February 26, 2005

Crooks Can't Spell

I expect to receive, anytime soon, an official looking email from the Fedral Resurve, asking me to send them all my muney to check it for germs. Crooks don't use spellcheckers; at least, the 5 crooks a day that send me emails don't. They also haven't mastered elegant bureaucratic prose. There's a fine line between legalese and pure nonsense, but the line is there, and they cross it.

Watching this scam parade march across my new mail screen every day, I am reminded of the real point of all those lessons in grammar and style and spelling from junior high -- stuff that can still tumble me into depression on a bad day. We were really learning how to leave a calling card embossed over our writing: "I am somebody who cares about detail, who takes time, who doesn't want to be unnecessarily offensive, and who knows the rules." When we scan our world, we look for such people, not because they are infallibly good -- surely the worst people have mastered the elementary tricks of civility -- but because folks who aren't like that are possibly dangerous, and we just can't take that risk. It's a pretty efficient mechanism.

Posted by shea0017 at 8:58 AM

February 23, 2005

The web connecting us all

Today's New York Times reports on charges at Harvard that its president insults the faculty. One bit deserves quotation:

Caroline Hoxby, an economics professor, opened her remarks by saying that the discussion was not about "right versus left" or political correctness, but about management. Some commentators have put a political spin on the debate over remarks by Dr. Summers that women may lag in science and engineering because of "intrinsic aptitude."

"Every time, Mr. President, you show a lack of respect for a faculty member's intellectual expertise, you break ties in our web," Professor Hoxby said to Dr. Summers, according to a copy of her remarks. "Every time you humiliate or silence a faculty member, you break ties in our web."

So far as I can tell, the administration at the University of Minnesota is steering towards a university system in which the U of M would be clearly first rate and lots of other institutions would be clearly second rate. The impression that all the institutions in the state are in the same game would become obsolete. To do this, the administration will need to convince some faculty and some departments that they are first rate and that other faculty and departments are second rate. First rate faculty and departments get more money and a better place in the homecoming parade. After that, the U of M must go on to convince many other universities, one by one, that they are second rate and that the U of M is first rate. The goal of this enterprise is to be up there with Harvard, in the very small winner's circle.

To get to that exalted circle, the U of M will have to silence and humiliate lots of other institutions, and the instruments of the U of M, the administrators, the chairs of favored departments, the full professors, the admissions committees, will have to silence and humiliate many individual people who have taken an interest in the life of the mind and the creation of culture -- people who, in other contexts, would be their natural allies.

Harvard's experience with its current president suggests that this habit of silencing and humiliating is not easy to unlearn.

One might sometimes be condemned to splendid isolation, to towering over one's fellows. Life does that to people sometimes. But why would any sane person choose a course of action that magnifies differences and forbids connection? Why would any sane person take a great university down this road?

Posted by shea0017 at 11:01 AM

February 18, 2005

Reasons for doing philosophy

Some people are interested in philosophy because they want clever new thoughts to think about life and the world, with their same old minds. Other people are interested because they are tired of their same old minds. They want new minds, alternative minds, maybe better minds, maybe getting-better minds. These two kinds of people will approach a philosophy lecture or interview differently: to learn something, to be stimulated, or to catch something, to be transformed. A pretty boring presentation, from the standpoint of interest and stimulation, might be just the right sort of presentation, to pass on a trick of seeing, an approach, a way everything could be different.

Posted by shea0017 at 4:21 PM

February 12, 2005

Oh blessed blessed military mind

The military managers make me want to live very long. They keep coming up with new funny things.

The Minnesota Daily reported recently that a group of young soldiers in Iraq, celebrating some momentous event, undertook on a whim a bout of mud wrestling. In the course of this lively entertainment, one young woman had her clothing brought into some disarray by the mud. Officers learned of this and, judging it to be beneath military dignity, ordered her demoted. To help the spectators through any trauma they might have suffered upon seeing this unexpected and unfortunate exposure of body parts normally off limits, the military managers ordered that the spectators be given counseling.

(Tearful private, blubbering: "Doctor, there was this... thing. It was sort of ... floppy and yet... firm and it it came right out of her blouse. I was so frightened, and yet -- I couldn't turn away.")

Posted by shea0017 at 11:42 AM

February 11, 2005

We're the top

The Strib today reported that, in a recent poll of Minnesota voters about University priorities, the goal of being ranked as a top national university came in dead last. University administration is trying to make the U of M one of the top three research universities in the world. President Bruininks acknowledges the "disconnect," saying, "I do think there is some natural tension. We are the land of populist thinking. But in a world of finite resources, we have to differentiate our responsibilities from other very valued parts of the higher education system."

Kids want to be on top, always. They want to be the best. They want the top bunk, the biggest dish of ice cream. When there's a bug eating contest, they want to eat the most bugs. When the coach says: "Jump higher, swim faster, play longer," they jump, swim, play their hearts out, wear their knees out, fast til they're toothpicks, bulk up til they're elephants. Simon says.....

