Archive for ‘philosophical writing’

20 January, 2012

A quick note on current media events and the nature of intellectual property

I have a lot of thoughts about what’s going on with SOPA and PIPA right now, mostly focusing on the way this impacts me as an artist, and the way it impacts things such as Creative Commons licensing and “copyleft.”

First, here’s a great TED talk that outlines both the history of media and law, and what we actually need to be worrying about. This is bigger than shutting down sharing websites like MegaVideo and MegaUpload, Clay Shirky suggests.

I also want to take a moment to highlight “copyleft.” We are very much entrenched in the idea that creative property is the creator’s and the creator’s alone. We also tend to believe that that is the natural way of things, when actually, “copyright” as a concept is very new, coming only with the advent of the printing press (even then, at that early juncture, it was sort of trampled on).

We’re so interested in the worth of intellectual property that we lose sight of the power of copying. Dissemination is the best way to become known. Sharing achieves what, ultimately, should be the goal of any creator who publishes their work in a public forum: to have their creation be known. Am I saying copying is right, always, and screw proper attribution? No. But that’s what worries me with the current high-profile pieces of legislation– they seem to be criminalizing dissemination, even accidental or fully attributed dissemination.

According to Wikipedia: “Copyleft is a form of licensing and can be used to maintain copyright conditions for works such as computer software, documents and art. In general, copyright law is used by an author to prohibit others from reproducing, adapting, or distributing copies of the author’s work. In contrast, under copyleft, an author may give every person who receives a copy of a work permission to reproduce, adapt or distribute it and require that any resulting copies or adaptations are also bound by the same licensing agreement.” (Copyleft)

The way I see it, this is a much healthier–much less grabby, at least– of looking at intellectual property and rights. It will, of course, never be taken up by the producing industries (to borrow a term from Shirky) because it has little or no potential for direct financial gain, and the loss of absolute control over the intellectual property, is a decided financial loss. As producers, I think it’s incredibly important that we know our options, however. Creative Commons and Copyleft are great things, and by participating in them, we strengthen them.

As both consumers and producers, however, it’s very important to know your rights. If you take one things away from this long-ish, rambly post, let it be this: fair use. We cannot let fair use be eroded. Exercise your rights regarding fair use. By doing so, keep them safe.

18 September, 2011

Week two, check; Heraclitus and Big Brother and the Holding Company

Briefly, this week I attended part of a hermeneutics conference. Being that my knowledge of Gadamer is zilch, however, I respectfully bowed out after the first lecture. There was a salient crumb from the hour and a half I spent there, however– I was reminded of Heraclitus.

Heraclitus is remembered for his interest in logos— the word, reason, plan which drives and unites the universe, and for his doctrine of flux. All is in flux, ever changing– each instant we are in a different universe.

πάντα χωρεῖ καὶ οὐδὲν μένει” καὶ “δὶς ἐς τὸν αὐτὸν ποταμὸν οὐκ ἂν ἐμβαίης”
Panta chōrei kai ouden menei … kai … dis es ton auton potamon ouk an embaies
“Everything changes and nothing remains still …. and … you cannot step twice into the same stream”

–Heraclitus 402a, qtd. from wikipedia (because I don’t feel like cracking my ancient Greek philosophy books.)

In each moment the world is changed. Flux is constant; action now is different from action even a millisecond from now. Nothing is ever repeated. It’s a terrible beauty.


September 12: I found this beautiful oddity tacked to a telephone pole while attempting to find the grocery store (I realized about five seconds after snapping this that I was in fact walking the wrong way).


September 13: The leaves are starting to turn on campus and in the parks. This is outside of Gasson– expect indoor shots of the beautiful Gasson Hall later next week. There’s a poetry reading in there that’ll take me back in there in the coming days.

September 14: This week I embarked on the sacred quest for a Most Excellent Used Books Purveyor. I haven’t found a good, grungy one with dirt cheap books yet, but I did find Brookline Booksellers, which is wonderful, filled with books, knick-knacks, and all sorts of charming things. Like magnets. They also have the Jesus Shaves/Saves mug, which I NEEEEEEED.

