A Momentary, But Edifying, Lapse Of Focus

This past Friday, I went climbing in the Shawangunks with my wife and daughter; we were guided by Carolyn Riccardi of Eastern Mountain Sports and received some wonderful instruction throughout the day. My daughter attempted some elementary routes as did my wife and I. I also attempted and succeeded in climbing a slightly harder route–for me: the 5.7 rated Nice Crack Climb, whose most tricky part is a bouldering move to get off the ground. It took me six attempts to get past that; a very satisfying if exhausting accomplishment. A little higher up, a crack needs a little work as well, and here, I spent a little time figuring out how to move up. Finally, I saw what had to be done; I would have to twist my body sideways bringing my left hand across to the right and then as I pulled myself across laterally, to reach up with my right hand to a very useful little hold that was now visible. I reached across and moved up–and then, in the very next instant, I had slipped and was dangling on the rope in mid-air, expertly and safely belayed by our guide below.

I had started my celebrations a little too early–and I had paid for it. Not for the first time, I was rudely reminded that it is best to wait till the finish line is reached before tooting one’s trumpet.

In that fraction of a second before I slipped, I had experienced a surge of elation. I had figured out how I was going to get out of this jam and move on to the top of the crag’s face. Till then, I had been tired, a little sweaty, my hands scraped and blistered in a couple of spots; I had started to experience some doubt about my ability–as a very inexperienced climber–to solve this face’s challenges. And then, when the ‘solution’ presented itself to me, I thought I had glimpsed the promised land, the end of the route. I had already started to imagine the backslapping and congratulations I would receive once I had rappelled down. And in that fraction of a second, my mind and body weren’t working together. And so I slipped.

I got back on the route and finished it, this time making sure that I remained focused on completing the move. And I did indeed, celebrate with the rest of my climbing companions once I got back down. That glow was worth basking in; but the most important lesson hadn’t been the fact that I had completed my first challenging route in the ‘Gunks. Rather, I had gained insight into something I had read in many accounts of climbing: that it requires concentration and focus at all times, that the worst mistakes happen when you take your eyes off the prize. Many climbers write of how this intense focus can be intensely pleasurable, allowing them to feel a level of awareness of their body and mind that they do not experience elsewhere. I think I have the faintest glimmering of an idea of what they are getting at now. For this permanently distracted person, that focus seems especially alluring. It sends out a siren call of sorts, beckoning me away from my desk.

Social Media And Envy

Of the many states of mind I fear–trust me, there are many precincts of my mental spaces where I fear to tread–I dread envy the most.  And a prime domain for the evocation of envy is social media: it is where, after all, your ‘friends’ and those you ‘follow’ let you know how wonderful their lives are, how loving and sensitive their partners, how accomplished their children, how many books and essays and articles they have published, how productive their writing and reading day has been, how well-traveled and fed they are; we feel indirectly slighted when praises Y but not us. I’m guilty of all of these forms of behavior, and I do not doubt for a second that I’ve irritated and vexed many by my behavior in turn; with probability one, many of my ‘friends’ have stopped ‘following’ me, turned off by the content of my posts; my apologies to one and all, including those whose timelines I cannot bear to look at any more. I’ve often thought of departing from Facebook and Twitter, and only really stay on so that I can have a place to post links to my posts here; but if I leave, I do not doubt that it will the fear of envy and the memory of some particularly debilitating attacks that will have made me pull the trigger.

The damage that envy does to relationships–friends, lovers, family, co-workers–is, I think, quite well-known. That damage is especially pronounced in competitive fields of endeavor; academia is one of them. This is not as strange as it might sound; advanced education, no matter how abstract or philosophical, offers little by way of defense against the assault envy mounts on our mental ramparts. Moreover, jobs are scarce; those without secure employment envy those with; in turn, the supposedly ‘lucky’ ones may spend their time fretting they have not published enough, in the right places, gotten praise from the right quarters, attained the right kind of recognition, and so on. If you are afflicted by impostor syndrome, social media is a very bad place to be. Sporadic reassurances that everyone suffers from impostor syndrome are of no help when the vast majority of your daily diet consists of various species of trumpet blowing.

