Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Tuesday haiku

White perspectively
Snow blowing over the fence
Pewter on the glass

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Bride of Frankenphilosophy

or: Jobsearch timewhine

Naturally, one tries to give one's sad little life some spice by seeing how one's research ties up to one's itty-bitty little life issues. This week's theme is: vagueness. For those of you who are interested, the canonical and brilliant text is Williamson's most unambiguously titled Vagueness.

The Ongoing Hellacious Jobsearch has given me a whole new appreciation of the problems arising from the vagueness of pretty much every single predicate of ordinary language. It's standardly noted in philosophical discussions about vagueness that the trouble is borderline cases -- we know perfectly well that a guy with 10,000 hairs isn't bald and a guy with 0 hairs is. They're what's called "clearly in" cases. It's some of the guys in between where you might get into a fight. Well lemmetellya, I've been conducting my very own bit of empirical research on the concept of the "clearly in".


(a) specifications of time

We will notify you shortly. Oh? How shortly is that, exactly? OK. No-one knows. So much for that stupid question. Here's another. When are you certain that "shortly" has passed such that no-one is gonna notify you, sunshine, hasta la vista and thanks for all the fish? Is a week too long? Two? Even three? How about "immediately"? The same day? Tomorrow? By the end of the week?

Don't even get me started on after a reasonable interval.

(b) specifications of quality

The standard of applications is extremely high and only candidates of exceptional research merit will be considered for interview.

I have two first-class degrees from a good (uh-oh) university, three respectable (Mammy! Get me gun!) publications, an almost-finished (Ha! Hahahahaha ...) PhD, a research proposal full of the usual BS and some pretty hot letters of recommendation. So, no kidding ... how many grains make a heap?

You know what? Forget it.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Tuesday haiku

A little bluish
Skewed backhanded eyelashes
the small, smallest signs

Cheese with your whine?

One of the things which constantly amazes me about everyday life is how often I actually have to make a moral call. Of course, ethicists all over the world are lecturing poor little first-year undergraduates right this minute about how ubiquitous ethical beliefs and decisions are, but seriously? Sure, my whole life is structured around some value system (one hopes), but somehow my life seems too boring and routine-ified for there to be that many moral decisions in it. I don't have kids or a marriage, I don't make policy decisions, except when I'm voting. But that apparently doesn't stop the damn ethical issues from pouring in between the sandbags of social norms. Still, that's not the part that's making me whiny. I'm whiny because the issues are so damn minor -- like pathetic ethical papercuts. And I'm even whinier because the right answers are mostly not clear to me. Which extends the papercut metaphor (and we know I love to squeeze my metaphors until they go superconductor), because the damn things hurt way out of proportion to their ludicrous tinyness.

The particular difficulty I have is punitiveness. What makes something a punishment, rather than not? And if something is a punishment, what warrants it?

As a result of sadistic and largely contingent factors, I have to submit my dissertation by April 30, which is in 68 days. This may or may not be feasible, but suffice to say that my time is now at a super-premium. Which may or may not be a factor in the moral structure of what happens next.

Today, I had three hours of teaching scheduled, which in my university happens one-on-one with undergraduates. One of these students failed to show. This means that today, I wasted around two hours of my unbelievably precious time.

God, how I would love to rant myself textually hoarse over this, because my raw nerve-ends are pinging with rage like severed powerlines flipping over the road splintering sparks off the tarmac. But let's pretend I'm calm and rational.

The student is just a flake. She's plain forgotten, nothing else to it. There's no malice in it. If I am to bill for the time she wasted, I have to tell someone in authority that she failed to show. That person has to pay me for teaching that the student didn't end up getting, so this means she'll get an earful. That seems punitive to me, and in one way I don't want to punish her just for being a flake. But on the other hand, if I do not invoke this arguably punitive consequence, then I am the only one to whom negative consequences accrue -- in the first place, I wasted my time, and consequently I don't get paid, and I have to expend more time and energy rescheduling the appointment she missed, and yet further energy on the teaching which should have happened today, but didn't.

