Steven Pinker

So I’ve been skirmishing with Pinker’s ‘Language Instinct’, but I wouldn’t mind putting off reading it in earnest until I find some good criticism of him. The problem I’ve run into is that there doesn’t seem to be all that much; most things I’ve come across are defensive and dumb.

I really love science: I mostly took science in high school, I read Scientific American and as much popularish science as I can handle; but, honestly speaking, the majority of my life is consecrated to the humanities. My lack of good criticism of Pinker speaks to a larger problem of mine.

As far as I can tell from science I read, sociobiology and language innateness have carried the day and most people have moved on to other problems. But Humanities people still speak as though sociobiology was still being debated, and can barely get out Steven Pinker’s name for disgust.

There are two possibilities I can think of where Humanities-folk would be in the right. Either the course of mainstream science has been perverted, or the science which has trickled down to me has been vilely misrepresented by popularization and the media. Much as I’d like to, I have a hard time entertaining either scenario.

The problem, then, would seem to be with Humanities people. In my experience, most scientific critiques from the Humanities fuck up the science pretty bad, e.g. completely misunderstanding the way female choice works in sexual selection. Silly scientific analogies are one thing; bad science criticism harms public discourse, and makes it easier for bad leaders to game the system and install underqualified appointees. This is a serious problem.

There are doubtless criticisms to be made, but it’s crucial that they be made with the firmest possible background in the science.

I’m hoping that Hilary Putnam will prove less obnoxious than the petty feuilletonists I’ve encountered thus far (specific Putnam recommendations most welcome!).

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Unsubscribing from The Nation

I wish it hadn’t come to this. In an ideal world, I would have more time, more money, and more energy, and would be able to evenhandedly divide my attention between all of the publications, journals of opinion and otherwise, that I read.

I remember being 14 or 15, and sitting in my friend Francisco’s basement, talking about the latest Nation his parents had received. (It was the ca. 1996 issue about the capitalization of Chile, if anyone remembers that) I haven’t become completely cynical yet, but it’s been a long time since I’ve been able to summon up the kind of self-righteous indignation we had then.

After ninth grade was over, I had more schoolwork and less time, and Fran and I moved on to different social groups, and I hardly did any Nation reading. I was out of touch in a lot of ways, though; my knowledge of current events was limited to what I saw at 6 (or 6:30, or 7) on the front page when I delivered my paper route.

The summer after I graduated from high school, I got back into it. School was over. I was going to Germany for a year; I was taking a break. It seems like much of those free months before I left the country, I spent on my mom’s patio, reading the Nation and the NY Times. When I cast my absentee ballot that fall, I was secure in my nascent-yet-formless ideology: I voted Nader. That was the high-water mark for my Nation-reading, and really for my progressive leanings, too.

I was as pissed as anyone that Bush won in 2000, but even more so that Nader didn’t make his 5%. The final nut shot was when Bush walked out of Kyoto Protocol negotiations in 2001, and it had become clear that Bush would not, in fact, govern by the mandate he’d received.

As the years have passed, and I’ve come to pay more attention to the news, The Nation serves my needs less and less. I’ve always loved the way fierce polemic is cheek-by-jowl with in-depth, considered book reviews in The Nation, but recently even their reviews have become less meditative and more strident. (I’m tempted to impute some of this to the Navasky-vanden Heuvel switch)

Some of my problems with The Nation are generational. I don’t know if it’s accurate to say that The Nation’s readership is older, but I think their editorial stance reflects a commitment to classical leftist/progressive values that people under 35 don’t live by any more. We don’t see Vietnam in every foreign intervention, and people my age see that trade unionism frequently creates as many problems as it solves.

Generational difference isn’t a problem. I spend most of my time talking to my coevals, and there are few things I like more than talking with someone 30 or 40 years older than me, someone who’s lived and fought and strove, someone whose beliefs reflect their life and not just Daily Kos.

The problem is that The Nation has degenerated and grown out of touch; where once it was a bustling agora with shouts and discussions, with age and callow youth, a once proud institution has decayed into a despairing and curmudgeonly mutter.

Amit Singh

In one of my periodic technical binges, and soon after my sister got her iBook, I came across this really useful website, http://www.kernelthread.com, which has a bunch of stuff about how the newer generation of Apples (read: OS X-based) works under the hood.

Me being me (flaky in most things, and especially things technical) I haven’t followed up on or done anything with the stuff I’ve read on kernelthread; but I found out Amit Singh has a new book out: Mac OS X Internals: A Systems Approach, published by Addison-Wesley, available on Amazon. It looks great (in a Platonic, tech-book-admiration sort of way).

