Sunday, December 30, 2007

wintery mix/winter remix

i cleaned my closet, and when i got all the way down to the floor i was rewarded with almost three dollars in change and about a teaspoon's worth of sand, which, in late may, must have dried to my skin and then fallen away into some shoe or bag or the lining of some swimsuit.

tonight it's wintery-mixing, but i remember summer.

[i'm still working on my paper. i've come to a sort of impasse. i'm thinking about akrasia. soon i'll have to put it aside and start studying for the ethics comp.]

Monday, December 24, 2007

(good luck.)

you sea! i resign myself to you also-- i guess what you mean,
i behold from the beach your crooked inviting fingers,
i believe you refuse to go back without feeling of me.

we must have a turn together, i undress,
hurry me out of sight of the land,
cushion me soft, rock me in billowy drowse,
dash me with amorous wet, i can repay you.

sea of stretch'd ground swells,
sea breathing broad and convulsive breaths,
sea of the brine of life and of unshovell'd yet always-ready graves,
howler and scooper of storms, capricious and dainty sea,
i am integral with you, i too am of one phase and of all phases.

partaker of the influx and efflux i, extoller of hate and conciliation,
extoller of amies and those that sleep in each others' arms.

i am he attesting sympathy,
(shall i make my list of the things in the house and skip the house that supports them?)
i am not the poet of goodness only, i do not decline to be the poet of wickedness also.

what blurt is this about vitue and about vice?
evil propels me and reform of evil propels me, i stand indifferent,
my gait is no fault-finder's or rejecter's gait,
i moisten the roots of all that has grown.

did you fear some scrofula out of the unflagging pregnancy?
did you guess the celestial laws are yet to be worked over and rectified?

i find one side a balance and the antipodal side a balance,
soft doctrine as steady help as stable doctrine,
thoughts and deeds of the present our rouse and early start.

this minute that comes to me over the past decillions,
there is no better than it and now.

what behaved well in the past or behaves well to-day is not such a wonder,
the wonder is always and always how there can be a mean man or an infidel.

walt whitman
song of myself

[the holidays combine two difficult and strange/beautiful things: family and winter. the latter sometimes makes me sad, the former, cranky. in the context of either i sometimes become a version of myself that i don't particularly like. i forget, when i'm this person, to live by the meager list of conclusions that i've arrived at-- to note causes and withhold judgments, most especially regarding others.]

Monday, December 17, 2007


boston is an adventure these days. walking anywhere feels just a little risky. it requires preparations! boot laces must be solemnly secured, mitten holes mended. you can daily spot the fallen, done in by some bit of black ice or an aborted attempt to hop a snow bank. the streets echo with the disappointed groans of those who have miscalculated the depth of one of the slush puddle that can be found at the base point of every lowered curb. only about half of the sidewalks were plowed or shovelled, and the rest have been trampled to varying degrees-- ranging from wide swaths of mightily compacted slush to tortuous foot-narrow dotted lines. you have to move carefully. and it's marvelously quiet. oh! that pleasantly slight air of danger. i glance at my bike every time i leave my office where it sits, propped safely up, more, in all honesty for it's own protection than for mine.

and where i'm always going is where i think i can write the most and best. all i want to do is recount a particular little philosophical conversation with insight and precision, to make some modest and incisive contribution to it, and then just run right up the center and spring effortlessly into everything above and beyond it. that's all. what i'm going to settle for is an earnest if slightly muddled interpretation of what someone said and a couple of earnest if slightly muddled suggestion for saying something more usefully specific.

i'm going to post my paper here when i'm done with it.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007


hi. it's finals time, and i haven't even gotten my ideas ordered enough to make a blog post of them, let alone a polished version of a final paper. i'm going to be writing about what it means to have a reason to do something, and what it means to have a capacity to do something, and how they're related (but mostly how they're not related). but until i can get things straight, here's something unrelated but provocative by susan blackmore, from the anthology What We Believe but Cannot Prove: Today's Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty.

‘i believe that it is possible to live happily and morally without believing in free will. as samuel johnson said, ‘all theory is against freedom of the will; all experience for it.’ with recent developments in neuroscience and theories of consciousness, theory is even more against it than it was in his time. so i long ago set about systematically changing the experience. i now have no feeling of acting with free will, although the feeling took many years to ebb away.

but what happens? people say i’m lying! they say that it’s impossible and so i must be deluding myself in order to preserve my theory. and what can i do or say to challenge them? i have no idea- other than to suggest that other people try the exercise, demanding as it is.

when the feeling is gone, decisions just happen with no sense of anyone making them, but then a new question arises- will the decisions be morally acceptable? here i have made a great leap of faith (or, more accurately, this body and it’s genes and memes and the whole universe it lives in have done so). it seems that when people discard the illusion of an inner self who merely acts, as many mystics and buddhist practitioners have done, they generally do behave in ways that we think of as moral or good. so perhaps giving up free will is not as dangerous as it sounds- but this too i cannot prove.

as for giving up the sense of an inner conscious self altogether- this is very much harder. i just keep on seeming to exist. but though i cannot prove it, i think it is true that i don’t.’

