Tuesday, December 31, 2013

No sweater

Thought of a sample case that suggests that ordinary language as a direct source of philosophical truth is either wrong-headed or more complicated than the name suggests. I was looking at a story about the ship of Theseus and started thinking about the paper title “A sweater unraveled” (which I have not read).

I thought about someone holding up a pile of yarn and saying “Look at my sweater!!!” Someone might say “We say ‘Look at my sweater!!!’ when displaying an unraveled sweater; therefore the yarn is the sweater, even though it is unraveled.” That doesn’t seem right. I’d say it is more complicated than that.

For one, one might argue that what is meant is “Look what happened to my sweater!” or “This is all that is left of my sweater!” In neither case is it implied that the yarn is the sweater. I think one could argue that because these meanings seem roughly interchangeable, “what we say” seems ambiguous in its logical implications.

Another interpretation of this gesture also doesn’t really seem to support the view that “what we say” settles the matter. It might make sense to say that we do consider the sweater to be the pile of remaining yarn, but not because of the interjection “Look at my sweater!!!” It seems reasonable to make some set of claims about “the sweater” being a functional concept that covers the pile of unraveled yarn. For example, the owner may handle the pile in a special way that suggests it is not “just” a pile of yarn, especially if she thinks it can be repaired, returned to a store, used in a lawsuit, etc.

You could make such arguments. But then you’d probably only want to if you were paid to be a philosopher. And only others paid for similar reasons would probably want to read such things.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The conversation frame

A kind of implicit pattern I have become more aware of recently is the quid pro quo nature of conversation. It is insidiously difficult to break out of this pattern. It is practically true that to say anything at all with an audience (actual or potential) is to accept this game. Why?

Most of the time people say things and they implicitly await the reply. Literally or figuratively, they leave space for the reply. In a verbal dispute, they are left at the mercy of the reply at that moment. By merely awaiting the reply, they already lend it credence. “Your turn.” The reply is the reason everyone has fallen silent momentarily.

Furthermore, by awaiting the reply and then allowing it to emerge in full, we force ourselves to deal with it. This is a burden we give ourselves by accepting the conversation frame. This is work we have created for ourselves, though the interlocutor is a crucial player in the game.

Of course, in a verbal dispute, we could act like the reply is not worth our attention and refuse to respond. Yet this is still a kind of response. Such specious insouciance is already belied by our awaiting the reply, allowing it to emerge, and considering whether to "respond" or not. So, to a certain degree, by the very existence of the reply, we are already losing in such disputes. Besides, acting like one is merely ignoring the reply is a dangerous proposition. Doing so is often taken by interlocutors and onlookers as lacking a response. It looks like a loss.

More often, of course, the choice is to construct one’s own response to the reply. This affords it still more credence. It is work to come up with a response. It is dangerous in an argument, since the longer the verbal tennis continues, the greater the opportunity for sudden and devastating loss. And just by staying in such a dispute for an extended period suggests holistically that the conversation, and the opinion of your opponent, are worth (at least some of) your time and effort.

To break out of this pattern, as I suggested, is difficult. One basic issue on which to gain clarity is: “Why am I saying anything at all?” It may be that you want to engage in dialogue, in which case there is not as much reason to consider breaking the pattern. Seeking feedback, even when it is risky, can be valuable.

Sometimes, though, saying something has value in itself. We may want only to express things. We may want to think things out in words. We may simply want to say things that we know are true. Given such circumstances, it is worth asking ourselves: "How likely is it that a reply to what I am saying is something that I will value?" Sometimes this question impels us to remain silent; other times it demands that we find ways to break the dialogic pattern.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Goodbye, Herman

I started to watch “Hello, Herman” this morning but I had to switch it off. It was really awful. I have huge respect for Norman Reedus from “The Walking Dead.” Even his fantastic acting could not save this film. He was so much better than all the other actors involved that it reminded a bit of those straight-to-video action flicks Oscar-nominee Eric Roberts starred in during the 90s.

And the subject matter had the makings of something worth seeing too. Reedus is a vlogging journalist--named Lax Morales? Seriously?--who accepts an exclusive interview offer from a high school spree shooter. But the journalist has a touchy past involving a white supremacy group, and these details slowly emerge during the film.

But there were too many huge flaws. Principally, the spree shooter kid is a terribly-drawn character played by a weak young actor. His dialogue is all over the place and so unrealistic that you have no sense of who or what he is supposed to be. Most of the time he comes across as just an Evil Villain (tm) more appropriate to a comic book flick than a serious drama. Mix in the horrible title, lazy directing choices like the use of stock footage and continuity errors, and it became clear fairly quickly that I had better ways to use my time that watch this.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

"Inspiring" circle bait

A lot of the Google+ circle “requests” (since it is not a de dicto request) I get come from people whose postings are what I call “Luminous Fantasy Realism” (LFR) images. These are software enhanced photo-paintings that share a certain aesthetic, if not subject matter.

