Travel in the magic city (Front Porch Republic) Aug 11, 2014
Since I moved, it has slowly dawned on me that I can get practically everywhere faster by taking the freeway. But it has at the same time dawned on me that I might be eroding other, existing neighborhoods by using that freeway—not directly, not by physical or economic means, but simply by changing my perception of them.
Rituals of embodiment (Front Porch Republic) Jul 29, 2014
It isn’t that I want effortless obedience from physical objects but because I believe there is value in the physical interaction itself: we are embodied beings, and we think not only with our minds or brains but with our hands and our whole bodies.
In defense of false expectations Nov 5, 2013
Last spring — I’m late blogging this — the Guardian reported on a study finding that literature for very young children frequently reinforces a materialist, consumerist bias… but that other literature deters that bias. Books, in other words, and the ideas in books, shape their readers, particularly young readers. Hardly a new idea, but one perhaps too easily ignored. The problem is what an author ought to do with that knowledge — or a parent. As Alan Jacobs observed at the time, every book potentially wants us to want something, which is not bad in itself, but we ought to consider what it wants us to want. Jacobs quotes C. S. Lewis’ lament that the fairy tale “is accused of giving children a false impression of the world they live in” when, on the contrary, it’s “school stories,” the allegedly realistic ones, that give false expectations. “All stories in which children have adventures and successes which are possible,” Lewis argued in “On Three Ways of Writing for Children”, “in the sense that they do not break the laws of nature, but almost infinitely improbable, are in more danger than the fairy tales of raising false expectations.”
But I wonder whether those “school stories” are more important than Lewis realized. Read more
Ouija boards and what we want to believe Nov 1, 2013
It’s too late for Hallowe’en, but Linda Rodriguez McRobbie’s Smithsonian Magazine article on “The Strange and Mysterious History of the Ouija Board” is worth a read if you’re at all interested in nineteenth-century history, or in the occult, or if you’ve ever played with one. Or if, like me, you’re at all interested in the limitations of science and of scientific thinking and in the ways Americans today think about religion. (My thoughts follow the jump.) Read more
Fat(e), free will, and forgiveness Aug 28, 2013
Some of the new research on possible causes of obesity is fascinating. New theories emerge continually, many of them at best inconsistent and at worst contradictory. But what interests me more is the debate that research sparks, which seems, at least in the popular arena, to be less about what actually causes obesity than about whose fault it is. It’s a subtle but important difference: the former is (largely, at least) a scientific question; the latter makes it a political or a philosophical one — and is, it seems to me, a thoroughly unhelpful approach. Read more
A loss for words May 21, 2013
This week I had to deal, second-hand, with someone deeply, personally, angrily offended by the indiscriminate use of vulgar language — not mine, and the circumstances really aren’t all that interesting, but it got me thinking in a meandering sort of way about why someone might or might not reasonably be offended by vulgar and obscene language. There are far more important things to be offended by (poverty, homelessness, random violence, endless war, greed, hatred, sex trafficking, the casual abstraction of human beings for profit, pleasure, politics and convenience), and language formerly known as “bad” is so ubiquitous that I’m not sure where anyone would escape it long enough to remain offended by it.
And yet, on reflection, I decided that that is precisely the problem: that words meant to be extreme are ubiquitous — and as a consequence it becomes more difficult to express ideas that really are extreme, even really important and good ones. I’m not arguing against any word or words, or even against “strong language” that transgresses the limits of what’s allowable in polite society. What bothers me the more I consider it is the normalization of that transgression. It seems to me a problem for two reasons. First, which ought to be fairly obvious, without some common ground of language strangers can’t safely have a conversation without fear of giving or taking offense. But second, and to me more interestingly, because normalizing transgression makes transgression impossible. If “strong language” becomes conversationally standard, there’s no way to express strong feelings. There is now no longer a word capable of expressing the sort of outrage that certain choice words once could.
