2020-07-04 09:45

(from 15 Jan 2015) Culture or delusion: the distinction rests on how many people share it.

2020-07-03 14:07

A journal entry from 24 Jan 2013

A dream last night: I had been found guilty of a crime — and rightfully so, a crime I had actually committed. While waiting for the sentencing, I was kept in an “enormous room,” like the Cummings novel. I met many colorful characters milling about, waiting as I was for their own judgments. One character turned out to be a judge in disguise — the very one presiding over my case. I learned that I had already earned nine out of the ten things required to have my sentence commuted. The judge awarded me the tenth because of some generous, compassionate thing he had seen me do while we were in the enormous room. He said that by doing so, I had demonstrated how much I had changed for the better since I had committed the original crime.

I was grateful, but I knew (and did not say) that both actions — the crime, and the subsequent act of compassion — were driven by the same motivation, and that in truth I had not changed at all. The only thing that had changed was how society saw the two actions: they claimed one was a crime and the other a charity, and that therefore no single person could have done both without having gone through some sort of transformation.

But I knew otherwise.

2020-06-19 07:30

JS Ondara

(I originally posted this at the now-defunct group music blog, Just Good Music, on 1 July 2019. But the Indieweb is all about owning your content, so I’m giving it a new home here. Also, I finally bought his first album yesterday and have been listening to it. Really excellent stuff.)

The other night I had reason to hang around the International Arrivals gate at MSP airport for several hours while the person we were waiting for was being hassled by customs agents.

We were sitting near the spot where oversized checked luggage is deposited. A guitar case appeared. Acoustic dreadnought case by the looks of it — sturdy enough to be thrown around the hold of a plane, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Huge stenciled letters along one side: JSONDARA. Soon, a very dapper young man retrieved the case. He wore skinny slacks, short boots, a jacket, fedora. He gathered one or two other items from the nearby carousel and was on his way.

Later, I searched for JSONDARA — which for some reason I had interpreted as an artfully misspelled Jason Dara. Nope: JS Ondara. His website tells me that he’s from Nairobi and that he eventually settled in Minneapolis — because Bob Dylan is from Minnesota.

You can find a selection of videos at his website. (The guitar case from the airport is in the opening shot of the video for Torch Song.) And here’s a spectacular cover of Smells Like Teen Spirit that evokes — and arguably surpasses — Tori Amos’s early and transformative version.

He’s the real thing.

2020-06-15 11:45

He’s a walking example of the Uncanny Valley. He’s a simulacrum: not quite human, but rather a blubbery sack of basic urges that’s trying to imitate certain aspects of being human but always failing in both a comical and terrifying way.

Anyone who admires him, or identifies with him, or finds his deeply cruel authoritarianism comforting are, therefore, themselves broken in some way.

2020-06-13 17:45

In the Shed

If you work at something for over thirty years, failing almost the whole time, failing with joy — you may learn, eventually, that swimming against the current confers a peculiar sort of strength. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

2020-06-10 16:00

CG Jung:

If there were no imperfections, no primordial defect in the ground of creation, why should there be any urge to create, any longing for what must yet be fulfilled?

2020-06-07 07:15

Judith Shklar, Ordinary Vices:

Far from being an amoral free-for-all, liberalism is, in fact, extremely difficult and constraining, far too much so for those who cannot endure contradiction, complexity, diversity, and the risks of freedom.

2020-06-03 22:30

Chance Operations

(Part One here)

Before studying Zen, men are men and mountains are mountains. While studying Zen, things become confused. After studying Zen, men are men and mountains are mountains. After telling this, Dr Suzuki was asked, “What is the difference between before and after?” He said, “No difference, only the feet are a little off the ground.”
—John Cage, Silence

Ask the next question.
—Theodore Sturgeon

Part 2: What We’ve Learned

Have we learned anything? Wait, were we supposed to? Why does everything have to be a goddamn learning experience? Is it because people, all too often, value answers over questions? But if you don’t know how to ask questions, how do you expect to understand the answers? What if there aren’t any answers, not really, just more questions? On the other hand, would that be so bad? Isn’t that just another way of describing the situation we’re already in? Do you ever find yourself thinking, maybe late at night, that to stop as soon as you’ve arrived at an answer is to succumb to a curiously arrogant or even hubristic temptation: that the answer you, of all people, came up with is the actual, definitive answer? Who are you to think you’ve got it all figured out? After all, aren’t most answers predicated on whole webs of assumptions, some or even all of which could be mistaken, incomplete, misunderstood? Do you see how this means that if you change your assumptions, you might find that some of your beloved answers just evaporate? Not feeling so proud now, are you?

