10 February, 2011

Is College A Waste Of Time?

James Altucher believes that attending college is a mistake, and that young people's time would be better spent starting a business or pursuing a hobby. His claim is that most students today don't really learn anything in college, and that achievement-minded people will succeed regardless of whether they go to college or not.

There are a number of things wrong with this. The first hinges on Altucher's idea of success, which I can only assume is defined by a high-earning private sector job. It's a safe assumption because (a) that's what he has, and (b) it's easy to come up with a number of jobs that really do require a college degree, no matter how smart and hard-working you are, and this goes against his generalization.

Take, for example, the combined industries of education and scientific research. You don't want your high school teachers to only have a high school diploma, and to do new meaningful research (i.e. stuff that wasn't discovered 100 years ago) you need to get beyond 10th grade biology. So these fields really do require a college education. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2008 these combined industries made up 10.3% of nonfarm jobs in the U.S. That's a pretty signficant chunk to justify the sort of sweeping, unconstrained generalizations that Altucher is making.

The other argument I would make is that "achievement-minded" people end up with high-paying jobs because at some point early on they develop an interest in a field that happens to have high-paying jobs. When people find their "calling" can really vary from person to person, and is influenced by their exposure to different fields of work. Many people don't know what they want to do right out of high-school. Moreover, a young person is much more likely to be exposed to the right match for them on a college campus, where there is a tight clustering of experienced people from different fields actively trying to recruit new students.

One question is why do media outlets cater so much to people from the financial sector? If you include banking, insurance, securities, and other investments, people employed in this industry only account for 3.5% of all nonfarm jobs in the U.S. Yet, from watching TV news channels or listening to evening NPR programming one would gather that most people could benefit from the advice of financial gurus. In fact, their life-experience is pretty limited to maneuvering investments, and that's not really experience that you can extend to most people in the service industry, which accounts for most jobs in the U.S.

09 February, 2011

Raising Children Today

When you grow up, you mature physically and mentally. The thing that makes you "you" to most people, though, is your personality. Most people retain some core aspects of their personality throughout their life, but to varying degrees people's personalities can change noticeably between one's teen years and mid-adulthood.

There are not a lot of photos of my parents when they were in their teens and twenties. There are no videos of them that I'm aware of. So my concept of my parents as people begins with them in mid-adulthood - with a job, a house, children, and a lot of life experiences. I'll never know what they were like when they were 20 year old.

But my children will potentially have access to a great deal of photos and videos of me from my youth. Today, recording a video of you with your friends is as easy of as taking your cell phone out of your pocket. They will see what I was like (in all my silly awkwardness) before I had a job, a house, responsibilities, etc. Their concept of me will span my most of my life, not just from the moment they were born (or more accurately, around 10 or 11 years old).

Is this a good thing? Possibly. It might give me more cred when lecturing them about what things are not good ideas to do when you're 15, simply because they will have a visual picture of me at that age. What we can say is that raising children in the coming decades will be a very different experience than it was 20 years ago simply due to the availability of media-taking devices and the internet.

20 October, 2010

Bringing it full circle.

Mashable just posted today that the Pixies are giving away a live EP album to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Doolittle.

All you need to do is go to their website and join the mailing list.

It's like they wanted me to start posting again.

01 June, 2010

Philosophers and Philosophy

Steve Pyke has some stunning pictures of recent and contemporary philosophers, here, along with short comments on what philosophy is or means to them.

Jurgen Habermas, who points out the dangers of inquiry, confidence, and even truth:

"The future of the enlightenment, what might it consist in? We ought to succeed in showing how, within a predicament that is leaving ever narrower room for action, we are yet assuming responsibility for actions whose consequences are growing even longer and less easily surveyable. Moreover, we ought to be capable of showing this while at the same time being hesitant in the awareness of the danger that, as Benjamin knew, threatens even from the successes enjoyed in working together with a shared purpose."

22 May, 2010


Yes. This is an actual actress whose actual name is Sprague Graydon. Enjoy.

