Category Archives: Mike’s Posts

Brief Rant

I have been feeling depressed lately about my research and publishing prospects. I’ve accomplished a fair amount since I finished my Ph.D., but I don’t feel professionally or emotionally fulfilled by any of it. 

I haven’t published anything since 2015. Much of my time in between has been taken up by two articles, one which has been rejected three times by good journals despite interest, and the second of which is promising, but slow to develop.  I’m not sure what I’m doing wrong, but whatever it is, I’ve slowed down. 

It would be easy to attribute this decline in production to my son Luke, who turned 2 last April. But I don’t. I generally gain strength from him. He makes me laugh.

It would also be easy to attribute this decline to the fact that I have started to write more edgy stuff in articles than in my previous pieces. 

My dissertation (aside from the first chapter, which appeared in Rhetorica) remains unpublished, I have found, due to that its conclusions don’t align with contemporary Christianity or conservative biblical criticism.  I have shopped it everywhere and found no takers. I consider this a massive failure on my part, even though I know it isn’t. It’s a people problem.

To sum it up, my diss argues that pretty much the entire ‘life of Jesus’ part of the Gospel of Mark (everything beside the Passion narrative – the arrest and the crucifixion) is a work of rhetorical fiction. This means Judas is a fictional character inserted for drama, John the Baptist (while a real person!)  never had anything to do with Jesus, and all of the post-resurrection appearances are late additions. Those three observations are chapters. Ultimately, I hold the gospels are not four buttressed eyewitness accounts, but competing fictional narratives as they openly plagarize each other in a quest to control the Jesus narrative – which was created by the author of Mark in the first place!  

In retrospect I should have seen the problem, though – it threatens too many people. Even if I point to all the form criticism that basically spells it all out, it doesn’t matter. It’s too edgy, even though I find it to be remarkably commonsensical.  I wonder, though, if I should try to build up to it through a series of smaller articles. I have only toyed with sending out the individual chapters. Chapter 1 found a home, but only after many years.

Anyway.

There is also my half-secret hobby as a novelist. I have written three larger works of fiction. The first was about 60,000 words and what I would call today fan fiction. Practice. The second was 190,000 words, much better, had an agent, nothing happened. Self-published, which was a mistake, back in 2003. Very few readers. Bummed me out for over a decade. I’ve read far worse, so that’s another disappointment. 

Two years ago, though, I wrote another, about 80,000 words. Thought I had a winner. Sent query letters to over 100 agents. No bites. Abandoned the project. Then I started writing a sequel, which was odd behavior, even for me. I felt like the characters could have another go. This has made me think that I should approach publishers directly. But I feel frozen by the likely outcome. 

I think I’ve been burned too much. There is only so much negativity that I can bear and it’s starting to wear. I need a win occasionally to justify continued effort. I just don’t know right now where I’m going to get one.  I have a lot of germinal article ideas, but there are so many that it’s hard to pick just one and bang it out.

This feeling will probably pass. I just have to find a way around it.

Try Again

So I was reading this piece in the NYT: “We Aren’t Built to Live in the Moment.”

I have some problems with its theory of mind:

Your brain engages in the same sort of prospection to provide its own instant answers, which come in the form of emotions. The main purpose of emotions is to guide future behavior and moral judgments, according to researchers in a new field called prospective psychology. Emotions enable you to empathize with others by predicting their reactions. Once you imagine how both you and your colleague will feel if you turn down his invitation, you intuitively know you’d better reply, “Sure, thanks.”

Ugh. I can see why this guy is all excited about this, but he’s missing some crucial ingredients. We may be planning creatures, true, and that is important, but our ‘plans’ are made up of present judgments that come very, very quickly, and the past is constantly bubbling up to influence those present judgments. To say we are prospective creatures is to oversimpify – rather, we are present creatures with complex pasts AND futures. Ask a victim of abuse or trauma whether or not they spent all their time thinking about the future, or whether someone from a poor background and low education (that pesky past) thinks about “the future” the same as someone from a middle-class background and decent education.

Emotions are not even remotely understood, but it’s a good starting point.

This article reminds me of one of my pet peeves, which is that we are in the dark ages of understanding the brain. Let me give an example.

At one point in my research in grad school I was very interested in how people read. Not how to teach people how to read, but how reading worked in the brain. An analogy might be wanting to know how an internal combustion engine worked instead of wanting to know how to drive a car.

So I read a lot of reading psychology. I was massively disappointed. I discovered that no one in the field had more than a vague idea of how reading worked. The brain was effectively a black box to them – the input and output was known, but what happened between people’s ears – they didn’t have the foggiest. Lots of theories, no evidence. We are literally sentient beings with brains and we have little idea how our brains work, at all.

I have come to find that pretty much all research into the brain is at this state. We are not much beyond poking physical regions of the brain with fingers and electricity to discover what does what. So I look upon supposed new avenues as total shots in the dark. Again, this is the dark ages.

Ultimately I don’t see any major innovations in this area until we do the very-thinkable building of an artificial brain. THEN we will know how one works – or we won’t, because too much of what a brain does is emergent. Just wedding “emotions” onto a computer isn’t going to do it.

To leap into my field for a moment, rhetoric is largely a study of how decisions are made based not on ironclad logic, but on emotions.  When Mr. Spock says on Star Trek that “it is not logical,” he is mistaken – if he were really telling the truth, which Vulcans are supposed to, he would say, “it is not emotionally satisfying to me at the present moment.” That’s not nearly as quotable, of course, and pointing out that EVERY time Spock says he is being “logical,” he isn’t, would take me all day.

