Category Archives: Linkys

On the seeker and the search

The Maverick Philosopher, aka Dr. William Vallicella, is a cranky old curmudgeon who lives out in Arizona and gets to be wise for a living.  Nice work if you can get it.  Dr. Vallicella handles the task with aplomb.  If you don’t read his blog, you probably should.  Feel free to skip the technical posts.  I do.

Dr. VallicellaThough he’s occasionally a touch mean-spirited for my taste, he more than makes up for it with gems like this:

The Seeker
What is the seeker after? He doesn’t quite know, and that is part of his being a romantic. He experiences his present ‘reality’ as flat, stale, jejune, oppressive, substandard. He feels there must be more to life than work-a-day routines and social objectifications, the piling up of loot, getting ahead. He wants intensity of experience, abundance of life, even while being unclear as to what these are.  He casts a negative eye on the status quo, the older generation, his parents and family, and their quiet desperation. He scorns security and its living death.
Christopher J. McCandless was a good example,  he whose story was skillfully recounted by Jon Krakauer in Into the Wild.    In McCandless’ case, the scorn for security, his fleeing a living death, led to a dying death. In an excess of self-reliance he crossed the Teklanika, not realizing it was his Rubicon and that its crossing would deposit him on the Far Shore.  Be bold, muchachos, be bold; be not too bold.

The Seeker

What is the seeker after? He doesn’t quite know, and that is part of his being a romantic. He experiences his present ‘reality’ as flat, stale, jejune, oppressive, substandard. He feels there must be more to life than work-a-day routines and social objectifications, the piling up of loot, getting ahead. He wants intensity of experience, abundance of life, even while being unclear as to what these are.  He casts a negative eye on the status quo, the older generation, his parents and family, and their quiet desperation. He scorns security and its living death.

Christopher J. McCandless was a good example,  he whose story was skillfully recounted by Jon Krakauer in Into the Wild.    In McCandless’ case, the scorn for security, his fleeing a living death, led to a dying death. In an excess of self-reliance he crossed the Teklanika, not realizing it was his Rubicon and that its crossing would deposit him on the Far Shore.  Be bold, muchachos, be bold; be not too bold.

Preach on, Brother Vallicella.

That first paragraph: it’s how I’ve felt most of my life.  Nonetheless, the realities of contemporary American life close in, and since I’m in no position to pull a Chris McCandless, even if I wanted to, which I don’t, hard choices have to be made, most of them not much conducive to the continuing of the search.  No sense in complaining about it.  (Maybe it’s okay to lament a little.)  As another wise man said, So it goes.

Inevitable Minds by Kevin Kelly

Kevin Kelly has a wonderful post about the preponderance of minds in nature, all the way down to plants.

Plants exhibit all the characteristics of intelligence, except they do it without a centralized brain, and in slow motion. Decentralized minds and slow minds are actually quite common in nature, and occur at many levels throughout the six kingdoms of life. A slime mold colony can solve the shortest distance to food in a maze, much like a rat. The animal immune system, whose primary purpose is to distinguish between self and non-self, retains a memory of outside antigens it has encountered in the past. It learns in a darwinian process, and in a sense also anticipates future variations of antigens. And throughout the animal kingdom collective intelligence is expressed in hundreds of ways, including the famous hive minds of social insects.

It’s worth reading the whole article. There’s even speculation about what “Dinoman” would have looked like had dinosaurs not been wiped out, and continued to evolve instead of mammals. The result would have been, well, something like this:


Kelly does get a little too enamored with his own rhetoric, to the point where it seems he comes dangerously close to assigning purpose and / or intention to the blind processes of evolution.

The daily grinding of evolution, as accelerated by technology, churns out more and more complex organisms, with higher rates of energy use, and with increasing specialization. Minds are the ideal way to express complexity, energy density, increasing specialization, expanding diversity — all in one system. Mindedness is what evolution produces. Mindedness is what technology wants, too.

As I understand it, evolution doesn’t “want” anything. It happens because it happens, and for no other reason. But then I’ll grant you my view is very much that of a layman’s, simplistic and unnuanced. So perhaps I’m missing something.

And the speculation that AI research could “evolve” minds in its own way; well, I don’t know about that. I guess it could happen. It is the stated intention of the folks at Google, anyhow, and they’re powering this (sub par) Blogger system. I don’t think it’s inevitable, but Kelly’s point that already web AI can do something no human can – remember everything via a search engine – seems to point to the very distinct possibility. Anyhow, more than I can chew off here.

The whole article is here.

Kevin Kelly, by the way, is the founding executive editor of Wired magazine. Which I didn’t know until I’d been around his sites for a while and a commenter mentioned it. No doubt this is common knowledge to the technorati but it was news to me. While I was busy growing up and then gallivanting around foreign parts the digital age happened and I’m on a steep learning curve of catch-up.

