Friday, March 26, 2010

The Medicine Cabinet Recommends

A few items that caught my eye in March:

1. Statues of naked men have been popping up all over New York City. The artists need to visit Cincinnati. I just think it would do us good. Naked man on the 5th third building downtown. Naked man on the Roebling bridge. Naked man on Fountain square. Naked man in front of City Hall. How could anything bad come of that?

2. Here's an interesting chart documenting the different personal majadjustments of various muppets, via Andrew Sullivan. I think they're onto something here.

3. P.Z. Meyers tells us How To make A Snake. Science is cool.

4. If you’re on facebook, you should consider joining the following groups: buddy grey, and The Drop Inn Center. If you want to volunteer or donate, or do some other creative thing to support our quest to end homelessness, leave a message on the wall of either page. We're always looking for innovative ideas.

5.Coming off the passage of the healthcare bill, Daniel Shore has good advice for the president’s supporters & enemies alike: Don’t Short Obama. Much like it was bad news to portray George W. Bush as a dumb-ass aristocrat, it's also bad to stick too close to the Obama=Carter line (or, the Obama=Mao idea).

7. vegemite spaghetti: one of my recent hobbies is trying vegemite on everything. This is a good, cheap and easy recipe that I just learned. Viva la Vegemite!

8. Extremism Slumbers In The Body Of Faith. What do you think?

9.Something about Spring screams out for David Lee Roth era Van Halen. What a great band:

Have a great weekend, y'all!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Virtue Of Pragmatism

Recent articles by Russell Blackford and Michael Shermer have gotten me thinking about pragmatism, and the importance of evangelizing not a particular software ideology (Marxism, Christianity, conservatism, etc.), but the proper use of hardware thinking (skepticism & pragmatism).

Not too long ago, I wrote an essay on the importance of teaching your kids how to think, not what to think, in which I estolled the virtue of skepticism. There’s another piece I would like to add to my list of thinking hardware: Pragmatism.

I count pragmatism among the list of thinking hardware rather than thinking software because it is not proscriptive. It’s a framework within which a person can further their software thinking by dribs and drabs or all at once (if lucky). It allows for compromise, and coupled with the hardware skill of skepticism, allows for a change in one’s own opinion upon the introduction of better ideas. Skepticism and Pragmatism are virtues, because they allow for progress, and they lessen the chance for conflict better than any other idea. They sharpen the minds of everyone who employs them, and sidesteps our reductionist impulse to view every conflict as one between good and evil.

For instance, I am an epicurean, but I am not an epicurean above all else. I will forward the notions of Epicureanism in conversation, and I will practice them personally, but that software ideology is not my ultimate identity. It is subject to deletion, or revision. I am, above my ideological self, a thinking human, who is capable of many things. By putting my ideological identity second, I allow my humanity—and the humanity of others—to become evident to me. Interestingly, by putting my ideology second, I seem to be even more effective at spreading it.

Here is one of my favorite quotations, from Saul Alinsky:

"One of the most important things in life is what judge Learned Hand described as 'that ever-gnawing inner doubt as to whether you're right.' If you don't have that, if you think you've got an inside track to absolute truth, you become doctrinaire, humorless and intellectually constipated. The greatest crimes in history have been perpetrated by such religious and political and racial fanatics, from the persecutions of the Inquisition on down to Communist purges and Nazi genocide."

The software ideologue puts their ideology above their humanity, and because this is the case, they feel they’ll lose their identity by compromising on it. They don’t realize that software ideologies are not inherently rational. They believe they are carved in stone commandments, sent down from whatever authority they depend on for guidance. A person doesn’t have to look any farther than the creation museum in Kentucky, or pre-healthcare flip Dennis Kucinich for evidence of this, just to stick with my own area of the world.

Blackford’s essay reminds us that we are human beings with genetic proclivities, but it also points out that even though this is the case, we are also thinking creatures with relatively free wills:


“Generally speaking, it is rational for us to act in ways that accord with our reflectively-endorsed desires or values, rather than in ways that maximise our reproductive chances or in whatever ways we tend to respond without thinking. If we value the benefits of social living, this may require that we support and conform to socially-developed norms of conduct that constrain individuals from acting in ruthless pursuit of self-interest. Admittedly, our evolved nature may affect this, in the sense that any workable system of moral norms must be practical for the needs of beings like us, who are, it seems, naturally inclined to be neither angelically selfless nor utterly uncaring about others. Thus, our evolved psychology may impose limits on what real-world moral systems can realistically demand of human beings, perhaps defeating some of the more extreme ambitions of both conservatives and liberals. It may not be realistic to expect each other to be either as self-denying as moral conservatives seem to want or as altruistic as some liberals seem to want.”