LFR images are somewhat limited in scope. They use a bright light sources or reflections thereof; lots of whites, yellows, and oranges and hardly any dark colors (except those necessary to depict edges); and subject matter of striking natural scenes, like forests with light coming through the trees, waterfalls, mountain vistas, etc. There are rarely animate individuals depicted, although more than one individual may appear as long as these animals (or people) function mainly as composition elements rather than the focus.

The subject must always remain The Awe. Or, more cynically punned: The Fawe.

Notably, the individuals who post these things usually 1) mainly post these images and almost never post informative articles; and 2) tend to have thousands of people who have circled them (i.e., chosen to follow the postings of these individuals.

I never circle these LFR posters simply because there are a lot of them and I don’t want my feed cluttered with a bunch of faux-inspiring images. But the more I have seen of them, the more suspicious I have become of the intent. I mean, who posts only such things? Who quests the infinities of the Internet and returns from the journey to offer us only this?

Whether or not they have an agenda, one thing is clear: a lot of people are buying into it. Again, thousands usually circle these people. It is as if the LFR crowd as discovered an exploit, a nearly perfect form of circle bait.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013


When I was thinking about opening up FB a while ago, it struck me again that it is mainly this huge time suck that is almost always unsatisfying. I always expect (or at least hope) that something worth my time will appear. Instead I wade through reams of things to be ignored or which are mildly amusing at best. Meanwhile the minutes seem to rush away unnoticed.

I am sometimes tempted by links that I would never seek out on my own. The usual reason is that I am checking out something that is recommended by a person whose judgment I have some respect for. But time and again the links are not worth my time. They are not about things that interest me, or they are of poor quality. Many of these things are not links at all, but can be absorbed on the same page. I waste time looking at and reading these things, like memes. There are sometimes quite a few of these.

I suppose this social factor is really what is behind a lot of these phenomena. I get pulled into much more time wasting and recurring feelings of listlessness because of this implicit expectation about the relative value of the interests of people I like. 

And I don’t think such expectations are normally wrong. Instead, there is another factor unique to FB in play: there is a subtle pressure to post something, anything. Based on some of the things I have seen posted, many people must feel like anything they find mildly amusing is appropriate to post. Thus I see today, for example, someone I would not expect posting a Gawker “story” about funny photos of Toronto’s crack smoking mayor. And I don’t blame the poster (much) because it seems to me like the context encourages such behavior. It’s the same way one shouldn’t look down on a person when they act mildly silly to entertain an infant. FB infantilizes social interaction in an only somewhat metaphorical way.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Write it down!

I am dying. I was just reading some journal entries from December 2005. It is like crack. I can’t believe how powerful it is for me to read this stuff. A lot of the stuff isn’t even hooked up to episodic memories anymore, but it is just incredible to be able to tap into my thinking from back then. 

I have to do more writing in my notebooks, no matter what. It may be the most important thing in my life. I just realized that someday it will be the only thing I have left. My life will be almost over and my powers almost all gone. And I will be able to tap into my rich internal life at another time. The power and richness that is preserved is difficult to believe.

This is clearly one of the greatest things about being a person who mainly lives in his own mind: it is possible to preserve it for later and therefore liven things up later in an extremely powerful way. There is nothing as powerful as the experience of being able to relive your own thinking when you are thinker. It doesn’t have to be about experiences, but those are interesting, too. 

The experiences are mainly interesting for the thoughts I also express about them. But it is actually easier sometimes to will oneself to write habitually when one approaches it as "just jotting down daily events." Even when one is short on energy or focus, the jottings tend to trigger the good stuff: expression of thought. Even narrative is thought, of course (and vice versa): but reportage clearly seems to lie on the lower end of the difficulty scale.

Speaking of narrative, a bit of context is in order: I was rereading the 2005 entries because I finally started working on an update to “Turning Points.” That was the piece I wrote in 2005, influenced by an article about John Lennon. In the article, the writer tried to pinpoint the most influential events in Lennon’s. I liked the idea, and I figured I would have an even better grasp on my own life. Eight years later, it is well past time for an update.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Status report 10-27-13

Some predicted a big upset for the next Congressional election. But the media are always there to carry the water. The tacit message is: "Told ya so." This was accomplished in a matter of days. Sleepwalkers roam this burned out hull.

The Writer Illusion

Slaves of the Internet unite! by Tim Kreider

The writing and analysis in the article are unengaging, so it is not too surprising that the writer is in relatively low demand. But the topic is an interesting one. 

Most people seem to think that writing is something almost anyone can do. There is an illusion that if you can say something orally, all you have to do is write it down on paper, then--"Poof!"--you're a writer. 

What people don't seem to realize is that in conversation, context and meaning are largely conveyed non-verbally. Expressions, gestures, and the situation itself provide as much as the words themselves. Writing is the bastard stepchild of spoken conversation, not vice-versa.

