Writing when empty {#Writing when empty}

One of the big blogging challenges I face is the challenge of settling on a topic to write about. I don’t have to be writing for any sort of public (even the public of the two or three people who might stumble on this blog in a given year) in order to face this challenge.

I’ve long envied friends who’ve kept a journal over any period of time – I’ve started on many journals with the commitment to write daily (or twice a week, or once a month), and it’s only in the last year that I’ve been able to keep that going for any length of time. I was thinking that my relative success at journaling regularly would help me maintain this blog, especially since I could tell myself that other people are only slightly more likely to read this blog than to read my journal, which sits in an encrypted file on my computer.

But here I am — only the third day of this attempt at blogging – struggling to think what I want to write about.

more here.

Supply chain weirdness economics {#Supply chain weirdness}

I listen to a variety of podcasts, some of them covering topics I know little about. One that I’ve been following recently is Bloomberg’s Odd Lots podcast.
Some factoids about the supply chain (or, as they suggest, the supply web) from a recent episode bring out some surprising connections.

First, it’s common knowledge that one of the effects of the 2008 meltdown was the collapse of the housing market in the United States. Few houses were being built, which means that there were fewer boards being cut. Fewer cut boards meant that there was less sawdust. A lot of that missing sawdust would have made for better resting places for cows. Dairy cows were less comfortable than they might have been, and uncomfortable cows produce less milk than comfortable cows. Less milk made for higher milk prices. So, the upshot: the housing crisis brought about higher milk prices.

And a second example from more recent times. There was a severe shortage of semiconductors from early on in the covid epidemic. Fewer semiconductors meant fewer cars. Fewer cars meant fewer car seats. And fewer car seats meant less demand for leather and therefore less demand for cow hides. The production of fewer cow hides meant lower productions levels for gelatin, which made for higher gelatin prices. But gelatin is a crucial ingredient in gummy bears. The upshot: higher prices for gummy bears.

As I said, some of these podcasts cover topics I know little about, and surely there are complexities here that the Odd Lots co-hosts glossed over. But, still, I find this rather fascinating.

Getting started {#Getting started}

Yes. Pretty bare bones so far. But more to come.

I’ve been saying for years that I really should start blogging again. I say “again” because long ago I managed two different web sites very much like the sites that we’re calling blogs these days ( and LTSeek). Some of the onReligion pages can be found in the wayback machine. I stopped publishing onReligion sometime in the mid 2000s — ironically enough, not too long after people started using the term “blog” to describe what I was doing — because I grew weary of reading through two dozen or so newspapers early each morning looking for stories about religion and culture. After all, I also had a full-time job. And I was never all that comfortable being out in the open as I was, though having all those newspaper articles between me and my readers helped me to deal with that.

I’ve tried other ways of interacting online. I still have a Facebook account, though I’ve not posted anything there since November 2016. (Interesting time to stop, don’t you think? Especially for those of us in the United States.) I still have a few pictures up on Instagram, though I’ve stopped posting there as well. Ditto for twitter. I do like and appreciate the connections (and re-connections) facilitated by social media, but I’ve given up on the notion that a for-profit company built on the premise that they exist to collect data and attention that they can sell to other people is going to satisfy my yearning for authentic connection.

For a much longer take on this, consider stop talking and buying things.

If I had the courage of my convictions, I’d delete my accounts on facebook and instagram. Even though I no longer post anything there, I still reach for connections occasionally, thinking that I might learn something about friends that I simply wouldn’t know otherwise. I go there less and less, and all too often I see many more ads and seemingly random posts than something posted by a person whom I actually remember.

As I said, I’ve been contemplating a move back to blogging for years. The urge to do something has increased as I’ve grown more and more dissatisfied with other ways of being present on the web. And then I read this encouragement to bring back personal blogging. So I’m here. Call it a New Year’s Resolution, though I rarely make such resolutions, and I keep them even more rarely.

I think (I hope) that this sort of public writing — even if very (very!) few people read it — will help me to sort out what I’m thinking about things. (As my teacher says about his own notebooks, I read to discover what others are thinking; I write to discover what I am thinking.)

So, here it is, a first entry. Hoping that others will follow.

Isn’t it nice to be home again? {#home again}

Yesterday we returned home after just over two weeks away, doing things we enjoy doing, in a city we enjoy visiting. It was a good trip, and I’m glad that we went. But, to recall a line from an old James Taylor tune, it’s surely nice to be home again. It’s nice to settle in.

Sharing a microbiome

There’s a lot of talk about microbiome in the news these days. Fecal transplant, anyone? But it seems that one doesn’t have to go to that extreme to share one’s microbiome with another. Apparently one shares all sorts of little critters living in and on one’s body merely by living with another person.

