Saturday, January 28, 2017

And the Oscar goes to...

Well, OK, I've only seen three of the nominees for best picture. Arrival? Good entertainment, cool aliens, definitely worth seeing. Best picture? C'mon. La La Land? Pleasantly nostalgic, charmingly incompetent singing and dancing, definitely worth seeing. The theme is pure romantic fantasy in Casablanca mode: love at first sight, sad inevitable separation, we'll always have Paris... or LA... Best picture? Nah. Moonlight? Beautiful filmmaking, understatedly beautiful acting, 21st century realism: Groping forbidden love at first sight, love of low expectations, love as the simple human touch necessary for survival. Best picture? Maybe so.

Song of the day...

... or year... or next four years...

Friday, January 27, 2017

David Brooks disses porcupines everywhere...

"If Reagan’s dominant emotional note was optimism, Trump’s is fear.... It’s not a cowering, timid fear; it’s more a dark, resentful porcupine fear." NY Times.

Having encountered porcupines in the woods now and then over the years, I'd have to say they never strike me as being particularly fearful (why would they be?), let alone dark or resentful. More charming and bumbling. Un-Trumpian.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

H is for Hawk

I mostly read fiction books, but "nature" nonfiction attracts my attention now and then. I suppose Helen Macdonald's account of training a goshawk counts as a nature book, but it is much, much more. Macdonald weaves the alien allure of this most extraordinary bird of prey, the craft and lore of falconry, her debilitating grief over the death of her father, the rich human history and uncertain future of the semi-wild English landscape, and a compressed, sad biography of T.H. White into a complete and absolutely compelling work of art. Her powers of description– internal, external, and speculative– are poetic. Funny, insecure, invincible, she invites you into her saga of grief, near-madness, and recovery. Her love for Mabel, her hawk, is all the more remarkable for the fact that, as she eventually concedes, the goshawk is other... inscrutable. Yet there is quite a bit of the goshawk in this woman: her ferocity, her independence, her virtuosity. A masterpiece.

Can Music Be Perfect? Vol. 77

A perfect rock 'n' roll voice fronting a kick-ass band. Rock on, Mauritania!

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Millennials for Trump quote of the day

“I really do hope he does what he’s saying, but I’ve been hearing he’s surrounding himself with swampy people.” -NY Times

Friday, January 20, 2017

Song of the day

Inauguration day 2017, that is.


The BBC-by-way-of-Netflix series, that is. It's far from perfect. But you'll forgive all the flaws because, as the schizophrenic detective River, Stellan Skarsgård gives one of the greatest character portrayals in TV history. His voice is so lazily mellifluous, I'd be happy just to hear him read the phone book (or Wikipedia). But he also pours every inch of his lanky, stiffly shambling body into the role– it is a complete performance. He gets some excellent support, especially from Nicola Walker, as his main hallucination, and Adeel Akhtar, as his stoical, angelic partner... and the city of London. Overplotted, melodramatic at times, River pushes some heavy themes: lunacy, and loss. But mostly it is about love. And Skarsgård will convince you that love is all that really matters.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Defending free speech in the academy