Also, in the used book cellar, the far wall is “Mystery, Mystery, Mystery, More Mystery and Still More Mystery.”

September 15: My studies force me to have hermit days every so often, so here’s a tableau of hermit day #1 in this set: my book, and my snack bowl. It’s a beautiful green glass beauty that I got at a garage sale this summer for a dollar. Also, my proliferation of flags, which pretty much make flagging pages useless, given their overwhelming number.


September 16: There’s a beautiful patch of sunflowers on my walk to the T. I snapped this just as a car was zooming past. Flowers in motion.

September 17: I left the Copley library on Saturday needing coffee. Found this tri-corner wearing Godzilla demanding that I pahk the caaah in a  Starbucks. Love it, and Bostonians’ acute awareness that they talk silly. Because so many people who live here are college transplants like myself, however, you rarely hear the Boston accent.

This is in the Copley library. Each section of the hall I was sitting in had the name of a great thinker, artist, or writer carved and gilded below the coffered barrel vault ceiling (fear my art history jargon). WITHOUT LOOKING, I sat myself under Socrates. This is the kind of stuff that happens to me. Things chase me. Socrates is one of them.

September 18: another academic hermit day. This, by the way, is the view out my window into part of the playground/park/field that I live next to. I took a nap face-down in these pillows today instead of reading about reception history.

And, to round out a completely disjointed set of images and thoughts, Janis and Big Brother Caterpillering. ❤


6 July, 2011

Visiting Old Ghosts

It’s hard to go backwards in time. Memory is an evil, evil thing, and if you’re like me, your memory has the added caveat of not being very good. I remember faces, places, and bits of conversation, but I forget big things. I forget, years later, about the important conversations, the things that changed the world. The funny thing is, I can remember where we were when we had these tremendous conversations, but the content is often lost.

I remember romantically. I wish I had better control over it, and a lot of the writing I do is designed to help me see the whole picture, especially when it’s about something that I know I’m going to gloss over, or ignore altogether, ten years from now.

When I was a sixth grader, I remember the strange sense I had that people were larger than life, existed somehow outside of space and time. They were all powerful. I now see how tenuous control can be, and why it turns certain people into monsters, and others into mice.

I remember the tennis courts, and wailing on the tennis ball as hard as I could, missing half of the time, usually for the specific purpose of getting it over the 15-foot chain link fence.

I remember the library– the book displays are the same, even ten years later.

I remember the couch in my 6th grade teacher’s room, and the trolls and the castle she had in one corner, and the time metal vases that made me want to go to Greece for the very first time. She was the person that put the first spark of Greece in my brain.

Every day is a microcosm. Everything is a big deal. And no one gets it. And everyone is annoying. And bullying is everywhere, and you don’t know what to do about it. Weird thing is, a lot of those things feel the same way on the other side, as a teacher. This becomes your life.

1 May, 2011


One of the questions I do battle with frequently is “Why read? Why study literature?

My answers vary depending on the day from a deplorable ‘I don’t know, best keep going so I can find out‘ to the self-indulgent ‘Life is short, best do what you enjoy‘ to the slightly less navel-gazing notion that ‘It’s a useful lens to view the world through‘ to what is currently my best answer– ‘It reminds me that there is a world outside partisan beliefs. There is something universal, and you are a part of it.

It is disconcertingly easy to get ensnared by the us-versus-them mentality that’s everywhere. Sometimes as Americans we think we’re the special snowflakes who have more opinions and chosen-sides than others, but in reality I’m pretty sure partisanism is pandemic.

I’m not above being partisan, mind you, far from it. I am, however, conscious of three things: (1) that I am partisan, for deliberate, researched reasons; (2) the “other side” is rarely composed of morons– they, too, are thinking, researching people, who frequently are separated from me by their priorities and beliefs; (3) these “sides” are often artificial– they are gross simplifications, and very rarely does the world fit neatly into two or even three “sides” of thought or action.

