Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Twitter: Now With More Characters, Less Character

Twitter has changed a lot over the last few years, but until recently there was one inviolable rule to which all users were obliged: tweets must be limited to 140 characters or less. Because a computer "character" is a unit of information that roughly corresponds to a grapheme-- letter, number, punctuation mark, or whitespace-- the challenge of saying what one means in 140 characters or less is colossal.  So, Twitter users adapted their communications to their medium, producing a number of compressions, modifications, mutations, and (some would say) perversions of language that must be genuinely fascinating to linguists, curious and strange (but eminently useful) to the rest of us.

.The new changes that Twitter announced today are, basically, "workarounds" for the longstanding 140-characters-or-less limit.  Twitter says that it's still maintaining that rule, but their announced changes allow for at least two significant exemptions to what counts as "included" in that 140 count.  First, in both tweets and replies, @names will no longer count and, second, media attachments won't be counted as used characters.  As regular Twitter users know, both those exemptions make a huge difference.

I, for one, am sad to see these changes, The three great virtues of Twitter, to my mind, have always been (1) hashtags, (2) real-time access to developing news and events, and (3) the very unique character of wit and insight produced by the requirement to be concise.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

"Grace and Frankie" and the Right to Die

There are so many things about Netflix's original comedy series Grace and Frankie (now in its second season) to recommend it, not least of which is its pitch-perfect gallows humor.  Orbiting around the decidedly 21st century lives of four septuagenarians-- the eponymous Grace (Jane Fonda) and Frankie (Lily Tomlin) and their now ex-husbands, Saul (Sam Waterston) and Robert (Martin Sheen), who came out as gay men, divorced their wives, and married each other very late in life-- Grace and Frankie never has to reach to far for a joke, whether of the garden-variety old folks' ilk (Viagra jokes, menopause jokes, hip replacement jokes, old people doing technology jokes) or the more story-specific sort (infidelity jokes, divorce jokes, coming out of the closet jokes). For a show with all the trappings of a situation comedy, Grace and Frankie is anything but formulaic. Its humor is brutally honest, impressively thoughtful, shockingly politically progressive, equal parts probative and revelatory. And, for a series that draws the bulk of its subject matter from trials and tribulations that attend only those very near the end of life, it is also surprisingly, refreshingly smart and tender-hearted.

Those last two merits are perhaps nowhere more evident than in one of the sub-plots that emerges near the conclusion of Season 2, focusing on Babe (played the inimitable Estelle Parsons), who has decided to relinquish her "fight" with cancer and has enlisted her old friends, Grace and Frankie, to assist her suicide. The show's writers never accord Babe's story anything other than subplot status. And that decision is a credit to the show.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Philosophy's Gatekeepers

Yesterday's piece by Jay Garfield and Bryan Van Norden's in NYT's The Stone ("If Philosophy Won't Diversify, Let's Call It What It Really Is") has already generated some of the most interesting online discussion about the discipline and profession of Philosophy that I've seen since our last salacious exposé. (What are we at now, philosophers? 190 days since the last major breaking-news story about sexual harassment or assault in our discipline?  That must be a record!) Anyway, Garfield and Van Norden's central thesis is that what gets called "philosophy" in the United States is, in fact, an "area study" with a decidedly limited Euro-American focus.  If departments are going to continue only teaching courses in what Garfield and Van Norden call "Western" philosophy, they argue that we ought rename those departments in a manner that is more descriptively accurate. Garfield and Van Norden recommend "Department(s) of European and American Philosophy" and, in doing so, imply a number of complicated presumptions about philosophy, about "Western" philosophy, and about what counts as better or worse ways to "diversify" the discipline.

There are a number of excellent critical engagements with Garfield and Van Norden's piece already out there in cyberspace --see in particular the response essays by John Drabinski ("Diversity, Neutrality, Philosophy"), Eric Schliesser ("On the Very Idea of Non-Western Philosophy"), and Justin Smith ("Garfield and Van Norden on 'Non-European' Philosophy")-- so what follows is just a few passing thoughts on this very interesting discussion.

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Not Every Idea Needs a Tool, But Every Tool Needs an Idea

Last semester, I conducted a test-run on a new assignment I had devised for my courses-- the "Technology and Human Values" project-- and I was, quite frankly, floored by the work that students did for it. The basic assignment is for students to work in groups of four or fewer to devise a merely-possible technological solution to a real-world "value-laden" (social, political, or moral) problem. Each group is required give a 50-minute presentation of their project and each individual group member must write a 2-page analysis of the project. After last semester's experiment, I made a few minor adjustments to the Technology and Human Values Project assignment and, this semester, I unleashed it on all three sections of my Contemporary Moral Issues classes (which is the gen-ed requirement, intro-level Ethics course at my home institution, Christian Brothers University.) And, again, I have been absolutely astonished at the sophistication, innovation, and genuine thoughtfulness of students' work this semester.

