Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Virtues of Bad Art

There's no real reason for this to be here. I just wanted
a picture and I don't want anyone to think that I'm
some sort of armchair artist. I'm competent enough
to criticize the incompetent, that's all
Also... ordinarily I wouldn't post any art that 
I've already given to someone, but I'm no longer
 obligated to be nice to the recipient
 and he didn't like Bertrand Russell. So. 

Now, I have two professional artists in my immediate family, which means, of course, that I regularly hear Tennyson-length monologues on how people should learn how to draw properly, how calling oneself an artist doesn't automatically mean that one can actually do art, and how "bad is not a style." 
But I appreciate people who make bad art. You see, my opinion on their choice of vocation is, to paraphrase Shaw, 'that if they tried to do any useful work some competent person would have the trouble of undoing it: a procedure involving a net loss to the community, and great unhappiness to themselves.' So really, if they're making bad art, then at least they aren't out there screwing other things up for the rest of us. Result: in increase in the world's total utility, and a decrease in the net inconvenience to me.* 
If the price of that is a few eyesores and the occasional inane ramble about someone's "artistic vision," then so be it.
I'm not going to quibble with anyone about whether such a thing as "bad art" actually exists; I am entitled to a subjective opinion that there exists genuinely bad art, and I will not be dissuaded. Anyone who thinks otherwise has clearly never been through in The American Wing in the Met. (The portraits I'm talking about are secreted in a rather inaccessible room above the Frank Lloyd Wright section and hidden behind rows of silver pieces, pottery and fine art, all of uncertain artistic merit. Someone might almost think they didn't want anyone to find it.)
*Like all good naive utilitarians my definition of utility is pretty much contingent on my own notions of personal utility. 

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

This assumes, of course, that I have heart....

Alternate title: wherein I answer a flippant blogging prompt with a dignity entirely unworthy of the exercise for vaguely satirical purposes and (of course) my own amusement.
...the prompt being: 
Five Ways to Win My  Heart
I would like to point out straight away that I'm very grinchy, and due to the commercialization of Christmas my heart is unlikely to grow three sizes anytime soon. 
However, though my good opinion once lost is lost forever,* it's not that hard to earn my good opinion. Here's a cheat sheet:
1. Be Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock.
Obviously this one is never going to happen, because even Cumberbatch only pretends to be the world's only genius consulting detective with devastating good looks. Did I say I'm easy to please? I lied. Moving on:
2. Live your philosophy. That is: be consistent. 
I don't care what your philosophy is.** I don't need people to agree with me, but they need to agree with themselves, and have the cojones to actually follow through on it. 
3. Engage in nerdity.
This requires some explanation: I don't really care what your area of expertise is. If you can make a living by being really enthused about organic chemistry... awesome. If you flip burgers, or fix computers, and spend your free time regaling me with legends of the old Klingon Empire... also awesome. (Maybe?) But have something you can think about deeply, something that you can be creative with, talk to other people about. Care about something.***
4. Even if you don't believe in objective morality, act as if you did. Or rather: even if you think that the rules don't apply to you because you're extra-awesome or something... follow them anyway. 
I'm not talking about an honestly held philosophy here. What I mean is: I don't want to hear about how your sloppy, neo-Nietzschean tripe entitles you to do whatever you want. No one ever thinks 'Well, there are simply superior beings out there, that naturally know better than me, and therefore they're well within their rights to oppress me, and to act without regard to societal norms or any bourgeois notions of morality' and so it always implies that you're somehow better than other people, which, even if it were true... if you say it, you're not just a jerk, but an idiot. Jerks I can tolerate if they entertain me and don't trip little old ladies, but idiots and I... we don't get along.

