Archive for February, 2010

Twitter?

So I’m on Twitter. I set up an account a while ago but never really used it, partly because I had trouble getting the phone to behave nicely with the twitter app I had. That’s fixed now, so I’m back ok. I feel a sort of instant repulsion to twitter. It seems though, that, for better or worse, this is the direction the world is moving – toward instant social expression –  and that it’s not a trend. So, I’m going to try to get in on it too – at least for a while (there’s really a lot to be said for peer pressure, if you’d never consider being a hermit). So, if you’re on, let me know and I’ll check you out.

Have you found Twitter to be worthwhile?

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Painfully funny…

I’m currently in the yellow. The tiny yellow, that is.

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Some symbols to help with reading non-fiction

I can’t read (nonfiction) without a pencil in my hand. All of the reading I do is marked through with all sorts of scribble to help make sense of the structure and content of the writing later without having to reread every word. Over the past few months, to help with this, I’ve come up with a loose system for marking books to make them as useful as possible for later. No doubt this system will evolve the more I use it, but it’s been really helpful for me so far, so I thought I would put it out there for anyone who also has to read a lot and thinks such a system would be useful. So, here is a list of the symbols with a little explanation of how they are helpful and the rationale behind why that particular symbol is used that way (which might help in remembering them).

▽ – In symbolic logic, a common symbol for a conclusion of an argument (therefore) is a triangle of dots. The conclusion of an argument is most often the thesis one is trying to prove. So, when a main point or thesis is stated, to be followed by an argument for or explanation of that thesis, the upside-down triangle is used. Its pointing down lets you know that the argument or explanation follows.

▼ – If you feel that the explanation or argument for the thesis is satisfactory, fill in the triangle to show that the thesis has been completed in some way. Leave it blank if you find it lacking.

△  – The right-side-up triangle is used to mark a thesis or conclusion that has been arrived at, rather than one that is stated up-front, then defended.

▲ – The filled-in triangle functions the same as before.

➔ – The arrow pointing to a piece of text means something like “don’t skip over this” when you re-read it. It lets your future self know that, when scanning a text over again, where the must-reads are.

∈ – This is another logic symbol that translates as “is a member of a set” (where the set is then specified). So “Michael Glawson ∈ people with big, strong muscles” translates as “Michael Glawson is a member of the set of people with big, strong muscles”. Sets are really just lists of things though. I am on the big, strong muscle-y person list. So, this symbol is used to let you know that an important list follows. Normally for me that is something like a list of responses to an argument, a list of elements of some position, etc. I normally underline a word or two letting my future self know what the list is of. (If you can’t see it, think of a cross between a capitol E and a capitol C).

≣ – This is the tautology symbol. It means “is exactly the same thing as”. So, “Michael Glawson ≣ Your daddy” means that I and your dad are the same thing. To say that x is the same thing as y, though, is just to give a sort of definition of x. So, whenever a term is defined, this symbol guides you back to it. I normally circle the term. (If you can’t see it well, it’s just an equal sign, with an extra line – three lines on top each other).

⊗ – This is the “exclusive or”. In use, “x ⊗ y” means “either x is true, or y is true, but both aren’t true”. This just means that there’s some strong division, or distinction, between x and y. So, when two ideas, positions, terms, periods, etc. are distinguished from one another, I use this symbol.

⊥ – This is an upside-down t. (You noticed…) It is used, instead of F, to mean “false”, because F, if written sloppily, can sometimes look like a T. The upside-down t is clearer. I use this to indicate whenever the Author of the text is claiming or entertaining the possibility that some position is false, or that there is a problem with it. So, if the author says, “one objection to this argument is…”I put that symbol in the margin.

ϴ – I’m interested in religion, so whenever I find a passage that deals with religion or god, I mark it with a theta, the first word of “Theos,” the Greek word for “god”.

✓ – The check notes some passage that I feel I really understand, or resonate or agree with. It is my “yes” mark.

X – The X is the opposite of the check. It tells me that I think the passage is wrong, stupid, etc.

? – The question mark indicates that I don’t quite understand the passage, but want to figure it out. Or it signals that I have some specific, noted question.

(?) – The parenthetical ? indicates that there is an interesting or important question posed within the text. I normally draw a line to the answer to the question if there is one presented.

〮- The centered dot is placed next to some important point of an argument or position. Something that is, in some way, central to the point of the writing.

