7 Quick Takes (11/16/12)

— 1 —

I’ll start these quick takes with two call backs to recent topics.  Chicago Mag has a post-election interview with Nate Silver.

Back when you were living in Chicago, one of your first blogs was the Burrito Bracket, in which you attempted—via statistics—to find the best burrito in Wicker Park.
Yes. I would just go and eat tacos and burritos for lunch a lot and compare those, get the same food item, like a steak burrito, for consecutive days at different locations. And then try to have quasi-scientific criteria for judging those, just thinking about all the different characteristics for a good burrito or taco.

Meat-to-cheese ratio.
Meat-to-cheese ratio. It’s funny. I think it’s always helpful when you’re trying to evaluate something to have a disciplined set of criteria. For a while, I was trying to rate every restaurant that I went to in New York. I would find that I would rate a place four stars and go back a few months later and have a very different view of it. You realize it’s because the food quality can change, but your mood changes so much, where you’ve had a really stressful day at work, and you’re out with a friend who’s in a bad mood, and the service is slow, and the food kind of tastes worse. Whereas, if you’re in a good mood, and you’ve had a couple cocktails, and you’re not feeling stressed, then everything seems wonderful. That exercise taught me that when we go by our gut or our mood—“Oh, our gut will tell us everything we need to know”—believe me, it’s very useful for a lot of things, but it can also fool us.

— 2 —

And, harkening back to Halloween, a comedy group filmed a parody trailer of Magic School Bus as horror movie:

— 3 —

In the free time I will one day have, I quite want to get around to reading Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False.  The title is provocative, but the reviews make it sound like the material is meatier and more interesting than the aggressive title would suggest.  I enjoyed Simon Blackburn’s review of the book for The New Statesman:

According to Nagel, Darwinians can explain, say, why we dislike pain and seek to minimize bringing it about for ourselves and for others we love. But, Nagel thinks, for the Darwinian, its “real badness” can be no part of the explanation of why we are averse to it. So it is another mystery how real badness and other real normative properties enter our minds. Nagel here manifests his founding membership of a peculiar and fortunately local philosophical subculture that thrives by resolutely dismissing the resources of the alternative, Humean picture, which sees our judgement that pain is a bad thing as a useful expression of our natural aversion to it. All he says about this is that it “denies that value judgements can be true in their own right”, which he finds implausible. He is silent about why he thinks this, perhaps wisely, if only because nobody thinks that value judgements are true in their own right…

There is charm to reading a philosopher who confesses to finding things bewildering. But I regret the appearance of this book. It will only bring comfort to creationists and fans of “intelligent design”, who will not be too bothered about the difference between their divine architect and Nagel’s natural providence. It will give ammunition to those triumphalist scientists who pronounce that philosophy is best pensioned off. If there were a philosophical Vatican, the book would be a good candidate for going on to the Index.

But, higher up on my dance card are rereads of The HobbitLes Miserables, and Anna Karenina.  So, uh, expect thoughts on Nagel next year.

— 4 —

Over at Bad Catholic, Marc Barnes has a nice commentary on what’s wrong with our fascination with a certain class of anti-hero:

We see sin — always destructive — as a solid in an otherwise watery universe. The vandals, arsonists, gangsters, home wreckers, and serial killers; the self-destructive, self-righteous, and self-serving; the womanizers, tyrants, and abusers – we are most of these things, and we think at least one or two of them badass. This is the modern thesis: The man being good is afraid to be bad, and the man being bad is hardcore. The Joker is cooler than Batman. It’s a problem of poetry more than anything else: Goodness is a soft thing, while badness is lauded as hard.

But if we come from Nothing and are going to Nothing, what boldness can there be in destruction? The law of entropy will kill our families, reduce our houses to dust, and slowly, steadily, bring about all the super-hardcore-ness we can imagine. There is no rebellion in hastening the inevitable. A killing spree may shock society, but it is a boredom to the universe, who ultimately kills everyone. To objectify a woman into a sex object might give men a thrill, but it is a pathetic to the universe, who is busy rendering her into a corpse.

Sin is weak. Sin is a white flag of surrender waved to the oncoming Nothingness. Sin chooses absence over being and Nothing over Something. Sin is sinful not in that it is too bold, but in that it is not bold enough.

— 5 —

And Alyssa Rosenberg has some great commentary on whether boys have the right kind of YA heros to look up to.