Tom Conoboy and Wrong Tomorrow

A couple of sites worth taking a good look at:

Tom Conoboy’s Writing Blog:

Conoboy has been at it since 2006, and he writes as fine a review as I’ve come across on the web. In-depth, insightful, and chock full of good details. I’m not sure who his intended audience is; I think he’s mostly writing the reviews in an attempt to understand the books himself. The books he chooses are invariably difficult ones, this is some solace if you are reading or have read them yourself. And it’s honest: his latest review starts this way: “Well, it’s not often I’m completely flummoxed, but The Sound and the Fury has managed it.” He then goes on to explore his confusion for 1200 words, a noble effort if ever there was one.

His tastes are unabashedly high-brow. Have a look at the Labels: Nietzsche, Cormac McCarthy, Rousseau, traditional music, liberty, among others. In a time when you can’t go in your backyard without seeing a blurb for Twilight, I’m going to call this a decidedly good thing.

Conoboy is also a published author in his own right. Have a look at some of his credits here.

Wrong Tomorrow:

Time vs. the Pundits is this brand-new site’s moniker and that’s just what it is. Hear some talking head make some prediction? Send it in to Wrong Tomorrow and let’s see if time bears them out. There are plenty up there already. For instance:

matt simmons:
“We could be looking at $10-a-gallon gas this winter.” – 2005-09-28 148 weeks ago

WRONG

Or:

ray kurzweil:
“Full immersion audio/visual virtual reality will exist.” – 2005-09-22 91 weeks

OPEN

Or:

gerald celente:
“by 2012 America will become an undeveloped nation, that there will be a revolution marked by food riots, squatter rebellions, tax revolts and job marches, and that holidays will be more about obtaining food, not gifts.” – 2008-11-10 143 weeks

OPEN

For now the “registered” predictions are pretty tech-heavy. I think that may change in time if this site gets the publicity it deserves. The site also currently lacks an RSS feed but it’s only been up a day and a half so I bet there will be one soon.

Bookmark it. Maybe the pundits (I’m talking to you, Jim Cramer) will give a little more thought to their prognostications if they know they’re going to be tracked and called out on them. Set up by Maciej Ceglowski, this site is brilliant in its simplicity. Head there and keep tabs on just how “expert” the experts are.

10 literary one-hit wonders, cursed and spectacular 2nd novels

Some highlights:

One-hit wonders:

“I never expected any sort of success with [To Kill a] Mockingbird. I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of reviewers, but at the same time I hoped that maybe someone would like it enough to give me encouragement – public encouragement. I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I’d expected.” – Harper Lee

Salinger is a member of the one-hit-wonder club only if you consider Franny and Zooey, published in 1961, as a novella. Salinger’s last published work, a short story, appeared in The New Yorker in 1965. – JD Salinger

The author committed suicide in 1969, having given up hope of seeing his comic masterpiece in print. Eventually it was published in 1980. A “second novel”, The Neon Bible, followed in 1989 – but this was actually written by Toole as a teenager and, as an adult, rejected as juvenilia. – John Kennedy Toole

Cursed second novels:

Thirteen Moons – Charles Frazier
Frazier’s Cold Mountain sold in bucketloads and he received an $8million advance for Thirteen Moons. It flopped.

For the record: I thought Cold Mountain read like a warmed-over rehash of discarded first drafts collected from Cormac McCarthy’s teenage years.

Shirley- Charlotte Bronte
Published two years after Jane Eyre, Shirley’s most enduring impact is that, until publication, Shirley was a rare name – and a boy’s name at that. But Bronte’s Shirley was female – and now most Shirleys are too.

Spectacular second novels:

Ulysses – James Joyce
Joyce’s debut, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, though brilliantly executed, was an archetypal first novel – a barely disguised autobiographical coming-of-age yarn. Ulysses was something else entirely.


The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot
Eliot (real name Mary Ann Evans) published Adam Bede in 1859, and although her rural tragedy was praised by critics and fellow authors, including Charles Dickens, it is her second novel that became a set text, and the standard-bearer for Victorian social realism.


The Beautiful and Damned – F.Scott Fitzgerald
He confirmed the reputation won with This Side of Paradise two years earlier. The Beautiful and Damned was the Jazz Age chronicler’s first great novel, published by Scribner in 1922. His third was The Great Gatsby.

Not a bad trifecta for Fitzgerald, there. Though I’d say that of the three only The Great Gatsby has really stood the test of time. The other two are eminently readable, but not really classics.

Via the Times Online:
10 One-hit Wonders
Cursed Second Novels
Spectacular Second Novels

This recession is awesome!