5. Care about your work
You may not like your job. That's okay. You are not alone. It's a safe bet that most people, throughout most of history have hated their jobs. Seriously. Who wants to scythe grain, and then winnow it, and then grind it, and then cook it, all pretty much by hand? And that's if you're lucky (that is, if you don't have a catastrophic hail/rain/drought, and a local warlord doesn't come by and burn your fields, or press you into service, or tax you to death, and there isn't a plague that year).
My point is that in the grand scheme of things, serving coffee is not so bad. I've done it. I hated each everloving second of it, but it didn't kill me. So I'm not denying that some jobs suck. Some jobs are thankless, menial and demeaning. Some of them shouldn't even exist. But that's not the fault of your coworkers, or your customers (if you work in a service industry). It's probably not even the fault of your bosses.
Obviously if your job involves landing my plane or handling nuclear warheads I have very personal reasons for wanting you to care about your job, but I'd like for you to care about what you do regardless. 
Because even if what you do doesn't "matter," you matter. You are connected to other people, whether you like it or not, and what you do affects them. So this isn't about being a good secretary/garbageman/hairdresser/economist/president, this is about being a decent human being. Thinking you're above doing something (whether it's something that you're paid for or not) is a fantastic way to make yourself miserable, even if you're lucky enough to not transmit your misery to anyone else. So please don't do that. 
N + 1This one is somewhat obvious, so it's not on the list proper: Don't be a jerk. Think about other people. Hell, just think
That is: Don't litter like a jerk. Don't smoke while I'm trying to swim laps in the pool. Like a jerk. Don't leave junk lying around on the floor where little old ladies can trip over it. Like a jerk. Don't call people names. Like a jerk. When you have the opportunity to screw stuff up without suffering the consequences: Don't screw stuff up. (Again, if you do it when you're going to suffer for it, then you're not only a jerk but an idiot.)
See? Not hard. I'm actually super-easy to please. 
*This is basically Jane Austen's subtle way of calling me a judgmental bitch from beyond the grave. 
** Okay, not true. I care a little bit. Okay. I care a lot. But I also know that trying to beat sense into people's heads never works. At least if people are consistent maybe they'll eventually see that they don't like the implications of their philosophy/religion/world-view. (I live in hope.)
*** Of course, being a snob, there are some subjects for obsession that I consider better than others. The (obviously and necessarily incomplete) ranking goes thusly: 
Mathematics > everything
"Real science" and/or literature > having a useful trade/hobby, e.g. being a knowledgeable outdoorsman, mechanic, jam-maker (I don't highly value jam myself, but it fits the criteria, perhaps that's another blog post), quilter, chess-player etc.
Elaborate Star Trek-type universes > Star Wars and weird/dumb hobbies (e.g. Renaissance fairs, bird watching, stamp collecting etc.) 
Weird hobbies >  reality TV or cat memes
**** This seems like a non sequitur but it's really not. Also, stop using the word "boobs." Because it's horrible. No really. I'll even allow you to say "bosom" if you promise to stop. 

Sunday, May 14, 2017

In Which I Embarrass My Mother to Communicate My Regard

So my mom is awesome.
Yours truly. (I'm not posting a picture
of her as a Mother's Day present to her.)

And this is not just me being biased and generally pro-myMom here. I mean, I admit, sure my data-set is skewed, and I am drowning in confirmation bias, but still. Awesome.

Because everyone* thinks their mom is awesome, bear with me and just let me give you an example of why my mom makes most other moms eat her dust: 

I was at a very stupid age. Pause. That probably requires some clarification; I don't mean the stupid age where I was young enough to think that racing toilet paper was somehow a good idea (as opposed to just being a great way to clog the toilet... yeah, just don't ask), I was a little bit older than that.  
So -again, bear with me- for some reason I was not allowed to wear deodorant (it could have had something to do with the fact that, not even being a tween, I didn't need to wear deodorant, or possibly because my mother didn't really want to share, a concept which I confess I didn't understand at the time, not being a deodorant-user, and which I still have difficulty with when it comes to other desirable, differently-ownered objects). Unfortunately I had a habit of only following the rules I thought made sense (and my views of what 'makes sense' can be conveniently narrow) so at the first available opportunity I naturally used her deodorant. I have no idea why I didn't use my father's, as it always smelled much nicer. Or perhaps I had thought it through to some degree, because my mother's deodorant didn't smell like anything. It was one of those salt crystal deodorant stones that you buy for way too much money in health food stores.