[in addition to thinking about capacities, i also talk to people. in fact, i talked to people this very weekend. and danced with them, too! for photographic evidence please see the set called 'monochrome party' (or any set, really) here.]

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

critique of pure reason.

it's snowing. i'm trying to read kant. it's difficult.
this is a poem by jane hirschfeld about it, sort of:

'Like one man milking a billy goat
another holding a sieve beneath it,'
Kant wrote, quoting an unnamed ancient.
It takes a moment to notice the sieve doesn’t matter.
In her nineties, a woman begins to sleepwalk.
One morning finding pudding and a washed pot,
another the opened drawers of her late husband’s dresser.
After a while, anything becomes familiar,
though the Yiddish jokes of Auschwitz
stumbled and failed outside the barbed wire.
Perimeter is not meaning, but it changes meaning,
as wit increases distance and compassion erodes it.
Let reason flow like water around a stone, the stone remains.
A dog catching a tennis ball lobbed into darkness
holds her breath silent, to keep the descent in her ears.
The goat stands patient for two millennia,
watching without judgment from behind his strange eyes.

jane hirschfeld
critique of pure reason

Friday, November 16, 2007


a complicated day, but it ended with a very fun party.
this is me with my favorite snail ever.

Monday, November 12, 2007

val(you), too.

it's been my experience that a person's best talents and worst flaws are often impossible for me to untangle, and the more extraordinary the person, the more true i've found it to be: her innovativeness and her inconsistency, his generosity and his imprudence, her wit and her cruelty . our greatest virtues and vices ultimately the same quality, played out in different circumstances, or maybe distinct qualities underwritten by some common or undisentagleable set of motives. it makes everything complicated, takes us in circles-- we break who we try to fix, or we come to be repulsed by just what initially attracted us.

some of the most brilliant philosophers have argued (are still arguing) that values must be like thoughts, not like feelings- beliefs, not desires- because we can value all sorts of things that we may fail to pursue or realize. i value equality, for example, even as i half-consciously participate in systems that generate inequality. i may value discression highly, but fail to behave discreetly, or make no effort to behave discreetly at all. the examples are practically infinite-- if we were always motivated to behave in strict accordance with our values, it would be a very different world. feelings, on the other hand, are the sorts of things that make a difference in the world-- they necessarily motivate our behavior in a host of ways, ranging from hardly discernable to painfully obvious [or, at least, those things we call "feelings" are our experience of certain brain processes-- the sorts of brain processes that move us around in the world]- not sometimes, but always. so if feelings provide motives, and we can be unmotivated to pursue what we value, then values can't be feelings. that's the general idea.

despite the arguments of some of the most brilliant philosophers, i think that values are like feelings. i don't think that you can value what you don't desire, what you are unmotivated to pursue. but as long as the best and the worst of us remain so shatteringly difficult to tease apart there'll be a clash of motives- of values- that result in some motives being thwarted. we may behave cruelly or imprudently or inconsistently even as we value kindness, prudence and integrity, and not just because we lack the time or resources to improve, but because while we are motivated to pursue those virtues, we are more strongly motivated to preserve ourselves-- and not merely out of some perverse attachment to our vices (although that is a common enough motive), but in an effort to preserve what is best or most satisfying in ourselves.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

a take away show.

yesterday after breakfast steve and i gave each other little musical gifts, gifts of the internet, and this is what he gave me:

#64.2 - Beirut - The Penalty
Video sent by lablogotheque
it's beirut playing 'the penalty', which i just learned on my ukulele! one of a hundred little shows (one song, or two) filmed on the fly, all over paris, by the kinds of artists that you probably like, or would like. you should watch every one of them @
[watch the first menomena song to the end for dancing babies.]

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

aiming at it.

twenty years ago derek parfit wrote a book, and one of the things that he said in it is: it's sometimes true that "if someone tries to achieve [certain] aims, those aims will be, on the whole, worse achieved". he says that if you play tennis to have fun, you'll have less fun than you will if you play to win, and that's a stupid example, but there are others. there is the larger contention that our self-interest, on the whole, may be worse served by those who go around consciously serving their own best interest. and even that, one the whole, the interest of our families may be better served when we choose to act in the interest of some larger community.

