While my guitar gently weeps

3 08 2014

I need to play my guitar every day.

I do not play my guitar every day.

To be clear: “need” is not about need or desire in an of itself, but in terms of getting better; if I want to get better, I need to play every day.

Which I don’t. Play, I mean. The desire is there; the follow-thru, not so much.

I do play every other day, and if I miss my every or other day, I do get a bit anxious and feel that I’m missing something (i.e., experience a “need” more akin to the first definition); it would help if that anxiety kicked in a bit earlier.

Anyway, if I want to get better, why don’t I play more?

For starters, I suck. I don’t hold down the strings hard enough, my chords fuzz out, and too damn often I nick the A or G string when I’m aiming for D. And because I don’t look at either my right or left hand while playing—that discipline at least has held from those yay-old lessons—I too often reach for the wrong fret.

It’s a mess.

Now, when I do practice, and especially when I practice every day, all of those problems are lessened (tho’, alas, not eliminated)—which brings me back to the question: why don’t I play more?

And here’s the thing: I think too much when I play.

I hate HATE when anyone tells me I think too much: NO SUCH THING! But there is something about letting one’s mind drift which may work better than focusing. When I read, I focus, and when I learn something new, I focus, but I don’t focus when I write, my best runs happen when my mind wanders, and I only got over the hump in pot-throwing when I stopped trying so hard.

I think I have to stop trying so hard with the guitar.

The pot-throwing is instructive: I took a class at Minnesota, and went in periodically during the course to work on my pots (small, uneven, terrible), and I can’t say I enjoyed it all that much. I was continually frustrated—the more I wedged the clay the more air bubbles appeared, the more careful I was in centering the chunk on the wheel the more off-center it became, and raising the sides? Pfft, forget it. I don’t think I’m misremembering when I state that one lesson-night resulted in tears.

And then I got it. I was never great or even truly good, but I got enough that I thought, Hey, I can do this, and so I was more willing to put more time in at the studio. I was also, crucially, more willing to roll with the vagaries of clay and pot-throwing: some days every pot I threw turned out, some days none did, and I was okay with that.

I’m not zen, but I got pretty zen about throwing pots.

I can’t figure out what exactly led to that switch. Something allowed me to hang back from my own throwing, and thus to go more deeply into it; detachment allowed for enjoyment, which led me back into the studio.

I’m not sufficiently detached from the guitar-playing, it seems. I have noticed that when I’m thinking of something other than the notes, I tend to play them much better, that when I bore into the bars I clench up trying to avoid mistakes with these notes and worrying about the notes to come. And I don’t enjoy that.

So: I need to find some reliable way to zone out and let my fingers do their walking. Were that to happen, I might find myself wanting more to hear what they play.


Keep on keepin’ on

18 06 2014

I am a terrible, terrible guitar player. It’s why I keep playing.

Makes sense, right? Why do something well when you can suck?

I’d rather not suck. I’d rather that everything I do, I do well.

I’d also like to do more, and to do more is most often to do what I don’t know how to do.

Which means I’ll be terrible when I first do it.

Now, I keep playing because I’d like to get better, because I think I can at some point do it well. I didn’t re-up with the Gotham Rock Choir because I wasn’t convinced that more practice would make me a sufficiently better singer. It’s one thing to be terrible on the way to getting better, but quite another to be terrible on the way to mediocrity.

Rather takes away one’s motivation to practice.

I doubt I’ll ever be great on the guitar—that fucking F chord—but with practice I am improving, enough so that I can gull myself into practicing even more.

So, at some point, I’ll be merely terrible, then mediocre, and then all right. I don’t know that I’ll ever get beyond all right, but, for now, it’s enough to know that I can at least get that far, and that it’s just possible that I could, someday, be good.

Time to try something else to be terrible at, then. I’ve long wanted to learn French. . . .

She blinded me with science

17 02 2014

When to let go and when to hang on?

This is one of the conundrums ways I’ve come to interpret various situations in life big and small. I don’t know that there is ever a correct decision (tho’ I’ll probably make the wrong one), but one chooses, nonetheless.

Which is to say: I choose to hang on to the “science” in political science.

I didn’t always feel this way, and years ago used to emphasize that I was a political theorist, not a political scientist. This was partly due to honesty—I am trained in political theory—and partly to snobbery: I thought political theorists were somehow better than political scientists, what with their grubbing after data and trying to hide their “brute empiricism” behind incomprehensible statistical models.

Physics envy, I sniffed.

After awhile the sniffiness faded, and as I drifted into bioethics, the intradisciplinary disputes faded as well. And as I drifted away from academia, it didn’t much matter anymore.

So why does it matter now?

Dmf dropped this comment after a recent post—

well “science” without repeatable results, falsifiability, and some ability to predict is what, social? lot’s of other good way to experiment/interact with the world other than science…

—and my first reaction was NO!