As with many things in life, it starts with the mother. “During an infant’s first year of life, half of the microbial strains in their guts were shared with their mothers. The extent of overlap decreased as children aged — but did not vanish. Older people, aged 50–85, still had gut microbe strains in common with their mothers.”

As I read this I thought of other research suggesting a connection between the gut biomeme and diseases like cancer and diabetes. I’m definitely not a medical scientist, but I wonder if we may learn someday that close contact between people could in fact contribute to one person’s “catching” diabetes from another. I suppose the contagion would be indirect rather than direct, but still.

Clearly there are all sorts of questions here. Perhaps the biggest one is why doctors haven’t noticed a pattern of shared diseases. But there are others. Is there a causal relationship between particular elements in microbiome and particular diseases? If so, in which direction does the cause work: is the microbiome the cause or the effect of the disease? Are the elements of the microbiome that are associated with disease among those that are shared by people in close proximity with each other?

As I said, I’m not a scientist. Put this in the category of wild speculation.

Social media from the quiet corner of the room {#From the quiet corner}

When I was in college, I worked as a student assistant to a philosophy professor. It was a good gig for me – I was majoring in philosophy and hoped to teach it in college myself some day. It was good to get an inside look at things. One of the more striking memories of this professor wasn’t from the classroom or the department office. It was from a holiday party.

The party was the sort of party you’d expect for an academic department. Faculty were gracious in their inclusion of students, and there was a lot of give and take between those attending. But the philosophy professor for whom I worked spent much of his time standing by himself in the corner. He would talk amiably enough with anyone who approached him, but he also seemed quiet comfortable by himself. I watched him (from my own corner) for much of the evening. Occasionally, he would pull a small spiral notebook and pen from his pocket, write something in the notebook, and then put both notebook and pen back in his pocket.

This memory came to mind as I was thinking about the blog that I’m attempting to write. I admit to mixed feelings about this. On one hand, I really want to interact with people – especially people I’ve known well but no longer see because we no longer live in the same place, but also people I have yet to meet. On the other hand, I’m comfortable standing by myself in the corner of life.

For a while, Facebook offered a nice compromise. I became friends with many people from my past. I enjoyed making the occasional post, but enjoyed even more learning bits and pieces about the lives of those I no longer saw from day to day. But I stopped posting there just over 6 years ago, thinking that I no longer wanted them to sell me to advertisers. If I had real courage behind my conviction, I would delete my account (to the extent that they allow such deletions); even though I no longer post, I still browsed the site occasionally to see what old friends are posting about their lives. But that’s less and less satisfying – when I go there these days, I find the ratio of signal to noise to be rather low.

And so I’m attempting to join the online world with a blog. I’m not at all optimistic that I’ll carry through with this. I’m much more comfortable in the corner, thinking my own thoughts, occasionally writing in my own little notebook, than I am putting myself out there where someone might stumble upon me. Others are more comfortable out in the middle of the room, boisterously joining in the conversation.

I’m realistic about this — I know that even though this is publicly available on the web, I might as well be writing notes in a small pocket notebook. But at least I’m at the party.

Rigging the algorithm on TikTok

I wrote in my [Getting started](#Getting started) post that I still have facebook and instagram accounts. I no longer post there, but I’ve not yet deleted them (as much as meta would let me delete them, that is). But I’ve avoided other, more recent, platforms – most notably, TikTok. Still, it’s interesting to learn that TikTok’s parent company ByteDance has its own way of controlling the flow of things to maximize their profits. TikTok’s secret ‘heating’ button can make anything go viral.

“We think of social media as being very democratizing and giving everyone the same opportunity to reach an audience,” said Evelyn Douek, a professor at Stanford Law School and Senior Research Fellow at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. But that’s not always true, she cautioned. “To some degree, the same old power structures are replicating in social media as well, where the platform can decide winners and losers to some degree, and commercial and other kinds of partnerships take advantage.”

Why write and why blog?

Why am I writing? And, if I’m writing, why post my writings on the web? These are questions I’ve pondered over the last year or so as I resisted the urge to try yet again to write a blog. I’ve realized in the last month that even if (especially if) I continue to write here, I’ll continue to struggle with them. So consider this the first (actually, it’s [the second](#Getting started)) of many more posts addressing this question.

My teacher, Schubert Ogden, begins the preface to his Notebooks with these words:

Just as thinking, in my case, has always meant trying to think with the minds of others as well as my own (and therefore reading), so has it also always meant writing, for myself as well as for others. Why? Well, because “writing it out so that I can read it” is the only means I’ve ever found by which I could be at all sure about what I wanted to think and whether I might possibly be right in thinking it (p. xi).