So, I thought I'd share the details of this assignment for anyone out there interested in mixing things up a bit in their classrooms.  Consider this Open-Source pedagogy.  If you like this idea, feel free to take it and use it. If you want to tweak it, no problem. (But please do send me your suggestions for improvement!)  I'm only a couple of terms into using this assignment, but it has already had a major impact on my courses, so for whatever it's worth, I highly recommend giving it a try,

[NOTE: This is a long post, most of which includes details of the actual assignment.  If you want to see examples of the best of last year's student projects, here are the 2015 Standout Projects.  If you want to skip all the hullabaloo and just get to examples of this year's best projects, just scroll on down until you see the "2016 Standout Projects" section waaayyyy below.. If you want to download a copy of my "Technology and Human Values Final Project" explanation and instructions to read later, just click here. For the rest of you dear, patient folks, what immediately follows is the blow-by-blow account of this assignment.]

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Reading Amoris Laetitia, Part 2: The Introduction

I'll just assume that many non-Catholics, like myself, have absolutely no idea what authority Pope Francis' Amoris Laetitia exerts (or exhorts) as a "Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation." So, first, a primer on Papal texts.

An apostolic exhortation is but one of many different types of communications from the Pope to the community of clerics and laypersons that constitute the Catholic Church.  It doe not define Church doctrine, so it ranks lower in Church authority than a papal encyclical.  An Apostolic Exhortation is meant to encourage the Catholic community (broadly conceived) to undertake some attitude, disposition, or activity. (If you're familiar with Paul the Apostle's epistles-- to the Romans, to the Corinthians, to the Philippians, to the Ephesians, to the Galatians, etc-- you should think of Pope Francis'  most recent Apostolic Exhortation in the same vein.) Pope Francis has so far issued only two encyclicals in his time as successor to St. Peter, one on climate change (Laudato Si': "On Care For Our Common Home") and one on charity and hope (Lumen Fidei: "The Light of Faith"). So, to begin, we should take into serious consideration the fact that Pope Francis opted to issue Amoris Laetitia as an Apostolic Exhortation, an encouragement to action or disposition, instead of a Papal Encyclical, which is second in authority only to an Apostolic Constitution (constittuo apistolica), the highest possible level of decree issued by a Pope.

Reading Amoris Laetitia, Part 1

Earlier this week, I finished reading the recent Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation from Pope Francis entitled Amoris Laetitia ("The Joy of Love"). Subsequently, on various news outlets and social media, I have seen a number of so-called "summaries" of Amoria Laetitia that can at best be described as grossly inadequate and ungenerous readings of it and, at worst, as fairly convincing evidence that Pope Francis' text was not read in its entirety (or, more likely, not read at all) by the authors attempting to summarize its content.  Amoris Laetitia is a long text-- roughly 300 pages-- but it is not what I would call a "difficult" text. (As a Philosophy professor, I concede in advance that I may not be the best judge of what counts as a "difficult" text.)  I think it will be clear to any reader that Pope Francis intended for Amoris Laetitia to be accessible/understandable to both Catholic and non-Catholic laity. As a member of the non-Catholic laity, I think he was largely successful in that endeavor.

The last time I found myself so genuinely befuddled by the many and varied misreadings of a non-philosophical text was shortly after the release of the 9/11 Commission Report, which I also suspect most "reviewers" did not actually read in its entirety. So, this time I've decided to make some effort to present my own summary of the text in question.

First, let me just note that if you are significantly or materially (or spiritually) invested in the content of Amoris Laetitia, you should read it yourself. (You can download the entire text here.)  If you don't want to do that, for whatever reason, you can follow this thread of my readings of it over the course of the next couple of weeks.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Campuses Are Not Sovereign Nation-States

The photo to your left is of a sock-monkey, hung by a noose from one of the windows on the campus of Rhodes College this week. It should go without saying, I hope, that not only is the sock-monkey itself a manifestly racist symbol (echoing the colonialist project of comparing blacks to apes in order to justify their exploitation and repeating many of the stereotypes of blackface minstrelsy), but hanging the monkey by a noose is also an obvious symbolic reference to the long and terroristic history of anti-black lynchings in the United States.

