Stop Defending the Humanities
Simon During makes an interesting argument about defending the humanities in his essay in Public Books. Our debate about STEM versus the humanities may have it all wrong. In attempting to argue for the humanities value to society, we are instead missing the point entirely. One point that me makes later in his essay is that the “humanities” is a category that is too broad to represent any one discipline, let alone a particular point of view.
“I would suggest that it leads us to picture the humanities as something like a form of life, or better, because vaguer still, as something like a world, an institutionalized world. A world that contains smaller worlds. A simultaneously beleaguered and privileged world whose members typically belong to other, somewhat ontologically similar worlds, too.
“The main reason to think in such terms is to avoid betraying what is central to the humanities: that they cannot be properly defined in terms of their parts, in terms, for instance, of their instrumentalities or avoidance of instrumentality; or of the dispositions they nurture; or of the interests they nourish and serve; or of the knowledge and techniques they produce; or of the professional/bureaucratic protocols they enact; or of the ethics perhaps still installed within them. They cannot be limited to their constitutive rules or methods or personae or models or “values.” Those who join them can find their own paths through them and the rule-bound institutions they are based in, outside of essences and definitions, making their own connections and alliances, as in a world. And they don’t share a single project, if indeed they have projects at all.”
United States GDP
Ian Sefferman shared this interesting map on Twitter--50 percent of the country’s GDP comes from the blue areas and 50 percent from the orange.
Why Every Tech Company Needs an English Major
Matt Asay is exactly right. Let’s here it for the English major. Every tech company needs one. “Why? Because as important as the technology is that powers our lives, businesses also depend on humanities-oriented communicators to articulate why the technology matters.”
English majors can tell the story, and that’s no easy task. Engineering is available virtually everywhere now, Asay argues; the problem is not developing new technology. “For every company that can develop an incredible hardware or software product, there are more companies who fail in the attempt to get someone interested in buying that product.”
So the next time you look to find a storyteller, don’t look for someone well versed in the technology of the day, instructs Asay. “I care far less about familiarity with Eloqua or other marketing automation programs and far more about the ability to construct an interesting thesis and synthesize it in a few hundred words. With so much textual communication, and so much riding on the ability to distinguish one’s product through that communication, the ideal marketing candidate may look more like a technology journalist or blogger and not at all like an engineer.”
Rabbi David Hartman on Hope
Krista Tippett’s show On Being is one of my favorite podcasts that I look forward to listening to every week. Her show is wonderful, but this recent rebroadcast from Rabbi David Hartman is especially good. Honest, open, thoughtful. The show’s description: “David Hartman died a year ago this week. The Orthodox rabbi was a charismatic and challenging figure in Israeli society, called a “public philosopher for the Jewish people” and a “champion of adaptive Judaism.” We remember his window into the unfolding of his tradition in the modern world — Judaism as a lens on the human condition.”
Obsessing over punctuation
"Good writing involves obsessing over punctuation marks” writes Kathryn Schulz in a post at Vulture. “It’s 1 a.m., you’ve got a 5,000-word piece due the next day, and for the last twenty minutes you’ve been deliberating about the use of a semicolon versus a period in a single sentence.” Been there. Why obsess over these “humble elements” of prose? Because when they are used effectively, they can have a large impact on the reader.
In her post, Schulz highlights five of the best examples of “remarkable punctuation” in literature. My favorite is the use of a colon in the opening line of A Christmas Carol. “This sentence is insane, or anyway destined to foment insanity in the grammatically prissy. It has death, a dangling participle, and a wonderfully garrulous narrator with some kind of unmentionable Victorian-era disease: wandering colon. It is great.”
In a Time Lapse
I’ve really been enjoying Ludovico Einaudi’s latest CD, In a Time Lapse. I first heard him play music from the recent work last fall during Apple’s iTunes festival. Ever since I purchased the music, I’ve been listening to it on a fairly regular basis, at least once a week. His music is hard to describe. I guess I would call in minimal, modern classical.
Here is a good review of the work. Check it out. And in the video below, the composer talks about the work.
