Thursday, October 21, 2010

Frankfurt on analytic philosophy

My dissertation advisor sent me this quote from Harry Frankfurt. It's encouraging to read a philosopher of such stature reflecting the same confusions and frustrations that dog me every time I go to a philosophy conference...
I have tried to stay closely in touch with problems and with lines of thought that I can recognize and appreciate not only as a professional philosopher but also-- and particularly-- as a human being trying to cope in a modestly systematic manner with the ordinary difficulties of a thoughtful life. It is sometimes claimed that the analytic philosophy in which I was educated, and to whose ethos and canons of intellectual style I still endeavor more or less to adhere, possess certain new and especially powerful tools and techniques, which allegedly enable it to achieve an invaluable penetration and rigor but which inevitably also distance it from the uninitiated. I have no idea what these remarkable tools and techniques are supposed to be, and I am pretty sure that I do not possess them.

It is true that serious work on the problems of human life and thought, although it begins in common sense, must necessarily enter into painstakingly detailed investigations of a variety of unfamiliar puzzles and complexities. The results of these investigations could not be easy to comprehend unless they were shallow; and how would that be worthwhile? On the other hand, the results do not have to be arcane; and I cannot imagine what special tools and techniques they might be thought to require. Surely one need not have been trained in a very distinctive philosophical tradition or skill in order to be able to think clearly, to reason carefully, and to keep one's eye on the ball.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Margaret Atwood's ChickieNobs

One of the many aspects of Oryx and Crake I liked: it has a few passages that read like philosophical thought experiments. My favorite is the initial revelation of ChickieNobs. Crake, super-genius transgenics researcher shows them to Jimmy, his best friend, on a tour of Crake's lab.

"This is the latest," said Crake.

What they were looking at was a large bulblike object that seemed to be covered with stippled whitish-yellow skin. Out of it came twenty thick fleshy tubes, and at the end of each tube another bulb was growing.

"What the hell is it?" said Jimmy.

"Those are chickens," said Crake. "Chicken parts. Just the breasts, on this one. They've got ones that specialize in drumsticks too, twelve to a growth unit."

"But there aren't any heads," said Jimmy. He grasped the concept-- he'd grown up with sus multiorganifer, after all-- but this thing was going too far. At least the pigoons of his childhood hadn't lacked heads.

"That's the head in the middle," said the woman. "There's a mouth opening at the top, they dump nutrients in there. No eyes or beak or anything, they don't need those."

"This is horrible," said Jimmy. The thing was a nightmare. It was like an animal-protein tuber.

"Picture a sea-anemone body plan," said Crake. "That helps."

"But what's it thinking?" said Jimmy.

The woman gave her jocular woodpecker yodel, and explained that they'd removed all the brain functions that had nothing to do with digestion, assimilation, and growth.

"It's sort of like a chicken hookworm," said Crake.

"No need for added growth hormones," said the woman, "the high growth rate's built in. You get chicken breasts in two weeks-- that's a three-week improvement on the most efficient low-light, high-density chicken farming operation so far devised. And the animal-welfare freaks won't be able to say a word, because this thing feels no pain."

"Those kids are going to clean up," said Crake after they'd left. The students at Watson-Crick got half the royalties from anything they invented there. Crake said it was a fierce incentive. "ChickieNobs, they're thinking of calling the stuff."

"Are they on the market yet?" asked Jimmy weakly. He couldn't see eating a ChickieNob. It would be like eating a large wart. But as with the tit implants-- the good ones-- maybe he wouldn't be able to tell the difference.

"They've already got the takeout franchise operation in place," said Crake. "Investors are lining up around the block. They can undercut the price of everyone else."

From Oryx and Crake, chapter 8, section "Wolvogs." (Page 202-203 in my edition.)

After some story-time has passed, Jimmy seems to eat almost nothing other than ChickieNobs Buckets O' Nubbins. Hilariously gross, just like most of the novel.

