Sunday, November 22, 2009

An open letter to Facebook players of Farmville and...

Dear Facebook players of Farmville and that lame cooking game that spams my friend feed with your lame virtual "accomplishments" like so-and-so "helped her neighbors plant turnips!" or so-and-so "whipped up a tasty mac and cheese!",

Guys, seriously? You could plant an actual turnip or make a real mac and cheese in the time you spend doing it virtually and telling me about it. Plz to get lives?

Miss Self-Important

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Triumphalist history in a flat world

We have a tendency--at least we did while I was in school--to remind children that one of the characteristic achievements of our civilization was its discovery, after many centuries of ignorance, that the world is round. But it seems to me now that this is a fraught assertion. What if we instead told children the equally true story that, after many centuries of knowing that the world was round, we forgot?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Another pleasant and unexpected event

Geocities has closed! All my extremely embarrassing high school websites are gone forever, PLUS all the equally embarrassing writing that I stored on their servers. Best of all, none of it is in the internet archive. Hypothetical future incrimination almost completely averted! Now if the internet would just close, the rest can be scrubbed from memory as well.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Department of Bad Ideas: American Political Development

Sometimes Miss Self-Important makes mistakes. A recent example of this alarmingly frequent phenomenon was selecting American politics as my second field. I innocently imagined that something called American politics would be about America and politics, both of which I have some interest in. Turns out, no. It's apparently about math and stupid, and in particular, the use of math to demonstrate stupid. But I repeat myself.

Let's look at today's exhibit. It's a journal article entitled "War and American Politics." Now, many academic papers begin with some generic assertion that their subject has been neglected in the literature. Sometimes that's true, usually not, but it's generally something you can just ignore. However, here is the first sentence of the abstract to this article, which brilliantly illuminates the problems to come: "Wars have been underexamined as causal factors in American political history."

Ok, now that you've had a moment to digest that incredible suggestion, let's look at the argument. This is it: American wars have political effects. You might be thinking, clearly there must be more to it than that. But you would be wrong. The author then catalogues some examples of wars America has fought, and their political effects. But only immediate political effects, mind you, because longer-term causation is too hard to establish scientifically, so "it is probably best to steer clear of anything to do with the cold war as an effect of World War II."

And what was the purpose of this fascinating exercise in shutting our eyes against 200 years of American historiography and pretending that American politics is the first and only body of thought in the history of the world? To provide an important corrective to some problems endemic to the practice of American politics, namely that, "We tend to assume that interests or preferences are the basic building blocks of an analytical political science, yet it risks analysis that is unhelpfully truistic [what could our author possibly know about being unhelpfully truistic?] or unhelpfully abstract. Where do interests or preferences...come from? One answer is events."

Ohhh, events. What an idea. Also, you may now be thinking that this article was probably published in something like 1925 at the dawn of academic political science. But, wrong again. It's from 2005.

UPDATE: Turns out, this was apparently assigned for the purpose of modeling a bad article. Sigh.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

"I walked on, still delighted with the rude beauties of the scene; for the sublime often gave place imperceptibly to the beautiful, dilating the emotions which were painfully concentrated."

I am preparing a presentation on Mary Wollstonecraft's letters from A Short Residence in Sweden (the disappearance of which from the canon of well-known texts of the 18th century should strike no one as a great tragedy), and I think I'd like never to read another piece of Enlightenment prose or its even more turgid Romantic offspring ever again.

This book, let me tell you about it. This is a synopsis: "I am Mary Wollstonecraft! I am a woman (of feeling!), in case you did not know. And a writer! Watch me make this harrowing journey into the wilds of Scandinavia all alone! Listen to me whine about every inconvenience I encounter and speculate about how it reflects the grand nature of human progress! Woe that all the savages to the south and west of Europe have already been described and I am stuck philosophizing about the savages of Sweden! They are so primitive and unrefined, and yet so natural and unencumbered by the burdens of our evil Christian civilization! My soul is so delicate and sensitive! I see beauty and misery everywhere--in this rock! and in this blade of grass! I will describe this blade of grass for three pages! So sublime! Yet so melancholy! I feel so deeply and poetically that I can hardly stand it! Perhaps I shall kill myself! Oh, foiled! No worries, I shall try again!" In case you are not convinced, here is an actual quote:
I visited, near Gothenburg, a house with improved land about it, with which I was particularly delighted. It was close to a lake embosomed in pine-clad rocks. In one part of the meadows your eye was directed to the broad expanse, in another you were led into a shade, to see a part of it, in the form of a river, rush amongst the fragments of rocks and roots of trees; nothing seemed forced. One recess, particularly grand and solemn amongst the towering cliffs, had a rude stone table and seat placed in it, that might have served for a Druid's haunt, whilst a placid stream below enlivened the flowers on its margin, where light-footed elves would gladly have danced their airy rounds.
Really. Embosomed. With dancing elves. This is followed by a commentary on how gauche the middle classes are compared to the poor, a theme that alternates with equally annoying discussions of how backwards but good-hearted the poor are. No one in Scandinavia quite passes muster, except maybe nature, which is described as "sublime" approximately one million times. There is even a passage where she complains about the terrible stench of the dried herring that the Swedes use as fertilizer, as though the cow dung in England smells like roses. Apparently though, people of "advanced views" in Europe swooned over this book. (Ugh, let me never come across that phrase again and I will be content.)

