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Desert Solitaire
by Edward Abbey


Mary Shelley

The story of Frankenstein is, of course, heartbreaking and insightful. Everybody already knows that. The monster could have been a decent guy, given a chance. Everybody already knows that, too. Frankenstein wasn’t such a decent guy, and couldn’t follow through on his own ambition. Everybody also already knows that. Because everybody already knows these things, what we get at the beginning of the book is a positively revolting preface by Diane Johnson that tries to reveal to us “surprising” truths about Mary Shelley that we may not have already known.
She starts out with a bit of biographical information — no problem there. From there, we get some exposition about Shelley’s social and political environment. No big problem there, either. Then Johnson gives us a brief bibliography of Shelley’s “influences”, and we start to run into trouble, because (while plausible at times) it seems to be pure speculation and assumption. And finally, we get several pages of psychoanalytic drivel about Shelley’s id and superego, and how Frankenstein’s unwillingness to give life to his female monster demonstrates Shelley’s fear of her own fertility, and a number of other brilliant inductions with all of the credibility of a Parade magazine horoscope. For instance: “The somewhat mournful union Frankenstein contemplates with Elizabeth (the name of Shelley’s sister) is chastely terminated before it is consummated, suggesting, perhaps, the wish of this burdened young woman to exchange for an uncomplicated, virginal state her present condition of continuous pregnancy, childbirth, and maternal concern.” WTF? If this were someone’s term paper for a freshman composition course, I would fail them. Let’s see — the monster (who of course represents the id) survived on nuts and berries. Clearly “nuts” refers to crazy people, and berries are a fruit, and everyone knows that a “fruit” is a homosexual. Therefore, the monster represents the growing insanity that Shelley felt when contemplating her deeply repressed lesbianism, and the authoring of Frankenstein was a means for her to symbolically de-closet and subsequently kill her undeclared sexuality. Yeah, that sounds good. Let’s roll the goddam presses.
Frankenstein is a great story. Not great writing always, but a great story. Johnson’s introduction is the worst sort of pseudo-scholarship that I can imagine; it’s the sort of thing that makes real human beings (justly) slander “academics” for being completely out of touch with reality. Read the book, skip the introduction (with the possible exception of the biographical history), and draw your own goddam conclusions.

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
Thomas Kuhn

While Kuhn’s argument makes sense to me as a model of scientific change, I’m less convinced that it can (or should) be taken literally. I can’t help but be a bit wary of any theory which claims that “this is what (X) looks like” (where X is some complex and mutable phenomenon to be explained.) There are no doubt cases of scientific explanations that cannot be made to fit into the Kuhnian model without considerable distortion. However, I don’t believe that a model need be literal or absolute in order to be useful. Despite its necessary generalizations as a model, the paradigm theory of scientific change is decisively a useful tool for unearthing previously neglected information in the history of scientific change.

There is, however, at least one area in which I believe Kuhn could be improved by some additional articulation or amplification. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions creates the impression that when an experiment produces an aberrant result, the scientific community is presented with a puzzle, and immediately sets to work to provide a theoretical account of the aberration. This seems to me to leave out some very important and necessary steps. Any responsible scientist, before even considering any theoretical account of an aberration, is likely (and justifiably) prone to dismiss the aberration as an error — either an experimental blunder or the result of an equipment failure. The first response to an aberrant result will typically be a verification of the proper functioning of experimental equipment. Diagnostics will be run; calibrations will be double-checked. Next, the experimental procedure itself will be verified. Were standard experimental practices followed? Was the experiment performed “by the book”? Once equipment and procedural errors have been eliminated as causes, then the experiment will be repeated. If the aberration persists, then its nature is probed. Is it systematic? Under what conditions does it manifest itself? Is it reproducible at will? Those aberrations that are both systematic and reproducible are then presented to the experimenter’s scientific peers, who subject the aberration to a similar battery of experimental tests. Only after one or more third parties have verified the aberration to be systematic and reproducible is it likely to make the passage from “error” to “puzzle.”

Thinking About Technology

Thinking About Technology
Joseph Pitt

It is often said that in the classroom, there are no stupid questions. While this is no doubt meant to buoy the self-esteem of the inquisitive student, the statement is sadly false. There most certainly are stupid questions. In particular, there are questions which are badly formed or badly directed, such that no possible answer could be of use. This is not to say that no possible answer can be given (for there are always a host of stupid answers available for any given stupid question), just that none of the stupid answers get us any closer to understanding the topic at hand. At best, they waste time and distract us from the issues that matter, and at worst they provide barriers to learning by allowing us to think that we’ve arrived at “the truth of the matter.” An ambitious student of philosophy could rewrite nearly all of the history of philosophical inquiry into a massive multi-volume set entitled A History of Stupid Questions. Volume one could be entitled Definitions: The Blind Persuading the Foolish. It would contain depressing accounts of philosophers engaging in Abbott-and-Costello style verbal slapstick, chasing their tails in pursuit of essential definitions for concepts that have no essential qualities.

