the johnnie chair

{a student-run blog about life at st. john's college, santa fe}

Meeting Matthew Crawford, Reading Marx, and Sleeping atop Santa Fe

Posted on October 19, 2014

Well, it’s starting to feel like seminar-paper season again. I spent most of my weekend alternating between writing at my makeshift standing desk, reading at the kitchen table next to a kettle of PG Tips, and occasionally running up to campus for the Liberal Arts Conference. I’m trying to work out the fetishism of commodities in Marx’s Das Kapital, but more on that to come. The real excitement of the weekend for me was to listen to Matthew Crawford’s lecture, Attention as a Cultural Problem. I read his book Shop Class as Soulcraft last fall, after I started doing a little work on my 1981 Tercel. Reading it, I was thrilled by the way he mixed anecdotes and intuition with Heidegger and Aristotle. I’ve always loved problem solving, especially if it involves dirt under my fingernails and sweat on my brow, and his book somehow wrapped up all that passion into something rigorous and (mostly) intellectually cohesive.  I know there are some who will have been a little frustrated with the Q&A at the lecture, but I find his honesty pretty refreshing. There were a few times when he responded with nothing more than, “Yeah, that’s a good point. I’m not sure.” But I’m still working to convince myself that his thinking doesn’t require an appeal to nostalgia. To anyone else who was there: what are your thoughts on the form of his argument? Does it stand without some sort of romanticism? I’m especially interested in the attempt to distinguish video games from traditional, physical games.

After the lecture, I made a quick jaunt up the mountains behind the school to test out some new backpacking gear. We slept overlooking Santa Fe, and hiked out the next morning to a cup of coffee and a breakfast burrito at Downtown Sub. How’s that for roughing it?

Clouds over the Bosque

Posted on September 23, 2014

As is often the case on late summer afternoons in Santa Fe, I could see the dark rain clouds rolling down from the North, big and bold and pregnant with lightning. They enveloped the aspen trees up by the ski basin and I could only imagine the great tumult and confusion they caused for the birds and late-blooming alpine flowers. But down in the valley, it was still warm from the strong desert sun and rain seemed far away. Sometimes the clouds rush down the mountains, colliding with the warm earth in a sudden burst. But today they seemed to inch their way down, nothing was sudden. They were a reminder of the refreshing rain that we had to look forward to later that day, but there was still time to enjoy the sun.

Galisteo is a little village thirty minutes south of Santa Fe. It sits in a valley, along the bosque, a gallery forest that grows along a small river. It is an oasis with birds, bugs and plants of all kinds. The community is small and tight-knit, filled with artists, doctors, makers, thinkers, gardeners and many dreamers.

Some friends of mine live there, on a piece of land that runs right down to the bosque. Ancient cottonwood trees line the river and creep up to the house. Like most houses in Galisteo, it is an old adobe, with low ceilings and a gentle, warm simplicity that invites deep thought and creativity.

On Friday afternoon, I hopped into my little blue 1984 Subaru and rattled down the Old Pecos Trail, headed for Galisteo. I needed a moment alone, to make art, to pick vegetables in the garden, to listen to the bugs buzz and to enjoy the light of Galisteo. My friends were out-of-town and had offered me their house for moments like this. My box of art supplies was on the back seat, the dark clouds were behind me and I was off.

As I turned off the dirt road into the driveway, I saw two strangers walking down the curvy path along the bosque. They were holding notebooks and their little dog barked when he saw me. They waved and then sat on a bench under the Cottonwood trees and wrote quietly to the sound of the wind.

I let myself into the house. My friend had left me a container of fresh, homemade maple pecan ice cream. I served myself a bowl and stepped out into the sun. I could already smell the rain but it was still hidden behind the trees and the desert plateau. Sitting with my ice cream, I worked on my art, paper cutting and enjoyed the silence.

After a while, I needed to move so I went to the garden to harvest. The perfume of plants saturated in sun is a smell that evokes a deep feeling of contentment. It rolls through me, reminding me of home, of the beauty of hard work, of caring hands, of idealism and of nourishment. I picked and picked-basil, tomatoes, lettuce, beets, carrots, zucchini. Soon the neighbor came out and we laughed with joy about the overabundance of this garden. Then he told me about his work and his childhood. Another neighbor came over looking for a tomato and a bunch of basil for that night’s dinner. He told me the Latin names of the plants and about the different kinds of tarragon.

Galisteo 300x225 Clouds over the Bosque

Finally, the clouds were above the trees, reminding me that it was time to head back to school for the Dean’s lecture. With two big bags of vegetable in my arms, I was reluctant to go, but happy to have been there even for such a short time. As I pulled out of the driveway I waved goodbye to the neighbors. The petrichor was heavy in the air. I had dodged the rain but I could see it blowing over the plane towards Stanley, New Mexico. The plants and dry soil had been renewed by the rain, and so had I.

 

Street Soccer Outside Meem

Posted on September 17, 2014

We had a great time playing intramural street soccer outside Meem Library today. One of my favorite things about playing in the Meem courtyard is that people walking by stop and hang out—we even had a de facto commentator for a while. By the time I had thought to take photos most everyone had left for dinner and reading, but even without the spectators, we were playing pretty well. Come next week at 4:30 if you didn’t make it today!