I hate the feeling that it's her or me. I want to be able to be compensated for the fact that my time was wasted without there being the implication that she behaved badly.

Except, of course, she did. But she didn't mean to.

The appeal to intentions has been made to ludicrous ends around here lately -- there was a case of plagiarism which was dropped in the face of an "I didn't mean to" defense. To this I say -- WTF? No way, sunshine. Ignorantia legis neminem excusat, end of story.

But when I've been screwed over because the student is just, well, a bit hopeless? I can't cast the first stone. But it looks like I'm going to anyway.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Use your egg

During my last trip to Sainsbury's, I was inspecting the pretty new displays of Easter merchandise. (For the record, Good Friday this year falls on April 14, which is eight weeks from today. But that "what? already?" horse was flogged and dead about ten million expressions of consumer shock ago, so moving on).

On the beautifully arranged tiered display, there was a box marked "Easter Egg Hunt for Four Children". It was made like a cardboard case, with little paper handles and pastel-hued depictions of bunnies and overly euphoric-looking kidlets on the front.

WTF? There are people whose Easter will be made more efficient by the provision of a kit? Good Lord.

When I was really small, my family had the traditional hunt on Easter Sunday, at our tiny weatherboard house down on the coast. We'd be corralled somewhere, and my mother would go outside and hide little chocolate eggs all over the garden. Then would come the thrilling moment of release and my brother and I would rush out into the garden and HUNT. I still remember the thrill of the bright glimpses of jewel-coloured foil in the crevice of a tree stump, peeping through some pine needles or flickering from under the frost-crumpled green of a avocado vine leaf.

My brother is almost two years younger than me, but that wasn't the trouble. The trouble was that he would rush out the door and be overtaken with excitement, rushing from one corner of the garden to the other, looking everywhere, everywhere, everywhere! Up, down, around, at the clouds, at his shoes, anywhere you can look while you're dashing at full pelt on your delighted little feet. He is still (at 30, married and with kid) a person of this kind of headlong enthusiasms. Though now he keeps them rather more to himself, with a secret smile that tells you he's still shouting with excitement ... on the inside.

I too was seething with excitement and the thrill of the chase, but I was methodical and systematic. I spent a lot of time standing in one place, imagining myself into my mother's head and thinking about where she would hide things. I didn't know it then, but I was thinking about which places she would find especially satisfying to hide an egg, because she too was enthralled by the way a glimmery egg could hide in a twist of bark on a eucalypt, or perch nonchalantly on top of a fence post. I was incredibly successful. (It's at this point in the story that my old friend Pluvialis laughs at me when I say that there is nothing about my early life that prefigures my later dreams of academic philosophy).

I'd come back to the deck with a huge haul of tinselly treasures, and my brother would be practically dying of excitement, but have only a handful. Mum always kept a stock of extras aside to make up the difference, but eventually something had to be done. In a stroke of genius (and of love, because the commitment is awesome) she developed a system where my brother and I would run concurrent but independent hunts -- with clues, written on paper. With each clue was an egg, and that clue led you to the next egg.

Initially, my mother relates, the clues were really simple ... stuff like "we eat here" ... and there the little egg would be, resting on a dining room chair. A little pink egg nestling on the pillow of "Mummy and Daddy sleep in this", a green one partially planted in the pot of roses that proclaims "I grow things that smell lovely". And, of course, she could tailor the clues to make them exciting for each of us ... and we'd both end up with the same number of eggs.

As time went on, the clues became more and more complex until eventually my mother brought in my father, the Times crossword nut, to develop cryptic clues, clues that involved baroque family in-jokes, clues that required stop-offs at the dictionary or the atlas. When I was 15, I found a praline-filled striped egg perched precariously on the beak of a fake taxidermied kookaburra we had on the wall after puzzling for some time over a clue that read "Ha ha ha! I'm stuffed."

What was your egg hunt like?

