Friday, May 28, 2010

First World Problems: I am so successful and influential that I can no longer insult people indiscriminately

Conor has offered us this touching confession of his superiority to all the unprincipled people out there who would pass up an opportunity to trash their friends in public. (Unless they have developmentally disabled children, in which case it's totally understandable that they would be driven into political propaganda--who in their position wouldn't be?) It really must be hard to be Conor, struggling to make a career as the sole exponent of principle and conscience in conservatism by repeatedly asserting that he is the sole exponent of principle and conscience in conservatism.

A major problem exists for principled people like Conor: what happens when your friends and your principles conflict? Conor, in the spirit of a true philosopher, concludes with Aristotle that "it would seem to be obligatory, especially for a philosopher, to sacrifice even one's closest personal ties in defense of the truth," which is why he fled DC before it could compromise him, severed ties with all his friends to avoid contracting their biases, and moved out to the Alaskan wilderness to think untainted thoughts and promote the decentralization of power. The Washingtonian's dilemma is this:
Imagine how difficult it would be for a 30ish Weekly Standard staffer, inclined to disagree with Keep America Safe, to criticize it using rhetoric anywhere near as forceful as what the group itself uses -- crossing Lynn Cheney and Bill Kristol wouldn't just preclude advancement within the magazine, or any chance at one day securing a fellowship at The American Enterprise Institute, or getting a spot on the press team of some 2012 campaign. It would be seen by a lot of people as a personal betrayal, and others would be pressured to distance themselves.
Doesn't your heart just break for this hypothetical free spirit, so tightly confined by the oppressive strictures of loyalty and friendship that he can't even disparage his employers in print or trash his friends on his blog with impunity, like the rest of us are so free to do?

Now, there really are moments in history where the conflict between truth and friendship is acute. Conor's dilemma is not one of them. The same pressures which reward conformity also reward interesting new ideas. If you work at the Weekly Standard and oppose Keep America Safe, all you have to do is come up with new policy alternatives to the War on Terror and write about them. Can you do this without ever including the words, "And by the way, Bill Kristol and Lynn Cheney are idiots"? If so, you will succeed in paying for your disabled childrens' education and maintaining your integrity. And you won't even have to remind your readers of it every minute. I can recall several instances when Yuval Levin disagreed with David Brooks, but, as a friend points out, never by undertaking a moral crusade to show that Brooks is an evil sellout who is undermining true conservatism and needs to destroyed. And, he remains not only employed, but evidently in Brooks's good graces. Reihan Salam also manages to disagree with people on his own side without calling for their heads, and he hasn't become a pariah. It's like a weird magic called decency.

But Conor seems to suffer from some kind of irrepressible need to attack people instead of coming up with other ideas, and then to find it incredibly unjust when his victims find this offensive. Derision and reflexive contrarianism are not uncommon tactics of young writers--coming up with original ideas is hard; poking holes in the establishment is a lot easier. Many clever writers whom I like do it. There's no sin in it, for a while. But at some point, one should graduate from snark (I'm not yet ready to let go though). There is an easy way to do this: stop attacking everyone you disagree with in print. Instead of protesting that everyone is out to get you because you speak truth to power, learn how to speak truth more effectively so that you don't have to waste so much time whining about power. It's not actually your public duty to pour the unfiltered contents of your head into your blog (but do as Miss Self-Important says, not as she does). Conor seems to believe he is defending democracy this way, but sometimes, keeping disagreements with your friends private (even if they are writers) will not pose a national security threat to the rest of us. If you find that this is impossible due to the great number and extent of your disagreements, you may want to consider joining the opposition instead.