Envy is corrosive, an almost instantaneous killer of self-esteem; it damages one’s relationships with those we are envious of; we resent them, and worse, we may come to seek distance from them so as to prevent a recurrence of the emotion. In these moments, we forget the wisdom in George Orwell’s remark that “Every life, when viewed from the inside, is a series of small failures.” Those we envy are quite cognizant of their own failures and would not recognize our perspective on their lives; we, in our turn, fail to recognize their flourishes of triumph as quite possibly their attempts to beat back the ever encroaching doubt that one’s life is an irredeemable failure. The chief cause of our existential unhappiness, as some wise person once put it, is that we imagine others to be happier than they are. And social media, of course, is where we all go to pretend to be happier than we are. Envy follows in our wake.

Brooklyn College’s Disrepair And The Attack On Public Education

Over the past two weeks, I’ve sent the following emails to my departmental faculty list, complaining about the state of classrooms at Brooklyn College. First on Thursday, September 7, I wrote:

Once again, this semester, I’m teaching in 4145 and 4219 Boylan. These classrooms are a disgrace. The air conditioner is so loud we cannot hear each other in class, and if you switch them off, you swelter. Yesterday, while teaching in 4145 Boylan, there was loud construction going on elsewhere in the building; no one knew what was going on. It took two phone calls to get someone to respond. That consumed 30 minutes of my class time. Meanwhile the airconditioner was not working at all, and my students and I were sweating profusely. This happens every semester in these classrooms. This is a ludicrous situation.

Then, yesterday, after further aggravation, I sent an angrier email:

In my initial email I had forgotten to make notice of 3150 Boylan. That classroom has destroyed my Social Philosophy class this semester; every class is hijacked by the noisy generators/cooling units outside; if you close the windows, you have to have the AC on; if you have the AC on, we can’t hear each other; if you open the doors and windows it’s too noisy. My students were walking out to get water, fanning themselves, talking to each other, complaining; and they were right.  Discussing Arendt’s critique of Marx seemed besides the point.

I refuse to teach in that classroom. Either Brooklyn College changes my classroom, or I’m not teaching. Or we can just meet there and hang out for 100 minutes if the college insists. But I won’t be teaching. If this college cannot provide working conditions that meet some minimum standards they should refund our students their tuition, and shut down this disgrace.

I’m so livid right now; every class of mine is an exercise in futility.

Meanwhile on September 12th, my colleague in the Sociology Department, Carolina Bank Munoz, wrote (on her Facebook page):

In 2016 Brooklyn College had a 5 million dollar budget cut, in 2017, 8 million, and now in fiscal 2018 we are facing a 10 million dollar cut. This is simply unsustainable. [New York state’s governor Andrew] Cuomo is literally killing CUNY. Yet undergrad enrollments are 25% higher than last year.

Brooklyn College’s state is quite typical of the institutions of public education in this city (public schools included)–that includes other colleges at the City University of New York, one of the nation’s largest and most diverse systems of college-level public education. Tuition continues to rise; administrator salaries continue to rise; the size and comfort of administrator offices grows; faculty share offices that are often equipped with printers that don’t have cartridges, but the place where the actual learning happens, where teachers and students meet continues to fall apart. The strategy being followed at CUNY is quite clear, has been for some time, and follows a pattern of declining public investment nationwide geared toward one goal: to make public education, like other public institutions, so broken, so unsustainable, that the only viable alternative will be their privatization, to be sold off to the highest bidding carpetbagger.

My options are limited: I’m reluctant to ask for an official room change for fear I will get a room that is worse–that might sound hard to believe but trust me, it’s possible; my class sizes–ranging from 25-30 students–is too large to allow the use of my office or the department lounge; and noise and commotion prevents the using of the school quad. I intend to escalate this confrontation by approaching the administration. I expect to be met with a shrugged shoulder and some muttering about ‘budgets.’

This is not the first time I’ve complained about CUNY classrooms. I did so last year following a New York Times article on the sad state of CUNY. Read my post–which also contains a rant about classrooms–and the New York Times article and weep if you care about public education and public institutions. My conclusion then is the same one I’ll draw today:

A nation that denies the value of public education, that makes it into the privileged property of a few, to be paid for under severely usurious terms, is not a republic any more; it has dynamited the wellsprings of its social and political orders.