This statement by Reverend James Walsh, S.J., appears in the preamble to Georgetown University's Speech and Expression Policy. It is very nicely put. I thank my provost, Dennis Jacobs, for the tip.
The following policy on free speech and expression derives from a certain understanding of what a university is and of what Georgetown University is. I will attempt to articulate that understanding. 
1. The nature of a university. A university is many things but central to its being is discourse, discussion, debate: the untrammeled expression of ideas and information. This discourse is carried on communally: we all speak and we all listen. Ideally, discourse is open and candid and also-ideally-is characterized by courtesy, mutual reverence and even charity. 
2. The university teaches by being what it is. What the university takes seriously as an institution imparts (to its students especially but not exclusively) important lessons. The fundamental lesson it imparts-just by being what it is-has to do with the nature of the intellectual life. Rigor of thought and care in research; the willingness to address any question whatever; the habit of self-critical awareness of one's own biases and presupposition; reverence for fellow members of the university community and openness to their ideas, which is reductively a concern for the truth itself-the list could be prolonged. These habits of mind and attitude have a powerfully shaping influence on all members of the academic community. A university that sends contrary "signals" to any of its members (as, obviously, by tolerating plagiarism, violence, intellectual shoddiness, or any sort of special pleading in the interest of ideology or vested interest) betrays its mission. 
3. "Free speech" is central to the life of the university. The category "free speech" suggests another realm of life and argument, that of American constitutional law. Indeed, members of a university community exercise "dual citizenship": we are academics and we are Americans. The rights and obligations that flow from our participation in each of the two orders--academic and constitutional--are not reducible to those of either one, nor superceded by one or the other, but neither are they in conflict. At the same time, the body of legal principles elaborated from the First Amendment is usefully applied to particular problems. For example, "free speech", in the constitutional sense, may be limited by, and only by, reasonable and non discriminatory considerations of "time, place and manner." These legal categories are most helpful in resolving the problem of how to reconcile the absolute openness of expression proper to a university with other considerations: numbers of people, multiplicity of activities, scheduling, space available and so on. The long and short of the matter is that "time, place and manner" are the only norms allowable in governing the expression of ideas and sharing of information that is the very life of the university. 
4. More is better. Discourse is central to the life of the university. To forbid or limit discourse contradicts everything the university stands for. This conviction proceeds from several assumptions. Besides those sketched above, there is the assumption that the exchange of ideas will lead to clarity, mutual understanding, the tempering of harsh and extreme positions, the softening of hardened positions and ultimately the attainment of truth. Some ideas, simply by being expressed, sink without a trace; others cry out for the intervention of reflection, contrary evidence, probing questions. None of that happens when one cuts off discourse. John Henry Newman's formulation applies here: "flagrant evils cure themselves by being flagrant." The remedy for silly or extreme or offensive ideas is not less free speech but more. 
5. The tradition of Georgetown University demands that we live up to these ideals. In this whole question, matters of history and of convictions central to the Catholic and Jesuit tradition come into play. The historical precedent of the medieval Catholic university, with its lively practice of the "disputation," and its role in the formulation, clarification and development of doctrine, the Catholic teaching that between faith and reason there can be no fundamental conflict, the Catholic teaching about the autonomy of reason, certain Jesuit principles about putting the most favorable construction on your neighbor's argument and especially about reverence for conscience; the vision of our founder, John Carroll, of a "…general and equal toleration, ... giving a free circulation to fair argument," and of an Academy that would be the "first in character & merit in America"-these and many other fundamentals of the tradition in which Georgetown stands prohibit any limitation upon discourse. Georgetown's identification with the Catholic and Jesuit tradition, far from limiting or compromising the ideal of free discourse, requires that we live up to that ideal. 
6. Violation of these principles, by whatever parties, must have consequences. This is a corollary of the principles themselves and necessary to vindicate the nature of the University itself. The offenses envisioned in the following policy amount to cutting off discourse. Making it impossible for others to speak or be heard or seen, or in any way obstructing the free exchange of ideas, is an attack on the core principles the University lives by and may not be tolerated. 
-- Rev. James Walsh, S.J., Department of Theology

Friday, January 6, 2017


Dad, what does "equanimity" mean?
Oh, that's like the way Barack Obama was with people who hated him.
What do you mean?
Here, kid, watch this...

