Thursday, January 31, 2008

Garth Marenghi's Darkplace

Recently I've been getting into this hysterical British comedy, "Garth Marenghi's Darkplace," a spoof of trashy budget '80s dramas. It's sidesplitting, at least on the first view; although like most straight parodies it has little intrinsic appeal, its humor resting on irony. The laughs quickly fall off after repeated watchings.

The Non Fiction Roundup

I just finished reading Hugh Brogan's new biography of Alexis de Tocqueville. Well written with sharply drawn characters and lively accounts of the France's political and social upheavals in the first half of the 19th century, it's worth reading for the student of history and the lay reader. A broad familiarity with French history is a plus, though (I wish I knew more about the July Monarchy).

A new book about Reconstruction by journalist and historian Stephen Budiansky, "The Bloody Shirt: Terror After Appomattox," was recently reviewed favorably by the Times. Budiansky is a correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly and former foreign editor of U.S. News and World Report; he has written on topics ranging from dogs and horses to Elizabethan spies. In his latest work he charts the failure of Reconstruction in the face of Southern resistance and Northern apathy. Budiansky tells the story mostly through the correspondence and writings of several Northerners, some eye witnesses, some active participants. Definitely worth checking out, if only for these contemporary voices. Eric Foner's 1990 classic, "A Short History of Reconstruction," is still the word on the subject.

Ayesha Siddiqa's "Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan's Military Economy" has been making waves at home and abroad (it was banned in Pakistan) for its analysis of Pakistan's extralegal military economy. The implications for the "war on terror" and our alliance with this unstable country are far-reaching.

"The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court" is a superb account of today's court by Jeffrey Toobin. More a crackling character study than a conventional history of the court and its constituents' stances, Toobin's book manages to bring the shadowy priesthood of the highest court in the land to vivid life. This came out last year, but it's too good not to mention.

"The Logic of Life: The Rational Economics of an Irrational World," by FT columnist Tim Hartford, tries to show that all human decisions are founded on logical choices. What exactly that means, I'd have to find out by actually reading the book's 255 pages. Although you can disagree with rational choice theory, as I do, it's still worth taking a look at this cogent defense of it.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Wireless world

I'm a little biased about blogging this but I'm also proud (of the reporter) and interested (in the subject). My friend Kelsey did some freelancing for Silicon Alley Insider on San Francisco's wirelessness. A couple of cities have been trying to blanket the land in wireless with largely fruitless results. But a long shot company and volunteers did it in San Francisco.
Kudos to Kelsey on a superb story!

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Blog props

Ben Greenman posted an excellent entry on The New Yorker's Goings On About Town blog, so, like any self respecting blogger, I initially wanted to steal his idea for this blog. But I restrained myself (consider this entry an hommage). Still, it's a good one. He's shared a youtube video of the "most elaborate and beautiful twelve-foot-tall mechanical elephant in the known world," in recognition of the Florida primary and its importance to the GOP.

Monday, January 28, 2008

What an age we live in

Ann Marie Rockford wanted someone killed. So what did she do? Why, look on Craig's List of course.
From The Sacramento Bee:

Federal charges have been filed against a Michigan woman that claim she tried to use the Internet to find someone to kill her lover's wife in Oroville.

A criminal complaint against 48-year-old Ann Marie of Rockford, Mich., was filed in U.S. District Court in Sacramento against the woman, who is accused of using the free classified advertising Web site craigslist to hire an assassin.

Court papers say three people responded to the ad and that Marie told them the job paid $5,000. Marie also allegedly told at least one of them the killer's expenses would be paid, and added, "This IS a serious proposition," court documents state.

FBI agents went to Marie's home Thursday, and later she was charged with using interstate commerce facilities intending "that a murder be committed."

Marie, who sometimes uses the name Ann Marie Linscott, is in custody in Michigan and will be afforded a detention hearing next week.

The alleged target is a 56-year-old Oroville woman who is the wife of a man Marie had been romantically involved with, court papers say.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Think Again, Stanley Fish

Stanley Fish's Jan. 6 blog post on his New York Times blog Think Again is a kicker; so far it has generated 425 comments, about four times as many as his typical posts. Entitled "Will the Humanities Save Us?", the post mostly concerns itself with a description and critique of the argument for a humanities education laid out by former dean of Yale Law School Anthony Kronman in his new book, "Education's End: Why Out Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life."