A Synesthesia Of Sorts

For a long time now, perhaps as long as I can remember, letters and numbers have had colors and personalities and aesthetic grades. Here are the ways in which they do, for me:

  1. I see colors in vowels. The letter ‘a’ is yellow; ‘e’ is red; ‘i’ is white; ‘o’ is black; ‘u’ is grey. Because of these colors associated with vowels, when I see a printed word, I see a word that is colored somehow. That word ‘somehow’ is red and black for instance; it has acquired a particular color for me. My name has shades too; my first name is ‘lighter’ because of the presence of the ‘a’ and ‘i’ in it; my last name is made darker by the presence of an ‘o.’ Words in which there are very few vowels in proportion to their length look a little colorless to me as a result. ‘Sky,’ for instance, is entirely colorless. Blocks of text in which a particular vowel predominates acquire a shading based on the color of that particular vowel.
  2. I see ‘personalities’ in numbers (not all). ‘2’ is timid and obsequious; ‘3’ is a little smug and self-satisfied as does ‘6’; ‘4’ looks ‘closed off,’ not ‘open’ to conversation; ‘5’ looks a little like a plump person. 1, 9, 8, and 7 do not produce such connotations. Neither does zero.
  3. I see some numbers as pretty and some as ugly. ’74’ is a beautiful number; ’57’ is ugly as is ’77’. These examples show that it is not the number ‘7’ that makes the difference here but the particular combination with other numbers. Moreover, my perception of beauty in these numbers has nothing to do with their arithmetical or number theoretic properties. This perception of numbers as beautiful continues for a while but fizzles out somewhere below 1000; after that the ‘appearance’ of the numbers is of little interest or importance to me, though some older perceptions persist and affect my take on even larger numbers. For instance, because I find ’77’ ugly, I find any number ending in those two digits ugly. So acute is the perception of some numbers beauty or ugliness, that I can barely stand to see them; I find ‘111’ ugly and don’t even like seeing it in print. Some other beautiful numbers below 100 are: 54, 86, 84, 76–these are all even numbers; some odd numbers I find ‘beautiful’ are: 71, 63. I have noticed that I find more even numbers beautiful than I do the odd ones, suggesting to me that odd numbers seem ‘incomplete’ or not ’rounded off’ to me. My daughter’s birthday falls on the 23rd of a month; I remember being vaguely disappointed at that birth date; a 24 or a 26 would have ‘looked much better’; ‘even’ a 25 would have better.
  4. Lastly, I see the numbers ranging from 0-100 in a kind of spatial grid and not arranged along a number line. The grid looks like a stack of ten rows and ten columns; the first row runs from 0 to 10, the second row from 11-20, and so on till the tenth row which runs from 91-100. If I’m watching a game of any kind in which the score–whether team or individual–advances from 0 onwards to 100, and possibly beyond, I see it advancing along this grid. I suspect that my lifelong history as fan of a sport obsessed with statistics–cricket–has had something to do with the enhancement of this vision.

Wikipedia defines synesthesia as:

Synesthesia (also spelled synæsthesia or synaesthesia; from the Ancient Greek σύν syn, “together”, and αἴσθησις aisthēsis, “sensation“) is a perceptual phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway.[1][2][3][4] People who report a lifelong history of such experiences are known as synesthetes.

In one common form of synesthesia, known as grapheme-color synesthesia or color-graphemic synesthesia, letters or numbers are perceived as inherently colored.[5][6] In spatial-sequence, or number form synesthesia, numbers, months of the year, or days of the week elicit precise locations in space (for example, 1980 may be “farther away” than 1990), or may appear as a three-dimensional map (clockwise or counterclockwise).[7][8]Synesthetic associations can occur in any combination and any number of senses or cognitive pathways.[9]

Based on these definitions, I am inclined to think I’m a synesthete of a sort. I welcome comments from folks who report similar perceptual experiences.

A Persistent Difficulty In Teaching Philosophy Of Law

This semester, I’m teaching Philosophy of Law–again. My syllabus, as always, is a new one, and reflects an altered orientation and focus from those of days past. The current edition is fairly simple: it kicks off with Lon Fuller‘s ‘The Case of the Speluncean Explorers,’ excerpts from H. L. A Hart‘s The Concept of Law, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes‘ ‘The Path of the Law‘ and then moves on to a selection of readings from Alan Hutchinson’s edited collection Critical Legal Studies. And yet again, I’m finding that I have a very hard time explaining or making comprehensible or plausible the distinction between natural law theories of the law and legal positivism, or indeed, even making clear what those theories are.

On the face of it, this should not be too difficult: natural law theories insist on a conceptual connection between law and morality such that legal obligation is a species of moral obligation; positivists, treating law as a matter of social fact, separate law from morality, and find legal obligation grounded in posited social arrangements and their resultant expectations.