Rhodes' sock-monkey-lynching came on the heels of several reported incidents of sexual assault on campus. I don't know how many incidents or the details of those reports, but it was enough to motivate students and sympathetic faculty to organize a forum last week to discuss the growing and pervasive problem of sexual violence on Rhodes' campus, which I came to know about through multiple Facebook postings.  For the record, the problem of increasing and increasingly-unaddressed sexual violence is not a "new" problem at Rhodes College. Around this time last year, statistics showed that Rhodes had one of the highest numbers of reported on-campus rapes in the state of Tennessee.  Those statistics only count "reported" cases.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

It's Time To Get Rid of Formatting Guidelines for Academic Journals

This morning, I was reading an engaging and superbly well-written book that I've been asked to review for philoSOPHIA and found myself, in spite of its merits, grumbling aloud about the very experience of reading it.  Why? One word:


I truly hate the maddening inconvenience of endnotes. All those unnecessary interruptions, all that flipping back and forth... who ever thought this was a good way to arrange a text? Endnotes are like the brussel sprouts of formatting. I'm sure there are people out there who like them, but those people are in the minority, and the reasons for their affection are as mysterious to me as endnotes are irritating.

There are plenty of things to complain about in academic writing-- obscurantism, clunky prose, solipsistic indulgence, the internment of otherwise meaningful insights in maximum-security jargon camps--  but none of them, to my mind, are as exasperating as our continued fealty to outdated, impractical and obstructionist formatting guidelines. The differences between citation styles (APA, MLA, Chicago, Turabian, IEEE) are at once massive and insignificant.  Given that they all aim at accomplishing the same basic function, i.e., providing a map for the reader to travel from reference to source, one would think that allegiance to any particular citation route is a waste of time. The point is-- should be-- that the reader can get where she needs to go, no more, no less. Many paths to the same summit and all that.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Lone Wolves, Together: On Trump's Curious Farrago

Like many people, I've found myself referring to "Trump supporters" in the last several weeks as a conceptually coherent, identifiable category of voters/citizens and, correspondingly, referring to the things "they" do as the actions of that collective. And every single time, I feel the words slipping, grinding, and catching, as if the very transmission system of my thought were breaking down.

What we know of the tens of thousands who are attending Trump's campaign rallies, not to mention the millions who have already made their way to the polls to cast a primary vote for him, is a lot less than we think we do. In the left-leaning echo-chamber that is my world, people speak of Trump supporters as a homogenous mass of white (read: racist), conservative (read: hawkish and angry), provincial (read: xenophobic), working class (read: poorly educated) men (read: sexist).  But that is a reductive, cartoonish rendering of what is, in reality, a far more disparate and sundry group of citizens. As Trump himself noted after his landslide win in the Nevada caucuses, "We won the evangelicals.  We won with young. We won with old. We won with highly educated. We won with poorly educated." (He loves the poorly educated!) And that wasn't even close to an exhaustive list of the sorts of people for whom his rhetoric, his personality, if not also his platform resonate deeply. Even those for whom Trump's trumpeting has no meaningful resonance, there are other draws. A recent study by Mercury Analytics research firm found that nearly 20% of Democrats would switch parties and vote for Trump if he ran against Secretary Clinton in the general election.

"Trump supporters" is not a conceptually coherent category. It's a farrago.

Thursday, February 18, 2016


I can't quite remember exactly when email became such a nuisance in my life, but it must have been a long time ago now since I can barely remember it not being a nuisance anymore.  I think I got my first (AOL) email address in 1994.  Then, the familiar modem-screeching and you've got mail! alert were the soundtrack to a new life, a new Digital Age, about which hardly anyone understood very much. Today, of course, we take constant connection (and the constant surveillance that comes along with it) to be an indisputable (even if not "natural) fact of the human condition. We parse increasingly fine distinctions between our meatspace selves and our digital personae. We carry around instant access to the equivalent of a million Libraries of Alexandria in our pockets, or at least those of us who are "connected" do. And those of us who are connected find it almost impossible to disconnect.

I can still not answer my phone, of course, but refusing to take a call these days doesn't accomplish the same thing that it did in my pre-digital life. Because of caller ID, the caller always knows that I know s/he called.  Because of voicemail, s/he can still communicate with me, and s/he can still maintain a reasonable expectation for an acknowledgment or reply. The same goes for the relationship between snail mail and email.  I open snail mail even less often than I answer my phone, and it's relatively easy to just throw away that unopened mail once a day.  Not so with email.  Spam-filter all you want, but you still can't get away from maddeningly regular accumulation of emails that maddeningly insist on acknowledgment or reply.