29 January 2009

Wise Words

"Successful and happy people are not people who are dealt great hands. They are people who play well the hands they are dealt." --David C. Rose, 27 January 2009

Wise Words

"Determine never to be idle. No person will have occasion to complain of the want of time, who never loses any. It is wonderful how much may be done, if we are always doing. And that you may be always doing good, my dear, is the ardent prayer of yours affectionately." --Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to Martha Jefferson, 5 May 1787

27 January 2009

Worth a Look

A brief review of Keith E. Stanovich's new book, What Intelligence Tests Miss: The Psychology of Rational Thought. According to the review, Stanovich's claim is that IQ tests, while valid, are narrow; specifically, they do not account for "judicious decision making, efficient behavioral regulation, sensible goal prioritization ... [and] the proper calibration of evidence." That means a person can have a high IQ but still engage in "blatantly irrational acts" and make "dumb decisions."

Hmmm . . . sound like anyone you know?

26 January 2009

Wise Words

"You need to avoid certain things in your train of thought: everything random, everything irrelevant. And certainly everything self-important or malicious. You need to get used to winnowing your thoughts, so that if someone says, 'What are you thinking about?' you can respond at once (and truthfully) that you are thinking this or that. And it would be obvious at once from your answer that your thoughts were straightforward and considerate ones--the thoughts of an unselfish person, one unconcerned with pleasure and with sensual indulgence generally, with squabbling, with slander and envy, or anything else you'd be ashamed to be caught thinking." --Marcus Aurelius, Meditations III.4

24 January 2009

This Just In

Is the New York Times going out of business? The Wall Street Journal, which apparently is not going out of business, predicts it will, despite the $250 million loan that super-rich Carlos Slim gave it. The Times is paying over 14% on that loan, which is not a good sign. The economy is tough on everyone right now, even America's newspaper of record. The passing of the Times would be the end of an era.

20 January 2009

Worth a Look

The new website of Professor Bradley Birzer: Avalon Cathedrals. I have also added it to my roster of links, below right. Professor Birzer is a great man, and an inspiration. The future of civilization rests on the shoulders of people like him.

Worth a Look

Here is Stanley Fish's latest column on the state of higher education in America, entitled "The Last Professor," from today's New York Times. Will there be a demand for classically trained humanities professors in the future of American higher education?

(See also Fish's provocative but intriguing defense of the installation of Roland Burris as Illinois's new senator here. Fish marshals an Augustinian conception of the relation between individual human beings and the offices they occupy to counter the claim that Burris is "tainted" by Governor Blagojevich's alleged wrongdoings.)

19 January 2009

The Dark Side of the Internet

[Commentary]

As a college football fan and Notre Dame graduate, I read this interview with the new athletic director at Notre Dame, Jack Swarbrick, with interest. Given Notre Dame's recent football woes, he has significant challenges ahead. What struck me in particular, however, was his comments about the damage that anonymous postings on internet sites can do. Here is the relevant exchange:

Q: Coverage of your athletic programs have changed drastically in the past few years, with cutbacks in the newspaper industry, the growth of non-traditional media, blogs, instant messaging, message boards, etc. In terms of your job, does it change the way you have to approach things?

A: "Yes, it's been so dramatic. It's so pervasive, you almost don't think of it as an isolated event. When we talk at our student-athlete advisory council meetings here, that issue is huge with the kids, because there are elements of the Internet that are so grossly unfair to these young student-athletes.

"An enormous problem is anonymous postings, which are often just flat-out lies. Because the student-athletes have the public profiles at the university, they tend to become victims of it much more than anyone else. So you have that dynamic. You also deal with your student-athletes about Facebook and MySpace — how to caution them about those, how to manage that.

"I was not surprised about the level of interest in what we do, and kind of the passion that surrounds it. But I was very surprised as sort of the tone and the degree of misinformation. It's stunningly specific.

"Somebody will report that I was in a hotel in Florida at 2:30 in the afternoon, talking to Urban Meyer. It's just nonsense, but because it is so specific, because that complete fabrication carries that detail, it becomes credible.

"It's very frustrating to have somebody write about some element of our business, saying that the information came from 'a highly placed source in the athletic department.' It'll be a topic that I know only three of us discussed, so it didn't come from us. It's not possible to have come from us, but people sort of cloak themselves in descriptions like that. It's just part of the deal.

"You'd like everyone externally — all the people who care about our program — to be a little more skeptical about the quality of what they're reading. And I don't mean the traditional media. I think more in terms of things that have an online origin."