there are endless examples of this-- how in aiming at something too directly we defeat our own aims. i think it happens two ways-- one is a matter of the limitations of our practical reason-- how we aren't able incorporate enough information to be good conscious calculators of how to serve some particular interest, as in the above examples. the second class of examples come up when people relate to one another in groups- maneuvering socially, pursuing and spurning one another's advances. how uncool x proves himself in his efforts to be cool-- how y, acting out of a desire for z's attention, looses it. there's something about us. we want all kinds of power-- knowledge, beauty, notoriety, social status-- and we like other people who have it, but we save a special kind of disgust for those we catch pursuing power directly. we respect those who achieve it indirectly, as the bi-product of some other aim. i've thought about this phenomenon before, felt badly that i'm so repulsed by people who aren't so good at masking their aims. they're seams are showing, i say. and i know that other people have seams, too, whether they're showing or not, and i wonder why i should like someone better just because they're more adept at coving their tracks.

there's a mess more to say-- especially about how this is bound up with the idea of non-maximizing dispositions (which i think may also be a concept propounded by parfit) and how both concepts hinge on game theory (the classic prisoner's dilemma v. the iterated prisoner's dilemma). and also something about the problems of escaping this-- what if trying not to care about one's own self-interest- or about one's social position- or about the object of one's affection- is itself the sort of aim which is self-defeating?

Monday, October 29, 2007

[yoko ono, 1968. thanks to ms. molly oh for it. ]

Monday, October 22, 2007


i just turned in my first paper of the semester, and i want to sleep for a three days. i'm so sick of it i could spit, but the question i was writing about was basically this: are values beliefs or are values desires? the problem is that beliefs respresent and desires motivate, but we sort of want values to represent (some standard of good behavior) AND motivate (us to behave according to those standards). so lots of conceptual analysis ensues.

i think that values are desires-- one small subset of them, anyway. and i don't think that what we believe can change what we desire, at least not on it's own. what can change or overrule our desires are our other desires. and luckily most of us have these broad desires to do things like behave in ways that we can justify to each other, and thats what i think values are. and these broad desires, these values, are sometimes strong, and sometimes a check on those desires that are most certainly not values. and sometimes they aren't. and if we're lucky things turn out alright anyway.

Monday, October 15, 2007

how to exploit a conspiracy of douche bags.

today in class we learned about non-maximizing dispositions, and their ironic advantages. the idea goes something like this: we have some beliefs and desires that cause us to act against our own best interest-- dispositions that don't stand up under rational reflection-- but that are, in some larger strategic sense, in our interest to have. anger was the example: when we're angry, we are more likely to do harm to others, but we're also far more likely to subvert-- or at least fail to maximally achieve-- our own aims and interests. but even still, there's a serious strategic advantage in being disposed to get angry: it deters others from fucking with you. so anger, when triggered, may cause you to act irrationally (that is, against your own interests), but a well-known disposition to react angrily when fucked with does so much work, even when rarely triggered, to prevent those situations from ever arising, that it is still, over-all, in our interest to be creatures with dispositions to get angry under certain unfavorable circumstances.

the interesting implication is meant to be that having the disposition to keep a cool head and always think of one's own best interest might not actually be in one's own best interest.

but suppose that our inclination to avoid angering others whenever possible is (in well-socialized adults) general, and not just aimed at those who we specifically know can be angered. wouldn't it be to my advantage if i could keep a kind and cool head and stay focussed on best achieving my goals, while still enjoying the advantage of other people's general concern not to anger others, including myself? i'd be a sort of free-rider1, but opposite, in some sense, of the sorts of free-riders that evolutionary theorists like to nag about
-- the dove who games the hawks.3

[1] the problem of the free-rider is an important (and often discussed) one in evolutionary theory, and in ethics. the idea, in simplistic human terms, is that if we were all unfailingly kind and honest, we might all be better off, but that a society in which every member is unfailingly kind and honest is a system destined to be gamed. it's a society vulnerable to free-riders-- those individuals who would gain the advantage of living among the unfailingly kind and honest while also reaping the benefits of being themselves self-serving and dishonest. because (when it comes to surviving and passing on your genes, at least) there's only one thing better for the individual than being good and honest among the good and honest, and that's being bad and dishonest among the good and honest. so while, collectively, we maximize utility by cooperating, our individual utility is maximized by defecting, and so individuals will defect.

[2]dawkins does discuss something like this idea of free-riding peacenik when he talks, in 'the selfish gene' about how we arrive at an evolutionary stable strategy, but it's the concept of a 'conspiracy of doves', not a conspiracy of hawks (see next footnote), that's usually harped on as the niave notion of the uninformed.

[3]hawks and doves, in the rhetoric of evolutionary theorists, are a sort of short-hand for aggressive/defecting/obviously self-serving sorts of creatures and peaceful/cooperative/apparently altruistic sorts of creatures. the impossible society of the unfailingly kind and honest that i mentioned in the first footnote is often referred to as a "conspiracy of doves".

