Saturday, May 26, 2012

Commencement Speech: "Make Good Art"

A friend shared with me this video of Neil Gaiman's May 17, 2012 commencement speech to the graduates of the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. 

It's quite wise and wonderful, and more than worth 20 minutes of anyone's time, no matter what phase of life you're currently in.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Rescued Dogs

This story made my week. 

In 2008, the volunteers at Best Friends Animal Society rescued 22 dogs from Michael Vick's dog-fighting enterprise.  They became known as the "Vicktory Dogs."  Here's how they're doing.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Idiocy, Idiocracy, Cats & Dogs

Once again, I have been meaning to blog for an entire week.  Let's just say, the week started out crazy-stressful, and then settled down.  So here I am again, finally.

Last weekend, I read Michael Michalko's May 19th entry on The Creativity Post entitled, "Is America Becoming an 'Idiocracy'?".  I'm sure plenty of people will see the title, yell "YES!" (without reading the article) and blissfully exclude themselves from the idiot-mix.

I'm not so certain.  I agree with many of Michalko's main points: we are taught to think "exclusively" rather than "reproductively."  When faced with a problem, we tend to weed out alternatives to arrive at a solution by process of elimination.

It's hard to juggle multiple ideas simultaneously--and, quite frankly, it's mentally uncomfortable.  So we pare back and exclude until we think we've arrived at the obvious answer.

I would argue that good teachers don't allow their students to do this, but I would also argue that in many ways, they're fighting a losing battle.  There is a certain reward for mental laziness: we get the answer (or we think we do) much more quickly, and we shorten the (time-consuming) process of... well, thought, actually.

Who wants to waste time thinking when you could just quickly insist that you've got the answer?  This seems to be the mindset of much of America these days, I'm afraid.

Michalko borrows cognitive scientist David Geary's use of the term "idiocracy" (itself borrowed from a 2006 film starring Luke Wilson) (no, I've never seen it) to suggest that evolutionarily (not sure if that's a word), we're getting a bit dumber with each passing generation.

Geary's research has shown that cranial size has declined as population density has increased: the more humans in a group, the less necessary it is that any one of us be particularly bright.  We can compensate for each other in order to survive.

I'm reminded of a conversation I had with a slightly cynical friend of mine.  He pointed out that, on bottles of lighter fluid, there is a warning: "Caution: FLAMMABLE."

His argument was, if you don't realize that lighter fluid--lighter fluid--is flammable, then perhaps we should let nature take its course and eliminate your potential contribution to the human gene pool.

I suggested that the warning was perhaps directed towards children, but he said, "You're giving people too much credit.  I don't think so."  I pointed out that, obviously, it was designed to ward off any liability on the part of the good people who manufacture lighter fluid: they don't want to be held financially responsible for someone else's stupidity.

Of course, some argue that the human brain may be shrinking because it's becoming more streamlined.  A bigger brain doesn't necessarily mean a smarter individual, and animal brains have also been shrinking over the years.

Which leads me to another article I encountered last weekend, one designed to address that age-old question: which species is smarter, cats or dogs?

This is a ticklish subject, no matter how you answer it, so let me offer my own perspective: I'm a cat person, so I'm going to vote "cat," no matter what.  I like dogs and I think they're sweet and wonderful, but I love the kitty cats.  I just do.  I cannot be objective on this issue.

I'm not sure why we did away with the ancient Egyptian worship of the goddess Bastet.

I will acknowledge, however, that a smart dog is smarter than a smart cat, in ways that are more directly relevant and beneficial to their human owners. 

Lassie couldn't get Timmy out of a well, but she could get someone who could.  My kitty may fully realize that I should not be in the well, but he would expect me to get myself out of my dilemma since, after all, I'm the one who got myself into it to begin with.

In case you're wondering what any of this has to do with idiocy (although maybe you aren't at this point), shortly after reading about Geary's theory of idiocracy, I stumbled upon the research of an obvious dog person.  In his Dec. 3, 2010 article in Psychology Today entitled, "Are Dogs More Intelligent Than Cats?", Stanley Coren argues that yes, they are.

