the anthony dobranski blog


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The STEM and the Flower (Education)

Thanks to Fareed Zakaria for his recent column calling out the recent obsession with STEM education — science, technology, engineering and mathematics. I urge its wide readership.

The issue is not STEM, of course, but obsession — and it’s not really obsession, in the end, but the lazy desire for a panacea. Wouldn’t it be great to think that we could just do one kind of studying to be successful? And we could cut school funding too!

The world doesn’t work that way, alas. Defunding arts and humanities education will not make us a nation of successful technocrats. It will make us poorer in spirit, which will make us poorer in pocket, and make our culture harder to sustain. Without language, music, and art, people literally can’t communicate, explain, teach, and inspire.

It’s that last one which is hardest to quantify, least utilitarian, but most vital. Life is not easy, and even the most successful of us have days on end of meticulous tedium. Most people are hard pressed to give a damn about anything over time if their lives are not enriched by whimsy and beauty – not merely by consuming it, but by engaging with it, in the way one only can with understanding and training. Even Mr. Spock liked to jam with a band.

The stem is vitally important to the plant, but so is the flower. They are parts of a common purpose. Things can survive if they are stunted, but they can’t flourish or evolve. Lose sight of that, and we lose.


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Revolutionary atheists vs Stockholm syndrome (John Gray)

Esteemed cosmologist, and my old friend, Andrew Jaffe just posted a quick retort on his blog to a long essay by philosopher John Gray. Gray has an objection to the strident challenging tone of modern atheist thought-leaders like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins.

I am not the scientist Andrew Jaffe is, and I was hopeful that Gray’s essay was something endearing and woolly, a plea for magic in our contemplative moments. Some time ago I began having issues with my atheism, a matter of personal feeling about this great universe. I’m not sure even now if I am proud or sheepish about it, but it is what it is – I am a woolly atheist.

Gray’s objections alas are very different, and worrisome. Supposedly Gray is discussing why militant religion is in resurgence, but Gray – himself a self-professed atheist – really writes to vilify and blame, cheekily calling the New Atheists “missionary” and “evangelical,” and less cheekily comparing them to the pseudo-scientists who justified Nazi and Soviet genocides.

It took a while for me to understand: John Gray has Stockholm syndrome. He’s been living in a culture that has been deferential to the religious for a very long time, and he can’t see a way past that.

Modern atheists are revolutionaries, not missionaries, and this is their revolution: to insist that in the modern world — where we fly without feathered wings, talk across distances without magic crystals, kill far-away enemies without thunderbolts and stop epidemics without human sacrifices — religion must now justify the exalted place it demands in the making of public policy and education.  Continue reading


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Posture for writers (standing desks)

For a decade now, I have worked at a standing desk: first on boxes and books piled on a seated desk, then on hasty constructs made from scrap lumber. Now I stand at a custom-built desk, my bare feet on a thick gel mat. There is an obvious and immediate ergonomic benefit for any computer user* — straighter back, continuously engaged body, deeper and easier breathing. I also believe it helps my prose.

Most writing advice goes to helping your plot or consolidating characters, to making things more identifiable. No one ever suggests posture as a tool for writers, the way it is for musicians and actors, so, let me.

Writers play a lot of roles in their heads, and it helps to stand while acting them out. If I want to write a sexy dance, or the discomfort of injury, or a shallow-breathed panic, the freedom of movement gives me more freedom to imagine, to act and to feel.

Writers tend to like cafes, as a balance against the solitude of writing. I wonder if the ability to study other people casually, their looks and movement and ways of being, without the distraction of, say, a film narrative, doesn’t play a role. But cafes are often distracting too.

If you’re looking to liven up your prose in the productive quiet of your garret, why not pile up some boxes and get on your feet? It takes a few minutes to measure your own ideal heights, and possibly some configuring – the distance between hands and eyes is greater standing than seated, so laptop users may need an external keyboard and mouse.

It also opens up some possibilities you might not have considered. I use my monitor portrait now – in fact, I use two!

standingdesk

Of course, you can still sit down from time to time. I don’t stand to pay bills.

*You can write longhand at a standing desk too, but I find it’s better to use a sloped surface so you are not staring straight down. These are less easy to find than they used to be. Search “writing slant” or “writing slope,” or try back sites, calligraphy sites, and of course auction sites.


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Performance anxiety (Facebook edition)

If the fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise. — William Blake, “Proverbs of Hell”

I noted recently that writing has become a performing art, one where we writers all have to be promotional and public. I’ve been mulling that over in regards to social media. Specifically, Facebook.

I made my first business career developing the consumer side of what we once called “cyberspace,” but I was quite late to Facebook. Most close friends who wanted to keep up with my personal life soon wised up and Friended my wife. My main reservation was Facebook’s awesome store of personal data (even now, my Facebook account is still under a different computer login than my work or personal logins), but it seemed harmless enough — shared humor, family updates and the occasional expression of political dudgeon by people whose politics I knew well.

When I signed up for the Superstars Writing Seminars, I joined their very active private Facebook group for news and updates on the seminar, and by extension, on the writers’ individual careers. To my great surprise, a lot of those people Friended me on Facebook — most before ever meeting me, and the rest after a very limited interaction (though you learn a lot playing Cards Against Humanity, and none of it good.)

I was bemused. Why on earth would these people want to Friend me? Did they care about my son’s new style of dancing to 80’s pop? Would they be as thrilled by the new retaining wall we’re getting as I am?

My folly was in not recognizing that Facebook has become a public space to the exact degree that one is a public person — and performing artists are public people, and writers now performers. This for me makes Facebook an increasingly staged and risky place. In Soho where she lives, a major fashion model can go shopping without makeup and in sweatpants — but when that same model hits the stores at Mall of America, she is not shopping. She is making an appearance, as rehearsed and planned and calculated as any Oscar Wilde bon-mot.

Thing is, I have plenty of friends, and extended family, for whom Facebook is not that space, and whose socializing there is more honest, more mundane, and in some ways more substantive. If I actually become a successful writer, commenting to me on a Facebook post will be the equivalent of meeting your friend for coffee when your friend is on a reality-TV show and has a camera following everywhere. Little-f-friends, are you ready for that? Am I? Continue reading