Monday, October 6, 2008

I Ain't No Monkey, But I Know What I Like

Much has happened since I blogged last. However, the major development that is most on my mind at this moment happens to be something quite frivolous, and thus quite worthy of a frivolous blog post.

A couple of days ago, I downloaded (with due hesitation) the new version of iTunes. Apple always screws up new versions of iTunes, and the "new and improved" version is always buggier and less user-friendly (read: less simple) than the last version.

However, the current version, no. 8, contains an extra feature that may actually be worth its salt. Apple calls it "Genius," but it's sort of analogous to's "suggested books" feature. "Genius" -- an interesting word choice, especially in view of 18th and 19th-Century definitions of the term (i.e., pure and original intellect; it seems that iTunes' concept of "genius" is of a far more collaborative sort) -- takes a look at your song library, and then looks at the song libraries and playlists of all other iTunes users, and suggests what in your song library might "go well" in a playlist with other songs in your library, or other songs in the iTunes library that you don't currently own.

Truly, this is a kind of "genius" feature. If it weren't for the fact that it means even more of my private life is being made public in potentially dangerous and frightening ways, I'd feel unequivocally happy about "Genius." Nevertheless, Apple has shown yet again that they are capable of turning the frown that is technological surveillance upside-down, helping both producers and consumers get along better by directing consumers who know what they like to other products they might also like, or (and this is Apple's best contribution) to what they already own but have forgotten about.

In the interest of actually "forwarding" something to you readers, as this blog promises to do, I forward here a sample playlist, made through iTunes Genius, based on the original song choice of "Buckets of Rain" by Bob Dylan, a song and an artist that has been on my mind lately as the days have been getting shorter, the seasons have been slowly changing, and life has carried on as it does. You might try assembling your own autumn playlist based on these iTunes genius suggestions. You might also decide to ditch iTunes and listen to whatever fallish tunes you please. Either option is a good one.

"Buckets of Rain," Bob Dylan
"Harvest," Neil Young
"Little Green," Joni Mitchell
"Moonlight Mile," Rolling Stones
"4 + 20," Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young
"Pale Blue Eyes," The Velvet Underground
"Nebraska," Bruce Springsteen
"When the Ship Comes In," Bob Dylan
"The Wind," Cat Stevens
"I Hope That I Don't Fall in Love with You," Tom Waits
"That's the Way," Led Zeppelin
"We Are Nowhere, and it's Now," Bright Eyes
"Stray Cat Blues," Rolling Stones
"Jesus, Etc.," Wilco
"Gone for Good," The Shins
"Needle in the Hay," Elliott Smith
"Vicious," Lou Reed
"Gideon," My Morning Jacket
"Tangled Up in Blue," Bob Dylan
"Blue," Joni Mitchell

Thursday, September 18, 2008

We Don't Need No Education?

David Brooks has written another insightful editorial piece on the current state of the election campaign, and the issues involved therein. I strongly encourage you to read the whole article, but I think a line worth quoting comes toward the end of his article: "Democracy is not average people selecting average leaders. It is average people with the wisdom to select the best prepared."

If we have learned the lesson from the Bush years, writes Brooks, we should not fail ourselves in this election by putting into office those candidates who "are like us" and "share our values," but who nevertheless lack the wisdom and education necessary to lead a nation and direct a complex administration.

"It turns out," says Brooks, "that governance, the creation and execution of policy, is hard. It requires acquired skills. Most of all, it requires prudence." We don't need more shoot-from-the-hip nonsense, or more apocalyptic talk about the importance of not blinking. We need good sense. We need the steady perception of well-trained eyes. A rigorous, well-respected, and demanding (e.g. "Ivy League") education is a significant help here, not a handicap.

Brooks is, by all accounts, a conservative intellectual. He falls in with the likes of George Will and David Frum - two people he specifically mentions at the start of his editorial. Thus, it is somewhat surprising to read such criticism of the Republican ticket here (though, to be fair, his main target is Palin, not McCain).

This is, after all, the same Brooks who had originally celebrated Palin, and in previous articles had sounded excited about the McCain/Palin ticket. After Palin's announcement as VP-candidate, he wrote that "she seems like a marvelous person. She is a dazzling political performer. And she has experienced more of typical American life than either McCain or his opponent" ("What the Palin Pick Says," 9/2/08). After her speech at the convention, he proclaimed her as the revelation of "the new" in the Republican party, and wrote that "her words flowed directly from her life experience, her poise and mannerisms from her town and its conversations. She left behind most of the standard tropes of Republican rhetoric [...]. There wasn’t even any tired, old Reagan nostalgia." In sum, said Brooks, "in those 40 minutes [of her speech], the forces of reform Republicanism took control" ("A Glimpse of the New," 9/4/08).

