What is the news for?

I’ve always loved newspapers. Growing up, my grandparents had a subscription to the Flint Journal. Though my initial attraction was the Sunday comics, I browsed all the sections and was following favorite columnists — like Flint-area fixture Andrew Heller — from a weirdly young age. When Flint got a Borders, I eagerly dove into the out-of-town newspapers and “serious” magazines like the New Yorker or Harper’s. I’ve been a print magazine subscriber basically continuously since high school, and My Esteemed Partner and I take the Sunday New York Times as our Hegelian weekend liturgy. More recently, I’ve begun to get the daily Financial Times as a way of lessening my reliance on social media.

Since I had an extisting NYT subscription, I also considered simply adding daily delivery. But the first Sunday I read the A-section with that in mind, I realized that having their political coverage as my primary diet would drive me insane. Continue reading “What is the news for?”

An extremely simple guide to getting started on Mastodon

In the wake of Elon Musk’s acquisition of my most beloved/accursed website, I have joined the trend of trying out Mastodon, the most direct alternative to Twitter. Many people have found tutorials (like this one) for joining Mastodon intimidating, as they spend a lot of time on the decentralized architecture and idiosyncratic terminology. But none of that matters after you initially sign up!

So here’s a stripped-down guide for what to do:

  1. Go directly to zirk.us, a Mastodon server that aims to attract academics and intellectual types.
  2. Sign up for an account using the extremely straightforward form that is like signing up for accounts for almost anything on the internet.
  3. Click on the link in the confirmation email — which is, again, just like basically every other account you’ve ever signed up for.
  4. Sign in and you will see an interface that’s a lot like Twitter! OMG!
  5. Click on your profile and copy the link over to Twitter, so that people know where to find you.
  6. Presumably at least some people will follow you, meaning you can follow them back, see their retweets, and then follow more people. You probably won’t get back up to your same follower levels any time soon, but don’t you want a change of pace? (Note: if you are following people who are on different servers, you may have to do an intermediary step where you copy your handle — your user name with the server appended — into a form. This is not stressful or a big deal.)
  7. In your profile settings, click yes for the thing that asks if you can be recommended — that will help people find you.
  8. Ignore the embarrassing Mastodon terminology and just refer to the parallel functions in the familiar way, because they work exactly the same.

If zirk.us doesn’t appeal, I’ve seen a lot of people going for Mastodon.social, but that one seems more likely to be overwhelmed with traffic. There are also plenty of other servers you can try, but the thing to focus on is: it does not matter. All that matters is that you have a starting point for accessing the network. The only way it can become an issue is if your server is too slow or unresponsive. Then you need to switch servers. Here’s my guide to how to do that:

  1. Ask yourself, “Have I done anything with this account that’s actually worth preserving yet?” The answer is going to be no.
  2. Delete the account on the crappy server.
  3. Choose a different server and go back to step 1 on the list above.

If you want to use it on your phone, I have downloaded Tusky for Android. I don’t have an iPhone, but the above-linked tutorial recommends Tootle. As often happens, the “official” phone app seems to kind of suck. You’ll need to sign in by sharing your server and username. Then you can use it just like you use Twitter, because the technical details of the servers don’t matter for most of the functionality.

Once you’re signed in, come find me and give me a toot!

Cultivating Better Habits

It feels like I have to make a decision about Twitter. It’s hard for me, because Twitter has been a big part of my life for a long time. I keep connected with some great friends via Twitter, I’ve gotten a lot of opportunities, and I’ve enjoyed a ton of extremely funny humor in that esoteric, self-referential mode that seemingly only Twitter can deliver. I hate that a wealthy idiot like Elon Musk is forcing this on me, but he really is. I’ve weathered a lot of bad times on Twitter — including the Trump administration and, on a personal level, multiple waves of right-wing harassment — and kept coming back. But this time I can feel myself de-cathecting somehow.

Continue reading “Cultivating Better Habits”

Report from a Self-Declared Quasi-Sabbatical

A few months ago, I declared that I was experiencing burnout and needed a break. I still need to work for a living, so that break took the form of a “sabbatical” from all writing for publication and concentrated research for a year. After completing my outstanding writing obligations, I would accept no invitations to write for special journal issues, to pitch op-ed pieces, to do peer review, etc., etc. If I needed an intellectual outlet, I would blog (or work on the short book on Star Trek that I had somewhat hypocritically agreed to do even amid this sabbatical).

So far, it has gone fairly well. My brain has gradually healed. Continue reading “Report from a Self-Declared Quasi-Sabbatical”

Adventures in Urban Stargazing

Over the last several years, I have achieved a major pedagogical goal of mine: teaching natural science classes. This is obviously a pretty unusual opportunity for someone with a theology PhD, which is only possible because of the distinctive methodology of the Shimer Great Books School. Our discussion-centered pedagogy makes the course materials, not the professor, the center of authority, and our generalist approach means that, at least in principle, everything we read or investigate should be accessible in some way to any curious person willing to put in a little work. Hence we not only ask all our students to take courses in every discipline — even the dreaded math and science — but we expect professors to be able to teach across disciplines. The requirement is to do two out of the Big Three (humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences), but the ideal would be to teach in all, indeed to teach every core course in our curriculum.

This approach means that our science courses are very different from a typical science course, which aims to bring students up to speed with the current understanding. We focus on classic texts and experiments that exemplify profound and decisive moments of discovery. Instead of giving our students an info dump about what scientists currently think, we want to give them an experience of how scientists formulate questions and seek their answers. Older examples are better not only because they tend to be simpler to replicate (since there is less built-up background knowledge to take into account), but also because they let us see how and why scientists get things wrong.

