Thursday, June 23, 2011

Reading this amazing blog post from evolutionary psychiatry and realizing how classical and medieval theories of health and psychology show just how ridiculous our own modern theories of the mind and body must actually be. I think our overconfidence is best described in a quote by Searle about the brain:

...I cannot find the book I found it in. I will find it later, sorry. May be in a book I left downstairs.

That Old Humanities Argument

We've all been asked this question before: why study the humanities? Why teach literary criticism? What is the point of learning about things that never happened and inapplicable interpretations? Math and science have certainly been hyped up in the past few years by the presidential administration with the looming economic fears of being uncompetitive in the face of rising powers and the political activism of people who want to see our money spent better.

As an English major in college, I had to struggle with this question myself; I was asked by other people and even had to deal with the prompt in a literary theory class (which I utterly failed at doing.) It is worth noting that a lot of my work in literary theory has been applicable to what I'm engineering now, but that's besides the point to me because I know that it wasn't all that this was about. I certainly see literature as an important metaphysical experiment for philosophers, but I don't know how I feel about philosophers either.

But around a year ago I had read about Stanley Fish's book Save the World On Your Own Time, which apparently* argued that trying to find some political or economic justification for the humanities denigrates it by denying the idea that it may just be good in of itself (does everything really come down to money and survival?)

While I was taking a break today that line of thinking crossed over with all the time that I've spent thinking about Edmund Burke and Nassim Taleb and it dawned on me that I had been missing the obvious for years; that perhaps the importance of literary criticism is in the fact that despite having no explicit justification for it, we still continue to read, teach, analyze and deconstruct stories; value a supposedly "arbitrary" literary canon, ask questions about things that never happened and give interpretations in the absence of right or wrong answers.

To me, asking why we value literature, spend so much time teaching it to students and even have tenured academics who spend their whole life studying it is like asking why we have religion or inauguration ceremonies or act hold doors open for other people. At this point, it's tradition and part of a deeper logic that we can't ever presume to understand--a point made tirelessly by Edmund Burke in the wake of a disastrous French revolution based on simple top-down models. Simply put, I don't think that the world would be better off if we stopped holding doors for other people and I don't think that we'd be better off not studying literature.

On a more concrete note, I think it is possible to glean the value of literary criticism and it is related to the importance of things beyond economic concerns. We live in a world richly populated by cultural phenomena. Being part of that world means understanding our cultural heritage and our shared idea of what it is to be human (cliche, I know, but isn't it true?) Would you refrain from teaching your kid table manners or how to talk to elders?

Whether it's through high school English, Hebrew School or wrestling in the grass with your classmates, we all have and all need rites of passage. Part of the humanities is spiritual training, the rest is something else.


*No, I haven't read it, just making that clear. A second-hand summary did in fact raise some interesting points for me.

Monday, June 13, 2011


Working on my own and trying to start a business has unsurprisingly been the source of a lot of anxiety. Sitting inside all day working starts to take a toll and even the weekends can be challenging if I don't get myself out and about. But as I was taking a walk today, I started to look around the city streets and enjoy them in the way that I have for so many years and this song popped into my head:

Most people would wonder why I remember such a song, let alone have the mp3 file for it; it's a bit nerdy to say the least. But for me, it has a very strong association with my childhood and evokes a refreshing sense of playfulness; everything becomes more atmospheric and a strange grandeur imbues itself on the symbols that populate the city skyline and the scenery of downtown Brooklyn.

It takes me back to the visceral pleasure I found in a game that most people passed over and considered one of Will Wright's more mediocre works. While most people didn't care for it, SimCity 3000 was the first time that I came to an understanding of what I was looking for in games, a sense of exploring a narrative, of decisions that impact people and the often contradictory and conflicting demands that they make both as individuals and as a whole.

The music of that game, especially this song, now brings me back to a sense of childlike playfulness; a feeling that to me is the ultimate remedy to anxiety--a sense that the world is yours to explore at your leisure. I never thought of childhood as idyllic, but it always did offer the opportunity to play; it placed a priority on learning, it gave space. In my quest to find the intersection of narrative and technology, to bring to the rest of the world the visceral inspiration that lies behind the screen of a personal computer, I've come full circle in having the opportunity once more to learn, to grow, to be a kid; being an entrepreneur might be a lot of work, but I once again feel the ability to explore the world and leave my mark on it.

Friday, June 3, 2011

As I begin work on Fear of Software's new project, which I will talk more about later; I find myself having to stay disciplined in order to get even the most creative and "inspiration" oriented tasks done to adequacy. An excerpt by Chris Crawford comes to mind:

"In late 1981, Dr. Alan Kay recruited me into Atari Research and challenged me to dream. Most people take a lazy approach to dreaming. They put their feet up on the desk and engage in idle mental forays for half an hour, and they call it dreaming. To me, dreaming is a much more deliberate and difficult process. Dreaming is hard work!"