In terms of the "Encephalization Quotient" (EQ), a "mathematically sophisticated comparison of the actual brain weight of an animal compared to the expected brain mass for that animal's body size," it has been concluded that dogs are, ultimately, "smarter."

But here's where it gets interesting.  According to Coren, "Animals that live in social groups are always smarter and have larger EQ's than solitary animals. This is because social animals must engage in problem solving every time they interact with another animal in the group. This involves reasoning like 'If I do this, then he'll do that, so I can do that other thing.'"

The research apparently shows that, as dogs have become domesticated and been challenged to engage in interactions not typical of life in the wild, their species' EQ has risen.  The EQ of cats, on the other hand, has remained the same.

I chalk this up to the fact that, behaviorally, dogs like to people-please.  They want to do what you want them to do, particularly if they've decided that you're "the One."  They love their people.   They just do.  They'll never leave you-- never, ever, ever.

Cats, on the other hand, will insist that they could care less, ultimately (even though they do care quite a bit, actually).  The attitude of a cat is, if you love them, cool.   If not, well, they didn't really need your sorry human ass anyway.  They're smart and sexy and they know it.

(For obvious reasons, I have derived all of my dating and relationship behaviors from cats, not dogs.)

So, in terms of the cat-dog EQ issue, I say it is no surprise that the cat EQ has remained unchanged.  Personally, I think cats should get credit for the fact that they have stood their cerebral-cranial ground and refused to let humans make them any smarter or dumber.

They're perfect as-is, and they've known it for centuries. 

The point is, perhaps idiocracy isn't an evolutionary default-position.  We humans could stay "smart," even though we live in groups.  There's no reason why our communities need to foster intellectual laziness or why we couldn't encourage one another to think "reproductively" (okay, that sounds bad, but by this point, you should know what I mean).

Whether this would stop our brains from shrinking, of course, is anyone's guess.  And on the issue of whether or not size matters, I'll refrain from comment.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Holy Days

"Every day is a god, each day is a god, and holiness holds forth in time. I worship each god, I praise each day splintered down, splintered down and wrapped in time like a husk, a husk of many colors spreading, at dawn fast over the mountains split."

--Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm

Believe it or not, I actually started this post on Tuesday, but I've been worshipping each day like a god.  I picked strawberries on Monday, and had enough to make about 10 pts of jam.  One batch is actually strawberry and balsamic vinegar--just for kicks.  I like strawberries, I like balsamic vinegar, so why not?

Other worshipful practices have included biking to the beach daily and getting the garden in shape.  I planted begonias and carrots, and this weekend is lined up for more planting: I'm putting in two more raised beds, to hold the tomatoes, spinach and peppers (jalapeno and bell).  I have eggplant and zucchini already planted, and herbs: thyme, basil, cilantro, dill.

I've also started swimming and doing Pilates regularly, so the winter flab that prompted my friend's son to ask, "Are you pregnant?" will soon be a thing of the past.  I officially burned myself--once again, this year as every year, I begin the summer with the requisite sunburn X on my back, from the cut of the shirt I was wearing when I first forgot to put on sunblock.

My best friend is taking part in an Ultimate Hike this weekend.  So far, she's raised over $3000. for CureSearch, an organization devoted to finding a cure for pediatric cancer.  While the rest of us are sleeping or watching Saturday morning cartoons or what have you, she'll be hiking 28.6 miles.

So in case you had any doubts about how strong and amazing my best friend is, now you know: she's strong and amazing, in every way.

After a winter of making three sweaters, a couple of hats and another pair of mittens, I'm finally finishing up a couple of blankets--two that will go to Project Linus, and one that's just for me.  I'll put pictures up when I get around to firing up the digital camera.

I've been so busy tending the crops I haven't had much time to read, but that will soon change.  I finished The Return of the Native and I read Annie Dillard's Holy the Firm.  I'm working on Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns, a non-fiction account of the Great Migration.

Holiness continues to hold forth in time.

Saturday, May 12, 2012


I've been rereading Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native (1878) for the first time since college.

