Thursday, October 9, 2014

Quote of the Day: Conan Doyle on the American West

"In the central portion of the great North American Continent there lies an arid and repulsive desert, which for many a long year served as a barrier against the advance of civilization. From the Sierra Nevada to Nebraska, and from the Yellowstone River in the north to the Colorado upon the south, is a region of desolation and silence. Nor is Nature always in one mood throughout this grim district. It comprises snow-capped and lofty mountains, and dark and gloomy valleys. There are swift-flowing rivers which dash through jagged cañons; and there are enormous plains, which in winter are white with snow, and in summer are grey with the saline alkali dust. They all present however, the common characteristics of barenness, inhospitality, and misery.

There are no inhabitants of this land of despair. A band of Pawnees or of Blackfeet may occasionally traverse it in order to reach other hunting-grounds, but the hardiest of the braves are glad to lose sight of those awsome plains, and to find themselves once more upon the prairies. The coyote skulks among the scrub, the buzzard flaps heavily through the air, and the clumsy grizzly bear lumbers through the dark ravines, and picks up such sustenance as it can amongst the rocks. These are the sole dwellers in the wilderness.

In the whole world there can be no more dreary view than that from the northern slope of the Sierra Blanco. As far as the eye can reach stretches the great flat plainland, all dusted over with patches of alkali, and intersected by clumps of the dwarfish chapparal bushes. On the extreme verge of the horizon lie a long chain of mountain peaks, with their rugged summits flecked with snow. In this great stretch of country there is no sign of life, nor of anything appertaining to life. There is no bird in the steel-blue heaven, no movement upon the dull, grey earth—above all, there is absolute silence. Listen as one may, there is no shadow of a sound in all that mighty wilderness; nothing but silence—complete and heart-subduing silence.

It has been said there is nothing appertaining to life upon the broad plain. That is hardly true. Looking down from the Sierra Blanco, one sees a pathway traced out across the desert, which winds away and is lost in the extreme distance. It is rutted with wheels and trodden down by the feet of many adventurers. Here and there there are scattered white objects which glisten in the sun, and stand out against the dull deposit of alkali. Approach and examine them! They are bones: some large and coarse, others smaller and more delicate. The former have belonged to oxen, and the latter to men. For fifteen hundred miles one may trace this ghastly caravan route by these scattered remains of those who had fallen by the wayside.

Looking down on this very scene, there stood upon the fourth of May, eighteen hundred and forty-seven, a solitary traveller[....]"

— from A Study in Scarlet (Part 2, Chapter 1), by Arthur Conan Doyle

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

On Living Life and Accepting Death

  photo by Lari Huttunen (cc by-nc-nd 2.0)

I don’t believe in an afterlife, which means I do believe in death. It shouldn’t be such a strange thing to believe life ends in death, but most people believe or at least hope for more. Death denial is an understandable impulse; sometimes it even extends to family pets, but less often to other animals. We want ourselves and those we care about to carry on. We won’t. They won’t.

Does the reality of death mean life doesn’t matter? No, it means life is the only thing that matters. You get once chance to exist and it’s happening now. Now is the time to love, the time to learn, the time to create, the time to enjoy yourself and choose to either bring comfort or suffering to others.

What about jerks who prosper in life and kind people who live hard lives? Doesn’t the reality of death mean the world is unjust? Yes. That may sound harsh, but how kind is it to tell people that the suffering and deaths of their loved ones is for the best? It can be disheartening to know we can’t make everything better, but what we can do matters all the more because there’s no other help on the way.

Besides, popular alternatives tend to be worse. At least suffering and injustice end along with life. Mainstream Christian and Muslim beliefs promise unending joy for a select few and unending suffering for most people. That’s solving a house fire with an atom bomb.

Why not just have as much pleasure in life as possible and forget about other people? Well, there’s nothing wrong with pleasure. Pleasure is great and it comes in many satisfying forms! As a loved one says: “No time enjoyed is entirely wasted.” As for ignoring the suffering of other people, moral philosophers have tried in vain to find a reason for completely selfish people to care about others. You have to start with caring a little. Thankfully, most of us do. We don’t have to solve whole categories of suffering on our own; we can cooperate with others, working within the limits of our imperfect empathy and our incomplete understanding to make our lives a little better.


“If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.”

— Emily Dickinson

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Quote of the Day: Chomsky on Technology and Power

"As to the idea [...] that there is some technological imperative, some property of advanced technological society that requires centralized power and decision making [...] as far as I can see it's perfect nonsense; I've never seen any argument in favor of it.

It seems to me that modern technology, like the technology of data-processing, or communication, and so on, has precisely the opposite implications. It implies that relevant information and relevant understanding can be brought to everyone quickly. It doesn't have to be concentrated in the hands of a small group of managers who control all knowledge, all information, and all decision-making. So technology, I think, can be liberating, it has the property of being possibly liberating; it's converted, like everything else, like the system of justice, into an instrument of oppression because of the fact that power is badly distributed. I don't think there is anything in modern technology or modern technological society that leads away from decentralization of power, quite the opposite."