As I’ve previously mentioned, I don’t trust my first reactions precisely because they are so reactive, but in this case, with second thought, I’ma stick with it.

What dmf offers is the basic Popperian understanding of science, rooted in falsifiability and prediction, and requiring some sort of nomological deductivism. It is widespread in physics, and hewed to more or less in the other natural and biological sciences.

It’s a great model, powerful for understanding the regularities of non-quantum physics and, properly adjusted, for the biosciences, as well.

But do you see the problem?

What dmf describes is a method, one of a set of interpretations within the overall practice of science. It is not science itself.

There is a bit of risk in stating this, insofar as young-earth creationists, intelligent designers, and sundry other woo-sters like to claim the mantle of science as well. If I loose science from its most powerful method, aren’t I setting it up to be overrun by cranks and supernaturalists?


The key to dealing with them is to point out what they’re doing is bad science, which deserves neither respect in general nor class-time in particular. Let them aspire to be scientists; until they actually produce a knowledge which is recognizable as such by those in the field, let them be called failures.

Doing so allows one to get past the no-good-Scotsman problem (as, say, with the Utah chemists who insisted they produced cold fusion in a test tube: not not-scientists, but bad scientists), as well as to recognize that there is a history to science, and that what was good science in one time and place is not good in another.

That might create too much wriggle room for those who hold to Platonic notions of science, and, again, to those who worry that this could be used to argue for an “alternative” physics or chemistry or whatever. But arguing that x science is a practice with a history allows the practitioners of that science to state that those alternatives are bunk.

But back to me (always back to me. . . ).

I hold to the old notion of science as a particular kind of search for knowledge, and as knowledge itself. Because of that, I’m not willing to give up “science” to the natural scientists because those of us in the social sciences are also engaged in a particular kind of search for knowledge. That it is not the same kind of search for the same kind of knowledge does not make it not-knowledge, or not-science.

I can’t remember if it was Peter Winch or Roger Trigg who pointed out that the key to good science was to match the method to the subject: what works best in physics won’t necessarily work best in politics. The problem we in the social sciences have had is that our methods are neither as unified nor as powerful as those in the natural sciences, and that, yes, physics envy has meant that we’ve tried to import methods and ends  which can be unsuitable for learning about our subjects.

So, yes, dmf, there are more ways of interacting with the world than with science. But there are also more ways of practicing science itself.

We just have to figure that out.

Angels in the architecture

16 07 2013

This is not a “why I am not a creationist” piece. Oh no. Even though I’m not.

This is a hit on a “why I am a creationist” piece.

Virginia Heffernan, who can be an engaging writer, has apparently decided to disengage from thinking. In a widely commentedupon piece for Yahoo, the tech and culture writer outed herself as a creationist. It is a spectacularly bad piece of . . . well, I guess it’s a species of argumentation, but as she kinds of flits and floats from the pretty to the happy and fleetly flees from sweet reason, it might be best to consider this a kind of (bad) performance art.

My brief with her is less about the God-ish conclusion than that flitting and floating: she rejects science because its boring and sad and aren’t stories about God sooooo much better?

You think I’m exaggerating? I am not. To wit:

I assume that other people love science and technology, since the fields are often lumped together, but I rarely meet people like that. Technology people are trippy; our minds are blown by the romance of telecom. At the same time, the people I know who consider themselves scientists by nature seem to be super-skeptical types who can be counted on to denigrate religion, fear climate change and think most people—most Americans—are dopey sheep who believe in angels and know nothing about all the gross carbon they trail, like “Pig-Pen.”

I like most people. I don’t fear environmental apocalypse. And I don’t hate religion. Those scientists no doubt see me as a dopey sheep who believes in angels and is carbon-ignorant. I have to say that they may be right.


Later she mentions that she’s just not moved by the Big Bang or evolution, and that evo-psych is sketchy science (which it is) this must mean all of science is sketchy (which it is not).

And then this stirring conclusion:

All the while, the first books of the Bible are still hanging around. I guess I don’t “believe” that the world was created in a few days, but what do I know? Seems as plausible (to me) as theoretical astrophysics, and it’s certainly a livelier tale. As “Life of Pi” author Yann Martel once put it, summarizing his page-turner novel: “1) Life is a story. 2) You can choose your story. 3) A story with God is the better story.”

(Would it be fair to mention at this point that I hated Life of Pi? Too beside-the-point?)

To summarize, she likes technology—because it’s trippy—but she doesn’t like knowing the hows and whys technology actually works, i.e., the science.

This would be fine—after all, there are all kinds of things I like without necessarily being interested in how and why they came to be—were it not for the fact that she’s a technology writer.

