Duck Duck Book

34 – moral luck
06.25.2006, 12:00 am
Filed under: articles, philosophy & psychology

"Moral luck" / Thomas Nagel, from the book: Mortal questions / Thomas Nagel.
Cambridge [Eng.] ; New York : Cambridge University Press, 1979, pages 24-38.
[MCL call number: 170 N147m; one copy, no holds]

Thomas Nagle's terse essay introduces and discusses the central questions of moral luck — the idea that chance, or luck, is some of what makes us good and virtuous, or evil and immoral.  Nagle gives several examples of situations in which the way people tend to judge someone's actions are largely tied to circumstances that are beyond the control of the person acting. 

We have all had experiences of this type.  I, for example, often turn on the wrong burner on my electric stove.  This can be an annoyance (when there is nothing on the burner I've mistakenly lit, and when someone in the kitchen notices my error), or a minor disaster (as the time when I filled the house with smoke and burned the patina off my favorite cast iron frying pan). "Moral Luck" is Nagle's attempt to tease out some of the concerns related to this sort of circumstance, and consider them in the light of moral responsibility.  Reading this essay, you may wonder whether I was in fact, more negligent when I burned my frying pan than I am when I just use up a little extra electricity and perhaps slow down the production of breakfast by 90 seconds.  It is an interesting thing to consider even when the risks are so low as to include only a scorched pan.

If you're interested in this subject but you're not yet ready to cozy up with a book that's all about philosophy, or if you wonder what other ivory tower types think about moral luck, there's a straightforward discussion of the concept and the major philosophical arguments about it in "Moral Luck," by Andrew Latus (from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by James Fieser and Bradley Dowden, 2005).

N.b.: The essay "Moral Luck" was reprinted in Free Will, edited by Gary Watson (Oxford [Oxfordshire] ; New York : Oxford University Press, 1982) and in Moral Luck, edited by Daniel Statman (Albany : State University of New York Press, 1993).  The latter also includes Bernard Williams' essay of the same title.  Nagel's book Mortal Questions has been translated into several languages (at least Chinese, French, German, and Spanish) and was reprinted in English in 1991 by Canto. 

[thanks, Kristian]


27 – mental illness link
12.15.2005, 4:27 pm
Filed under: articles

“Mental illness link to art and sex” / Ian Sample, science correspondent.
The Guardian, 30 November 2005.

Daniel Nettle of Newcastle University and Helen Clegg of the Open University in Milton Keynes recently published a report of a survey they did of schizophrenics, artists, and members of the general British population.  This article discusses the survey results, some of the most notable of which are: artists have (on average) more than twice the number of sexual partners as people in the rest of the population, and, artists share key behavioral traits with schizophrenics. 

According to the survey, artists and schizophrenics are especially likely to experience a connection or blurring between reality and dream states, and to be overwhelmed by their own thoughts.  The big difference between artists and schizophrenics seems to be that schizophrenics also have other traits that make it very difficult for them to engage in social interaction or to have satisfying emotional lives.  Artists aren’t any more likely to suffer from these difficulties than other non-schizophrenics — basically, Clegg and Nettle’s conclusion is that artists have the gifts of insanity without the handicaps!  Fascinating, especially if you consider the very creative people you no doubt know (I mean, aren’t they kind of crazy, but in a good way?).

The article provides much more detail about the survey and Nettle and Clegg’s work, as well as a link to an abstract of their journal article.

26 – the bohemian
11.22.2005, 12:02 am
Filed under: articles

“The bohemian, the Bolsheviks, and the old blues,” / by Mary V. Dearborn
Yale Alumni Magazine, September/October 2005.

Louise Bryant, the subject of this article, is unfortunately more well-known for her husbands than for her own life and work. The famous part of her life story is attached to the story of her second husband, Portland’s own John Reed. While they lived together she wrote numerous articles on political and current-events topics, and a best-selling book on her experiences living in Russia and the young Soviet Union during the 1917 revolution, Six Red Months in Russia (various publishers, 1918-2002, available online). Mostly no one remembers Bryant, her writing, or this best-selling book — in fact, most folks are more familiar with Reed’s book about living in Russia during the same period, Ten Days That Shook the World (various publishers, 1919-1997, available online).

“The Bohemian” describes a collection of Bryant’s papers owned by the Yale University Library, and provides a brief introduction to Bryant’s life. Selected images & documents are reproduced in the article, and a finding aid to Bryant’s papers is available on the Yale Library’s website.

A few of Bryant’s articles, and another electronic version of Six Red Months in Russia are available online at the Internet Archive.

21 – politics and the english language
07.7.2005, 12:01 am
Filed under: articles, language, literature

"Politics and the English language" / George Orwell, from volume 4 of the book: The collected essays, journalism, and letters of George Orwell / Edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus.
New York, Harcourt, Brace & World [1968].
[MCL call number: 828 O79c; two copies (of volume 4), no holds — ask the library staff for help if you want to put volume four on hold, there’s a trick to it]

Everyone, it seems, complains about the decline of the English language.  Careless writers continually split infinitives, they put prepositions at the ends of clauses, they use too many acronyms, they indulge themselves with jargon, and in general they express themselves in ways that are, well, not totally easy to understand.  It's unconscionable.  At this very moment, parents and politicians and teachers and writers of newspaper editorials and the clergy are complaining bitterly about the sad state of our poor language — authority figures everywhere are wringing their hands.

