The Son Also Rises?

There are times, when, during moments of weakness, I allow myself to feel certain religious (of a specifically Catholic nature) sentiments.

Right now, I’m having that kind of a moment, while listening to Mahler’s Second Symphony (appropriately titled “Resurrection”) on Easter Sunday. This moment evokes certain feelings of longing on my part, a yearning to believe in some sort of afterlife, a need to believe that somehow our lives are not lived in vain. And all this, not because of any specific identification with Christ’s Resurrection, but something much more personal. Something, one might even say, that is the very opposite of Resurrection: namely, Death.

Approximately a month from now, my mother (may she rest in peace) will have shuffled off her mortal coil for a decade. People say that death becomes easier to accept over time, but in my experience, I’ve found the opposite to be true. Perhaps that is just because of my nature, since I tend to think over things for a very long time. And in the intervening years, I’ve thought about what my mother’s death “meant,” and each year my understanding of what it “meant” changes and deepens, but with such realization, I’ve only become more anguished, not more accepting.

Specifically, I’ve periodically engaged in a futile and ultimately speculative exercise of thinking about what she would feel if she were alive and saw what I have been doing. But why? My motives for engaging in this exercise is most likely guilt, because I feel that my mother gave her life so that I could be where I am today. She could’ve gone back to China, back to the security of her teaching job, back to the comfort of her family, when she first encountered difficulties when she came to America. But no, she decided to stay and endure, leave behind and give up an established and secure life in China, and for what? So that she can obtain legal status in America and allow me to become a naturalized citizen, so that I can have opportunities in America that I would have never had in China.

Of course I understood her motivation in a very abstract way for a while after her death, but the very concreteness of her sacrifices was first revealed to me when I got my college acceptance letters back in high school. After all, that was probably a lot of people’s first “real” signs of accomplishment at that age. I remember getting my acceptance letters to Stanford and Berkeley, and something just hit me right then: if the purpose of her sacrifice was to allow me to have such opportunities, she did not get to see them realized herself.

It was at that moment when I realized, for the first, but certainly not the last time, that no matter what I ultimately end up doing, it could not possibly match what my mother gave up for me. It’s absurd to think that something like getting into good schools, or making a shit ton of money, or anything else that I can possibly do in my lifetime, could even be remotely adequate. The phrase “I did the best I could” is incoherent in this context, because what’s “best” is nowhere near enough.

And something akin to that moment happened again this weekend. I was visiting the University of Chicago to check out their MA program, which offered me admissions for next year. I am also wait-listed for Brown’s Ph.D program, along with getting into Columbia’s MA program. I was just walking around the U of Chicago’s campus, when suddenly I realized where I was and what I did. And that question came rushing back at once: if my mother were alive, what would she think of these things? Would she have been satisfied with this?

A part of me, the part that wants to spare myself any real answers, would like to think that I did okay by her. Could I have done better? Most likely, but I’d like to think that I did alright. It’s the same part of me that would like to think that somehow my actions, however meaningless they are in the long run (and they are all meaningless in the long run), made up, if even just a tiny, miniscule part, for what she gave up for me. I’d like to think not everything she did for me was in vain, that somehow (in a way that I can’t even begin to explain coherently) that she, wherever she is, would feel that I am not a complete and total letdown.

But the other part of me thinks that no matter what I do, it can never be enough, merely be definition. The only thing that could possibly render her sacrifices meaningful would be some kind of transcendental purpose, or maybe an afterlife in which perfect justice is realized. The committed empirical naturalist in me, however, says that no such thing exists, so the conclusion must be thtat her life, no matter how meaningful I think it was, is ultimately still nothing but a purely biological process that ended a decade ago.

And on most days the committed empirical naturalist wins out, but on this day, at this particular moment, the committed empirical naturalist does not have the strength enough to endure his own conclusion.

So as Mahler’s Second Symphony moves into its fifth and last movement, as the chorus sings about everlasting life and resurrection, even the committed empirical naturalist would like to believe, if only for a moment, that somewhere there is a place, and maybe that place is called Heaven (though not necessarily the Abrahamic conception), and maybe in that place, my mother is somehow conscious and aware of what I did and am doing, and that she feels that her son’s actions, in some way, in any way, made her sacrifices even a little bit meaningful, that it was all worth a damn.

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Being Alienated, Together

So I’m sitting here at the Latino inaugural gala, and there some two thousand people here, mingling, drinking, doing whatever it is that normal people do in a ballroom-ful of other people.

I, on the other hand, have neither the inclination, and more importantly, the capaility to do those things. So I can only sir back and observe the jockeying for posiion as a DC celebrity approaches, listen to the din of intermingling conversations, and observe the mind-boggling amount of schmoozing around me.

Worst of all, I’m too cheap to pay for a drink at the cash bar because they don’t pay me nearly enough to indulge. And if there’s one thing I dislike more than schmoozing, it’s schmoozing while sober.

Sure, I have no real cause to complain: after all, they paid me to come to this damn thing, although technically,I’m “working” at this event.