Hardy's novels always raised a bit of a sensation when they were published in Victorian England, although today, we see nothing scandalous whatsoever in them.

In particular, Hardy is quite critical of the sexual mores of his time: the repression of women and the effects that existing social and sexual double-standards have on the lives of his characters is a typical theme of his novels.

No one would go so far as to call Hardy a feminist, however. His female characters tend to cluster around two dramatic poles: the thoughtful, kind, "good" women, who tend to let their minds rule their hearts, and the passionate "bad" women, who willingly surrender themselves to the first dude who comes along and insists that they're in "love."

Although broadly stereotyped and melodramatic, Hardy's point is nevertheless an interesting one: what is love? Is it passionate and abandoned self-sacrifice, or is it something more temperate and enduring?

The Return of the Native's protagonist, Eustacia Vye is a case in point. She has "given" herself to a typical Thomas-Hardy-douchebag-character: the irony of Hardy's novels is that the fiery and feisty female protagonist always "gives" herself to the guy that everyone in the neighborhood (except the woman herself, of course) knows is a player.

This is part of the drama: the heroine's unyielding "they don't know him like I do" and "I'm sure he loves me like no other" and "we've gotta get outta this place" diatribes always override common sense and common knowledge.

Hardy's narrator remarks on this quality in Eustacia: she's sick of living out in the middle of nowhere, doing nothing, so she finds the local jerk--and he finds her--and they have an affair. As the narrator points out,

To be loved to madness--such was her great desire. Love was to her the one cordial which could drive away the eating loneliness of her days. And she seemed to long for the abstraction called passionate love more than for any particular lover.

In short, any guy will do: Eustacia just thinks she's supposed to be madly, abandonedly in love or she isn't fulfilling her life's purpose. As the narrator notes,

Fidelity in love for fidelity's sake had less attraction for her than for most women; fidelity because of love's grip had much. A blaze of love, and extinction, was better than a lantern glimmer of the same which should last long years.

If she remains faithful to a guy, it's not because she believes in fidelity, it's because the drama of love--and the part she wants to play--requires it.

I think that, in Eustacia, you can hear echoes of so many young women's expectations of the experience of love: it isn't supposed to be a "lantern glimmer" that will "last long years"--it's supposed to be an all-consuming blaze. If it isn't, it isn't love.

The problem is, Eustacia, like many women, seeks the blaze, irrespective of the blazer. When she finds out the guy she "loves" is keeping company with another woman that he may or may not marry, she "has" to get him back. He "has" to love her more than he loves the other woman, or... well, he just has to, it's that simple.

So, she sort of gets him back. But then, once she does, she starts to think, well, if he's some other girl's reject, then I shouldn't want him either. If another woman wants him, she can't have him, if another woman doesn't want him, she can have him.

Eustacia's spent so much time calling her rival a loser, she's painted herself into quite a corner: she's now in complete possession of the guy this "loser" of a woman doesn't want after all.


In the narrator's words, "He loved her best, she thought; and yet ... what was the man worth whom a woman inferior to herself did not value?"

I think that, in Eustacia, Hardy depicts the social machinations and egoism at work in individuals who have been led to believe that love is something it is not. Eustacia claims to "lose" herself in love, and yet she is nothing if not fickle and selfish.

And tragic. Eustacia chases after something that cannot bring her happiness, ever, because it simply doesn't exist in the way in which she conceives of it. She is convinced that, as she grows older, the opportunity for "love" diminishes because "love alighted only on gliding youth" and she believes that all "love" is destined to burn out over time.

She thought of it with an ever-growing consciousness of cruelty, which tended to breed actions of reckless unconventionality, framed to snatch a year's, a week's, even an hour's passion from anywhere while it could be won. Through want of it she had sung without being merry, possessed without enjoying, outshone without triumphing. Her loneliness deepened her desire.

Eustacia is out there, even now, today, tonight. Because she never stops to question what it is that she is looking for (and why), she is doomed to pretend she has found what doesn't exist.