Perhaps she’s a closet Juggalo, or maybe she thought Bill O’Reilly waxed profound on the movement of tides, or maybe she just ate a shitload of shrooms and floated down to her keyboard, but I’d be very—excuse me, super-skeptical of the views of a tech writer who apparently thinks angels make iPhones.


I have to admit, I was more amused by her piece than anything, and her Twitter exchange with Carl Zimmer left me gasping; to the extent I can make out any kind of coherent line at all, it seems to be “I like stories more than theories—so there!”

As someone who likes both stories and theories—yes, Virginia, we can have both—however, I hate her feeding into the Two Cultures divide, not least because dopey angel-mongering tends to diminish even further the humanities.

I am a science enthusiast, but I am also a critic of the some of the more imperial epistemological claims by some scientists (what often gets branded as “scientism“). To note that the methods of science (methodological naturalism, nomological-deductivism—take yer pick) and knowledge produced from those methods are bounded is often taken as an attack on science itself.

And, to be fair, sometimes—as in the Storified Twitter spat, when Heffernan (big fat honking sigh) pulls Foucault out her nose to fling at Zimmer—it is.

But it ain’t necessarily so. It is simply the observation that science is one kind of practice, that it hasn’t escaped the conditionality and history of practice into some kind of absolute beyond.

Now, there’s a lot more behind that observation that I’m willing to go into at this late hour, so allow me to skip ahead to my ire at Heffernan: her dipshit argument makes it harder for those of us who’d prefer our critiques both dip- and shit-free.

So, thanks Virginia, thanks for stuffing your face with shrooms or replacing your neurons with helium or whatever the hell it was that lead you to declare the moon is made of cheese.

But next time, if there is a next time, Just Say No.

Here’s a man who lives a life

23 01 2013

I’m a big fan of science, and an increasingly big fan of science fiction.

I do, however, prefer that, on a practical level, we note the difference between the two.

There’s a lot to be said for speculation—one of the roots of political science is an extended speculation on the construction of a just society—but while I am not opposed to speculation informing practice, the substitution of what-if thinking for practical thought (phronēsis) in politics results in farce, disaster, or farcical disaster.

So too in science.

Wondering about a clean and inexhaustible source of energy can lead to experiments which point the way to cleaner and longer-lasting energy sources; it can also lead to non-replicable claims about desktop cold fusion. The difference between the two is the work.

You have to do the work, work which includes observation, experimentation, and rigorous theorizing. You don’t have to know everything at the outset—that’s one of the uses of experimentation—but to go from brain-storm to science you have to test your ideas.

This is all a very roundabout way of saying that cloning to make Neandertals is a bad idea.

Biologist George Church thinks synthesizing a Neandertal would be a good idea, mainly because it would diversify the “monoculture” of the Homo sapiens.

My first response is: this is just dumb. The genome of H. sapiens is syncretic, containing DNA from, yes, Neandertals, Denisovans, and possibly other archaic species, as well as microbial species. Given all of the varieties of life on this planet, I guess you could make the case for a lack of variety among humans, but calling us a “monoculture” seems rather to stretch the meaning of the term.

My second response is: this is just dumb. Church assumes a greater efficiency for cloning complex species than currently exists. Yes, cows and dogs and cats and frogs have all been cloned, but over 90 percent of all cloning attempts fail. Human pregnancy is notably inefficient—only 20-40% of all fertilized eggs result in a live birth—so it is tough to see why one would trumpet a lab process which is even more scattershot than what happens in nature.

Furthermore, those clones which are successfully produced nonetheless tend to be less healthy than the results of sexual reproduction.

Finally, all cloned animals require a surrogate mother in which to gestate. Given the low success rates of clones birthed by members of their own species, what are the chances that an H. sapiens woman would be able to bring a Neandertal clone to term—and without harming herself in the process?

I’m not against cloning, for the record. The replication of DNA segments and microbial life forms is a standard part of lab practice, and replicated tissues organs could conceivably have a role in regenerative medicine.

But—and this is my third response—advocating human and near-human cloning is at this point scientifically irresponsible. The furthest cloning has advanced in primates is the cloning of monkey embryos, that is, there has been no successful reproductive cloning of a primate.

To repeat: there has been no successful reproductive cloning of our closest genetic relatives. And Church thinks we could clone a Neandertal, easy-peasy?


There are all kinds of ethical questions about cloning, of course, but in the form of bio-ethics I practice, one undergirded by the necessity of phronēsis, the first question I ask is: Is this already happening? Is this close to happening?

If the answer is No, then I turn my attention to those practices for which the answer is Yes.

Cloning is in-between: It is already happening in some species, but the process is so fraught that the inefficiencies themselves should warn scientists off of any attempts on humans. Still, as an in-between practice, it is worth considering the ethics of human cloning.

But Neandertal cloning? Not even close.

