Where literature comes in

Sometimes as a scientist, you wonder if literature has anything really important to say that science won't be able to answer given adequate time, resources and techniques. Can everything be reduced to some laws, even they are quantum or probabilistic ones? Experiments in giant fMRI machines are showing which areas of the brain are responsible for what affective qualities in decision making. While we still try to understand these phenomena literature fills that void. That void is literature's essential subject matter.

More from Menand's piece on Lionel Trilling:

In Trilling’s view, the faith that liberals share, whether they are Soviet apologists, Hayekian free marketers, or subscribers to Partisan Review, is that human betterment is possible, that there is a straight road to health and happiness. A liberal is a person who believes that the right economic system, the right political reforms, the right undergraduate curriculum, and the right psychotherapy will do away with unfairness, snobbery, resentment, prejudice, neurosis, and tragedy. The argument of “The Liberal Imagination” is that literature teaches that life is not so simple — for unfairness, snobbery, resentment, prejudice, neurosis, and tragedy happen to be literature’s particular subject matter. In Trilling’s celebrated statement: “To the carrying out of the job of criticizing the liberal imagination, literature has a unique relevance . . . because literature is the human activity that takes the fullest and most precise account of variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty.” This is why literary criticism has something to say about politics.

What kind of liberal are you?

From Menand's piece on Lionel Trilling:

" ... As a matter of political theory, very different types of liberals. There is, in Isaiah Berlin’s famous distinction, the liberal who believes in negative liberty, “freedom from,” and the liberal who believes in positive liberty, “freedom for.” There is the classical liberalism of free markets and individual rights, and the left liberalism of state planning and class solidarity..."

I consider myself a liberal. Now what kind is a difficult question. I am wrestling with the idea of positive or negative liberalism. At the same time, I believe that the labels 'positive' and 'negative' are unfortunate as they seem to connote that negative liberalism is lesser than positive liberalism. It easier to think of them simply as labels and focus on the question.

What if I believed in both kinds of freedom, does that make me a positively negative liberal?

The truth about bags and bags

Interestingly, today's WSJ reported on the topic of the last post - reusable or not. Of course, the chief issue is about learning to change behavior. Unless the shops themselves don't raise the bar on the bags, or in the absence of legislation there is a great tendency to slide into the convenience of the plastic bag.

There are bags and then there are bags. A high-end designer made these bags that are cool, but completely impractical unable to store anything other than a head of a lettuce.

It was rather sobering to note that I would have to first use my reusable bag a number of times before I start reaping the green benefits. In the short term at least, my house is relatively clear of plastic bags and I am happier for it. There were about 100 billion, yet 100 billion plastic bags used.

The Price of Convenience

Two weeks ago, we decided to stop using plastic or paper bags from the grocery store. We got some nice, sturdy, reusable bags that are relatively inexpensive from the grocery store.

Current behavior
Our behavior was to make a list, jump into the car and tear halfway through Ann Arbor to the grocery store. Then laden with about a dozen plastic bags we trudged back to our car. In contrast, I always remember my mother taking a large bag before she went grocery shopping. Grocers in India expect you to show up with your own bag. Of course, that has changed over the years and plastic bags are available everywhere and supermarkets in India are like supermarkets anywhere else.

American sales clerks are rather liberal with the use of bags and in their offers to use more bags. They always want to double-bag the milk container. I can see why, but do it really need them? I use the bags for about 30 seconds to load them from the cart into the trunk of my car, and then again for another 30 seconds to unload them back at home. Every week, we ended up with a litter of a dozen plastic and paper bags and I wondered if there was any justification in using a dozen bags for less than a minute to justify the convenience (read: or laziness) to not bring our reusable own?

Interestingly, when I visited my friends in Germany I was a little amazed as they began to packing the small stuff in their purses and backpacks. The concern for the environment is perhaps more in Europe because they are affluent and overpopulated. Americans have such ubiquitous resources and abundant space that they are yet to feel the pinch.

There are reasons to do it apart from the obvious tree-hugging ones.

1)The bags are larger than plastic bags and hence you can carry more stuff per bag. It's a real pain to carry nine bags when you can stuff all of it in six.

2)The bags are sturdy. What plastic bags are notorious for is giving up on your when you are halfway up the stairs by tearing and out tumbles the jar of salsa.

3)The bags look cooler and don't make one of the most annoying sounds in the world: people fiddling with plastic bags

How hard is it to change behavior?
Last week, we actually forgot to take the reusable bags to the car before we set off. I cringed at every plastic bag that we ended up using. That was rather instructive. Changing the habits of the past is harder than you think. I expect that the personal and private embarrassment of last week will affect future behavior.

Hopefully, the planet and we will be a little cooler next week.
Changing the world, a bag at a time.

Why there is a God

If there were no God, there would be no Atheists.
- G. K. Chesterton


For the wage slaves out there it's TGIF. For me considering the stuff that I need to get done in this fine first week of Fall it's FIFA

FIFA = Fuck! It's Friday already?

The Federer

Last afternoon, Roger Federer or 'The Federer' (as Marat Safin calls him) won a thrilling five-setter versus Igor Andreev. When he lost to Nadal at Wimbledon it augured the end of the Federer era. That idea is nuts! The guy made it to 12 of the last 13 slam finals. Not even the Pistol Pete managed that, and if I remember correctly not even Rod Laver. Nadal has improved insanely and was impossible to defeat on the French clay. What we all saw at Wimbledon was two players playing at an incredible level that is way above the rest of the crowd. At that level, it's simply a toss-up. Nadal came close last year, but this time Federer couldn't close it.

What is gone was the aura of invincibility. After that, a bunch of players beat Federer. But, the champion is far from done. Since that loss in Wimbledon a different Federer has emerged. Before Federer became tennis's most gentle and elegant ambassadors he was quite a brat. He said that when he was younger he screamed at every point, lost his cool, was negative about lost matches. Then one day sometime after his coach died he decided that he would keep his emotions in check. The world has not seen a more gracious champion. He is elegant both in victory and defeat. The losses in the recent months have released the emotional Federer. It's great to watch him play with that newer intensity. Like he has something to prove.

Nadal on the other hand was always the underdog, but now the Mallorcan Minotaur is facing the pressure of being #1. He has struggled a bit in all the matches at the US Open and he has stated that he is feeling tired. Can you imagine Nadal saying he is tired? I think its more the pressure than fatigue. It's great to be on top but how long can you stay there?

Yesterday, Andreev played some impossible tennis and had Federer back. But, the Fed has some answers. Jim Courier believes that the mononucleosis infection has hit him worse than he lets out and even in bad year like this he made it to 3/3 Grand Slam semifinals. The road to the final and a possible meeting with Nadal could have Djokovic or Roddick in the way for the Fed. I think he is going to get the job done and we are going to some exciting tennis from the greatest.


Andy Murray exposed how tired and weary Nadal is. Yet, to beat Nadal he had to play perfect tennis. His backhand shots were astounding and the strategy to stand 15 feet behind the baseline neutralized the Nadal serve. Even though Nadal had to struggle for his service games, he managed to hold through sheer will power.

To beat Djokovich is no joke. Roger played some of his best tennis in recent months to down Novak.

So, now we have the two greats - Nadal and Federer and then the young Turks who are a shade below - Murray and Djokovich. The rest of the field is way below what they guys can dish out.

Looking forward to the final between the latest British hope and the greatest. I would give Federer the edge and predict that he wins the championship in 4 sets.