Today’s game: favorite practical superpower.
The rules: name a superpower that you would love to have and that make your life (or someone’s life) immensely easier, but which would be boring to read about or watch on TV.
Over at Crooked Timber, Harry Brighouse exhorts readers to write philosophical clerihews.
I was unfamiliar with the form, but it’s not complicated. A clerihew is a four-line poem about some person or other with an AABB rhyming pattern. The sort of thing Ogden Nash would have written if he’d been less pithy.1
I contributed a couple, and I shamelessly cut and paste them here.
The Scotsman Thomas Reid
had a commonsensical creed,
a fondness for calico cats,
and questionable taste in hats.
The mustachioed John Dewey
might have gone all kablam and kablooey
if he had not understood inquiry
in a way that avoided such injury.
Mark Simonson’s blog got me thinking about information technology and the original aspirations of hypertext. Simonson laments that current technology is too much driven by concepts taken from print media. Part of the problem is the lack of a clearly defined alternative. Ted Nelson, who coined the word “hypertext”, had a vision of multiple texts floating on-screen with lines connecting points in one to points in another. I don’t see how that wouldn’t end up like items on a cork board linked by lengths of yarn, the idiom for madness from A Beautiful Mind which has become Hollywood shorthand for crazy conspiracy theories.
Old school blogging actually seems like a pretty good realization of hypertext. Good blog post take a while to write because you’ve got to provide pointers so that someone who hasn’t got context or who is curious can follow up. Someone who wants even more can search on key terms.
All of this crystallized for me what I don’t like about Twitter. In order to cut a thought down to Tweet length, people leave out context. What are they enraged about? What’s the thrust that drew their clever riposte? I can’t always tell.
Sometimes thoughts that won’t fit into a single tweet are written as a stream, possibly with numbered entries 1/9, 2/9,… I see entry 4 of 9 because someone reweeted it, and it’s a serious investment of effort just to view the original series in order. Even then, I can’t always suss out the context.
Twitter, in short, is hypotext. It eschews the links of hypertext but also the context you’d expect from a letter or newspaper article.
Part of the shift is that many people go on-line primarily with phones or tablets, appliances that are great for scrolling and clicking but bad for following multiple threads. Twitter and Facebook turn our feeds into one-dimensional things. We can scroll through, liking and reposting as we go. But reposting just drops another log somewhere into the flume.
Based on your own sense of how words work, pick one of the following:
- Every word is an anagram of itself.
- Some but not all words are anagrams of themselves.
- No word is an anagram of itself.
There’s a principled case to be made for every answer. Cristyn and I hashed it out over goat cheese last night, but I won’t tell you the considerations we mustered on various sides or what we concluded. I’m curious about what you think.
Today is a day of action in which technology companies plump for net neutrality. Action seems to mean talking on the internet.
In filling out a petition-thing, I wrote this:
There’s a form letter I could have cut-and-pasted here, but this is important enough to write my own words. As a user of the internet, I want to be able to access the content which I decide matters. I want it to come at the same speed other content would come at, rather than having it be faster or slower based on whether someone who owns that content has decided to pay more for access to me. If they get control over accessability and relative speed, then I’m not a consumer anymore but instead I’m the product that the service provider sells to their customers. That’s why net neutrality matters.
It seemed worth posting here, too.
There is a short review of Hi-Phi Nation in today’s Guardian, topped by a nice picture of host Barry Lam.
Cristyn and I were in Poughkeepsie last week to talk with Lam about cover songs. He plans to do a show about musical covers. He called us because he had read the paper we wrote with Christy Mag Uidhir and we’re local.
Godwin’s Law, as posed in 1990, was this: “As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.”  As internet forums replaced the Usenet, people generalized Godwin’s Law: Given enough discussion about anything, eventually somebody makes an analogy with Nazis and kills the conversation.
It was initially posed as a descriptive law, like gravitation or electromagnetism. In recent years, I’ve seen people more often describe the invocation of Nazis as a “Godwin’s Law violation”. That requires treating it instead as a proscriptive law, a commandment like Thou shalt not make an analogy between your interlocutor and Hitler.
In 2017, we are living in a post Godwin’s Law world. It isn’t funny or provacative to draw analogies with Hitler, nor is it a norm violation to say that something is what Nazis would say, when the current political scene involves actual Nazis.
Of course, President Trump isn’t literally Hitler. But some small fraction of his political base are actual Nazis, he has emboldened them to sieg heil in public, and part of his political strategy is not to distance himself too far from them. When we can ask whether it’s right to punch Nazis, not as a moral thought experiment but as a question about something we saw on the news, then Godwin’s Law just misses the point.
Cristyn and I got back last night from a weekend road trip to Syracuse, where we attended a martial arts seminar with Dan Inosanto. It was the first vacation we’ve taken in a while.
My vacation schema for as long as I can remember is to take along a laptop and some books and to fill in-between time with philosophy. I’m not sure I can remember a vacation as an adult that didn’t have at least some of that. But not this time.
Instead, my head was filled with punches, kicks, sumbrada, trapping, and hubad lubud. There was definitely more going on than I could follow, but I had things to do and learn. Cristyn has done a lot of JKD, and so grokked more of the barehand material than I did. Also, in addition to Guro Inosanto, there were a lot of high level practitioners in the room who were happy to help out.
There was also fascinating history and storytelling, literal sitting at the feet of the master stuff. This included the quotable aphorism: “If I teach you, you will forget. If you discover it, you will not forget.”
I don’t have a bucket list, but if I did Doing hubad with Dan Inosanto would be on it. And it would be checked off.
Tracy McMullen, a musician and scholar who plays saxophone and thinks about American vernacular music, was in Albany last weekend to collaborate with Cristyn on a musical project.
Making conversation at dinner on the last night of her stay, I asked if she’d heard of and had opinions about Mostly Other People Do The Killing’s Blue (an album that’s a note-for-note remake of the 1959 classic Kind of Blue). It turns out that she has a paper about it forthcoming in The Journal of Jazz Studies. Since I’ve also written about it, there was lots to say. A long discussion about covers, authenticity, and versioning practices ensued.
Since the number of people who have written scholarly articles about Blue is small, possibly just the two of us, it’s an odd coincidence. In some ways, though, it was like old times. I originally started thinking about the philosophy of music because of social connections through Cristyn, at grad school parties where I ended up in conversations with musicians. Although I met Tracy once or twice back then, I hadn’t really gotten a chance to know her until this weekend.
Tracy’s visit also made me nostalgic for my year at Bowdoin, since she’s now a prof there. I’m not struck by it often, but it doesn’t take much for me to be struck by that nostalgia.
For popular books, it is traditional to get a big shot to write an introduction in hopes that star power will increase sales. I remember countless science fiction books from when I was a kid with introductions by Isaac Asimov or Harlan Ellison. Stephen King later stepped into the role of ubiquitous introductions.
So there is a strange thrill from the fact that Naomi Oreskes wrote the introduction for Pope Francis’ Encyclical on Climate Change and Inequality. Naomi, a geologist turned historian of science, was faculty at UCSD when I was a grad student. I took a course and an independent study with her, and she was a member of my dissertation committee. She’s since moved to Harvard and become a heavyweight in reflections on climate change. Her book Merchants of Doubt (with Erik Conway) is a fascinating study of the forces behind science denial.