Sunday, October 07, 2007

these are all of the things that i've bought since last wednesday, one and one half weeks ago:

-a pot of tea [i didn't actually pay for it, but i left the cost as tip]
-ten bic mechanical pencils
-one third of a bottle of rum [maybe more like 40%]
-one gin&tonic.
-one long island iced tea
-one superfood smoothie
-a cup of coffee (for andrew, who took me to brunch)
-two veggie dogs w/ honey mustard
-a hot chocolate (for my roommate, post-spikes)
-a thermos
-two tickets to see 'the darjeeling limited'
-two vegetable samosas
-one arabic coffee + one mint tea
-two books (one was a gift.)
-two more books.
-a t-pass
-a red hat
-cup of tea
-one spinach scramble
-small decaf coffee
-dental floss
-one gin&tonic

Saturday, October 06, 2007

[if you don't read the kircher society blog from time to time, you should:]
[thanks to who showed me it.]

Wednesday, October 03, 2007


today i brushed my hair for what i think may have been the first time in three and a half years. it was just lying there, the brush, with all of my roommate's toiletries, and then it was just happening. it felt pretty good. i feel pretty good about it. i found four gray hairs.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

hey! i'm in a comic strip! drawn by the charmingest comic artist of them all, liz prince:

[if you haven't seen her comics, you should:]

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

every time he read or wrote
or heard or spoke the word
suffering, he paused. it wasn't
the solemn way some people pause
to give thanks before a meal,
nor the sudden mid-sentence pause after the name
of someone you loved so much you lose
your breath every time--
nor was it the ceremonious
moment of silence
sitting on all the bowed heads in a room,
nor the silence that fills a room when a room
empties, the door snapping to.
it was more like smelling, a listening
for the aftertaste of something in the mouth, something
not in the mouth anymore but
in the body now. in the pause,
he would listen the way you listen
at the mouth of a well
for a dropped stone, waiting for it to tell you something.

paul hostovsky

[i've started classes: ethics & meta-ethics & causation.]

Friday, August 03, 2007

moving on.

i've been packing to move, throwing out as much as i can. my new room will be just larger than my bed, and all of this paper's been weighing me down, anyway, and i don't need so many clothes, either.

i've been carrying a broken murano glass vase around with me for three years now (broken in an earlier move), thinking i might fix it or fashion the pieces into something else, as beautiful or as useful, but it's time to concede that i can't or won't. it's become an empty gesture, keeping it around like this, doing nothing with it, and i'd started to forget what the fucking thing actually looked like for all of the time that i've spent staring at the broken pieces. so i tossed it. it's done.

i found an old letter, too, and it quoted this to me:

'one or two things are all you need
to travel over the blue pond, over the deep
roughage of the trees and through the stiff
flowers of lightning- some deep
memory of pleasure, some cutting
knowledge of pain.'

Tuesday, July 10, 2007


as it turns out i've been thinking lately with some very different friends for some very different reasons on meta-level question about gossip and about discression. these questions keep coming up: how much discression do we owe to others, and how much can they expect? why do they? and how bad is it to gossip, anyway, and how admirable is discression, really? everyone's always telling someone else what they know, and then getting angry at someone for having told, in turn, someone else: we admire discression and expect it of our confidantes, but it's really really hard to do it one's self.

i want to start by saying that i think that discression is overrated-- or, rather, over-expected. i don't think that we should expect people to tell absolutely no one something if we ourselves couldn't manage to tell absolutely no one-- and, sadly, one person telling one person telling one person can become everyone knowing in record time-- meaning: the absolute worst case can come about without any one person having done anything worse than anyone else.

one of the strongest theories these days about how and why humans developed language capacities is that it was so we could gossip. the idea is that as the groups our anscestors lived in got larger (as compared to other primate groups), grooming (which is the social glue that holds those other primate groups together) so many others got to be too time consuming. so the evolution of lanuage/language capacities, used to share social information (about birth and love and sex and death and feuds and on and on), was driven by the tension between the need for social adhesive and constraints on time in these new and larger social units. [this is pathetically oversimplified. for the whole story see dunbar's 'grooming, gossip, and the evolution of language'.] but the point is that we may be built to gossip: the itch is in us, like the itch to sneeze, to fuck, to consume. and, like these other human drives, i think that we can and should make moral judgements regarding gossip, but i tend to cut people a lot of slack where any of these things are concerned. i've experienced the inexorable magnetic pull of each, ethical or not.

another reason that i think discression is sometimes overrated is that i think that it can be motivated by different things, some less admirable than others. it seems to me that, like anything else in the world, it can be motivated by love or it can be motivated by fear. withholding information can be just as effective a strategy for posturing and pretense-- two things that i dislike very much-- as the sharing of skewed or exaggerated information.