So... apparently I should never play poker, because I must have looked really guilty as soon as I came out of the bathroom. My mother, being a sharp lady -- and a mother, which apparently gives you +5 dexterity or something like that -- noticed that I had finished my shower, and immediately drew the correct conclusion, deducing in true Sherlockian fashion that I had succumbed to temptation.  (...and no, I can't really remember why the whole notion was so tempting, but it must have seemed like a good idea at the time.) 

So she asks me... "Did you use my [still wet] deodorant stone?" and I respond with the single-digiter version of:  "N...n... no, of course not, why would you think a silly thing like that? Silly." as I glanced  guiltily towards her toiletries. Of course I get the mom-eyebrow, which is like the Spock-eyebrow squared. I fiddle casually with my hair towel. "Are you sure?" and I'm positive now that the world is ending because, while I have minimal respect for the rules, I rarely get caught, so I am a godawful liar and I know it. I nod reluctantly at my approaching doom, until it occurs to me that she has no ProofShe knows that I did it, but she can't prove it! I am saved. (I'm still referred to as 'the swamp monster,' so my congenital inability to keep anything clean and dry easily explained the wetness of the stone. So I thought. ...and like most small-time criminals my general thinking was sound, it was the details that tripped me up.) 

I must have looked unbearably smug at that realization. (Actually, I'm told that I always look unbearably smug, it's like my version of resting bitch face apparently. So I must have looked more smug. Or perhaps that was when it started.)

But like I said. My mom is awesome. And this is where those seemingly-unnecessary details in this seemingly unnecessarily long 5-paragraph epic come into play. Because she looks down at me -- slowly, slowly, slowly the eyebrow goes up, daring me to guess what's coming -- and casually says "So if I came over there and licked your armpit it's not gonna taste like salt right?"


There is, of course, no doubt in my mind that she will actually do it. My mom does not make empty threats, now or then. (Though fortunately or unfortunately, she no longer threatens me, merely retaliates against real or imagined wrongs done by sharing unwanted details about my conception, and entrusts everything to my own sense of self-preservation. So. Much. Worse.)

She takes a step towards me. Naturally I confess the whole sordid affair. 

That's love. Being willing to lick your kid's armpit for the sake of their moral development.

The reason I'm sharing this (slightly, okay, okay, very, strange) story is because my mother has already told half the US anyway. No, seriously, I'm sure that lots of people have embarrassing and more-than-a-little-stupid stories of their mothers and/or children, and simply have too much good taste to tell them.

I have no such limitations. So, because I have the emotional range of a teaspoon, the only way I know how to communicate my regard (apparently) is to humiliate myself on the internet:

I love you mom. I would hope, if I am ever unfortunate enough to have children like me, that I will have the cojones needed to lick my kids' armpits in the name of justice and truth, if the need should ever arise.

*Sometimes when adults say "everyone" they mean: "a large majority of people, and I don't want to address the minority here because that would be uncomfortable and weird and would decrease the rhetorical impact of my main point."

