Wednesday, March 12, 2014
Eric Schlosser in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:
The Mark 36 was a second-generation hydrogen bomb. It weighed about half as much as the early thermonuclears—but 10 times more than the new, sealed-pit bombs that would soon be mass-produced for SAC [the Strategic Air Command]. It was a transitional weapon, mixing old technologies with new, featuring thermal batteries, a removable core, and a contact fuze for use against underground targets. The nose of the bomb contained piezoelectric crystals, and when the nose hit the ground, the crystals deformed, sending a signal to the X-unit, firing the detonators, and digging a very deep hole. The bomb had a yield of about 10 megatons. It was one of America’s most powerful weapons.
A B-47 bomber was taxiing down the runway at a SAC base in Sidi Slimane, Morocco, on January 31, 1958. The plane was on ground alert, practicing runway maneuvers, cocked but forbidden to take off. It carried a single Mark 36 bomb. To make the drill feel as realistic as possible, a nuclear core had been placed in the bomb’s in-flight insertion mechanism. When the B-47 reached a speed of about 20 miles an hour, one of the rear tires blew out. A fire started in the wheel well and quickly spread to the fuselage. The crew escaped without injury, but the plane split in two, completely engulfed in flames. Firefighters sprayed the burning wreckage for 10 minutes—long past the time factor of the Mark 36—then withdrew. The flames reached the bomb, and the commanding general at Sidi Slimane ordered that the base be evacuated immediately. Cars full of airmen and their families sped into the Moroccan desert, fearing a nuclear disaster.
And another 3QD friend also died yesterday. He too will be missed. This is Matthew Rosenberg in the New York Times:
Two men shot a Swedish reporter on a crowded street in Kabul on Tuesday, in a rare assassination-style killing of a Westerner that raised new questions about the safety of the large international presence expected to remain here after American-led combat forces depart this year.
The reporter, Nils Horner, 51, a longtime foreign correspondent for Swedish Radio, was shot two blocks from the wreckage of a restaurant where suicide attackers killed 21 people, most of them foreigners, in January. Col. Najibullah Samsour, a senior police official, said that Mr. Horner was standing outside another restaurant talking to security guards when a pair of men in what was described as traditional clothing walked up.
One of the men then drew a pistol and fired a shot into the journalist’s face, Colonel Samsour said. The men fled, and no arrests had been made by day’s end. A spokesman for the Taliban, Zabiullah Mujahid, denied that the group was involved, and no claim of responsibility was reported.
Another Afghan security official said the killer’s pistol was fitted with a silencer.
The daylight attack was the first time in years that a Westerner appeared to have been specifically targeted and killed in Kabul.
3QD friend Matthew Power died yesterday. He will be missed. This is Noam Cohen in the New York Times:
Matthew Power, a celebrated journalist whose writing took readers down the Mississippi with modern-day hobos, to the scenes of international disasters and inside the Lower East Side apartment where Allen Ginsberg spent his last days, died on Monday in Uganda. He was 39.
He was reporting on an explorer who is walking the length of the Nile when he was overcome by the heat and died, presumably of heatstroke, his wife, Jessica Benko, said.
A contributing writer at Harper’s Magazine, Mr. Power also wrote for other publications, including GQ, The New York Times and Men’s Journal, which had sent him to Uganda. His articles were in annual anthologies like “Best American Travel Writing” and “Best American Spiritual Writing,” and he was a three-time finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists in international reporting.
For two Harper’s articles he visited the scene of incidents abroad that captured the attention of most Americans only briefly: the destruction of Buddha statues by the Taliban in 2000, and the collapse of a mammoth garbage dump in Quezon City, the Philippines, during heavy rains, leading to the deaths of hundreds of people living in shanties nearby.
It’s hard to shake the feeling, after reading the first volume of Robert Frost’s letters, recently published by Harvard University Press, of having come to know him somehow less than you would have after reading just the poems from those years. How could this be? Factually invaluable, the letters show much of Frost’s tortuous road from ambition to accomplishment, from newspaperman, factory worker, two-time Ivy League dropout, and middling poultryman to transatlantically acclaimed nature poet. But the more you learn about his personal life, the more it can obscure his inner life. You begin to lose him as the man becomes mannered, the private man becomes a public man, and his privacy retains its intimate vulnerability almost only in his very public poems.