But year after year, semester after semester, I find that I cannot get this distinction across clearly. Rest assured, I do not employ the language of the paragraph above, which is quite formally stated. But no matter what language I use, what instructive examples I use–I always kick off my classes on this distinction by asking students to provide me examples of “something that is legal but would be considered immoral by some and something that is legal but would be considered moral by some”–and of course, I offer extensive exposition and encourage discussion of the texts we use, many of my students’ responses–written and oral–make it quite clear the central concepts involved in making the distinction between natural law and positivist theories of the law clear are, in point of fact, not so. (Sometimes I’m tempted–because of my formal education–to say that natural law theorists say that “no matter how you define law, you are going to have morality somewhere on the right hand side”; I can only occasionally resist this temptation.)

I do not think this is my students’ fault. I suspect this is because over the years I’ve come to suspect I don’t understand the supposedly clear-cut distinction myself, especially as I’ve come to believe that natural law theories can in fact be subsumed under positivist theories: a system of morality and the particular moral principles it entails are a kind of social fact, one that has resulted from the ongoing evolution of a particular social formation; the moral principles that we take to be true at any given instant, the ones that command our obligation and allegiance and that help preserve key social distinctions and help realize socially desired ends; natural law theories can then be understood as claiming the social fact of morality as the one that underwrites legal claims and obligations; in this light, you don’t get out of the historically contingent particulars of the social into some transcendent realm of morality. (Or you could give natural law and positivism a Nietzschean twist by claiming as Nietzsche did in The Genealogy of Morals that morality is derived from law.) As Hart had noticed in his Concept of Law, the theory of law he presented did not say anything about the content of rules; they could be amoral or moral. Understood in this light, natural law theories can be understood as both descriptive i.e., making the claim that legal systems do indeed, always strive for moral content in their  laws or prescriptive i.e., legal systems should include moral content in their rules. Where natural  law would then turn out to be false is that they would not capture crucial features of extant legal systems; they would have attempted to make their descriptions exhaustive, capturing some supposed conceptual connection, and failed in the process. This fact, and the distance it puts between a natural law vision of the law and the postivist vision would still be worth pointing out.

Thus far, I have not succeeded in making myself clear though. I’ll keep trying.

Getting The ‘Rorty’ In The ‘Putnam-Rorty Debate’ Wrong

In his essay on Hilary and Ruth Anna Putnam in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Tom Bartlett writes of the ‘famous’ Putnam-Rorty debate as follows:

The crux of their dispute centered on how far to take pragmatism. [Richard] Rorty thought that the things we believe to be true aren’t actually connected to reality: There is the stuff we say, and then there is the actual world, and never the twain shall meet. We agree on certain conventions in order to function, but we’ll never arrive at anything like truth. Putnam meanwhile held to the idea, as he wrote, that “there is a way to do justice to our sense that knowledge claims are responsible to reality.” In other words, it was possible, as he saw it, to be a pragmatist without jettisoning truth altogether.

In ‘Getting Rid of the Appearance-Reality Distinction,’ Richard Rorty wrote:

Only philosophers take seriously Plato’s distinction between Reality with a capital R and Appearance with a capital A. That distinction has outlived whatever usefulness it may have had. We should do our best to get rid of it.

If we did so, we should no longer wonder whether the human mind, or human language, is capable of representing reality accurately. We would stop thinking that some parts of our culture are more in touch with reality than other parts. We would express our sense of finitude not by comparing our humanity with something nonhuman but by comparing our way of being human with other, better ways that may someday be adopted by our descendants. When we condescended to our ancestors, we would not say that they were less in touch with reality than we are, but that their imaginations were more limited than ours. We would boast of being able to talk about more things than they could. [New Literary History, 2016, 47: 67–82.]

What this excerpt, and indeed, the title of the paper it is excerpted from, show is that Rorty did not think the “the things we believe to be true aren’t actually connected to reality”–rather, he thought that the notion of ‘actually connected’ and the ‘actual world’ was incoherent, that ‘reality’ was only of concern to those who believed in the separation between what we thought and the way the ‘actual world’ ‘really, really is.’ Rorty considered one of the primary planks of his ‘neo-pragmatism‘ to be the dismissal of any such separation and with it, a whole host of issues that were of interest to the ‘traditional philosopher’: the epistemological worry about whether our theories of the world were a ‘good representation’ of it, the gap and relationship between ‘world and word’, the realism-anti-realism debate, the nature of the ‘justification’ of our beliefs by the ‘actual world.’ The correspondence theory of truth and metaphysical realism are not false or mistaken theories for Rorty; they are just besides the point, the result of a philosophical mistake of sorts, set right by the dismissal of the appearance-reality distinction. The extremely reductive description above Rorty describes him, at best, as a kind of crude anti-realist, and Rorty was anything but.