So what can we do about this? If how we define the “right answer” is dependent on which questions we ask, then should we take another look at what motivates us to ask a particular question in the first place? Don’t we usually ask questions when we think we’re missing some information, when something doesn’t quite make sense? Doesn’t that imply that a question is a way of filling in a gap of some kind that we think we perceive in the universe around us as we think we understand it? But what if there is no gap? What then? Would that mean the question is meaningless, like asking who’s the present King of France?

Well, have you ever noticed how the questions that people ask often tell you something about them and how they see the world? So could we say that a “question” is actually a sign of how we perceive the universe? Hey, could this be why inkblot tests can be so useful: they show us what sorts of connections we make, and what some of our assumptions about the universe are? So, what if we’ve been looking at “answers” all wrong, and that the really important thing is to become proficient at asking questions, more questions, the next questions? What if the things we call “answers” are important only insofar as they help show us that we’ve been asking good questions? Where exactly am I going with all this? How should I know? (Is he really just making this shit up as he goes along? Seriously? Who does he think he is?)

Okay, so can we say that a coincidence is just an event that we’re associating with something else, probably absent, which is personally meaningful? That is, if I walk by a car and its licence plate has the numbers “197” on it, will I even care — much less notice — unless “197” means something to me? Otherwise, isn’t it just a cluster of numerals? So, what if we were presented with a whole clump of sounds, or a hoard of words — if any of it makes sense at all, isn’t it because we expected it to hold some kind of meaning? And why else would it mean anything in the first place, if not for the fact that we were looking for meaning? In other words, for something to have meaning, don’t you have to notice it in the first place?

Part 3: Some Underlying Ideas

So this is why I’ve always been intrigued by chance operations: it’s a hack that demonstrates to me just how eagerly my brain wants to see patterns and make connections. My brain almost always finds meaning as though it should be there, even when I have consciously arranged the situation to be explicitly, deliberately meaningless.

By using chance operations, I trick myself into noticing things I might not otherwise have noticed, instead of always noticing the same old things that tend to catch my attention. If I’m already predisposed to see meaning and significance anyway, then I can let chance operations do some of the heavy lifting in my creative process. I’ll make new, strange choices instead of the usual, easy choices.

Furthermore, I know that my audience of readers or listeners will, in turn, be engaged in their own programs of pattern-seeking and meaning-making — which makes them collaborators of a sort; and they will see any surprising or ambiguous elements in the work of art as parts of a puzzle to sort out. Art that seems to have all the answers tends to feel lifeless, preachy, claustrophobic, and possibly even propagandistic. Because, of course, it’s not possible to have “all the answers,” any more than it’s possible to ask “all the questions.”

This also gives us insight into what we mean by “bias.” Bias is the resting state of all that pattern-seeking and meaning-making. We all have a contextual framework by which we try to organize and arrange the universe as it seems to be out there, outside of our individual skulls and outside our communities’ mores. This is elemental. It is not possible to live in a world that holds no personal or communal meaning. We can’t eliminate bias in its most basic form. But we can become aware of it, and we can come to understand the extent to which it shapes how we see the world — and whether we even can see. Eventually, through asking questions and listening to answers, we can modify and shift our bias. If we want to.

But why would we want to? After all, these frameworks don’t have to be accurate, they just have to be comfortable. That is, we believe many things not necessarily because they’re “true,” but because, by believing them, we are accepted by whatever community holds us and to which we pledge allegiance. I mean, they might be true, but that’s almost never why we believe them. Beliefs, all too often, are shibboleths.

So, again: why would we want to shift our bias? Well, because if our brains are constantly working to fit observations into a preëxisting frame, then it’s sickeningly easy for us to draw wildly inaccurate conclusions, and then entrench ourselves in our comforting, familiar, sensible, but dangerously misleading webs of “meaning.”

The most fundamentally wrong thing anyone can think is: If it makes sense, then it must be true. We are dazzlingly good at making sense and dreadfully bad at finding it. Almost the only time we find sense is when it’s on our nursery floor, on our mother’s knee — long before we would ever “choose” to look for it. Sense gets baked in, and is rarely ever challenged again during the rest of our lives. Sense is what helps us decide what sort of tool or solution to reach for first when we’re confronted by a problem or puzzle. (Back to the inkblot tests…)

We will see what we look for, we will mine the data, and we will insist that the world is exactly as we have come to expect it to be. We will find it more and more difficult to imagine any other arrangement. And all this would be fine — if it weren’t for the uncomfortable fact that there is no single arrangement.