But George Orwell, himself famous for clear, expressive prose, is here to do something about it.  (Actually, he was on the job quite a long time ago, as this essay was first published in 1946.)  What, indeed, is really wrong with the way people write?  As Orwell explains:

"A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks.  It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language.  It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts."

Orwell considers five passages taken from contemporary (c. 1946) writing, and provides a brief analysis of the different kinds of problems he sees in these five passages and in writing in general.  Orwell's brief but effective plunge into the wilds of messy, confusing prose is instructional, amusing but also sobering, and generally a very good idea for anyone who plans to write anything explaining anything to anyone ever. 

So you can see I recommend it. 

N.b.: This essay was originally printed in the magazine Horizon (April 1946).  Multnomah County Library has back issues of Horizon, but not this one.  "Politics and the English Language" has been reprinted in several other volumes of Orwell's work, including the following: A Collection of Essays (Garden City, N.Y., Doubleday, 1954), Shooting an Elephant and Other Essays (San Diego : Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, [1984], c1950), and The Orwell Reader (New York, Harcourt, Brace [1956]).

It is also available online in full text in several places (though I haven't checked through them to see if they're all complete and good good): 1, 2, 3, 4, and there is a Russian translation.

19 – women are still
06.9.2005, 12:01 am
Filed under: articles

Women are still a closed book to men : research shows men mainly read works by other men / David Smith.
The Observer, 29 May 2005.

A terse little article reporting the results of a study of mens’ and womens’ reading habits.  The main conclusion is in the subtitle, but it’s an interesting read even just to see some of the British sensibility about the subject. 

And, in promotion of honesty I’ll report that the piece resonated with me because I’ve been having a crisis of confidence about the gender balance of authors in this list (as of number 18, and by my count that relies on the suspect method of my being able to discern gender based on peoples’ names, the statistics are as follows: 24 items written by women, 39 by men, 5 by men and women working together, and 5 items whose authors are of unknown gender).  This is not my only booklist-content-related anxiety, but merely the one that relates to this article.  Sigh.

18 – sister, uncle sam
05.17.2005, 12:01 am
Filed under: articles

“Sister, Uncle Sam wants you too” / By Vanessa Huang.
WireTap, posted 2 May 2005.

A friend of mine recently thanked me, after a political meeting, for expressing some lofty “yes, we’re doing this small thing because we want the world to be a better place in the long run” logic.  This kind of motivation for action is really pretty common — people want things to be better, we want to feel better ourselves, and we are social animals.  Some will argue with me, but I believe we are all of us interested in making our world a better place to live in.  This can be expressed in many different ways, and people argue about what’s important or how to do things, but there are lots of ways to make change. 

Huang’s article discusses the U.S. military’s recruitment strategies for attracting women of color, and provides some analysis of why these strategies are working.  She interviews anti-recruitment activists and conscientious objectors about their strategies to show young women of color other paths to success and fulfillment in their lives.  The article is brief, so it won’t take much of your time, but it gets right to the heart of a very crucial issue and illustrates some of the good work that anti-recruitment activists are doing.

I think it’s worth remembering that what the women quoted in this article are doing is connected to the work that you and I do every day, even if we don’t think of our work as “peace work” or “anti-military work,” and even if we don’t think we’re doing work at all.  The anti-recruitment work discussed in the article is very connected to the small things I know you all do like fostering good relationships with your neighbors, the medium things like helping kids to have a voice in how schools are run, and the huge giant ones like making it harder for the United States government to prosecute foreign wars.  And all of this is more connected when we remember that we’re working together.

[thanks, Walidah]

3 – hacking the library
09.23.2004, 12:01 am
Filed under: articles

“Hacking the library” [column] / Kendall Clark,
18 February – 2 June 2004.

This excellent series of articles discusses the whys and wherefores, the ins and outs of arranging a personal collection of nonprint media or books.  The series is written by a computer programmer and appears in a periodical about xml (if you don’t know what xml is, just read it as [technical] and read on. . .), but it’s completely accessible to people who don’t get what goes on behind the scenes in a computer.  This Kendall Clark person is a very clear writer and a great explainer.  He’s like the George Orwell of computer stuff.

The introduction, “Geeks and the dijalog lifestyle,” puts the series’ recommendations in context for people who think that computers are the center of the universe, but I think you may find it interesting anyway.  The following three columns give an introduction to classification systems (with examples and very clear explanations), take the reader through a series of practical steps towards organizing a personal collection of books, and finally, provide extra information on the what how why and what on earth for of International Standard Book Numbers (or ISBNs).

Here are three reasons to read this series of articles: 

  1. Your library is fabulously organized for your own purposes, but, your partner can’t ever find anything because your system only works in your head, and now you have moved to a new apartment where you have to share shelves with each other (this article may keep you from breaking up or having to move again). 
  2. You have always wanted to organize your personal library but the task has seemed too daunting.
  3. You are curious about how institutionalized libraries catalog and classify their books, or you wonder what the difference is between “cataloging” and “classification.”