The ostensible dichotomy -- and hierarchy -- between the skills of a humanist and those of an engineer never held water. We're in an especially ripe age for humanities bashing these days, as the salvation of big data and slick code is bandied about the land.
Alas, it has ever been thus. C.P. Snow's book The Two Cultures, which is about exactly this tension, is now more than 50 years old.
One must wonder why storytelling as a means of learning and sharing knowledge gets such short shrift. After all we are all narrators.
My best guess is that the "hard" sciences -- all those test tubes and beakers, all that code -- are seductive because they over-promise. We're always just one experiment or theorem away from the promised land.
Humanists call this for what it is: hubris.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with seeking to understand the natural world, devising innovations to help people live longer and more productive lives, writing elegant code, or building perfectly suspended bridges. Go for it, scientists and engineers. Just don't be so self-righteous.
Frederic Filloux is out with a tough Monday Note this week about all of the missed opportunities that established media organizations have failed to seize in the digital age. He uses the metaphor of two planes on a runway -- one overly controlled and stifled, the other sleekly designed and ready for takeoff. The former is the legacy media, doomed to exist in a world of low risk/low reward. The latter is the start-up culture epitomized by Facebook (back in the day) and app designers, who saw the web as an opportunity rather than a threat.
Guess who's thriving now? And guess who's on "deathwatch?"
I find myself in complete agreement with Filloux, but annoyed by his hectoring tone. One imagines an angry man astride a podium, shaking his fists while preaching to people who already agree with him. (Filloux says in the piece that many people from established media organization have told him in confidence they agree with him too -- I don't have any reason to doubt Filloux's word, but without quotes on the record it is hard to take this as gospel truth.) This is not a way to bring people along to a new understanding, it feels more like kicking someone who is already down.
Filloux recognizes the challenges of his tone, and attempts to end on a "hopeful note" although his last paragraph is a throwaway effort. He is much more detailed and precise in his critiques of flaws than in his vague statements about how the media can build average revenue per user.
I know how Filloux feels -- when you can see the future coming from years away, and passionately educate people who choose to completely ignore you, patience wears thin. One imagines he's endured many difficult consultations with benighted news executives, people so tethered to the glories of print that they can imagine no other way to share the news. Nonetheless, wielding a cudgel is not a good look.
When I was a kid my favorite sitcom was M.A.S.H. The clear and compelling anti-war message, as revealed through Alan Alda's Hawkeye Pierce, spoke to my need for clarity and justice.
One show that was not in my rotation back then was The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I knew that it was revolutionary in having a single working woman as the focus, but by the early 90s this was less noteworthy. But I decided to see what all the fuss was about, tuning into some episodes on Nick at Nite.
Ehh. The set seemed small, and Ted Baxter was ridiculous.
A few years ago I decided to revisit both M.A.S.H and MTM, and how times had changed.
Now M.A.S.H seemed preachy, high strung, predictable. Hawkeye's certainty about almost everything is irritating, not refreshing.
Mary Tyler Moore, on the other hand, contains depth and nuance. Mary moves from a studio apartment to a high rise and becomes the main producer of the news. Ted and Georgette get married. Lou gets divorced and starts to date again. Rhoda moves back to New York, Phyllis off to San Francisco. Murray and Marie adopt a son, from Vietnam. Sue Ann Nivens is fragile beneath all those cutting remarks.
These characters actually developed over the 7 seasons of the show, and the writing only got better as it went along. That is a rare feat.
This past weekend I had the pleasure to watch Notes on Blindness at the San Francisco International Film Festival.
This brilliant documentary describes the intellectual and emotional journey of English theologian John Hull.
Hull became permanently blind (after a lifetime of vision problems) in mid-life. Hull lived to be 80 years old, passing away in 2015. He was completely blind for more than 30 years of his life.
At first Hull was angry, wanting to fight back against blindness. Over the years he came to terms with this unchangeable fact, and honed his mental and emotional resources accordingly. He was a deeply literate and humane man, and used both those attributes to fashion a rich life despite -- no, because of -- his blindness. His book Touching the Rockrecords his "notes on blindness," on which the film is based.
One suspects that as a theologian Hull knew the Serenity Prayer, although he does not quote it in the film.