How do we break out of our hall of mirrors? By actively seeking out more details, more evidence, more perspectives, more opinions. By immersing ourselves in communities that are as rich and diverse as possible. By checking and double-checking our beliefs, to ensure we don’t mistake assumptions for conclusions. By striving to be as self-aware as we can. By constantly challenging ourselves and our communities to ask more questions. By listening to as many different sorts of answers as possible, and learning to be comfortable with the ensuing cognitive challenges to our beloved illusions. By opening ourselves to surprise. By exploring the providence of chance. By remaining watchful, and by staying awake.

Part 4: Any Questions?

Probably not. Probably, yes. We can’t help ourselves. Safe bet (but this sounds like a leading question). Maybe “understanding” is overrated. I like where you’re going with this. Define “bad.” My sources say Yes. YMMV but I’ve found this is almost never a good time to do sustained, productive thinking: dreams, yes; reveries, sure; but not discursive, linear thinking. I’m not sure I like your tone. Define “most.” I do, yes. Not really, but then, I wasn’t before, so.

You tell me, smart guy. I’m still waiting for you to define “bad” and “most.” Sometimes I ask questions just to annoy people. It also implies that I might be kind of a jerk. Oh I see, you want me to say there’s no gap, so if there is, I’m the one who looks like an idiot, not you; classy. Go on… That’s not a meaningless question, it’s a stupid one.

Look in the mirror. I think we could. Don’t tell me you just figured this out now. Define “we.” Now you’re just grandstanding. I’ve been wondering this for a few minutes. Christ, what an asshole. (Don’t put words in my mouth. Seriously. Like I said, look in the mirror.)

Just because we can say it, doesn’t mean it’s true (but in this case, it is). Right (and I’m guessing “197” means something to you). Define “just.” You’re wandering dangerously close to feedback-loop or tautology territory. It sounds like you’re saying that meaning is real, but extrinsic. Hold on, now it sounds like you’re saying that meaning is like the sound a tree makes when no one’s there to hear it fall, do I have that right? — no, don’t answer that.

writing chance process politics
2020-05-31 14:46

Chance Operations

Part 1: The Process

Apart from a cursory description on the first day, I never really went into any detail of the process for my Random Walk.

Here’s what I did.

First, I divided the library into sixty-four sections. I probably could have divided it into fewer sections with many more books in each, but I was aiming for sixty-four: the same number as I Ching hexagrams. Most of these sections were individual shelves on book cases, but others were simply areas in my home, like the stack on top of the filing cabinet in the office (Shelf 5), or the countertop in the kitchen with all the cookbooks (Shelf 64). (To get exactly sixty-four, I also divided some larger areas up. It got a little messy in the end, but is it really a mess if you know where everything is?)

Then I counted the number of books on every shelf and “shelf.” (This means, by the way, that I have a full count of how many front-facing books are in the house. There are many more backshelved, and several boxes in our storage unit.) I also made a chart, visually depicting the shelf number and the book count for each.

I threw the I Ching to generate one of the sixty-four hexagrams. If any sixes or nines came up, a single throw could, of course, generate two hexagrams. (I use the penny method, by the way. I’m all for ritual, but the yarrow stalk method is just too much.)

I checked the chart to see how many books were on the two shelves. Using random.org, I “rolled” a number to determine the book for each shelf.

I pulled the two books, took a picture, and created a draft in MarsEdit.

(Early on, I also found entries in my OED that, to my mind anyway, linked the two books for that day. This was fun at first, but it quickly became far too onerous, so I stopped.)

After the first few pairs, I rolled eight or ten days’ worth of book pairs at a time, in several sessions throughout the month. This gave me as much as a week or more to jot down any notes, retake pictures if need be, and get started on drafting a post (assuming there was anything worth saying; otherwise, it would get posted without comment).

The reason I did this was to get some of the harder parts of each post over with well ahead of time, leaving only the final touches for the morning of the particular day as I made my coffee. I did this for the pencil posts last month, and it played a key role in my being able to stick with it all month.

Two times, I re-rolled if I landed on a book that was, frankly, too personal and no one’s business. My game, my rules. But otherwise, I played it as it laid.

So that was the game.

Tomorrow or Tuesday, we’ll review.

writing process chance
2020-05-27 10:20

Jorge Luis Borges:

A man sets himself the task of drawing the world. As the years pass, he fills the empty space with images of provinces and kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fish, houses, instruments, stars, horses, and people. Just before he dies, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the image of his own face.