The more she looks, the lonelier she becomes.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

One Story

"In uncertainty I am certain that underneath their topmost layers of frailty men want to be good and want to be loved.  Indeed, most of their vices are attempted short cuts to love.  When a man comes to die, no matter what his talents and influence and genius, if he dies unloved his life must be a failure to him and his dying a cold horror.  It seems to me that if you or I must choose between two courses of thought or action, we should remember our dying and try so to live that our death brings no pleasure to the world."
--John Steinbeck, East of Eden
In East of Eden, Steinbeck claims that "there is one story in the world, and only one" and that it is the story of how "[h]umans are caught--in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too--in a net of good and evil."

I've been thinking about this insight, and about the others that Steinbeck's novel has to offer.  What stands out to me most of all is the extent to which, in the world that Steinbeck describes--the world of his parents' generation--suffering and effort were simply facts of life.

I wonder, sometimes, whether our mental anguishes and sadnesses--our frustrations at the extent to which we are all constrained by the net of good and evil that enmeshes us all--are products of the ease life offers us now, when compared with the lives Steinbeck describes.

A little over one hundred years ago, life was short, death was often sudden and brutal, illness ran rampant, and options were limited.  Productivity was defined very differently and in many cases, survival was by no means a given.

Steinbeck's novel muses on what his parents' generation endured--and on the ways in which they endured it.  This isn't Tom Brokaw's "Greatest Generation," it's the generation that preceded it.  It's the generation no one thought to label.

One scene in particular has consumed my thoughts for today, because it resonates so much with my own experiences over the past two months.  I think that, at some point in our lives, we all struggle with the conflict between a commitment to kindness and generosity of spirit and the harsh realization that this approach simply won't work with some people.

We usually learn it as someone is running roughshod over us, all the while encouraging us to continue to be kind and to put their own best interests ahead of everything else.

At one point in East of Eden, Adam Trask confronts his estranged wife.  The woman has done horrible things to him and to others--to such an extent that the narrator occasionally wonders whether she's actually human.

It's definitely debatable.

Nevertheless, Adam chooses to behave honestly towards her, despite the fact that she has lied to him repeatedly and despite the fact that he knows she has a decided propensity for selfish cruelty.

She calls him "Mr. Mouse."

And yet, slowly and systematically, Adam escapes the love he once had for her and the bitterness of her influence.  And when he does, he is able to do what he knows is right and to look at her without emotion, even when she ridicules him for his course of action.

In the end, all he feels for her is a kind of existential pity, a sympathy for the fact that all she will ever be able to understand about the world and the people around her is their dark ugliness.  She will always be looking to take advantage of other people's trust and kindness, and because of that, she will never be able to feel or value the goodness of that trust and kindness.

As he tells her, "You see only one side, and you think--more than that, you're sure--that's all there is."

There may only be one story, Steinbeck suggests, but there are many sides--many ways to tell, to hear and to understand the ways we find ourselves caught in the net of good and evil.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Humble Pie

Today was a pretty awesome day.

I'd been looking forward to it all weekend: I took my first bike ride of the season out to the Bay.  I really miss not being able to bike in the winter.  Oddly enough, biking makes me more motivated to swim.

My major projects for this weekend were, as I told one friend, to "mow the papers and grade the lawn."  I did it the other way around, though.  My lawn took over while I was away: I've been hard-pressed to find a clear 48 hours when I can get it cut.  It's the only time of the year my rechargeable electric mower isn't up to the task-- the first lawn-mowing of the season. 

If the weather would just stop with the freakin' drizzle, I could do it.

I've been reading Thomas Gilovich's How We Know What Isn't So.  The short answer is, we often don't.  Gilovich looks at all the reasons we think we know what we know and why we often "know" things that aren't really the case at all.

My favorite chapter is entitled, "Seeing What We Want to See."  Gilovich notes that "We are inclined to adopt self-serving beliefs about ourselves, and comforting beliefs about the world" (78).  That's why there are all of those "great guys" out there and a world full of self-proclaimed "smart, funny, sassy and wonderful women" just waiting for them.

And that's why they're all divorcing each other on a regular basis.

