Nov 17 2013


Many years ago my best friend gave me a subscription to the New York Review of Books for my birthday. He said that he thought I would like the articles because they were well written, well argued and thorough. In the intervening more than a decade, I have carted piles of unread issues from apartment to apartment and from room to room in unsuccessful attempts to ‘organize,’ but I have never let my subscription lapse.

It can be difficult to set aside the time (measured in hours) to read and digest the minority of articles in each issue that I find intriguing, but I abhor recycling a single issue without at least flipping through it to make sure there’s nothing I need to read.

The current stack has 6 or 7 issues in it going back several months. In a fit of “this room must be cleaned now” last week I grabbed the stack and headed for the recycling bin. Sitting in the kitchen by the recycling bin, stack on my lap, I thumbed through the oldest issue (July 11, 2013). The cover bears an image of a motorcycle (and rider) shooting out of a fiery explosion, with all the subtlety of an 80s action movie. I thought “well this one should go quickly” and started flipping through the pages. There was an article on ‘American foreign policy in retreat’ that I read the beginning of and decided wasn’t for me. An article on Susan Sontag, flip, one on Sylvia Plath, flip, hmm, maybe I should read this article on “How Austerity Has Failed.” Twenty minutes later, I redouble my efforts to put the first issue into the bin.

Although ostensibly a ‘review’ containing book reviews of newly (and not so newly) published works, the NYRB is much more than a compendium of book reports. The authors (many of whom are well-known figures themselves) do an excellent job curating a number of different works on a similar topic and use their own expertise to tease more from the book(s) than I sometimes get from reading the original work. Each issue also leans towards items of current importance, be that scientific discoveries, legal decisions, social phenomena, etc.

I decided to skip a number of interesting looking articles on fine art and artists and was closing in on the rear cover when I opened the page to David Cole’s article Should We Discard the Constitution (probably behind a paywall). Now I don’t know about you, but I have a difficult time reading an article on the importance and relevance of the constitution to the modern world from a hard wooden chair in the middle of the sterile white kitchen. So I retired stack in hand back to the comforts of the living room easy chair and put my feet up.

The article is a review of an academic work (On Constitutional Disobedience by Louis Michael Seidman), which argues that the constitution (or at least some parts of it) is anachronistic and out of phase with the modern world. My favorite Seidman quote in the article is this thought experiment:

Imagine that after careful study a government official—say, the president or one of the party leaders in Congress—reaches a considered judgment that a particular course of action is best for the country. Suddenly, someone bursts into the room with new information: a group of white propertied men who have been dead for two centuries, knew nothing of our present situation, acted illegally under existing law and thought it was fine to own slaves might have disagreed with this course of action. Is it even remotely rational that the official should change his or her mind because of this divination?

The quote reminded me of something that Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito of all people said. In oral arguments about violent video games Justice Alito quipped to the lawyer ‘what Justice Scalia wants to know is what James Madison thought about video games and if he enjoyed them.’ I assure you that I’m not going to often quote one of the current Supreme Courts most despicable members, but I think it’s important to see that even the most conservative legal minds must recognize that our country is fundamentally different than it was at conception and that those differences translate into a need for new ideas and new solutions. We can see this easily in the 27 amendments that we’ve made to the Constitution since it was originally drafted.

The article did an excellent job teasing out the principles that we should use in defining a government. Cole discussed the protections afforded by the constitution to those who might be oppressed if we made our decision solely on the basis of majority rule. Forty-five minutes later when I finished the article, I was engaged and glad that I hadn’t just chucked the issue without reading it.

And that’s exactly why I have have the stack!

The stack!

The stack!

Jan 16 2011

Biking: You can do it!

Honestly, I don’t have them very often, but today was one of those days that I just did not want to get back on my bike. I assume all bike commuters have these from time to time. I had already done an hour long ride through the rain complete with all manner of road debris (on account of people using snow tires when there isn’t any snow) to get here. Now that it was several hours later and my event was over, I was finally feeling dry and did not look forward to getting back into my rain gear and doing another hour in the rain, this time also in the dark. I had even been offered a ride home, which I was very close to taking.

As it got closer and closer to leaving time though, I kept thinking about this presentation that Stasia and I saw yesterday by Tara Goddard on biking in Sangju (a city in South Korea)(presentation can be found here). The main thing I was left with at the end of the presentation, was how even the elderly biked in South Korea. By Tara’s recounting, biking was the primary form of transportation for nearly everyone over 55 in Sangju. We had even seen slides of 75 year old women on their bikes zipping through town. How could I not be willing to do what little old ladies in Sangju had been doing for their whole lives?

The other part that I was thinking about was the whole “be the change you want to see in the world” piece. Many people in the U.S. don’t think of biking as a viable form of transportation because they can’t picture themselves out there doing it. Showing people that they can do it (and that it’s not that big of a deal) is inherently valuable. If we want to create a society where biking replaces other more resource-intensive forms of transportation (and we would certainly like all of the economic, environmental and human health benefits that come along with that) then it’s up to each of us to be riding whenever possible.