2020-05-16 13:40

The Magical Powers of a New Shirt

1: To Believe in Nothing and Dare All

I’m standing in line during the commute rush. Across the coffeeshop, I think I spot two former co-workers. I didn’t know them well, but I’m thinking about swinging by their table to say a quick hello. I’ve dropped my wife off at work, and now I’m going to sit and write here for an hour before heading home to get my own work day started. There’s a small TV on a high shelf behind the counter, with the sound off. I glance up at the screen: city skyline, crisp blue sky, a skyscraper with smoke billowing from it. They’re saying that a plane crashed into a building. Someone in line says it’s probably a small private jet or something. Nothing else makes sense. As the girl hands me my coffee, another plane enters the shot, flies behind a different building, but doesn’t emerge from the other side. No, the second plane has just flown into the building. Black smoke, flames. Someone says holy shit or oh my god. Two planes, within about twenty minutes of each other, each crashing into a building like that? What are the chances? A moment later, I’m back at my car. We just bought our first cell phones yesterday and I’m not sure how they work. I don’t seem to have any cell reception. Am I doing something wrong? I get home, call my wife from a real phone, and tell her what’s happened. She’s already heard. I turn on the TV. As I watch, one of the buildings collapses. Then the other. So this is my day: watching footage of skyscrapers collapsing after being struck by commercial jets, and watching footage of a large government building with plane wreckage, and watching footage of a field out in the countryside somewhere. Over and over.

2: To Be Poets

All summer, I’ve been taping reruns of a TV show I started watching last winter. It’s called The West Wing, about the senior staff in a fictional White House. My wife discovered it first, and tried to introduce me to it. But this took a while, since I almost always have something better to do than watch TV. But she insisted, and I surprised myself by how quickly and deeply I became engaged in the show. The planes and the buildings will delay the autumn TV schedule, so this is my day all month: dropping my wife at work, stopping in at a coffeeshop to write, going home, watching a West Wing rerun on VHS, then sitting down at my laptop to work. The new season finally airs, like most shows, nearly a month late. We tape the new episode as we watch it, then we watch it again four or five more times that week, then tape the next episode. And so on. Soon, the US government will begin undermining most of the goodwill it found on September 12th, forgetting that this was not a crime against America but a crime against humanity. And I will cling desperately to that show, constantly turning to it for solace, probably expecting too much of it. But the show’s appeal for me is not that it offers a sort of idealized alternate political universe from the one I’m trapped in. I don’t see it as a show about politics. It is, of course, yes. In a way. But not principally. (At least not until the fifth season onwards.) In fact, when my wife first called me in and insisted I watch an episode of this new show she had just discovered, she didn’t say it was a cool new show about politics. She told me to sit down and “just listen.” By the time Air Force One touched down after the Portland trip, I realized: language itself was the main character.

3: “You’re Lying” “Yes I Am, But Hear Me Out”

This, then, was what I found comforting about The West Wing during those grim years: not its politics, but its fidelity to language. But what does it mean to be faithful to language? To use it fluently, with skill and care? To speak clearly and truthfully? No, because language isn’t just about communicating — much less communicating truthful statements, specifically. Language can be informative (“My dog does not bite,” “it will rain this afternoon,” etc), performative (“I now pronounce you husband and wife,” etc), and manipulative (“make me a sandwich,” “watch out!” etc). Language is also social: we constantly evaluate each other based on our pronunciation and word choice, which often reveal our backgrounds, ethnicities, education level, and so on. (You drop your aitches and I think that makes you sound low-class; I use double-negatives for emphasis but you don’t, and you treat me as somehow less-educated; etc). Language can also, of course, be musical. And it can be several of these at once, and often is. Let me be clear: none of these modes have anything to do with morality or innate goodness. That is, language is a tool, a technology in the most ancient sense, and is inherently amoral. Who uses the tool and why: this is where morality enters the conversation. A mendacious shyster and an honorable, compassionate teacher both must use language with equal skill. Beautiful language can be persuasive in a way that merely truthful language almost never is.

4: After Hoc Therefore Something Else Hoc

Now, just because The West Wing had a somewhat left-leaning slant, and was known for rich, rhetorical language does not imply a connection between the two. Rhetoric itself is not necessarily an indication of either trustworthiness or duplicity (whatever Plato may have thought of the Sophists). So I’m talking about something more than mere skill or finesse. There is a profound difference between someone who uses language skillfully to do great evil, and someone who uses it carelessly to do great damage. This is, apparently, something we as a species need to learn over and over again: that, in our ongoing story, the inarticulate slobs and careless dopes, bumbling around knocking things over, ruining things for everybody else in a thousand small ways, are the most ubiquitous and toxic villains.

5: How’s That for “Clever with Words”?

Rhetoric only works when the speaker and listener already have a lot in common. That is, if you see someone as too radically different from yourself, you may think that trying to talk to them is a waste of time, because they’ll never get it. They’re not like you; they talk funny and don’t have proper table manners. They’re not civilized people, and you can’t talk to them as though they were. Indeed, you may come to the conclusion that if you want them to do something, only brute force and fear of violence will work. It’s the only language these animals understand. This is why fundamentalists of all stripes so quickly decide that language is pointless. And it’s only a few more steps before you’re flying airplanes into buildings.

westwing TV 911 tranche
2020-05-04 14:32

Six Zoom Meetings Before Lunch

I watched a few episodes of The West Wing a couple of days ago. (Oh, it was two weeks ago? Okay.) I joked that I was playing a West Wing drinking game.