03 May, 2010

A Dry, Dry April

But flowers may bloom in the desert even after the longest drought. Hasn't been much news to relate, so I thought I'd share what I've been working on--now that I have the time to do something other than work on it!

My first project consisted of a research essay into James Joyce's Ulysses and traditions of novelistic realism. The argument: Joyce's work represents both the explosion and peak of realistic writing coming out of and away from the well-known traditions of Victorian writers. Joyce's experience of the world is arguably different from traditional narrative conceptions, shown through his use of metonymy and metaphor in creating his imaginative referential self-image through the characters of Stephen, Bloom, and Molly. Lots of fun there.

Second project, self-discovery through travel in High Victorian adventure fiction and travel narratives. H. Rider Haggard's novel She explores masculine anxieties with the decline of empire, powerful women, and homosocial desire. Charlotte Bronte's Villette challeges ideas of propriety for women's education and travel, and explores an alternate type of homecoming for her autobiographical narrator.

Third, the relationship between the material concerns of publishing and the literary form of three-decker or serial publication of novels in the mid-19th century.

Now I'm doing a presentation on Jonathan Swift's satire and pamphleteering as political leverage. Awesome.

So, good times over here in foggy London!

03 April, 2010

Easter tab dump!

Some good stuff I've been reading:

  • An old Times piece on the "Man Date". The level of pitiful sexual insecurity disguised as theatrical hyper-masculinity in modern men infinitely depresses me.
  • Joan Didion's moving and brutal essay on self-respect. "If we do not respect ourselves, we are one the one hand forced to despise those who have so few resources as to consort with us, so little perception as to remain blind to our fatal weaknesses. On the other, we are peculiarly in thrall to everyone we see, curiously determined to live out - since our self image is untenable - their false notion of us." See the above article for a perfect example.
  • Dave Eggers may be hipster cliche by now, but he is still awesome and I will be purchasing is new book.
  • The Hood Internet: microcosm of the greatness of America. And free to download.
  • Scott Adams has a blog, and it is both hysterical and surprisingly insightful.

That is all. Go now in peace to do the Lord's work.

13 March, 2010

Semi-vegetarianism, climate change, and public health

This chart, showing the discrepancy between a recommended diet and what our government subsidizes, has been making the rounds:

And of course, the "recommended" diet is already itself highly influenced by agro-industry lobbyists away from what dieticians actually recommend. I think this is old news to most of us here at debaser, but it is a dramatic reminder of the disastrous incentives embedded in our farm subsidy system, which is itself almost completely a product of (my favorite theme!) the structure of the Senate. Much more than privileging right or left, the Senate's disproportionality privileges the ability of small farm states to skew the entire federal budget to their local agribusinesses.

This also reminded me of Mark Bittman's entertaining TED talk from several years ago, in which he sketched out how the subsidation of grains and the resulting over-consumption of meat and processed foods is intertwined with climate change as well our personal health. He advocates "semi-vegetarianism", which is just another way of saying we should eat less meat. It sounds, and is, simple, but I appreciate the way in which he identifies and dismisses the red herrings of much of the current progressive food fad -- specifically, the "being nice to animals"/PETA style of moralistic vegetarianism, which he sees as counter-productive, and the "locavore"/organic fad, which he points out often is all about branding and not quality.

It all comes down to: halve your meat intake, double your plant intake, and cut junk food and soda. Of course, for people who don't watch TED talks and who don't have access to affordable, fresh foods in their own neighborhoods, there is a crucial element of public policy in making that simple prescription possible.

