Friday, September 20, 2013

Quote of the Day

To portray a lengthy ideological change or transition as an endogenous process is of course more complex than to depict it as the rise of an independently conceived, insurgent ideology concurrent with the decline of a hitherto dominant ethic. A portrayal of this sort involves the identification of a sequence of concatenated ideas and propositions whose final outcome is necessarily hidden from the proponents of the individual links, at least in the early stages of the process; for they would have shuddered—and revised their thinking—had they realized where their ideas would ultimately lead.

— Albert O. Hirschman, The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism before its Triumph (1977), pp. 4-5

Friday, September 06, 2013

Four Phrases to Keep With You

Tamar Gendler (an old friend who is currently chair of the Yale philosophy department) just gave the welcoming speech to the first-year students.  I really liked this bit:
There’s an ancient Jewish teaching that says that every human being should carry in their pockets two pieces of paper: on one of them you should write the words “For my sake was the world created” On the other you should write: “I am but dust and ashes.”

The teaching continues telling you to reach for each these papers at the moment that you are feeling the opposite. So when you are feeling lowly or depressed, discouraged or overwhelmed, you should pull from your pocket the paper that says “the world was created for my sake.” And when you are feeling high and mighty, superior and arrogant, you should pull from your pocket the paper that says “dust and ashes are all that I am.”...

But there’s another pair — hinted at by the pair that I’ve already mentioned — that I’d also advise you to have on hand.

So here’s another version of the parable. Every human being should carry in their pockets two pieces of paper: on one of them you should write the words “All others experience the world as I do.” On the other you should write: “My perspective is mine alone.”

There are moments that you will need to pull each of these from your pockets: there are times when you will assume too much commonality with those around you, and times when you will assume too little....

So keep those contradictions in your pockets:
“For my sake was the world created”
“I am but dust and ashes”
“My perspective is mine alone”
“All others experience the world as I do”
And when circumstances require, pull them from your pockets and read them aloud to yourself.
The rest of the speech includes some interpretations of her four texts, including a bunch from cool psychology experiments, so click through for more.  (And, yeah, a rather cringe-worthy amount about how fabulous Yale is, how fabulous the Yale class is, how the old the buildings are -- precisely what you'd expect from a welcoming speech to a fancy college, I suppose (though I went to an equally fancy college and I don't recall ever getting anything of the sort) and perfectly reasonable under the circumstances and flat-out hard to take, so don't click through unless you have a strong stomach for this sort of thing.)  But ultimately what is fabulous about those pairs of sentences is that they are richer than pretty much any midrash that will be done about them.  Tamar's is, as befits the author of two of them, fabulous; but there's a lot more two.  It's what good koans are for, I suppose.

Monday, September 02, 2013

A Marvelous Jazz Visualization

Via, here's a fabulous animation visualizing (part of) the title track to John Coltrane's classic 1959 album Giant Steps, by Israeli artist Michal Levy*.  Take a look:

Sadly, she seems to have done only two such animations -- the other, "One", animates music by contemporary jazz musician Jason Lindner (about whom I otherwise know nothing, although I liked what she used in her video).  You can see that video at the artist's web site.

Some canny jazz educator should hire her to make more of these.  The Coltrane one does such a good job of helping you hear what's going on in the music, while also being a beautiful work in its own right.

* Note the youtube page from which I took the embedded video misspells her name; as shown in the video credits, it's Michal, not Michael.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Quote of the Day

Stephen M. Walt, from a 2011 article (occasioned by the Libiya intervention) about why America fights so many wars:
[L]urking underneath the Establishment consensus on foreign-policy activism is the most successful Jedi mind trick that the American right ever pulled. Since the mid-1960s, American conservatism has waged a relentless and successful campaign to convince U.S. voters that it is wasteful, foolish, and stupid to pay taxes to support domestic programs here at home, but it is our patriotic duty to pay taxes to support a military establishment that costs more than all other militaries put together and that is used not to defend American soil but to fight wars mostly on behalf of other people. In other words, Americans became convinced that it was wrong to spend tax revenues on things that would help their fellow citizens (like good schools, health care, roads, and bridges, high-speed rail, etc.), but it was perfectly OK to tax Americans (though of course not the richest Americans) and spend the money on foreign wars. And we bought it.
I would suggest amending "mostly on behalf of other people" with "putatively on behalf of other people", but otherwise this is right-on.

I will say that I was pleasantly surprised that Obama is seeking Congressional approval for his next little act of war in Syria.  What I haven't quite seen anyone mention yet is that, among other things, it creates both time and a vehicle for the American public (overwhelmingly against this war) to make its voice heard.  This strikes me as a textbook case for classic activism, where calling your representatives might really make a difference.  So let's get to it.