It’s my party, and I’ll cry if the laws of physics permit me to.

One of today’s most pressing philosophical questions is: a) Do human beings possess free will and the capability to exercise it?  My recent readings have allowed me to arrive at a sort of answer,* the short version of which is, No, but effectively yes.

It is easy to get depressed by reading neuroscience books like William Hirstein’s Brain Fiction or Daniel Wegner’s The Illusion of Conscious Will, which seem to break us down into the automata described by Descartes, whose intentions are merely illusory.  “…[P]eople experience conscious will quite independently of any actual causal connection between their thoughts and their actions,” writes Wegner (64).  Well and good if you’re sitting in a classroom vying with your peers to seem the most scientifically-minded, but different altogether when, say, your boyfriend professes his love in terms of choice (you), and you didactically disclose that it wasn’t his choice at all, in the traditional sense, but merely a fortuitous combination of circumstance and cascades of chemical reactions beyond his conscious control.  In fact, this sort of talk can really ruin the mood.

In part, popular media are to blame.  Their oversimplification of scientific findings creates a backlash against science as a whole, particularly among the religious right, but more broadly w/ anyone (everyone) who has ever entertained any kind of higher/abstract thought process.  In his recent article for The New Yorker about secularism, James Wood laments that, “These days, one is continually running up against a crass evolutionary neuroscientific pragmatism that is loved by popular evolutionary psychologists and newspaper columnists.”  Studies are reduced to something less than the sum of their parts, and the result are easily digestible but wholly unsatisfying data bytes.

“They can make mice gay now,” my boyfriend said, in an effort to further rile me after the delivery of a diatribe similar to the previous paragraph.

“See!  This is exactly what I’m talking about!”  I cried, taking the bait.  “ACTUALLY, they reduced serotonin levels in the mice’s brains to such an extent that they became less selective about partners, thus displaying a higher frequency of sexual behavior towards other males.  That’s not the same thing as creating a homosexual preference.”

Still, alarmist headlines about the findings’ implications for human sexuality abounded in the blogosphere, and evangelical counselors no doubt started doling out SSRI’s in addition to prayer, in hopes of reforming their queer clients.  While it is perhaps true that the simplest explanation is likely the correct one, it does not do to ignore elements for the sake of elegance.  To paraphrase Einstein, a theory should be as simple as possible, but not simpler.  Contrary to popular belief, science does not seek to diminish the complexity of the human animal, but to illustrate it.  We should not treat a new finding as a stand-alone datum, an all-encompassing explanation, but rather as a small piece of a vast and vibrant puzzle that contributes to the overall picture w/o defining it.  The gaping holes that remain are perhaps frustrating for those restless, doubtful individuals who believe that being provided with a sort of explanation for the world will ease the strife of their lives, and religion does offer a completed puzzle…but many of the constituent pieces are a murky black, so that while the picture is entire, it is no more clear.

A false dichotomy has been created in the collective consciousness: that one must either be a) an unthinking machine, or b) the mysterious, soulful creation of some omnipotent deity whose laws and ways we will never fathom.

Here’s where the delightful book The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow comes in.

“While conceding that human behavior is indeed determined by the laws of nature, it also seems reasonable to conclude that the outcome is determined in such a complicated way and with so many variables as to make it impossible to predict.  For that one would need a knowledge of the initial state of each of the thousand trillion trillion molecules in the human body and to solve something like that number of equations.  That would take a few billion years, which would be a bit late to duck when the person opposite aimed a blow” (32).

There are underlying physical laws that dictate human behavior, but they are so intricate and numerous that they are of negligible use when it comes to everyday life.  Thus, it behooves us to rely on an “effective theory”–rules that do not necessarily hold true at the physical level, but whose application is useful in making extrapolations given limited time and finite resources.  “In the case of people, since we cannot solve the equations that determine our behavior, we use the effective theory that people have free will” (33).

Just as we cannot predict the future, past behavior cannot be imputed to a simple instinct for survival either.  Admirable traits like altruism and empathy perhaps arose because they were conducive to self-perpetuation, but that is not why they continue to occur.  As eminent primatologist Frans B. M. de Waal states in an essay, once a tendency evolves, “it is not essential that each and every expression of it serve survival and reproduction….The behavior follows its own autonomous motivational dynamic.”  Because of the practical impossibility of calculating the exact conditions per individual that led or could lead and individual to certain behavior, it is much easier to say that he or she chose to do it.