Continue reading “Adventures in Urban Stargazing”

Animated Nihilism: Rick and Morty, Bojack Horseman, and the Strange Fate of the Adult Cartoon

I was reminded of this talk last night, which I gave on February 18, 2018, at Marquette University at the invitation of Gerry Canavan, and realized I had never posted it anywhere. Events in both series have overtaken some of my claims, but I present it in its original form, for the record….

Thank you, Gerry, for the generous introduction and the invitation to speak here today on this urgent topic. You already provided me with the opportunity to publish my first peer-reviewed article on Star Trek—establishing me as an official Star Trek scholar, a title I brandish proudly—and here today you have given me a fresh chance to transmute my TV obsessions into academic productivity. It was a great pleasure to rewatch all of BoJack in the last month with the ready excuse that it was for my research, a trick that I have been pulling over and over in the course of my academic career.

Of course, this form of time-laundering is not always equally plausible. My partner and I have been watching old reruns of Frasier, for instance, and there is no possible academic project that would strictly require me to watch every single variation on their relatively narrow bag of tricks. The essence of Frasier, as with most sitcoms, could be distilled into ten episodes or less without really missing anything—other than the comfortable feeling of slipping into the grooves of a well-worn routine.

Things are different with BoJack Horseman and Rick and Morty. These are not shows that are designed to be watched half-attentively. They reward rewatching and reward analysis. Continue reading “Animated Nihilism: Rick and Morty, Bojack Horseman, and the Strange Fate of the Adult Cartoon”

Two remarkable moments from Aristotle’s Physics

After having a good experience teaching Plato’s Timaeus, I was dreading the next step in my Shimer Great Books seminar on great texts in cosmology: Aristotle’s Physics. Aristotle never seems to teach well, not simply because of his dry writing style, but because of his often confusing presentation — throwing out multiple ideas, some tied to specific names but most not, before gradually whittling the possibilities down to his own preferred solution. Undergraduate readers tend to find that approach uniquely impenetrable. It has been more fun teaching the Physics this year than I expected, though, in part because of how close it is to everyday experience — and also, perhaps, because my years of hard experience have helped me to give them reading strategies.

In any case, I want to highlight two remarkable passages from Aristotle that, to me, vindicate his stature as a real scientific thinker. Continue reading “Two remarkable moments from Aristotle’s Physics

The Political Theology of COVID-19, Part 2: The Pandemic as an Existential Crisis

In my previous post on the political theology of our world-historical plague, I wrote about the way the novel coronavirus of 2019 had called into question the legitimacy of our political order and our entire social bond. In this post, I’d like to talk more about the theological side of the issue, which I think has been crowded out by the political perspective — most exaggeratedly among those who see a grim eugenic conspiracy in our leaders’ alternately inept and malicious handling of this terrible situation.

There is obviously a lot of blame to go around in the pandemic response. The Trump administration’s actions were irresponsible and often simply incomprehensible. Other “smarter” Republicans stoked vile conspiracies in ways that made an effective response impossible, above all in the inconceivable decision to turn vaccination into a polarized political issue. The Biden administration has cleared the low bar set by Trump and the Republicans, but they have clearly been too beholden to big business and too eager to declare victory and move on. No political leader has come out of the pandemic looking good, at least in the US (which is the limit of my detailed knowledge). All of them could have done better. More people died than had to die, and our leaders bear that responsibility.

But it’s not anyone’s fault that the novel coronavirus jumped species in late 2019 — not Trump’s, not Biden’s, not Lori Lightfoot’s, not Chairman Xi’s. It simply happened. Continue reading “The Political Theology of COVID-19, Part 2: The Pandemic as an Existential Crisis”

The Bodily Fluids Game

By far the most successful teaching activity I’ve ever come up with – the most fun, the most memorable, and the most pedagogically effective – is the bodily fluids game I use in Week 4 of my Gender, Sexuality and the Bible module. Having shared it a couple of times with friends and colleagues, I thought it would be worth posting here so it’s more widely available. The goal of the game is to get people thinking about bodily fluids and the way that disgust functions within particular systems of gender, sexuality and society. The game consists of 16 cards, each with a different bodily fluid on it (it’s a non-exhaustive list so you could always tweak it). I’ve laminated mine but you don’t need to:


The game has two parts:

  1. In small groups, arrange the bodily fluids in order from the most to the least disgusting
  2. Take a look at the rankings you’ve produced in some groups. What makes some bodily fluids more disgusting than others.

Once we’ve played the game I talk the students through some of the theoretical arguments made by people like Mary Douglas and Julia Kristeva about gender, disgust, the self and society; but extensive testing suggests it’s fun to play even without the academic component.

Covid Doomerism as Conspiracy Theory

For a long time now, I have been periodically losing Twitter followers for lashing out at what we might call “covid doomer” online content. Often times when I do this, it “sounds like” I am adopting a right-wing or libertarian position, denying the reality of the pandemic, etc., because people either do not know about the kinds of extreme views I am talking about or — what seems more common — they think we should tolerate such views because they are pointing in the right direction and at the very least can do no harm. The former response makes sense, though I wish my comrades would trust that I have actually seen content like I describe. The latter is both frustrating and insidious, because tolerating misinformation just because it’s on our side is a recipe for becoming a mirror image of the right. We have a duty to tell the truth as we understand it, and we also have a duty not to share inflammatory or terrifying content without good reason to believe it’s true.

Continue reading “Covid Doomerism as Conspiracy Theory”