Meta-snarkasm for the times. My favorite parts:

Mom and Dad keep talking about this recession and I gotta say: it’s awesome! Yesterday, I ate pizza for breakfast, mac and cheese and hot-dog cubes for lunch, and then more pizza for dinner! Mom said that I could eat as much McDonald’s as I want, and she even offered to leave me there in the ball pit for an entire day while she went and looked for new jobs! Awesome! …

Dad’s been home so much recently and it’s been awesome! He just wears underpants and watches sports highlights and eats Cooler Ranch Doritos, which sounds super fun! I have to go to school, so I only get to see him when I get home, but yesterday Dad and I played Xbox together for six hours! He started off pretty good at the games, but each hour he got worse and worse, and soon he started making weird noises! He even started saying his words all slow and jumbled like a crazy man! He’s really having a good time in this recession! So am I!

Who knew the exclamation point could be put to such good use? Lucas Kavner, that’s who. He blogs here. Read the whole thing at McSweeney’s.

Philosophy for the beginner

I am sometimes asked what are the best philosophy books for a beginner, or, as is more likely, for someone who’s been exposed to self-help “philosophy” and is longing for something more. Something deeper, something worthwhile. I gave some preliminary suggestions a while back, but am very unsatisfied with my own answers.

Therefore I turned to one my former teachers, Dr. Patrick Murray, Professor of Philosophy at Creighton University. Dr. Murray was one of the finest professors I had the privilege to study under so I’d definitely take his word over mine. His recommendations for philosophy for the beginner as follows:

The classic is Plato’s Republic, so I’ll go ahead and mention that. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is another one that I can recommend. St. Augustine’s Confessions is a religious as well as a philosophical classic; it’s a powerful read. John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty is a great read. I would add Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion to the essays that you already mentioned. A bit more difficult would be the first 80 or so pages of Soren Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death. These are deep books that are perhaps more accessible than so many in philosophy.

Thanks very much, Dr. Murray.

All these books are in the public domain and available for free online.

Pretty much all you need to know about life is …

… that it ends. As this chart illustrates:


Image via Boing Boing. The post goes on to advocate more research into life extension. Which I do not. There are plenty of us on the planet as is. Sack up. Get a memento mori. You’re going to die. So is everyone you have ever known or will know. That’s how it is. That’s alright. Take the cure of the ancients: Are you afraid of what was, before you were born? No? Then why be afraid of what will be after you die?

The greatness of The Beatles

I was pleased to note that my favorite Beatles song, “In My Life”, played by the valiant writer and musician Brenton Rossow at our wedding, was rated the 7th-best Beatles song of all time. Talk about a never-ending topic. I wouldn’t rate “I Am The Walrus” as #2 by any stretch of the imagination, and it’s a travesty that “Hard Day’s Night” (#50) and “Help!” (#54) aren’t in the Top Ten. There’s a debate that could go on all day and night.

But that’s only one measure of the greatness of the Beatles. Look at the other end of the spectrum. What I consider their worst song, “Honey Pie” (#184 of 185) rates this comment:

For what it’s trying to do, “Honey Pie” isn’t terrible. It’s just that it doesn’t belong … The White Album, with a few notable exceptions, is split pretty evenly between hard-rockers and gentle folk songs. When “Honey Pie” enters that mix, with its Prohibition horns and Paul hamming it up with embarrassing scatting and loopy falsetto, it’s jarring in the worst possible way.

If that’s the worst thing you can say about a group’s worst song, then what you’ve got is the best group ever.

It being a free internet and all, I’m willing to brook opposition, but I sure do draw a blank when confronted with the category of “Better Than The Beatles.”

How to turn your MP3 player into an e-reader or easy-to-use jukebox with Rockbox’s free open source firmware

(Note: The following is up today at TeleRead). Here’s a way to get rid of the proprietary firmware that comes with your Toshiba Gigabeat, iPod, SanDisk, and other devices. Rockbox open source firmware transforms these devices into easy-to-use jukeboxes and e-readers.

No particular computing knowledge is required. Just go to Rockbox. Follow the instructions to install the open source firmware for your device. I did it after I got fed up with my Toshiba Gigabeat F60.

Jukebox joy

Rockbox transformed the remarkably user-unfriendly Gigabeat into an eminently usable multipurpose jukebox. Listen to your music, view your pictures, read text. Fiddle a little with the viewer and font options and nearly any .txt file is easy-to-read. Owing to the small screen size, you wouldn’t want to read War & Peace, but it’s remarkably handy for shorter files and as portable as a cell phone. Plus you can listen to your music while you read.

Clunky but I suddenly had a new e-reader

Both the text reader and the picture viewer are a little clunky but still far preferable to the nonexistent text reader and graceless picture viewer that came with the Toshiba firmware. Likely there’s tweaks available at Rockbox. Better yet, if you are sufficiently skilled, you can contribute your own. For me, the text reader works wonderfully and I haven’t felt the need to make any tweaks

Note: Rockbox allows reactivation of the original firmware if you want to reverse the process for some reason. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Here’s a CNET video about Rockbox.

(Note: the above is a rework of this earlier post about the Gigabeat. Thanks to David Rothman over at TeleRead for his sharp editing skills.)