The last useful little notation works like this:  Sometimes you’ll come across a part of the text that you want to underline but, because of the author’s egregious usage of prepositional phrases (or parenthetical statements), or the like, where you wanted only to underline a simple sentence, the beginning and end of that sentence are separated by a bunch of crap that you don’t care about, and you don’t want to underline half the page. So, just underline the words you need, and, at the end of the first line, draw a little loop, then draw a loop at the beginning of the next line to connect them. In this case, there would be a little loop at the end of the line under “underline”, and another one at the beginning of the next line under “So,”. This lets you know to read that as one line of text, skipping the rest.

Hope this was useful. If you have suggestions, or additions from your own way of doing things, please comment.

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What’s so good about beautiful stuff?

Here’s a question that might help:

Imagine that a new planet has been discovered in a remote corner of the galaxy. Not only is it very far away, it is also surrounded by a massive, but nearly invisible, radioactive cloud emanating from the planet’s core. There is, then, no hope that we will ever be able to visit this planet. No one will, and no life exists there.

We can tell, though, from the refractions of the atmosphere that this planet is even more beautiful than it is inaccessible. We can tell (though we can’t see the planet ourselves) from the light bouncing off its atmosphere, that, because of its odd location, the landscape must be marked by waterfalls, canyons, planes of ice, and diamond, and mountains that make any of earths features pale by comparison. We can tell, with certainty, that this world is one of the most beautiful places imaginable. But, we will never see it. We can only imagine it from the energy it radiates. And no one else will ever see it either.

As it happens though, because of its odd physical makeup, if we were to fire a high-energy lazer into its atmosphere, it would heat the atmosphere along with the odd elements in the planets core to the point that it would explode into a gigantic glowing nebula. This nebula would be so volatile and energetic that it would appear to us as a constant, evolving cloud of brilliant colors in the nights sky for thousands of years, like a huge, silent undulating show of fireworks. Since this planet is in such a remote, lifeless area of the galaxy, no one would ever be harmed by it, and because the light in our sky would be softer than the full moon, it would have no effect on our planet other than providing us with new, exquisite beauty. But this, at the cost of destroying a planet that is even more beautiful, but which will never be seen.

You alone have been given the choice to destroy the planet, and thus provide the world with great (though lesser) beauty, or to not fire, and allow a place of perfect, but invisible, beauty to persist.

What would you choose?

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What it’s like in hell

This girl lives it. Daily.

Apart from the fact that Aleisha will probably never develop any virtuous qualities, what’s so terrible to me about her life is that, though her life is “all about her”, she surely has no idea of who she is – where the boundary between herself and the rest of the world lies. How could you when every desire you have is instantly granted, and nothing stands in the way of your will? (Of course, she’s been raised to entertain only the trite sort of concerns that can be met instantly, all the time).

It’s the resistance that the world provides to our will that helps us locate and sense our selves, and this is a good thing. To take a simple example, you know that your hand is separate from, say, the air, because the air moves against, rather than in complete unison with, your hand. In a dark room, you know you are not near the center when you feel a wall. These resistances of the material world help us locate ourselves physically, and Aleisha has that, but she doesn’t have a more important sense of locale provided by the resistance of the immaterial, personal world.

Most people don’t like yes-men, friends who agree gladly, and without hesitation, to every thought or suggestion the other person has. This is because, in the presence of a yes-man (or yes-woman), you are all alone. There is no tangible, substantial Other there with you whom you can sense and rely on, because sensing the Other is just like sensing a wall; it happens through the Other’s resistance, in some way, to you. This is just what otherness is – a sort of resistance that lets you know where you stop and the other begins.

Aleisha lives in a world with no real Others. Some people surely resist her will, but her will is so petty, and she is so self-consumed, that she can dismiss them with no consequence, and choose to live in the world crafted and maintained by her parents – two self-less individuals who function as a mere extension of the will of a child lost in someone else’s dream of her. If she ever wakes up, it will be into her worst nightmare – a world that is not hostile, but  merely indifferent to her. Either seems like a profound sort of hell to me. One, a world in which there is only her, floating through the world-become-dream. Another, in the real world, which has become a nightmare in the face of her narcissism  which keeps her from being able to recognize the small place assigned to her.

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The Secret Side of Fear

I am currently pretty distressed about something specific happening in the next few weeks. This thing will almost certainly not happen. But I am worried nonetheless. Why? Because this utterly remote possibility, if it were to happen, would completely change my life. But it won’t happen. In all likelihood, it won’t happen.

Why worry then? In my rationalizations, I say to myself just what I said above. I worry not because this event is likely, but because it would be completely life-altering. This, I think, is a lie. There are all sorts of potentially life-altering events that are possible, but unlikely, but it makes no sense to walk around worrying over whether a terrorist attack will hit your city, or lightning will strike you, or you will contract some terrible disease. Yet, I am not alone in my pathological worrying.