But what I would rather do is watch the AFC championship game at a bar with a cold one on my hand and chomping down some wings. Or better yet, listen to the Charles Mingus record I just got last weekend and reorganize my LPs–High Fidelity style.

No, instead I’m stuck here–the only Asian person at what is otherwise a fairly diverse event. Or at least as diverse as a DC political/social mixer is going to get.

And sitting here, I am becoming fully cognizant of the realization that this scene is just ultimately not for me. I can’t make small talk: my idea of small talk is whether consequentialism is a viable ethical theory, or which Pixies record is the best, not this inside-the-beltway gossip.

This is possibly the most alienating experience I’ve ever had, an that’s coming from someone who reads Kaka durig his free time for leisurely reading.

Who knew that being with some 2000 other people couldbe such an adventure in isolation.

Rickrolling is Dead; Long Live Rickrolling!

You know the Rickroll is dead when Nancy Pelosi starts doing it:

Visitors to the House of Representatives’ new YouTube channel have been RickRoll’d, courtesy of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).The Speaker’s office released a “Capitol Cat Cam” in the spirit of President Bush’s Christmastime “Barney Cam,” in which a couple of cats prowl the Capitol, to some slow music.

“In honor of the launch of http://YouTube.com/HouseHub, Speaker Pelosi presents a behind the scenes view of the Speaker’s Office in the US Capitol,” the Speaker’s office said in a release accompanying the video.

37 seconds into the video, though, viewers are RickRoll’d, which is when a copy of the music “Never Gonna Give You Up” by 80s musician Rick Astley surprisingly appears instead of an image the viewer was expecting.”

I believe this incident marks the official end of an Era. RIP Rickroll. But I’m never going to give you up!

Why Pursuing a Career in Academia is Insane

…and also why it is the only option for me.

This all started when Brian Leiter (Univ. of Chicago) linked to an article by Gregory Pence (Alabama) in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The main point of Pence’s article, I take it, is that a lot of philosophy grad students these days expect to get tenure-track jobs at elite research universities in dynamic cities where their teaching load is easy and where they have a lot of time to just do research. Pence is critical of this attitude, calling it an unwarranted sense of entitlement, and in his article, he recounts the sacrifices he had to go through before he landed his current job. He concludes:

“I now believe that too many graduate students feel entitled to a great job. That attitude sets them up to fail. Some of the graduate students I knew at NYU’s philosophy department, then a program of slight stature, eventually forged careers because they endured — they moved, they compromised, they published, they would not give up. They had the right attitude.

Some colleagues from elite Ivy League programs who say they are “stuck here in Alabama” feel as if life has passed them by, that they missed the boat because they never got a job at Yale or Berkeley. Maybe the current economic downturn, which is already affecting universities, will make those young professors more thankful for their tenure-track jobs, no matter how imperfect.

To be happy as a professor, you don’t need to teach in buildings that win architectural awards. You don’t need a two-course-a-semester load to publish (I published during my first years in Birmingham, despite teaching nine or 10 courses a year). You don’t need your university to give you a dedicated blog site or IT personnel to support your home computer. You need a tenure-track job, and then you need to work hard at the three things we are expected to do: teach students who want to learn, publish about things you care about, and be a good academic citizen through service to your institution and field. That’s the deal. If it doesn’t sound good enough, then maybe you should try bartending in San Francisco. And when you do, lots of adjuncts will apply for your job.”

In a follow-up post, Professor Leiter asked readers of his blog what they thought of Professor Pence’s article. The comments are varied and interesting, and reading through them, I started thinking about why exactly I wanted a job in academia? Although these blog posts are only about an academic career in philosophy departments, I believe they can be applied to academic careers in the humanities and liberal arts in general. One particular commenter’s remarks struck me as especially true, regarding just what it takes to pursue a career in academia:

“Let’s say we zip through undergrad and get done with that by the age of 22. Then off to grad school for 5+ years. After those five years are up we’d be counted lucky to emerge with no debt. We’d be the stuff of folklore if we emerged with assets. Then for a great many of us it is off on the 1-year circuit. This involves 7 months on the job market followed by a move to a place we might not like and probably don’t have any roots in. We are paid between $30K and $45K (if we are lucky) and we spend any disposable amount on traveling to conferences, trying to get noticed, and going to APAs (in expensive cities). Then, just as we make good friends we have to go to another town and repeat the process. And then maybe a few years down the road we get a TT-position. Often it is not in a town or even a geographical region of the country that is near good friends or family. And notice that I have not yet mentioned the devoted and loving partners who follow us so that we can achieve. What do they do? They don’t develop their careers. In fact, it looks bad on their resumes to be floating from job to another. So we have to keep in mind those attached to us when we think about these things. Say one takes the job in a rural town, not near one’s family, or without the consolations that a big city offers (i.e., like not having to drive two hours to an airport, or having a coffee shop, …). If, as with most people who get TT-positions, we end up staying there for the rest of our careers, have we then sacrificed enough? (Given that this small town is nothing like what we had wanted.)

