Tuesday, April 7, 2020

COVID-19 Journal, Part Five

My COVID-19 Journal continues with Part Five: First Week of April Edition. You can see Part Four here. I'm thinking of changing the name to Pandemic Journal. I don't know. Anyway, here it goes.

Wed. 1 April 2020

Can a joke be more sad than funny? Let’s see.

Everything is fine. … April Fools’… 

Sunday, April 5, 2020

The Dogged Persistence of Fate: Cujo by Stephen King

Cujo is not my favorite Stephen King novel, but not my least favorite, either. This is vintage 70's/80's King. The characters are a bit less vivid for me than his characters usually are, but there's a heavy meditation on fate and chance, cause and effect. And that ending... it's a gut punch, and Uncle Stevie does not pull his punches here.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Weird Retail: Stay Crazy by Erica L. Satifka

Yeah, things are weird and scary right now, but I'm still reading books. And I'm still reviewing them. Stay Crazy by Erica L. Satifka was just what I needed right now.

I purchased the book from the author at Worldcon in 2016, and I wish I had read it sooner. Maybe in another dimension some other version of me did. Or maybe it's good that I waited until I needed a funny, weirdly-compelling book to read in this dimension.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

COVID-19 Journal, Part Four

A photo from my social distancing walk on Sun. 29 March 2020

Since today is the last day of the month, I figured this was a good cut-off for a series I had no idea I would be starting at the beginning of this looooong month of historic proportions. See my previous entry here.

Also since it's the last day of March 2020, here's a repeat of my entry from March 22.
March 2020: The month the human race came together and collectively sighed, “Well, fuck.”

Thursday, March 26, 2020

A Techno-skeptical Approach to Suddenly Online Courses

I see a lot of professors struggling with video lectures for our sudden conversion to online classes, so here's a bit of heresy on my part: video lectures aren't really required in online classes. You don't have to do them. They're maybe not the best use of everyone's time right now (especially ours). 

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Friday, March 20, 2020

COVID-19 Journal, Part Two: 80's Metallica as COVID-19 Soundtrack

Here's the second in my series of COVID-19 journal entries. You can read the first one here.

20 March 2020

Somehow the four albums Metallica released in the 1980’s have been in especially heavy rotation in my listening the last few days. They’ve almost become a COVID-19 soundtrack for me.

I was wondering why, so I thought maybe there’s something appropriate about some of their songs. I should preface this by saying that I’m really bad with lyrics, even of songs that I have regularly listened to for 30 years. (Strangely, this does not apply to Weird Al.) Feel free to fill in the gaps with your knowledge of Metallica lyrics.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

COVID-19 Journal, Part One

Yesterday I started keeping a journal for the first time in about 20 years. And now that I have a blog, I figured I might post some of it here. The first entry is a bit long and a bit rambling, but it's my attempt to capture some of what I've been doing and thinking in the unprecedented times of the previous week.

Wednesday 18 March 2020


I woke up with an idea today to write down a little bit about what’s going on during this global pandemic. As a way to document it, process it for myself, work through ideas… I’m not sure.

Anyway, here it goes.

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Almost Philosophical Zombies: Devil's Wake by Tananarive Due and Steven Barnes

Devil's Wake is an interesting take on the zombie genre from horror/sci-fi power couple, Tananarive Due and Steven Barnes. It's maybe not the most unique zombie story out there, but it does have something closer to philosophical zombies than most and of course raises interesting questions about the ways in which humans depend on each other. It took a while, but the characters really grew on me, too. This novel is based on Due and Barnes's earlier short story called "Danger Word."

The basic plot: teenage girl Kendra is on the run from a zombie outbreak (including some heartbreaking scenes involving her family) when she meets up with a small group of other young adults (with some good representation of characters of diverse races and ethnicities). They go on the road in search of a place where civilization has found sanctuary.

Due and Barnes explain in their postscript that part of what they were trying to do here was to delve into the ways that human beings depend on one another. This may seem at odds with the hyper-survivalist ethos of most zombie tales, but notice that in most zombie stories the protagonists get by with a little help from their friends.

But how do you tell who your friends are? That's the catch, of course!

One of the scariest things about this novel is also one of the most philosophically interesting: even after they are infected (usually through a bite), zombies can still talk like their old selves for a while. Creepy!

Philosophical zombies, as popularized by philosopher David Chalmers, are a thought experiment meant to make a point about consciousness: if you could imagine creatures with all the same physiological processes as humans and who act and talk just like humans but without a sense of first-person phenomenal consciousness (or "what its like"), does this show that consciousness cannot be reduced to or fully explained by physical processes? Or as philosophers would put it, does the conceivability of this type of zombie mean that physicalism is false? (For more on philosophical zombies, see here).

The zombies in Devil's Wake aren't quite philosophical zombies in this sense. Eventually, they reveal their zombie qualities (first by biting people, later by creepily standing still). Let's say they're almost philosophical zombies.  (For something much closer to full philosophical zombies in fiction, see Quantum Night by Robert J. Sawyer).