that being said, there's something so fucking admirable about discression. i know maybe a handful of people who I would single out as particularly discreet, who are often silent when it comes to the personal details of their lives and the lives of others, without ever drawing anyone's attention to the fact. despite all of my qualifications, i find this at minimum seriously intriguing and impressive. i admire it the way i admire anything i imagine requiring restraint, the same way some people admire feats of physical strength. but what i really respect about discression is how/when it secures the necessary conditions for some relationship. this takes me back to my earlier post on the topic of privacy, but the idea is that privacy (a) gives people a space in which they can behave more freely or less self-consciously than they otherwise might and (b) gives people the ability to choose who they will relate to and how by giving them control over how much personal information different individuals have about them (so i can choose you as a friend, you as an acquaintance, you as a business partner, and cement those choices by the sorts of things about myself that i choose to share). so when someone secures the privacy of another person by not gossiping about them, despite strong incentives to do it anyway, i'm impressed. that person has given someone the chance to relieve themselves of information without succumbing to the desire for relief themselves. it seems a lot like taking a hit for someone. they've helped to secure a space for someone in which they can be themselves, and make mistakes, and learn from them, free of certain kinds of harsh scrutiny. it's the foundation for a particular and important sort of trust.

but while discression can play an important role in securing a solid friendship, gossip, as i mentioned, is itself a means of securing meaningful social bonds. and talking about one's own life with someone is an especially big part of what i means to be friends. so to expect someone to keep quiet about the details of their own life and relationships seems wrong to me-- it's isolating, hampering to friendships, and just too much to ask of someone.

but then there's how in this tangled mess of a world, we're never just talking about ourselves. when we talk about ourselves, we necessarily talk about others, and often those others that we're closest to-- who've let us in to those private spaces that i've argued should be protected. so do i tell you the fucked up thing my best friend did, knowing that you won't have all of the rich contextual details that keep me from judging him too harshly or for too long? this shit is hard. i don't think that there's a clear ethical answer. but i do think that human beings need their comforts, and talking is one way that we get it, and we should at least understand, and at best forgive, when people choose the comfort that we're built for gossip to bring us.

this is only the beginning, really, but i'll lay off for awhile.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

a new name for this silly thing.

my gram was a difficult woman by the time i knew her-- critical, and often disappointed. she was the daughter of a similarly difficult woman, and the mother of two difficult women (my paternal aunts)-- although differently difficult-- not a hard protestant kind of difficult, but (and it could be equally cruel, really) given to whims and addictions. one died of a whim, the other is irrevocably fried by addiction. so, you know, i understand her disappointment. but she knew some things about art and she knew some things about about music, and she knew some things about discipline and how we learn things, and some of it she imparted to me. she told me: you can only learn things, even history book facts, by using all of your senses. she told me: you can have anything you want, but you can't have everything you want-- and this was late in the game, when no one can say that she didn't know the full of weight of what it is we don't get in the pursuit of what we do. she got some things she passionately wanted at a hard heavy price.

you can have anything you want, but you can't have everything you want: it reads like a lot of white protestant middle-america bullshit about what you can attain if only you work hard enough, sacrifice enough. it's not true that we can have anything we want-- there are those somethings that we can't have no matter what we're willing to pay for them-- requital where there's unrequital, for someone dead not to be dead, for something that happened not to have happened-- all hard things lodged immovably in time or in the unchangeable fact of someone else. and there are other structures in the world-- structures of power & privilege -- that can prevent the most disciplined and earnest among us from achieving even their clearest and first aims (let alone the rest of us-- undisciplined and vague on just what it is we're after).

but it's still the most solid piece of advice i've gotten yet. not because i can have anything i want, but because anything i can get (and it sometimes turns out to be more than i think) turns out to necessitate my not getting other things that i also want, and my life goes better when i'm looking that fact happily in the face. it's not a grim diagnoses-- everything might as well be nothing, and if i'm going to be something (and i aspire to be) it'll have to be to the exclusion of other somethings, which is how we can all be up to something different, and all good. i love this.

so 'we'll see' was what i wrote for a title when i started this blog business, meaning 'we'll see if i even use this, or how i will', but it's time for an official acknowledgment that i DO use it (and how), and a new title is it. and you now have a semi-account of it's origins and significance.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

intimacy & privacy.

here's an idea that i read about today: privacy is so important because without privacy there can't be intimacy. there are two ways of being aware of something-- intimacy is one and observation is the other. when we observe something we examine or attend to it. but being intimate just is to give up our role as an observer and experience the damn thing. intimacy is when we cease to observe and are totally present with someone or something, agenda-less, and we're not aware of what we might look like to anybody else, or even to ourselves. we're consumed by the experience. he [r. gerstein, ethics 89] is talking about passionate love, of course, about how sex can be sometimes, but he also cites prayer and religious ecstacy, or being lost in our work. but intimacy is fragile, he says. any awareness that we're being observed, and we become observers ourselves, attending to the surface of things, how we might be percieved, and we begin to consciously behave in the sorts of ways that we behave when we're aware of an audience. intimacy is over. so, he says, we have to fight to protect private spaces or we forfeit this really meaningful way of experiencing.

it gets a little nutty, a little natural-law-ish, a little tediously transcendent at the end, but i liked it. and it's all been said before, about the internet and privacy, but this paper helped me to clarify a worry i have: if i participate in these internet communities where i'm constantly telling people, or constantly making information available, about what i'm listening to, what i'm reading, what i'm thinking and working on, do i then listen and read and work and think on the surface of things? am i making it more difficult for myself to know things intimately? impossible? what about people?