I fear this is becoming a widespread, even pervasive, problem. Now almost every website, blog, news story--everything--on the internet allows for anonymous commenting and posting. Most of it is innocent enough, and there is nothing wrong with wanting to protect one's identity for personal, professional, or artistic reasons. Indeed, I believe there is an important place for anonymous or pseudonymous writing, as everyone from "Publius" to Kierkegaard to Mark Twain to George Eliot to C. S. Lewis can attest. (See the incomplete lists of famous anonymous or pseudonymous authors and works here, here, here, and here, for example.)

The problem comes because some people use the cloak of anonymity to provide cover to say (write) false, malicious, and mean-spirited things. And, as Aristotle would have predicted, engaging in vicious activity like that becomes easier, and feels more comfortable, each time one does it. So we have seen a rapid escalation of instances of people saying the most outrageous, filthy, profane, and destructive things, all apparently with no sense of guilt or shame, simply because they can.

An example is the scurrilous site called "Juicy Campus" (to whose site I will not link--a small thing, I realize, but still), which invites college students to post anonymous "juicy" gossip about their fellow students and faculty, all with guaranteed impunity. The results are shocking. Predictable, perhaps, but still shocking.

I wonder whether what we are seeing develop before our eyes is an answer to the Ring of Gyges problem posed to Socrates in Book II of Plato's Republic. The question was whether a person who had perfect assurance of never being discovered or caught would therefore break through all the rules of morality and engage in conduct even he would otherwise acknowledge is immoral and wrong. Socrates answered in the negative, but I wonder whether Glaucon's answer might not be right after all.

It is hard to know what to do about this phenomenon, how to combat the practice, or how to undo the damage that can come from a person making a malicious statement even just once. Another feature of our new digital age, remember, is that once something appears it exists forever. Hence even if the anonymous poster wrote something injudicious in a fit of anger or spite, only to regret it later, it is too late. Though it might be retracted, it cannot be expunged.

Our species developed in conditions very different from this, conditions in which it was possible to start anew and to have one's past mistakes forgotten, conditions in which it was far more difficult for a person to spread false rumors or malicious lies, especially anonymously.
But now people's lives can be devastated and their careers can be destroyed, and, for the moment at least, there is precious little one can do about it. That is a frightening prospect--not only because any one of us might just as easily be the next victim, but also because of what it reveals about human nature.

It may be some time before mores and norms develop that can help us navigate these treacherous social and moral waters. In the meantime, I suppose all one can do is state publicly that slander is wrong and that one should take what one reads on the internet with a large dose of skepticism; and one should frequently remind oneself how pervasively the dark side of humanity is on display on the internet.

What I'm Reading

1. Fifty Major Economists, 2nd ed., by Steven Pressman (London: Routledge, 2006), part of the Routledge "Key Guides" series. Provides short introductions and overviews of the life and work of, as the title would indicate, fifty major economists. I enjoyed reading this immensely. It is at times idiosyncratic, but I learned a lot from it. (Note: Steven Pressman is not to be confused with Steven Pressfield, whose fantastic Gates of Fire is one of my--and my childrens'--favorite books.)

2. Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, by Ludwig von Mises (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2007 [1949]). I had read this on my own as a graduate student, but I am now re-reading it in preparation for a conference I am attending in February. A beautifully constructed argument, although I am less convinced than I once was that a purely "deductive" argument for the free market can be successful.

3. Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius, trans. Gregory Hays (New York: Modern Library, 2002). If you have not read Meditations, you should. I like this translation, but there are many others. Read it slowly, to think about each passage, not just to finish the book. I have read it many times, each time with profit and each time learning and discovering something new. That is the mark of an enduring work--not to mention an enduring mind in the remarkable Marcus Aurelius. Meditations is, as a friend of mine recently reminded me, a work that can calm the soul in troubled times.

On my list:

1. Economic Facts and Fallacies, by Thomas Sowell (New York: Basic Books, 2008). I have read numerous other books by Sowell, beginning with his Inside American Education (rev. ed., New York: Free Press, 2003), and including the important Conflict of Visions (rev. ed., New York: Basic Books, 2007), which I frequently use in class.

2. When I can find the time, there are several other books by Ludwig von Mises I would like to read (or re-read, as the case may be), including Socialism, The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality, and Bureaucracy. All of these are now handsomely, and inexpensively, available from Liberty Fund in its ongoing publication of the works of Mises.

08 January 2009

Wise Words

"Concentrate every minute like a Roman--like a man--on doing what's in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice. And on freeing yourself from all other distractions. Yes, you can--if you do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life, and stop being aimless, stop letting your emotions override what your mind tells you, stop being hypocritical, self-centered, irritable. You see how few things you have to do to live a satisfying and reverent life? If you can manage this, that's all even the gods can ask of you." --Marcus Aurelius, Meditations II.5.