One very useful side effect of friendship is that it constrains how terrible you can be to your friends and to the people who've helped you in life, because it instills this strange and foreign impulse into you to look out for their happiness. It forces you to refrain from devoting entire articles to your disdain for some other pundit and to either find something salvageable in their writing to remark on (this being Reihan's great talent), or not remark at all. Conor should welcome this constraint, since it promotes civility in argument, which he professes to favor. Besides, as long as your disagreements are over matters of policy and not secret plans to blow up government buildings, the other side will usually pick up the slack on whatever criticism of your own side you fail to voice. Political journalism even more than other fields (barring perhaps academia) is a ready-made food-fight, which conveniently minimizes the need for any individual to betray his friends. Helen has pointed all this out before, as has FLG, but it bears repeating.

But since this view of friendship is evidently incompatible with Conor's conception of integrity, the only remaining means of staying principled in DC are apparently to affiliate with the libertarians or one of the several outfits with which Conor is affiliated, because these places are peopled by Conor's friends, and his friends are always on the right side of debates, including the debate about whether debating is good.

*I think it is safe for me to post this despite the endorsement of Doublethink in his post (which admittedly constitutes a friendly gesture, but not one intended specifically for me) since Conor's point is to encourage unconstrained thinking, and most importantly, unconstrained criticizing. In the interest of promoting decency, I will add that I'm sure Conor is a perfectly nice person, and sometimes I agree with him, and I don't think he is a hipster, but I do think this is a very important question to pose to the internet.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

New laptop bleg

Macbook? Or Dell? Need something light and inexpensive, but not a netbook.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Cat problem solving

I bought Nigel a fancy self-heating bed this winter because he kept sleeping on top of the stove. He refused to touch it. I also bought him a scratching pad toy because he kept honing his claws on my furniture. He decided it was better as a bed, though the sizing was a little off.



Unfortunately, he is still scratching the furniture.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The previously unknown economy of grad school

Well, this is an incentive to write a good dissertation.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Remember that time when we used to watch MTV?

I finished another paper, and decided that the appropriate reward would be a few episodes of the Daria box set, thoughtfully gifted to me by Beckus. Not having watched Daria since about 1999, I was concerned that Reihan might be right and the show was actually a moral tale about things like maturation and and learning to get along rather than the nonstop sarcasm that I remember. But so far, no. Still just endless cynicism.

I have noticed one thing that I missed at the age of 13 though, and that's how much of Daria's wit is dependent on all her classmates being virtually brain-dead and there always being a camera around to turn what would otherwise be unrequited self-humiliation into a clever joke. I see now why my effort to adopt Daria's social strategy in middle school didn't go over as well as on TV. While I'm sure that I wished and would've liked to believe my classmates were actually that dumb, it seems that, generally, extreme below-average intelligence only qualifies adolescents for SPED, not popularity.

Also, there is a related difficulty with the whole premise of trying to emulate a cartoon character, but I think I was aware of that at the time.

Finally, I am curious what it would mean to be popular at Stuyvesant, as per Reihan's claim. Is that like being popular at Generic Suburban High? I assume no.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

On the over-valuation of intelligence, part II

In our last encounter with this issue--the incident of the crazy Alabama murderer/professor--I posited that America has a troubling tendency to treat intelligence as the moral virtue that trumps all others when it's really questionable whether it's any kind of moral virtue at all. It's a good thing to possess, for sure, and it's good for our economy and society that smart people exist in it. But when smart people do bad things, they're still bad people for it.

Now I realize I said just yesterday that I would stop posting about Adam Wheeler, but my fascination is kind of bottomless when it comes to Ivy League frauds and I've been working on this lame paper all day, so I'm going to have to go back on my word. In addition to the "this vindicates my burning hatred of the Ivy League" and "children are under too much darn pressure these days" and "he just needs a hug" responses to his fabulous hoax, there is another response which irks me, and that is the "if he pulled this off, he must be a genius" response. Sometimes, it's tongue-in-cheek, which is fair enough. But some of these people actually seem to think that if you can pull off a really spectacular fraud, you have done us all a great favor by demonstrating the corruption of the system and have proved your intelligence far more concretely than if you had gotten into college the hard way. You should be rewarded.

