An Incubation Chamber for Bad Ideas

20496106648_7865c3f942_kI deleted my Facebook account years ago. It wasn’t out of an aversion to social media—quite the contrary. I love social media and technology. I spend time each day on Twitter, MSN, various blogs, my Feedly account, etc. Rather, it was the complacent and smug atmosphere that had permeated every part of the site that offended me on some sub-conscious philosophical level.

When Facebook began in the early millennium it presented a virtual interface that allowed young people to meet new people. It was a place to take a chance and explore the world beyond. But that changed some time back when the decade changed. It became less about exploring and socializing and more about manipulating and bragging to your closed circuit of associates—whatever clique or social niche to which you belonged. It became a place for stalking your exes and spying on your co-workers’ personal lives.

Then it became something worse. A podium for the proponents of bad ideas. Facebook fosters bad ideas, by giving people a safe place to spout off un-vetted arguments to a willing and uncritical audience. Ideas that would not make it out of the starting gate but for a modicum of fact-checking or rational questioning. As a result, travesties of critical thinking inflate to behemoths to the tune of applause and accolades of the proverbial choir. It is the antithesis of the scientific method or any kind of free market of ideas—viewpoints are promoted not for their resilience against efforts to prove them false, but rather for the number of “likes” they receive from a select group of similar and like minds. Let that go on for a year or two, and just try and convince a member of said circle he might be wrong—Did I say a year? Six months.

This is why Twitter and Reddit, which encourage the vetting of ideas in public forums, will always fail in their races against Facebook. Others can challenge you on Twitter and Reddit. If you put it out there, you’d better be able to back it up. There is always someone eager to take one up on her assertions. Unfortunately, people don’t like to be challenged. I’m an educator; I can vouch for this.

Now, people have reported that Facebook influenced the recent Presidential election by allowing fake news to proliferate on its site. But isn’t this just an extension of the environment Facebook has cultivated for years? A place where you can go and say what you want to say and hear only that which you want to hear? A place where climate change is a Chinese conspiracy ? A place where you can believe Obama wasn’t born in America without having to face obstacles, such as birth certificates? Isn’t fake news the natural progression of what Facebook has been about for years? People telling their friends and inner circles the information they want to hear and only the information they want to hear? A place to which you can retreat into your worldview without the inconvenience of contradictory opinions or evidence—or critical thinking?

And now one of those bad ideas has festered its way into the White House.

Acquiring the Dialect of Good Prose

As someone who holds a higher degree in linguistics, I’m not surprised to hear Stephen King extol the virtues of audiobooks. In fact, I’ve wondered for some time if audiobooks couldn’t do more for acquiring the sound of good written English than traditional print books. If written English is a unique dialect, which it is, and people learn dialects best by aural exposure, then it stands to reason audiobooks could do more for training your writer’s ear than reading alone.

It would be interesting to see some scientific data on the benefits of listening to written English.

Reflections: “A Good Man is Hard to Find”

80646I read this the other day after a colleague recommended it on the shuttle during my commute to work. I’d never read O’Connor, but recently I’ve made a point to get more familiar with the American southern gothic literature.

In this short work, O’Connor captures the spirit of American culture and the kernel of what is unique about America. This story has it all: the racism, hypocrisy, religiosity, even the violence that make America what it is. What’s more, she didn’t need a novel to do it. Everything from the entitled, disrespectful children to the patriarchal, irate father is distinctly American, and particularly endemic of the southern culture from which O’Connor herself hailed.

If I ever teach an American culture class again, this will be on the curriculum.

Out of Sight; Out of Mind

I was off from teaching last week, so it was time to catch up on research I’d put off during the semester. An article online said that the L.A. Coroner’s Office had a gift shop, and I wanted to see the inside of the building. A gift shop seemed as good an excuse as any.

The building itself didn’t disappoint. The outside has the signature red-brick coloring that is ubiquitous on the USC campus. Still, the faded color reveals the history of the building.

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The top is  reminiscent of a gothic, mission-revival style, although the walls and doors have hints of art deco. The whole thing sits on a concrete pedestal, which testifies to the civic nature. Austere white marble adorns the entrance.

Inside, a classic, double-switchback staircase greets the visitor like something from a classic hotel. The lower walls are the same white marble from the entrance.

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The gift shop is immediately to the right, occupying the front, right-hand corner. It was both more and less than I expected.

The shop is a large room behind a wooden door. It must have been an office at one time. The room is packed with sweatshirts, coffee mugs, and car shades with various depictions of chalked men on the ground.

I asked the woman sitting behind the counter if there were any postcards, and she pointed out two stickers that sat in front of the register. I thought they were only stickers. The post information was on the back.

I asked if the building had always housed the Medical Examiner’s Office. She said it used to be the main hospital for Los Angeles. As I suspected, the structure dates back to the early 1900s.

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This got us talking about the recent budget cuts to the Coroner’s office in the news. She said Records used to have ten people; now there are three. Overall, the department is running at a third of its staff.

This scenario reminds me of something a manager at a restaurant told me once. If you ever want to judge how clean a restaurant is, look at the restrooms. If the restroom,which is visible to the public, is dirty, imagine the kitchen.

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The public doesn’t see what happens at the morgue.

Does the Venom Make the Widow’s Web Less Wondrous?

Yesterday, I listened to “Episode 60: The Horrors of Roman Polanski” on The Rant Macabre, and Darren and Keith were discussing the films of Roman Polanski when the conversation turned to separating the artist from his work. Roman Polanski’s history is no secret, and one of the hosts admitted he feels guilty for enjoying the director’s films.

This got me thinking about immoral artists.

The dilemma is an old one. I heard it in music school about Richard Wagner, an outspoken anti-Semite. Some refuse to listen to Wagner’s music because of his racial bias.

Nevertheless, this position never impressed me as a good one.  I’ll use an example from my writing classes on the fallacy of ad hominem. Consider the following:

At some point, someone might have asked Adolf Hitler for the time or a weather forecast. It is within reason to assume that Hitler responded truthfully at least part of the time. So, should a person have rejected Hitler’s answer as false out of hand?

Most people would say, “No,” I suspect.

Here’s a more plausible variation involving Charles Manson, the notorious mastermind of the Manson Family murders:

In recent years, Manson has taken up the cause of curbing anthropogenic climate change. Does the fact that a convicted murderer promotes addressing climate change mean that climate change is not real, or dangerous? Or that we shouldn’t do something about carbon emissions because we would give this culprit what he wants?

The point is that arguments must stand on their own merits. So why not works of art?

If the business of stories is truthtelling, and all real art tells a story in some sense, then a work of art makes an argument—giving us a reason to believe something is true.

And if the purpose of art is not to reveal truths about the human condition about which science is silent, then what are the arts for?

Farewell to Winter

IMG_20150524_114355Another winter ends. With it go promises of cloudy, windswept days; cleansing, longed-for rains; and somber, dramatic days of dark clouds and white-capped mountains to the north—most of which never came. In fact, a number of years have passed since southern California enjoyed a  real winter. Maybe, they have visited us their final time.

Instead, this was the winter of promised El Niño rains that never came.

Tomorrow, I’ll return from spring break to days that will get hotter and hotter and longer and longer. Suppers will no longer be in the evening, where they belong. And with the heat will come the empty, blue-gray that seems an enduring fixture of the Los Angeles sky—not a cloud to give respite or break up the monotony of the haze.

These skies reflect the long, featureless days of the summer months.

How far away October seems, now.