Take, for example, “The Road Not Taken,” a poem written during the early excitement of his fame. Frost read it at the Phi Beta Kappa induction at Tufts in 1915, in what was likely the first of countless ingenuous ceremonial botchings of the deeply vexed and mischievous poem, only to complain to his dear friend Edward Thomasthat no one had gotten the joke. The last stanza (“the sigh”) “was a mock sigh, hypocritical for the fun of the thing,” he wrote. “I doubt if I wasnt [sic] taken pretty seriously. Mea culpa.”
And yet even this admission, written in earnest to Frost’s closest friend, obscures as much as it reveals.
The modern conversation on animal consciousness proceeds, with the rest of the Enlightenment, from the mind of René Descartes, whose take on animals was vividly (and approvingly) paraphrased by the French philosopher Nicolas Malebranche: they “eat without pleasure, cry without pain, grow without knowing it; they desire nothing, fear nothing, know nothing.” Descartes’ term for them was automata—windup toys, like the Renaissance protorobots he’d seen as a boy in the gardens at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, “hydraulic statues” that moved and made music and even appeared to speak as they sprinkled the plants. This is how it was with animals, Descartes held. We look at them—they seem so full of depth, so like us, but it’s an illusion. Everything they do can be attached by causal chain to some process, some natural event. Picture two kittens next to each other, watching a cat toy fly around, their heads making precisely the same movements at precisely the same time, as if choreographed, two little fleshy machines made of nerves and electricity, obeying their mechanical mandate.
Descartes’ view drew immediate controversy. Writers such as the naturalist John Ray, in The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of the Creation(1691), protested on behalf of “the common sense of mankind” that if “beasts were automata or machines, they could have no sense, or perception of pleasure, or pain…which is contrary to the doleful significations they make when beaten, or tormented.”
Though his life was tragically cut short at the height of his creative powers, W. G. Sebald has been steadily churning out work since his death. Sebald’s posthumous publications have, by and large, followed a now-standard pattern: first were the works already or nearly finished and ready for print (On the Natural History of Destruction, After Nature), then the uncollected essays which offered polished, self-contained pieces (Campo Santo), then the book of interviews, along with the books of minor poetry for which he was not primarily known (Unrecounted, Across the Land and the Water). This last, released in 2012, would seem to have been the beginning of the end of this vast reserve—Sebald’s minor poetry is interesting at times, but far below the quality of his prose works or his masterful poetic work After Nature. Reaching the end of a finite supply, it would seem that the only place left to go would be to journals, fragments of essays, or other ephemera.
Instead, 2014 sees the release in the United States of A Place in the Country: a full prose work published originally in German in 1998, between The Rings of Saturn andAusterlitz—in other words, at the height of Sebald’s literary career. The book is a series of essays on five writers (Johann Peter Hebel, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Eduard Mörike, Gottfried Keller, and Robert Walser) and one painter (Jan Peter Tripp), the product of what he describes, in the foreword, as an “unwavering affection for Hebel, Keller and Walser,” which in turn “gave me the idea that I should pay my respects to them before, perhaps, it may be too late.” A haunting phrase, given his death only three years after the book’s publication—but one that also accurately sums up the admiration and homage that runs through the book, a writer engaging with his forebears and tracing his own literary genealogy through the past two centuries.
I made my song a coat
Covered with embroideries
Out of old mythologies
From heel to throat;
But the fools caught it,
Wore it in the world's eyes
As though they'd wrought it.
Song, let them take it,
For there's more enterprise
In walking naked.
Willam Butler Yeats
Keith Gessen in The Guardian:
Grigory Rasputin was a Siberian peasant turned holy man with incredible charisma, bad teeth, questionable hygiene (he claimed that he once went six months without changing his underwear), and a strong animal odour – like a goat's (according to the French ambassador). He used these various attributes to ingratiate himself with the royal family of Russia and become, for about a year toward the end of the Romanov dynasty, the de facto power behind the throne. While doing all this he seduced thousands of women and still managed to get stone drunk several nights a week. It's an inspiring story, though it ends badly, and no wonder that the expatriated French actor Gérard Depardieu has played Rasputin in not one but two biopics in the last two years.