To these people: I agree, what's going on in college admissions is negligible in the great scheme of things. But let's imagine a scenario. Say someone hacks into your computer, steals your bank information, and withdraws a very large sum of money from your accounts. Clearly, your first response will be admiration of this person's genius. Hacking into computers requires advanced skillz. Plus, he has shown up the hollowness of so-called "online security." You have to give him credit, right? And you're not angry about this, are you? I mean, what's a little security and a little savings when they can be used to demonstrate such brilliance? This guy shouldn't be in jail; he should be offered a position with the CIA. No?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

One final thing about fraud dude

His CV is available on The New Republic website. I take back what I said about Aleksey Vayner beating this guy for fabulousness. In academic accolade land, Adam Wheeler WINS.

I wonder how the professor whose books he claims to have co-authored in impressively rapid progression feels about sharing credit. Do the books even exist? (They're not listed on his website--and hey! weird unrelated connection, but I think this guy's wife was in my Emile class this semester?) I also wonder if he's ever met the kid? Wouldn't it be weird if one day you woke up and found that some little fraudster you've never seen in your life claimed to have co-written all your books?

Also, I wonder whether Phi Beta Cons will point out that part of the success of this hoax was brought to you by the the strong resemblance between incomprehensible literary theory and actual bullshit?

UPDATE: The Crimson has a fact-check rundown of his resume. I'm pleased that someone thought my job was impressive enough to lie about having.

Solutions to fraud: the therapeutic panopticon

Since the Adam Wheeler story has stalled, I've been unfortunately reduced to reading the comments to the articles (which I realize is always a bad decision), and I don't understand the people posting about how shocked they are that Harvard doesn't perform background checks on all its applicants. Do they not realize that more than 30,000 people apply there every year? They'd have to hire a second admissions office to run background checks on all of them, especially the kind that would be necessary to filter out frauds like this--contacting all their schools for enrollment and transcript verification, calling their letter writers, checking all their writing for plagiarism.

And it's no big revelation to point that "it's on them" if they fail to catch one of these louts. No one is saying it's a national security emergency. "Blame Harvard" has limited truth to it--Harvard evidently attracts more such louts than, say, Chicago, where I don't recall a single such fraud being unearthed in my time there. Maybe its own culture transforms even its honest students into fraud-like beings; I don't know. But somehow I doubt that they're all sitting around doctoring their transcripts as you read this. (Though maybe they are!)

Opposite the Harvard resentment position stands the impossibility of fault position, which does great credit to the person who takes it since it demonstrates his compassion and elevation above the fray. Such a person expresses no indignation over douchebags taking for free what he had to work for; he is too morally advanced for petty resentment. For example, the anonymous professor in the Globe article: "There’s something that’s pathological there. And it’s something that seems to me that needs care and clinical treatment, rather than incarceration." All this guy needed was more hugs! Prestige-seeking is a disease; look for it in the next edition of the DSM.

Taken together, these approaches provide a really good outline for a solution to the problem of imposters. Basically, we should just watch everyone all the time starting at birth and keep all their school, work, and personal records in a central registry from which a college application can be automatically compiled by computers. Then, when we discover irregularities in their behavior (which will happen quickly because of the constant surveillance), we will refer them immediately to clinical treatment before anyone's aesthetically displeasing indignation can be aroused to start unjustly blaming people for pathologies they clearly cannot control. Plus, with so many people being treated for irregularities, the stigma might diminish. I think this is a good plan to address the fraud problem. The only difficulty is if at some point a really cunning super-fraud appears who manages to access the central registry of all personal data on everyone. Then we might experience a system malfunction.