Much as we have been programmed by evolution to crave the fatty, high calorie foods that are now killing so many of us, so too have we been programmed to enjoy sex, which leads to greater reproduction rates, which is now counter-productive to our continued survival as a species.

Blackford also has this to say:

“On this picture, realistic moral systems will allow considerable scope for individuals to act in accordance with whatever they actually value. However, they will also impose constraints, since truly ruthless competition among individuals would lead to widespread insecurity, suffering, and disorder. Allowing it would be inconsistent with many values that most of us adhere to, on reflection, such as the values of loving and trusting relationships, social survival, and the amelioration of suffering in the world. If, however, we are social animals that already have an evolved sympathetic responsiveness to each other, the yoke of a realistic moral system may be relatively light for most of us most of the time.”

Giving our rational selves over to our pet software ideologies and natural impulses is a recipe for disaster. But, in Michael Shermer’s recent essay close to this subject, he puts forward the idea that some genetic ideological impulses are only subject to so much revision:

“Over the years (Jonathon) Haidt and his University of Virginia colleague Jesse Graham have surveyed the moral opinions of more than 110,000 people from dozens of countries and have found this consistent difference: self-reported liberals are high (on the Haidt Scale) on 1 and 2 (harm/ care and fairness/reciprocity) but are low on 3, 4 and 5 (in-group loyalty,authority/respect and purity/sanctity), whereas self-reported conservatives are roughly equal on all five dimensions, although they place slightly less emphasis on 1 and 2 than liberals do. (Take the survey yourself at
Instead of viewing the left and the right as either inherently correct or wrong, a more scientific approach is to recognize that liberals and conservatives emphasize different moral values…”

This may be the case, but with the right tools (pragmatism and skepticism), we can—if we are brave—understand exactly what inclines us towards our respective software beliefs, and put parameters on how far we will allow these inclinations and biases to take us. It takes a certain humility to admit that we may not possess ‘the lord’s truth’, but doing so frees us to hear the software ideas of others, to compromise, to change our own opinions, and to live in a pluralistic society.

Everything In the Medicine Cabinet Has Expired

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Spencer Troxell: Sports Philistine

Worthwhile blogger Lodo Grdzak has a post up about his excitement over an upcoming boxing match. He writes with enthusiasm and the commentary of an afficianado, but I am not fazed. It's not on account of some lack of writing ability on Lodo's part. I read and enjoy his blog regularly. Something else is preventing me from being able to enjoy boxing in a visceral way.

Much like my relationship to every other sport, I like the idea of boxing much better than boxing itself. The mythology of boxing as portrayed in movies like 'Cinderella Man', and Mark Knopfler's 'Song For Sonny Liston' makes me a little sentimental about it from a human angle, but when I sit down to watch it, nothing happens. Maybe I'm deficient in some kind of man-gene, but watching two guys hit each other is boring to me, and watching a crowd of people cheering two guys on as they hit each other reminds me of how bloodthirsty and herd-stupid people can be.

I wish I could lose myself in sports like Lodo seems to be able to. His response to my comment is full of passion:


Boxing is man to man--one on one. No one can win it for you except yourself. Or possibly Don King (or after this last fight--I'd say Bob Arum).

The individual personalities of the fighters take center stage. As Miles Davis said when talking about musical artists, you see a man's carriage, the way he carries himself outside the ring, and you almost already know how he's gonna fight.

The shirt's off, nothing but a pair of trunks--you're practically naked out there except for gloves. Your soul exposed. People would like to see you get hurt. How're you gonna react?

I like that there's no commercials. The fight just plays out in real time. I like the toughness, like my man Miguel Cotto. His skills have declined, but he's got such great heart! You almost respect him just as much when he loses as when he wins.

But I like the skill fighters best--Floyd Mayweather, Manny Pacquiao, and my personal favorite--Sugar Shane Mosely. Until you see a really good boxing match (few and far between these days), you haven't seen the best sports has to offer.

The biggest problem nowadays is that the skills of the boxers have really declined. Blood lust for knockouts (brought on by Tyson, and MMA) has taken over an appreciation of real boxing skills.