The second realization is especially important. It is easy to pick sides, and even easier to denigrate the worth of the other side. It is essential that we resist the temptation to do so. So much of our world could be improved by respect for differing perspectives. So much could be improved just by moderating ourselves.

You don’t have to agree. You just have to strive to be respectful– something I fear is becoming a more and more distant, abstract concept in digital culture.

Though the second is arguably the most important point, I think the third is the one that gets the most frequently ignored– it’s too easy to fall into the mythos of us versus them, too easy to buy into the oversimplification. I believe that most people, myself included, have to actively fight partisan thinking in order to see around it at all.

“I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that. ”

–Martin Luther King, Jr.

19 March, 2011

This is Water

I think sometimes it is just as important to hear an author speak as it is to read their words in print. This is why I love David Sedaris’s involvement with NPR, and why I love when authors (again, like Sedaris, and also Neil Gaiman) read their own works. It’s fantastic.

Here’s David Foster Wallace, giving a commencement speech that is about consciousness, essentially. One of my professors brought it to my attention via Facebook.

It’s long. It is also worth your while. Take some time and just listen. You probably owe yourself a break, anyway.

Also, for your pleasure:

David Sedaris on Easter, in Grammatically Unstable French.

14 March, 2011

Pi Day | On language, literacy, and intelligence, as we understand them…

Today I’m a reading teacher, which is the inspiration for today’s line of inquiry. As I was sitting across from a well-spoken teenager who struggles with reading, I really started thinking about the way we measure intelligence in the 21st century.

We live in a world of standards and schematics–especially in education. There’s a number, graph, ratio, or descriptive box to fit everything in. We live in a world of staggering amounts of information.

To access it, however, you usually have to be literate. Language, literacy, and intelligence are inexorably bound up together. What does it mean to be well-spoken, but unable to read, then? It certainly puts you at a disadvantage, but I don’t believe that being unable to read means that you are unintelligent, or even less capable than that guy reading James Joyce in the coffee shop.

Literacy as a primary measure of intellectual competence is a very modern concept– consider that not long ago most adults in the developed world were illiterate. The measure of “literacy” has admittedly changed: in Romantic era Britain, literacy meant being able to read and sign your own name. Now the demands of literacy are a little more comprehensive.

Not just anyone could write like Keats…literally. Even with such a limited definition of literacy, most Romantic-era Britons were illiterate.

However, these illiterate people (and generations before them) could “read” allegorical artwork, they could consider themselves “versed” in local history, politics, mythology, etc. They could possess great quantities of information and understand complex concepts, just not via written language. Comparatively, today most Americans are “literate,” but it’s debatable how much they really understand what they read, and deplorable how little they really ruminate on and retain.

I have this notion that personalities go in and out of style. With those trending personalities, I figure that styles of learning and communicating–and the corresponding perception of a person’s intelligence–go with it.

I often wonder if the personality of that kind of an “illiterate” society is necessarily different from our “literate” American society today. Compare the pedantic, distant intellectual authority of someone like Stephen Hawking to the trendy, almost foppish behavior of Aristotle:

When [Aristotle] arrived [at Plato’s Academy] practically everyone noticed him, in part because he was something of a dandy. Plato is reported to have said that Aristotle paid more attention to his clothes than was proper for a philosopher.  To be fashionable, Aristotle cultivated a deliberate lisp, the speech pattern that the Greek elite used to separate themselves from the masses.

Archetypes of Wisdom: An Introduction to Philosophy by Douglas J. Soccio (pg. 154)

Could we take him seriously today, given that he doesn’t fit with the intellectual mold? Could you take a Fabio seriously if he started talking about Nichomachean Ethics?

Similarly, compare the speaking prowess of George W. Bush to that of Cicero. I’m stacking the deck here, but really think about the social circumstances that make these personalities possible, or even probable. My background in Roman history is not strong enough that I’m willing to make claims that a speaker like Bush (bumbling, frequently mincing words, almost purposefully nervous and halting) could not exist, but it seems a far less likely.