UPDATE: New article, same comments. "I wonder if Harvard will ever come clean about how its admissions personnel fell for this guy's scam. And I wonder if Harvard will apologize to all the deserving applicants whose applications were rejected in favor of phony ones." No peeps, it won't. Not the point. Plz stop crying over your college rejections and imagining that you want to live in a world where no such fraud could ever occur. Yes, it's too bad they let this douchebag in, but they did catch him before he got out. So, hooray for justice.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Ivy league frauds, my favorite peeps

As many of you know, Miss Self-Important is pretty into stories of elite university frauds. They come up frequently in her writings in other venues, and she wonders if maybe she should start keeping a file, like she does on her other "professional" interests (there's an 18th century Calvinist file, a Locke & Rousseau file, and, um, a Judy Blume newspapers clippings from the 1970s file, but the drawer has still space...). The most recent awesome fraud, brought to my attention by David, is Adam Wheeler, supposed former Harvard undergrad who lied about all kinds of easily detectable stuff in all his applications ever. On the other hand, if it's really that easy in the age of Internet searches to make up basic things like where you went to high school without anyone noticing (like, you know, the million actual graduates of Andover who now go to Harvard and would not recall this guy's being around), there is hope for generations of future frauds. Go forth, imposters!

Now, this is certainly not the greatest of all university hoaxes. I still prefer Aleksey Vayner, who may not technically be a hoax (I guess he's still claiming all that stuff), and Azia Kim, who had more balls than this Wheeler character. Also, the tale of the rise and fall (and rise again! Like a phoenix!) of Kaavya is captivating. And that's all before we get into the pre-2005 fraud archives.

What I want to know though is why this guy doesn't have a degree? If he won the senior thesis prize last year, he should've graduated last year, and with that sparkly academic record, it's unlikely that he would've flunked out. Please explain, O wise Crimson staffers.

Finally, all this relaxes me as I continue to plod through my finals at a leisurely pace. As I was telling Alex recently, one year here has caused me to stop valuing ambition as any kind of virtue.

UPDATE: My question has been answered. Apparently, he was supposed to graduate this spring, but the "discrepancies" were quietly uncovered last fall, so he's been out since then. This is a perfect example of UD's dictum that if you're going to be a fraud, at least keep your head down and avoid publicity. Of course, if you did that, I would never know about you and I'd be so much less entertained.

First World Problems: University libraries not open late enough for me to flout all my deadlines

If I had a million dollars, and I were somehow miraculously convinced to give it away, I would donate it to whatever institution I'm affiliated with to keep the libraries open later in summer. Finals are officially over, but not Miss Self-Important's finals, so she is looking for acceptable summer hours. The options are extremely puzzling. On the one hand, Widener closes at 5 pm on weekdays now, but all the subject libraries inside Widener are open until 10 pm. Question: How do I get into the subject libraries if the front door is locked? This leaves three other open-late summer library options: the Law School library, the Div School library, and the Kennedy School library. I feel like there must be extra significance to the selection of these particular libraries for extended summer hours, like God, the law, and...public policy are more urgent matters of study than education and the useless liberal arts. Or, alternately, all the liberal arts students have such coastal elite lives that they summer in Paris, and so don't have need of campus libraries during that time. Which leaves future lawyers and government paper-pushers to carry the torch of hard-working American tradition in their stead.

Also, "Harvard Forest Library"?

UPDATE: Lies! God closes at 5 pm too.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

In search of zoon logon echon

Seb is studying for exams and asked me last night what the Greek term for "rational animal" is in Aristotle. Having never come across such a term in my admittedly quite sparse reading of Aristotle in Greek, I set out to find it. What I found was a load of crap academic studies referring to a "zoon logon echon" that is rumored to have appeared in Aristotle and even citing Bekker numbers (though wildly disparate ones) pointing to its alleged location, and NONE OF THEM WERE TRUE.

For example, this claims (along with pretty much every scholarly discussion that bothered to cite that I found on Google Books) that the phrase comes up in Ethics 1098a3-5. While there is certainly discussion of rationality there, there is no "zoon logon echon." Then there is this dude, who sends us to "the beginning of Book VI," which again tells us about the rational principle in the soul but never uses this mythical "zoon logon echon." There were also citations to the Metaphysics, where this phrase appears to be equally absent.

This is depressing. Can't these people just admit that Heidegger says this phrase exists but they don't know enough Greek to find it with the help of their Big Fucking Dictionaries? Why give fake citations?