Good stuff. I can dig the passion, I just can't dig the subject. I had a professor in college that was nuts about Shakespeare's sonnets. He had memorized a lot of them, and would pepper his lectures with references to them. He was such a good professor, and was so clearly in love with the sonnets that I ended up buying a collection of them, and dug into them with great anticipation. Unfortunately, the connection wasn't meant to be.

I guess that's where I am with sports. I love the enthusiasm that it arouses in others, and appreciate the art that they inspire, but--in spite of the efforts of such artists as Russel Crow, Mark Knopfler, my college professor, and Mr. Grdzak--it's just not going to be for me.

And that's frustrating, because it sucks to see people getting such joy from something that only seems to make you yawn.

cross posted at Kos

Friday, March 12, 2010

Bird In The House

There's a bird in the house, and I’m chasing it around with a white paper shopping bag from some fancy clothing outlet. The bag has tightly wound paper handles that I’m grasping in each hand, and its aggravated mouth must look very threatening to the little char-colored bird, because it’s flying around like crazy, bumping into every shut window it can while completely overlooking the wide open door that it flew in through in the first place.

I’m thinking, ‘If only you were a little less stupid…’ as I climb up on a big pile of mats to reach the thing as it catches its breath up in one of the high windows. We’re in the homeless shelter—it used to be a meeting place for teamsters, but the guy bought it back in the seventies and turned it into a place for people to drop in and sleep, and get a meal, and maybe talk to someone about their addiction (if applicable) on the way out. It’s got these high, barred up windows, and the bird is sitting up there with its mouth open like it’s thirsty, panting, trying to figure out what its next move is going to be. Probably not out the door, I’m going to have to catch it I think. One of us is going to get tired eventually, and I’m betting on the bird. I’m pretty big and wide, full of energy, plus I just ate a big meal and I slept pretty well last night. One of the guys who stays in the shelter (we call them clients) comes into the dorm: ‘Somebody’s gonna die in here.’ He says, ‘Bird in the house means somebody’s gonna die.’ And I wince because that stuff always gets to me. Even though I’m a professed skeptic, science doesn’t go all the way to my core; There’s a lot of voodoo under my skin. ‘Hey!’ I say to one of the other clients ‘Go get a sheet!’ and the guy runs off to get a sheet. The other guy stands there shaking his head and watching me run around with the bag, although I’m a lot more thoughtful about my movements now than when I was alone; I’m a little self conscious with an audience. The client I had sent away comes back in with a big white sheet to match my white paper bag, and we’re running around while the other guy is still standing there just shaking his head, like it’s our fault or something that the bird got in; like it’s just one more shitty thing he has to deal with. ‘Somebody’s gonna die in here.’ He says, and I want to tell him to shut up talking like that, but I can’t.

The little creature isn’t going to get into the bag. I might’ve had a chance that first time I approached him, when I tripped and blew it, but now he thinks I want to eat him.

There’s some pride on the line now. These two clients are both older than me, and much harder. Instead of trying to support some kind of stupid illusion that I’m not comfortable with in the first place, and have no right to even if I were comfortable with it, I give a palms-open shoulder shrug. This bird is kicking my ass.

Many of the clients at the shelter have my deep respect. Some of them are sad cases, for sure; People who have given up on life, or have never gotten started with it in the first place. Many have mental issues, and are unable to get appropriate service because the system is broken, and there’s no money to be made helping crazy homeless people. Many struggle with addiction, which is the closest thing to demonic possession there is in this world. Many are a mixture of the two, which is a destructive cocktail. Others are something else. There are a lot of war veterans, and what people refer to as ‘unskilled laborers’, although I hate that word. This last batch I mention is the first group of people in our economy to get fucked when someone on Wall Street makes a stupid or greedy move and everything goes haywire. They spend a lot of time hanging around at temp agencies, waiting for some hours doing hard labor for very little pay, or hanging around on the street outside the shelter at night waiting for some contractor to come by and pick them up in his truck, which is a kind of soft slavery in my mind.

Because of the way our society is structured, a lot of people have to climb hard to get to anywhere reasonable in their lives, losing fingernails and a sense of dignity on the way up. I respect that struggle. They’re at war for their very lives in a country that loves and glorifies war, but refuses to honor these particular soldiers with any kind of mythology of patriotism and purpose. No talk radio host is going to thump their chest to raise awareness of the very real dangers these soldiers face on the battlefield. No Republican politician is going to sound the horn in honor of the sacrifices that must be made by them to preserve their mere being, the country of themselves. They are P.O.W’s in their own nation.