In the preface to Thinking About Technology, Joseph Pitt creates the impression that he will engage in no such tomfoolery. He says that there is no sense (and potentially great danger) in talking about “Science” and “Technology” writ large as if they referred to discernible and definable objects; the complexity and diversity of the objects and activities contained within our notions of those two words stymie any attempt to talk about them in broad terms. Pitt advocates instead speaking of particular technologies or particular sciences. So far, so good. This pragmatic inclination is one with which I can agree, and makes an enormous amount of sense.

Sadly, Pitt ends up abandoning what seemed like a perfectly seaworthy ship when he starts asking questions like “What is/are the structure(s) of technological theories?” and “What is the nature of technological change?” He seems to take it as given that these were good questions to ask about science (an assumption which I find profoundly dubious), therefore they must also be good questions to ask about technology. The phrasing of the question seems to imply that there is “a nature” of technological change, or some common structure or set of structures of technological theories. Given the author’s self-professed pragmatism, it seems that it should follow that the consideration of these questions as important should be the result of some requirement that the possible answers have (useful) pragmatic consequences. What these consequences are, we aren’t told; neither can my admittedly practical mind imagine what they might be. If these questions remain unsolved (per Pitt’s own example of the question “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”), then what will we have lost? Or what will we not have gained that would have served us toward some useful end?

And so my concern might be summarized as follows: Pitt makes a great deal of sense until he starts to sound like a philosopher. While his topic may intuitively interest those afore-mentioned tail-chasing purveyors of verbal slapstick, actual human beings (including scientists and technicians) are given little reason to care. This strikes me as both shameful and needless. There may indeed be a good pragmatic reason to consider questions like “What is the structure of technological explanation?”, but nowhere are we told what that reason might be. There are nuggets of fascinating empirical information here, and brilliant case studies that illustrate specific points quite nicely. Unfortunately, they fall short of providing a sound basis for considering the philosophical thread as a whole, or shedding light upon the “big picture” questions such as those mentioned above. Were Pitt to remain true to his preface, realize that such “big picture” questions are almost always overly-simplistic (and ultimately stupid), and instead provide some other pragmatic justification for the linkage of the anecdotal elements, Thinking About Technology would be a stronger text, and one which would appeal to someone other than the Abbott-and-Costello tail-chasers within the ranks of philosophy.

Last Night’s Fun

Last Night’s Fun
Ciaran Carson

I should preface my statements by saying that I do not consider myself an Irish musician. Yes, I have Irish ancestors. Yes, I play a number of folk instruments. Yes, I played in a band for about five years that almost exclusively performed traditional Irish music. But the fact is that I simply don’t know the tunes, and never really did. I cannot hope to hold my own at a session. I’m deficient in both skill and catalog.
Nonetheless, there was quite a bit in this book with which I identified. It is clearly a book about music as written by a musician. Not the concert-trained sheet music type of musician, but the type of musician who learns their music through time spent in pubs and on porches, swapping tunes with others of the same ilk. (I once went along to a friend’s voice lesson, and was asked by his instructor whether I was a musician. I mentioned that I played guitar, banjo, and mandolin; he sniffed and said, “Ah, fun instruments.” This was obviously meant to be a perjorative term, which amuses me to this day.)
However, the style at times irritated me. Perhaps there is such a thing as an “Irish voice” in writing, but it too often sounds to me like distorted echoes of James Joyce, with little new to contribute. Joyce was good, but good because he was fresh and unconventional. When that voice gets bent and bludgeoned to serve the literary aspirations of throngs of imitators, it ceases to resonate. That aside, Last Night’s Fun is a good read, especially for anyone who has any heart for folk music. Or fun music, if you prefer.

Tomorrow We Will Run Faster

Sweep The Leg Johnny
Tomorrow We Will Run Faster

Tomorrow We Will Run Faster
One of my household Christmas gifts this year was a fondue pot. Fondue is a funny thing. It’s really nothing that you couldn’t do with a regular pot on a gas stove, the catch being that you would have to crowd chairs around the stove in order to eat, and fondue picnics would be entirely out of the question. Anyway, we gave the fondue thing a try for New Year’s Eve, and bought more cheese than should be legally permitted. And we melted it together with some other stuff, and came up with a thick cheese goop into which people could dip things.
Usually, I’m a Cheez Whiz sort of guy. Simple stuff. But every once and a while, something comes along that is complex without seeming like it’s trying too hard to be complex. I can’t tell good wine from swill, but I appreciate a tasty home-brewed beer. Given the choice between Cheez Whiz and Swiss fondue, I’d have to think about it. And given the choice between Sweep The Leg Johnny and straightforward three-chord punk, I’d have to think about it, too.
There is certainly no lack of complexity to the song writing. Long songs, lots of changes, punchy horns thrown in to change things up, all kinds of ebb and flow of tempo. All of that makes for an interesting album. But I’m not so convinced that it gets much beyond being interesting. There are few points at which I find myself tapping a toe or singing along. Plenty of points at which I say, “Hey, that’s kind of tricky,” but that’s not usually why I want to put on a piece of music.
So I dunno. If you were one of those people who went nuts over “math rock”, then Tomorrow We Will Run Faster might be just the album for you. If your favorite song is “I Wanna Be Sedated”, you’ll probably want to pass on this one. As for me, I have about another four pounds of cheese to consume before sundown.