I think this would pair well with Douglas Adam's cow that wants to be eaten, to prompt discussion of the morality of meat-eating. My own initial reaction: it would be OK to eat ChickieNobs, but not OK to eat the willing cow.

Douglas Adams's cow that wants to be eaten

Last semester one of my intro to philosophy students reminded me, at a handful of points through the semester, of scenes from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy that illustrate philosophical problems. I'd forgotten most of them, so this summer I've been working my way through the Hitchhiker's trilogy. Here's a scene that would work well in a unit on the morality of meat-eating, especially paired with an Atwood excerpt I'll post later. The gang has settled down for dinner at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe.
[Ford] sat down.

The waiter approached.

"Would you like to see the menu?" he said, "or would you like meet the Dish of the Day?"

"Huh?" said Ford.

"Huh?" said Arthur.

"Huh?" said Trillian.

"That's cool," said Zaphod, "we'll meet the meat."


A large dairy animal approached Zaphod Beeblebrox's table, a large fat meaty quadruped of the bovine type with large watery eyes, small horns and what might almost have been an ingratiating smile on its lips.

"Good evening," it lowed and sat back heavily on its haunches, "I am the main Dish of the Day. May I interest you in the parts of my body?"

It harrumphed and gurgled a bit, wriggled its hind quarters in to a more comfortable position and gazed peacefully at them.

Its gaze was met by looks of startled bewilderment from Arthur and Trillian, a resigned shrug from Ford Prefect and naked hunger from Zaphod Beeblebrox.

"Something off the shoulder perhaps?" suggested the animal, "braised in a white wine sauce?"

"Er, your shoulder?" said Arthur in a horrified whisper.

"But naturally my shoulder, sir," mooed the animal contentedly, "nobody else's is mine to offer."

Zaphod leapt to his feet and started prodding and feeling the animal's shoulder appreciatively.

"Or the rump is very good," murmured the animal. "I've been exercising it and eating plenty of grain, so there's a lot of good meat there."

It gave a mellow grunt, gurgled again and started to chew the cud. It swallowed the cud again.

"Or a casserole of me perhaps?" it added.

"You mean this animal actually wants us to eat it?" whispered Trillian to Ford.

"Me?" said Ford, with a glazed look in his eyes, "I don't mean anything."

"That's absolutely horrible," exclaimed Arthur, "the most revolting thing I've ever heard."

"What's the problem Earthman?" said Zaphod, now transferring his attention to the animal's enormous rump.

"I just don't want to eat an animal that's standing there inviting me to," said Arthur, "It's heartless."

"Better than eating an animal that doesn't want to be eaten," said Zaphod.

"That's not the point," Arthur protested. Then he thought about it for a moment. "Alright," he said, "maybe it is the point. I don't care, I'm not going to think about it now. I'll just... er [...] I think I'll just have a green salad," he muttered.

"May I urge you to consider my liver?" asked the animal, "it must be very rich and tender by now, I've been force-feeding myself for months."

"A green salad," said Arthur emphatically.

"A green salad?" said the animal, rolling his eyes disapprovingly at Arthur.

"Are you going to tell me," said Arthur, "that I shouldn't have green salad?"

"Well," said the animal, "I know many vegetables that are very clear on that point. Which is why it was eventually decided to cut through the whole tangled problem and breed an animal that actually wanted to be eaten and was capable of saying so clearly and distinctly. And here I am."

It managed a very slight bow.

"Glass of water please," said Arthur.

"Look," said Zaphod, "we want to eat, we don't want to make a meal of the issues. Four rare stakes please, and hurry. We haven't eaten in five hundred and seventy-six thousand million years."

The animal staggered to its feet. It gave a mellow gurgle. "A very wise choice, sir, if I may say so. Very good," it said, "I'll just nip off and shoot myself."

He turned and gave a friendly wink to Arthur. "Don't worry, sir," he said, "I'll be very humane."