So no, you do not have free will, as such…but can–indeed must–behave as if you do.  It’s sort of like having money in the bank.  You don’t have the cash in hand–it really doesn’t exist but as a number on a screen–but can still enjoy spending it on nice things.

*As with most non-religious “answers,” it creates more questions than it resolves.

the dog days: not over yet

Time moves more swiftly in the fashion industry.  By the end of February, we already know what we’ll be wearing all summer; when July rolls around, we’re supposed to be planning our fall wardrobes–not an easy task, thinking of sweaters when it’s 100°F+ outside.

In fact, our culture thrives–and suffers–on anticipation, whether it’s consumers doing Christmas shopping in October, or investors bracing themselves for a pending debt downgrade, we tend to do things in advance.  If we don’t, we risk being left behind empty-handed, as my mother was when she tried to go shopping for summer clothes during the summer; the saleswoman at the boutique she frequents berated her for missing the arrival of the new collections and trunk shows, which had mostly taken place in March.

Now,  as I cower in the air-conditioned sanctuary of my house, I’m being bombarded with tips on how to prepare for fall, which is over a month away; actual autumnal weather is an even more distant dream.  It’s too hot for the denim that everyone is talking about; I’m still pulling out my airy skirts and diaphanous dresses, throwing them on over sandals, eschewing sleeves and stockings, or anything that might stifle my already suffocated flesh.

In short, I’m still in a summer mood, and am carrying on a subtle revolution in nail polish.  Right now I’m wearing Essie’s “Sand Tropez.”  Before that, I was wearing “Ecume” by NARS, from their summer collection (which was available in April, natch).

After shelling out $17 for Ecume (meaning “foam” in French), I expected to love it unequivocally, just as I adore my Chanel polishes (full disclosure: it may be that I force myself to favor them b/c of their price tag–it was worth it, dammit!–rather than their intrinsic merit), but I’m actually kind of ambivalent.

The nail polish itself is very thick, as one would expect, if so light a color is to be opaque.  In consistency and finish, it reminds me of white house paint–glossy, not matte.  Because of this, application can be someone tricky, and it’s difficult to make the brushstrokes look smooth.

Then, there was the color.  As soon as it dried, I felt like I was back in middle school, surrounded by kids who were painting their nails with Wite-Out©.  On the plus side, it made my (pasty, eggplant-interior-colored) legs look miraculously tan, and my anguish over wearing above-the-ankle skirts was somewhat diminished.

NARS' "Ecume"

The nail polish also proved to be quite long-lasting.  I hadn’t bothered with a top-coat, and yet my manicure stayed presentable for nearly two weeks.

Pros:

  • Long-lasting
  • Good coverage
  • Makes skin appear more pigmented

Cons:

  • Looks like correction fluid
  • Difficult to apply smoothly

Overall grade: C

Would I buy it again?  Probably not.  But, will I be holding on to it?  Almost certainly.

next to godliness, pt 1

A few days ago, my favorite blog The Hairpin ran an article about the basics of cleaning as part of its ongoing series, Ask A Clean Person.  While this is a good start, I felt that the author gave short shrift to the two most important (in terms of hygiene) rooms in the house: the kitchen and the bathroom.  After all, one is where you prepare all the food that then goes into your body; the other is where you clean said body.  So I thought I would offer a more in-depth approach, while still trying to keep it manageable for someone w/ other things to do.

Who am I to tell you this?  I’m the girl who got up early every Saturday morning, hungover or not, and drove her roommates nuts by cleaning the entire apartment.  I’m the girl who dusts the blinds and scrubs the baseboards.  I’m the girl who is constantly combating the hair floating from the backs of half a dozen pets.

For all you “green” people: I like me some chemicals.  Deal w/ it.  Go guzzle some lavender oil, or whatever it is you people do to calm down.  They DO do a better job; you can’t imagine how pissed I was when they took phosphates out of dishwasher detergent–nothing gets properly cleaned anymore!  Also, let’s face it: our bodies are already brimming w/ chemicals; the environment is already fucked.  It’s fine, just don’t have any children.

What I’m trying to say is, I employ more eco-friendly cleaners when I can, but I have bleach, and I’m not afraid to use it.