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2014 09 17 09.49.04 2 1024x576 Street Soccer Outside Meem

Three Photos of How I’ve Spent the Last Three Weeks

Posted on September 16, 2014

I’ll write a real post soon (I’ve already come up with the title: What it’s like to finally be reading Einstein), but at the moment, I need to spend a little more time with said Einstein before my 9am math class tomorrow. So, just a couple of photos from my Instagram feed from the past few weeks. Click a photo to read more or follow me on Instagram @andrewjoelpeters.

 

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Overnight at the Santa Fe Ski Basin. One of the best things about camping in the desert is that you almost never need a tent.

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Mima in the final pages of War and Peace.

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Walking on the outskirts of town.

Academic Journals Publish Over 100 Nonsensical Papers

Posted on May 12, 2014

Oh my, does it get any better than this?

In 2005, three MIT Students developed software that could churn out nonsense disguised as academic papers. According to The Guardian, they wanted to expose how academic conferences charge substantial entry fees but have (laughably) low standards for the papers they accept. Their gibberish paper was accepted.

Since then, the software they used to create the paper has been released online, and is apparently responsible for over 100 papers that have been published by the U.S. Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers. Another 16 were printed by a German publisher, Springer.

Here’s a snippet from one of the original papers, courtesy of MIT News:

Many physicists would agree that, had it not been for congestion control, the evaluation of web browsers might never have occurred. In fact, few hackers worldwide would disagree with the essential unification of voice-over-IP and public-private key pair. In order to solve this riddle, we confirm that SMPs can be made stochastic, cacheable, and interposable.

Of course, there’s a side to all this humor that’s not so innocent or inconsequential. What does it say about the publish or perish academic environment, where researchers are pressured to release papers that no one will read, just to claim the achievement on their résumé? As Slate sums up:

Over the course of the second half of the 20th century, two things took place. First, academic publishing became an enormously lucrative business. And second, because administrators erroneously believed it to be a means of objective measurement, the advancement of academic careers became conditional on contributions to the business of academic publishing.

As Peter Higgs said after he won last year’s Nobel Prize in physics, “Today I wouldn’t get an academic job. It’s as simple as that. I don’t think I would be regarded as productive enough.” Jens Skou, a 1997 Nobel Laureate, put it this way in his Nobel biographical statement: today’s system puts pressure on scientists for, “too fast publication, and to publish too short papers, and the evaluation process use[s] a lot of manpower. It does not give time to become absorbed in a problem as the previous system [did].”

Leave your thoughts in the comments: what’s a better way to evaluate and provide funding for meaningful research?

No Questions at this Time

Posted on May 4, 2014

At. St. John’s we ask a lot of questions, about everything and then some.  What does it mean? How did you interpret that passage? What is God? Does time exist? Can you flesh that out? You get the point. We think constantly, pushing our minds to intellectuals limits and to the point of temporary(?) insanity.

Why do we do it? Well, that question seems to explain, if not answer, itself. We ask because, why not? We ask because we cannot think of a reason not to pursue knowledge and understanding to its or our limits. We push when it seems like there’s nothing left, and we always find more. It’s a goddamn thrilling and totally exhausting experience. At the end of the week the mental drain becomes so ultimate that nothing in the cosmos sounds better than a cosmo and some mindless chatter with your ladies. (This may be specific to me, but you get the picture.)

Yesterday I went out with my aforementioned ladies, to a few galleries and a light show at Santa Fe Institute of Art and Design. It was a stunning occasion, and just the break I needed. At one point, while waiting for the show to begin, we stopped into Eggshell and Walrus, a hipster-like gallery in the plaza, for the opening of a photographer’s latest work. She was fabulous, and some of her nudes really moved me. We made our way through the showing, and then towards the door. As we left, the proprietor turned towards us and asked ,

“Any questions?”

I couldn’t help smiling as I responded.

“Not at this time, but I’ll let you know if anything comes to mind.”

As we walked down the stairs, laughing and loving the beauty that surrounds us, I had a revelation. Nothing is more rewarding then having pushed your mind, your intellectual capacities,  and your ability to question to the point that you truly don’t have any questions. 

 

At least not at this time.

The First Sentence

Posted on April 30, 2014

All you aspiring writers out there will know what I mean—you will perhaps have had something of the same moment yourself. Having just opened a new book, smelled its delicious pages, and run a finger over the font…you read the first sentence. It hits you suddenly, like an electric shock, or a plunge into cold water. That first sentence holds so much power, so much potential. It has at once the promise of a story unfolding and a story all its own. I began the novel Tinkers yesterday evening and after my usual moment of delightful, shivery awe at the first line: “George Washington Crosby began hallucinating eight days before he died.” I was struck by something else entirely.

How exactly does one produce such a sentence? The first sentence of any novel is the most important one, in that it is the make-or-break of whether or not the reader chooses to continue. How does one get there? Is it a moment of brilliance, striking like lightning, suddenly there in your mind’s eye? Does it perhaps come at the end, after the novel is finished, for only then can you know how to begin it? I’ve been trying to write a book since I was 9-years-old, without success, and I want answers to these literary secrets—the method behind the heart-clenching genius of the first sentence.

Help me out in the comments.