How not to be a vandal

So I'm walking back to the office after picking up my lunch, and there are two teenage boys wandering down the lane, in their usual subcultural and borderline illegal hoodie uniform. Hoods up, hands well down into their pockets, rounding their shoulders almost into invisibility, like Igor. They walk with that wonderful and evocative slight sideline weave, as though it is their collarbones and not their feet that propel them.

They're feeling a little destructive. You know how it is. They wanna ... do something. It's the moment where they'd like to jump on some garbage cans, maybe. Crash! Bang! Or possibly do something slightly obscene to a street sign.

So two notes about the environment in which they find themselves. First, this is a town of many bicycles. Many bicycles. Pretty much any fixed object which has parts allowing a bike lock to be affixed to it, has a bike (or nine) affixed to it. Second, although there are modern buildings wedged into any available crevice, most of what the boys can see was built about three hundred years ago. There are no garbage cans, street signs, bollards, or any of the other handy destructibles an urban playscape usually offers. Not even parked cars, for heaven's sake. What there is, however, is some cobbled path, a considerable length of vintage eighteenth-century wrought iron fencing, and many, many bicycles locked up to it, all wrapping their little mechanical limbs around each other like cicadas climbing up a tree.

So what's a boy to do? What else is there?

As they walk along the fence, they ring all of the bicycle bells in sequence, with that flip nonchalant motion of their arms as though they haven't the slightest care for the consequences of the actions of their limbs.

It sounds wonderful. It looks wonderful. It completely made my day.

I just feel that wasn't what they had in mind.

Round and round the roundabout

The sixth Teaching Carnival is up at Science and Politics. I gotta say, carnivals impress the shit out of me. I dream of the day I am included in a carnival. Personally, the pinnacle of achievement would be the Whining Carnival. I'm prepared to settle for something less misanthropically illustrious, too, but I'm so proud of my burgeoning curmudgeonliness that I long for recognition.

The photograph is by the fantastically talented Mark Newhouse at Gnuhaus Productions. Which is such a brilliant company name it's worth visiting just for that.

Terminally Boring High

There are many boring conversations in this world, but currently number one with a bullet on Xtin's All-Time List is The Trauma of High School. When this subject comes up, I want to reach for a handy icepick and pith myself.

Just for starters, isn't this a long time ago yet? Sure, I'm 32, which makes me about five years older than most of my grad school littermates, but that still puts them ten years from walking out the doors of the damn place. For the love of God, have we not had any experiences in our adult lives that we might discuss? But of course we have. Naturally no-one wants to discuss those, because they are far too real and intimate and personal. You might have had an experience that someone else hasn't had. You might actually have something idiosyncratic and interesting to say. Good heavens, much too risky. Let's whip up some totally ersatz intimacy instead. High School Horrors are a lovely shared narrative that everyone can settle into like a rerun of Welcome Back, Kotter. Even though of course, no-one here was in a remedial class. Which just makes it so much the easier. Wasn't it awful being the smartest one in school? Weren't you persecuted by the girls who talked about lipstick and INXS? The teachers never paid any attention to me because all the disruptive students were always painting on the walls/giving the Chess Club wedgies/passing notes containing their latest pregnancy test results/whatever ...

Which brings me to reason number two that these are the most boring conversations in the known universe -- they're not even a real discussion about trauma. (Frankly, I wouldn't really care even if they were, but that's just because I'm evil). Part of of the subtext is the conclusions that everyone can easily draw from the very fact that all of us had this experience -- we were all nerds, we were all persecuted for being the smartest in the class, blah de blah. So guess what? You're not special any more. This is one big group of hyper-smart people. And that makes you nervous and insecure, and this high school talk is a way of everyone discussing how they were once intellectually special under the fatally dull cover of how awful the whole experience was. Please. It's just sad.

Naturally, I don't intend that this prevent anyone from using the shared horrors of high school as a handy and evocative metaphor when discussing whatever else you'd like to talk about -- emphasis on whatever else.