In much of the classic young adult literature I read as a child, I learned to see myself as boys and men would see me. In The Giver, Lois Lowry’s story of a dystopia, I saw Fiona, a gentle a girl who was blind to the fact that her care for the elderly involved learning to euthanize the oldest among them, and whose ignorance was a source of great pain for Jonas, the novel’s main character. In The Outsiders, Ponyboy’s realization that Cherry Valance’s status as a Soc doesn’t define her as a person guided my interactions with some of the more popular girls who became my friends in middle school and high school…

It’s not a bad thing to learn about yourself from how others see you, as long as that’s not the only opportunity you’re given to examine yourself. In fact, it’s one I think more boys should have. So often, male perspectives in these situations are treated like they’re a default norm, while books with female main characters are assumed to be for girls rather than aimed at and available to everyone.

I’ve always thought that lots of boys of my acquaintance would have loved Tamora Pierce’s novels, which feature heroines who are knights, magicians, or medieval cops, and inevitably involve those characters’ extended meditations on the men who are their mentors, friends, and ultimately lovers. These may be stories about women, but they’re substantially about how different expressions of masculinity serve the men who embody them, and influence the women who come into contact with them.

The essay she’s riffing off of is well worth reading, too.

— 6 —

Eve Tushnet had an excellent piece this week in The American Conservative titled “Hedonist, Disciple or Bourgeois?

Conservatives often talk as if we’re combating hedonism and the solution is bourgeois normalcy. This makes our arguments look silly (everybody points out that “blue states” have lower divorce and teen pregnancy rates, or some other statistic indicating that they are winning on the bourgeois-normalcy front) and I think it probably makes our audience resentful. Nobody likes to be told that they’re not doing life right, but I think we especially feel indignant and even self-pityingly resentful when we’re working very, very hard to follow the rules and somebody comes along and tells us we’re just out for our own pleasure.

We don’t have a marriage crisis in this country because everybody has stopped following the rules. We have a marriage crisis because the rules don’t work. There are all kinds of strict rules: Don’t marry before you’re “economically stable” (an endlessly-retreating horizon), don’t wait until you’re married to have sex, don’t wait until you’re married to live together, don’t move back in with your parents. And, for the upper classes, don’t have kids too early and don’t have too many. I’ve written about these issues before (hereand here) but I want to emphasize how the rules rely on completely bourgeois impulses to achieve and preserve. They’re based on fear–primarily fear of divorce, but also fear of loneliness–but also on the intense, poignant desire to do the right thing.

If you want to read more of Eve’s thoughts on this topic, she’s doing a series of book reviews for Acculturated themed around ‘the post-nuclear family.’

— 7 —

There’s plenty to look forward to this weekend, and more ways to improve yourself than in the song below, but few are as funny:

Cause its gonna be the future soon
And I won’t always be this way
When the things that make me weak and strange get engineered away

Ill probably be some kind of scientist
Building inventions in my space lab in space
Ill end world hunger Ill make dolphins speak
Work through the daytime, spend my nights and weekends

Perfecting my warrior robot race
Building them one laser gun at a time

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  • jose

    Shouldn’t you read some neo darwinian stuff before getting into books about why neo darwinism is false?

    • Irenist

      I imagine that Leah has read plenty of the Neo-Darwinian literature. Also, to clarify, I wouldn’t think for a nanosecond that Leah is abandoning the idea of evolution by natural selection. Of course, had a theist made your objection (perhaps you should read it before you dismiss it), I imagine we’d now be having a depressing thread about the Courtier’s Reply, the Myers Shuffle, and the various schools of Leprechaunology.

      • jose

        The Courtier reply is telling people to read about ramifications when you don’t have a basis supporting the main claim. What I’m doing is encouraging reading about the main claim. The Courtier reply is saying I don’t care about theories on whether God is benevolent or indifferent if we have no basis to believe he exists at all: I don’t need to read any arguments about his potential benevolence or indifference. Hope the difference is clear enough.

        • Irenist

          The Courtier reply is telling people to read about ramifications when you don’t have a basis supporting the main claim.

          That’s an idiosyncratic usage of “Courtier’s Reply.”

          Hope the difference is clear enough.

          Yes. You’ve adequately clarified your idiosyncratic usage. Thanks.

    • ACN

      Also, Nagle is an “intelligent designer” putz who has publicly recommended the god-awful book “Signature in the Cell” by the Discovery Institute’s Stephen Meyer as “best book of the year”.

      Life is too short to waste reading time on these sort of clowns.