On an odd--but related--side-note, I'm a bit concerned at the personalized ads appearing on my Facebook lately.  Today, there was one for "senior men looking for faithful women."  It touted "real" men looking for "faithful women" to "take care of."

I'm down with the "real" and the "faithful" (as long as it's in reference to fidelity, not faith), but "to take care of"?  What am I, helpless?  Why am I being targeted in this way?  What in God's name did I post that triggered that particular ad?

Anyway, Gilovich notes phenomena such as confirmation bias (we tend to sort and identify input as "reliable" when it confirms what we already wanted to believe), and the fact that "the average person purports to believe extremely flattering things about him or herself--beliefs that do not stand up to objective analysis" (77).

Well, that's certainly unfortunate.  Anyone who has spent any time being chatted up at a bar or at the beach, though, knows this from (often painful) first-hand experience.

Luckily, I now have a pat response: "I'm sorry, but based on my initial observations, your beliefs clearly do not stand up to objective analysis."

It happens, Gilovich argues, because we adjust our standards to suit ourselves.  We lower that bar to just about our own level and then evaluate accordingly--insisting on our own "objectivity" as we do so.  As Gilovich explains,
By basing our definitions of what constitutes being, say, athletic, intelligent, or generous on our own idiosyncratic strengths on these dimensions, almost all of us can think of ourselves as better than average and have some "objective" justification for doing so. (84)
Nothing like stacking the deck.

For my part, I try to keep it real by doing something truly unintelligent at least once a day.  Usually, I spill something on myself, but today, for a change of pace, I belted my head on the door-frame as I was carting my rain-barrel up the stairs of my basement walk-out.  I yelled an obscenity, and angrily announced, "I always do that!"

According to Gilovich, this is another way in which we sort evidence to confirm our own presuppositions.  Logic would dictate that, since I haven't used the walk-out since last fall, I don't "always" hit my head when I use it.

I think I do, though, because hitting my head stands out as an "event"--if I don't hit my head, I don't pause at the top of the steps and savor the fact that I didn't hit my head.  I just go about my business.  I remember the few times I bang my head, and they stand out as the "norm."

This is also why I "always" get the shopping cart with the wobbly or sticky wheel, why I "always" get stuck behind a slow-poke when I'm late, and why I "always" use the wrong key when I first try to open my office door.

This is also why, in the end, we credit a thinker like Socrates with wisdom.  In Plato's Apology, Socrates acknowledges that, in contrast to his fellow-man, "I am better off than he is - for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know."

Friday, May 4, 2012


"Bless your soul, you've got your head in the clouds,
You made a fool outta me, and boy you're bringing me down.
You made my heart melt, yet I'm cold to the core,
But rumour has it I'm the one you're leaving her for."

In literary studies, I'm a comparatist by training, and that means that I think in terms of odd juxtapositions.  

I've spent the semester studying Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, and one of the things I've always been fascinated by in that novel is the role of rumors.  Adele's "Rumour Has It" has been running through my head for the past day or so, providing the soundtrack to my thoughts on the subject.

(I can't help but think that it's Grushenka's theme song, really.  If you know the novel, you know what I'm talking about.)

In Dostoevsky's novels, rumors are everywhere (Gary Saul Morson notes this in his essay, "Paradoxical Dostoevsky").  People talk trash about other people.  People say that so-and-so is going to do such-and-such, even though they don't even know the people in question.  Speculation runs wild.

Just 'cause I said it, it don't mean that I meant it,
People say crazy things.
Just 'cause I said it, don't mean that I meant it,
Just 'cause you heard it...

And Dostoevsky's narrator in The Brothers Karamazov continually comments on the prevalence of rumors: he'll repeatedly include competing versions of events and competing explanations for their occurrence, making no effort to distinguish "fact" from "fiction" in his... fiction.

Why is this?  Given the complexity of Dostoevsky's ideas, ideologies, and aesthetics, I can only hazard a couple of guesses here (as I did elsewhere, in "Intention, Paradox, Process"), but I think his fascination with the function of rumor has to do with his fascination with issues of intention, motivation, and--ultimately--faith.