Serenity to accept what we cannot change/Courage to change the things we can/Wisdom to know the difference. It's all here.
I'm at the Force 2016 conference in Portland, which is about the future of research communications and e-scholarship. Clear communication of research findings is imperative for many reasons -- from persuading funders to support a project to informing the public about how a new finding can improve their lives.
A major barrier to clear communication is the "curse of knowledge"-- once we know something it is very hard to realize that not everybody else knows it too. Getting outside our own heads is, and will always be, a challenge.
To illustrate this Christie Nicholson of the Alda Center presented the enclosed two sentence description of a Red Sox - Yankees game in 2010. There's so much implicit knowledge packed in these two sentences, which we realized by trying to explain it to people who are not familiar with basbeball.
You need to know all these things to understand this passage fully:
That the Yankees and Red Sox are fierce rivals
What rivalry means
That baseball is divided into divisions called "innings," which are themselves divided into a "top" and "bottom"
That the home team bats at the bottom of each inning
What a home team is
What the object of baseball is
How the field is arranged
How the game is played
What an "ace reliever" is
What a one-out walk accomplishes
What one out means
How many outs are needed to end the inning
What "strike out swinging" means
Why this ended the game
And many other things too, no doubt. Whew! No wonder people default to jargon and in-group talk.
Making something truly clear to someone who has no context for it is hard. But it's not impossible if we consciously and deliberately step outside yourselves.
Charles S. Hirsch, New York City's Chief Medical Examiner on September 11, 2001, passed away last Friday. He was 79.
In 2001 I was living in Evanston. I must confess that I was not aware that Hirsch immediately led the charge to identify victims of the attacks, breaking his own ribs at Ground Zero in his rush to the scene. By 2005 I was living in Manhattan. One day I found myself at Todaro's, the inimitable deli on 2nd Avenue that is near NYU Medical Center. (I worked in the library.) Hirsch was on the faculty at NYU, and his facility to inspect the victim's remains was at the southern tip of the medical center complex. There he was at Todaro's, and we briefly struck up a chat.
The humility and courtesy of the City's Chief Medical Examiner was wonderful. Hirsch offered the usual apologies for never entering the library anymore, I offered the usual assurances that this was ok as long as he had the information he needed.
Later I attended a talk by Hirsch at the Medical Center, where he gave an update on his progress and offered anew his promise to never ever give up in his quest to identify the remains. He kept it.
Geoffrey Stone is out with a tart Huff Post about how the Senate Republicans should address the nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. Stone, formerly the Dean of the University of Chicago Law School and still a professor there, knows whereof he speaks.
Stone's main contention is that the "advise-and-consent" function of the Senate requires confirmation of Supreme Court nominees who are qualified and within the mainstream of jurisprudence. Garland easily and gracefully passes both of these tests. Thus, says Stone, the Senate should expeditiously confirm Garland.
Of course, the GOP is still refusing to hold a hearing on Garland's nomination. In their telling, the next President should determine this nomination because we are in an election year. Of course, Presidential terms last for four years and Presidential responsibilities are in force for the entire length of that term.
The GOP's argument is laughably pathetic. The real reason for the stall, of course, is to preserve a conservative Supreme Court after the death of Antonin Scalia.
In Stone's view, such considerations should not matter. Garland is qualified, Garland is mainstream, Garland should be confirmed.
I'll grant the Senate GOP a little more slack. Hold the hearing, and then vote to deny Garland a seat on the court. If he's so objectionable, have the courage of your convictions.
Over the past two years I've become quite fond of listening to podcasts on afternoon walks or morning work-outs. "Radio for your ears" has been around much longer than that, but I caught the fever a few years ago and haven't looked back.
All of these are great. But none really ask people why they do what they do -- the drives and motivations behind their best work. It's more easy to find discussions of process and logistics than philosophy and motivations. Unpeeling the onion to get to the heart of things -- this is what I was looking for.
Mine is a more humble endeavor than the power-houses cited above. I recorded and edited the audio myself rather than relying on professional producers. There was a learning curve, for everything from how to use the editing software (Audacity) to figuring out where to store the files (SoundCloud and PodBean). I envisioned an ever-expanding list of guests, but given the time commitment I have concluded season 1 after 5 interviews.
I would love to get back to it someday, once I have production support lined up.