I grew up in the suburbs, have never been cold for too long, am lucky enough to have been born white and male and American, and have had plenty of time to ponder the academic and esoteric with friends and family over food and drink that costs way too much. I’ve had trials in my life just as everyone has, but there’s always been a safety net there for me that’s probably curbed the reality of a lot of what I’ve experienced. It would be silly of me to start barking orders, or to act out on that twinge-impulse that I feel to ‘save face’. There’s nothing to save. It’s a silly situation, and these guys have seen it before: white liberal in dress pants and a button down collared shirt can’t resolve a sticky situation. One of the guys laughs, and I laugh too. Even Mr. Superstitious cracks a smile. ‘That fucking thing is fast’. I say. ‘How’s your cholesterol man, your face is flushed!’ says the client with the sheet. ‘don’t die trying to save a bird!’
‘No one gets left behind.’ I say grimly.
‘Ooh-rah!’ says Mr. Superstitious.

Suddenly, the bird takes flight, and dips low towards the door, landing right in front of it. We can all feel each other tense up as we lean forward, waiting to see what happens. Casually, the bird hops out into the courtyard. We smile at each other and follow it out.

The other birds are waiting in an unbroken black mass across the street in the park. When our accidental captive rejoins them—disappearing vertically down into their numbers—it is as if a hand grenade had been thrown at a solid body; pieces explode upwards and outwards, flapping frantically in all directions. The earth erupts with birds. Eventually, a swirling coherence is established and in one dark cloud they all fly off together across the cobblestone road and over the spires of a crumbling church. ‘There.’ I say. ‘No one died.’

cross posted at Kos & Fictionaut

Give Cincinnati's homeless population a helping hand. Click on the link below to visit The Drop Inn Center's website, and click 'Donate' on the main page. Every little bit helps:

Drop Inn Center

Monday, March 8, 2010

Coyote With A Bellyful of Roadrunner

I have Mondays off. Typically, I guess because it's the official first day of the work week, I use this day for chores & paperwork. Most Mondays I'll sleep in a little bit longer than usual, but that's about it as far as frills are concerned.

Today I had to get up early to take my wife to work, because our other car is in the shop. It was kind of a late night, and normally I would feel a little groggy getting up as early as I did this morning after a night like that, but I felt fantastic this morning. I think it's because I've been lifting weights and doing some minor aerobic stuff lately, have cut out sugary drinks, and am taking vitamins. These are small changes, but they've had an impact.

Anyway, We got my 8 year old on the bus, and my preschooler and I took my wife to work. After we dropped her off and collected our bye-bye kisses, we went to Dunkin Donuts for breakfast. We ordered our food and sat down at a little road-facing booth.

It was one of the most relaxing experiences I've had in a long time.

I have a hard time unwinding. I'm always moving on to the next thing, always war gaming the next big victory. It's just the kind of guy I am. For the last 8 years the trophy was a bachelor's degree in psychology, and a job in my field. Before that, it was to save up enough money to buy a house. Before that, it was kids, and before that, it was finding a life partner to set up shop with. Along the way, I've had a slew of somewhat quixotic goals to move towards as well. In high school, I was in a rock band, and later tried my hand at stand up comedy. When those things didn't work out, I started writing. Writing hasn't been a money maker, but it's something I enjoy, so I keep doing it. The point is, I'm Wile E. Coyote, and for my entire life up to this point, I've had some kind of roadrunner that I've been chasing after, but no real plan for what to do after I caught the thing.

Well, I've caught my roadrunner (several times over), but I'm still ordering things out of the ACME catalog. It's time for me to shift to maintenance mode. I've found a wonderful partner in my wife. The courtship is over. Now it's time to be a good husband. We had two beautiful kids. Time to be a good father. We bought a house. Time to cut the grass. I've got my degree and a good job. Time to punch the clock.

Relaxing in a Dunkin Donuts with my son was an epiphany for me. There were no homework assignments on my mind, and the anxiety that 'I may not come through!' was nowhere in sight. I was comfortable. Amazing.

Shifting gears from 'go-go-go' to 'keep the ship afloat' might be a challenge, but I think I'll enjoy it. I like being able to read what I want to read and do what I want to do in my spare time, without feeling any anxiety about what other people may think or some looming deadline.