I would drink whenever:

  • Josh has his backpack over one shoulder
  • any reference to a musical
  • “Just saying”
  • “Jackass”
  • Walk and Talk
  • Donna asks Josh to explain something
  • someone repeats verbatim what someone else just said

And I would take a double drink for:

  • any Latin phrase
  • Mrs Bartlet’s terms of endearment
  • Someone refers to their SAT score
  • The Jackal!

The implication here was that I’d be drinking pretty much constantly — which was the point, because it was that kind of night. I could just as easily have said I was playing a Stare At The Wall drinking game. You drink whenever you stare at the wall. Double for blinking.

I knew it was likely, after my post appeared in the Micro.blog timeline, that people would say something about how it’s too painful to watch a show like The West Wing now. Of course it is. But then, everything — even self-care — can seem too painful now. So I figured: if joy is laced with pain anyway, I might as well take comfort anywhere I can. And some of that comfort comes from watching escapist TV.

Where I’m escaping to is, of course, jarringly different from the world as it is now. But this, too, has been oddly helpful. It has let me practice the transition back and forth between these two worlds, the comfort world and the Covid world. That moment of reëntry is what I think we actually find most painful: when we look away from the screen and see, out on the sidewalk, people walking by with face masks on. Oh, that, we think. I’d forgotten.

I’ve worked from home partly or completely for many of the last twenty-two years. One thing I learned early on was how important it is to set clear boundaries at the beginning and the end of the work day or else everything might start to blur together. So, in March, I thought this quarantine wouldn’t be too unfamiliar, or too challenging.

I was wrong. Working from home is, of course, vastly different from living in quarantine. The numbers on the clock almost never seem to line up with my sense of what time it is. If an event isn’t on the calendar, if a to-do isn’t pinging me with a repeating notification, it simply doesn’t happen. I keep hearing Ford Prefect saying, Time is an illusion, lunchtime doubly so. (I’ve been trying to write this blog post for nearly two weeks and I just haven’t been able to get my shit together to finish it.)

One reason for this is that many of the normal boundaries around different activities and emotional spaces have broken down or disappeared (for instance, commutes). I have found that I need to be far more conscious than usual of what sorts of routines and rituals demarcate different activities for me.

When I have good days, it’s at least partly because I’ve managed to maintain strong borders. And when I have better days, it’s at least partly because I’ve been able to cross back and forth over those borders somewhat smoothly, with as little stumbling as possible (by which I mean, a lot of stumbling but not as much as on other days…).

And by letting (or making) myself drift away into truly escapist activities like old beloved TV shows, I am slowly learning, and practicing, how to cope with the shock of returning, again and again, to this world.

westwing outloud health
2020-05-01 08:00

The second half of the Pencil Tour:

16: Tennessee Red
17: Dixon
18: Blackfeet
19: Sunset
20: Mirado
21: Mongol
22: USA Gold
23: Try-Rex
24: General’s Scoring pencils
25: General Kimberly
26: General Scribe and Pacific
27: General Semi-Hex, Badger, and Supreme
28: General Cedar Pointe
29: General Goddess
30: FaberCastell American

meta pencils
2020-04-15 14:39

Fifteen days down, fifteen to go.

1: Some Japanese pencils
2: Too many words about Blackwings
3: Viking Skjoldungen and Skoleblyanten
4: Koh-I-Noor Hardtmuth
5: Bohemia Works Blacksun
6: Viarco Desenho
7: Caran d’Ache Eidelweiss
8: Castell 9000
9: Staedtler Noris
10: Derwent
11: Palomino Forest Choice
12: Field Notes
13: Musgrave Newspaper
14: Musgrave Harvest and Ceres
15: Musgrave Bugle

meta pencils
2020-04-07 18:02

Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow:

Don’t forget the real business of war is buying and selling. The murdering and violence are self-policing, and can be entrusted to non-professionals. The mass nature of wartime death is useful in many ways. It serves as spectacle, as diversion from the real movements of the War. It provides raw material to be recorded into History, so that children may be taught History as sequences of violence, battle after battle, and be more prepared for the adult world. Best of all, mass death’s a stimulus to just ordinary folks, little fellows, to try ’n’ grab a piece of that Pie while they’re still here to gobble it up. The true war is a celebration of markets.

commonplace pynchon
2020-04-05 08:57

Next door at my microblog (fleeting), I’ll be posting about a different pencil from my collection each day all month.

