Culture

The Love of Wisdom

Philosophers

I have nothing to add about the facts in this case of University of Miami “star” philosophy professor Colin McGinn and his alleged sexual harassment of one of his women graduate students. But as someone who—despite quite enjoying reading philosophy occasionally—has always believed that the ironies of actual situations reveal truth better than abstract reasoning does, I found the following fitting, satisfyingly just, and even a little bit funny:

The case, which was first reported by The Chronicle of Higher Education, has set off voluminous chatter among philosophers on blogs and social media. The discussion has been fueled partly by Mr. McGinn’s own blog, where his use of the cryptic language of analytic philosophy in attempts to defend himself seems to have backfired.

Two open letters, posted online in mid-July and signed by more than 100 philosophers, including a majority of Mr. McGinn’s colleagues at Miami, criticized some of the posts on his blog as “retaliation” against the student.

Meanwhile, some of Mr. McGinn’s posts —  including one meditating on the difference between “suggesting” an action and “entertaining” it, and another (since removed) riffing on alternate meanings of a crude term for masturbation — have struck even some of Mr. McGinn’s onetime supporters as less philosophical than self-incriminating.

Writing always reveals more about us than we think we’re revealing, but professional thinkers and writers are often the least aware of its slipperiness because they think they’ve mastered it. The cleverest among us are quite good at fooling ourselves, probably better at it than those of us who aren’t so clever.

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The Big Takeover

Amazon.com has bought Goodreads.

Why do people think blogs are dead (or dying)? As more and more sites are bought by the same big companies (Google, Facebook, Amazon, etc.), it’s easy to imagine that many people will want to go back to a format in which they can create their own networks, without targeted ads or annoying algorithms, that won’t be feeding quite so directly into those big companies marketing data operations. Isn’t it?

Books
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Shuffle Off

It’s not Scranton, but here’s an article from New York magazine about people who have moved from New York City to Buffalo and are trying to make the long-benighted city a better place.

I certainly understand the experiences and motivations of the people profiled in the article. I lived in New York City for around seven years, and decided, along with my wife, to move to Austin, which though not as cheap or rundown as Buffalo, is definitely smaller and less expensive than New York. I don’t regret having lived in New York at all, but I’m definitely happier here in Austin. One of the Buffalo transplants, Jana Eisenberg, said something that comes pretty close to my own feelings about leaving New York:

But when I ask Eisenberg what she misses most about New York, she says, “I don’t miss my old life in New York. I only miss the life in New York I know I never would have had.” What [Eisenberg and her husband have] done instead is construct a life in Buffalo that is, ironically, much closer to the New York life they once imagined for themselves than their actual New York life ever was, or ever would be.

I’m working as a freelance writer and living downtown across the street from a beautiful park and my daughter is in an excellent public school. Such a combination is not impossible to achieve in New York, but it’s certainly more difficult and costly to do there than it is in Austin.

I hope this sort of thing is happening around the country in other neglected towns and cities, and I hope it can bring genuinely positive urban revitalization (rather than just create mini-Williamsburgs surrounded by ghettos). If accompanied by good urban planning and community activism, I think it can. There’s no good reason, especially with modern communications, that one should have to move to one of only a few big cities to have an interesting life. If cities like New York and San Francisco continue to be too expensive for all but the rich (or those willing to live beyond their means), this smaller-scale urbanism will continue and succeed.

(Tip of the hat to Brian C. for sending me the article.)

Cities
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Uncategorized

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M(a)us(ol)eum Cities

(Because it’s fun to make fun of parentheses-heavy academic book titles.) As I wrote about earlier, some cities’ cores seem to be emptying out, or at least becoming more ethnically and economically homogeneous, as high prices make it harder for low- and middle-income people to afford living in them. Paris, San Francisco, Manhattan, Rome, and London are perilously close to becoming “museum cities,” beautiful and rich, but accessible to most by day-pass only. A recent article in Canada’s National Post describes the end point of the trend in an examination of Venice, a city with few permanent residents at all. Venice has become primarily a place where wealthy foreigners buy summer residences and cruise ship tourists take photos and buy souvenirs. Once again, I’m not really sure what can be done about the trend, but when a city’s economy is reduced to taxing foreigners, selling trinkets, and polishing the marble, I can’t help but feel that it has become a mausoleum, a monument to its past but a real city no longer. Density and diversity (of all sorts) are the defining characteristics of cities, and the disproportionate economic clout of the wealthy seems to be reducing both. As the author of the piece, Kelvin Browne, puts it:

In a global economy, only a few cities are the most desirable places to live. They draw their inhabitants from around the world. Locals have to fight for space with these outsiders, who can choose any place they want to call home, even if briefly.

It’s sad to see this happen in cities I love (especially in San Francisco, my birth city and, indeed, my favorite city) but I do hope that it will lead to a revival of urbanism, density, diversity, and local culture in smaller cities and towns. If San Francisco is becoming blander, it’s time to make Scranton more interesting.

(Via TreeHugger)

Cities
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I Blame the Parasites

The Economist has an article with a provocative sub-heading: “Religious diversity may be caused by disease.” The article refers to a recent scientific study suggesting that religious groups might form as a way of protecting their followers from exposure to diseases. The Economist summarizes the paper thus:

“[The] hypothesis is that in places where disease is rampant, it behoves groups not to mix with one another more than is strictly necessary, in order to reduce the risk of contagion. [The authors of the study] therefore predict that patterns of behaviour which promote group exclusivity will be stronger in disease-ridden areas. Since religious differences are certainly in that category, they specifically predict that the number of different religions in a place will vary with the disease load. Which is, as they report in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, the case.”