After we left Dunkin, we drove to a hilly, wooded part of the city I'm not very familiar with. The road zig-zags around hills and passes by farms and historic buildings. Instead of taking the route I'm used to, I asked my son which way I should turn at every stop sign. Eventually, my internal compass was totally confused. Along the way we stopped at a playground, and hung out there for awhile. After that, we tried to make our way back home. We were ridiculously lost, and it took us about an hour to find our way back to the interstate, but it was time well spent.

cross posted at Kos.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Jazz Code In Cincinnati

Have you heard Rebecca Coupe Franks? The security guard at my work loaned me one of her CD's this week, and I'm pretty impressed:

The CD that I'm borrowing is called Suit Of Armor, and it's a nice, smoky sounding album. My wife pointed out to me the other day that I use the word 'smoky' where most other people would say 'sultry', or 'sexy'. I'm not sure what that means about me, but I don't think any of these words would be wrong to use as descriptors of the Suit Of Armor album.

I ended up talking to our security guard about jazz by accident. One day he overheard me use the name Ron Carter in conversation, and interjected, 'Ron Carter, huh?' and I said, 'Not the bass player.' and he smiled and said, 'So you know what I'm talking about then!' and entered into the conversation I was having, which quickly became about jazz music. I had never really talked to him too much before, but apparently jazz was the topic we needed to break the ice. He's a mountainous guy with a stoic demeanor who doesn't really seem to invite conversation. He lit up on this topic though. Apparently he had a public access jazz talk show back in the day, and was a connoisseur on the subject, whereas I am merely a hobbyist. This was established right at the beginning of the conversation:

The Mountain: 'You listen to Jazz?'
Me: 'Yeah, I like jazz.'
The Mountain: 'I love jazz. I live for it, Jack.'

Okay. The conversation was fairly rudimentary. We engaged in a ritual that I've discovered is necessary every time one jazz enthusiast meets another one. We tossed out names of jazz musicians we liked, and then responded with excitement when it turned out the other guy knew and liked that guy too, as if we were paleontologists rejoicing over new fossil discoveries. When one of us would name a guy the other didn't know about, we'd say, 'oh, man. You've got to check him out.' and give a little background on the guy and cite some of his better work. I exhausted my list of names much faster than The Mountain, but it turned out we were into the same kind of stuff, more or less. Once the initial name trading was done, and once we had gotten the stories of 'how we got into jazz' out of the way (he was brought up in a house full of jazz musicians. I owe my interest in jazz to my grandfather for loaning me a copy of 'What A Wonderful World' and Woody Allen's film scores), I assumed the role of Padawan and he assumed the role of Jedi master, which was more than appropriate.

Neither of us cared for the smooth, studio sounding jazz too much. If it was studio, it had to be innovative. We both have huge Andrew Hill collections, and both like Joe Maneri. Our point of diversion was on John Coltrane. The Mountain thinks he's the greatest, but I'm turned off of him because his music reminds me of the scores for a lot of kung fu movies from the seventies.

One thing that we agreed on was that unlike a lot of music, good jazz demands that you listen to it. It's not for the background. Not white noise. I think that's why I've never been able to really get into classical music too much, unless it was kind of jazzed up Uri Caine kind of stuff. You can clean the house to Mozart's 'A Little Night Music', but you have to sit down and listen to John Zorn's 'The Big Gundown'. It would be impossible not to.

That's all, just wanted to share that little exchange. Jazz fans are a specialized breed in Cincinnati. There are people who may like the idea of jazz, but there are much fewer who have taken the time to investigate it. More often than not, if you run into someone who says they like Jazz in Cincinnati, one of the first names they're going to drop from their mouths is going to be Norah Jones or B.B. King. Not that there's anything wrong with Norah Jones or B.B. King, but, you know.




Cross Posted at The Daily Kos

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Richard Feynmann on Religion

"If there is a God, it's going to be a whole lot bigger and a whole lot more incomprehensible than anything that any theologian of any religion has ever proposed."-Richard Dawkins, From a TIME magazine debate with Francis Collins (2006)

I know I always trot out this Dawkins quote, but it rings so true to me. All of our religions, while explicable in scientific terms, just don't seem to give proper credit to the largeness of whatever possible initiating intelligence might exist. Our religions can be made sense of as coping mechanisms, mythical space savers that have been taken too literally, devices for empowerment, unification, and oppression, etcetera. They can tell us things about the kinds of animals we are, but they don't seem capable of affirming any truth about any possible creator. That's why I'm with Feynmann. Doubt is a far better life companion than religion.