Tesla’s ‘Irma Update’ Shows The Dangers Of Proprietary Software

By now, you know the story. Tesla magically (remotely) updated the software of its cars during Hurricane Irma:

Tesla remotely sent a free software update to some drivers across Florida over the weekend, extending the battery capacity of cars and giving extra range to those fleeing Hurricane Irma.

According to reports, the update temporarily unlocked the full-battery potential for 75-kilowatt-hour Model S sedans and Model X SUVs, adding around 30 to 40 miles to their range.

“Cars with a 75-kilowatt-hour battery pack were previously software limited to 210 miles of driving range per single charge and will now get 249 miles, the full range capacity of the battery,” the company wrote on a blog.

As is evident from this description, the software regulating battery life is ‘autonomous’ of the user; the user cannot change it, or tweak it in any way to reflect changing user needs or driving conditions (like, say, the need to drive to a distant point in order to escape a potentially life-threatening change in the weather.) In short, the software that runs on Tesla’s cars is not ‘free‘–not in the sense that you have to pay money for it, but in the sense that you cannot do what you, as the user of the software, might or might not want to do with it: like share it, copy it, modify it. If the user needs ‘help’ he or she must wait for the benevolent corporation to come to its aid.

We, as software users, are used to this state of affairs. Most of the software we use is indeed not ‘free’ in this sense: the source code is kept a trade secret and cannot be inspected to figure out how it does what it does, the binary executables are copyrighted and cannot be copied, lastly, the software’s algorithms are patented. You cannot read the code, you cannot change it to better reflect your needs, and you cannot make copies of something you ‘own’ to give it to others who might need it. As software users eventually come to realize, you don’t ‘own’ proprietary software in the traditional sense of the term, you license it for a limited period of time, subject to many constraints, some reasonable, others not.

In an interview with 3AM magazine, while talking about my book Decoding Liberation: The Promise of Free and Open Source Software I had made note of some of the political implications of the way software is regulated by law. The following exchange sums up the issues at play:

3:AM: One aspect of the book that was particularly interesting to me was your vision of a world full of code, a cyborg world where ‘distinctions between human and machine evanesce’ and where ‘personal and social freedoms in this domain are precisely the freedoms granted or restricted by software.’ Can you say something about what you argued for there?

SC: I think what we were trying to get at was that it seemed the world was increasingly driven by software, which underwrote a great deal of the technology that extends us and makes our cyborg selves possible. In the past, our cyborg selves were constructed by things like eyeglasses, pencils, abacuses and the like—today, by smartphones, wearable computers, tablets and other devices like them. These are all driven by software. So our extended mind, our extended self, is very likely to be largely a computational device. Who controls that software? Who writes it? Who can modify it? Look at us today, tethered to our machines, unable to function without them, using software written by someone else. How free can we be if we don’t have some very basic control over this technology? If the people who write the software are the ones who have exclusive control over it, then I think we are giving up some measure of freedom in this cyborg society. Remember that we can enforce all sorts of social control over people by writing it into the machines that they use for all sorts of things. Perhaps our machines of tomorrow will come with porn filters embedded in the code that we cannot remove; perhaps with code in the browsers that mark off portions of the Net as forbidden territory, perhaps our reading devices will not let us read certain books, perhaps our smartphones will not let us call certain numbers, perhaps prosthetic devices will not function in ‘no-go zones’, perhaps the self-driving cars of tomorrow will not let us drive faster than a certain speed; the control possibilities are endless. The more technologized we become and the more control we hand over to those who can change the innards of the machines, the less free we are. What are we to do? Just comply? This all sounds very sci-fi, but then, so would most of contemporary computing to folks fifty years ago. We need to be in charge of the machines that we use, that are our extensions.

We, in short, should be able to hack ourselves.

Tesla’s users were not free during Irma; they were at the mercy of the company, which in this case, came to their aid. Other users, of other technologies, might not be so fortunate; they might not be the masters of their destiny.