They call me the Sturgeon Surgeon

Posted by – December 1, 2008

(The New Yorker) John Cassidy: Anatomy of a Meltdown – an in-depth look at Ben Bernanke and the people behind the ongoing disaster in world finance

For programmers: some interesting ideas about readable code

The ad hominem fallacy fallacy. A guide to the ad hominem argument. Highlights:

A: “All rodents are mammals, but a weasel isn’t a rodent, so it can’t be a mammal.”
B: “This does not logically follow. And you’re an asshole.”

B is abusive, but his argument is still not ad hominem.

Lecture: Stephen Pinker on whether Jews really are smarter

For people who like computers: a perspective on what computers spend time on. Highlight: when you look something up from L1 cache, your processor has time for ~3 cycles. L2 cache, ~14 cycles. RAM, ~250 cycles. Reading from the disk, ~41 million cycles. Reading from the Internet, ~240 million cycles.

For people who have time on their hands: one of ye olde webcomic classics, the long defunct Sexy Losers. It has sex.

For those with less time on their hands, a digest:

#7 (Suicide prevention week)
#83 (highlight: Good God, she sucks some mean cock for a 72 year old transsexual.)
#22 (highlight: Your fuck is shit, dickass.)

6 Comments on They call me the Sturgeon Surgeon

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  1. Incestuous Jihad says:

    The ad hominem piece is good, although not as good as Wikipedia’s article.

    The same author’s “Physics Envy” is frustrating for a humanities student, and I thought I might say why, since you are a humanities hater of sorts.

    Three aspects of “Physics Envy” bother me: lack of charity, refusal to acknowledge disciplinary autonomy, and at best shallow appreciation of the complexity of humanistic endeavor.

    Critiques of the humanities often decry the inscrutability of “theory,” or of humanities research generally. Undeniably, Butler, Bhabha, and Spivak are difficult to read, maybe even needlessly so. And even if Derrida has some lessons to teach us about reading, and that’s a big if, Derrida’s methods ought not to be accepted as academically valid, or intellectually responsible, or whatever. But no professor I know would pass a literary theory paper that looks like a concrete poem, and it’s not as if every academic working in the humanities tacitly assumes clarity is valueless. Even within the same fields as Butler, Bhabha, and Spivak, you have people like Culler, Bertens, and Norris, who write well and strive to make their work at least moderately acceptable. Rather than acknowledging the diversity of quality and perspective observable in humanities research, critics tend to treat the worst examples of each as representative of the humanities in general.

    Many of these issues are intertwined with my second bone of contention, which is that “Physics Envy” and some other similar critiques unfairly deny disciplinary autonomy to the humanities. While the author accepts that scientific discourse is often too complicated for laypersons, he sees no reason why discourse in the humanities should not be accessible to anyone with five minutes to spare. In fact, he apparently leaves no room at all for specialists film studies, since John Random’s view of a film holds as much weight as a professor’s article. But some aspects of Ulysses or Finnegans Wake would be difficult to explicate in an hour, let alone five minutes, and there is reason to suspect that a professor who wrote a dissertation on David Lynch can provide a more nuanced perspective on Inland Empire than can someone who hasn’t had to wade through a viewing list of a thousand films.


  2. Incestuous Jihad says:

    People can accept that reading about superpositional electrons requires a scientific background, but they demand immediate access to the latest research on James Joyce, or David Lynch, or Dogrib bartering practices. Academics tend to write for other academics in their field. That means Spivak writes for professors and students who have degrees in literature or philosophy. There is not only an unfair demand for Spivak to make her work accessible to laypeople, but also a double-standard, since no one expects professors of physics to explain their work in non-specialist language.

    The author of “Physics Envy” also fails to recognize the subtlety or difficulty of humanistic endeavor. Of course bad humanities papers cite Foucault as a god. These papers get Bs and line second-tier journals. Good humanities papers critically address Foucault. They ask where he erred and how his errors might be corrected.

    Many people seem to believe that literary academics can write down whatever they want and call it scholarship. In reality, literary study tends to proceed inductively, by the observation of texts and the adduction of patterns. After reading dozens of novels in numerous languages, Franco Moretti hypothesized that in non-European contexts the novel arises as a sort of “formal compromise” between foreign form and local content. But he wasn’t done. The next step was to specify operational definitions for “novel,” “form,” “content,” and “compromise,” and to exhaustively test his contention against the legions of novels pouring out of the non-European world. A literary theory that fails to cohere with the observable evidence (ie. literary texts) is of as little value as a theory of physics that doesn’t accurately capture the characteristics of photons. Reader-response theory doesn’t tell us what some guy thought about literature (at least not merely); it tells us how some people responded to literature.