Monday, May 8, 2017

Grammar Ain't Everything

So I'm a linguistic descriptivist, which basically means that I think the most important part of communication is... actually communicating. Shocking, I know. Basically, if you have something worth saying and you manage to get your point across, I don't really care if you split infinitives, or scatter participles, or fail to conjugate properly.*
...but you know what the second most important part of communication, or rather, writing is? Not sounding like an utter dumbass. 
...and the best way to not sound like an utter dumbass? Don't use words when you don't have any friggin' idea of what they mean. 
E.g. if you don't know how to use "whom" properly, then don't ****ing use it. If you don't know what "e.g." means: then don't ****ing use it.** If you don't know the difference between "eloquent" and "elocution:" don't ****ing use them. If you can't figure out how to use Elizabethan, Middle, or Victorian English properly, then, please -- for the love of god or some other ontologically valid being who may or may not be a purple spaghetti monster dressed in suspenders, I'm begging you -- don't ever use them. If you don't know how to use a semi-colon: learn how. 
In short: I would much rather someone speak and/or write their own dialect/register of English fluently than speak Standard Written English like a second language learner. Because, you know what? Second language learners have an excuse. We don't. (NB: if you went to public school in Florida, Wisconsin or Louisiana you get automatic second language learner status. People from other states have to fill out an application.)

(This comic found on the always-excellent Language Log, because, while I'm crazy, I'm not crazy enough to write my own comic, or to root around and risk getting stranded in my bog of a hard-drive for a picture of Archibald the Asparagus.) 

And because I'm already way over my cussing quota for this post (as George Carlin says, - said? is he dead now? - it's like 'the n-word' it doesn't matter if you don't actually say it because you made me think it), here's one from The Oatmeal as well. He actually behaves himself in the comic itself, but normally... well, let's just say that most of them earn their PG-13 rating. 
*Don't get me wrong. I would really, really, really like it if people would stop writing "you're" when they mean "your," "it's" instead of "its," and mixing up "discreet" and "discrete." (That's like, 80% of my freelance livelihood right there by the way; righting/re-writing people's homophones and shifting their apostrophes.) I'd also like them to learn how use the subjunctive, and how to construct the past and present perfect tenses properly. But I can realize that it's not that important in the grand scheme of things. And people do make mistakes. I get that. It's cool. I would much rather than people have imperfectly 'formatted' thoughts that are worth hearing/reading, than read/hear grammatically correct trivialities. It's not like I'm super-careful in casual writing myself (and by that I mean that most of what I write makes my English-teacher auntie weep). But it looks like I'm not going to get that either. So I take my daily dose of Fukitol and start half my sentences with conjunctions in a passive aggressive bid to frustrate humanity out of its stupidity. No results yet. Yeah. I don't know. I really didn't think this through...
**It means: exempli gratia, 'for the sake of an example,' so, really, you could just say something boring and English and simple like "for example:", 'i.e.,' on the other hand, means 'id est' (that is) which usually introduces some sort of clarification or definition. But again, you could just use the boring old English "that is" and never have to think about it again.  
Also, as you've probably gathered from the preceding paragraphs, I could totally do without anyone ever trying to write period English. Ever. Again. There is no profanity in any language I know that can adequately express my feelings on the subject. Stop, people. Just stop, okay? I can barely tolerate the Quaker 'thee' in the old Star Trek, and I'm told they're using it correctly
But it looks like that probably won't happen either. So... que sera sera.
Oh, yeah, and another thing: for god's sake, look up the definition and spelling for foreign phrases; make sure it actually means what you think it means. Google is literally at your fingertips. Even if you've got the wrong spelling, the right one will come up; this is one of the few moments in life where other people's incompetence/ignorance will actually work for you. 
And proof read. Do as I say, not as I do. 

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Illegal Brownies (Venezuela Edition)