Suffice to say, it’s true we are emotional creatures, but our past influences said emotions and we also make WRONG decisions very often. Frankly, the emotions are not very good at making decisions, especially when the RIGHT answer is not blindingly obvious. Self-persuasion helps, but often turns into rationalization, like Spock and his supposed “logic” when all he really has is certain values.

 

 

The best PC games of all time, 2017

There are two rules for the following list, which are – multiple games in a series are collapsed into one entry, with one representative game examined. I also cut things off at 12 and didn’t rank them.

  • Ultima (Ultima V, the Ultima entry)
  • Thief (The Dark Project, the Looking Glass entry)
  • Deus Ex (the first one, the Ion entry)
  • Half-Life (HL2, the Valve entry)
  • Pirates! (The original, not the upgrade or the remake) – Serves as the Microprose entry.
  • Civilization (Civ II) – Serves as the second Microprose entry.
  • Homeworld (for the strategy people)
  • Baldur’s Gate (the Black Isle entry)
  • Fallout (the second Black Isle entry)
  • Batman (Arkham Knight, or any of the Arkham games,  the cross-platform entry)
  • Quest For Glory (the first one, the Sierra entry)
  • XCOM: Enemy Unknown (the tactical entry)
  • Dying Light (the zombie entry)

Randomness and Teaching

Well, Trump won, and I suppose I will comment on that at length at some point. But I want to discuss something else.

I was thinking this morning about the randomness inherent in making decisions. Think of a path that forks left or right with no clues as to what follows  – what makes you choose left or right? SOMETHING does. Back when I knew something about programming – 1990? – we would use random number seeds based on the system clock if we needed a semi-random number. I have to wonder if the circadian system offers the brain a similar out.

That (random?) thought said, I am a general fan of randomness when teaching. I don’t have a lot of formal structure, usually, other than a vague ‘we are going to discuss X,’ or ‘we are going to do this exercise together to master Y,’ or ‘we are going to play a game in order to learn Z’.  I leave the creation of teachable moments to chance; I figure the friction created by me, the students, and the material rubbing together is going to create sparks that I can then turn into a fire. Once I have a fire going, then the class takes on a life of its own and all I have to do is enjoy the heat.

I do prepare graduate courses differently than undergraduate ones, though. I waltz into undergraduate ones and lecture extemporaneously as know the material really well.  For graduate classes, even though I still know the material, I usually prepare a page or two of bullet points and questions that I want to hit. It’s more of an emergency blanket; if the class discussion slows or meanders, I have my page to lean on to restart things.

So I guess what I’m trying to get at is that I rely on a certain degree of unpredictability when teaching. I make a lot of teaching decisions on the fly and instinctively rather than planning them out. Planning is valuable, and I sometimes do a fair amount of it, but it’s become necessary for me over the years to react quickly to conditions in a class.

FYC is different, though (I mostly teach upper-division PW and rhetoric). FYC students need structure; my more freewheelin’ style doesn’t mesh well with freshmen that come to the course feeling lost technically, socially, and materially. They don’t do well with abstract thought or ethical dilemmas. They don’t necessarily know how to answer, or ask, good questions. They are not as comfortable with ambiguity as I am. So I have to adjust and break the course into discrete, predictable units. It doesn’t please my personality, but adaptability – even random – is the essence, I think, of decent teaching.

Prediction

It’s 9:15 am on November the 8th. My prediction, based on my usual long-term sampling of newspapers, polls, and social media, is for Clinton.

I think the race is weird enough this year that taking a shot at the total electoral college vote is basically flipping a bunch of coins, so I won’t do so.

The Mind of the Bible-Believer

A really great book, though it suffers from 1) verbosity, and that 2) the idea that the gospels are mind-controlling is interesting, but not possible from what I understand of form-criticism, i.e. the gospel authors are largely independent. Although, in regards to 2), it might make our readings of Luke more fruitful if we consider the possibility that he is writing his gospel to obfuscate as much as to enlighten the gospels beforehand.

This book was written in the late ’80s by an Edmund D. Cohen. I would like to contact the author if possible by email, but email wasn’t a thing back then! I will see if I can find a postal address.

The Tweeting Styles of Trump and Clinton

I’m teaching a graduate course called Stylistics and Editing this semester, and I used Trump and Clinton’s twitter accounts as analysis fodder in the first two classes.

Trump’s tweets typically have a fixed style. Long sentence, short sentence, exclamation point. “Sad!” Most seem to be by his own hand, given their reactionary content, occasional use of ALL CAPS, and distinctive vocabulary. He uses graphics and video sparingly.

Clinton’s tweets are shorter, usually just one sentence, but they are always accompanied by a link to a graphic or video. Half are moderating utterances or secondhand quotations designed to make her look reasonable, and half are direct assaults on Trump. The chances of the bulk of the tweets being written by her, the class felt, were very small; they felt safe and vetted.

The larger point I was trying to make with these analyses is that style is, for the most part, highly detectable. At a glance, you can see who is who. Clinton’s team will almost never write a one-word sentence with an exclamation point, and Trump will rarely ever write anything simply stating his position, save for the very recent “Mexico will pay for the wall!”