The only point I've so far thought of for this presentation is that this book might be the world's first instance of the unfortunate and widespread modern phenomena of both the emo style and oversharing. I'm pretty sure though that these are not legitimate observations for a history course.

Maybe I should study the 17th century instead?

UPDATE: Vindicated by 19th century French critic I have never heard of! If you care, you can search for Tocnaye in the Amazon preview of the Penguin edition.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Learning ethics from the masters

Being an ethicist is a tricky business, especially when you are found to live a less than ethical life and become fodder for many excellent jokes. In that spirit, I reproduce here for you a plug for an event that appeared in my inbox, relevant parts emphasized:

Labs Lectures on the Question of Institutional Corruption
Eliot Spitzer, former Governor and Attorney General of New York
"From Ayn Rand to Ken Feinberg - How Quickly the Paradigm Shifts. What Should be the Rationale for Government Participation in the Market?"

Thursday, November 12 at 4:30pm
Emerson Hall, Room 105
25 Quincy St., Cambridge

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Random acts of resistance

Like Phoebe, I am not pleased with the extremely user un-friendly libraries at school. There are too many of them, with too many varying hours of operation, too little decent study space, too brief loan periods, too much air-conditioning, too many restrictions on what you can bring in and out, and--worst of all--the strip searches on exit.* When I asked someone here why demagnetizing the books and passing them through those metal-detector things like we did at Chicago is insufficient, I was informed that it was "because Harvard students are smart enough to find other ways to steal the books." Wow. Isn't that kind of like saying, "We're so smart we practically need to be handcuffed to a lamp post for life in order to follow simple rules"?

I have been repeatedly told that this is the best library system in America, possibly in the world, the universe--whatever. Maybe so, but as a person who only requires the use of a tiny sliver of its resources--notably the most widely held ones at all academic libraries--I would easily trade these vast holdings with all their stringent rules and bans on food, drink, cell phones, head phones, pointy things, crunchy things, living things, etc. for the convenience and functionality of the Reg. The rest I can get through Interlibrary Loan.

In this spirit, I am right now illegally eating a vast bowl of Chipotle right near the sacred texts near which food cannot be brought. And it feels pretty good.

*It has been brought to my attention that not all the libraries perform these searches, and I have tried studying at the others, but they rarely have the books I need.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

About the fact that my entire proposed paper on Locke was already written and published in 2001

WHY DOES THIS KEEP HAPPENING TO ME??? How will I ever write anything at this rate?

I even considered narrowing my entire paper to the ONE point that this article did not cover, the Latin curriculum, only to discover that someone else has already published an article on that.

I quit. Time to look for a job.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

The computer gaming post out of left field

I've never liked fantasy or sci-fi, despite many efforts at liking it, which eventually led me to conclude against all my "ideological commitments" (as they are called in political science), that I am an unimaginative scientific-rationalist who is constitutionally unable to digest the magical hypothetical. (Another possible explanation: I am a woman, and therefore constitutionally unable to digest plot- and scenery-driven narratives that lack plausible characters. But I tried reading Ursula Le Guin to address this problem, and it did not work.)

However, point-and-click games (Haluz, Samorost, Alchemia, Machinarium) are incredible, and they clearly have some basis in fantasy worlds like LOTR. Yet they do not suck. Why is this? I understand that a game is not like a book, and the image is not like the text. But I don't like all image-based fantasy games (or else I'd join World of Warcraft and you'd never hear from me again), just the surreal Czech ones apparently. I am a serious adult person, right? (Don't laugh!) Why am I so captivated by weird steampunky industrial forest worlds full of misshapen little creatures?

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

A counterfactual

If all journal articles were like this, maybe I wouldn't spend so much time contemplating alternatives to academia.