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Friday, August 15, 2003  

The lights went out at about 4:10 PM—and then they were back on again. They flickered again: two banks of fluorescent lights were on, but another was out. My PC rebooted. I was at the College and I was on the phone with one of my faculty, in the Albany area, and the line went dead. I called him back while my PC restarted and he said that his power was out in Saratoga. That is strange, I said, because the power went out here, too, but was now back on. We hung up and then my PC rebooted again. A maintenance man came in to ask if he could turn off my AC window unit because the power was fluctuating and turning it off would keep the unit from burning up. As he left my office, the lights flickered again and then all the power was off. The hallways were lit only by emergency lights on battery power. This was about 4:20 PM. Ten minutes later I decided to head for home. At the bottom of the hill, workman who were renovating new student housing were outside the building on scaffolding, staring at silent Skilsaws. The traffic lights worked in Herkimer, but I took the Higby Road route through rural landscape and didn't reach traffic again until Utica. No traffic lights worked there, but we all approached the intersections like 4-way stops and that seemed to work without incident. I pulled up at home and the neighbors were outside talking about the power outage. I stayed in the car a few minutes with air-conditioning and the only radio station still in operation; Lara came down to sit in the car with me. The power was out all over the northeast US, they said, from Ottawa to New York City, New Jersey and out to Ohio, Michigan, and including Toronto, Detroit, and Cleveland in the wide path of darkness. There was no reason to think that terrorists had anything to do with it.

Our stove is gas, so I cooked dinner and we listened to the news on a portable radio. After dinner, since it was still light out, I started reading my last remnant of Bukowski, Factotum, and got halfway through it before feeling a need to take a nap. At about 7:45 PM, Lara woke me to tell me that the electricity was back on. She went off to a friend's house and I made coffee and, with lights on, returned to finish off Bukowski.

Dear Heavenly Father, thank you for electricity and the work it does for us—cooling us, giving us light, keeping our communities connected. Help us to appreciate more the wonders of your handiwork in nature and forgive us for our blind ingratitude when it is taken from us, even if briefly. In the name of Jesus we pray. Amen.

posted by Merle Harton Jr. | 1:31 AM |

Wednesday, August 13, 2003  

There is something very exciting about the recall election underway in California. It is not the outrageous cost (estimated at $66 million) or the chance that Gov. Gray Davis might really be recalled: it is the extraordinary number of candidates on the ballot. With 131 already confirmed for the October 7 ballot, this election highlights the wide plurality of interest groups vying for political position. Alas, I predict, it will also underscore the failure of our election system to accommodate anything other than a ho-hum two-party slate of candidates.

At all levels—local, state, federal—it is getting harder to make firm distinctions between the top candidates in what almost always results in a two-party race. The typical complaint about third-party candidacy is that the third party becomes a throw-away vote, and so in the US we keep on confirming Duverger's Law: "the simple-majority single-ballot system favours the two-party system." (See Maurice Duverger's Political Parties: Their Organisation and Activity in the Modern State. London: Methuen, 1956.) Even our electoral college fails to defeat Duverger's Law, thus rendering it inevitable that voters will go down the path of least resistance, often toward a choice between two undesirables.

This will never change until we rethink our usual voting systems. Personally, I favor the method proposed by the 18th century mathematician Marquis de Condorcet. In the Condorcet Method of voting, voters rank the candidates in the order of preference. For quick reference to an online resource favoring this voting method (within the context of competing election theories), see See also "May the Best Man Lose" in Discover Magazine (vol. 21 no. 11, November 2000) for a concise discussion of the math involved in the election process.

posted by Merle Harton Jr. | 5:21 PM |

Monday, August 11, 2003  

There is a difference between genuine redemption—being freed from sin and the consequences of sin—and the mere feeling of redemption, a sensation of freedom achieved by purchasing one's self-worth through something other than Christ. Perhaps it is a Western cultural phenomenon that one can be "redeemed" (i.e., feel redeemed) through art, literature, odd sexual expression, a successful career, wealth—I guess the list is very long. Is this not unlike the Western obsession for taste? The food is appealing, and it smells and tastes good, but it might not be healthy for you. It can have all the feeling of healthy food, even though it is not at all nutritious.

posted by Merle Harton Jr. | 12:34 AM |

Sunday, August 10, 2003  

We value many things. Some things we value because they are useful to us—they increase our property, fill our barns, satisfy our prospects, or serve as means to ends. We value houses because they shelter us; we value clothes because they cover our nakedness; we value automobiles because they get us to and from work, labor from which we derive money to buy homes, clothes, and food for our bodies and families. Some things we value simply because they excite in us an "aesthetic attitude." Some such things, exciting in us an aesthetic attitude, attract us or cause us to flee. What is beautiful we are attracted to; what is ugly is repugnant to us and repels us.

What is an aesthetic attitude? I did not say that the value lay in a feeling or an emotion or in some special sense (although the aesthetic attitude may indeed involve any or all of these). Rather, there is a certain willingness to make pronouncements about beauty and ugliness of the object under consideration. The object can be a poem, a painting, a movie, an artifact of intricate design, a sculpture, a song, a play, a photograph, another human, an animal, a flower—really, the list is endless.

Do we always pronounce things that give us an aesthetic attitude "works of art"? It is of course possible to do this, and without violating our linguistic conventions, but we don't always do this. Surely the aesthetic attitude is a presupposition of our willingness to pronounce something a work of art. When I approach something that is for me beautiful, I can say "That is beautiful" without at the same time having to call it a "work of art." My sense of the beautiful and the ugly—what I am calling the aesthetic attitude—is both a psychological and a logical precedent. Perhaps this is unique to the human being. We can approach anything (be it of personal manufacture or of natural origin) and be ready to evince an aesthetic attitude. Such is our ability to stand in awe before a majestic oak, impressive and gnarled from age, and use the same evaluative language we would use for the small Bonsai, or a marble sculpture, or a sharp, new concept car. Whether these are "works of art" is irrelevant to our native capacity for the aesthetic attitude.

Once we pronounce something a work of art, however, we are then trapped in a question that has plagued the study of aesthetics and the philosophy of art—what is a work of art? But that is an issue logically separate from the aesthetic attitude.

posted by Merle Harton Jr. | 3:40 AM |
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