05 March, 2010

Hayekian progressivism and the capitalism/socialism debate

At the same time that Cassady's class reading has been leading him to re-litigate the age old debate over the costs and benefits of various economic systems, I have been coming across an interesting quote from Hayek's Road to Serfdom. RTS is, of course, held up by libertarians as the Bible for its (layman's terms here...) description of how increasing state intervention in economic affairs snowballs into a repressive state that comes to exert control over all aspects of its citizens' lives -- far from the "free, happy and social existence" that Cassady thinks capitalism has squelched. Here is the quote:

Nor is there any reason why the state should not assist individuals in providing for those common hazards of life against which, because of their uncertainty, few individuals can make adequate provision. Where, as in the case of sickness and accident, neither the desire to avoid such calamities nor the efforts to overcome their consequences are as a rule weakened by the provision of assistance, where, in short, we deal with genuinely insurable risks, the case for the state helping to organise a comprehensive system of social insurance is very strong. There are many points of detail where those wishing to preserve the competitive system and those wishing to supersede it by something different will disagree on the details of such schemes; and it is possible under the name of social insurance to introduce measures which tend to make competition more or less ineffective. But there is no incompatibility in principle between the state providing greater security in this way and the preservation of individual freedom. (Italics Yglesias')

So it appears that Hayek, the god of the libertarian right, is defending as common sense the idea that the dread State should intervene to provide a basic level of social services, and here he refers specifically to health care.

I bring this up because one of the best things I have ever read on the trade-offs between capitalism and socialism is this essay on Hayek. Its a bit long, but clearer than the many, many books I have read on the subject, and it lays out a path of compromise between the Cassadys and the Spencers of the world.

What the article makes clear is that the heart of capitalism, its most basic insight, centers on the nature of knowledge and its communication. Human desires are subjective, often implicit, and ever-changing based on context and circumstance. How much a person values, say, a pair of shoes changes based on location, weather, and social circle. The utility of a pricing system is that it is an aggregator and sorter of constantly shifting desires. It is the only mechanism ever conceived that can take the unspoken wants that reside in the hearts of millions of simultaneously interacting individuals and make that tacit information visible and useful in real time. Its incredible really -- and in that sense, a market is infinitely more sensitive to the wants and needs of its participants than a system of socialist production and distribution could ever be.

But that is not to say that a large part of Cassady's critique is not also true. Market outcomes produce winners and losers in often arbitrary and unpredictable ways. Bad luck of birth, illness, injury all mean lots of people have much less, if any, ability to make of their lives and themselves what they want. Many men and women are denied the pursuit of happiness that is guaranteed to them by Jefferson's founding poetry. This is obvious to any observer now, as it was even to Hayek in his day. And to Hayek's moral and intellectual credit, he did not let his ideology paper over or explain away this basic injustice, nor did he retreat behind the offensive notion that "it is my job to critique only".

And so many modern economists such as Amartya Sen have sought a synthesis in which the redistributive powers of the state are used to guarantee that each citizen has the opportunity to lead what they call "choiceworthy" lives within the capitalist framework. "Choiceworthy" is a fancy academic jargon for a state of affairs in which citizens have a reasonable ability to live a dignified, healthy, and creative life -- in other words, a happy, fulfilled life which Cassady in his more strident moments doesn't seem to think is possible under capitalism. In practice, this can take many forms. The "traditional" progressive/European model is heavy state investment in the basic building blocks of a stable, healthy life -- health care, child care, education and other safety net programs. Other ideas include a large "stake holder" grant provided to each citizen upon their reaching the age of majority. For instance, in one proposal each person upon turning 18 would receive a one time lump sum grant of $80,000 to begin their lives with. In another, the state would provide a minimum yearly income of $10,000.

To my mind, a commitment on the part of the state to provide generous access to these "foundational goods" answers many of the legitimate complaints that Cassady raises, without significantly attacking the basic structure of competition based on price signals that is at the heart of capitalism's success. There may still be more metaphysical grounds on which Cassady critiques capitalism -- specifically his charges about its fundamentally "exploitative" nature. To which I say: sure. Life is exploitation. The trick is managing that basic evolutionary reality in a humane, sustainable, and productive way.

01 March, 2010

Why London is Fantastically Splendid

Live music all night for L2.50, and decently cheap drinks in an entirely charismatic venue.

A slightly more structured open-mic style every Monday night, minimal cover charge, and they screen each act before it's put on the docket, so there's a substantial level of musicianship maintained.

We caught a number of gems tonight:

Henry Brill (of Henry Brill and the Electric Company). Growly, emotional, bluesy vocals. Well blended lyrics with powerful guitar, and still manages to show a talent for ensemble and composition with vocal harmony. Check out "Your Rage" and his other stuff here.