It waddled unhurriedly off to the kitchen.
[From The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Chapter 17.]

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Jerusalem Artichoke

Two summers ago I decided to learn to identify some common wild edible plants. I bought a bunch of books on foraging, and by far the most useful was Samuel Thayer's The Forager's Harvest. He just put out a second book, Nature's Garden, and I got hold of it last week.

Thayer is reserved writer. He teaches foraging classes, and he writes like someone accustomed to teaching newbies: simple sentences and a calm style. So when I got to this paragraph in the chapter on Jerusalem Artichoke I laughed out loud.

If jerusalem-artichokes are eaten when they are full of inulin, they will cause horrendous gas and sometimes diarrhea in many individuals-- unless they are very well cooked. You might not have read "horrendous" loud enough; few people will ever experience worse flatulence. The Dakota in Minnesota relegated jerusalem-artichoke to the status of starvation food "from dread of its flatulent qualities," and many modern foragers avoid it for the same reason. Indeed, in certain circles this tuber has earned the uncouth but accurate name of fartichoke (Nature's Garden p. 419).

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Silence is no help

I've been flipping through Silence, John Cage's first book of lectures and essays. I thought maybe it could help me get my foot in the door of some of his less accessible music. It can't! His lectures are more obscure than his music.

The foreword uses paragraphs, sentences, and punctuation. That's nice. I can read that. In these sentences and paragraphs, Cage catalogs some of his most obscure moments. Self-indulgent, maybe, but it makes for some great stories. From the second paragraph of the foreword:
Lecture on Nothing was written in the same rhythmic structure I employed at the time in my musical compositions (Sonatas and Interludes, Three Dances, etc.). One of the structural divisions was the repetition, some fourteen times, of a single page in which occurred the refrain, "If anyone is sleepy let him go to sleep." Jeanne Reynal, I remember, stood up part way through, screamed, and then said, while I continued speaking, "John, I dearly love you, but I can't bear another minute." She then walked out. Later, during the question period, I gave one of six previously prepared answers regardless of the question asked. This was a reflection of my engagement in Zen.
I love the idea of prepared answers. Cage appends them to the end of Lecture on Nothing. Good stuff:
1. That is a very good question. I should not want to spoil it with an answer.
2. My head wants to ache.
3. Had you heard Marya Freund last April in Palemo singing Arnold Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire, I doubt whether you would ask that question.
4. According to the Farmer's Almanac this is False Spring.
5. Please repeat the question...
And again...
And again...
6. I have no more answers.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

April activity

Bought in April:

Geeta Dayal - Another Green World (33 1/3)
Hugo Wilcken - Low (33 1/3)
Wilson Neate - Pink Flag (33 1/3)
Nick Hornby - The Polysyllabic Spree
Mark Katz - Capturing Sound
John Wyndham - The Chrysalids
Denis Johnson - Jesus' Son
Julie Orringer - How to Breathe Underwater

Read in April:

Drew Daniel - 20 Jazz Funk Greats (33 1/3)
Mark Katz - Capturing Sound
Arthur Miller - Death of a Salesman
Nick Hornby - The Polysyllabic Spree
Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveler's Wife
Geeta Dayal - Another Green World (33 1/3)

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Vibrato as phonograph effect

Earlier this month I went to see Michael Kac, a professor in my department and an accomplished banjo player, talk about authenticity and adaptation in the performance of folk music. At some point he mentioned in passing that violin vibrato is an artifact of the development of audio recording technology. Interesting!

I tracked down a book chapter titled "Aesthetics out of Exigency: Violin Vibrato and the Phonograph" (In Capturing Sound by Mark Katz) that discusses the issue in detail. It looks like the case isn't quite as cut-and-dried as Dr. Kac made it out to be, but there's pretty good reason to think that violin vibrato is, indeed, a phonograph effect.