It would seem that the high of the convention, however, has left Brooks with a lingering hangover about Palin and the Republican ticket, especially as the vast reality of the problems we will inherit from the Bush administration becomes more and more palpable, by the day.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Old Mother Reagan

If you haven't seen this video yet, you need to watch it. Probably one of the best political satire pieces SNL has done. Certainly among the best from the current election.

Enjoy! Back with more forwarded letters later this week, perhaps.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Time Has Told Me

Well, it's been a few weeks, but I finally got some time and motivation to sit down and write a quick blog post.

I'm getting settled in at IU, and have found much to admire about Bloomington and the university over the past few weeks. One of the things I admire most about the campus, though, are the many pithy phrases carved into the exterior and interior walls of the buildings I frequently pass by or through in the course of a typical weekday. So, I thought I might share a few of these with you over the next few weeks, as I have occasion to reflect on them.

One phrase that has been on my mind lately is carved into one of the exterior walls of Ballantine Hall - a large, imposing structure in the center of the South part of campus, which houses (among other things) the main offices of the English department. On one wall, there is a carving with an inscription that reads "Veritas Filia Temporis." You can see a picture of it by following this link.

For those of you who didn't learn Latin in high school, the inscription means (roughly) "truth is the daughter of time." In other words, Time is the father of Truth. Truth springs inevitable from the eternal loins of Time. Time strips every untruth bare, corrects every lie and error. "Truth," as another saying goes, "will out."

One might ask, at this point, "is that really true?" From my own short time of education and experience, I can say, Yes. Sometimes.

Another way to look at this nice little aphorism might be to say that any quest for truth requires time, which I can certainly verify from my experience. My own searching after truth in grad school has cost me much in time, and will cost much more time before it is over. And this assumes that the culmination of my Ph.D. will complete that search, which it likely will not.

So we might also read the epigram this way: truth, being the daughter of time, thus shares time's qualities: it is eternal, it is constant, and it exists in a realm outside of any human. But it is also, therefore, just as elusive as time. Remember that other Latin epigram about time: Tempus fugit. Time flies (literally, it "flees"). Truth, too, has a tendency to get away from us.

I have an hourglass that sits on my desk, and it is just as impossible to arrest those slipping grains of sand for one instant as it is to get a firm grasp on any one truth. I can apprehend time's passage, and I can become familiar enough with it that I can go through a day with relative ease, comfortable within time's rhythms. But if I stop and try to nail time down, distinguish one discrete moment from the next, when present becomes past and the future becomes the now, I am at a loss.

Time remains in a world apart from mine. So, too, with truth, the daughter of time.

Some might think such reflection on truth and time is, in fact, a waste of time, and I'm inclined to think they're probably right. But I can't help it. It's carved into the side of a building I pass by every day. You'd be just as haunted.

Perhaps more epigrams will follow in the coming weeks. Time, I guess, will tell...

Monday, August 4, 2008

When I'm Sixty-Four

Another extended absence. Inexcusable.

Whatever the case, I ran across a passage from Marcus Aurelius's Meditations which I found to be representative of the time I've spent away from the computer and academic work this summer with my grandparents. So, I send a few passages along to you. Let them fertilize your soul as they may.

"The daily wearing away of life, with its ever-shrinking remainder, is not the only thing we have to consider. For even if a man's years be prolonged, we must still take into account that it is doubtful whether his mind will continue to retain its capacity for the understanding of business, or for the contemplative effort needed to apprehend things divine and human. [...] We must press on, then, in haste; not simply because every hour brings us nearer to death, but because even before then our powers of perception and comprehension begin to deteriorate."

Obviously, these words are very pertinent to me now, as I watch my grandpa struggle daily with Parkinson's Disease and the resulting decline of his mental faculties. I've wondered whether I, if faced with the same problems, would have the same desire that he frequently professes to keep going, like when he prays that he will live to be 100 (he's 79 now).

The above passage from the Meditations, though, is immediately followed by a paragraph on beauty:

"When a loaf of bread [...] is in the oven, cracks appear in it here and there; and these flaws, though not intended in the baking, have a rightness of their own, and sharpen the appetite. Figs, again, at their ripest will also crack open. When olives are on the verge of falling, the very imminence of decay adds its peculiar beauty to the fruit. [...] Thus to a man of sensitiveness and sufficiently deep insight into the workings of the universe, almost everything, even if it be no more than a by-product of something else, seems to add its meed of extra pleasure. [...] the eye of discretion will enable him to see the mature charm that belongs to men and women in old age, as well as the seductive bloom that is youth's. Things of this sort will not appeal to everyone; he alone who has cultivated a real intimacy with Nature and her works will be struck by them."

Is it really possible to find beauty in any situation? Is it possible to find beauty in my grandpa's disease? I'm not sure. But sometimes, in the midst of his often-incoherent ramblings, it's as if a ray of light shoots through the haze and he happens to say something really poignant, or really funny, often both. These moments do carry with them a unique kind of beauty.

