Giving Gray Some Shade

Oct 22 2014 @ 7:31pm

The political philosopher John Gray is known, among other things, for his iconoclastic and often brilliant review essays (we recently featured his takedown of Richard Dawkins here). Anthony McCarthy returns the favor by panning Gray’s recent book, The Silence of Animals, quipping that it “could equally well have been called The Silence of Turnips:

Things take a downward turn towards the end of the first part of the book, where at least the examples are engaging and concern recognisable human travails. At the end of this first section, there is the statement: ‘When truth is at odds with meaning, it is meaning that wins.’ What is this supposed to mean?

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Although the poet’s famed 1882 meeting with Oscar Wilde is now perhaps best known for alleged sexual shenanigans, David M. Friedman, the author of Wilde in America: Oscar Wilde and the Invention of Modern Celebrity, emphasizes the role their confab played in the development of celebrity culture. Friedman writes, “the real subject of Whitman’s conversation [with Wilde] was how to build a career in public, with all the display that self-glorifying achievement requires”:

Whitman_with_butterflyWe can deduce that with confidence because the first thing Whitman did when he reached his den was to give his guest [Wilde] a photograph of himself. … The portrait Whitman gave Wilde in 1882 appeared on his next book, Specimen Days & Collect, an assemblage of travel diaries, nature writing, and Civil War reminiscences. (Whitman had spent the war years in Washington, working as a government clerk and volunteering as a hospital visitor.) He is in profile in the photograph, sitting in a wicker chair wearing a wide-brimmed hat, an open-necked shirt, and a cardigan. A butterfly is perched on his index finger, held in front of his face. “I’ve always had the knack of attracting birds and butterflies,” Whitman once told a friend. Years later Whitman’s “butterfly” was found in the Library of Congress. It was made of cardboard; it had been tied to his finger with string.

By handing Wilde that photo Whitman was teaching him that fame as a writer is only partly about literature. It is also about committing oneself to a performance. Such role-playing isn’t the act of a phony; in Whitman’s mind every pose he struck was authentic. This type of authenticity – the fashioning of an image one would be faithful to in public – Wilde had experienced on a small scale playing the aesthete on the campus of Oxford’s Magdalen College and at parties in London. It was instructive to have its truth verified by a literary star who had proved its efficacy on an international scale. Wilde had always believed there was nothing inglorious about seeking glory. By handing Wilde his portrait, Whitman was confirming that instinct.

(Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Losing The Opium War

Oct 22 2014 @ 6:17pm


A new report (pdf) from the office of John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, reveals that poppy production in Afghanistan hit a record high of 209,000 hectares last year, despite a $7.6 billion eradication effort:

“In past years, surges in opium poppy cultivation have been met by a coordinated response from the U.S. government and coalition partners, which has led to a temporary decline in levels of opium production,” Sopko said in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and other top U.S. officials. “The recent record-high level of poppy cultivation calls into question the long-term effectiveness and sustainability of those prior efforts,” he said.

No shit, Sherlock. Keating notes that poppy production “actually fell dramatically from 2007 to 2009, and has been climbing steadily ever since”:

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How SpaceX Achieved Lift Off

Oct 22 2014 @ 5:43pm

Tim Fernholz has a lengthy profile of the aerospace company:

SpaceX currently charges $61.2 million per launch. Its cost-per-kilogram of cargo to low-earth orbit, $4,653, is far less than the $14,000 to $39,000 offered by its chief American competitor, the United Launch Alliance. Other providers often charge $250 to $400 million per launch; NASA pays Russia $70 million per astronaut to hitch a ride on its three-person Soyuz spacecraft. SpaceX’s costs are still nowhere near low enough to change the economics of space as Musk and his investors envision, but they have a plan to do so (of which more later).

The secret to the low cost is relatively simple, at least in principle: Do as much as possible in-house, in an integrated manufacturing facility, with modern components; and avoid the unwieldy supply chains, legacy designs, layers of contractors, and “cost-plus” billing that characterized SpaceX’s competitors. Many early employees were attracted to the company because they wanted to avoid the bureaucracy of the traditional aerospace conglomerates.