None of this means that Church can’t speculate away on the possibilities. He just shouldn’t kid himself that he’s engaging in science rather than science fiction.

(h/t: Tyler Cowen)

Stop me, oh ho ho stop me

17 07 2011

I am fucked. Fuckity fucked fucked fucked.

And if it’s not completely my fault, well, it’s damn sure that had I been less of an idiot, I might not be quite so fucked as I am now.


Same old shit: how many times on this blog have I moaned about all that I don’t do? And what have I done as a result?

Yeah, you got it: bupkis.

I used to keep a journal, but it’s been years since I’ve bothered with one. The blog is no substitute for a journal, but certainly there were some topics which could overlap with a journal.

Methinks I need to go back to journal writing, mainly because I can repeat myself and repeat myself and repeat myself and not worry about it because nobody else is going to read it. It works as a kind of practice: go over and over and over and over and over something until that something moves, until I figure out how to move.

I’ve said previously that there was some stuff I needed to work through, but just thinking about it hasn’t been enough. I need to write this shit out.

You, however, don’t need to read it all. I might get all meta on you and report on this process, but, for your sake and mine, I’ll stop me since you’ve heard this all before.

Driving sideways

28 08 2009

I’m losing my mind.

Nothing serious; I’m simply losing touch with reality.

Shall I rephrase that?

I know what color the sky is in the—not my—world. It has just turned August 28, 2009 in New York City. Rain is expected later in the day. When I wake up, it will still be August 28, 2009 in New York City.

So there’s that.

But there’s also the oft-denied undeniability of a life in pieces. Yes, that would be my life.

I don’t want to over-emphasize two things, but I often do what I don’t want:

1. The visit of friends whose lives are more or less whole served notice on a life which is not.

2. That I have never properly learned how to live has not only caught up to me, it has long since overtaken and even lapped me.  (How long will I use this excuse? How long you got?)

Now, as to the first matter: It is true that normal life in NYC is unlike normal life in most other places in the US. Thus, it is normal for these friends to have homes and husbands and regular paychecks and paid vacations and pension plans.

True, there are some places in NY where this is also normal, but this town is big enough to encompass more than one normal. Thus, it is normal to have roommates found through craigslist and odd jobs and to sweat about money and to think of less than 400 square feet of living space as adequate.

If my friends blinked about this juxtaposition of normals, they were kind enough to do so when I wasn’t looking.

As to the second point, well, what more is there to say beyond the profession of ignorance? If it were an argument I could analyze it; if it were a recipe I could cook it.

It is neither. It is a kind of blankness, a lack which offers no clues on how to approach it. Animal, mineral, or spirit?

‘Just do it.’

Okay. But what, exactly? I understand the just, but what is the it and how am I to do it?

Too many questions? Is this why I’ve been told I think to much?

But this isn’t a question of too much thinking, nor or not enough. It is precisely a question of what and how.

So, Ms.-Fancy-Pants-PhD: what do you want and how do you propose to get it?

I want a life that makes some sense.

I have no idea what that means.

Which means I have no way of knowing how to achieve it.

Smaller, more concrete: I’d like to make enough money not to have to worry about it. I would like a job which is more than adjunct and temporary. I would like to take a dance class and re-up on my pottery. I would like to meet more people. I would like to date. I would like to sell my novel. I would like to write more than I do. I would like to be able to leave New York City in August.

Okay, now we’re on to something: Talk to departmental chair about a medium-to-long term teaching contract. Apply promiscuously for jobs. Apply promiscuously for agents. Write more.

Primary, secondary, means and ends, causes and consequences. See, that’s not so hard, is it?

It shouldn’t be.

Practical—I can be practical. I enjoy the theoretical-practical—hang my queries on these!—but the real-practical, the this-is-your-life practical, mmmm, that’s where the dissipation begins.

This-is-your-life: the theoretical-real-practical. But I have neither theory nor reality nor practice. A deductivist trapped in induction.

Einstein: It is the theory which decides what we can observe.

Francis Crick: The point is that evidence can be unreliable, and therefore you should use as little of it as you can.

Crick, again: There isn’t such a thing as a hard fact when you’re trying to discover something.

So not only do I not know where to look, I can’t trust what I can and cannot see.

Still, what theory accounts for my pitiful finances? That, my dear, is all about practice, and is evidence of poor career decision-making.

Still, one shift among the subatomic particles, and idiocy becomes vision: See, e.g., When I sell my novel. . . .

Still, count on nothing. The evidence is unreliable.

Still, such unreliability can be spur, possibility.

I don’t have to drown in it. (Which ‘it’? the evidence, the unreliability, the lack—you name it.) I am tired of treading water.

But I took advanced swimming lessons. I can tread water a long time.

Someday I will swim.

(Credit/blame for this post’s styling to Jeanette Winterson)