Proto-environmentalism in Uncle Vanya

One of the many stunningly arresting passages from David Mamet’s adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in which Astrov says (pp.16-17):

You understand? Yes, sometimes we cut wood out of necessity, but why be wanton? Why? Our forests fall before the ax. Billions of trees. All perishing. The homes of birds and beasts being laid waste. The level of the rivers falls, and they dry up. And sublime landscapes disappear, never to return, because man hasn’t sense enough to bend down and pick fuel up from the ground. Isn’t this so? What must man be, to destroy what he never can create? God’s given man reason and power of thought, so that he may improve his lot. What have we used these powers for but waste? We have destroyed the forest, our rivers run dry, our wildlife is all but extinct, our climate ruined, and every day, every day, wherever one looks, our life is more hideous[….]I see. You think me amusing. These seem to you the thoughts of some poor eccentric. Perhaps, perhaps it’s naive too on my part. Perhaps you think that, but I pass by the woods I’ve saved from the ax. I hear the forest sighing…I planted that forest. And I think: perhaps things may be in our power. You understand. Perhaps the climate itself is in our control. Why not? And if, in one thousand years, man is happy, I will have played a part in that happiness. A small part. I plant a birch tree. I watch it take root, it grows, it sways in the wind, and I feel such pride….

When I first heard Larry Pine deliver this magnificent proto-environmental monologue in Vanya on 42nd Street, I found it hard to believe that Chekhov’s words, which resonate so well in contemporary ears, were written over 100 years ago in 1896 — long before our current debates over global warming and SUVs.

What a good docent can do

This afternoon, I had a wonderful time at the SF Asian Art Museum with my friends Walt, Ginny, and Lily. Because I have a contributing level membership, I’m able to take up to 3 adults with me free of charge every time I go. The big plus of doing so is the companionship of friends who are interested in the museum and Asian art. One thing I haven’t worked out though is how to keep myself from having to see the same pieces over and over again, or at least in the same cursory, overview fashion. Next time, I might go by myself in the morning and meet friends for lunch and an afternoon jaunt through the galleries.

Not that I can’t benefit from such repeated surveys of the core collection — as I learned today. When the four of us arrived at the upper floor where the suggested sequence begins, a docent by the name of Mabel was guiding a group of two museum visitors. Lily and I joined in, though we were a bit shy since it wasn’t totally clear why the tour was for and who was included. I’m very glad that we fell in with the tour, as apparently were the dozens of folks who congregated along the way.

I learned quite a bit about every piece that Mabel talked us through — and I was amazed that I could have missed such basic and interesting things in previous visits. I have been reading the tags, used the audio-video equipment, borrowed books to do background reading — and have seen many of the pieces four, five, or six times already. But it wasn’t until our enthusiastic, knowledgeable, engaging docent pointed what in retrospect seems to be obvious, that a lot of the pieces and connections among pieces came alive.

So the next time I visit the AAM, I’ll tag along with a docent. I hope to find another tour led by Mabel or one of her equally qualified colleagues.

Annoying computer problems

I was all set for a nice relaxing evening away from my computer when I discovered tonight that my notebook computer is acting up. Thanks, Microsoft. I should learn to not stress about it but it’s not so easy.

At any rate, I will turn it off and go to bed. I’ll try to make sure that the very least, it doesn’t ruin my night of sleep!

Buy me lunch and I’ll give you a book or CD

I own so many books that I will never read but find it difficult to get rid of any of my books. I often think about what I’d actually miss if my house burned down. Another way to ask the question is what would I grab if my house were on fire. Simple: my computer (thankfully, a notebook computer), my wallet and passport, and maybe some pictures. All my books could burn without any long-term loss. In other words, the vast majority of my books sit around, gathering dust, weighing me down — much like lugging around an extra ten pounds of fat all the time.

I resolved that I would start shedding my collection with my set of science books. On Sunday, as I was about to head off to church, I reached for the first such book I could find: From Physical Concept to Mathematical Structure: An Introduction to Theoretical Physics . Instead of steeling my resolve to simplify my life, alas, holding and paging through the book made me relive some of the longings that prompted the purchase of such books in the first place.

Various schemes have crossed my mind for getting rid of my books. I’ve toyed with selling them for money, to places like Maybe I would lend them all out. As Chris pointed out yesterday, there is even a Distributed Library Project that helps people in the SF Bay Area share their books and videos with each other. Perhaps, I would just give away the books, drop them off at locations I publicize so that others can find them (as in the bookcrossing model).

The latest idea that I’ve come up is this: if there is someone who could provide a good home for one of my books or CD and who would take me out for lunch to convince me of that fact, I would give that person the book or CD in question. I figure that the Berkeley campus is full of people who could be simultaneously appreciative recipients of my books and stimulating lunch companions. I’m not sure exactly how to pull this off though. Matching people to books is not going to be easy.

This process struck me as ideal. Sure, I can make some money from reselling books — but I don’t really want to manage the process, quite frankly. I want my books to circulate and I love great conversation with smart people. It is surprisingly difficult to meet people from different fields on the campus, however. I want to find some way to do so in a fun way.