One example came early on in my summer. I took grandpa for a drive down some of the dirt roads in the area, and we creeped by, looking out at the fields, forests, and streams. Grandpa talked about a lot of different things, voicing whatever thoughts or memories came to his mind. Suddenly, he burst out, "I've really loved God. I've loved his birds, and his trees, and his... girls." It was a funny thing to say, to be sure. But somehow it had, as Marcus Aurelius says, "a rightness all its own." I'd like to think that, whatever one might encounter in life, there will always be right moments to (however inadequately) alleviate the wrong.

And that's about as optimistic as I get. When I blog next, I'll probably be in Indiana, and loaded up on some new cynicism and pessimism and eager to share. But until then...

Friday, June 20, 2008

Pigs (Three Different Ones)

It's been another long hiatus. But, I have finally had a few minutes of free high-speed online time, so I thought I'd put up a new post.

For this post, I want to forward a recent editorial, "The Two Obamas," by David Brooks (on Barack Obama). I don't always agree with Brooks, but I always find his columns well-written and thought-provoking. In this editorial, I think Brooks has hit the nail on the head regarding Barack Obama and recent developments in the election campaign.

I've been really interested in Obama ever since his 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention. His fresh perspective on religion and politics perked my interest yet again back in 2006. I was excited in 2007 when he announced his candidacy for president, and I was pleased when he won the nomination a few weeks ago.

However, the weeks following the end of the nomination fight have shown that a politician is a politician is a politician. Especially a politician from Chicago. Obama has, thus far, turned down two definite opportunities to run his campaign in a more populist manner and in a way that reflects his slogan of "change." The recent announcement that he will not participate in public campaign finance is, I think, a little more open to debate than Brooks would have it -- the Obama campaign makes a strong argument about the source of its fundraising (93% from small donations of $200 or less).

Obama's refusal of McCain's offer of ten town hall-style debates was a bigger disappointment to me. Rather than give us a campaign interested in an in-depth discussion on the very real problems currently facing the country, Obama has (so far) given us a presidential campaign-as-usual. Rather than give us a campaign that encourages education and elucidation on the issues and the candidates' differing positions, we will get (it seems) more sound bytes, more scripted talking points directed at cameras, more of the same old, same old.

But what can we justifiably expect from politicians? Especially politicians from Chicago (or New York)? No candidate is perfect, and "change" only comes by piecemeal. But at the same time, I can't help but wish Obama's opening moves were a little more reflective of a politician who was genuinely interested in exploring new possibilities for voter involvement and candidate accountability in presidential campaigns. So far, Obama has apparently been content to cede that image to McCain.

Whatever you might think about recent campaign developments, Brooks' editorial is worth a read.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The Sun Is the Same, In a Relative Way

Well, friends, I must apologize for taking such a long break between posts. The last couple of weeks have seen me pack up my earthly possessions and fly once more from the place I had called "home" to hover, for a summer, in suitcase mode, until I settle down in Bloomington for what I am calling my "long march to the sea" (i.e., the end of my formal education).

I'm spending the summer just outside of Nowhere, Michigan (I mean Carson City), with my grandparents. To give a brief sketch of what life is like here, I will only say that my internet connection here is a 28.8kbps modem, and that yesterday I was passed on the road by a truck with a Confederate flag hanging from the rear cab window. This followed my witnessing a brief flirtation between two twentysomething townies, in the check-out line at the local Spartan supermarket, in which they compared stab wound scars.

One of my goals this summer is to organize and catalogue some of my grandparents' things that are currently scattered around their enclosed porch, garage, and pole barn. This morning, I spent some time cataloguing books, and ran across one particularly interesting volume: Sanders' School Reader, Fifth Book ("Designed As A Sequel to Sanders' Fourth Reader"), published in 1863. The book is divided into three parts: one containing instruction on "elocution" (the art of speaking), and two separate sections of readings from famous essayists and poets. There are fascinating things to be found in the printed pages themselves, to be sure, but I often find the marginal notes and scribblings on blank filler pages the most interesting aspect of old books such as this one. In the back of the book, there are two four-line poems, written in pencil, presumably by the book's original owner, "J.C. Stetson, Wis., Sep 30 1866."

On the inside of the back cover:

"Wouldst thou from sorrow find a sweet relief? [yes]
Then read this good book leaf by leaf -
In it thou wilt surely find
Relief from sorrow and sweet peace of mind"

And a couple pages before, a poem whose sentiments I would echo today:

"When you with other friends are found
And in their presence sit around
Though sweet their company may be
Will you not sometimes think of me?"

The poem seems to be signed with symbols from some kind of code, so who knows who actually wrote it, and under what circumstances. In any event, I'm sending it along (as the Beatles would say) with love, from me, to you. More marginalia to come, perhaps, in the future...