In the book, according to Fish, Kronman sees careerism, science and technology as obstacles to a meaningful life, and the study of the humanities as the solution to a "crisis of spirit" in American universities. Essentially, the humanities give students a number of competing answers to fundamental ethical questions, allowing them to achieve an Archimedean point whereby they can evaluate their own values and ideals and perhaps gear their lives toward the realization of new rationally conceived goals. This is precisely the argument I gave for a Great Books education in my first post on this blog, so Kronman is very close to heart on this issue. Indeed, Kronman seems to have a conservative canon in mind as the core of the humanities education. The ethical value of humanities study, even of unorthodox texts, is, I think, of paramount importance. As Fish himself concedes, this justification is neither "crassly careerist" nor straining to be utilitarian.

Fish identifies the premise of this "secular humanism" as the idea that "the examples of action and thought portrayed in the enduring works of literature, philosophy and history can create in readers the desire to emulate them." If you read Kant's "Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals," you will want to use the categorical imperative in making ethical choices. This, I think, is a simplification of the argument Kronman is committed to. However, at base he's right: conscious study can affect conscious actions. In other words, the ideas that we glean from texts of philosophy, literature and history can be translated into beliefs that guide our interactions with the world. I don't think, even after Freud and the emotivists, that you can say that conscious thought does not affect action in a fundamental way.

But Fish rejects the argument for two reasons. First, in his experience the study of the great works does not make finer people in philosophy and literature departments. Second, to justify the humanities by referring to some other good is somehow to debase them.

The first argument is poppycock: not all scientists are good scientists, not all musicians are good musicians, etc. Anyway, the study of humanities doesn't ensure any fruitful result; the only point is that it has the potential for being of great value. Perhaps because there is too little emphasis on the application of ethical notions in academia, the full potential of humanities study isn't realized. Also, no one is saying this sort of study is sufficient to be an ethically grounded person, only that it is an extremely valuable instrument towards that end. It is extremely surprising (and depressing) to find a distinguished professor of the humanities writing, "The texts Kronman recommends are, as he says, concerned with the meaning of life; those who study them, however, come away not with a life made newly meaningful, but with a disciplinary knowledge newly enlarged." Even scientists talk about the meaning the practice of science gives to their lives. Why does Fish love the humanities? Apparently, for the same reason he loves, say, a Porsche: It gives him pleasure.

This brings me to the next argument. Fish says that people study the humanities because it gives them pleasure, not because it has any effect on their lives or anyone else's. What kind of pleasure is this? The pleasure of intellectual stimulation, perhaps, but how does this differ from the enjoyment of hobbies like chess-playing? Why dedicate your life, in other words, to the study of the humanities if your own pleasure is the only result? Fish goes even further by saying that to justify the humanities by relating it to the larger ethical good is to dishonor the humanities, that the humanities are their own good. The thought never occurred to him that the humanities may be an instrumental good and a good in themselves, just as the practice of science may be pleasurable to the practitioner but also have utilitarian value. I think it's actually, ironically, a bit of humanities elitism to elevate the humanities to a good in themselves while implicitly knocking science as only an instrumental good. The practice of science is both; the study of the humanities is both. Nothing wrong or dishonorable about that. That being said, Fish is being the provocateur he's always been, and the question of why we love literature, arts, and philosophy is an interesting one.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

You Little Beasts

I had a good, quiet winter break nestling in the warmth of my 40 inch plasma hearth. Apparently my father now wants to switch to blu-ray, which necessitates the purchase of blu-ray movies to replace the DVDs. In other words, we're single handedly staving off the recession for the time being.

I did get out, though, and with my family saw a production of The Turn of the Screw at the Writer's Theatre in Glencoe. The production, severely economized to two actors playing about five roles, was all in all a great success. However, the few devices developed by writer Jeffrey Hatcher, such as a lockett discovered by the governess that almost conclusively rules out the possibility of actual ghosts, felt cheap and unnecessary. These quibbles notwithstanding, the great question of the work was vividly brought to life: What are children, morally speaking? The governess's great fault is that she has an overly romanticized and unreflective notion of the nature of children; either they are beautiful, good, and pure, or evil, possessed by spirits, etc. The possibility that they are neither good nor evil, but simply ignorant of the full meaning of their actions, never occurs to her. The Writer Theatre's rendition seems to suggest this. But I think James left the question open whether children are capable of evil, or to what extent they should be held accountable for their actions. I'm not sure where I stand.

Rousseau said that to reason with a child about moral matters was fruitless, that all you can do is strictly forbid something and you shouldn't bother to try to make them understand the grounds of this prohibition. Morality only comes with reason. Rousseau wouldn't say this, but if children are incapable of moral reasoning, is something like corporeal punishment the only way to teach them right from wrong? What do people think about corporeal punishment for children? I'm not sure what I think. Children will remain a moral mystery, I think.