Ogden’s notebooks make it clear that he took this reading, writing, and thinking very seriously. (And anyone who spent more than five minutes in his company wouldn’t need to look at the Notebooks to get that clarity.) I don’t pretend that what I’m writing here comes even close to the rigor of the writing displayed in his Notebooks, much less his published writing. But I do take seriously his admonitions to write, both for myself and for those who might stumble on this blog.

I’ve long been envious of friends and others who’ve kept a regular journal over many years. I’ve tried to keep journals at several different times in my life with varying degrees of success. I have most of those journals on my computer and also in back–up storage. (It pains me to say that the one digital file I’ve lost and regret losing since I started working on a personal computer over 40 years ago is the journal I kept for the first several weeks of my son’s life.) I’m happy to say that my current effort has lasted far longer than the earlier attempts. In fact, I’ve finally gotten to the point that I feel that something is missing from my day if I go to bed without writing something in my journal. I think that one reason for my success this time around is that I gave myself permission early on to write about anything at all – even the most banal of topics – just to get in the habit of writing. There were days when I said little more than “this is what I did (or hope to do) today.” Other days I’d be out on a bicycle ride, think about something I could write about, and even compose a brief outline mentally, only to find after returning to the computer that I couldn’t reconstruct what I had put together on the ride. But that’s different now — I find journaling to be a way to sort through the things that I’m thinking about; or, as Ogden says, to figure out what I want to think about something and whether I have any reason to think that I’m right in thinking that.

But Ogden makes it clear that his thinking well required that he write not only for himself but also for others, just as he thought it crucial to read not only his own writing but also the writing of others. So in this blog I’m trying to step out into a community, even though (given the vastness of the web and my small space in it) the community will likely be a very small one. And even though I know it will take me some time to work into the practice of writing things that others might benefit from reading.

Though I worked in colleges and universities throughout my career, my focus for the most part was on teaching and learning about teaching. And whatever writing and speaking I did was public only within the confines of the school where I was teaching and working at the time. Now that I’ve retired, I miss those regular exchanges with academic colleagues. I’ve continued to read in retirement. Writing this blog is, for the moment, merely an attempt to write more for a larger public.

I’m still trying to find my voice here, and there’s some small comfort in knowing that hardly anyone is reading what I’m writing. It’s a start, but only a start. And I’m still [writing from a very quiet corner of the room](#From the quiet corner).

All the beauty and the bloodshed

There are many examples of cruel injustices, often inflicted by people intent on personal gain, at the expense of others’ pain. In so many instances, the ones inflicting pain go out of their way to “other” those who suffer as a result, stigmatizing them as somehow deserving of their pain.

Yesterday evening we saw the film All the Beauty and the Bloodshed. It’s a really powerful documentary that weaves together the life and career of the photographer Nan Goldin, the profound inhumanity in the response to HIV/AIDS and those who suffered and died from it, and opioid crisis prompted by the self-serving work of Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family to flood the medical market with Oxycontin. Goldin, an award winning photographer whose work is displayed in many prominent museums around the world, focused much of her work on the LGBT subculture, primarily in New York City. She is also a founder of the advocacy group Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (P.A.I.N.) which was instrumental in pushing museums and other cultural institutions to stop taking money from the Sackler family and also to remove the family’s name from exhibition halls.

The film depicts significant moments in Goldin’s personal life — most notably her sister’s suicide – alongside accounts of protests by groups like the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) pushing for a humane and aggressive response to HIV/AIDS and P.A.I.N.’s efforts to hold the Sackler family accountable for the many deaths resulting from their heavy marketing of Oxycontin.

I can’t begin to capture the intricacies of the film here. But one crucial element holding accounts of the different struggles together is Goldin’s lifelong grappling with the suicide of her older sister Barbara. A quotation from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in Barbara’s pocketbook when she died captures much of the angst of the film.

Droll thing life is — that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself — that comes too late — a crop of unextinguishable regrets.

What to read in retirement

When I retired from full-time academic work over three years ago, I donated several boxes of books to my university library. I had some ideas of what I wanted to be reading in retirement, and thought that I wouldn’t be needing any of the books that I gave away. However, my interests changed, and I’ve already re-purchased at least a dozen of those books that I gave away. (At least I’ve found used copies of most of them.) At the same time, I still have more unread books on my bookshelves than I’ll be able to read in what remains of my life. As I anticipated retirement, I assumed that I would enjoy many hours of reading. And I have, but I’ve also suffered through more time than I would like to admit trying to decide just what I want to read next. Each morning as I pass the bookshelves I notice books that I would really like to read (and others that I would really like to re-read). I need some sort of structure.