Natalie Ross. Cute, bouncy, and yet soulful and meaningful. She performed with a fantastic 40's aesthetic, and experimented admirably with looping and electronically layering her substantial vocal talent with jazz-influenced songs. Please, please, please check her out here.

Headliner was a 4-piece folk-rock group called Son of Kirk. Guitar(s), violin, drums, and male-female harmonies. Wonderful instrumentation and blending of sounds. Finished the set with an absoluting rocking slide-guitar sea shanty called "Man Overboard." Really compelling stuff. Here.

26 February, 2010

Per Spencer's response #10 to Marxism

My response in explanation was too long, so here it is reproduced:

Oh Spence, there you go assuming I'm some pie-in-the-sky Marxist.

I guess I have to venture some response along the lines of Marxism that I have begun--with the caveat that I don't actually buy all these arguments.

Response 1: Like I said, I don't think that living standards haven't increased. Neither would I argue that people are reporting more happiness. The stock response, I suppose, is that they have no basis of comparison for true happiness. They have been born and bred into a system with teaches them first to distinguish leisure and work times, and then takes over leisure time with the myriad tasks of participating in society--as ordered by capitalism. Work becomes drudgery, and the people are unable to form meaningful human relationships, but rather are engaged with one another only through the things they have. Fetishism, Marx would say.

Still, there is value to happiness as the measure of human existence. What people under capitalism experience is a dim shadow of happiness--only that which can be derived from the use value of some object or another, and its comparison to other objects--that is nothing compared to the person existing in full relationship with their society and producing for themselves.

As for the increases you are citing, I need not worry myself about them. Marxism is not a regression into some pastoral wonderland where no one outlives the usefulness of their teeth and babies are considered with as much regard as goldfish. All of those advances were made--I'll even give you this one--under capitalistic systems, already firmly in place by the 19th century. What I am concerned with is completing the process (and here I may overstep myself because it has been said of the Marxist that 'it is not for him to solve, only to critique') and giving man the freedom and happiness which is truly his lot in life, denied him by enslavement to the various commodities and their relations around him.

Response 2: Of course its vague. Also, I'm not sure that it's meant to illustrate anything besides the fact that from within the system we are looking at--capitalism--it is impossible to look at some parts of life as "non-capitalistic," such as "having a good time with friends," i.e. leisure. With what do we amuse ourselves during this so-called leisure time? Buying things. Consuming things. Failing to relate on a truly human level to other individuals through the hazy yet impenetrable curtain of the commodity. Basically, it goes back to the measure of happiness and freedom that people experience--or rather are unable to experience--under capitalism.

Response 3: Exploitation: 1. The act of using something for any purpose; to use. 2. The act of using something in an unjust or cruel manner.

Both of these definitions apply to my argument. Objects in themselves have a use to humans. Steel: building, weapons, tools. Even gold: ornamentation, electronics (notice I didn't say money). A capitalist society abstracts the use of objects from the people who produce them--extracting from them (I will soon say exploiting them for) their labor. You don't produce things to use them yourself. The goal of capitalism to is earn capital gains off an investment. We make things for an abstract market, sometimes too much, sometimes too litte. When a person is not being allowed to apply their labor to producing the needs of their own lives and those of their families, you could argue that they are being exploited ( as in '1' and also '2') for their labor--for some else's ends(i.e. monetary gain).

A person's work--their labor of time and creativity--is most rightly applied to the needs of their life and of that of their family. I start with this as a basic assumption--basically survival of the fittest in nature, you might say. What happens under capitalism is that people are forced to work for money with which to supply their needs (ah, the uber-commodity), and accumulation is substituted as the ultimate end for human existence, in place of a free, happy, and social existence.