The recorded evidence clearly suggests an abrupt change in style. In the earliest days of recording-- prior to 1910-- vibrato is rarely used. By 1920, continuous vibrato like we are used to today was the norm. This decade corresponds with an explosion in the number of recordings, and in the adoption of phonographs in the home.

Why think there's a causal link in this correlation?

Katz dismisses a few competing explanations. Continuous vibrato probably isn't a simple matter of changing taste, because the continuous vibrato was panned by critics at the time. Continuous vibrato can't be the effect of the introduction of the chin rest (which frees up the left hand), because the chin rest was adopted nearly a century before. Nor can it be the effect of the transition to metal strings. Gut strings weren't widely abandoned until the 1920s, and continuous vibrato on gut strings is common in recordings from the late teens and early 20s.

Katz' suggestion: it was the awkward nature of early recording studios that urged the switch to continuous vibrato. In the early days, microphones hadn't yet been invented, and recording was an entirely acoustical affair. You'd sing or play into a huge horn, like the sound horns on old Victrolas. The sound waves, focused by the horn, made a needle vibrate, and the needle scratched a groove in a wax cylinder.

This purely acoustic setup wasn't very sensitive to low-volume noise, and the violin is a low-volume instrument. So, in order for soloists to be heard on a record, they had to lean partway into the recording horn. Since, in addition to being low-volume, violins are especially active instruments, this was a high-risk solution. If a soloist bumped the recording horn with the bow, the take would be ruined.

Violinists soon discovered that the throbbing pitch changes of vibrato projected sound into the acoustic horns better than a steady pitch. This allowed them to record without sticking their heads inside the horn, and so the technique spread rapidly in recording studios. As records-- as opposed to concerts-- became the main way listeners accessed classical music, they came to expect vibrato in concerts, too. And before long, classical music was dominated by continuous vibrato on the violin. None of us alive today have heard it any other way.

Anyway. This idea of the phonograph effects-- ways in which recording technology has changed music, instead of merely documenting it-- is neat. The vibrato chapter was easily the best one in the book, but the book as a whole was good enough to have me on the lookout for phonograph effects everywhere I look. I think maybe there's one somewhere in Brian Eno...

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

"Now I understand why I am Patti."

An anecdote from the opening chapter of Mark Katz' Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music:

In 1905 soprano Adelina Patti was finally persuaded to commit her famous voice to wax. After singing a short selection, she heard her recorded voice for the first time. "My God!" she reportedly exclaimed, "now I understand why I am Patti! What a voice! What an artist!"

Statement of purpose

Nick Hornby (who wrote High Fidelity and About a Boy among others) had a column for a while in a lit mag called The Believer. Every month, he'd compile lists of the books he bought and the books he read, then spend a few pages noodling about them. These columns, along with a few long excerpts of books he especially liked, are collected in The Polysyllabic Spree.

I read The Polysyllabic Spree last week. My first reaction: most of these columns are only interesting because they're written by a famous writer-- and it's somehow interesting to see that a famous writer's thoughts about books aren't much deeper than anyone else's.

My second thought was that these columns must be pretty interesting to Nick Hornby. He confesses to the same disease that dogs me: when it comes to books-- even books I like a lot and read carefully-- I forget them almost as quickly as we read them. But now that bastard Hornby has a year's worth of columns that record his personal reactions to books, particular passages of interest, and the role the books played in his life at the time. Hornby has what amounts to an off-site backup of his brain. Ten years from now, when someone mentions Mystic River and Hornby can't quite remember what it's about, he can flip through The Polysyllabic Spree and discover that, indeed, he read it, and he thought it was great for the following reasons...

And so I'm starting a book blog. It'll be my own Hornbyesque word hoard. I'll use it to collect excerpts and aspects of books I'd like to remember but will inevitably forget. Since I mostly read incredibly interesting books, I hope other people might find something interesting here. It's OK if no one does, though. In that case, I'll break new ground and be a blogger whose primary audience is my own future self.