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

today i bought a new bike.

you know when you're dating someone way cooler or prettier than you, and psh/whatever of course, but sometimes you look at them and just laugh, bemused, thinking: what? what is going on here? how did this happen? that's what my new bike is like.
Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Monday, April 09, 2007

III. rational agency is a bullshit foundation for anything

christ, i've been rattling on now forever and i haven't gotten anywhere near to the point of my paper yet, which is that if morality is anything that matters, then it's not the sort of thing that depends on our being rational agents. because whatever rational agency is, not everyone has it, and no one has it all the times-- and guess when we're least likely to have it? when it counts. when things are tough. when it hits the fan.

rational agency isn't some obscure philosophical idea, it's a way of viewing other people that pretty much everyone uses to get through the day. people do stuff that makes you mad or makes you happy, and that is translated almost immediately into being angry at them or pleased with them, liking them or disliking them, and we don't really bother justifying the connection, but if someone asked you to, you wouldn't have to think that hard: jane did x. she could have done y (steve, sal & danni were all in same sitch and THEY did y.). but she did x. and x fucking stung. so jane is a douche. she's not a child. she's not a sociopath. she's not a dog. she should know better.

when philosophers go to justify moral standards and the penalties for breaking them, they usually say the same sorts of things: human beings are rational agents. human beings have the the capacity to grasp moral reasons and the capacity to act according to them. children, the mentally ill, and those under extreme stress may be permanently or temporarily exempt from moral scrutiny precisely because they are NOT rational agents. dogs just are what they are. dogs just do what they do. human beings can reflect on what they do, and when their desires conflict with their moral beliefs, they can, by force of will, behave morally despite their desire to do otherwise.

it is my studied opinion that this is bullshit. it is true, as i will personally attest, that most persons tend to reflect (and reflect and reflect and reflect) on their behavior. most persons analyze, to one degree or another, what it is they should do, and what it is that they want to do, and why they should do it, and why they should want it, and so on. it may be the case that thinking rationally-- consciously reflecting on our behavior or analyzing our options-- we tend to be better behaved. (or it might not be the case. thinking things through hasn't always led me to behave in ways that i'm proud of.) but whatever it means to think rationally, it's clearly not something that everyone does, and it's clearly not something that anyone does all (i would even say most) of the time. we we do hurtful things (which is when the question of morality generally comes into play) we're so often under stress, or feeling some strong distracting thing, or we lack some relevant information.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

(a small break from explaining myself.)

we know some things, and one of the things we know is that we have brains in which knowledge must somehow be instantiated. and we detect activity there-- we can talk, for example, about neurons and how they fire. but we don't know how knowledge is instantiated in brains-- what the physical state is that equals knowing your childhood address during all of that time you spend not consciously saying it to yourself. and we can calculate the energy of the entire universe, but what we find is that: seventy percent of the universe is something that isn't matter. we don't know what it is. we call it dark energy, or quintessence or the cosmological constant, but we might as well call it 'other people's hearts' for all we know about it. and of the thirtyish percent of the universe composed of matter, the vast majority is dark matter. what is dark matter? well, it's the kind of matter that we can neither observe nor know the composition of. another term we use to bracket off the inexplicable in our mathematical models. and the matter that we know, that small percentage of a percentage that we've got a handle on (minus brain matter), when we look at it down as far as we can look, is a matter of quantum mechanics, of which the physicist richard feynman said "if you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don't understand quantum mechanics." [as a small taste: if you are interested in making sense of quatum theory you'll have to get used to assuming that we live in one of many possible worlds existing in four dimensions.]

i look in and i look up and i see what i sort of know and i'm in awe, but it's a thin film on the surface of what i don't know, which is almost everything.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

II. the relevant facts.

so as a conscientious society we need a consistent set of principles that we all understand and agree on-- morality or ethics or whatever you want to call it-- and they should jibe with the facts that we've managed somehow to know about people in the world. here are the relevant facts as i understand them:

(1) we live in a deterministic universe. whether we're formed by god or darwinian algorithms it all amounts to the same thing: effect has followed cause has followed effect from long before us, and they continue to follow each other right through us, and every belief or desire that you have must ultimately be the effect of some cause that existed before you did. which is just to say: you might behave that way because you're clever or selfish or wonderful, but you're clever or selfish or wonderful because you were un/lucky enough to have acquired that characteristic from somewhere. even those qualities that we cultivate in ourselves must be the result of some preceding beliefs and desires-- the desire to cultivate and the right equipment to do the job-- which we can also explain, and back and back and back until conscious you gives way to unconscious you gives way to not you at all with no break in the causal chain.