Here are the first five days so far:

Day 1: Japanese pencils
Day 2: Too many words about Blackwings
Day 3: Viking Skjoldungen and Skoleblyanten
Day 4: Koh-I-Noor Hardtmuth
Day 5: Bohemia Works Blacksun

meta pencils
2020-04-04 11:34

My Plan for National Poetry Month

Now that shoures soote the droghte of March hath perced to the roote, it’s time once again to breed lilacs out of the dead land, mix memory and desire, and generally stir dull roots with spring rain.

Yes, that’s right: it’s NaPoWriMo.

This year I’m returning to an old practice I did in 2004, ’05, and ’06. Each day this month, I’m doing an exercise from Rita Dove called the 10-Minute Spill, which I found in the delightful Practice of Poetry.

Here’s how it goes: With ten minutes on the clock, write a ten-line poem using five words from a predetermined list, and an adage or idiomatic phrase (e.g. a stitch in time— don’t count your chickens— that sort of thing).

And that’s it. Don’t try anything fancy: no rhymes or meters of any sort. Just spend ten minutes figuring out how to pepper the words and the folksy saying over the course of ten lines. How long is each line? Doesn’t matter! Is it even a poem? Who cares!

For my list of words, I’m using the Swadesh List. There are a hundred words, and so I roll 2d10 five times. And for my “adage,” I’m throwing the I Ching and choosing something meaty from the trigrams’ names and the resulting hexagram’s image and judgment.

I’ve done three “poems” so far and they may be kinda crappy but none of them are about Covid-fucking-19, so I’m calling it a win.

three pennies, 2d10, the I Ching

poetry process chance
2020-03-30 09:56

It’s National Pencil Day, so here are some pencils.

  • Castell 9007 5H
  • Bohemia Works “Blacksun 1771”

ceci n’est-ce pas un caption

meta pencils
2020-02-29 16:00

David Bentley Hart via:

The 2016 U.S. election proved that, even in a long-established democratic republic, just about anyone or anything, no matter how preposterously foul, can achieve political power if enough citizens are sufficiently credulous, cowardly, and vicious.

links commonplace culture
2020-02-22 11:00

A reminder of why I left Oregon. From the New York Times, 22 Feb 2020:

In Portland, a city often portrayed in popular culture as a progressive paradise, the killing of the men provoked outrage, along with reassurances that the city would not tolerate hate. But it also set off a new round of questions about whether Oregon had fully shed the legacy of its founding as a racially pure Cascadia that white supremacists still fantasize about.

Oregon was admitted to the Union in 1859 with a constitution that, uniquely, forbade black people from living, working, or owning property in the state; the provision was not repealed until 1926. In the 1920s, the state legislature barred Japanese immigrants from owning or leasing land. By the 1970s, extremist groups like the Aryan Nations had found fertile ground for their beliefs.

links culture meta
2020-02-17 07:00

Why is it that we don’t ask ourselves: “how can I be as hassle-free to my fellow creatures as possible? what can I do to ease their troubles and frustrations if at all possible?”

Well for one thing, even if people did ask such questions, it also depends on who’s included in the definition of “fellow creatures.” If it’s just “me and my kin — and everybody else can go fuck themselves” — then we end up with exactly the sort of vile, selfish, cranky world we have right now. People are obstacles, and you are wholly justified to be peeved and annoyed when they inconvenience you.

Someone in a car has pulled over and is idling in the bike lane. As you peddle past on your bike, you berate them and call them names. Your imagination fails to supply any explanation other than that they are stupid selfish assholes.

They could have pulled over because they’re having a heart attack, or just received word of some personal tragedy and they do not trust themselves to drive.

But who cares? They’re in your way and they should know better than to be a stupid, selfish asshole. You are more important than they are, you are more human than they are. Fuck them.

Without empathy, we each live in a tiny prison, its walls lined with mirrors.

2020-02-05 16:00

Jim Lehrer’s Rules of Journalism

  1. Do nothing I cannot defend.*
  2. Do not distort, lie, slant, or hype.
  3. Do not falsify facts or make up quotes.
  4. Cover, write, and present every story with the care I would want if the story were about me.*
  5. Assume there is at least one other side or version to every story.*
  6. Assume the viewer is as smart and caring and good a person as I am.*
  7. Assume the same about all people on whom I report.*
  8. Assume everyone is innocent until proven guilty.
  9. Assume personal lives are a private matter until a legitimate turn in the story mandates otherwise.*
  10. Carefully separate opinion and analysis from straight news stories and clearly label them as such.*
  11. Do not use anonymous sources or blind quotes except on rare and monumental occasions. No one should ever be allowed to attack another anonymously.*
  12. Do not broadcast profanity or the end result of violence unless it is an integral and necessary part of the story and/or crucial to understanding the story.
  13. Acknowledge that objectivity may be impossible but fairness never is.
  14. Journalists who are reckless with facts and reputations should be disciplined by their employers.
  15. My viewers have a right to know what principles guide my work and the process I use in their practice.
  16. I am not in the entertainment business.*

(via Kottke, who notes, “In his 2006 Harvard commencement address, Lehrer reduced that list to an essential nine items, marked with an * above.”)