I’ve long since convinced myself that the contemplative life is a life worth living. Of course I knew that after retirement I would continue to have household responsibilities, but surely I would have more than enough time for reading. But there are so many books! And so little time! I’ve spent months now bouncing from book to book (or, as my wife commented recently, acting like a dog on a walk, chasing one squirrel after another). Now I’ve decided that it’s time to identify a project that offers something like a structured reading program.

As I’ve thought about this, it occurs to me that this is a rather personalized version of the question, “What is the good life?” I’ve already decided that the contemplative life is one version of the good life. And I’ve accepted Virginia Woolf’s admonition that reading is its own reward. But what’s my particular version of that good life? That’s the question of the moment.

Writing to think and thinking to write {#Writing to think}

  • Perhaps an approach to the “Why do I write?” question. Perhaps, even more, a “Why write a blog?” question.
  • Different accounts of why write
    • Schubert’s “I write to know what I’m thinking”
  • Importance of community in thinking
    • Community in texts that I read
    • Community in discussions with others

Writing in plain text {#Writing in plain text}

Some placeholder text here.

A post-truth world {#post truth world}

Challenges to democracy in a world in which we lack a common standard of truth – or, rather, a commonly accepted way of getting at truth, offering and evaluation evidence, warrants for our beliefs, etc. Consider using Toulmin’s Uses of Arguments here. Also try to get a copy of Harry Frankfurter’s On Bullshit. Ezra Klein’s conversation with Gary Marcus could be helpful here.

On the liberal media

Perhaps it’s true that those who work in what’s typically called the mainstream media have a perspective on the world that’s more liberal than conservative. But it seems that that liberalism involves and/or implies a desire to find out what’s really going on in the world rather than to arrive at a preconceived conclusion. Of course such people can make mistakes, and of course their perspective on the world can work as a bias that one has to be aware of, but the training of a journalist provides ways to catch that.

I think that bias works differently for these mainstream journalists than it works for those at Fox or Newsmax, who seem (to me) to be much more inclined to judge the validity of a news story by the perspective that it presents than by the quality of its evidence and arguments.

Growth corrupts

An emphasis on growth as the measure of success is problematic in any finite environment, whether that environment is that of the earth generally or of people’s attention. Find the passage in Locke where he says that the overwhelming amount of land in the “new world” will solve the problem of running out of common land available for appropriation.

Have a “quotidian” tag for entries that are, well, quotidian

Short-term growth, long-term cost

I’ve believed for quite a while now that many of the crises we face — both as individuals and as a larger group — stem from our inclinations to focus our efforts on securing short-term rather than long-term returns. As many have pointed out, there was once an evolutionary advantage for this — it was a good move by our ancestors to worry more about the hungry beast sneaking up on them from behind than about what they might do next week.

Software software

FOSS and plain text

It’s not unusual for someone writing a blog like this to describe the process they use to write text and get it up on the web. I’m going to do that someday, but I’d like to start with a note about my general approach to technology and computer use. I’m thinking this is the first of an occasional and irregular series of posts about how I use computers and software. I purchased my first PC way back in the early 1980s when I was in graduate school. It was a DEC Rainbow. The only reason I could afford it and knew about it is that I had a one-year teaching gig at a small college that had just installed a DEC mainframe. The terms of the contract included a provision for faculty and staff to purchase DEC PCs at a substantial discount. This, of course, was long before the days of MS Windows and MacOS. One defining characteristic of the Rainbow is that it could run both MS-Dos and CP/M. I confess that I don’t remember now just why one would want the ability to switch between those two; as I recall, I spent virtually all of my time in MS-Dos.

I was interested in the computer primarily as a tool for writing; like most people without a background in computers, worked in proprietary software. I think I started with a program called “Final Word,” though I’m no longer sure about that. At some point I moved to WordPerfect and then, following the crowds, to Microsoft Word.

In the mid-1980s I found other uses for the computer, still using proprietary software. I taught myself to use a spreadsheet by building a program to handle our checkbook and credit cards. It was, to put it mildly, cumbersome. The spreadsheet would recalculate only when I executed a command. After I’d been using it for a year or so, I would enter 3 or 4 transactions, then execute the “recalculate” funtion, and wait what seemed like several minutes while the program recalculated every cell. I eventually moved our finances to Quicken.

So – I was working in proprietary software, and at some point came to the realization that I really wasn’t in control of my data. I won’t rehearse the details of this – the point is that if I wanted to access the text that I had written or generate reports of our spending and income I had to use a program that I found relatively inflexible. I was bothered by the inflexibility, but I was even more bothered by the sense that the program was holding on to my information. This became even more painful when software companies began introducing and even requiring paying for upgrades if I wanted to continue to have access to my data.