Also, peeps, where is this phrase really?

Monday, May 10, 2010

Attempted solutions to the problem of not having original ideas

The great plague of this year has been my repeated discovery that, no matter what I write about anything, someone else has invariable already said it. After the paper-writing paralysis this caused last semester while I was working on Locke, I decided to try a new approach this semester. I wouldn't read any secondary literature in preparation for my Rousseau paper, and instead write down all my ideas first, and only when I had the conclusion left to complete would I check out some books on Rousseau.

The positive outcomes of this approach include: finishing the entire paper in a week instead of a month, having an idea, and not mentioning Arendt even once (though she's there in spirit, as always). The problems, however, were just as numerous: I wasn't sure if what I was writing about was even a real problem in Rousseau or just a problem in my own head, I had nothing really to argue against and impose discipline and direction on my argument. Then, when I did turn to the secondary texts, I did not find any of my arguments echoed in them, and immediately started to worry that this because they are wrong. Surely, being wrong is worse than being derivative. Finally, the freedom to write all my own ideas caused a major close-reading fail, which might, in this class, also constitute a paper-fail.

In other words, back to square one. But, two classes down, two to go. Plus the two from last semester. Plus all the summer reading. Plus Greek, plus French...

Friday, May 07, 2010

On annual college giving

As a concession to the inevitable, I have donated money to the U of C every year since I graduated (including the year I graduated). This is of course in part because I love Chicago, but the fraction of my donation stemming purely from this love is very small, and those of you who know how much my annual donation amounts to will realize just how little money love is worth. The main reasons I donate are to quell the pestering from the alumni association and, in the spirit of college, to score some free wine and mini-cheeseburgers at the annual young alumni party in whatever city I happen to be in that year.

Still, I do think long and hard about where my $5 is going to go each year so that I can most effectively avoid abetting things like this. In the past, the safest way to do that was to earmark my money for use by things like this, but that was never a sure bet because they didn't have their own slot in the designated drop-down menu and who knows where money not designated in the drop down menu ends up. This year, however, a new and exciting slot in the drop-down menu has appeared: this one. I'm pretty sure I know whose salary my donation will contribute to, and which weird Buddhist(?) sect that will eventually filter down to, but ok, at least I can rest somewhat assured that it will not end up bringing a sex slave/dominatrix combo to campus. But, really, who knows? If I ever donated a million dollars though, I'm not sure I'd care this much about its destination.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

An open letter to the cosmic order of things

Dear cosmic order,

Remember when finals used to be fun? Or, at least, so communally stressful that they closely resembled fun? Lesson learned: Nothing is as fun in grad school as it was in college. Not even the free alcohol.

No love,
Miss Self-Important

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

And also!

Alex has an article about huge family reality TV in the new issue of Doublethink!

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Disconcerting discoveries

When I looked up "Buddy Holly" on Lala today, the third result I got was some kind of Buddy Holly cover album by a guy I went to high school with. I knew he had a band, but I don't really keep up with these things and kind of assumed that he would remain forever the uninteresting mediocrity he was in high school. This is still true, right guys?

Monday, May 03, 2010

Evidence of the total decline of civilization

Exhibit A: The reviews of Emile on Goodreads. Much as it pains me to say this, Straussians may be our only hope.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Sign-offs of doom: "Please don’t pull a Larry Summers on me"

My French instructor likes to append to all her references to Rousseau that "it is pretty well-established now among scholars that he was schizophrenic." I assume, given the disdain with which she says this, that this is intended to explain why he is so tiresome for her to read. It seems fairly absurd that anyone who has been dead for 250 years can have had any psychological disorder invented in the past century, no matter how "well-established now among scholars" that position is. Even psychiatry doesn't arrogate to itself the ability to diagnose the dead, so I'd venture that professors of Romance Languages are even less equipped.