I'll take Human Relations for two hundred, Alex ...

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

And now for some light relief

Xtin stars in South Park! I am about to kill social constructivism with the Lightsaber of Mind-Independent Reality. Since I kill those crazy relativists in every episode, I wear the Halo of Philosophical Justice, and drink the Great Latte of Truth. But you can see my ribs cause those constructivists are some tough mofos. And of course, I make the Moue of Metaphysical Irony. Because I wouldn't want to take myself too seriously, or anything.

How Not to Blog

or, How to be a skeptic about being dubious

I've been direly remiss in my duty to the blogosphere lately, but fear not, dear readers. Fortunately it dawned on me this afternoon (and not for the first time) that you can blog about anything, including why you aren't blogging. In fact, I am beginning to suspect that the blogosphere is at that strange culturally self-reflexive moment that has been passed already in many other fields (for example, in literature) where there are more blog posts about The Blog and the process of posting to The Blog than there are blog posts about things other than The Blog. I might argue that this is because blogs and blogging are interesting per se, and also because weird self-referentiality (especially heavily flavoured with irony) is part of the intellectuo-cultural environment in which most bloggers live, and so that sort of meta-level discussion is going to be generated no matter what you're discussing, and in the blogging world, that just happens to be blogs.

But if I strip off my Generation X t-shirt for a second, reality bites. And you know, I mean real reality, not the kind that got all fucked up after I became a philosopher. In the first place, there seem to be lots of blogs that are actually about stuff. And important stuff. There also seem to be blogs that foster community, as well as being about stuff. (And sometimes without being about stuff at all). Some blogs I think of as like found objects: they are not "about stuff" in the pedagogical or political sense, but are bower birds which collect up glimmery, fascinating fragments of text and fact and image, and you find them there, in a little nest, like magic. I love these blogs. Mine doesn't seem to be any of these.

I'm sure we could think up reasons to doubt it, but I like to think that blogs are the way they are because they reflect something about what the blogger thinks is important. Certainly, that's what I want to believe about this blog -- my blog. If I try to work out how what's important to me affect what goes on the blog, I tend to think it goes something like this: no matter what else is the case, it's good to think about why you think the way you do. It's good to muse about what's happened. It's good to be dubious about things that seem obvious to you, and it's good to reflect on the moments where what you believe gets rocked a little, or made particularly stark. And, you know, some haiku. Because sometimes it's important just to try to make something beautiful, even if you are a hack.

The evidence of the past couple of weeks is apparently that I still think the thing about the haiku. But the other part? The prognosis is not good. I'm wondering (and not for the first time, but I've hated it every time) why exactly I should think that it's good, or interesting, or otherwise valuable, to think about why I think the way I do, why I live the life I do, why I blog or why not.

The obvious thing to say is, who cares? But that's too cheap. It's cheap because it's too damn obvious: no-one. Duh! The pithy, non-obvious part is that it ought to be enough if I care. But the normative structure of the thing seems to have dropped off the face of the earth. I never believed that reflection was good for some reason other than it was Good. It's just a brute fact about the moral structure of my world. But apparently, the brutes became civilised and started wondering what the hell their justifications were.

God, put me back in the Stone Age with my brute facts. Because now? I have to come to terms with the fact that The Good must lie elsewhere -- perhaps, heaven help us, in what I actually do when I'm not thinking about what I do. In what actually happens during the day before I have a chance to pick up those memories and turn them to the light, flipping and rotating them to see what shadows I can make play on the wall of my self-reflections. I've absolutely not the first idea how to live my life this way. It scares the stuffing out of me. And it's really bad for the blogging.

On the other hand, it may just be that I'm trying to finish a PhD thesis. Amazingly, I'd prefer to believe this baroque existential palaver instead.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Tuesday haiku

the branch's fingers
are caught, twig in the window
kindles outside in

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Tuesday haiku

Martial, that pencil
A bullet summarily
shrank dried and ironed

Monday, February 06, 2006

Groundhog Day

So of course it would have been more wittily postmodern for me to have posted this on actual Groundhog Day, which was last week, but I wasn't thinking about this then. Eh. Bygones.

