashionably car-laden eastern end of Pearl Street, which gives me more than enough time to rant and rave about rocks, my plans and whatever else crosses my mind. I spend a lot of time trying to explain algebraic topology (Highlight: "Okay, so you pick a point at infinity...well, actually not at infinity, just really anywhere away from your manifold"). Needless to say, I am now drawing strange looks from passersby, especially as I begin illustrating my points with my hands while walking down this busy pedestrian mall. Of course, Pearl Street being what it is, I am occassionally drowned out by groups of spaced-out, hippyish people chanting and/or playing drums, buskers simultaneously putting on a show and trying to hustle people, and drunk people being drunk.

The first used bookstore we come to is, typically, closed, despite it being only 8:30 and the sign on the door clearly indicating that it is open until 9:00 on weekdays. The second is still open and, as we enter, I utterly forget the titles of all the books I've been meaning to get. As a result, I am able to escape with minimal damage: $6.99 for two Heinlein books that I realized (once I saw them) I'd been meaning to get anyway (Farnham's Freehold and Glory Road). My presence has a deleterious effect on my friend's wallet, however, as I suggest a couple of books that she ends up buying.

As we are walking back to the other end of Pearl Street, I get so engrossed in talking about my summer that it takes three not-so-subtle hints to remind me of the next item on the agenda: ice cream. It is abundantly clear by this point that the three beers I had before and with dinner are affecting me rather more than I had anticipated. I blame it on the altitude. Anyway, I get a strawberry sorbet on an utterly superfluous (and more expensive) waffle cone. Why was the waffle cone superfluous? Because the flavor of the sorbet totally overwhelms the taste of the waffle cone. In other words, I wasted a dollar. Anyway, aside from getting worked up about people crossing streets against the light, in the middle of traffic (which is not only rude, but highly inefficient), I make it back to my car.

After that, we ended up going to the Barnes & Noble across town, where I note that the blurb on the back of The Celestine Prophesy seems to promise rather more than the book can possibly deliver and my friend decides against getting it, claiming her mind needs to be "opener" before she can read it. Finally, my recent and totally unexplainable fascination with the Holy Grail and the Templars results in me spending another sixteen dollars on Hancock's The Sign and the Seal.

The moral of the story is twofold: first, I talk much more while walking than in any other situation; second, I'm 21 going on middle age. After all, I go out on the town with a friend I haven't seen in months, end up spending $27 on books and ice cream and am home by 10:45. In other words, pretty much exactly what my parents did last Friday night, except they got coffee instead of ice cream.

July 31, 2003

El Camino de Santiago

Posted by shonk at 06:18 PM | permalink | comment

If you speak Spanish, learn a bit about the ancient pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela here. I walked the Camino two years ago (270 miles of hiking over 17 days, I think) and was just getting a bit nostalgic about it, as I realized I'd forgotten all about St. James' Day when it happened (July 25th). Lots of hard work, but well worth it.

Is This On?

Posted by shonk at 03:46 AM | permalink | comment

So, right. This is my new blog. The way I see it, it's pretty much guaranteed to be the stereotypical weblog: filled with unfunny deadpan comments, infrequently updated, read only by the writer.

In fact, that's pretty much how I pitched it to my host. I said, "I'd like to start up a self-centered, insular blog with more links to people who are actually funny than content, rarely if ever updated and dedicated primarily to offending the sorts of idiots that would plunk down $15 a year to a hosting company for the privilege of a public soapbox."

And the host said, "Will there be tittie?"

I hadn't quite thought of that, but I said, "Sure."

So host says, "What are these titties going to do?"

I, of course, responded, "Uh...jiggle?"

BOOM! Server space falls into my lap, and all of a sudden, I'm a blogger.

"Jiggling titties," the host said, "who'da thunk it? We've been waiting for you here in the blogosphere. I just can't give you enough server space."

And all these years I'd been coming up with content outlines, preparing reams of links, writing satire; little did I know it would be as simple as " 'Will there be tittie?' 'Sure' ".

(At this point, Bill Hicks is rolling over in his grave, both because of the unfunny adaptation of his bit and because it remains extra-parenthetically unattributed)

Actually, if you replace the phrase "Will there be tittie?" with the phrase "Will you have content?" the above scenario becomes far more accurate. That, and my host is much cooler than that. Check her out.

Anyway, by now I hope to have attracted both the acne-scarred male adolescent masturbators of the world desperately Googling "jiggling titties" and the twenty-something college-radio hacks trying to dig up the dirt on Bill's latest posthumous live album. If so, I figure I'm pretty much in my element.

Seriously, though, give me a few days to get the layout straightened out.