    Finally, the humanities receive no credit for dealing with phenomena that are simply difficult, if not impossible, to formalize or quantify. Falsifiable formal models of intentional or aesthetic activity are hard to come by. And since human behavior and its products seemingly result from those nebulous things we call choices, emotions, and preferences, we are not likely to arrive at explanatorily powerful formalizations of the humanities anytime soon.


  3. Incestuous Jihad says:

    Had to post in two parts because your anti-spam measures accused me of spamming. Now you get a third post. How ironically spamful!


  4. sam says:

    It’s not so much that I’m a humanities hater, more that I prefer the old humanities to the new humanities. My attitude is much like Chomsky’s, who after all came from a humanities field, tried to introduce himself to “theory” and wasn’t able to understand any of it. In linguistics one really can reasonably speak of theories, albeit not with the strictness of natural sciences. But there sometimes appears a different humanities phenomenon calling one’s viewpoints or mental models “theories”. This seems a bit dishonest, especially when it comes wrapped in needless and sometimes misguided (Sokal) jargon.

    Yes, there exists much valuable and inconclusive wrestling with difficult issues, but it usually falls short of any conventional understanding of “science”. Discussing the intricacies of human culture is the kind of thing any educated and intelligent person is capable of doing – some are better than others, and in fact some make a living out of writing books that discuss matters of general interest. That just doesn’t necessarily make it a science, and in fact the whole endeavour is sometimes done a great disservice by calling it that.

    And when it happens that a person who considers himself to be intelligent, who has been able to pick up an introductory text on pretty much anything and get a basic idea and see how the field goes on from there, picks up a critical theory book and can’t even make a start, it doesn’t seem completely unreasonable to assert that what appears to be vapid verbiage is just that.

    I should look into the antispam measures at some point. It really shouldn’t intervene at all in the case of registered commenters.


  5. sam says:

    As for that specific example from comparative literature (I guess), I have to say that it sounds a lot more reasonable than a lot of the things I’ve read about previously. But even in such cases I’ve found that it’s eminently possible for others in the field to take contention with some definition or finding and start a decades-long
    a) discussion
    b) discussion about what the original guy really meant anyway
    and in the end it starts feeling like what happened was that someone looked at a complicated situation in a fairly personal way and put a model to it. Other people have other ways of looking at it that fit the non-European novels also. The pre-known reality can be explained in any number of ways, and there isn’t any good way to know which one is true, if any, I guess because parsimony becomes a rather nebulous concept in such a nuanced matter.

    Doesn’t mean it isn’t a good idea to talk about that stuff.


  6. Incestuous Jihad says:

    I won’t dispute your remarks about the scientific status of the humanities or the interminable nature of some “theoretical” debates. A brave few literary theorists are trying to do real science, however. You might be interested in Patrick Colm Hogan’s Cognitive Science, Literature, and the Arts, which presents a critical review of some recent trends. David Miall’s book Literary Reading [Can I use italics?] breaks some promising ground at the intersection of evolutionary psychology, psychometrics, and literature.

    Anyway, I don’t believe introductory literary theory texts are excessively difficult. They definitely wouldn’t be hard for Chomsky. No doubt the Chomskyian criticism applies to pompous rock star academics of Derrida’s ilk, but, as I wrote above, I don’t see why philosophers of literature shouldn’t write for other philosophers of literature. If Chomsky read Plato, Rousseau, Nietzsche, Freud, and Heidegger, he could make sense of works like Of Grammatology and Plato’s Pharmacy. Of course Chomsky would disagree with nearly everything that he read, but he would be able to make a kind of sense of things. He would even find that Derrida justifies himself and his methodology, after a fashion, though obviously not in any fashion approved by science or certified by Chomsky. Basically, if a guy claims his text can only say what he wants it to if it has a certain form, you can only read the text in that form to evaluate his assertion. It turns out Derrida was wrong: deconstruction might have been explained in simpler terms. But that’s not an a priori truth; it had be verified by harassing Derrida’s text until it gave up the goods, as a lewder Francis Bacon might have remarked.

    Anyway, my real beef is with the claim that introductory literary theory textbooks are unreasonably difficult. I will only mention some I’ve got on my bookshelf: Critical Theory Today, by Tyson; Literary Theory: the Basics, by Bertens; Literary Theory, by Eagleton; Structuralism and Semiotics, by Hawkes. Each of those books is clear and easy to read. Going afield in the humanities, introductory texts such as Narratology, by Bal, and Intro. to Discourse Studies, by Renkema, pose no especial difficulty.