BTW, this type of offer extends to my friends too! If you see a book that I own and can make a good case for why I should give it to you — and if I’m ready to part with it — then take me out for lunch and the book will be yours.

The straight and narrow

Guide it when it is yet a seedling —
And it will turn into a mighty oak,
Straight, tall, and upright.

Neglect the sapling when you
  had your chance
And you will rue the day
  of your folly.

It is never too late
Unless it is too late.
Grace and mercy


Oh, the life of an independent scholar

It’s 11:23 pm — and I’m tired. I was hoping to write a piece about independent scholarship today. Instead, I will just point you to a piece I wrote three years ago: Christian Independen Scholars. I’m going to copy the piece over and drop it into my blog (a crass type of reuse):

The first time I ever came across the idea of independent scholarship was in high school, when I stumbled upon Ronald Gross’ Independent Scholar’s Handbook. Although I had every intention of becoming a professor of physics (an institutional scholar), I resonated with the book’s image of men and women so committed to the act of learning and research that they would pursue scholarship even without pay. Several years later, as an undergraduate, I became a Christian believer. Since then, I have wrestled to bring together the life of the mind and the life of the spirit. (This challenge often goes under the name of “integrating faith and learning” in intellectual evangelical circles.)

Integrating faith and learning has been a challenge for me (and many fellow Christian scholars) partly because how marginalized the Christian voice has become in the modern university, dismissed as being irrelevant, anti-intellectual, and/or oppressive (See, for example, George Marsden’s Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship.) At the University of California, Berkeley, I have known only a handful of professors and staff, and a small minority of graduate students who are professing Christians. Many of us struggle with understanding how to fit our understanding of the world together with the specifics of our fields of study. Indeed, we feel very much like independent scholars even in the midst of being at a university.

Hence, I think that many of the challenges that face independent scholars (who are can be marginalized from the academy) are the very ones that face Christian scholars today (who, because of their beliefs, are often on the margins of the academy). Of course, Christians are not unique — many others are also on the margins — but being a Christian, I have a special interest in that community.

My hope, therefore, is that this online community will be useful to Christian scholars, especially as we discuss issues of particular interest to them. My hope is also that all participants, whether professing Christians or not, will be able to helpful and respectful to each other as we learn together.

I stayed up late — so I will cheat the blog clock

While I was updating my work blog, the clock ticked past midnight before I had a chance to write my daily entry for Monday, August 25, 2003. I will yield to the temptation to adjust the timestamp for this entry so that the piece will land on Monday. (I worked hard enough, I deserve it, no one will ever notice. Oh forget it.)

Today was one those extremely rich and fulfilling days that gave me surprisingly little time to write. And as a blogger, I get frustrated. Can’t I have days that are full of life away from the computer and on the computer all in the same day? Apparently no for me — at least not regularly. I have already drifted way past my scheduled bedtime to write more. It’s quiet and I’m drawn to write more. I’m tired, though, and am liable to write drivel.

But let me share one piece of exciting news which I’ll elaborate tomorrow. Ronald Gross, the author of The Independent Scholar’s Handbook, found me through my Independent Scholars site that I had set up three years ago (but abandoned). More tomorrow….

Do friends let their friends skim?

I struggle with the question of how much time to put into any given piece of writing I come across on the Web. Blogging has helped me to focus my mind. I’ve managed to accumulate huge lists of interesting references; over time though, these lists become more of a burden than a blessing, something I sometimes feel compelled to organize rather than to just throw away.

Now, before I throw a book or article on my “interesting list”, I try to force myself to annotate the item by squeezing out an answer to questions like “Why do I care about this piece? What do I expect to get out of this? What do I hope to accomplish by keeping it on my list?” At the very least, the connections and context I’m forcing myself to build around the item will make it easier to tie the article in with everything else that I care about.

So last night, as I did a google news search on Bach in one of many moments of distraction, I came across the piece to which I referred on my blog. I skimmed the piece and reflected quickly on what I cared about. My little speed-writing exercise produced a little blurb that I found sufficiently satisfying to share on my blog.

When I read Lloyd’s reaction to the article this morning, I was 1) glad that I had made the effort to share the reference because 2) Lloyd, in actually reading the piece more closely than I, found something that I just totally missed — a priceless line about “slump in amateur singing throughout the world with the glorious exception of the Philippines and some Hispanic countries…” If those words had actually registered on my mind, I would surely have commented on them. So thanks, Lloyd, for bringing them to our attention and enriching our collective understanding and enjoyment of our reading.

Nextbus on wireless phones

Krista’s second post on Nextbus inspired me to check out the new service — slick. She wrote, “Well, anyway, I’m getting more curious to see how well it works–now and in the future. Maybe I should sit on the street corner some day and time how often it comes.”

Perhaps my comment here will prompt her to start a blog on “the problem of ccomputer-dependency in our culture, and to advocate for solutions and alternatives”, but it occurred to me that my trusty wireless phone/web browser Treo 300 could be used to access the info through the wireless access functionality of Nextbus. I tried it out and it seems to work. (Actually, this is quite cool because Nextbus will be immensely useful through a wireless device.)

Let’s see when Nextbus makes it to the AC transit routes I actually use….