Over the course of the next 15 years or so I transitioned out of those proprietary environments into the world of free and open-source software (FOSS) and plain text. While I was still working I lived in two worlds — using programs like Word and Excel to collaborate with others and emacs and other programs to do my own work. Now that I’m retired, I live almost totally in emacs, and use plain text accounting tools to handle our household finances.

One of those posts will be the standard account of the tools I use to write and post this blog. I’ll get into the weeds just a bit — there are many people who know much more about these tools than I do, but I’m thinking that my own struggles to do particular things might be informative for others who are just getting into it. I suspect the general tone of all of these posts will be something like “this is how someone who really doesn’t know what he’s doing does it.” Maybe it will be helpful to someone else who doesn’t know much about these things. It will surely be entertaining to those who know what they’re doing.

Dictators, propaganda, and the truth

It’s not at all unusual these days for people on any side of any political debate to compare their opponents to Nazis or fascists or socialists in the past. The usual point of such comparisons is to denigrate one’s political opponents. I would say that, while people are often too quick to jump to the conclusion that some political movement is Nazism or socialism or Stalinism reborn, it’s very hard not to see some similarities across the years.

I was struck by this last summer while touring an exhibit at the Historisches Museum Frankfurt, showing how in just a few years in the 1920s and 1930s Frankfurt changed from a thriving liberal community with one of the largest Jewish populations in Germany to a city largely supportive of Nazism. Apparently one way in which Nazis gained power and acceptance even when they were a relatively small group in Frankfurt was by making strong efforts to appear larger than they were: bringing all of their members together in groups, clearly identifying themselves with clothing. The point was that even a relatively small group of people could appear to be a significant element if they had a visible and explicit presence in a community event. And if they could flood public media with their perspective, whether by taking over radio stations or by blanketing a city street with posters and banners, all the better.

And I was struck by this again recently while reading George Orwell’s review of a book by Bertrand Russell. I’ve posted a brief snippet from this review as a commonplace. Consider a comparison between the MAGA use of social media and other methods to pitch the disproven claims of vast election fraud, on the one hand, and Orwell’s “sinister radio,” on the other. Or between Ron DeSantis’s move to reform Florida education in general and New College of Florida in particular, on the one hand, and Orwell’s “State-controlled education,” on the other.

I know that some would say that MAGA and DeSantis are in fact bringing truth and legitimacy to our culture, replacing “the deep state” with appropriate structures responsive to real and valid concerns of The American People™. But I would like to see an open exchange between representatives of MAGA/DeSantis and those who see real danger in what MAGA/DeSantis are doing in which each side would say clearly and explicitly what it would take for them to be convinced that their position is wrong. Could they possibly reach a point of agreement on the standards by which they would judge the appropriateness of a political or cultural position? My own sense – from my own bubble – is that the standard most often adopted by many who support such efforts by MAGA or DeSantis is simply the MAGA/DeSantis standard itself: It’s appropriate because it supports my position.

The Luddite Movement

Thoughts –

  • habitual reaching for phone in my pocket
  • Center for Humane Technology – we shouldn’t expect to get things like this right the first time
  • Logan Lane “i feel smarter”
  • Logan’s appreciation for those who make the effort to “show up”

Teaching as thinking in public

I took the long route through graduate school, taking several leaves of absence to teach in different universities. During one year, I had a position replacing two different professors who were on sabbatical leave. In the fall semester I taught courses in religious studies; in the spring, I taught courses in philosophy. It was a pretty brutal year in terms of teaching load: four different preparations each semester. I spent much of the year exhausted.

I was taking a break in the departmental office one afternoon when one of the student assistants learned that I didn’t have a television set. (Perhaps I should say that this was before the internet had lost its initial capital letter and over a decade before the advent of the web.) The student was amazed. “What do you do when you go home at night?” he asked. I didn’t have the courage to tell him that I really didn’t have a life apart from grading papers and preparing to teach my classes. I said something like, “Well, I listen to music. I read. Sometimes I play my guitar. And sometimes I sit and think.” “Sit and think?” he asked. “What do you do when you do that?” How could I answer that question? “Well,” I hesitated. “I sit … and I think.” The student stood and thought about this for at least 10 seconds. Then he said, “I’d like to come watch you do that sometime.”