25 February, 2010

Rah-rah-ah-ah-ah! | Lady Gaga at MOCA - T Magazine Blog - NYTimes.com

Rah-rah-ah-ah-ah! | Lady Gaga at MOCA - T Magazine Blog - NYTimes.com

This might be the Greatest Show on Earth. I'm not normally a huge ballet fan, but put Lady Gaga, Damien Hirst, and the Russian Ballet company in one place, and you've piqued my interest. If nothing else, the video solidifies my theory that Lady Gaga is actually a really talented performer--though I can't remember who I had to defend her against. I know it wasn't this group-gone-Gaga, but still.

Check out the video

20 February, 2010

Doomed to repeat?

I have received a new nick-name from my classmates, which was great at first, but quickly gave me pause. Ezra Pound (the full nick-name is The New Ezra Pound). This is interesting because of a few not inconsequential similarities between myself and the renegade poet, and moreso because of the original Ezra's general philosophy.

Pound was instrumental in solidifying, or even beginning the careers of several of his contemporary "Modernist" poets and artists; T.S. Eliot, Wyndham Lewis, and James Joyce not least among them. He worked tirelessly at the editing and publishing of numberous literary periodicals between 1912-1920(or so), and promoting the works and championing the persons of his lettered friends.

Now, you may be thinking, "but Cassady, so far you have absolutely nothing in common with him."

Here's where things get eerie. We both hail from the American Midwest; moved to London in the early part of our respective major centuries; both are committed Anglophiles working in literary professions (or working towards them). Also, though less telling, much of our poetry from this age has passed unappreciated by our contemporaries (mine quite simply because it's rubbish).

Here's where things take an interesting turn towards...presagement? Ezra, feeling unappreciated by the London circles, moved to Italy in early 1920 and became an early admirer of Benito Mussolini. And the similarity ends...or so I hope. I haven't noticed any fascist leanings in my philosophy of life, but I'll keep you posted.

At least I can innocently hope to become an old man who looks this great:

08 February, 2010

Aflame with Frankfurt School Marxism

Siegfried Kracauer. Something feels right about his analysis of capitalist mass culture within his book, "Mass Ornament." The question is whether he's actually a Marxist.

He begins a historical study of capitalist society, like Marx, in terms of history. Kracauer, however, thinks that the best indicators of a cultural epoch are not the self-conscious judgments a given culture makes (or would make) about itself, but rather "its inconspicuous surface-level expressions." By this, I understand him to mean pop culture--or what would have passed for pop culture in the early 1900's. Pulp, may be a better word for it. His project, then, is distinct from Marx in that he looks at the superstructure of a culture that is an unconscious expression of itself, and sees it as the logical conclusion of the basis of that society. Marx, on the other hand, looks at the base (the means of production) and builds up.

Of course, nothing that Marx predicted or desired has happened, so what was he missing?

I think Kracauer may have a solid critique of Marxism going. He talks specifically about ornament, and Mass Ornament, in the example of the Tiller Girls. Synchronized body movements, not even really dancing, in which large masses of girls form their bodies--all identically dressed and made up--into simple geometric patterns. There is nothing individualized about this spectacle, for if one person would assert an individual presence it would destroy the effect of the show. Human elements are abstracted out of the spectacle; meaning is abstracted out of the spectacle. There is no greater truth to be sought within the ornament, it is an end in itself. It is reasoned, to the extent that the bodies are rationally ordered along mathematical lines and the natural body involved doesn't help you more clearly understand the spectacle. However, this rationality is illusory, or incomplete at best.

Reason is a human endeavor, and is employed to serve human ends (needs). This is in Kracauer's estimation, as I gather. There is no consideration for the human element in the Mass Ornament. Ultimately then, the ornament is a type of myth, an expression of "natural" force, versus reason.

At this point, Kracauer asserts that in these aspects the Mass Ornament is reflexive of the capitalist culture of which it is the product. Capitalist culture, essentially, removes the human elements from it's largest population. Profit is as autotelic as the ornament, it is it's own purpose. The masses of working people are externally determined in their actions and manner of life--they are not essentially free. Still, the production process which is so glorified is rational to the extent that is quiets the human urge for order and control.

So what is needed to complete the socialist revolution that seems to have been stymied somewhere along the line?