Still, this is the kind of thing educated people often say in order to dismiss things in educated-sounding ways, and I'm reminded of it by this response to the HLS email flap (which, though characteristically filled with the OMG GREAT OUTRAGE that is such sites' stock in trade, at least does not mention the blogger's tears):
I’m not going to get into why Grace’s arguments are wrong; that should hopefully be self-evident, and I don’t think we need to waste time entertaining completely ignorant ideas about the genetics of intelligence, or whether certain racial or ethnic groups are “naturally” more or less intelligent than others. There are certain ideas that just do not belong in the realm of serious intellectual conversation, and this is one of them.

Instead, I want to discuss...the troubling reaction to the dissemination of her email...Because while Stephanie Grace is sending out racist emails, sites like Above the Law are falling all over themselves not only to obscure her identity, but also to say that maybe she was kind of right — and that her email wasn’t actually racist, and that the idea that black people are genetically inferior is one that we should entertain...

It is not a point that should have to be rationally debated anymore, any more than we would rationally debate whether or not the Earth is flat. If a PhD candidate in a science program suggested that the sun revolved around the Earth, I can just about guarantee that there would be no calls for rational debate on the issue.
Which translates to: we should not debate this question in public because people are debating this question in public, and I would prefer that they stopped. My standard for determining what is debatable is what science has conclusively proved, but, problematically, this particular issue happens to be "impossible to prove beyond any scientific doubt." Fortunately, this post also contains a renunciation of logic, so no inconsistencies there.

As far as Miss Self-Important knows, social scientific studies of intelligence--including those with race variables--continue apace, and while Miss Self-Important shares Feministe's skepticism about social science (though probably for different reasons), she doesn't think that she can will it out of existence by sheer force of her skepticism, and certainly not by publishing private emails on national websites in order to arbitrarily destroy the reputations of people she disagrees with for a bunch of totally sophistic reasons like, "Harvard Law School grads are partners at law firms. They hold political offices. They are judges. They are in positions of real power." Does this mean that the lower your law school is ranked, the more racist you're permitted to be, because only the racism of potential holders of "real power" matters? So Feministe is going to be OK with the Law School of the Outer Ozarks starting up a chapter of the Klan? And apparently, "Before those positions are offered, the people who are elevating her deserve to know how she will wield that power" by having all her outgoing emails forwarded to them. I imagine Jill of Feministe will be the first to volunteer for this power-wielder test when it becomes nationally available?

There are many educated ways of saying really simple things, like, "I just don't want to talk about this anymore, bitches!" This elaborate nonsense about defining the terms of rational debate and the role of science in them is one way, just like "Rousseau was schizophrenic" is a lofty way of saying, "Rousseau sucks and we shouldn't take him seriously." But such simplicity undermines the possession of many advanced degrees, and the best part of many advanced degrees is that they lend authority to your whims, and as Isabel Archer suggests, with the right amount of scholarly consensus, can lead to a very satisfying case of "epistemic closure." Again, there is a simpler name for that (or what people want that to mean for politics, which doesn't look to me like what the Official Philosophical Meaning is)--threats and intimidation by me and my friends, who presently outnumber you and your friends in our little cave. (Note to my friends: please move to my cave, and bring clubs.)

None of which is to say that education is all a mirage and one should stick with honest yeomanry, only that educated people and yeoman are about equally ignorant of everything, but educated people can be interesting to talk to when they're not threatening to publish your conversation in some national blog. The only way to know anything seems to be to develop schizophrenia. Really: Romance Languages scholars widely agree.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Undergrads understand my problems; maybe we can be friends

Really, it's true. You do smell. Keep your shoes on.

And then the fail failed in the failiest way

Something failed in the Boston water system. Not clear what, but we know that it was bad because synonyms of the word make up almost the entirety of this article, the best part of which is, "MWRA Executive Director Fred Laskey said the leak began between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. today and the pipe continued to fail until it failed 'catastrophically.'" So due to catastrophic broken leaking damage fail, we should not drink the water. Unless we live in Cambridge, where the fail failed to fail.