2020-01-02 11:00

Spinoza (trns Elwes):

Men would never be superstitious if they could govern all their circumstances by set rules, or if they were always favoured by fortune: but being frequently driven into straits where rules are useless, and being kept fluctuating pitiably between hope and fear by the uncertainty of fortune’s greedily coveted favours, they are consequently, for the most part, very prone to credulity. The human mind is readily swayed this way or that in times of doubt, especially when hope and fear are struggling for the mastery, though usually it is boastful, overconfident, and vain.

commonplace Spinoza
2019-12-29 06:53

J.A. Baker, The Peregrine:

Predators overcome their prey by the exploitation of weaknesses rather than by superior power.

2019-12-10 09:00

Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic:

At the end of the Civil War a Londoner, tired of wishing ‘a pox of God’ on the Parliament, delcared that ‘she would invent a new curse for them’, but the details of her formula do not survive.

2019-12-03 21:30

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own:

…the beauty of the world which is so soon to perish, has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder.

2019-11-18 13:40

James C Scott, Two Cheers for Anarchism:

An astute colleague of mine once observed that liberal democracies in the West were generally run for the benefit of the top, say, 20 percent of the wealth and income distribution. The trick, he added, to keeping this scheme running smoothly has been to convince, especially at election time, the next 30 or 35 percent of the income distribution to fear the poorest half more than they envy the richest 20 percent.

2019-11-17 16:48


That summer and autumn — the murmurations that accompanied me in those lonely afternoons. The tall window and the stacks of paper arrayed on the counter, shuffled, bound, and sent to their cabinets.

2019-11-09 08:31

Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life:

Anyone who speaks of anti-intellectualism as a quality in American life must reckon with one of the signal facts of our national experience — our persistent, intense, and sometimes touching faith in the efficacy of popular education. Few observers, past or present, have doubted the pervasiveness or sincerity of this faith. […]

From the beginning, American statesmen had insisted upon the necessity of education in a republic. George Washington, in his Farewell Address, urged the people to promote “institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge.” To the degree that the form of government gave force to public opinion, Washington argued, “it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.” The aging Jefferson warned in 1816: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” […] “If the time shall ever come,” wrote a small-town Midwestern editor in 1836,

when this mighty fabric shall totter; when the beacon of joy that now rises in pillar of fire…shall wax dim, the cause will be found in the ignorance of the people. If our union is still to continue…; if your fields are to be untrod by the hirelings of despotism; if long days of blessedness are to attend our country in her career of glory; if you would have the sun continue to shed his unclouded rays upon the face of freemen, then EDUCATE ALL THE CHILDREN OF THE LAND. This alone startles the tyrant in his dreams of power, and rouses the slumbering energies of an oppressed people. It was intelligence that reared up majestic columns of national glory; and this and sound morality alone can prevent their crumbling to ashes.

But if we turn from the rhetoric of the past to the realities of the present, we are most struck by the volume of criticism suggesting that something very important is missing from the American passion for education. A host of educational problems has arisen from indifference — underpaid teachers, overcrowded classrooms, double-schedule schools, broken-down scholl buildings, inadequate facilities and a number of other failings that come from something else — the cult of athleticism, marching bands, high-school drum majorettes, ethnic ghetto schools, de-intellectualized curricula, the faulure to educate in serious subjects, the neglect of academically gifted children. At times the schools of the country seem to be dominated by athletics, commercialism, and the standards of mass media, and these extend upwards to a system of higher education whose worst failings were underlined by the bold president of the University of Oklahoma who hoped to develop a university of which the football team could be proud.

2019-11-03 07:59

PSA: Yesterday, I republished more old posts from 2003–06. Here are a few:

And here are some others that I republished a while ago, but are now slightly more hidden in the thicket of newly resurrected posts:

2019-11-02 14:08


One must know that war is universal, and that justice is strife, and that all things happen according to strife and necessity.

He is equating justice and strife in order to suggest that unity is a product of opposites, in the way that a road up and a road down are the same road.

commonplace tranche
2019-09-23 07:00

Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings:

Sam said nothing. The look on Frodo’s face was enough for him; he knew that words of his were useless. And after all he never had any real hope in the affair from the beginning; but being a cheerful hobbit he had not needed hope, as long as despair could be postponed.