Scientific Ideas Ready for Retirement
The Guardian asks scientists and thinkers alike, “What scientific idea is ready for retirement?” It’s a good question, and the responses are very interesting. Writers include noted scientists such as Richard Dawkins, but also the novelist Ian McEwan and actor Alan Alda, a lover of science and host of several television programs over the years devoted to scientific inquiry, who had this to say:
"The idea that things are either true or false should possibly take a rest. I’m not a scientist, just a lover of science, so I might be speaking out of turn – but like all lovers I think about my beloved a lot. I want her to be free and productive, and not misunderstood.
For me, the trouble with truth is that not only is the notion of eternal, universal truth highly questionable, but simple, local truths are subject to refinement as well. Up is up and down is down, of course. Except under special circumstances. Is the north pole up and the south pole down? Is someone standing at one of the poles right-side up or upside-down? Kind of depends on your perspective.”
He continues to explain his thinking. Read more here.
A Mad Devotion
Dominic Smith of The Millions wanted to find out how many Americans are currently at work on a novel. He sifts through all of the available government and publishing data and comes up with a number. Click through the link to find his conclusions. With odds of publishing so low, why do so many Americans continue to work on their dream projects? “Writing a novel is like starting a small business and investing thousands of hours without knowing exactly what it is you’re going to end up selling,” he writes. “It’s a leap of faith every time, even for someone who is five novels into a career.” In the end, Smith calls the desire for someone to rise early, before going off to a day job, to work on their project that the world hasn’t asked them for “a kind of mad devotion.” I think the effort made to produce a work of art is a worthwhile pursuit, whether the end result is a successful book or not.
An interesting aside. I was surprised to learn just how many Icelanders are at work on similar literary pursuits. “Recently, the BBC reported that one in 10 Icelanders will publish a book at some point in their lives. Per capita, the island nation has more readers, writers, and books published than anywhere else on the planet. Since there are a little over 300,000 Icelanders, we can estimate that more than 30,000 writers are in various stages of germination, many of them novelists.”
Best Book I Read This Year
This year’s lists are out. The New York Times has made their picks of the best of the year. Writers at the Atlantic have each chosen their best reads as well. Do you have a favorite book from 2013? My favorite from the year was actually published in October 2012: On Politics: A History of Political Thought from Herodotus to the Present by Alan Ryan. Here is the publishers description:
“Three decades in the making, one of the most ambitious and comprehensive histories of political philosophy in nearly a century.
“Both a history and an examination of human thought and behavior spanning three thousand years, On Politics thrillingly traces the origins of political philosophy from the ancient Greeks to Machiavelli in Book I and from Hobbes to the present age in Book II. Whether examining Lord Acton’s dictum that “absolute power corrupts absolutely” or explicating John Stuart Mill’s contention that it is “better to be a human dissatisfied than a pig satisfied,” Alan Ryan evokes the lives and minds of our greatest thinkers in a way that makes reading about them a transcendent experience. Whether writing about Plato or Augustine, de Toqueville or Thomas Jefferson, Ryan brings a wisdom to his text that illuminates John Dewey’s belief that the role of philosophy is less to see truth than to enhance experience. With this unparalleled tour de force, Ryan emerges in his own right as one of the most influential political philosophers of our time.”
Cats Choose to Ignore You
New research suggests that cats do indeed recognize their owner’s voice, they just choose to ignore it. Researchers in Japan conducted research by measuring 20 house cats’ reactions (movement of their ears, paws, head, or tail and whether they meowed or dilated their pupils) when responding to their owner calling their name or other normal cat-talk. They then compared the cats’ reactions to recordings of strangers using the same language. While the cats had a significant greater response from their owners’ calls, they didn’t bother to get up.
The reason why cats don’t respond to owners’ calls may be that they indeed control the domesticated relationship with humans, partly due to evolution, according to a story about the research in The Independent. “Recent genetic analysis has revealed that the common ancestor of the modern housecat was Felis silvestris, a species of wildcat that first came into contact with humans around 9,000 years ago. As early societies developed agriculture, these cats moved in to prey on the rodents that were attracted to stores of grain. In the words of the paper’s authors, they effectively domesticated themselves: “Historically speaking, cats, unlike dogs, have not been domesticated to obey humans’ orders. Rather, they seem to take the initiative in human–cat interaction.” This is in contrast to the history of dogs and humans, where the former has been bred over thousands of years to respond to orders and commands. Cats, it seems, never needed to learn.”