Every day:

Every week:

  • Thoroughly clean the stove-top.  For an electric/gas stove, remove the coils to give them a good scrub, then scour the rest.  For ceramic tops, use a ceramic polish, and watch in amazement as all this black filth comes off.  It didn’t seem that dirty, I know.
  • Wipe down the counters with something a little stronger.  Think Clorox®.
  • Vacuum/mop the floor.  I like to use the Swiffer® Wet Jet®, because it’s both portable and effective.  The downside is that the cleaning solution containers are not refillable, and apparently non-recyclable (?), so that’s a lot of plastic.
  • Clean the microwave
  • Polish stainless steel surfaces/appliances
  • Clean/polish wood surfaces like cabinets and drawers with something like Murphy® Oil Soap or Swiffer® Dust & Shine.
  • Sanitize your dish brushes (I like Seventh Generation™ bleach for this.  If that seems too expensive, then just douse them in plain hydrogen peroxide/water mixture.)
  • Wash your hand towels.  I feel like I cannot emphasize this enough.  BACTERIA LOVE TOWELS.  After a week they stop being useful drying tools and become vectors of disease.
  • Take out your trash

When you think of it:

      • Clean out the fridge/freezer

That is, take out everything, get rid of anything expired or of dubious edibility, and then wipe down all the shelves/drawers.  I like to use vinegar (diluted with an equivalent amount of water), because if its ability to neutralize odors.

  • Clean under the fridge/stove.
  • Clean the oven

You’re like, but Dragon, my oven cleans itself!  LIES.

  • Scrub out your trash can (even if you regularly use bin liners)

A few notes:  To cut down on paper towel use, I like to cut up old, stinky T-shirts and make them into polishing chamois.  If they get dirty, just let them soak in a bleach solution for a while, rinse, let dry, and repeat!

Do not, I repeat DO NOT, have one “all-purpose” sponge.  Have one or two sponges for using on counters, one for the floor, and one for dishes.  YOU CAN AFFORD IT.  When I lived in Africa, I made ~$200/month, and still managed to do this.  I adore Magic Eraser® sponges–which totally live up to their name!–but they wear out quickly, so I supplement them w/ their lesser cousins (Scotch-Brite has some nice biodegradable ones).

Next time: The bathroom!

OMG HI I DIDN’T EVEN SEE YOU THERE

Hey gentlefriends, remember this blog?  Me neither.

So I wish I could claim I’ve been off doing something really exciting and time-consuming and life-changing, like finding a universally flattering hairdo, but really I’ve just been totally engrossed by the most mundane things, and also haven’t been feeling angst-ridden/depressed enough to blog about my sorrows.  Frankly, I’ve been pretty happy lately and honestly?  Who wants to hear about happy people?  They frustrate me.  I’m like, SHUT UP, LIFE IS AWFUL, STOP HAVING PICNICS IN THE SUN.  If I share happy news, I always feel a little uncomfortable, as if I’m rubbing it in someone’s face, whereas if it’s bad, then I’m just commiserating, helping some lonely soul realize that her feelings of isolation and consternation are in fact a burden shared by her fellow creatures.

Here is something rather unfortunate: I was rejected from the grad program to which I applied.  That was pretty rough.  I’ve taken a step back and decided to try for a Master’s (YAY the crushing debt of student loans!) first, in order to bolster my CV and gain some research experience; I just turned in the application for that yesterday.  I also got my old job at a Middlebrow Restaurant Chain back, which is what you might call a “mixed blessing,” b/c I hate it, but somehow less so than other jobs I have hated in the past.

Last  night, it came up that my boyfriend* thinks that I resemble the subject of a certain painting by Italian Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli.  I think I was supposed to feel flattered, but the effect was the opposite.  “SO YOU THINK I’M FAT?”

Sometimes it is very hard to be my boyfriend.

Anyway, I loathe the fact that “Renaissance” and “voluptuous” and “sexy” have all become code for FAT**, and Marilyn Monroe (who YES he has also indirectly compared me to, which caused me to have a mild nervous breakdown) has been appropriated as an icon for the plus-sized community, even though she was NEVER anything like a U.S. size 16.  Reading an interview w/ Scarlett Johansson, I remember thinking that she probably HATES everyone citing her as an ideal “curvy” woman; I suspect she probably exercises strenuously and monitors her diet carefully, only to be slyly praised for her “healthy” eating habits and disregard for the culture’s beauty norms.  Even though it amuses me to pretend otherwise, I work pretty hard to maintain my physique, and while I’m not exactly dieting, I do try and pay attention to what I eat, and approximate how many calories I’m eating every day.  And what does all that effort get me?  A comparison to a woman who had probably never even saw a dumbbell, let alone lifted one.