2019-09-10 09:44

Gilbert Seldes, The Stammering Century:

But it is almost impossible to believe that the wholly undisciplined followers of New Thought could understand or seriously practice the discipline of Yoga. […] For the most part, those who practiced it had not the faintest intention of giving up the world. Yoga was for them a mystic way of renouncing whatever was irritating and preserving whatever was pleasing. It was an elaborate game of pretense by which noisy people went into silence and distracted people imagined they were concentrating. The glamour of renunciation suffused the picture which they had of themselves. Actually nothing was renounced and whatever was desired was lifted to a transcendantal plane where it could be enjoyed a hundred-fold. No doubt the delusion was as effective as the actuality might have been. One fancies oneself becoming ageless and deathless, and full of perfection, sinking into eternal nothingness. And if, in fact, one was only resting a little and sinking into a perfumed bath the result was about the same. For Yoga had given a reason beyond reason. It had, in a strange way, transfigured the commonplaces of life. One was lifted successively to higher and higher planes of being, not knowing exactly where they were, but vaguely satisfied because they were higher. The little irritations of the world fell away. One was alone with the mysterious spirit and, breathing in a refined way, one returned to conquer the world.

2019-09-01 08:16

Negative Capability

Negative Capability

From Why Poetry, p 103, Matthew Zapruder.

2019-08-15 05:00

John Holt, Whole Earth Epilog (1974) (via):

A society of large tools cannot be democratic, egalitarian, socialistic, humane, and just. It must be hierarchical, exploitative, bureaucratic, and authoritarian. If the day comes when all of humanity’s wants can be supplied by a few giant tools, the people who tend them will rule the world.

2019-08-08 21:00

Toni Morrison (via):

We have to stop loving our horror stories. Joyce’s Ulysses was rejected fourteen times. I don’t like that story; I hate it. Fitzgerald burned out and could not work. Hemingway despaired and could not work. A went mad, B died in penury, C drank herself to death, D was blacklisted, E committed suicide. I hate those stories. Great works are written in prisons and holding camps. So are stupid books. The misery does not validate the work. It outrages the sensibilities and violates the work.

2019-08-06 09:28

Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow:

In one of these streets, in the morning fog, plastered over two slippery cobblestones, is a scrap of newspaper headline, with a wirephoto of a giant white cock, dangling in the sky straight downward out of a white pubic bush. The letters


appear above with the logo of some occupation newspaper, a grinning glamour girl riding astraddle the cannon of a tank, steel penis with slotted serpent head, 3rd Armored treads ’n’ triangle on a sweater rippling across her tits. The white image has the same coherence, the hey-lookit-me smugness, as the Cross does. It is not only a sudden white genital onset in the sky — it is also, perhaps, a Tree…

commonplace pynchon otd
2019-08-01 08:00

Walter Ong, Orality & Literacy:

To say writing is artificial is not to condemn it but to praise it. Like other artificial creations and indeed more than any other, it is utterly invaluable and indeed essential for the realization of fuller, interior, human potentials. Technologies are not mere exterior aids but also interior transformations of consciousness…. Writing heightens consciousness. Alienation from a natural milieu can be good for us and indeed is in many ways essential for full human life. To live and understand fully, we need not only proximity but also distance. This writing provides for consciousness as nothing else does.

2019-07-14 15:50

Nietzsche, The Gay Science:

…But what I have in view will now be understood, namely, that it is always a metaphysical belief on which our belief in science rests,— and that even we knowing ones of today, the godless and anti-metaphysical, still take our fire from the conflagration kindled by a belief a millennium old, the Christian belief, which was also the belief of Plato, that God is truth, that the truth is divine… But what if this itself always becomes more untrustworthy, what if nothing any longer proves itself divine, except it be error, blindness, and falsehood;— what if God himself turns out to be our most persistent lie?

2019-07-14 10:45

Barbara Tuchman, Practicing History:

…I take notes on four-by-six index cards, reminding myself about once an hour of a rule I read long ago in a research manual, “Never write on the back of anything.” Since copying is a chore and a bore, use of the cards, the smaller the better, forces one to extract the strictly relevant, to distill from the very beginning, to pass the material through the grinder of one’s own mind, so to speak. Eventually, as the cards fall into groups according to subject or person or chronological sequence, the pattern of my story will emerge. Besides, they are convenient, as they can be filed in a shoe box and carried around in a pocketbook. When ready to write I need only to take along a packet of them, representing a chapter, and I am equipped to work anywhere; whereas if one writes surrounded by a pile of books, one is tied to a single place, and furthermore likely to be too much influenced by other authors.