Note: I’m not saying that all Greeks and Romans were Aristotles and Ciceros, or that all Americans are Hawkings and Bushes. I’m pointing out that these are the notable personalities that are likely to survive our era. No matter how you feel about his politics, you have to admit that President Bush II was memorable. Plus, now that you know that Aristotle was man-pretty, you probably want to know more (this, sadly, is one of the things that hooked me.)

borrowed from a rather dated article on "Candide's Latest"

I’d be fascinated to study the shift from interpersonal oral discourse to written language as a means of primary learning. You could argue that we still do use the former in the United States, but lecturing is strongly discouraged in K-12. You physically and mentally can’t sit for lectures as a younger student–I’m not sure most students ever outgrown this lecture handicap, either. You’re not going to excel if you can’t function with written language. Almost all assessments are written language, unless you have testing modifications.

I also have to wonder, with the increase in technology and the readily available adaptations, will the importance of written communication decrease, and illiteracy (in the sense that we know it) rise? With so much done for us, delivered to us, via means such as the television, radio, and Youtube video, will people stop reading?

HAPPY PI DAY, by the way (I spent my morning convincing students that tomorrow is the better holiday– Julius Caesar Commemorative Stabbing Day. Being that they’re teenaged boys, they bought my argument. Stabbings are a little more special than pie and math puns.)

12 March, 2011

Memento Mori

I think I have at least alluded to the pathetic state of my memory– it’s one of the reasons why I write. I write to remember. My brain is very, very good at forgetting. It has relegated important conversations to the space of dreams, and sometimes erased them all together.

Strange things get burned into my grey matter– I remember learning about cavities in kindergarten, and clouds in first grade. I remember being outraged at my kindergarten graduation present (Barney cookie cutters), but none of the names of my classmates. I remember learning the meaning of the middle finger, but still know the name of my first grade crush only because I wrote it down in a Lisa Frank diary with a bubblegum-dispenser-shaped lock on it. Needless to say, I broke the lock years later and devoured the memories hidden there (and then promptly forgot most of them again.)

I often wonder if there is a logic to what we remember and forget, or if the resonance is too abstract for even us to understand why some things get dutifully filed away, while so much is lost.

What will I forget, in a year? In a month? In a day? How long will it take me to forget, for example, the color of your eyes, or the incident with the cell phone? The time(s) time stopped? How long before even these obscure references don’t ring true? I leave myself these breadcrumbs back to my memories, hoping (usually in vain) that years later I’ll know. I’ll remember what I felt so strongly, what shook me to my core, and what adventures I had. Or, at least, that’s what I hope.

“Your memory is a monster; you forget—it doesn’t. It simply files things away. It keeps things for you, or hides things from you—and summons them to your recall with a will of its own. You think you have a memory; but it has you.” –

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

4 March, 2011

The American Skeuomorph

A skeuomorph is, basically, an ornament that imitates an earlier, functional incarnation of itself. It is something like the studs on your jeans–which once had a function but are now little more than a decorative accent– or the pocket watch pocket in pants and jackets. Like tiny ghosts, they slip under the radar, never questioned, never removed.

I’ve been thinking for several days about skeuomorphs now, since I stumbled upon them at the beginning of this week. Why do we hang on to these bits of antiquity? Why does the design feel so empty without them? Is it just tradition, or is it a subconscious demand to have something that places us as a link to the past? To something recognizable?

When you’re writing science fiction or fantasy it is always recommended not to stray too far from the familiar– readers need something to fit their fingers around. They need a schematic. Much like a skeuomorph, this schematic is only there as a link to something earlier. Something recognizable. Without it, you can alienate readers– effectively put them into something like culture shock.

Another thought: consider the jargon that gets used in American media all the time that places the United States as a firmly Christian country (despite declining church attendance and affiliation) and rhetoric that suggests we are the greatest world power, and always will be (despite the rise of other countries, such as China). As time moves forward, “old-fashioned American values” and “the American dream” have had less of a tangible role in coming-of-age in America, yet the language lives on. I expect it will continue to live on, as well. Like the pocket watch pocket, its function is minimal (and occasionally re-imagined), and yet, it endures. It is part of the standard design, and without it we would feel somehow incomplete.