      • Irenist

        I.D. is silly, and Nagel’s skepticism of abiogenesis and of stochastic natural selection does not inspire much confidence. But since the days of his famous essay “What Is It Like To Be a Bat?” Nagel has been an important philosopher of mind. His arguments on the untenability of the materialist reductionist view of consciousness are worth reading. As with so many thinkers, a willingness to wade through the bad to get to the edifying will be rewarded.

        • ACN

          His bat essay is quite good, but he’s woefully ignorant of what evolutionary biology says (evidenced by the fact that he’s an IDist, and supporter of the most tawdry of creationists like Meyer) so I feel absolutely no compulsion to give him the time of day when he writes a book trumpeting that which evolutionary biology can’t explain.

          • Irenist

            1. Nagel can be wrong about evolution (which he is) and still have things of value to say on other topics covered in the book.
            2. You may already know this, but Nagel is an atheist. His philosophical stance is that of someone who would like to develop an atheist naturalism that lacks some of the metaphysical incoherence of the presently fashionable materialist reductionism. In pointing out the flaws of the present fashions in naturalism, he of course gives aid and comfort to us Thomists, along with quite a few unsavory creationist and I.D. hacks. But the redeployment of his arguments by theists doesn’t make Nagel a theist, anymore than Liberation Theology made Marx a Catholic or the fascists made Nietzsche a Nazi. Ignore the culture war distractions.

      • jose

        Oh dear. Signature in the cell.

  • So many comments!

    Les Mes was at the top of my list of favorite books until I read Middlemarch. George Elliot kicks @$$, and I highly recommend you Middlemarch to your list of books to read.

    Most YA fans of any gender would like Tamora Pierce. She definitely represents progress over the usual male gaze found in books, but on rereading her recently I found it disappointing how frequently her characters reinforce gendered stereotypes in their dialogue with each other.

    Finally, I really need to disagree with Eve about why the rules are broken in this country. The rules are based out of fear, and fear of divorce is part of that, but I think fear of financial ruin is the much larger reason for the marry late, have kids late, don’t have too many mentality that many people have. A lot of the reasons our families are falling apart is because of economics. Kids are increasingly expensive at a time when a lot of families are needing to move to two incomes just to get by. We’ve got poor job security, poor health infrastructure, extremely unequal schools, and almost unaffordable higher education. OF COURSE people will try to position themselves in the best possible way. They NEED to in order to get by.

    • Parents put to much emphasis on giving their children the perfect little life. The truth is they mostly need love and moral guidance. Most of the material problems can be solved. They don’t need an expensive education. If they are smart, honest, and hard working they will do fine. Having faith that God will provide helps to. If things are meant to be then doors will open.

      • Emily

        I dunno if I agree with the “things are meant to be part”; I mean, the Lord does help those who help themselves. This seems to smack of wishful thinking, even though you mention “hard working”. That’s a bit of a contradiction. Hard work doesn’t ensure you’ll get what you want/need, and “if things are meant to be” can seem like wishful thinking, and even a bit callous.

        • The fact is when you plan your family you have no idea what kind of resources you will have in 20 years. You might get rich you might get busted. So it is all wishful thinking or faith in God or faith in hard work or whatever. The question is whether the proper response is to have a small family. Part of it depends on how you would react to your kids becoming plumbers rather than accountants. Maybe not going to Yale. What are you really afraid of?

          • I’m afraid of my children (well, any children I might have) becoming chronically unemployed because there is literally 4x as many job applicants as positions available, and then being told they deserve poverty because people who benefit from our unequal economic system can’t do basic arithmetic. I also worry that they die from lack of access to health care. That’s actually happening to a friend of mine in their late twenties who can’t get any insurance company to cover their cancer treatment.

            I worry that my children might have chronic health problems, which is a real concern since my wife and her father both have fibromyalgia, which makes a 9-5 job basically impossible for her. Did I mention that most part time jobs pay practically nothing and come with no benefits? So that’s a concern I have for my children.

            God gathers and cares for his children… in the long run. But His kingdom is not of this world, if you hadn’t noticed. Not being able to predict how life will turn is a reason to plan for more contingencies, not fewer. I’m glad that your life has gone smoothly enough that you don’t see the need to change the structural injustices in the US economic system, but there ARE real injustices, and trusting God won’t keep bad things from happening to everyone. Your attitude is patronizing, dismissive, and ignores very real issues.

      • A lot of the reasons our families are falling apart is because of economics.

        I think I would phrase it as, A lot of the reasons families are getting started later, and are generally smaller, is because of economics.