Lily Allen again

First off, to put this post in context, I want to say that these comments come from having Lily Allen’s ‘Alright Still’ in my CD player almost continuously the past week, and if you’re interested in this kind of music (St. Et, Hilary Duff, girl pop) you should check it out.

Even so, the more I listen to ‘Alright Still’, the more I find it a disappointment. This isn’t to say there isn’t a lot to like. Lily Allen has one of the strongest voices of anyone singing this kind of music, and her vocal lines are consistently lovely (’Friend of Mine’ is particularly illustrative of this, a song which is almost entirely laid-back, pretty vocal riffing) The music and production is also top-notch, some of the best on a contemporary girl pop album that I’ve heard.

In addition, there’s a lot to be said for a girl singer whose lyrics actually resemble normal speech. I’m not saying that liberally peppering girl pop with the word ‘fuck’ is the right way to go, but so many girl pop lyrics sound sanitized. There’s a magic to the lyrics of doo wop and the classic girl groups, and a lot of that has to do with how impromptu they sound. Recent groups ape that quality without really getting at it; St. Etienne never sounds casual, and I cast a particularly sharp look in the direction of The Pipettes.

That said, I think there’s a distinction to be made between casual(-sounding) lyrics and lyrics that are lazy. Lily Allen makes too many bad and lazy rhymes, and her lyrics are too full of filler. As I mentioned in my earlier post, the underlying conceits of her songs tend to be weak (’Smile’ being a notable exception).

(As an aside, I’d like to point out that I think that conceptual strength is something that really distinguishes a lot of American girl pop– I’m thinking particularly of Hilary Duff’s ‘Metamorphosis’ and Lindsay Lohan’s ‘Speak’)

The best-written song on ‘Alright Still’, the ballad ‘Littlest Things’, makes use of a rather traditional concept (the pining girl after the relationship’s end), but is the most lyrically fleshed-out song on the album. Lily Allen does an admirable job with the kind of miniature St. Etienne does best. The song does trade off some musical inventiveness for lyrical polish– but hey, I’m a sucker for any song with piano and minimal drum machine.

‘Littlest Things’ also shows another of the album’s problems, a tendency to gild the lily (pun not really intended). The overdubbed vocals detract from the song’s elegant simplicity; I think the demo on her myspace page works much better. But overproduction is a relatively minor flaw.

Lily Allen’s first album reminds me of Schubert’s Lieder: lovely music and beautiful singing, but overtop a lyrically flawed skeleton.

Media: Game Publishing Economics

This is a little old, apologies if you’ve already read it, but one of the news articles (http://games.ign.com/articles/708/708972p1.html) on the Codex was this IGN article about the economics of game publishing, something I’ve wanted to know more about for a while.

As the game industry grows up, I’d be curious to see someone compare it with the movie business. One is tempted to blame the decline of once-noble franchises on an increasingly stodgy industry…

Lily Allen!

is the apotheosis of teen pop! Her conceits aren’t necessarily the best, but her music’s good, her singing is tight and her lyrics are generally pleasant and witty…

That said, I think her album is sort of disappointing compared to the myspace singles; ‘Little Things’ and even ‘Smile’ sounded so fresh as demos, and are less so all tarted up.

It’s all gonna break

All this time I’m taking off has principally been devoted to study; to reading, to formulating a basic view of the world, and figuring out exactly what I want to do with my life, and what I want to study in grad school. A lot of that is crossing stuff off of my reading list, and some of that reading is literary theory.

I’m reasonably sympathetic to a lot of the big projects of literary theory: figuring out why people look at things a certain way, attempting to recognize and circumvent the blind spots of contemporary attitudes– a lot of research in those areas is worth looking at.

But what I really hate, and what consequently makes me read a lot less theory than I should, is the general obscurity with which a lot of it is written, the pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo, and (frequently) the outright hostility to many scientific achievements.

It’s perfectly legitimate to question the shameful and unfortunate ways science is occasionally used, or even to draw a line in the sand between science and the humanities, but I absolutely cannot stand writers who think they’ve figured it all out, who think that reading a little Foucault makes you better than all of the schmucks who work in biology labs across the country. I think you can attribute a lot of the parochialism of the humanities and social sciences today to this sort of attitude.

Steven Weinberg talks about ‘jurisdictional’ advances of science, when the progress of science occasionally makes a question subject to science, where it had previously been an area for humanistic speculation. You have to wonder whether opposition to science in the humanities is more jurisdictional sour grapes than anything else. One hopes that such third-grade attitudes will fade away in the near future.