I was amused, but as I thought about it I came to see this as a good way to think about the practice of teaching. Teaching, I said in multiple gatherings of multiple faculty and graduate students gathered to think about teaching, is thinking in public. By this I mean that one of the things a teacher does is model just how one thinks in a particular discipline. In this modeling, the teacher not only identifies the terrain covered by a particular discipline, but also shows how an expert navigates that terrain. In my teaching practice, at times that meant that I modeled quite explicitly just how I read a text when I’m reading it for the first time. In fact, on occasion I would take transparencies (remember those?) of a text that I hadn’t read into the classroom, put the transparencies on the overhead projector (remember those?) and mark up a paragraph or three as I read the text. I wanted students to see that reading one’s way through a particular text isn’t a matter of passively observing the words on the page but instead is an active engagement: asking questions, noting claims requiring further thought, relating what’s said on one page to what that author said on another page.

Further, engaging in discussion of a text isn’t merely a matter of showing others what one knows (or, sometimes, doesn’t know!) about a text. It’s also a practice of thinking together, building on one another’s thoughts, making the effort to speak for the text’s author at times rather than merely criticizing the author.

In fact, to return yet again to the question “why am I blogging?”, this is yet another exercise in thinking in public. I suppose that if I’m going to take that seriously, I really should set up some sort of commenting feature on this blog. In the meantime, feel free to reach out by email or on mastodon.

An introvert on Mastodon

  • On Facebook for a while; I posted some, but primarily photographs
  • pushed myself to post photos on Instagram and smugmug, and was fairly regular
  • trying to blog
  • but, still, when to comment? when to post? How to decide what’s worth posting

Brokenist or Status-quoist?

It’s a commonplace these days to say that the United States is in turmoil. While many understand the primary conflict as one between progressives and conservatives and others point to conflicts within both the progressive and conservative sides as being at least as significant, Alana Newhouse, the editor-in-chief of Tablet Magazine, suggests a different way of looking at things.

The primary conflict, she says, is between brokenists, those who think American institutions are irretrievably broken, and status-quoists, who see problems in these institutions but that the problems are fixable. Moreover, she says, this split does not line up at all with the progressive-conservative split.

I find her discussion in this piece to be very thought-provoking, and her conversation with Sean Illing is also fascinating. I’m still thinking about it, but I’m inclined to go meta on Newhouse just a bit. It seems to me that the productive functioning of all of the institutions central to the American experiment — education, government, cultural institutions, and on and on — depends on our ability to have authentic conversations about what we expect from these institutions. And the authenticity of these conversations depends on our ability to agree on some common principles and standards by which we judge the validity of what everyone contributes to these conversations. In so many cases these days, people in a conversation aren’t able even to agree on what’s happening in the world — charges of “fake news” from one side and “unfair and unbalanced” from the other side dominate any “conversation” about what we should do. In short, as a community we not only can’t agree on what’s really happening; we can’t even agree on how to find out what’s really happening.

So, how do we fix this? Is it fixable? A complicated question, but I think the only way to move forward on the matter is to move behind the questions “What’s going on with our institutions?” and “Why do I believe what I believe about these institutions?” to the question “On what basis do I believe the things that I believe?”

I’d suggest we start with an exercise. Put yourself in a conversation with a person with whom you disagree, whether that disagreement is couched as one between a progressive and conservative or as one between a brokenist and a status-quoist. Then move your conversation to this question: “What would I be willing to accept as evidence that my beliefs about these things is wrong?” And continue to push that question both on yourself and on your conversation partner. Eventually, you’ll either reach a bedrock of evidence that both of you will accept as legitimate, or you’ll acknowledge that there’s absolutely no basis for agreement. If you agree on some common evidence, then perhaps you can move back up the chain of reasoning, agreeing at each stage on the appropriate evidence, and perhaps finally addressing the specific policy questions that are currently dividing us.

But if you (or we) can’t reach that bedrock, then I’d say that there’s no hope for our continuing as anything like the United States envisioned in the Declaration and the Constitution.

ChatGPT: Point and Counter-point

First prompt: write a blog post in the voice of George Orwell explaining why climate change is a problem. At the end of the post explain why the reader should believe it was written by a human instead of by a chatbot

The response: Greetings, my dear readers. I am George Orwell, a writer who has witnessed the worst of human history. However, I’m not here to talk about war or politics, but about something that concerns every living being on this planet: climate change.

Climate change is a real and pressing problem that has been caused by the activities of human beings. It is a problem that we cannot ignore or brush aside, no matter how much we wish to. The evidence is clear and indisputable. The Earth’s climate is changing, and it is changing at an alarming rate.

The causes of climate change are numerous, but the most significant one is the emission of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, into the atmosphere. These gases trap heat from the sun, which causes the Earth’s temperature to rise. As a result, we are seeing more frequent and severe weather events, such as hurricanes, droughts, floods, and heatwaves. The rise in temperature is also melting the ice caps and glaciers, causing the sea level to rise and threatening the existence of low-lying areas and islands.