Rumors hinge on maintaining belief despite a lack of clear-cut, transparent evidence.  So, too, does religious faith.  So it's odd, but not surprising, that Dostoevsky meditates on the former in his depiction of the latter.

In 1947, psychologists Gordon W. Allport and Leo Postman posited "the basic law of rumor."  In The Psychology of Rumor, they developed a formula to quantify the rate at which rumors will spread: 

R ~ i X a

Or, in plain English, the strength of a rumor (R) will vary according to the importance of the subject to the individuals involved (i) times the ambiguity (a) of the pertinent evidence.

If the evidence is ambiguous but the topic strikes a chord, the rumor will circulate like wildfire.


Unfortunately, there is no empirical data to support this abstract (and admittedly compelling) formulation.  You might say that it's a rumor that there even is a "basic law of rumor."  It hasn't been proven.

There are simply too many variables left unconsidered by Allport and Postman's hypothesis.  

Contemporary social psychologists focus on the blind spots in Allport and Postman's law.  They argue that more attention must be paid to the generators and the receivers of rumors: not just how rumors spread, but who spreads them--and to whom.  And why.

Although it may sound strange, social psychologists will conduct experiments in which they plant a rumor and watch to see what happens.  In the 1950's Stanley Schachter and Harvey Burdick planted a rumor in a girls' prep school:  "exams were missing."

They then arranged for a girl to be abruptly taken out of class two days later.  Although the rumor about the exams was completely fabricated (and thus the treatment of the girl had nothing to do with anything), rumors spread twice as fast in the class in which the girl was removed, as they did in the other classes.

Thank God they didn't say, "Someone's pregnant."  (Although I think we can all imagine a tangled grapevine in which it's only a short step from the harmless rumor to a less-than-harmless alternative.)  As the Veggie Tales song about the "Rumor Weed" warns children,

So, what's a rumor? 
It starts a story, maybe it's true, maybe not,
But once you repeat it, it's hard to defeat it
Now look at the mess that you've got.

Ralph Rosnow, one of the foremost researchers in the social psychology of rumor, has noted the role that anxiety and uncertainty play in the generation and promulgation of rumor: often, rumors rationalize and justify our emotional interests, and those rationalizations and justifications become more compelling when our world is in flux--or in chaos.

Rumors can be deliberate or spontaneous; they can serve to promote malicious gossip or leak corporate secrets.  They can be directed against something or someone perceived as threatening, or they can function as coping mechanisms in the face of haphazard events or disasters.

Sometimes, they function as a form of wish fulfillment: hence, the continued claims that (wise, benevolent) aliens from outer space have landed, but our governments won't tell us about them.

Sometimes, they function in a more negative visionary capacity: hence, the continued claims that (angry, malevolent) aliens from outer space have landed, but our governments won't tell us about them.

In both cases, the rumors, whether true or false, serve an emotional purpose: they alleviate anxiety.  (If it seems counter-intuitive to suggest that the idea of evil aliens alleviates anxiety, consider the fact that such an explanation can allow individuals to consider themselves as more perceptive than the masses around them and as united against a common enemy.)

A lot of work remains to be done in the field of rumor psychology, of course: memes, mass media and the internet offer a variety of new complications to consider.

In Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, characters continually wrestle with the question of what, exactly, to believe.  While this existential dilemma is ostensibly played out in the dialogues between Ivan and Alyosha (and, to some extent, Smerdyakov), Dostoevsky shows its relevance at all levels of human discourse and motivation.

Everyone is always trying to figure out what the "real" story is. 

And contrary to the wisdom imparted in the Veggie Tales, I don't think Dostoevsky simply dismisses rumors as pernicious weeds.  Untruths may tell a different kind of truth--to the discerning eye, they may indicate our greatest causes for concern, our cultural, philosophical, and emotional anxieties.  Taken in the aggregate, they may shade in a sense of what it is we want to believe, what we're afraid may not be true.

Rumors empower us in ways we cannot understand or control, and to this extent, they are not unlike the criminal impulses that Dostoevsky finds so fascinating.

Why do we do it?  No, really.  Why?