...Rasputin took advantage of the Russian tradition of the wandering peasant holy man, walking from village to village and reputed to have a direct connection with God (even Tolstoy, toward the end of his life, visited one). He also exploited the loneliness and isolation of the last Romanov couple, Nicholas and Alexandra – the tsar a polite, indecisive man and the tsarina a German-born and English-bred granddaughter of Queen Victoria ("The tsarina was as happy ordering chintzes from the latest Maples catalogue as she was cultivating mystics," writes Welch), who never quite adjusted to Russian life or shed her accent (she communicated with Nicholas in English). And, finally, he made use of the vexed condition of the couple's son, Alexis, the heir to the Russian throne, who had inherited (from Queen Victoria) a terrible disease: haemophilia. Nicholas and Alexandra kept vigilant watch over the boy, employed two sharp-eyed sailors to accompany him everywhere and commandeered an army of doctors to try to make him well. None of them could do anything; as Welch points out, they may easily have done more harm than good, prescribing, for example, the new wonder drug aspirin, which we now know is an anti-coagulant, the exact opposite of what a haemophiliac needs. The disease was torture for both the boy and his mother. During bleeding episodes Alexis would suffer excruciating pain, and his mother, an empress but also, she knew, the carrier of the disease, would sit by him, helpless.
Erika Check Hayden in Nature:
Sequencing a person’s entire genome can reveal potentially life-saving information about the presence of mutations associated with diseases. But there are drawbacks — a study published this week finds that current sequencing technology does not always capture the complete genome, and illustrates the challenges of interpreting what the results mean for an individual patient1. “There are many steps that have to be worked out to ensure that we gain the most health-care benefit,” says William Feero, a physician at the Maine Dartmouth Family Medicine Residency in Fairfield, Maine, who was not involved in the study. Researchers at Stanford University in California, examined whether a whole-genome scan could identify disease risks in healthy people — a use of the technology that is within financial reach as the cost of sequencing drops. The team of doctors, genetic counsellors and scientists report today in the Journal of the American Medical Association that it sequenced the whole genomes of 12 people with no diagnosed genetic diseases, looking for genetic mutations that might cause disease. Every patient was found to have 2–6 such mutations, and one woman found out that she carried a mutation in the gene BRCA1, which is linked to greater risk of ovarian and breast cancer. She opted to have her ovaries removed as a result.
But the researchers, led by cardiologists Euan Ashley and Thomas Quertermous, also found that between the two genome sequencing services they used — Illumina, based in San Diego, California, and Complete Genomics, based in Mountain View, California — 10–19% of genes known to be linked to disease were not adequately sequenced. So doctors might have missed finding harmful mutations in these genes. The two services also disagreed two-thirds of the time about the presence of a particularly worrisome type of mutation — the addition or deletion of parts of genes linked to disease. Deciding what these results meant for patients was not easy. The study clinicians often disagreed about what patients should do in light of the findings about their genomes — for instance, whether a particular mutation meant that the patient should undergo further testing.
Tuesday, March 11, 2014
John Kaag in Harper's:
Dozens of times over the past four years, I’ve made the drive from my home in Boston to a long-forgotten library in the middle of New Hampshire, accessible only by dirt road and hidden behind White Mountain pines. It once belonged to William Ernest Hocking, the last great idealist philosopher at Harvard, and though it contains irreplaceable volumes, it was known until recently only to a few of Hocking’s relatives and one very fastidious thief. And me.
I had come to Chocorua, New Hampshire, in 2009, to help plan a conference on William James. But I’m not a particularly dedicated philosopher and in general bore easily, so I soon found myself elsewhere: specifically, considering the virtues of theSchnecken at a German pastry shop. And this is where I found, browsing the scones, a man of ninety, wiry and sharp, who introduced himself as Bun Nickerson. Nickerson moved slowly, like most old philosophers do, but unlike most old philosophers his hobble wasn’t a function of longstanding inactivity. Instead, he explained, it was from farming and professional skiing.
I’m normally hesitant to say what I do for a living — “I teach philosophy” is often prelude to awkward silence — but Nickerson found my profession intriguing, because he’d grown up in a little house on a corner of a philosopher’s land. “Doctor Hocking’s land,” as he put it. Today, philosophers have arguments, office hours, books, articles, committee meetings, and the occasional student. Few of us have “land.” Nickerson made Hocking’s sound impressive and permanent, like the proper realm of a philosopher king: one stone manor house, six smaller summer cottages, two large barns, and one fishing pond with three beaver hutches, all situated on 400 acres of field and forest. Most seductively, Nickerson mentioned a library. Getting to see it struck me as a very good reason to skip out on my conference-planning responsibilities, so I climbed into Nickerson’s pickup and we bumped our way up the hill.
Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis in Aeon:
What is music? There’s no end to the parade of philosophers who have wondered about this, but most of us feel confident saying: ‘I know it when I hear it.’ Still, judgments of musicality are notoriously malleable. That new club tune, obnoxious at first, might become toe-tappingly likeable after a few hearings. Put the most music-apathetic individual in a household where someone is rehearsing for a contemporary music recital and they will leave whistling Ligeti. The simple act of repetition can serve as a quasi-magical agent of musicalisation. Instead of asking: ‘What is music?’ we might have an easier time asking: ‘What do we hear as music?’ And a remarkably large part of the answer appears to be: ‘I know it when I hear it again.’
Psychologists have understood that people prefer things they’ve experienced before at least since Robert Zajonc first demonstrated the ‘mere exposure effect’ in the 1960s. It doesn’t matter whether those things are triangles or pictures or melodies; people report liking them more the second or third time around, even when they aren’t aware of any previous exposure. People seem to misattribute their increased perceptual fluency – their improved ability to process the triangle or the picture or the melody – not to the prior experience, but to some quality of the object itself. Instead of thinking: ‘I’ve seen that triangle before, that’s why I know it,’ they seem to think: ‘Gee, I like that triangle. It makes me feel clever.’ This effect extends to musical listening. But evidence has been accumulating that something more than the mere exposure effect governs the special role of repetition in music.
It’s clear from Jameson’s latest book that a great deal remains to be said about the emergence and dissolution of the classical realist novel. Concepts like Auerbach’s mimesis and Bakhtin’s dialogism have hardly exhausted the problem, nor have more strictly historical accounts seeking to situate this hybrid form along a spectrum of modes and genres running from romance and epic to melodrama and modernism. Moreover, as Jameson recalls, discussions of realism sadly tend to get bogged down in narrow-minded aesthetic partisanship—realism, for or against?—as if the form could somehow intrinsically reinforce the dominant ideology through its apparent reification of existing reality, or, on the contrary, necessarily point toward the future by capturing the clashing forces working to undermine the status quo. Refreshingly, Jameson here tries to steer clear of any normative assessment and seeks to understand realism instead as a unique and fragile aesthetic constellation that flared up briefly within a larger dialectical movement, which then also ended up dissolving the form.
The final years of the 17th century and the early years of the 18th were turbulent times in England. The fate of the crown itself seemed to be in the balance, as did those of other institutions, Parliament and the Church of England. Yet, oddly, this period is also known as the Augustan Age of English literature—oddly, because the label connotes classical balance and proportion. And indeed such qualities are to be found in the period’s architecture as well as in the heroic couplets of its most accomplished poet, Alexander Pope. But expressions of neoclassical order were hard won, and for an idea of the challenges and complications of this decisive period in the evolution of the British polity, the life and works of Jonathan Swift are a very good place to start. Swift is not just the author of Gulliver’s Travels, though that most original and very alarming treatise on human nature would have been enough to make his name. He was also the author of a good deal of commentary, much of it bitingly satirical, on the manners and methods of the public scene in which he himself was immersed, partly in hopes of preferment. The fact that when these hopes were dashed he turned out to be an Irish patriot is only one of the many paradoxes of a career and a personality in which balance, order, establishment, and affiliation were problematic categories.
If you want to get the most out of the 2014 Whitney Biennial, start on the fourth floor and spend most of your time there. This portion of the exhibition — there are three, each with its own curator — was organized by the Chicago artist-gallerist Michelle Grabner, and includes the show’s visual and material high point: a central gallery crammed with colorful painting, sculpture, and handmade objects as well as ceramics and textiles. It’s wildly overfilled, radiating heat and energy. The prehistoric-like wrecked giant ceramic ashtray-objects of Sterling Ruby are maybe my favorite objects in the show; I love the chaotically woven two-sided paintings of Dona Nelson, the glimmering chain-metal beaded-curtain adorned with antique tools by Joel Otterson, the material-poetry of the collaboration between Amy Sillman and Pam Lins. There are more than a few duds, and the usual buddy-buddy inclusions of friends and former students — everyone does that, not just Grabner — but if you wander through the rest of this floor, you’ll find other artists well worth looking at.