(2) some things feel good, and other things hurt. we have nervous systems calibrated to sense the lightest touches, insults disguised as compliments, even the weight of a gaze. we're on a hair trigger when it comes to feeling things, oh man can we feel them. so you may not have chosen to be clever or selfish or wonderful, but it is nonetheless the fate of the people near you, for better or for worse, to feel the force of your wit or self-involvement or wondrousness. we can't escape the fact of our nervous systems-- our sensitivity to pleasure and pain in their myriad and nuanced forms.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

I. the motivation

what i've been thinking and writing about for the last month or so is rational agency and how morality does and doesn't depend on it. it matters, and i'll tell you why: we have social institutions, and through our social institutions we do things to people. we tell people where they can and can't go, what they can and can't do. sometimes we put people in a building and hold them there while years of their lives pass, or until they die. sometimes we cause people to die. we strap people down and kill them. we have to say why. with stakes like that we can't just say "this is for the greater good", or "you deserve this", we have to say what "good" means, where "deserve" comes from, and who decided and why they get to. if we can't, then we're just burying people alive, consigning them to the nightmare of being unjustifiably restrained. it's no small matter to take away a person's life, or some part of their life. no matter what they've done we've got to explain to them, and to ourselves, in a meaningful way what we're doing, why, and what gives us the right to. and it's got to square with what we know about the world and about people. and what we know about the world, and about people especially, is changing.

there are, of course, philosophical principles at the foundation of our justice system. this is a liberal democracy, founded on social contract theory, which has been profoundly successful in some ways. but this theory is itself built on a particular conception of human beings as rational agents-- as persons whose actions are best explained in terms of free and measured deliberation. it was all worked out a few hundred years ago, before we even knew the chemical make-up of water, let alone our own bodies, our own brains. before freud, before darwin, before watson & crick.

and the story that is both larger and more intimate is how we treat each other, not as citizens, but as friends and colleagues and hook-ups and competitors. we cause a lot of harm to each other with our jealousy and anger and righteous indignation, and i think that these intimate harms should be attended to as well. if my feelings and the behaviors that they prompt can cause harm, i have to think about what justifies them, or if anything does, or if there the sorts of things that can be justified.

i'm tired and i haven't gotten anywhere near my point yet. i think that i'll have to do this in installments. but i'd like to explain what i've been working on, and why it's relevant and accesible, and interesting, and urgent. how it changes me, and how i hope it can be used as a lever to change things larger than me.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007


today i learned something shocking/horrifying/fascinating: map makers add in cities and streets that don't exist, as a gaurd against plagiarism! the makers of dictionaries put in a false word! i understand the threat that plagiarism poses to cartographers and lexicographers, but these are REFERENCE MATERIALS. i'm not looking for Truth or moral absolutes, but christ, the dictionary! also, i want to know the words, the fake ones, so bad. i want a list of them.

also, let's say that a group of lexicographers suspect that their dictionary has been plagiarized. they say 'ha! look here! you've included this fake word, which we made up! you're clearly in violation of copyright!' how do they prove that it's not a real word? it's in their dictionary! maybe because it's not in OTHER dictionaries? but dictionaries must, as a rule, include different words or there would only be one kind of dictionary.

my mind is fucking boggled.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

turning over a new one.

food, conversation and the internet are generally my preferred procrastination methods, but i've decided to substitute masterbation for all of them. starting now.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

if and as it could.

there was not a soul there but knew how shallow-rooted the whole town was. it flooded yearly, and had burned once. often enough the lumber mill shut down, or burned down. there were reports that things were otherwise elsewhere, and anyone, on a melancholy evening, might feel that fingerbone was a meager and difficult place.

so a diaspora threatened always. and there is no living creature, though the whims of eons had put its eyes on boggling stalks and clampled it in a carapace, dimished it to a pinpoint and given it a taste for mud and stuck it down a well or hid it under a stone, but that creature will live on if it can. so fingerbone, which despite all its difficultes sometimes seemed pleasant and ordinary, would value itelf, too, and live on if and as it could. so every wanderer whose presence suggested it might be as well to drift, or it could not matter much, was met with something that seemed at first sight a moral reaction, since morality is a check upon the strongest temptations.

marilynne robinson

Monday, February 12, 2007

to M [if you ever look for it.]