Furthermore, let’s consider this fact: all of our non-academia friends from high school had settled down, had kids, and good paying jobs before we even finished getting our Ph.D.s. And so there we are at the age of, say, 31 (Undergrad at 22, Ph.D by 28, 3 1-years, and then TT at 31) and we have no assets, no friends in the place we live, no family other than our forever sacrificing partners, and a town without a coffee shop and two hours from an airport which we still frequent hoping that our academic research will get us a job at a place we’d prefer”

Every single word of this comment rings true: pursuing a career in academia in the liberal arts/humanities is a losing proposition by most accounts, for exactly the same reasons this commenter points out.

Which leads me, to quote T.S. Eliot, to an overwhelming question: so why do it at all?

After all, it is much easier to apply to law school rather than grad programs in the humanities/liberal arts, just to use a popular alternative. The candidates who have the qualification to make it to top Ph. D programs in the humanities should not have problems getting into law school: in fact it is probably easier to get into a top-10 law school program than a top-10 humanities program by virtue of the fact that law schools’ admission pools are larger. And you spend less time in school, thus accumulating less debt, and if you come out of a top-10 law school program, you can be reasonably assured of a job at a prestigious firm that will pay orders of magnitudes higher than the standard post-doc/adjunct rate.

In some ways, my pursuit of an academic career is Quixotic, but the reason (and it is the only reason) I do is that it is the only job that I can see as being fulfilling over the course of my life. There is nothing more I would like to do is to read, write, and discuss political theory, and academia is merely the means (albeit the only means) that I can make a living doing those things.

Musical Tastes in 2008 Examined

It’s time to settle the age-old question once and for all: who is the arbiter of good taste in music? Critics or consumers? Before I can answer that, let’s actually compare the two, and the comparison has been made very easy because of the Internet.

The Critics: I use Metacritic‘s aggregated scores for all albums released in 2008. Metacritic has aggregated various “top 10” lists from various mainstream and alternative musical publications. At the end, Metacritic ranks the album according to which album is listed as number 1 the most frequently?

I use Metacritic to represent the critical consensus because that’s the inherent function of the website: it aggregates critical opinion and quantifies them.

The Consumers: I use Last.fm’s best albums of 2008 list to represent the taste of consumers. This list quantifies consumer preference because the list is ordered by the number of listens that each album has received from the users of Last.fm. Given that Last.fm has millions of users worldwide, I take the sample to be fairly representative.

Very Important Statistical/Methodological Qualification: Obviously this is not the most rigorous method for a variety of reasons. For one, Last.fm does not publicly publish its own counting method. But I think the comparison, though not rigorous from a purely methodological perspective, can give us a crude approximation of the critical consensus and consumer preference.

The Comparison Begins (from number 10 to number 1): it’s formatted so that the critic’s choice goes first, followed by the consumers’ choice.

Number 10: M83 – Saturdays = Youth || Sigur Ros – Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust
There is no clear cut winner here, as a reasonable person can make the case that both albums are good pieces of music. So in a sense, there is no divergence.

Number 9: She & Him – Volume One || Jack Johnson – Sleep Through The Static
Okay, the critics has really nailed one: Jack Johnson sucks.

Number 8: MGMT – Oracular Spectacular || Hot Chip – Made In The Dark
I would call this one a tie because again, there is no dramatic distance between the two as far as artistry goes.

Number 7: Kings of Leon – Only By The Night || Death Cab For Cutie – Narrow Stairs
Again, a tie.

Number 6: Hercules and Love Affair – Hercules and Love Affair || The Kooks – Konk
Tie, again.

Number 5: Lil Wayne – Tha Carter III || The Ting Tings – We Started Nothing
This one is actually a hard call, because these two albums are aimed at very disparate audiences. I’m not going to make a call this one, which essentially makes it the same as a tie.

Number 4: Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago || Nine Inch Nails – Ghosts I-IV:
Gonna have to give this one to Bon Iver, not only because I think he made the better album (though NIN is no slouch there either), but also because of stat inflation. Ghosts has 36 tracks, while Bon Iver’s album has something like 11 to 13.

Number 3: Portishead – Third for both
Again, it’s tie.

Number 2: TV On The Radio – Dear Science || MGMT – Oracular Spectacular
Gonna have to go with the critics on this one: as fun as the MGMT album is, it’s not a serious artistic statement as TVOTR, which is reflected by the fact that both albums show up on critics’ and consumers’ lists, though the critics place it lower.

Number 1: Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes || Coldplay – Viva La Vida
No question here: Fleet Foxes stump Coldplay’s ass.

Summary of Results:
Ties: 6
Critics: 4

Post-Modern Child-rearing Practices

From Eurozine: Manual for postmodern childrearing:

“Be suspicious of all forms of progress displayed by the child and question its origin and the oppressive underlying ideology. Operate on the basis of necessity rather than meaningfulness, and encourage the child to renounce all outward distinctions such as cakes or scholarships. Do allow sweets from strangers.”

This is just one example, but the piece itself is hilarious. I swear, sometimes it’s too easy to mock post-modernism. But my favorite?

“If your child accuses you of incomprehensibility, then accuse it of logical positivism.”

iPhone blog testing

just testing my new iPhone