Philosophy (and philosophical zombies) can be plenty scary, but I think Due and Barnes have made something just as unnerving. While you might be interacting with philosophical zombies every day (and thats plenty unsettling to contemplate), at least they're not going to bite you and turn you into one of them!

See my Goodreads review!

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Random Thoughts, Part 8

Made at: https://www.jasondavies.com/wordcloud/

My series of posts on my random thoughts continues to roll randomly along... Now get ready for Part 8!

147. I don’t really feel like I fit into the discipline of philosophy, but it’s not so bad because I’ve never really felt like I fit in anywhere else, either.

148. Nostalgia both distorts the past and limits the present.

149. You’re supposed to become more of a morning person as you get older, but in the last 20 years I’ve gone from “I’d rather not do this in the morning, but I will be there” to “I am unavailable before noon.”

150. There seem to be two main responses to attempts to make philosophy curricula more inclusive: “Cool, let’s try it!” versus “I don’t know, is that really philosophy?”

151. I like arguments and discussions, but most of what happens these days is bickering, which is a great deal more exhausting and pointless.

152. I’m tired of bickering. I’m tired of conversation as combat. I’d rather have real arguments.

153. Bickering looks like argument, but it is a simulacrum of argument.

154. There must be a test to tell the difference between fighting the good fight and being pointlessly combative, but I’m not always sure what it is. Maybe it’s this: is the other person a potential ally or are you making a point for the sake of an audience?

155. When did it become cool to hate things?

156. Something in a society has gone deeply wrong when it becomes possible for many people in that society to sincerely believe that caring about other people is unnatural or irrational.

157. A possible definition of philosophy: Philosophers are people who spend the most time thinking about the things most normal people think about the least.

158. Alternatively--Philosophers: We think about stuff so you don’t have to!

159. I figured out something that bothers me about the way many people interact offline but especially online these days: a lack of self-deprecation. There is plenty of giving other people shit for the purposes of raising one’s self-estimation, but little of this shit is reserved for oneself. But what do I know? I’m not very observant.

160. I think in some cases a lack of self-deprecating humor indicates a much deeper character flaw. It shows that a person is incapable or unwilling to reflect on their own limitations and fallibilities; they don’t see themselves from a comedic distance, which often demonstrates a lack of empathy or ability to imagine others’ perspectives.

161. Someone mentioned this already, but I keep seeing it happen that in recent years parts of the American left have become more like the problematic parts of the right: a persecution complex, with-me-or-against-me dichotomies, go-for-the-jugular straw man arguments, repetition of manufactured attack points, jokes/memes that are more mean than funny, the idea that not changing one’s opinions over time is somehow inherently a good thing, approaching all discussions as combat… But all of this is combined with a thoroughly leftist tendency to eat one’s own, so the left failed to learn the one actually useful lesson from the right: the value of putting aside minor differences for the sake of gaining greater political power.

162. Some enduring mysteries of the universe:
Why is it so hard for some people to use their turn signals?
How do people get ear buds to stay in their ears?
Why don’t students do the reading?
Why are some foods considered breakfast foods?

163. Maybe things have always been like this, but it seems that these days many people adopt a sort of non-intellectual fideism about all of their beliefs, not just religious ones: they just kind of have their beliefs, come what may. Because of this, the penchant of philosophers (especially philosophy teachers) to ask what your beliefs mean and how we could know they are right is likely to sound like complete nonsense—you possess beliefs, you don’t examine them!

164. I feel this is a possibility too easily ignored: maybe everybody is wrong, even me.

165. A strange trend in conspiracy theories in recent years: “It appears that many other people like a politician I don’t like. A malevolent conspiracy is the only possible way to explain this appearance.”

166. How much of our notions of popularity and related ideas (electability, etc.) are based on the small and non-representative sample of “people I know on social media”?

167. Getting a PhD keeps you young: it gives you the student loan debt, income, and career stage of a much younger person.

168. One of the sad things about the last several years of American politics is that the list of people I can’t really talk to about politics now includes many people I mostly agree with.

169. Politics and economics are two areas of human activity in which people think they are being rational, but are often based on unfounded assumptions, sloppy conjectures, and wishful thinking. What’s weirdest to me, though, is that anyone thinks economics is more rational than politics.

170. Righteous indignation is not always the correct response to disagreement.

171. You can tell a lot about philosophers by what they think the besetting sin of philosophy is. For me it is dogmatism, which I guess maybe explains my fondness for skepticism.

172. How much human misery is caused by convincing ourselves we know things we in fact have no business claiming to know?

173. “Western philosophy” is not a natural kind.

174. I’m partially colorblind, have no eye for design, and am almost completely fashion-blind. These things may not be unrelated.

175. The sad thing about the lack of trying to take another person’s perspective that seems common these days isn’t that people are incapable of doing it, but that they don’t even seem to want to try.

176. I’m not a very good skeptic. I have lots of opinions. But sometimes my skeptical tendencies stop me from sharing them too widely or too forcefully.