one of the hardest things when i first moved home was watching my grandparents interact. they were horrible to each other. they would lash out, unprovoked. they would needle mercilessly over the very trivial. listening to them would stir up my sense of unfairness and injustice in a way that it hasn't been since i was fourteen, arguing myself bloody against the wall of my dad. but i rarely interrupted their dialogues, partially out of discression and partially because neither of them actually appreciated my interference. this is how my two years of talking less began. no action seemed like a good action, so i listened, and what i heard is that when two people have been married for sixty years, no one else knows what it is they're saying to each other-- even when they hear it, even when it's "please pass the syrup". every word is so full of old meaning. no word is innocent, and it's impossible to know what compliment is a provocation and what slur is a coded endearment. i might as well have attempted to mediate an argument between two people speaking portuguese. i hope that i never talk to anyone the way they'd talk to each other, but i don't know anything about what it's like to be at the end of my life, stuck in a house with the person i've lived it with, and if i judge them i judge them gently.

i've come to feel that most relationship, at least the vital ones, are a little (or a lot) twisted in ways that it's easy for casual observers to disparage. life in the world is ragged and impenetrably complex, right, and so are we, and so are the ways that we relate to each other, and so are the circumstances that we find ourselves in when we go to relate, but i don't think that it's therefore best to abstain. the judgers don't know where it's all headed any better than anyone else, let alone where it should be headed or how we should get there.

some circumstances are particularly ragged, and anything other than cutting one's losses looks imprudent. but i don't really give a fuck how this looks. it's not ideal, but nothing is. i'll navigate any circumstance with you.

Monday, February 05, 2007

the hush of the very good, by todd boss

You can tell by how he lists
to let her
kiss him, that the getting, as he gets it,
is good.
It's good in the sweetly salty,
deeply thirsty way that a sea-fogged
rain is good after a summer-long bout
of inland drought.
And you know it
when you see it, don't you? How it
drenches what's dry, how the having
of it quenches.
There in the grassy inlet
where your ocean meets your land, a slip
that needs a certain kind of vessel,
when that shapely skiff skims in at last,
trimmed bright, mast lightly flagging
left and right,
then the long, lush reeds
of your longing part, and soft against
the hull of that bent wood almost im-
perceptibly brushed a luscious hush
the heart heeds helplessly--
the hush
of the very good.

[this poem is about sex, yes, but also something else, maybe the opposite and/or antidote to what i've been thinking about all day, reading philosophy and wondering how available dispassion is to human beings as a tool (a lever, not a hammer, please), so of course it's the first thing i turned to, browsing some journal that i have no business reading, while taking a study break, waiting for my tea.]

Saturday, February 03, 2007

life comes down to: the itch and the scratch. only the itch and the scratch, but occuring in so many shades and degrees and combinations. itches run from tickle to hurt to our hearts exploding, and the scratch can happen or the scratch can be delayed, for pleasure or to our detriment (or both), and we can scratch til its gone or scratch til it hurts or resist scratching, for a minute or forever (although the desire to resist is just another itch that's hard to reach, maybe).

Monday, January 29, 2007



"birds migrate toward the equator when days shorten because their brain converts changes in day length to hormonal signals that activate migratory behavior."

p. richerson & r. boyd
not by genes alone
[which i began reading this week for a seminar i'm taking on cultural evolution.]


The human brain, wrinkled slug, knows
like a computer, like a violinist, like
a bloodhound, like a frog. We remember
backwards a little and sometimes forwards,
but mostly we think in the ebbing circles
a rock makes on the water.

The salmon hurtling upstream seeks
the taste of the waters of its birth
but the seabird on its four-thousand-mile
trek follows charts mapped on its genes.
The brightness, the angle, the sighting
of the stars shines in the brain luring
till inner constellation matches outer.

The stark black rocks, the island beaches
of waveworn pebbles where it will winter
look right to it. Months after it set
forth it says, home at last, and settles.
Even the pigeon beating its short whistling
wings knows the magnetic tug of arrival.

marge piercy
from 'the perpetual migration'


it's been a trying week, the kind you can't think your way out of. i know that the style is to say how reason and language set us apart, but hopefully m.p. is right and we're built to recognize even (especially) what we can't say or reason.

Monday, January 22, 2007

tonight i biked from central square home and it was snowing. dry snow that 'fsh fsh fsh'-ed back and forth on the pavement. it's not bad biking in the winter. i like it better than biking in the summer. less sweaty. only my thumbs were fucking freezing (i lost the good mittens. all six!). and my nose a little. i can't cover it anymore with a bandana or anything like that. my glasses fog. and late at night i can't bike, or i hate it. i get ice-cream headaches and swear the whole way. but tonight it was early. and pretty. and there were plenty of jerkface drivers (rush hour), but they didn't see me give them the finger. because, you know, i lost the good mittens (all six-- the ones with the finger flaps).

i'm going to go read some bentham. because school started again.
i hope that you're having a good day.