In every pampered, first-world existence such as mine, there are all sorts of troubles. Loneliness, worry, financial insecurity of a not very threatening kind, intellectual insecurity about whether or not one's really any good at one's job, emotional insecurity about whether or not one's really lovable. Loss and grief and bleakness of all manner of stripes.

The problem I'm having now, though, is sameness. All of the parts of my life seem to have an unremitting, slightly malevolent familiarity. I hear the faint strains of "I Got You Babe" constantly in my head. I'm just so damn bored. I can feel my eyes folding into Bill Murray's sad-clown corners in the face of the week, the thought of the same students, the same discussions with those students, the same seminars, the same things in the supermarket, the same books on my desk, the same odd hybrid intellectual/low-brow smalltalk, the same ritual dance that my dissertation supervisor and I have been doing around one another for four years, the same, the same, the same.

If I were Truman Burbank, The Truman Show would be ludicrously economical. You'd only need two interior sets and about 50 extras.

The sameness is not an illusion, but I know that the cracks in it are what keeps me from driving into a quarry with a groundhog at the wheel. If it were really the same day, I'd see the same things, always. The same people walking around at the same time, the same pigeon taking the same bath, the same puddle with the same leaf floating in it like a tiny crinkly brown boat. But I don't.

Last week, I was coming home from work earlier in the afternoon than usual and there was a boy walking ... perhaps to a music lesson? He had an earnest, slightly abashed posture, and carried one of those paper wallets in his hand, along with a backpack that dwarfed him. He wore camo-print cargo trousers and had mussy, mind-of-its own, straw-coloured hair which he smoothed every now and then, as he walked.

I thought how unusual it was to see a kid walking alone here. He seemed tiny, and sort of robustly fragile, like a dragonfly or a fine steel guy-wire. I suppose he must have been 10 or 11. I suddenly had a fervent, fleeting, staggering impression of what it would be to have a child, to have this big-small, breakable-indestructible, wise-innocent person wandering the world and smoothing his hair.

Today, the cherry blossoms are almost peeping out from their brown twig huts.

Tomorrow will bring something different.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Blog Cloud

Via Badger. Me, in a text box. Terrifying, yet mesmerising. Make your own cloud here.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Pencilled in

Today I got an email which described my blog thusly:
... not like some artful expression from the tip of a pencil, but instead like the little curly shavings it leaves in the pencil sharpener.

I'm putting it here because it's one of the loveliest things that anyone's ever said to me. But also because it's just plain lovely, and I am selfishly displaying the wares of the mind that pulled these words out of her astoundingly creative and beautiful hat.

You know who you are.

The gorgeous photograph of the pencil shavings is from the brilliant lens of Caitriona.net.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

These bones

Somewhere under the disorganised desk of my mind, I've always thought of life as something like this: there's a structure, like a skeleton, of all the things that are very important to you. The things which have intrinsic value, which strike you as being beautiful and of good report, which drive your decisions about where you ought to go and what sorts of things you ought to be doing. The skeleton generates a sort of body around itself, and the body ends up being all the details of your life -- the things you do, what happens during the day, the birds you watch, the clothes you buy, the conversations you have, the places you go, the things you say, the things you think, the things you make, the hands you hold.

All of these things seem real and important because of the bones underneath -- the things that you hang all the other stuff on that makes it all seem meaningful and pithy and cohesive rather than like an arbitrary and disjoint collection of completely contingent whatnot.

There have been times in the past where I've felt pretty skeletal -- like there's only the bones of what I think is right and true, and none of the bits of life to hang on it.

At the moment, I'm wondering where the hell my bones went. My life is wall-to-wall with Stuff, with conversations and work and discussions and thoughts and dust and dirty dishes and flowers and applications for this, applications for that, mud and birds, coffee and new novels. But I can't remember what any of it is for.