My pathology with my own unnamed worry makes me think of a psychological study that was done on youngish (20’s-40’s) people just after the Cold War. During the Cold War there was a constant, pervasive worry that the earth would soon be wiped clean of the whole of humanity by a nuclear war. Fallout shelters were built, families stocked up on non-perishables, and children were taught to seek shelter from the impending holocaust under classroom desks. It was a unique time it seems.

But about the study. The study was on the psychological after-effects of the Cold War mentality. While this “war” officially ended after the collapse of the Soviet Union in ’91, this pervasive doom-and-gloom idea that the world was about to be destroyed had faded out well before that time. The study then looked at the psychological states of people, who had recently believed the apocalypse was immanent, after it became clear that the future was quite a bit brighter. Oddly, what the study found was that, across the board, people were, subjectively, much happier when they thought the end was near than they were after they realized life could go on as ‘normal’. In fact, levels of depression shot up quite noticeably after the “war” ended, and it seems to have had no connection to anything else (like economics). The conclusion? People are actually happier when they think that some drastic shift in the foundations of their existence is about to happen, even if that shift is clearly for the worse, than they are when they perceive life to be rolling on as usual.

Why is this? I don’t have much of an answer other than maybe an obvious one: life-as-usual for most people means boring, and boring sucks. It seems like an overstatement to say that people would rather think the whole earth is about to be consumed in flames than think that they’ll still be going to their jobs come monday, but maybe it isn’t. I have to admit, life in a post-apocalyptic world was one of my favorite childhood fantasies (and I’m still pretty childish in that respect).

To bring it to my case though. It’s interesting to note that these people really did worry their faces off about the world ending. They lost sleep. They cried at night with their spouses after tucking their soon-to-be-ashes children into bed. But that life was, on the whole, more existentially satisfying than a life characterized by regularity and banality. So, I lied, I do have an answer for why that’s the case: A life lived within the tension of the possibility of drastic change is more satisfying because it provides a sense of drama. I don’t mean drama in the negative, you’re-such-a-drama-queen sense, but drama in the sense of Grand Drama – the drama that makes life worth doing. Drama, in this grand sense, provides a venue in which our values matter. We value our children, our lovers, our sense of nobility, our ability to withstand the terrible, and a thousand other things. Your nine-to-five job might pay your bills, but it doesn’t provide any avenue to express, or, more importantly, to experience those values deeply. But an impending holocaust does. You can plan and build your bomb shelter, worrying over how to save the ones you love. You can tuck your children into bed with a newfound desire to cherish every simple moment. Even shopping gains dramatic significance. Which items will last the longest? Feed the most? Take up less valuable space?

This, I think, is why we worry. Not because we’re sorry, masochistic sinners, but because worry is a type of care, and when the world grows so monotonous that we have little to care deeply about, we take every chance we can to write our own stories, in our heads, about a world where there’s something to care about. Even if those stories don’t jive with the statistics.

But, I still hope that my worry doesn’t come true.

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Depression and the Internet?, Hand-written vs. Emailed, and The Future

I saw this article on a possible link between depression and “excessive” internet usage.

The study, reported in the journal Psychopathology, found 1.2% of people surveyed were “internet addicts”. The internet addicts were significantly more depressed than the non-addicted group, with a depression score five times higher.

“Dr Andrew McCulloch, chief executive of the Mental Health Foundation, pointed out that, in some ways, the internet can be helpful.

He said: “To the extent that the internet encourages meaningful friendships and social connections it can be a very good influence on people’s lives.

‘However, social interaction online should not usually replace an offline social life…'”

I, like everyone else who is not an “internet addict”, agree with that last statement. But why? It’s interesting, and undeniable after some thought, that saying this – that an “internet life” should not replace a “real, in-the-world life” is to say that there’s something important about being embodied, that there’s something important and valuable about being in-the-world, and connected to the material realm, that a good life needs some connection to the world of matter, that mere information and synthesized experience isn’t enough.

How does that deeply-ingrained belief jive with, for instance, the fact that none of us hand-writes letters any more? We consistently opt for emails and text messages over the hand-written version. In doing so, it seems that we’re making the statement that it’s not so much the form (the material reality), but the content (the information) that we value. So, is this inconsistent? If so, which value will ultimately win out? If we really value form (our material existence in-the-world), we will soon have to start making some reactive changes to how we do life in a technologized world. If we value content (which, I imagine, is more the case), within fifty years, I’ll make the call that the majority of the first-world will spend the majority of their waking hours in virtual reality, and a visible, though strong, minority of them will be in meaningful personal relationships with machines.

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