Kracauer is essentially an idealist, in that he asserts that reason alone will redeem the promise of the Marxist project. The fault of capitalism is not that it is rational, but that it is not rational enough. Aha! My old friend Immanuel Kant enters the scene. We are most free when we are most determined by reason, Kracauer seems to say--an essentially Kantian assertion. Reason would not foget to care for or abstract the human elements from culture. Kracauer desires some revived form of Enlightenment for the project to come to fruition.

And yet, nearly 100 years later, here we still are. My question now is why this Enlightenment of the masses has also failed. From this point I descend into depression considering the state of consumerism and thriving capitalism.

04 February, 2010

Ah, those nihilistic avant-gardes!

Delving into a grand study of "Modernism" (and very quickly doubting the appropriateness of such a term), I am finding very interesting and confusing professions of youth, energy, passion, and recklessness.

Enthralling, you can imagine.

I write this as preface to my trip to the Tate Museum of Modern Art. Looking forward to perusing such meaning-divorced works as Marcel Duchamp's "Fountain"

and perhaps a quick gander at some "poem objects" of Andre Breton--an early Dadaist and founder of surrealism, well known for his practice in automatic writing (basically stream of consciousness, and equally as crazy):

before finally wending my weary way towards my personal favorite, and our group's Name-Giver--to employ the Scandinavian saga hyphenation completely out of context--Salvador Dali:

You can all be jealous now.

After the visit, I became really enthralled--as I think did Guadalupe--with Alberto Giancometti. Truly expressive sculptures.

20 January, 2010

Watch your backs...

...all of my smart compatriots! One of the courses I signed up for today is "Capitalism and Culture," so be ready to try and refute all my half-baked and sophomoric econo-political theories and opinions which I believe will be forthcoming!

At least, hopefully, I'll finally be able to keep up with some of you in conversation.

18 January, 2010

The Eyes of an Artist

I was thinking about books I wanted to read, or re-read, once I finish up Phillip Roth, and I thought about continuing my streak of Great Male Authors of the 20th Century with Saul Bellow and either Herzog or Sieze the Day. Then I suddenly thought of another Saul, one whom just the other night I happened to scroll past a picture taken with him and some friends on Facebook. Ah, Saul Williams, hip hop slam poet of the soul.

On visiting his website, I found a rather long and involved post he wrote about his recent trip to Israel and Palestine to read his poetry to a group of 1,000 or so, mostly Israeli youth. He is extremely cognizant of all the tension and troubles the American media can be expected to imbue in your average citizen, but he takes a more compassionate and creative eye to cities themselves. He describes his brief visit beautifully here on his website. Hopefully that link takes you to his "Thoughts" page, where it may still be the first post you see.

It is heartening to me, to read about the peaceful protests of the Palestinian people near Tel Aviv, and their strong desire for a single nation of Muslim and Jew living side by side. The reality of their situation is equally as depressing, though; angering and daunting in equal measure.

13 January, 2010

The tragedy of Haiti

I'm sure you've all heard the news of the devastating 7.0 earthquake that struck just outside of Haiti's sprawling capital yesterday. Casualties will likely be extremely high, given the lack of almost all basic infrastructure and social services, and given the architecturally tenuous position of most of Port-au-Prince's slums that line the city's steep hills. Haiti is about as dysfunctional a place as exists in the world (save perhaps Somalia...) and what little progress it scrapes together day after day is usually washed away or knocked down by tropical storms, riots, or, now, earthquakes.

But the tragedy of yesterday's quake is that, unrecognized by many, Haiti has been making rather enormous strides since the election of the Preval government in 2006 ushered in the the longest period of political stability and legitimacy that the island had seen in nearly a century. At the same time, an increasingly funded and manned UN stabilization mission charged with a broader development and security mandate was making slow but concrete progress towards disarming irregular militias, building an a-political police force, army, and civil service. Yglesias has more on this.

But I think the real tragedy would be if we decided that Haiti is to be forever doomed. It has shown that progress can be made. As much as our efforts have improved, they are still far below what a powerful neighbor like the US can and should do. Here are some ways to help.