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A PIece of Chalk

1. This scribble is my signature on the electronic credit card signature-reader at Duane Reade pharmacy. The device has a pathetic little screen, deeply scratched and scored by previous purchasers. Even if it once worked, it now distorts your signature into something meaningless and indistinguishable from that of other people.(See/hear Paul Simon’s “The Myth of Fingerprints”.) It’s clever alright, but not as good as paper.

2. For the past six weeks I’ve been teaching a course on volatility in a classroom that videotapes your lectures for use by other students who take the course electronically. In order to film it better, the filmers prefer that you write on an electronic tablet that projects what you write onto a screen in front of the class, and also records your writing for the video system. It’s clever, but not as good as an old-fashioned blackboard or greenboard. The old fashioned non-electronic classrooms have greenboards that are layered and slide up and down, so that you can keep going from line to line in a derivation without having to erase. The tablet has only one page available. It’s clever alright, but not as good as chalk.

3. I dislike whiteboards. They’re small, you can’t erase them without some organic solvent, the erasers are pathetically thin and smeary, and unless you spray and scrub there’s always some palimpsestic irremovable remnant of what you wrote there earlier. Plus, or rather minus, the chemical colored markers dry out in a flash. Who hasn’t attended a whiteboard seminar in which the speaker disgustedly tries green marker after red marker after black marker, searching for one that works for longer than a few letters? They’re clever alright, but not as good as chalk.

————–… has a 1905 essay by G. K. Chesterton about white chalk that we had to read in high school. In it he writes that:

“Virtue is not the absence of vices or the avoidance of moral dangers; virtue is a vivid and separate thing, like pain or a particular smell. Mercy does not mean not being cruel, or sparing people revenge or punishment; it means a plain and positive thing like the sun, which one has either seen or not seen.”

This paragraph seems to claim that good things like virtue and mercy are positives, not the absence of negatives. But then, hidden inside there, is the analogy of virtue with pain, a clear negative. Schopenhauer too claimed that happiness is merely the absence of pain. But he wasn’t a positive guy. In Chesterton’s essay he seems to be a power-of-positive thinker, and then there, snuck in without him noticing it, is the grouping of pain and virtue.

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