Take a safely literary example: Victor Hugo’s retelling of the Battle of Waterloo in Les Misérables. As the day wanes and the tide turns inexorably against the French a legion under the command of “an obscure officer whose name was Cambronne” sees the end nigh but will give up neither the field nor the Empire: Read more
Ordinary miracles May 1, 2013
Saturday afternoon my daughter and I volunteered on a local farm tour, at a farm where the two main attractions are goats and pickles. I’ve got a cabinetful of pickles at home, but no goats, and I figured even if a nine year-old girl got bored checking people in and welcoming them to a farm then surely baby goats would keep her entertained for hours. I was more right than I’d bargained for, as it turned out.
We arrived too early. We were supposed to arrive half an hour before the tour started, to set up and get the lay of the land, but I got us there half an hour before that. The farm was, I thought (and Google Maps confirmed) over half an hour away, and I had to stop off to buy chicken feed. But the map was conservative, the trip easy and the errand quick, and so I allowed far too much time. As I climbed out of the car and saw Mike, the farmer, walking towards me, I apologized and promised to stay out of the way.
“No problem,” he said, friendly but a little hurried. “In fact we’ve got a goat giving birth right at the moment, if your daughter wants to watch.”
I leaned back into the car. “Ivy, you want to watch a goat give birth?”
A second passed while my words sunk in — it is not the sort of question she is used to being asked — and then she bounded out of the car. Read more
As if the election wasn’t annoying enough, I got redistricted this year here in North Carolina. I haven’t moved, but I’m in a completely different congressional district — or, rather, I will be when the 113th Congress convenes in six weeks or so. I wasn’t nuts about my future-former representative, and I like the new guy considerably less, but in the big picture, it doesn’t make much difference, because they’re both in Congress now, and they’ll both be in Congress come January.
But in the bigger picture, redistricting seems to have made a heck of a difference. Republicans won 9 of North Carolina’s 13 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives this month. Combined with the state’s vote for Romney, a newly elected Republican governor, and a re-elected majority in both houses of the General Assembly, North Carolina looks like a very red state, yes? In fact, Democrats won a majority of votes cast in North Carolina Congressional elections this year, even while winning less than a third of the available seats. Welcome to the wonderful world of partisan redistricting.
Details, research, and some history after the jump. Read more
Limits and conscientious consumption (Front Porch Republic) Oct 30, 2012
At some level it remains inconceivable to me that slavery still exists in the world. And so it was that, a decade ago, when I read news reports about “human trafficking” in the global chocolate industry, I assumed that this problem had been “taken care of.” But of course it hasn’t, because our boundless need to consume—even something as ultimately trivial as chocolate—trumps everything.
Boycotts, action, and penance Oct 3, 2012
Last week, walking across campus to the library, I was interrupted (I don’t want to say “accosted”) by a woman in her early twenties wearing a Greenpeace t-shirt.
“Are you on your way to teach, or do you have a minute to help save the environment?”
“No,” I said, smiling, “I’m not on my way to teach.”1
So I let her tell me about Greenpeace, and about an initiative to protect rainforests by convincing KFC’s parent company to quit buying from a company called Asia Pulp and Paper, which is alleged to log protected rainforests illegally. Other fast-food chains have quit buying from them, and Greenpeace is pressuring KFC to stop too.
I have this mental image of Greenpeace activists rowing up to an oil tanker in, I don’t know, a Viking longship or something, and attacking it with pea shooters. Quixotic, misguided, but romantic. There was no romance in this little chat on the sidewalk, no adventure, no grand visions, just procedural details of corporate malfeasance. It felt very… oh, bourgeois. Very proper, very polite, very accepting of social and cultural norms, very work-within-the-system.
On the spot I couldn’t articulate why, precisely, I couldn’t bring myself to care. Or maybe I could have, but it was too complicated a conversation for an early-autumn dusk on a sidewalk under the oak trees. I mean, sure, all things being equal, if we’re going to blow through forests to create mountains of single-use cups and napkins so we can eat mindlessly while we race from here to there in our cars that are irrevocably altering the planet’s climate and then bulldoze rural landscapes so we can bury those cups and napkins in landfills, if we’re going to do all that anyway, then sure, we ought to do it… more… um… sustainably? Well, maybe you see my point already. Read more