So, as far as I know, there's only one sort of brownie that can get you arrested in the US. Of course, if you're living in Venezuela, all bets are off: 
In an effort to stop the seditious baking of ham-filled croissants, sweetbreads, and other luxury baked goods the Venezuelan government is taking over bakeries that aren't using their flour properly. 
I know that I'm a bit behind the times, and there are the more recent mass graves, and supreme court take-overs, and silly little things like that, but this is hilarious. I mean, as hilarious as people being starving or malnourished, and generally miserable and oppressed can be. Which, um, in this case, is pretty funny, er, actually? 
Besides, there's a long, illustrious history of making jokes about baked goods while the world is crumbling around your ears. 
Though I'm pretty sure that Marie Antoinette's quote goes something more like "Let them eat brioche," but good luck trying to correct people on that. And probably it wasn't even her that said it? If it was instead some German nobleman wondering why poor people didn't just eat krosem (whatever that is). I can easily envision the look on his face. I've seen it on the faces of several dime-store philosophers as they peer into the Starbucks bakery case while debating the meaning of life and their duty towards the lower classes. (Not that they would ever put it that way, of course.)
In fact, I can envision a whole Orwellian passion play in which the bakeries are nationalized, marzipan-workers are unemployed and the entire populace is subjected to the tender mercies of the Canilla Brigade. Society begins to crumble at the edges, and eclairs are smuggled from house to house under cover of darkness... 
Okay, maybe not. But seriously. I thought this was from The Onion at first. And then I realized that this wouldn't occur to any remotely sane person, even one who comes up with this kind of insanity for a living. And then I realized that I should be really, really upset for all Venezuelans (minus the mass-murdering f**kheads, obviously). And then I realized, hey, there are a bunch of "cake or death" jokes in this.  
*Static sound effect*

No one will be surprised to find out than none of the "cake or death" jokes I came up with are fit for public consumption. 

Friday, March 17, 2017

Remorse For Intemperate Speech...

Yes, that should be the title of this blog. No, I'm not changing it.

So anyway, this is a picture of last year's post, "the Orange Catholic Bible," in which I managed to simultaneously offend Catholics, Dune-fanatics and atheists. With bonus points for the middle-brow reference which pissed of my less "well-read" friends. Clearly I have a lot to live up to this year.

Unfortunately, I don't really Drink,* so there's a limit to how unintentionally offensive I can be (haven't found it yet, but that's not the point).

I did remember this though. Yeats, being Irish, 'gets it.'

I RANTED to the knave and fool,
But outgrew that school,
Would transform the part,
Fit audience found, but cannot rule
My fanatic heart.
I sought my betters:  though in each
Fine manners, liberal speech,
Turn hatred into sport,
Nothing said or done can reach
My fanatic heart,
Out of Ireland have we come.
Great hatred, little room,
Maimed us at the start.
I carry from my mother's womb
A fanatic heart.
Yeah. I know it's a stretch. (It also shouldn't surprise anyone that this is one of the first poems I learned of my own volition.)

*You have never had a less fun drinking buddy. I take wine by the dram and I'm pretty sure that a hobbit could drink me under the table. I don't even laugh at your drunk-jokes. The only thing I'm worse at is hookah.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Anti-intellectualism (and other myths)

I don't think anti-intellectuals really exist. To redefine what has become a hopelessly muddled trope: there are those who tend to think and those who don't. People who think aren't necessarily intellectual, and intellectuals don't necessarily think. This is really, really obvious to any thinking person. Different pro-thinking people choose to spend their time thinking about different things, and there might be various cognitive or emotional factors which affect their ability to think clearly, but the willingness to think should be the most important qualification. Discussing the aforementioned deficits is useless, and it only makes sense to address things that you have some control over.

It's possible to teach almost anyone how to filter the ideas coming towards them, to look carefully at things, test them, and give them all a fair trial regardless of their source. Intellectualism, though, bundles the trait of being 'pro-thinking' with formal academic achievement (among other potentially useless things).  It also has numerous connotations which, depending on your 'clan', tend to make you either favorably or unfavorably disposed towards Intellectuals™.

Now this is a natural (if not epistemologically sound) way of chunking information. But we have a problem when these other distinctions become so important to people that being 'pro-thinking' quickly becomes the least important part of the Intellectual Platform. It becomes about whether you vote Democrat, or believe in global warming, or listen to classical music.

I don't care whether someone believes in global warming though. I care why they believe or don't believe. Their belief doesn't necessarily matter. Their process does. The fact that most people who don't believe in climate change have absolutely sodding terrible processes is almost irrelevant, because a disconcerting number of people who believe otherwise have equally terrible ways of reaching their conclusions. Those same people can't be relied on to reach accurate conclusions on any other subject, because they arrived at the right answer by accident.