From our leaders, maybe once in a while we could hear something that doesn't sound like it comes shouted across the playground at lunchtime, or chanted by somebody with pom poms and a little skirt. When President Bruininks says he wants to erode the pervasive hopelessness and resignation that drains our energy at every level of society, when he sets the university on a course to produce agricultural and medical and industrial systems that don't divide the rich from the poor, when he declares a war on stupidity and heartlessness at every level, I'll be there cheering. If he has the good sense to quote my old teacher David White about the supreme importance of "full humanity," I'll open up my ears and listen hard. But when he talks about being on top, I'll think about the kid who ate 34 grasshoppers and a frog, about the guy with the 16 foot ball of twine, about Jimmy the superlemming, first one over the cliff.

Posted by shea0017 at 8:19 PM

February 4, 2005

Ours in a high and lonely destiny

What am I doing, blogging? After about 180 entries, this question nags. It's tempting to answer it casually: "just fooling around with ideas." And maybe, given the amount of pretense in academic writing, that's the best answer. But I think it is a little better to say: "I am doing approximately what Wittgenstein was doing in Philosophical Investigations, and I am respecting an ideal of intellectual efficiency that also informs that work.

In Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein pulls together remarks from many independent trains of thought into a very loose work. The remarks are provocative and short, and he has usually moved on to substantially new material within a page. The short pieces are self-contained, can be read individually with profit; they also contribute to a big project.

Wittgenstein's way of working preserves a lot of his basic material. What one remembers from the Investigations are the examples and metaphors. "If a lion could talk, we wouldn't understand it." "A wheel that turns, although nothing else turns with it, is not part of the mechanism." One turns that sort of thing up, all the time, in reflection, and a more normal way of working is to publish only that stuff that one can integrate into a long, carefully developed essay. That means that lots of material gets left behind and also that the material one uses gets locked into a particular use, a particular interpretation. That "locking in" is perfectly appropriate sometimes, but other times, the metaphor or example is at the heart of what one is thinking, and one's development of it secondary.

Wittgenstein has preserved a great mass of philosophic material with a pretty light apparatus around it. Those who read his work can easily turn the material to their own purposes.

When one only has 70-90 years, this is a pretty smart use of time and intellectual energy.

Viva la blog!

Posted by shea0017 at 10:58 AM

February 3, 2005

Plato got the direction right but the distance wrong.

Francis Thompson was for much of his life a ragged guy haunting the public library. We know these guys. They probably have ordinary, poor people's kind of thoughts. Here's some of what Thompson was thinking about:

No Strange Land

‘The Kingdom of God is within you.’

O WORLD invisible, we view thee,
O world intangible, we touch thee,
O world unknowable, we know thee,
Inapprehensible, we clutch thee!

Does the fish soar to find the ocean,
The eagle plunge to find the air—
That we ask of the stars in motion
If they have rumour of thee there?

Not where the wheeling systems darken,
And our benumb’d conceiving soars!—
The drift of pinions, would we hearken,
Beats at our own clay-shutter’d doors.

The angels keep their ancient places;—
Turn but a stone, and start a wing!
’Tis ye, ’tis your estrangŕd faces,
That miss the many-splendour’d thing.

But (when so sad thou canst not sadder)
Cry;—and upon thy so sore loss
Shall shine the traffic of Jacob’s ladder
Pitched betwixt Heaven and Charing Cross.
Yea, in the night, my Soul, my daughter,
Cry,—clinging Heaven by the hems;
And lo, Christ walking on the water,
Not of Gennesareth, but Thames!

You just never know.

Plato says that the real stuff is beyond the obvious, and strangely different from it. A long discipline of questioning and self-interrogation wins a fleeting vision of the other world. The Brits have been notable in philosophy for a lunkheaded insistence on "what you see is what you get." G.E. Moore's most famous contribution to contemporary philosophy is a sustained meditation on the statement, "This is a hand." But in Hopkins and Blake and Thompson, there's a synthesis: yes, the real world is beyond or behind or underneath, but just behind, just behind, peeking out.

Posted by shea0017 at 10:15 AM

February 2, 2005

Seeing and knowing

A piece in today's New York Times by Neela Banarjee reports that clinics run by groups that oppose abortion are introducing sonagrams as part of their persuasion.

Dr. Christiansen, who is also a member of the medical advisory board of Carenet, an umbrella group of such centers, added, "Women have a right to know what is going on inside their bodies, and we want to provide women with critical information as they face a life-altering procedure and decision. Women will be empowered to choose life."

Groups that favor abortion rights, however, see the technique as a pressure tactic. Nancy Keenan, president of Naral Pro-Choice America, said that while ultrasounds were legitimate medical care for pregnant women, "they shouldn't be misused to badger or coerce women by these so-called crisis pregnancy centers."

"With or without ultrasound," Ms. Keenan said, "women understand the moral dimensions of their choices."

That last line strikes me. Given that, on some clinics' statistics, 90% of women who see sonagram of the fetus change their mind about having an abortion, what does the sonagram do? Does it simply manipulate morally irrelevant feelings?

Suppose the Bush administration banned publication of photos from Iraq, with defense: "With or without pictures, the American people understand the moral dimensions of this war."

Posted by shea0017 at 9:00 AM