— Noam Chomsky, The Chomsky-Foucault Debate: On Human Nature, p. 64

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Quote of the Day: Dewey on the Ideal Librarian

"In our state library school I give each year a course of five lectures on the qualifications of a librarian, and point out under a half-hundred different heads the things we should demand in an ideal librarian; but when we have covered the whole field of scholarship and technical knowledge and training, we must confess that overshadowing all are the qualities of the man. To my thinking, a great librarian must have a clear head, a strong hand, and, above all, a great heart. He must have a head as clear as the master in diplomacy; a hand as strong as he who quells the raging mob or leads great armies on to victory; and a heart as great as he who, to save others, will, if need be, lay down his life. Such will be greatest among librarians; and, when I look into the future, I am inclined to think that most of the men who will achieve this greatness will be women."

- Melvil Dewey's brief article "The Ideal Librarian" quoted in full, The Library Journal 24(1), January 1899, p. 14. [Google Books scan]

Friday, May 16, 2014

Quote of the Day: Jensen on Library Neutrality

"Take a simple example involving the common assumption in the United States that the capitalist economic system is the only rational and morally defensible way to organize an economy. There can be, and often is, much debate about how to structure and administer a capitalist economy, but the system itself is rarely contested, despite centuries of resistance to capitalism around the world and considerable intellectual work underlying that resistance. Now, imagine that a librarian wants to produce a display of the libraryʼs resources on economics to encourage patrons to think about the subject. In many libraries such a display would include no critiques of capitalism, but simply literature that takes capitalism as a given. Such a display that ignores critical material likely would produce no controversy (except perhaps a few complaints from anti-capitalists about the absence of critique, who could easily be dismissed as cranks). It is unlikely that school boards or city councils would take up the issue of the obvious bias against socialism and other non-capitalist economic systems. Consider what might happen if a librarian charged with this task actually produced a display that carefully balanced the amount of material from as many different perspectives as s/he could identify. In many places, that display would be denounced for its 'obvious' socialist politics. Now, imagine that a librarian, observing the way in which Americans are systematically kept from being exposed to anti-capitalist ideas in the schools and mass media, decides to organize materials that compensate for that societal failure by emphasizing critiques of capitalism. That librarian could be guaranteed not only criticism and charges of political bias, but likely disciplinary action.

My point is simply that all of those decisions have a political dimension, which is unavoidable. My concern here is not which one is the right decision, but that the librarian whose display is in line with the conventional wisdom likely will escape criticism while any other choices will raise questions about 'politicizing' what should be a professional decision. Unfortunately, this neutrality game will derail rather than foster serious discussion of the issues."

- from "The Myth of the Neutral Professional" by Robert Jensen in Progressive Librarian Issue #24.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Quote of the Day: Chomsky on Past Thinking

"I approach classical rationalism not really as a historian of science or a historian of philosophy, bur rather from a different point of view of someone who has a certain range of scientific notions and is interested in seeing how at an earlier stage people may have been groping towards these notions, possibly without even realizing what they were groping towards.

So one might say that I'm looking at history not as an antiquarian, who is interested in finding out and giving a precisely accurate account of what the thinking of the seventeenth century wasI don't mean to demean that activity, it's just not minebut rather from the point of view of, let's say, an art lover, who wants to look at the seventeenth century to find in it things that are of particular value, and that obtain part of their value in part because of the perspective with which he approaches them.

And I think that, without objecting to the other approach, my approach is legitimate; that is, I think it is perfectly possible to go back to earlier stages of scientific thinking on the basis of our present understanding, and to perceive how great thinkers were, within the limitations of their time, groping toward concepts and ideas and insights that they themselves could not be clearly aware of."

— Noam Chomsky, The Chomsky-Foucault Debate: On Human Nature, p. 10

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Quote of the Day: Willa Cather on Preferable Legends

"All the years that have passed have not dimmed my memory of that first glorious autumn. The new country lay open before me: there were no fences in those days, and I could choose my own way over the grass uplands, trusting the pony to get me home again. Sometimes I followed the sunflower-bordered roads. Fuchs told me that the sunflowers were introduced into that country by the Mormons; that at the time of the persecution, when they left Missouri and struck out into the wilderness to find a place where they could worship God in their own way, the members of the first exploring party, crossing the plains to Utah, scattered sunflower seed as they went. The next summer, when the long trains of wagons came through with all the women and children, they had the sunflower trail to follow. I believe that botanists do not confirm Jake's story, but insist that the sunflower was native to those plains. Nevertheless, that legend has stuck in my mind, and sunflower-bordered roads always seem to me the roads to freedom."

- from My Ántonia, Chapter 4