Yet we still consistently categorize people according to their beliefs and not their willingness to think. It's as if the world is being run by teenagers, where your 'identity' (which is necessarily defined by everyone else and their 'identities') is more important than your thoughts.

Of course I understand that this is part of how people think (or don't). Of course I admit that this happens with other groups as well (hipsters, just for an example, look at the lack of substance that constitutes most people's 'self-expression'* and then perpetuate the problem by doing the exact same bloody thing), but if no other group is defined by their actual beliefs, at least intellectuals should be.The irony of a clique that claims to be pro-thinking simply because they fly the right colors is so absurd that it borders on unbelievable.

Yet rather than being the champions of rationalism and useful abstraction as they should be, Intellectuals have managed to set themselves up as a mere class of elites. As with most elitist social structures, eventually the hierarchy stops reflecting the actual merits and abilities of its members. ...and the sad fact is that people outside of the clique can often see this, and their few valid criticisms are written off precisely because they are coming from outside of the group.

This is why 'anti-intellectualism' has the support that it does, because of this clannish way of thinking. This is why politicians can go baby-kissing and hot-dog-eating and basketball-watching and it works; you do the little populist song-and-dance and then you can say anything, because all of that taps into our ridiculous fear of elitism and the fact that someone else be more right than we are. Of course, it is a rather vicious cycle; anti-intellectualism does contribute to Intellectuals™' defensive, cultish ways of thinking and acting, but - guess what? - most people get offended, and offensive in turn, if you imply that you're smarter than them and that you know better. Why, then, are we surprised at the results when there's an entire cohort of people doing just that?

I'm not throwing stones, I've done it myself. Even if you're well-intentioned and widely-exposed, it's easy to write people off because they... say something stupid, misspell something, or espouse an idea which you know is just factually wrong. But the mentality of converting people to a better set of ideas (or, far worse, regarding them as intellectually irredeemable) instead of giving them the tools to think just makes things worse. And it is like a kind of conversion; if I were your average person and it were made clear to me that I had to, say, be a fan of James Joyce, or admire Mirot's work, or abandon my beliefs about the sanctity of human life etc, etc, then of course I would rebel against the idea. Because it's insane. And yet we constantly expect that of people, putting them off of real education and self-betterment because they don't fit our idea of what thinking people should be like.


So yes, this post happened because I've had to listen to Trump's neo-Fascist whale vomit for over a year. (I thought I could make it to the end of the election, but no; if I have to suffer, I refuse to suffer alone.) Yes, obviously, Trump is a friendless acid spot on the back-buttock of a weeping society, but it's a much bigger, older problem than this 2016 ****fest. (I'm not yammering on about the decay of society or some sort of academic Armageddon, but individual traditions can fail, and that can affect entire nations and/or people groups.) Western Intellectuals should be the ones defending the values of the Enlightenment, and instead -like every other failed academic tradition ever- we've been content with ritualized demonstrations of competence, happy to sit behind the walls, watching the barbarians ululate while true civilization crumbles around our ears. (There must be an anthropology joke in there somewhere, but I can't bring myself to make it.)  My point is that true intellectual freedom has to be preserved in the same way as any other freedom, by constant, good-faith application of effort, and there are a lot of fields (and settings) where that's not happening.

Because what people fail to recognize is that you can't preserve culture, leaving it to sit there like a piece in a museum. Which, actually, is a terrible metaphor, because people tend to forget the enormous amount of time spent preserving, restoring, curating and shooing away snotty-nosed children that makes museums possible. And that's the point. Most good things are hard. This isn't a revelation. But since I'm continually running into people who seem to think that it is, I figured it couldn't hurt to say it again.


This is wasn't a rant. Honest. It was all a metaphor. Really.

*Sorry for the scare-quotes there, I try to avoid them, but it's the only way I can type 'self-expression' without breaking out into hives.