Fernholz determines that the “question for Musk and his investors now is whether he can be more than just a better rocket builder”:

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First Razor Blades, Now Cannabis?

Oct 22 2014 @ 5:14pm

Ahead of Halloween, the Denver police department are warning parents about pot-infused edibles:

Jacob Sullum is unconcerned:

For years law enforcement officials have been warning parents to be on the lookout for marijuana edibles in their kids’ trick-or-treat sacks. And for years, as far as I can tell, there has not been a single documented case in which someone has tried to get kids high by doling out THC-tainted treats disguised as ordinary candy. Since 1996, the year that California became the first state to legalize marijuana for medical use, the newspapers and wire services covered by the Nexis database have not carried any reports of such trickery, although they have carried more than a few articles in which people worry about the possibility. …

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Quote For The Day II

Oct 22 2014 @ 4:44pm

“I get that for many of you, life on Twitter has become more important than life out here in the big grimy. And on a certain level, I get it. But sometimes you’ve really gotta close that laptop, do you feel me? It’s a big brilliant world out here, and Twitter is really small in many ways. The thing about Twitter is that you get to turn it off and go outside. And once you do you can go around and look at all the messy humans out there and say to yourself “look at that guy! He doesn’t know I exist!” and “that lady has no idea what #gamergate is” and “that person couldn’t pick Suey Park out of a lineup.” Then you can go to a bar or make a friend or eat Funyuns or do any number of things that are more intense and interesting than everything that has ever happened in the history of the internet combined. And that’s a good feel,” – Freddie DeBoer.

Some terrifying footage of the shooting at Canada’s Parliament today:

Tim Mak adds:

It was the second attack inside Canada this week. The shootings come just two days after a 25-year-old man described by police as a “radicalized” Muslim drove his car into two Canadian soldiers in a city outside of Montreal, killing one and seriously injuring the other. Martin Couture-Rouleau, the suspect in that incident, was arrested in July while trying to travel to Turkey. Following his rampage, Courture-Rouleau was shot and killed.

Mental Health Break

Oct 22 2014 @ 4:20pm

A Hollywood horror musical:

In Defense Of Clichés

Oct 22 2014 @ 4:00pm

Orin Hargraves insists they “form an extremely useful and functional part of every natural language”:

When you use a cliche there is little chance of being misunderstood, and at the same time you have made a declaration of unity with your audience, invoking an instantly recognised commonplace that puts you “on the same page” (if I may) with them. Cliches in speech are more acceptable than cliches in writing. Still, listeners and readers absorb cliche like diners absorb comfort food. Only when there is a glut of such fodder do we feel that creativity has failed. Most of us have something to say, most of the time, and most of the time it is not something that calls for startling creativity. Cliches provide a stock of dependable formulas for conveying the ordinary, which is often the central subject of our discourse.

Ryan Cooper had more on the subject earlier this year:

[I]t’s quite easy to convey a crystal-clear thought even if the prose is riddled with clichés. For example: “Upon deeper reflection, House Republicans’ last-ditch effort to repeal ObamaCare was motivated by naked partisanship. The connection to the policy itself was tenuous at best.”

It’s also possible to have excellent, original writing conveying ideas that are completely bananas. As Matt Yglesias said about Notes from Underground: “Dostoevsky is also an illustration of the power of great writing to convey radically unsound or even totally nonsensical ideas.” The same could be said of Nietzsche, for example, and many others.


A self-identified nerd writes:

I think what a lot of the commentary on GamerGate misses is that Nerd culture is by nature an exclusionary thing, and all claims of Nerdom being mainstream are a contradiction in terms. To be a nerd is not simply about liking something, even to the point of being socially awkward. Being a nerd is about being so emotionally and intellectually invested in something that you develop a completely unearned sense of entitlement surrounding that thing, as if the people in charge of it owe you something for how hard you like it. It isn’t a positive lifestyle or something to be proud of; it’s an imbalance of personality that we embrace in ourselves only because we have no other way to be.

We are nerds because they wouldn’t let us not be, so we created our own spheres and our own languages and pop culture canon, and because we’re smarter than the idiots who wouldn’t let us in, eventually our sphere appealed to them.

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