I suspect that school assignments are highly responsible for this illusion. When people have been putting pencil to paper for at least twelve years of schooling, they seem to believe that writing is just something everyone can do. Call this the Writer Illusion.

It is interesting to note the difference between something like mathematics and writing. Most people do not think they are to be trusted at math. Does this mean that educational experience is not really what creates the Writer Illusion?

Perhaps the difference is that people receive much more negative feedback on their skill at rudimentary mathematics. As a result, we are less susceptible to a Mathematician Illusion. 

Yet, most students also hate grammatical rules and spelling, and think that they are not good at it. Why, then, do they nevertheless think they can write? One likely explanation is that it is claimed that grammar and spelling are inessential to writing, ultimately. Even great writers need editors, after all. The claim is that people can write even when they lack these fundamentals.

It is true that precise grammar and spelling are not necessary to be an effective writer. However, it is not true that many students are clear writers, much less effective ones. Not even close. 

Schooling creates the illusion that "anyone can write" because negative feedback on writing quality is hard. 

Unlike mathematics (or grammar) lessons, writing assignments lack an answer key. Every student's paper is different. The teacher has to provide unique analysis and feedback to every student

Furthermore, students have to have certain skills in order to so much as make sense of the feedback. Many don't. So, even if they receive feedback on the clarity and effectiveness of their writing, many students are unable to benefit from it. Many students just perceive such criticism as "pickiness" on the part of the teacher.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Video logging

Watched a Tedx Talk on the social brain. As advice, it was overstated and unclear about how most people could act on the idea. However, it was interesting in that it confirmed what I already had discovered about myself: that I need to imagine teaching something in order to really learn it best; and that a similar but less powerful effect occurs when I compose my notes on factual matters with the thought that they will be published.

Monday, October 7, 2013

"So?" "So..."

The use of the word “so” to begin answers to questions has gotten out of control. It began in earnest among researchers and other academic types, and it seems to have spread to many areas. There was a story about it on Harry Shearer’s “Le Show” from yesterday, and it made me happy to discover that others are annoyed by it.

On “Le Show,” Harry read a response from someone at NPR who speculated that “so” was a new form of “um.” This implied that it was actually preferable, since “so” is at least a word. On my reading, however, this explanation is incorrect. “So” is actually much more than a placeholder, and it is actually much more a strike against those who use it.

“So,” on my analysis, is often actually used as a way to wrest slightly morel social leverage, or “hand,” than one usually has in a certain point in conversations. Let me explain why.

The expectation in many conversations, but especially in interviews, is that if one is asked a question or asked for an explanation, when the respondent next speaks s/he is answering the interlocutor’s question. By contrast, often those who begin an answer with “so” have used the word to begin a lecture. They implicitly say something like the following:

“I am now using the occasion of your asking me a question to begin talking about things that I think need to be said. Your question has basically given me the opportunity to talk about what I want to talk about. If I hereby satisfy your desire for an answer, that is incidental what is now happening here. I have now taken the stage.”

In other words, what is so annoying about “so” users is their audacity. They have essentially subverted a subtle aspect of polite conversations, especially when it comes to interviews. They thereby reveal themselves to fall more in categories like rude, presumptuous, arrogant, narcissistic, egotistical, etc. It won’t seem like a big deal to many people that they do so. But not everyone is tone deaf to such things.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Someone in a "high-IQ group" on FB posted that Caltech is now the world’s top uni or something, and their comment was “Sorry Oxford.” I thought this was ironic and sad at the same time. It really does seem like the environment of sites like Facebook encourages only the basest levels of thinking and interacting.

Wittgenstein wrote in relatively bite-sized chunks. Does this somehow confer analogical legitimacy on media like Twitter, qua the actual quality of what is produced there? I don’t think so. I don’t think W would have tweeted the Tractatus were he alive today. Not if he wanted people to actually read it and think about it.

The problem with the form of thinking and interaction into which social media have gelled is caused by at least these two main issues: that we are influenced by the mode of the surrounding “conversation;” and that the sites encourage quantity over quality.

To expound on the first: the more users--even intelligent ones--see playground-level of interaction going on the more it is normalized for them. It may seem off-putting at first, but if they see enough of it, it becomes not only a temptation but a live option. Thoughtfulness and restraint get edged out the door.

As to the second: the signal-to-noise ratio creates a kind of internal pressure to find something good in the trash pile. You skim through everything hoping to find that one gem of an idea that makes it worth your time to read through all this. Thoughtful ideas are more likely to be found in larger chunks of text. However, over time you get burned by too many long-winded posts that go nowhere and are poorly argued. You start to skip over those too. This creates the feeling for yourself that nobody reads the longer comments and that FB just isn’t the place for them. For most people, that means the more complex thoughts will never get written, since there is nowhere online but AOL-I-mean-Facebook.