September 26, 2005

We're doing it again

"Civilian resources limped managing Katrina. Let's make the military responsible for disasters." So anytime anyone says the magic word "disaster," we will suddenly see lots of folks from someplace else, carrying machine guns. With enough disasters, they'll just forget to go home, and everybody will get trained to follow orders or get shot.

Crisis tends to make people stupid. We should try not to have one very often, even if lots of people are dying, even if bad people are on the loose, even if there's lots of noise and things flying around.

Had I had the privilege of writing President Bush's speech the day after 9/11, I would have said, "A terrible crime has been committed. We must increase the budget for local law enforcement and disaster relief at every level, and train personnel to watch out for this kind of crime. Those who planned this crime have reason to fear the penalty of the law. No one else has anything to fear from the United States of America." Somebody might someday do an estimate on the number of lives that statement would have saved.

Posted by shea0017 at 11:22 AM

September 23, 2005


The Strib reported awhile back about a bus driver who loves driving the bus. He hasn’t missed a day of work in 38 years. He explained that you have to make a distinction between feeling bad and being sick.

What a useful distinction! It works against an impulse toward catastrophism and also against denial. It keeps a person moving in a generally healthy direction. And it raises good questions. The person who has this distinction is better fitted for living than the person who lacks it.

One other point: this guy has mastered a general notion – that distinctions can be useful. That is also worth the price of admission.

Yea, philosophy.

Posted by shea0017 at 10:52 AM

September 20, 2005

Godzilla meets King Kong

Having the big guys fight is a constant temptation for monster makers. Each monster is the big guy in his own domain. They evolved separately; one has scales, the other has fur. Who knows what will happen when they meet. The Romans used to bring animals from different corners of their empire into the arena, just to see what would happen: “Big bear, meet big lion.”

The richness of almost any sort of development depends on there being lots of competitions, lots of little, isolated ponds in which somebody gets to be the big fish. Combine all the ponds, and one standard of big-fish-hood will come to dominate the competition. All sorts of promising lines of development will be cut off.

I was treated yesterday to a characterization of the philosophy job market: everybody sane applies for everything in sight, so every search has hundreds of applicants. In such a context, considerations of fairness and efficiency will guide the development of common standards, for the most part. The whole operation will become increasingly conventional. That’s stage 1.

Stage 2 is that people will publicize the conventions, and job applicants will tailor their applications to those conventions and, to a considerable extent, enforce those conventions on colleges and universities. Gradually, there will be less and less discernible difference among applicants.

If philosophy lives on fresh ideas, on new metaphors, on new experience coming into the discussion, this development will be a kind of disaster for the discipline, especially as the standards for hiring begin to inform the selection of graduate students and the teaching of classes.

Freeman Dyson writes in From Eros to Gaia that it was crucial for the development of science in England that science was for a long time held in contempt, was practiced after school by not-quite-respectable kids. One understands why.

Posted by shea0017 at 1:45 PM

September 19, 2005

Pigs at a trough

I have been reading philosophy job descriptions recently, thinking about the hopes for competition that motivate these cattle calls. The pool of candidates contains a lot of folks with high general intelligence: they'd make great cashiers at Super Valu, great stockyard administrators, great intro to logic teachers -- at least for a while. So, in response to these calls, hundreds of people retool and reretool their resumes: "Yes, I an historian" "I am amazingly student-centered" "Of course I'm a serious scholar" "Committee work and collegiality -- no problem" And letters of recommendation go out saying: "Indeed this person is smart and capable and will do this thing well." But something serious is being missed in all this.

There are jobs that fit particular people like gloves. They enjoy the boring parts, even. They wake up each morning eager to go to work. And that is about far more than high general intelligence; it's about the fit between someone's life and a particular set of tasks. If that fit doesn't happen, people end up enduring their lives. Having to endure one's life is the prize one gets for having a lot of generalized ability -- high general intelligence. It's not a very fun prize.

The way out -- to revive thinking on both sides of the application process about the idea of vocation, of good work for a particular person.

We have to all reassert our basic dignity. We are not a bunch of pigs, trying to stuff our snouts into the trough. As Hamlet says, "That way madness lies."

Posted by shea0017 at 12:02 PM

September 6, 2005

It's all about democracy

Why should one expect voters to recognize the kind of competence that makes busses available for emergency evacuation, that keeps the levees maintained, that registers folks without cars? That sort of competence doesn't show up, when there isn't a disaster, except in a lot more fussing about hiring personnel and some big numbers in operations budgets. The competent administrator will not look flashy, and his or her accomplishments will be largely that disasters don't happen, that people take a level of security and comfort and opportunity to be just normal, just their God-given right. If government is going really well, nobody thinks about it.

I suspect that democracy is the best form of government for people to think they have, and that, behind the scenes, all sorts of folks work terribly hard to try to give them something better.

Posted by shea0017 at 10:42 AM

September 5, 2005

Podcasting and voice files

I have been neglecting my written blogs recently in favor of posting mp3 files on The Philosopher's Almanac. I enjoy exploring the difference with different media: journals, formal writing, blogs, voice recordings, video. This gives very useful information about communication and also about the creative process: different work is possible in different media.

For those who might want to try posting mp3 files and taking advantage of the feature of Moveable Type that allows one to subscribe to such files as podcasts, I have written out some simple instructions based on my own experience. There are surely other ways to do the same thing, but, for my version, look here: Download file

Posted by shea0017 at 11:58 AM