Man the Listmaker

Cats don't make lists, but they do enjoy sitting on them.

Cats don't make lists, but they do enjoy sitting on them.

For hundreds of years people have attempted to define what it is exactly that separates us, the human beings, from the animals—or, more specifically, from our nearest relatives, the apes.

Some would say that we have souls and animals don’t. This argument has the advantage of not being scientifically disprovable, and the concomitant disadvantage of not being scientifically provable. And since I wish to speak with you today in the realm of science, we will leave that argument aside.

For a long time, people thought that what separated humans from the animals was the ability to use tools. Then someone noticed that chimps, for instance, use sticks to dig out termites to snack on. For a short while after it was proposed that what separates humans from the animals is that we don’t eat termites, but this turned out to be too narrow of a definition.

Later it was theorized that the ability to use language was the key distinction, but then Koko the gorilla started communicating in sign language, and that went out the door. Folks were starting to get a little desperate at this point, afraid that we were going turn out to be just apes with digital watches after all. It was proposed that only humans have culture, but primatologist Franz de Waal, for one, disagrees:

Culture, in de Waal’s estimation, does not mean using an oyster fork properly or attending smart gallery openings. Instead, it “means that knowledge and habits are acquired from others — often, but not always, the older generation.” Culture implies communication and social organization, and in this, he notes, humans by no means have a monopoly.

I am here today with what I believe to be a new slant on the topic. Man, I propose, is the only animal who makes lists. (more…)

The I’s Have It (Sweet Spot #1)

After several years as an iPod user, I’ve discovered that it’s especially fun to listen to the songs in alphabetical order. This yields a semi-random arrangement from which themes and patterns occasionally emerge (groupings of love songs, for instance, or blues songs). And then sometimes you just hit sweet spots that, for one reason or another, are particularly satisfying, such as the one you will hear if you click on the word “PLAY” below. This sequence occurred about halfway through the letter “I.”


The playlist is after the jump:


A slacker’s credo for pleasure

My bedside reading for the last, I don’t know, seven years or so has been Dr. Thompson’s The Proud Highway, the first volume of his collected letters covering the years 1955-1967. This is a weighty tome, almost 700 pages in hardback, and offers a great deal of insight into the man. In his personal life he was something of a pig, racist and sexist and rude, but also unfailingly loyal to his friends. In his professional life he was an anything but a slacker; during the years covered by this book he cranked out unpublished novels and reams of correspondence while making ends meet as a journalist, often through difficult and dangerous travels in South America.

Which makes the following — an excerpt from a 1958 letter that seems all too timely 51(!) years later—that much more interesting.

I hadn’t realized I had so many gloomy, cynical acquaintances. Everybody wants to give me religion, sympathy, hope, forbearance, all sorts of idiotic priestly qualities so that I may better weather the storm of unemployment.

To hell with unemployment: I think it’s a fine thing. I like sleeping all day and having nothing to do but read, write, and sleep whenever I feel tired. I like waking up in the morning and going immediately back to bed if the weather is foul. In short, I think it’s a fine situation for a man to be in: provided, of course, that he has enough money to eat and pay the rent.


The Downright Evil Death Panel Blues

You’ll excuse me, I hope, being a bit behind the news cycle. The Philtration process has been slow of late, but things are beginning to fall into place again.

These sure are interesting times we’re living in right now, with Obamamerica and RealAmericaTM in an increasingly nasty scuffle — nominally over the issue of health care, but really over the whole future direction of the country. It may be oversimplifying to say that some of us would like start moving toward the future while others seem determined to drag us as far back into the past as possible, but I don’t think it’s too far off the mark.

Well, as Uncle Bill once said, “evolutionarily speaking, the one way you can’t go is back — it’s the law.” However much they scream and cry and whine, the future is coming. So in the meantime I’m trying to enjoy the right-wing windbagosphere for its entertainment value.