“American Love; like coke in green glass bottles…they don’t make it anymore.”

-Alan Moore The Watchmen


This has nothing to do with my thoughts on Skeuomorphs, but I have been here, and so has someone else, apparently:

This has happened to me.

19 February, 2011

In which we are chased by the bliss…

I love how sometimes people and things sneak their way into your life. This is a very Campbellian “Follow your bliss” kind of moment for me, so I hope you can bear with me here. Sometimes you just have to let go and let the world take you where it is going to take you, and accept the fact that your input, at this point and time, does not matter in the least.

Is this an invocation for fatalism? No. There’s a difference in not having freewill and not having control. We rarely have control. Control is collective. Right now control rests with five grad school committees, two hiring committees, and people I never have and never will meet. What I can control is myself, the number of books I read, the number of tea cups I empty, the number of walks I take, and other microscopic things.

That being said, in the dozens of touchy-feely conversations I had about life and its direction last year, all of them inevitably mentioned that the right path will seem easy– it isn’t the easiest path, but pieces fall into place. The path feels right. There’s a part of me that feels like that’s happening right now. I’m not following the bliss…it’s kind of stalking me. One of the things I continue to be is an artist, and I keep selling stuff, and showing stuff, and making stuff. Seems pretty natural, but I never intended to be a professional artist– I actually turned my back on that avenue with all the venom I could manage. Now I’m beginning to wonder if that was the right choice. If the bliss tackles me and beats my head into the pro-art direction (why not, I’m going to be poor anyway), I’ll let you know.

Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors where there were only walls.

I don’t believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive.
-Joseph Campbell

Also, Adele has been sneaking into my life for a while without me realizing it. Every time I saw the I Am Number Four trailer, I went “I like that song a lot.” I finally looked it up, and found out it was hers. Then I looked her up, and discovered that I knew five or six of her other songs, too. I’m being stalked by music! Blissful, bluesy music!

Anyway, enjoy.

Here’s the official video. It won’t let me embed it, but the official video is nice and pleasantly bizarre (there are ninjas and lots of broken white things.) I actually went through about twelve videos before I could find one that would embed. By the way, no one seems to know what she’s saying in the “lay your ???? bare” line. I’ve seen ship, shit, and sheet.

(lyrics after the cut)

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6 February, 2011

How about a little exploration of Emily?

What’s in a name, exactly? It’s incredible how many things can share a name. Are names arbitrary? Shakespeare famously says in one of Romeo’s lavishly cheesy entreaties to Juliet, “That which we call a rose/ By any other name would smell as sweet,” but like so many things in life, names take on meaning because we, as humans, put that meaning there.

This started out in my head as a poetry post, featuring Emily Dickinson, and look what happened (dammit, brain!)

Names have meaning, but from where? Some names harken back to old languages– Melissa comes ultimately from the Greek word melitta, or “bumble bee.” Christopher literally means “bearer/carrier of Christ,” also from Greek. Some names are synthesized, created new by parents (or so they hope), perhaps in search of something unique that their child can have that is theirs, and only theirs. What a gift to give a child; what a burden. Having a history to your name at least gives you something to lean on, and humans love to lean. We love to be a part of something. It’s when we’re unchained that we tend to come unhinged.

Why do we track the popularity of baby names? Seriously. They put this stuff in newspapers. Why, though? I’ve always found it weird that people would want to know how popular the name they’ve picked is. Do you want an Emily, or do you want an Orangejello? What’s better? What’s worse?

At least if you’re Orangejello, you begin your own legacy. You might not be a link in a chain; you might be something new, shiny, and interesting. At least you don’t have a billion people, and at least a dozen songs named after you.

Let’s do some Emily-legacy, because this started out with Dickinson.

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