While there are numerous possible criticisms of this study, it could explain in part why I occasionally feel an urge to wash my hands after talking to a Southern Baptist. And as intuitively far-fetched as it sounds to propose that the development of religions might have been driven by parasites, ever since I read about Toxoplasma gondii on science writer Carl Zimmer’s blog, The Loom, I can’t put anything past parasites. (Seriously, if you’ve never heard of Toxoplasma gondii, click on that link and read. It might change the way you look at the world.)

(Via The Rough Guide to Evolution.)

Animals
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Urban Inversion

The New Republic has an interesting article on the way cities in the past twenty years or so have found their central cores filling up with rich people, while the poor displaced by the resulting higher prices are moving out into the suburbs. (The Atlantic had a story on the same theme, “The Next Slum?” in its March 2008 issue.) The phenomenon is a bit frightening to me, as I have always preferred living in cities to living in the suburbs, and have never in my life run the risk of being described as “affluent.” I think it’s certainly a good thing to encourage density, street-level retail, public transportation and all the other New Urbanist recommendations in central cities. But I wonder if there’s not a way to do so that could also allow teachers, nurses, waiters, and artists—important but not (usually) lucrative jobs—to live there, too. (Taxing rich people at a higher rate seems an obvious solution, though my social democratic tendencies are at war with my distrust of government on this issue. I would like to see greater income equality, but I’m not comfortable with giving our federal government such a giant windfall.) All the high-rises going up in Austin, for instance, are luxury high-rises. If rich people live in them rather than in McMansions built on pristine suburban land, I suppose that’s a good thing. But if cities become playgrounds only for the rich, they will lose much of the diversity of population and activity that made them interesting in the first place. Perhaps in thirty years, children who grew up in cities will lament their sterile surroundings and seek out the gritty reality of places like Windy Ridge, North Carolina.

Cities
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The Long Arm of the Sea-Puss

When I first read the introduction to James Thurber’s My Life and Hard Times some fifteen years ago, I laughed out loud at the mixture of menace, melancholy, and absurdity in its concluding sentence: “As F. Hopkinson Smith long ago pointed out, the claw of the sea-puss gets us all in the end.” “The claw of the sea-puss” is pretty unbeatable as a simultaneously ridiculous and terrifying metaphor for the ravages of time and death. I imagined the sea-puss as a cute but murderous deep-sea monster, some fell hybrid of crab and Hello Kitty, perhaps betentacled and squid-beaked as well. I meant to look up “sea-puss,” and F. Hopkinson Smith, of course, at the time, but I was living a careless, profligate existence when I was in my early twenties, and I became distracted by other things (not least by laughing at other things in Thurber’s book, like the “Get Ready Man”) and I simply forgot about them.

I recently reread My Life and Hard Times, however, and I’m happy to say that the World Wide Web has the sea-puss answers I seek. According to Webster’s online dictionary, “sea puss” is an alteration of an Algonquian word for river, and means “a swirling or along shore undertow.” According to a number of sites I could find, F. Hopkinson Smith was for most of his life a marine engineer, and designed the foundations for the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. In short, Smith was a man intimately familiar with the powers of the sea-puss. Smith didn’t begin to write until later in his life, apparently egged on by friends because he was such an engaging “after-dinner raconteur.” I found one of Smith’s novels, The Tides of Barnegat, on Google Books. Chapter XXII is entitled, “The Claw of the Sea-Puss.” The flavor of Smith’s prose, and the terrible destructive power of the sea-puss, can be found in an earlier passage, describing the weather at a beach in the fall:

The cruel north wind now wakes, and with a loud roar joins hands with the savage easter; the startled surf falls upon the beach like a scourge. Under their double lash the outer bar cowers and sinks; the frightened sand flees hither and thither. Soon the frenzied breakers throw themselves headlong, tearing with teeth and claws, burrowing deep into the hidden graves. Now the forgotten wrecks, like long-buried sins, rise and stand naked, showing every scar and stain. This is the work of the sea-puss—the revolving maniac born of close-wed wind and tide; a beast so terrible that in a single night, with its auger-like snout, it bites huge inlets out of farm lands—mouthfuls deep enough for ships to sail where but yesterday the corn grew. 

If that has whetted your appetite, you can read Smith’s entire novel online at its page on Google Books. And may you avoid the sea-puss’s awful claw for as long as you can.

Books
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Pulp Fiction

The inimitable Chris Sims has used panels from Archie comics to illustrate Pulp’s magnum opus, “Common People.” 

Archie Cocker

 Please enjoy “Archie In . . . A Different Class!”

Comedy
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Cartes Postales

If you like old French postcards (not to be confused with old “French letters”—if that’s your thing you’ve got the wrong Web site), you will enjoy this site. The googly-eyed animal postcards are especially bizarre and amusing. It’s a French site, so naturally some of the postcards are smutty. Those of delicate sensibility beware.Pantouflard 

Animals
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Design

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More Bones

I don’t know why I’m finding so many stories about old bones lately. (I’m not seeking them out, honestly! They keep popping up in my inbox and RSS feed.) The most recent reminder of mortality delivered to me through the Internet comes from the Austinist‘s sister site in San Francisco. The SFist unearths a 1902 San Francisco Chronicle story about some children in my native city using human bones to play baseball. A short excerpt:

Residents of the vicinity of Leavenworth and Broadway going home to dinner were treated to a choice assortment of cold shivers at the sight of the national game being played with the grisly loot from a tomb. Half a dozen boys were making long drives of the ball to center field with resounding thwacks from the long bones, the femur and fibula radius and ulna humerus. Between times two yellow skulls would be tossed to the batters, and the fun characteristic of the reverence of the North American youth, waxed warm until a policeman swooped down upon the players.  

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