The Sunday Post for October 18, 2015

Pond Scum: Henry David Thoreau’s moral myopia.

Oh, how I love Kathryn Schulz's takedown of Thoreau in the latest New Yorker! I've never been a fan of Henry David, and we see his offspring littering the Pacific Northwest hiking trails, beaches, and REIs — especially on sale days. This was a delicious read for me.

The real Thoreau was, in the fullest sense of the word, self-obsessed: narcissistic, fanatical about self-control, adamant that he required nothing beyond himself to understand and thrive in the world. From that inward fixation flowed a social and political vision that is deeply unsettling. It is true that Thoreau was an excellent naturalist and an eloquent and prescient voice for the preservation of wild places. But “Walden” is less a cornerstone work of environmental literature than the original cabin porn: a fantasy about rustic life divorced from the reality of living in the woods, and, especially, a fantasy about escaping the entanglements and responsibilities of living among other people.
Mea culpas in kidlit

Meaghan O'Connell published a light-hearted piece in New York Magazine titled The Children's-Book Guy: An Ideal Crush Object. It's about how hot she found many of the young male illustrators of kids books. Although post-ironic and tongue-in-cheek (it's tagged with the title The Female Gaze), it drew a lot of negative attention from the kidlit crowd, who have been facing the same sort of gender issues the rest of publishing has. That is, it's mostly made of women, but the men get all the attention. They win the Caldecott awards. They get the bigger book deals. They get called cute and asked to show up on panels, at the sake of women not being invited. So O'Connell was taken to task for writing without knowledge of this context.

The great moral to this, though, is that O'Connell read the responses, and after understanding them, came out with a heartfelt apology and explanation.

In my personal writing I am often second-guessing and making fun of, or light of, my less admirable impulses. I am trying to write from a place of confidence, yes, but also fallibility, because I think that’s interesting, and true. This was definitely at work in that piece, but is often the first thing to get lost when people are understandably upset. Which MAKES SENSE.

Anyway that’s my own context. The greater context, I was more than a little horrified to discover, is an industry that is, yes, like most of publishing, female majority (more women writing, illustrating, editing, agenting, and BUYING books), but like most of publishing — and I should have known this, it was naive to assume otherwise — men get much of the credit, the glory, the jokey posts about how hot they are. CRINGE. I slowly learned this yesterday as a few very kind women shared some links with me, like this one, and this one: “Why Don’t Women Win Caldecott Awards?” Yikes. (And yes, this is about when I wanted to crawl into a cave and die.)

Speaking in Tongues

Josephine Livingstone goes deep into invented languages for the New Republic.

“Conlang” is short for “constructed language,” which is just what it sounds like: a language that has been constructed. There are a lot of them, of various sorts. International auxiliary languages like Volapük, Esperanto, or Interlingua are one specific type of conlang. Invented to facilitate international communication during the great techno-utopian-modernist thought-boom of the last two centuries, they never got terribly popular. Conlangs do not necessarily have to be useful. As Peterson explains in his new book The Art of Language Invention, conlanging is an art as well as a science, something you might do for your own pleasure, as well as for the entertainment of others. He is a conlanger for hire—besides Game of Thrones, Peterson has also worked on Syfy’s Defiance, in which humans and aliens coexist in postapocalyptic Missouri—an artist who will put words into the mouths of the characters, words which are part of a fully functioning language.
Is the world real, or is it just an illusion or hallucination?

I was thinking about linking today to a very long piece about Carlos Castaneda that recently published. But I'd rather get deep and philosophical in a more scientific way.

Hopes&Fears's Marina Galperina asked "neuroscientists, physicists, psychologists, technology theorists, and hallucinogen researchers if we can ever tell whether the 'reality' we are experiencing is 'real' or not."

The closest we come in science to "real" or "objective" is intersubjective agreement. If a large number of people agree that something is real, we can assume that it is. In physics, we say that something is an objective feature of nature if all observers will agree on it - in other words, if that thing doesn’t depend on our arbitrary labels or the vagaries of a given vantage point ("frame-independent" or "gauge-invariant", in the jargon). For instance, I'm ​not entitled to say that my kitchen has a left side and a right side, since the labels "left" and "right" depend on my vantage point; they are words that describe me more than the kitchen. This kind of reasoning is the heart of Einstein's theory of relativity and the theories it inspired.