Bound for Glory: The Woody Guthrie Thinking Blogger Award

I greatly appreciate James Annan’s awarding me his successorship as curator of  the Woody Guthrie award for multiple reasons. First and foremost, those are in many senses, not least among them the literal, huge shoes to be filling.

I have met many a mensch in my blogging and usenetting career. James and I have been reading one another’s writings for some considerable time now, and in a very real sense we became acquainted, in the 1990s, although it was only recently that we found ourselves in the same city for the first time.

I think in some ways we think alike actually, James and I, but in the end it must be admitted that he thinks alike far better than I do. You may have heard of the rest of the gang, of whom certainly the most famous was the late John McCarthy, intellectually the most rigorous of the early Artificial Intelligence celebrities. When I first showed up, McCarthy was at the center of most of the interesting conversations, often holding forth against various, of course less stellar, intellectual lights with various green inclinations. The barrier to entry to the fray was low, and a few young grad students and young ne’er-do-wells bravely entered it, probably all of us who had friends carrying around McCarthy’s LISP book at the same instant, and so, unlike the hoi-polloi, were somewhat awed by him. But nevertheless we tried to hold our own, and some extraordinary discussions ensued.

Though eventually McCarthy moved on, the vitality of the group hung on. Here’s a thread from 2005 where several of us pitch in, where the clarity and precision of James’ thought is clear for anyone with the wit to see it.

So nowadays, James appears to be more serious, lacking the time or willingness to suffer fools, while some of us stick to it like a bad habit. I didn’t meet him (or Julia) until quite recently. I found conversation with them delightful and amazing if a bit old-fashioned. I think of them as  somehow refugees from a time when science was science and England was England and all was right with the world. This is not to say that they are so opaque as to miss the absurdity of the modern, nor so pleasantly disposed as to be incapable of being sardonic (as the linked example shows). Rather, it is their coping mechanism that is somehow a relic of a more civilized time, when science could actually be conducted with diligence and dignity, chips fall where they may.

I’m pretty confident, to be honest, that James and Woody Guthrie would not have gotten along all that well, either philosophically or culturally, much though I admire both men. It’s nice to have the trophy back on the American grassland where its namesake and his unique voice originated. And I have to admit that, informal a thing as it is, I have coveted it a bit.

But I never expected to receive it from James. While I have never seen much sign of careless reasoning from James, while I find his insight into statistics, stochastic processes, modeling, and the whole world of “uncertainty” hidden under the famed tricolor banner, deep and impeccable, and while I greatly enjoy his company, and indeed we do think alike in some ways, we are not natural philosophical or cultural allies ourselves. To receive an award from someone who agrees with you and wants to advance your agenda is a good thing, but how much more flattering to receive it from someone who has a different point of view on the world. It is an honor for me, but still more it speaks well for James.

Here’s the thing itself:

And indeed, the internet is like a guitar in exactly that way.


  1. Congatulations - though it seemed an inevitability given the quality of thought and writing here.

    Incidentally, I wouldn't normally pick up on minor ellipses in your text, but I am left wondering how else James and Woody wouldn't have gotten on....

  2. Congratulations on a well-deserved honour, Michael.

    This award gives me an occasion to say something that never quite fits in other threads: You have a great talent for distilling complex answers into simple statements. For example, your comment to the effect that "peer review simply decides whether a given paper is worth talking about by a research community" captures so much of that complex process so simply, in a way lay readers can understand without being misled.

  3. Many thanks for that, Ted. That indeed captures what I try to do.

    I don't always succeed but that is the key goal of my writing. I appreciate that you noticed and notice that you appreciated. It made my day.

  4. was science England was Scotland and all was right with the world,,,?

    Thanks for saying nice things.

    I bet you know much more about Woodie Guthrie than I do, you being a bit of an historian and all...I'd barely heard of him and even now I've only read the Wikipedia page.

  5. Yes, well that's what I'm trying to find some way to say about you two. For most people, lacking a concept of who Woody Guthrie was is something I would take take as a flaw in their cultural education, but on yourself it is somehow part of the charm.

  6. Well, you were not Eli's rub it in candidate, but still the right heads are exploding. Which is maybe a bad way of putting it. Better is simply congratulations and a reminder of who Woody was

    Woodie Guthrie was a fighter, a clear thinking fighter, but a fighter none the less. He used words to move mountains and he was always pushing past respectability. He didn't care much for that.

    Live up to that

  7. Thanks for the link (if not the nomination, grumble). Interesting.

    I find it interesting that you also ended up with "Roll on Columbia" as your illustrative song out of Woody's massive oeuvre. Great minds think alike, I guess.

    dhogaza's comment there about the dam is indeed the headscratcher - To someone who sees public discourse as a battle between two opposite poles, history is what seems like a coherent set of ideas in one era always turns out to be a mishmash of incompatible opposites in another. The lesson I take from it is not that one's preferred wing in the present day is the epitome of human development and that the opposite one is its lowest ebb. The lesson I take is that one shouldn't purchase one's opinions wholesale.

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  9. Pingback: The Real Woody Guthrie Prize | Planet3.0

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