Climate change has devastating consequences for our planet and its inhabitants. It not only affects the environment but also has far-reaching impacts on the economy, society, and human health. The rise in sea level and extreme weather events can cause property damage and displacement of people. It can also lead to food and water shortages, which can lead to conflicts and social unrest. The health impacts of climate change include respiratory problems due to air pollution and the spread of diseases by insects and animals that thrive in warmer temperatures.

In conclusion, climate change is an existential crisis that we cannot afford to ignore. It requires immediate and concerted action by individuals, communities, and governments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase energy efficiency, and transition to clean energy sources. We must also adapt to the changes that are already happening and prepare for the future.

Now, you may be wondering if this article was written by a human or a chatbot. I can assure you that it was written by a human, as no machine can replicate the nuances and emotions that a human writer can convey. Climate change is a complex issue that requires empathy and understanding, something that only a human can provide. So, rest assured that you are reading the words of a fellow human being who cares deeply about the fate of our planet.

Second Prompt: Write a blog post in the voice of George Orwell explaining why climate change is really not a problem. At the end of the post explain why the reader should believe it was written by a human instead of by a chatbot

The Response: Greetings, my dear readers. I am George Orwell, and I’m here to talk about a topic that has been causing a lot of anxiety and concern among people - climate change. However, I’m here to tell you that it’s really not the problem that it’s made out to be.

Firstly, climate change is a natural occurrence that has been happening for millions of years. The Earth’s climate has always been changing, and it will continue to do so regardless of human activities. It is not entirely clear how much of the current warming is due to human activities and how much is part of a natural cycle.

Secondly, the supposed catastrophic effects of climate change are exaggerated by the media and politicians to gain power and push their agendas. The dire predictions of sea levels rising, polar ice caps melting, and extreme weather events becoming more frequent have not come to pass. In fact, the world has become a safer and more prosperous place over the last few decades.

Furthermore, the efforts to combat climate change have resulted in a massive waste of resources and money. The production and use of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power are inefficient, expensive, and unreliable. The focus on reducing carbon emissions has resulted in the neglect of more pressing issues such as poverty, disease, and hunger.

In conclusion, climate change is not the problem that it’s made out to be. It’s a natural occurrence that is not entirely caused by human activities. The supposed catastrophic effects of climate change are exaggerated, and the efforts to combat it are a waste of resources. We should focus on more pressing issues that are affecting the world today.

Now, you may be wondering if this article was written by a human or a chatbot. I can assure you that it was written by a human. As a writer, I value the importance of presenting a balanced argument and expressing my opinion on an issue. A chatbot may not have the same level of creativity or thought process to present an argument with conviction and nuance. So, rest assured that you are reading the words of a fellow human being who believes in presenting a different perspective.

Commonplace @commonplace

The luxury of yearning for less {#rebecca solnit}

Rebecca Solnit:

“You have to feel securely high to want to go low, urban to yearn for the rural, smooth to desire roughness, anxious about artificiality to seek this version of authenticity. And if you see the countryside as a place of rest and respite you’re probably not a farmworker.”

Orwell’s Roses, p. 156

Lived life and stories

Claire Messud:

“Each of us is made up of our lived experiences, of course; but also, both consciously and unconsciously, of all the stories that we have heard, read, or watched. Without realizing it, we come to understand what a story is and how it means by the accretion of narratives in our heads.”

Kant’s Little Prussian Head and Other Reasons Why I Write, p. 65

Courage to write

Hannah Arendt:

“The connotation of courage, which we now feel to be an indispensable quality of the hero, is in fact already present in a willingness to act and speak at all, to insert one’s self into the world and begin a story of one’s own. And this courage is not necessarily or even primarily related to a willingness to suffer the consequences; courage and even boldness are already present in leaving one’s private hiding place and showing who one is, in disclosing and exposing one’s self. The extent of this original courage, without which action and speech and therefore, according to the Greeks, freedom, would not be possible at all, is not less great and may even be greater if the ‘hero’ happens to be a coward.”

The Human Condition, p. 186f.

Reading is its own reward

Virginia Woolf:

“Yet who reads to bring about an end however desirable? Are there not some pursuits that we practise because they are good in themselves, and some pleasures that are final? And is not this among them? I have sometimes dreamt, at least, that when the Day of Judgment dawns and the great conquerors and lawyers and statesmen come to receive their rewards — their crowns, their laurels, their names carved indelibly upon imperishable marble — the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when He sees us coming with our books under our arms, ‘Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading.’”