I often feel large, physically overwhelming.  Like I occupy an unusual amount of space, drifting massively around in parade-balloon fashion.  I’ve even nervously asked a couple of my friends if they think my boyfriend and I look odd together, if “it looks like I might eat him.”  They have laughed this off as absurd, but the fear persists.

Sometimes though, I can almost convince myself that I’m actually the girl who lives deep, deep inside the pimply, pear-shaped me, the sylphlike one w/ thick glossy hair.  When I’m reminded otherwise, it hurts.  I think everyone has an idealized self that s/he cherishes, and that it’s difficult and demoralizing when that self is out of sync w/ how others perceive her.

*Yep, the same one I mentioned back in February…we’re official now. :)

**Or “fiercely real,” RIGHT TYRA?  Ugh.

overheard

Dragon: *burbles happily about a certain gentleman caller*

Beloved friend: That’s great Dragon, but aren’t you worried you’re going to have to sleep w/ him really soon?

Dragon: Um, no.

BF: But how do you know?

Dragon: B/c I have a say in the matter, and my vote counts?

BF: Oh yeah…

This conversation was brought to you by The Patriarchy.

Stylistic Devices: An Illustrated Primer, Part VII

Emphasis continued.

Happy Valentine’s Day, gentlefriends!  To me, Valentine’s Day is just another day that isn’t my birthday, but I understand that for some people it inspires a treacly sort of sentimentality.  As a nod to the holiday, today’s examples will all treat on the theme of romance.  XOXO.

Epixeuxis: A word is used both first and last in a sentence.

Fig. 4.5 Epixeuxis

Epanelepsis: The  repetition (often successive) of a key word.  For reference, see pretty much any song by Rihanna.

Fig. 4.6 Epanelepsis

Expletive: Not the use of profanity, but rather the insertion of a superfluous word or phrase for rhythmic purposes–most notably to slow the reader’s momentum and imbue the words/clauses on either side of the Expletive with special emphasis.

Fig. 4.7 Expletive

Litotes: A assertion is expressed through the refutation of its opposite: an indirect and elegant device whose effectiveness rapidly diminishes with overuse.

Fig. 4.8 Litotes

Rhetorical Question: The positing of a question to which the logical answer is obvious.  A good way to establish a rapport with the reader and leave them predisposed to agreeableness.

Fig. 4.9 Rhetorical Question

Anantapodoton: The conclusion (main clause) of a sentence (Syncresis) is implicit, rather than stated.  Ensure there are enough hints for the reader to make the desired inference!

Fig. 4.10 Anantapodoton

Stylistic Devices: An Illustrated Primer, Part VI

Introduction

IV. Emphasis

“De toute éternité, le Beau est plus rentable que le Bien.”–Amélie Nothomb

If Syntax provides the framework for an idea, then Emphasis highlights and beautifies it, adding color and vibrancy to what otherwise might be a bland and monotonous argument.  Emphatic devices often augment and complement already-present cadences that the reader instinctively inserts into their interpretation of a text.  They are also among the most fun, encouraging creativity and wit.  Ideally, the use of Emphasis controls and guides the reader’s aesthetic experience although, as with any form of ornamentation, its judicious use is recommended; it can be quite hard to draw your audience’s attention to the blue if you are also bombarding them with purples, greens and reds.

Aporia: A decisive statement is leavened with doubt or uncertainty.  Useful for undermining assumptions and subtly underscoring the multiple facets of an issue.  A good way to introduce an argument.

Fig. 4.0 Aporia

Climax: A list is ordered in such a way as to build suspense, beginning with the least important and ending with the most dramatic element.

Fig. 4.1 Climax

Asyndeton: The deliberate omission of conjunctions.  Though the actual number of words is reduced, their continuous flow gives the impression of overflowing and bounty.

Fig. 4.2 Asyndeton

Polysyndeton: The antithesis of Asyndeton, this device involves the insertion of conjunctions wherever possible; they act as a sort of drumbeat, giving the sentence a slow, methodical rhythm, and help to ensure that each clause is given due consideration.

Fig. 4.3 Polysyndeton

Adianoeta: The disingenuous/sarcastic use of a word or phrase that appears to mean one thing, but is also subject to other, even opposing, interpretations.

Fig. 4.4 Adianoeta

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