Blog Post

Thinking Away from the Net

It?s almost sinful when you?re enjoying your leave as much as I?ve enjoyed this year to then take a vacation. This one pretty much happened by accident. Two years ago, when we participated in the ?Technospheres? SECT Seminar at UCHRI led by Anne Balsamo and David Theo Goldberg, we had to forego our annual week at the beach with friends. That meant that sometime we had to use that week somewhere else or lose it. We had only a narrow window of available times to travel. We looked through a big book of resorts to find someplace that might be available during our window?and ended up booking a week in Madeira. Frequent flyer miles for business class. A room with a view. What could be bad?


Not that we had any deep hankering for Madeira?we knew it was part of Portugal, a vacation spot for retirees from England and the Continent and an "extreme surfing" spot for the younger set (it was easy to tell who was who in the airport). We read a little of the history, bought a few guide books and phrase books, and then packed beach reading. Madeira looked interesting enough, a fine place for a week virtually free and in the quiet storm after the holidays. I packed four books (I didn?t want to disrupt my leave too much): Richard Nisbett?s The Geography of Thought, Maryanne Wolf?s Proust and the Squid, Jeff Hawkins? On Intelligence, and Darwin?s Natural Selection. Here?s the surprise: the vacation turned out to be a lot like the rest of my leave. Low expectations, underscheduled, lots of quiet, not much activity, and utterly delightful.


Madeira is gorgeous and the view from our balcony--see Photo #1--was about as beautiful a seascape as we?d seen anywhere. Le Pestana Grand was a terrific hotel, impeccably run, beautifully maintained, with a magnificent salt water pool outdoors and then an indoor/outdoor salt water pool with jets and things, plus spa, sauna, steam room, all that. Barely at the entrance to our hotel, was a delightful café and food store, Momentos Gourmet, where we began each day with fabulous espresso and scones. They had a fine selection of wonderful Portuguese wines too and we bought a few bottles, some pasta, excellent greens at the local market, and we found ourselves cooking simple meals and eating them on our balcony as the sun set. Our easy days were full of reading and walking. An 11K boardwalk went into the city of Funchal , founded in the sixteenth century, and still awfully quaint with colorful gardens that cling to the steep maze of streets. In the other direction, was a marvelous beach covered in smooth, round grey rocks and looking out to what is purported to be the second tallest cliff leading directly into the sea (the first is in Norway, the travel guides insist). That was most of our days, walking along the sea, one way, then the other, exploring neighborhoods, doing a little walking along the levada (paths along the irrigation canals), but mostly walking up and down the boardwalk along the beach. Here?s another great part of the trip: no internet in the room. There was a connection down in the lobby, and an access so inconvenient I could only see a few words as I typed, and that meant I didn?t do much of anything except check in every other day for half an hour, long enough to answer any questions (there may have been one and not a very significant one), and see what an amazing job the whole HASTAC team was doing (no surprise there).


My reading:  I read about the different ways that categories formed in infancy influence different ways of seeing the world (Nisbett and his colleagues conducted studies in the US, Europe, Japan, China, and Korea). I?ve already blogged about the Nisbett, Hawkins, and Wolf books. Someday I?ll write about rereading Darwin, what an entire surprise it is to read Darwin himself, rather than his post-Herbert Spenser, post-E. O. Wilson interpreters. Mostly, I spent a lot of time looking out at the sea and thinking. One topic I?m mulling these days: what it means that, just as Western medicine divides up the body into parts and functions and dysfunctions (otherwise known as ?diseases?), so does neuroscience divide the brain into parts corresponding to specialities (what Hawkins calls "chauvinism") which makes it awfully hard to put it all together again, in order to understand what the brain actually does, in order to know how we know. This is especially the case when the subfields within neuroscience keep the key debates insular, intradisciplinary rather than interdisciplinary. And (I keep harping on this, I know), the requirement of NIH, NIMH, and NSF to stress the ?social significance? or "societal impact" of any funded study means a lot of foolish overgeneralization is being produced by brilliant scientists who are masters at understanding control groups and experimentation but who have not been schooled at all in the principles of argumentation. It's painful (tragic, in a way) to see such brilliant science diminished to the kinds of logical errors that we teach our students about in freshman rhetoric classes. The post-E. O. Wilson version of evolution pushes hard at the ?universal,? at the ?human.? Even those arguing against Wilson, are working within his paradigms, sometimes several scientific iterations and generations removed. Even scientists whose work would seem to have nothing to do with evolution seem to be compelled to soar to an evolutionary explanation in the end. Occam's Razor anyone? Couple that with the sanctity of quantitative data in this historical moment, where so much emphasis is put on refining quantitative methods and so little attention to the qualitative interpretation that comes out of that method, a mismatch of attention with results that are, again, too often laden with the kind of mistakes we warn about in rhetoric classes. Couple that with the national funders? demand for relevance, and you have a lot of marvelous data lost to intellectual claptrap. The data isn?t the problem. It is the foolish generalization that careful data is being mustered to support. Whew. My hot-button issue. You can tell I?m not on calm, quiet, lovely Madeira any more . . .

I want to return there again, just for a moment: In our final night in Madeira, Ken and I had dinner at our breakfast place, Momentos, said goodbye to our new friends there, and wondered if, some day, we might come back to this sweet place with its gracious, respectful, unobtrusive, and entirely engaged Madeirans who somehow manage not to act either obsequious or resentful of the tourists but who absorb them into the rhythms of their island with calm, efficiency, quiet, and dignity. An astonishing feat, when you think about it, and one I?ve never seen managed better. So that was my week away from Cat in the Stack, a week far richer than its seven days, without many accomplishments or high points except for a kind of easeful sociability. And, always, the gorgeous sea.


?ve written a number of times before about thinking on leave, about how amazing the year has become as a result, I?m convinced, of not trying to make it amazing, not aiming too high, not scheduling too much, not traveling too far, not setting too many goals or deadlines. Thinking on vacation worked the same way. Mostly, a lot of strolling (actual and metaphoric). And that?s the moral of this little story of my vacation and what it meant to me. Sometimes, the circumference has to be small for the experience to be deep.


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