Weekend Essay Links: from Fish to fish, it's been a wierd week.


Stanley Fish writes a provocative essay in the NYT on whether curiosity is tantamount to "a mental disorder," or even a sin:

Give this indictment of men in love with their own capacities a positive twist and it becomes a description of the scientific project, which includes among its many achievements space travel, a split atom, cloning and the information revolution. It is a project that celebrates the expansion of knowledge's boundaries as an undoubted good, and it is a project that Chairman Leach salutes when he proudly lists the joint efforts by the University of Virginia and the N.E.H. to digitalize just about everything. "The computer revolution," he announces, "holds out the prospect that the digital library could be become an international citadel for the pursuit of curiosity."

That's exactly what Paul Griffiths, professor of divinity at Duke University, is afraid of. Where Leach welcomes the enlargement of curiosity's empire, Griffiths, who is writing a book on the vice of curiosity, sees it as a sign of moral and spiritual danger: "Late modern societies that are fundamentally shaped by the overwhelming presence of electronic media and the obscene inundation of every aspect of human life by pictures and sounds have turned the vice of curiosity into a prescribed way of life." (source)

I like Dorothy Parker's classic take on this: "The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity." Curiosity is indeed a lifetime affliction, and I've often wondered if I'd be calmer and happier (not to mention wealthier) if I were a little less curious. But that's beside the point: if I weren't curious, I wouldn't be me. (Ask any of my friends.)

MindHacks gives a brief guide to the growing "fake pharmacopeia":

Depressed? Over worked? Job suck? Unappreciated? Family problems? Money worries? Well here's a pill for you! Fukitol.

More on the brain: according to Clive Thompson at Wired, Stanford researchers have evidence that kids are writing more than ever:

The first thing she found is that young people today write far more than any generation before them. That's because so much socializing takes place online, and it almost always involves text. Of all the writing that the Stanford students did, a stunning 38 percent of it took place out of the classroom--life writing, as Lunsford calls it. Those Twitter updates and lists of 25 things about yourself add up.

It's almost hard to remember how big a paradigm shift this is. Before the Internet came along, most Americans never wrote anything, ever, that wasn't a school assignment. Unless they got a job that required producing text (like in law, advertising, or media), they'd leave school and virtually never construct a paragraph again.

Whether Facebook status updates should qualify as "writing" is a question I shall not engage today.

Speaking of language, researchers find that discussing art out loud affects our opinion of it:

Because participants found it easier to talk about why they liked the representational painting compared with the abstract one, this biased them in favour of the representational painting. Similarly, participants who had to talk about their dislike for the art, found this easier for the representational painting, which subsequently biased them against it. (source)

And speaking of education, the Washington Monthly speculates on whether college will someday cost $99/month - in which case I am overpaying by orders of magnitude:

Colleges are caught in the same kind of debt-fueled price spiral that just blew up the real estate market. They're also in the information business in a time when technology is driving down the cost of selling information to record, destabilizing lows. In combination, these two trends threaten to shake the foundation of the modern university, in much the same way that other seemingly impregnable institutions have been torn apart. In some ways, the upheaval will be a welcome one. Students will benefit enormously from radically lower prices--particularly people like Solvig who lack disposable income and need higher learning to compete in an ever-more treacherous economy. But these huge changes will also seriously threaten the ability of universities to provide all the things beyond teaching on which society depends: science, culture, the transmission of our civilization from one generation to the next.(source)

Depressed yet? The Beloit College Mindset List points out another unpleasant truth: the college class of 2013 has never used a card catalog to find a book. From their perspective, racial classifications in South Africa have always been outlawed, there's always been a computer in the Oval Office, and there's always been blue Jell-O. Sigh. . .

Oh yeah - and 'A dead salmon perceiving humans can tell their emotional state.' Ouch. fMRI artifact smackdown, people!

Via WiredScience, TextPatterns, 3QD, MindHacks, the Situationist, and Andrew Sullivan.


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I think the last time I used a card catalogue was around 2000 or so. My big state university was still entering its many books into the database when I graduated. They might still be, for all I know.

As for the college cost article, colleges don't sell information so much as they teach the skills to find, analyze, and apply accurate information. Even with so much information available, those skills are as important as ever because much of what's available is inaccurate or incomplete. Cost and debtload are serious issues, but I'm not sure switching to online learning is the best way to address that.

Online education may be useful in some fields, and definitely could become an option for people like Solvig, who was trying to pad her resumé quickly. But despite being of the Internet generation, I still think that brick-and-mortar universities will have a place.

Take my current program of study. I am on a special Chinese language study-abroad program at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China (a program organized by my school back home: West Virginia University). Beyond my intensive Chinese classes, the opportunity to live in China for an extended period will give me a large amount of language practice and cultural exposure. Could I have just taken online Chinese courses and get the same quality of education? Not unless I also was able to get the resources and knowledge to come here on my own to study -- something that, while possible, is not as easy as going through the university with its staff and advisors to help me through the process.

I'm not saying that this alone would save universities, but you can think of other educational goals that would benefit from an larger institution's support. For instance, people going into scientific careers probably should spend some amount of time doing research that only a large institution can support, and medical professionals need some experience with actual human bodies before they are put out on their own.

In short, I think the traditional university will survive. They may have to bring down prices and cut back programs. Then again, they may gain more prestige as fewer people are attending. We shall see what the future holds.

Depressed yet? The Beloit College Mindset List points out another unpleasant truth: the college class of 2013 has never used a card catalog to find a book. From their perspective, racial classifications in South Africa have always been outlawed, there's always been a computer in the Oval Office, and there's always been blue Jell-O. Sigh. . .

I don't know why this should make us depressed. When's the last time you were pressed into military service by your lord because his king wanted to wed some French girl?

When's the last time you had to slit the chicken's throat and pluck it before you could have drumsticks for supper?

I thought the entire point of progress was to deliver a world to our children where the sins and the inconveniences of the past were mostly forgotten.

yog, the reason the list is depressing is because it makes those of us over thirty feel really old. Lighten up. :)