So I finally sucked it up and got on my bike. As always, it wasn’t that bad once I got started. I made it home a little wet, but with my principles intact. Bikes are not a lesser form of transportation!

Jul 8 2010

Deresiewicz’s Faux Friendship

I finally got around to reading William Deresiewicz’s Faux Friendship (from the The Chronicle of Higher Education’s The Chronicle Review) which several people had recommended due to my interest in friendship and also in social networks.

Overall I think the article is well thought out and articulate. Deresiewicz does a good job at describing certain aspects that I often try to express in criticizing social networks. The article doesn’t really do enough in my mind to indicate to people the choice that they’re making in choosing social networks, and that it is a choice away from more substantive forms of friendship. This aspect of choice is of paramount importance to me as someone who everyday is trying to become the best person I can be and encouraging others to do the same. It needs to be called out in every applicable instance that we are all making choices innumerable times a day and that only we (as moral individuals) get to decide whether those choices will bring us closer to or farther away from the person we aspire to be.

I know that at first brush that last bit seems to be a digression from my thoughts on the article, but for me morality and friendship are inexorably related. My idea of friendship is loosely the connections shared with those few people where we’re actively working together to become the-people-we-want-to-be and where through our association we’re made more capable of achieving that goal. So it follows in my mind that discussions of friendship would often precede normative discussions of morality.

The copy I read of the article was a printed copy that Stasia had already marked up with her notes so even though we haven’t actively talked about it yet, it felt like there was a dialogue transpiring between our notes.

Here are some of my favorite parts from the article:

“And so we return to Facebook. With the social-networking sites of the new century—Friendster and MySpace were launched in 2003, Facebook in 2004—the friendship circle has expanded to engulf the whole of the social world, and in so doing, destroyed both its own nature and that of the individual friendship itself. Facebook’s very premise—and promise—is that it makes our friendship circles visible. There they are, my friends, all in the same place. Except, of course, they’re not in the same place, or, rather, they’re not my friends. They’re simulacra of my friends, little dehydrated packets of images and information, no more my friends than a set of baseball cards is the New York Mets.”

“Finally, the new social-networking Web sites have falsified our understanding of intimacy itself, and with it, our understanding of ourselves. The absurd idea, bruited about in the media, that a MySpace profile or “25 Random Things About Me” can tell us more about someone than even a good friend might be aware of is based on desiccated notions about what knowing another person means: First, that intimacy is confessional—an idea both peculiarly American and peculiarly young, perhaps because both types of people tend to travel among strangers, and so believe in the instant disgorging of the self as the quickest route to familiarity. Second, that identity is reducible to information: the name of your cat, your favorite Beatle, the stupid thing you did in seventh grade. Third, that it is reducible, in particular, to the kind of information that social-networking Web sites are most interested in eliciting, consumer preferences.”

So check out the article if you have a few minutes, it’s certainly worth the read.

Feb 8 2010

I’m such an old man

Since some time in high school I’ve always seemed (to myself) to have interests and characteristics that more closer aligned with people a generation or two ahead of me instead of my peers.

I’m writing recommendation letters right now and found this line ironic:

Although she is very quick, in my experience raw intellect is often squandered by young students without the focus or maturity to appreciate and take advantage of the gifts that they have. XXXX is a shining counter-example…

The students that I’m writing for are not that much younger than I am, but the way I think that sounds (which is how I meant it to sound), is as though I’m looking back on my long years in education and drawing meaningful conclusions from the myriad students I’ve worked with. When I reread the letter and got to that line, I had the sudden image of myself even balder and greyer, in a robe with a pipe or somesuch.

I wonder if my future-focus/middle-aged mentality is static or dynamic. Will I someday reach an age where I suddenly find myself most comfortable with my contemporaries, or will I instead always be drawn to the ways and manners of those many years my elder?

Feb 1 2010

SMART goals

I’m not sure how pervasive the idea of “SMART goals” are; before taking a project management class, I had never heard of them myself. However it’s given me a useful tool to begin better frame my goals with an eye to actually realizing them.

SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-sensitive goals.

When I learned about SMART goals I immediately (for humor) started referring to my general method of setting goals as “not smart,” which unfortunately is basically true. Historically I’ve been worst at making my goals measurable and time-sensitive. I’ve also been bad at making them specific. The only thing that I’ve been really sticking to is relevance. Because I have a pretty clear view of my values, my small, medium and long term goals do tend to stack up pretty well. It’s hard for me to weigh in on achievability because how does one know if things are achievable or not? I mean, I certainly haven’t achieved many of my goals yet, but I’m not willing to take that as evidence that they’re unachievable.

So now, when I set a goal, I try to frame it with respect to this tool. Sometimes I decide that a goal doesn’t need to have a timeframe, or maybe that there’s no way to measure what I’m getting at, but I do at least make a conscious effort to run through all of these.