177. A bit of skeptical therapy for election seasons: Nobody actually knows what the results of an election are going to be before it happens. “Electability” doesn’t really mean anything, and it says more about the people using the label than the person it applies to. Using past elections to predict future elections would require more understanding of what happened in the past than most of us possess. A general sense of foreboding doom may be unavoidable for various psychological reasons, but it shouldn’t be based on knowledge of future events that none of us possess.

Friday, February 28, 2020

Four Ways to Forgiveness by Ursula K. Le Guin

I put off writing my review of Ursula K. Le Guin's Four Ways to Forgiveness for a week. Some it was that I was busy (with Con Nooga and other things). But I didn't put it off because I didn't like it. I loved it. Yet here's the thing: what to say about a Le Guin novel set in the same universe as The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed? Okay, actually I have a lot to say about Four Ways to Forgiveness, but everything I say feels shallow compared to the depths of Le Guin's work.

Let me make a few inadequate remarks, anyway.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Looking Forward to Seeing Con Nooga 2020!

I just realized two things that precipitated this post. One, we're several weeks into the year, and I have yet to make a silly joke about seeing 2020. Two, Con Nooga is tomorrow! If you're not in the know, Con Nooga is a great multi-fandom con that happens every February here in Chattanooga, TN. This year it takes place Feb. 21-23, 2020.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Swamp Run: Gone South by Robert R. McCammon

I picked this up because I recently met the author at Chattacon. I was even on a panel with him! He was super cool, and it was an honor. This was my first book by Robert McCammon, but I'll definitely be reading more of him in the future.

Gone South is weirder than it might sound, and it's probably more fun it has any right to be. Dan is a down-on-his-luck Vietnam vet who accidentally kills a man and goes on the run. He's followed by a bounty hunter who has an unspeaking, half formed conjoined twin on his side (think Kuato in Total Recall, but with a gun). The bounty hunter's partner is--wait for it--an Elvis impersonator with a pet bull dog named Mama. And after a large number of seemingly random adventures, Dan meets up with Arden, a young woman in search of a healer to take care of a large birthmark on her face. And it all just gets wilder from there as they all make their way to the Louisiana bayou.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

On the Need to Fall Silent

“Thereupon, Gārgī Vācaknavī fell silent.”-- Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 3.6

I’m currently teaching a class called “Ancient Women Philosophers: India and Greece,” which is interesting for many reasons. I’ll get to some of those reasons in another post.

In this post I want to talk about the sage Gārgī Vācaknavī, who is one of the few women to appear in the Upaniṣads. I’m particularly interested in why she fell silent, and what I think we might learn from this today.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Chattacon 45 Report!

Post Panel Photo (L to R: Gregory Nicoll, Robert R. McCammon, Stephen Antczak, and me)

Last weekend I attended my sixth Chattacon here in Chattanooga, Tennessee! As has become tradition on this blog, I am also giving a Chattacon report!

Thursday, January 23, 2020

The Precarity of Utopia: The Will to Battle by Ada Palmer

Ada Palmer's Terra Ignota continues to be a series that is obviously brilliant whether I understand it or not (and I often don't). How could I not love this third book in the series, where the reader is enlisted into a dialogue with Thomas Hobbes in the 25th century?

Monday, January 20, 2020

MLK Day 2020: Labor, Love, and Community

The MLK Day March in Chattanooga near the MLK mural (Jan. 20, 2020)

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day here in the United States. I’ve written before about why MLK Day is my favorite holiday, King’s relation to science fiction, the idea of a moral arc, moving beyond "MLK-Lite," and my visit to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis
For 2020, I thought I’d discuss the labor movement, partly because I finally got around to participating in my local MLK Day March with fellow members of my union, United Campus Workers! (More pictures here and below). 
Of the many things people seem to forget in the midst of the Disneyification of Martin Luther King, Jr. is that he was a big proponent of the labor movement. He was murdered in Memphis while supporting a sanitation workers’ strike. His famous “I Have a Dream” speech was delivered at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. 
You can read more about King’s connections with the labor movement here and here and here.  

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Are We All Obnoxious Know-It-Alls?: Know-It-All Society by Michael Patrick Lynch

As a person on the internet I have come to dread the fact that everybody seems to have become an insufferable know-it-all, at least in their online interactions (I am not entirely immune to this tendency myself). In Know-It-All Society: Truth and Arrogance in Political Culture, Michael Patrick Lynch does a great job diagnosing the problem and some of its causes. Like Lynch, I find this problem to be pervasive on both the political right and left. Although it takes different forms at opposing ends of the political spectrum, the phenomenon is annoying in both forms (although I think far more dangerous on the right these days).

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Phantasmagoric American Myth: The Stand by Stephen King

A phantasmagoric fable, an American myth, a Christian allegory, apocalyptic science fiction, fantasy, horror, a cautionary tale about technology, a sociological and political thought experiment, a dramatization of the battle between the dualities of human nature: reason and magic, good and evil, selfishness and selflessness, fear and hope, cowardice and bravery, love and hate... The Stand is all of these things and more.