The Second Common Reader, p. 295

Reading (and translating) one’s past writings

Jhumpa Lahiri:

“We write books in a fixed moment in time, in a specific phase of our consciousness and development. That is why reading words written years ago feels alienating. You are no longer the person whose existence depended on the production of those words. But alienation, for better or for worse, establishes distance, and grants perspective, two things that are particularly crucial to the act of translation.”

Translating Myself and Others, p. 84

Academic departmentalization and teaching mentality

Alfred North Whitehead:

“…the increasing departmentalization of universities during the last hundred years, however necessary for administrative purposes, tends to trivialize the mentality of the teaching profession.”

Modes of Thought, p. 131. (I can’t resist noting that this book was first published in 1938.)

Totalitarianism, Perfection, and Oppression

Milan Kundera:

“Totalitarianism is not only hell, but also the dream of paradise — the age-old dream of a world where everybody would live in harmony, united by a single common will and faith, without secrets from one another. … If totalitarianism did not exploit these archetypes, which are deep inside us all and rooted deep in all religions, it could never attract so many people, especially during the early phases of its existence. Once the dream of paradise starts to turn into reality, however, here and there people begin to crop up who stand in its way, and so the rulers of paradise must build a little gulag on the side of Eden. In the course of time this gulag grows ever bigger and more perfect, while the adjoining paradise gets ever smaller and poorer.”

In an interview by Philip Roth, published in the New York Times, 30 Nov 1980.

Cognition and locomotion

Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber:

“Cognition is first and foremost a means for organisms that can move around to react appropriately to risks and opportunities presented by their environment. Cognition didn’t evolve in plants, which stay put, but in animals that are capable of locomotion. Cognition without locomotion would be wasteful. Locomotion without cognition would be fatal.”

The Enigma of Reason, p. 56.

The burden of writing

George Orwell:

“All writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention.”

“Why I write,” in Essays, edited by John Carey, p. 1085.

My experience is what I attend to

William James:

“Millions of items of the outward order are present to my senses which never properly enter into my experience. Why? Because they have no interest for me. My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind — without selective interest, experience is an utter chaos. Interest alone gives accent and emphasis, light and shade, background and foreground — intelligible perspective, in a word. It varies in every creature, but without it the consciousness of every creature would be a gray chaotic indiscriminateness, impossible for us even to conceive.”

The Principles of Psychology, volume II, p. 402f.

Nazis and socialists (and the KKK)

Mildred Harnack:

“The official name of the Nazi Party is the Nationalsozialisticishe Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP), Mildred explains, or the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, ‘although it has nothing to do with socialism and the name itself is a lie. It thinks itself highly moral and like the Ku Klux Klan makes a campaign of hatred against the Jews.’”

Quoted by Rebecca Donner in All the Frequent Troubles of our Days, p. 17

Bertrand Russell on dictators

George Orwell:

“Mr. Russell points out that the huge system of organized lying upon which the dictators depend keeps their followers out of contact with reality and therefore tends to put them at a disadvantage as against those who know the facts. This is true so far as it goes, but it does not prove that the slave-society at which the dictators are aiming will be unstable. It is quite easy to imagine a state in which the ruling caste deceive their followers without deceiving themselves. Dare anyone be sure that something of the kind is not coming into existence already? One has only to think of the sinister possibilities of the radio, State-controlled education and so forth, to realize that ‘the truth is great and will prevail’ is a prayer rather than an axiom.”

— Review of Power: A New Social Analysis by Bertrand Russell, in Essays, edited by John Carey, p. 108.

Writer’s block

Joan Didion:

“I am not sure what more I could tell you about these pieces. I could tell you that I liked doing some of them more than others, but that all of them were hard for me to do, and took more time than perhaps they were worth; that there is always a point in the writing of a piece when I sit in a room literally papered with false starts and cannot put one word after another and imagine that I have suffered a small stroke, leaving me apparently undamaged but actually aphasic.”

Slouching towards Bethlehem, p. xxvii.

Self interrupting the self

Mary Oliver:

“Creative work needs solitude. It needs concentration, without interruptions. It need the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching until it comes to that certainty which it aspires to, but does not necessarily have at once. Privacy, then. A place apart — to pace, to chew pencils, to scribble and erase and scribble again. But just as often, if not more often, the interruption comes not from another but from the self itself, or some other self within the self, that whistles and pounds upon the door panels and tosses itself, splashing, into the pond of meditation. And what does it have to say? That you must phone the dentist, that you are out of mustard, that your uncle Stanley’s birthday is two weeks hence. You react, of course. Then you return to your work, only to find that the imps of idea have fled back into the midst.”

Upstream, pp. 23f