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

California's burden, California's opportunity

As The United States of America lurch into the Trump era, it falls to The Great State of California to make the case for an alternative path. It is widely noted that California on its own is the world's 6th largest economy, and a bastion of progressive politics. Let's act like it. We have a special responsibility. Not only must California lead on such feel-good liberal policies as climate policy, innovation, and openness to immigrants. We have to put our money where our mouth is. We must now use our economic and fiscal capacity to show that big government has an indispensable role to play in providing a generous safety net and offsetting the ill effects of economic displacement and inequality. If Trump and his GOP cronies cut taxes on the rich, we must accordingly raise them. If they kill Obamacare and the Medicaid expansion, we must replace that funding with homegrown MediCal expansions or even Cal-single-payer. If the GOP wants disenfranchisement, let's double down on participation. Jerry is the man, but he is at heart a bit of a skinflint. We may need to think a little bigger... but we also have to be willing to pony up. Let's show 'em what we got.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Bowie vs. Beasties

Today I listened to a couple of albums I confess I hadn't paid much attention to: David Bowie's Low, considered the #1 album of the 1970s (!) by Pitchfork magazine, and the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique, which squeaked in at #98 of their top 100 of the 1980s.

Which is better? No contest. Low: OMG, so pretentious and boring... a total snoozefest.* Paul's Boutique? All that puerile Beastie energy and humor laid out over the most clever jazz, rock, funk, and (yes) country samples you're likely to hear. It's easy not to take the Beastie Boys seriously, possibly because they did not want to be taken seriously. But what a joyful, fascinating soundscape.

* With fairness to Pitchfork, it's hard to argue with their #2-#5 of the 1970s: London Calling, Marquee Moon, There's a Riot Going On, and Blood on the Tracks.

Feeling, fast and slow

The subtitle of Peter Wohleben's The Hidden Life of Trees is What They Feel, How They Communicate. I don't think he really can know what they feel. Certainly they react to stimuli, and in ways a lot more complex than one might have thought. Still, if sending out a chemical "distress" signal when an insect starts chewing your leaves counts as the experience of pain– well, then I imagine every living thing shares in similar feelings. I'm not sure that would pass Peter Singer's test of sentience as the ability to experience suffering.

Which is not to say Wohleben is necessarily wrong about tree feelings. He has spent a lifetime with trees, and he shares some wisdom about them in his book. For me there are two key takeaways. First, trees are social organisms. Not just in the sense that they live in groups and offer obvious mutual support as windbreaks and soil stabilizers. They also communicate, through commingling of roots and chemical signals sent across dense networks of fungal filaments– the "wood-wide web." And they share resources, in what any economist would see as risk-pooling arrangements. Of course, they are also in competition– Wohleben is especially good in describing the struggle between species in the process of forest succession, where scrappy, fast-growing pioneer varieties pounce on openings created by fire, flood, or avalanche, but inevitably are overshadowed by their more patient rivals.

Second, trees experience the world in a completely different time scale, which comes from the fact of being rooted, and the extraordinary lifespans of many species. The realization of the transitory nature of a human life compared with trees is one of the things that makes it so humbling to stand in a grove of old-growth redwoods. Fantasy filmmakers like to scare you with the trees that "come to life": think Oz, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter. Real trees are actually quite active and mobile in their fashion– they just take their time about it. Mobility, in fact, occurs only on an intergenerational time scale.

The alien slowness of tree experience raises difficulties for thinking about tree sentience. I never really believed all that woo-woo business about plants having feelings, singing to your houseplants to make them happy, etc. As someone who loves forests and trees, I value trees deeply for what I understand them to be: beautiful, fascinating, and utilitarian organisms. In the past I would have welcomed Wohleben's approach only as a useful metaphor– a plea for treating trees with respect, but not to be taken literally.

Nowadays, I'm less confident in my skepticism. We take seriously that humans are animals, all the way deep down, that other animals can have cognition and consciousness, and that the bright lines dividing organisms one from another are a lot blurrier than we thought: 90% of our cells, after all, are "non-human." So who is to say that there is not some very slow-moving form of consciousness embodied in the complex network of roots, filaments, and soil microorganisms of the forest? Perhaps a consciousness that can suffer?

Wohleben is not a great writer, and his book begins to plod within the first hundred pages. But I'd recommend the first half, at least. I'm not yet sure how it will change the way I interact with trees, but I think it will.