        The truth is they mostly need love and moral guidance.

        They do need that, yes absolutely. But I wouldn’t be quite so dismissive of everything else. They also need decent nutrition and a safe environment growing up and a good education, so that when they’re adults they can be self-supporting (and thus be able to feed, raise and educate their own children). Love and ethics are crucial character foundations, but the tangible parts of life (like a good education) are pretty important too, particularly with the current lack of blue-collar jobs. It’s a lot harder to get by on just a strong back and a willingness to work long hours these days (and for a lot of people, that blue-collar assembly-line job was the way to realize their dream of sending their kid to college!).

    • I’ll second the recommendation of Middlemarch. Both brilliant and beautiful. Anna Karenina is magnificent as well, though depends somewhat on the translation for its beauty.

      Re: economic uncertainty/instability – If this is the case it is a situation we have brought upon ourselves in the past 50-100 years. My grandparents’ generation, growing up during the Great Depression, certainly faced many of the same struggles as we do, but still survived and sometimes even thrived with lots of kids. It is fear, not the situation, that guides our decisions. I speak as a coward who recognizes his own vice all too easily.

      • Alan

        You do realize that the birth rate fell considerably during the great depression, right? The data certainly suggests that people tried to reduce the number of children they had during those uncertain economic times.

    • Emily

      My new Penguin classic copy of Les Miz comes next week. Excited to re-read, although I may skip those Waterloo passages….again….Hugo could’ve used a good editor. I STILL Need to read Middlemarch. I’ve tried several times and just keep stopping.

      • I’ve never made it through that long bit in the middle about the war *sigh*. It’s like John Galt’s radio speech near the end of Atlas Shrugged — I don’t think I made it through that until about the fourth or fifth time I read the book. Haven’t tried Middlemarch yet.

        • You’re comparing Les Mes to ATLAS SHRUGGED? My soul is weeping salty tears of sorrow at the very idea. Hugo DID need a good editor, but Rand was a prosy psuedo-philosopher whose work would simply be deleted by any editor worth their salt.

  • deiseach

    Re: the video – I can’t get over the fact that it’s the 21st century. This is The Future and we are living in it right now!

  • The Outsiders has always seemed to me to be more of an English teacher’s fantasy than anything else. Gang members, in a time of crisis, sit around and contemplate Robert Frost. I am sure English teachers want to believe that is real. Everyone I know has read the book in school so they market to teachers and make a lot of money. Whatever works.

    I do think novels don’t have a clue about what a man should be. I don’t really buy Alyssa Rosenberg’s opinions either. There is a notion of what society wants a man to be but it does not resonate with real men or teenage boys at all. Men just are not wired to be that. Society hates the idea of man as a warrior or a king. They don’t like strong fathers. Then there is the easy route of explicit sex and violence that will attract males too but not inspire them to much.

    • There is a notion of what society wants a man to be but it does not resonate with real men or teenage boys at all…Society hates the idea of man as a warrior or a king. They don’t like strong fathers.

      And you base this statement on what?

  • Iota

    I’ve spent the better part of the day (it’s evening here) repeatedly watching Stephen Torrence’s videos (the signed-song guy)… Literally made my day. 🙂

    • leahlibresco

      Watch out for “1st of May” because it’s a problem if it gets stuck in your head.

      • Iota

        I avoided 1st of May, considering what Stephen himself had said about it is the videos from the Live Performance thing. 🙂

  • I would disagree with Eve that there are all these rules about getting married, or that a reluctance to break these sorts of rules (if in fact such a reluctance exists) has anything to do with fear. It sounds to me like Eve might be confusing today with the 1950s! These days there don’t seem to be many rules, and it doesn’t seem to bother anyone much at all (except maybe the far-right GOP!).

    It’s true that most people want to be able to give their children a good start in life in terms of both the tangible (e.g., good education) and intangible (good moral foundation). If you’re not sure you can do both, you tend to delay having kids — not out of fear, but out of a sense of responsibility for those future lives and a desire to do the best you can by them. That’s not a slavish devotion to bourgeois normalcy, that’s just common sense and personal responsibility.

    • evetushnet

      Hey–It’s possible that this earlier article I wrote on some similar themes will help make what I was saying more clear, esp about the rules and the degree to which the rules are based on fear.

      • evetushnet

        (sorry, I think that sounded abrupt! trying to post and watch tv. I do think my “Hedonist, Disciple or Bourgeois?” post was too compressed or was trying to do too much, & relied on previous stuff I’d written to create context.)