Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Odds and Ends

The big family project this week is cleaning out the sunroom so one of Grandpa's brothers can turn it into a downstairs bathroom. There was a lot of stuff in there, including some books from my first undergrad stint and some writing I'd done back in middle school and  high school.

The biggest lesson I learned from reading a few of the old stories is that, no matter how bad you think some of your writing is now, it was worse when you were 12-14. To be fair, though, I could see the complexity of the subject matter going up in the high-school stuff, even if the writing style was still woefully bad.

Some of the old books from literature classes stirred up some memories. I came across a book containing three plays by Bertolt Brecht. The only one I had read was Life of Galileo, for a class on the depiction of science in literature. I randomly opened the book to Scene 4, in which Galileo debates a bunch of old-school Aristotelian philosophers and mathematicians on standards of evidence and the search for truth. I'd forgotten how brilliant some of the dialogue in the play is. One of the best (or most effectively translated lines) was "Why try to be clever now that we at last have a chance of being just a little less stupid?" If any utterance echoes through the decades (or even centuries, if one believes this line reflected Galileo's thinking to some extent), this is it.

I decided to keep a translation of Friedrich Duerrenmat's The Physicists. It's a great play, but my most vivid recollection of it is a mistranslated line. I had read untranslated scenes from this play in a second-year German class, and then read the full English translation for that science-in-literature class. When I saw the English line, "The world has fallen into the hands of an insane female psychiatrist" (Act Two, p. 92 of the 1991 Grove Weidenfeld edition), I cringed. It's an accurate literal translation of the line, but the literal translation ruins the spirit of the line in English. In German, you can't talk about somebody's occupation without indicating their gender. Every word for an occupation has a masculine and feminine version. Duerrenmat wasn't trying to draw attention to the crazy psychiatrist's gender; the irony is the fact that the insane newly minted dictator of the world is a psychiatrist.

Then there were several books from a class on the modern English novel (meaning the modern period in the first half of the 20th Century). My most vivid memory from that class was how everybody thought the teacher was crazy. He had some eccentric ideas about education, including a tendency to put bizarre minutiae on exams. For example, we all joked that we'd never forget what the captain in Joseph Conrad's Typhoon called his umbrella ("the blessed gamp") because of this guy's obsession with it. The class was no problem for me, since I'm the king of useless, irrelevant information, but it was problematic for some of the other students.

My biggest problem is that I'm not optimally efficient at sifting through this material at this point. Recent developments in my life have made me more likely to reexamine my past in a new light. That slows me down, even though I now have the ability to say "enough is enough" and move on after following a tangent for so long. As opposed to my early undergrad stint, when research papers took me forever because I would read all kinds of off-topic material at the library.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Thoughts on "The Decision"

(Note: This was originally posted somewhere else on July 14)

I haven't commented anywhere on LeBron James' decision about where to play next year (except to register my correct guess on Facebook the day before). A lot has been written, pro and con, since then. A lot of it has been hilariously ill-informed (sports columnists are often worse than political pundits). For example, there's this gem from Sports Illustrated's Michael Rosenberg. Suddenly it's an incredible betrayal to want to play with your friends and win championships, and Michael Jordan's career decisions bind every other free agent until the end of time. In case  you can't tell, I have no problem with James' decision to sign with Miami. I do have a problem with the primetime special used for something that should have been a press release or, in this day and age, a tweet on Twitter. It's possible that "The Decision" was ESPN's idea, and that James only went along with it for the charity money, but there's no definitive evidence that this was the case.

The thing that actually prompted me to write about this whole situation is the news I just saw on the ESPN screen crawl. Apparently, Zydrunas Ilgauskas is signing with Miami now. Z has been with the Cavs forever and is the only current Cavs player who predates the LeBron James era. Because of his longevity, and his pre-LeBron years as the best player on a string of mediocre Cavs teams, he's beloved by Cavs fans. This signing is probably not going to improve Dan Gilbert's mood.

So now the question is, how much is Miami going to raid the Cavs' roster? After all, Miami's still got about 4 roster spots to fill just to get to the minimum of 10, and the Cavs have a lot of relatively cheap talent. Is Anderson Varejao next? Well, okay, that's not likely because Miami's front court is pretty crowded at the moment. But what about one of the young three-point shooters, like Jamario Moon? I can see this getting ugly pretty quickly. Last year, I figured that the Cavs had about a 4th-5th seed playoff team without James, just because of the number of talented players they signed before and during the season. But this off-season, the East looks to be getting stronger, and if the Cavs lose too many players off their roster, their place in the pecking order could suffer even farther. To the extent that LeBron James talks Cavs players into coming down to Miami with him, the hatred in Cleveland could only get worse.

Monday, July 12, 2010

David Brooks Gets Honest

In his latest column, David Brooks makes the case that books are better than the Internet. This is hardly a revolutionary claim, but the arguments Brooks uses to back up the claim are disturbing and indicative of the heart of the conservative movement. He begins by recounting a couple of studies that show that school children given books over the summer perform better in the next academic year and that the expansion of broadband has resulted in a decline in math and reading scores.

I'm not going to dispute the studies. There are many reasons why books may be better at intellectual stimulation than the Internet. People might spend more online time Facebooking than looking up classics at Project Gutenberg. The Internet, because it is consumed from a screen, may encourage skimming rather than long, in-depth reading. However, Brooks, while he mentions the shallow skimming theory, doesn't think that's the main problem with the Internet. We get our first glimpse of his real beef with the web in this paragraph:

A person who becomes a citizen of the literary world enters a hierarchical universe. There are classic works of literature at the top and beach reading at the bottom.

This sounds harmless, and even laudable. Surely some books are better than others. The trouble starts when Brooks contrasts the qualities of the Internet:

A citizen of the Internet has a very different experience. The Internet culture is egalitarian. The young are more accomplished than the old. New media are supposedly savvier than old media. The dominant activity is free-wheeling, disrespectful, anti-authority disputation.

Translation: The real problem with the Internet is that it encourages the questioning of traditional sources of authority like the "old media." Note that, though I linked the Dayton Daily News' version of the column, Brooks actually writes for The New York Times, the flagship of the beleaguered "old media," a formerly sacrosanct journalistic authority that is now frequently questioned from both the right and left.

And just in case you didn't get the point, Brooks doubles down:

But the literary world is still better at helping you become cultivated, mastering significant things of lasting import. To learn these sorts of things, you have to defer to greater minds than your own. You have to take the time to immerse yourself in a great writer’s world. You have to respect the authority of the teacher.

My problem with Brooks' analysis isn't a rejection of all hierarchy. I believe there is a hierarchy of ideas. Reason dictates that some ideas are better than others (e.g., more logical, more in line with observed reality). However, Brooks doesn't really believe in a hierarchy of ideas; he believes in a hierarchy of people ("greater minds" or "your teacher"). In his world, you're not supposed to respect a philosopher like Plato because of the quality of his ideas, but just because he's Plato. He slips up and admits a key tenet of conservative thought: the rabble must not be allowed to question their "betters." We can't have a world in which cartoonists/bloggers can criticize almighty authorities like NYT columnists. And naturally, the "betters" always include some group the conservative either belongs to or identifies with (in this case, "old media"). After reading this column, my hatred for all the jerks on the Internet has abated somewhat. After all, I'd rather live with idiotic commenters than the button-down world David Brooks envisions.

As inadvertent conservative confessions go, this one's not as bad as apologizing to BP or calling for higher taxes on the working class, but it is revealing nonetheless.