And, apart from scattered pockets in the rest of the show, it’s the last blast of visual and material juice that you’ll get in this optically starved, aesthetically buttoned-up, pedantic biennial.
Bill Fletcher, Jr. in AlterNet:
It has become almost a cliché to speak of Gaza, the Palestinian territories on the Mediterranean controlled by Hamas and blockaded by Israel, as the largest open-air prison on the planet. Yet I am not sure I will any longer agree with the limits of that characterization. The Palestinians are all in prison. While Gaza may be a maximum security facility, the West Bank is nevertheless a prison. So little is actually controlled by Palestinians despite the formal notion of autonomy. Israeli military incursions can and do happen at any time convenient for the Israeli government and its military occupation. Palestinians are prohibited from using certain roads. The ominous and illegal separation wall, better known as the apartheid wall, spreads like a disease across the land, dividing the Palestinians not as much from the Israelis as from their own land.
For all of that, it is the sense of permanent insecurity and maximum humiliation that reinforces the feeling one gets of being in a prison. There are checkpoints at seemingly every turn; one is subjected to being stopped at any time. There is an attitude of arrogance and contempt on the part of most of the Israeli military personnel. With their submachine guns and their insistence on using Hebrew in communicating with the Arabic-speaking Palestinians, they invade the space of the indigenous population, always reminding them that there is no such thing as privacy in the Occupied Territories.
Jordan Michael Smith in The Christian Science Monitor:
Okay, that last name might not be as familiar as the others. But the details of the crime are almost certainly known to you. In New York City in 1964, the 29-year-old Genovese was stabbed to death in three separate attacks as 38 neighbors watched and declined to get involved. At least, that is commonly reported version of the story. But Kevin Cook explains in his new book Kitty Genovese why this simplified version of the story is not the true one. Cook, a freelance journalist, has accessed for his book the detective’s reports of their preliminary interviews with Genovese’s neighbors. He found that, rather than including 38 eyewitnesses, the police log contained 38 entries. Writes Cook: “It was a roundup of interviews with many of Kitty’s neighbors, not a definitive accounting of anything.” Far fewer eyewitnesses actually existed, and those that did were generally fearful of getting involved, rather than indifferent to the woman. The popular figure of 38 resulted from a clerical error provided to the police chief, who passed it along to the New York Times reporter who made the case famous. It was a consequential mistake. The murder shocked Americans, who were horrified and baffled that so many onlookers refrained from intervening to assist the woman. The idea of 38 people so self-obsessed and alienated from their neighbors reflected the anxieties of many citizens, who saw rising crime, feared the Civil Rights Movement, and felt alone in an urbanized America.
CBS’s Mike Wallace narrated a segment on “The Apathetic Americans.” The murder spurred officials to create the 911 emergency-phone system. States created Good Samaritan laws. Victim-compensation laws, witness-assistance programs, neighborhood watch groups – the list of public policy changes that resulted from reaction to the case is extraordinary. Equally more remarkable has been the lasting influence the murder – particularly the false figure reported – has had in academia. One professor tells Cook that the murder is “the most-cited incident in social psychology literature until the September 11 attacks.” Cook manages to maintain an impressive level of tension in a book about a half-century old case about which everyone thinks they know the outcome. He assumes, surely correctly, that while many readers may have heard of the case, they don’t recall the specifics aside from the number of eyewitnesses. So he treats Genovese’s murder like something of a mystery – we may know that she was killed, but not why.
And who was Kitty Genovese, anyway? She was, in fact, a lesbian, a fact that likely would have drastically affected the public’s response to the crime, had it been reported at the time.
What Makes a Poem
and the manner of its malting
its standing up to the wind
its sprouting and drying
its gradual ripening
and the manner of its flowing
traces of peat and mineral
its floral and honey notes
The mash tun
and the manner of the yeasting
where malt and water mix
starch turning to sugar
the draining of the wort
and the manner of its tending
its shape—column or pot—
the ancient skill of the coppersmith
and the manner of its keeping
the flavors of the wood
the subtle art of the cooper
its tempering of sublimities
and the manner of its passing
of its passing
and the manner of his knowing
the manner of his loving
the grain, the water, the copper, the wood,
and the slow ferment of years.
Albert Sun in The New York Times:
For years, health advocates have been telling us to move more. But just how much more? A multitude of activity tracking devices now promise to answer that question. Generally, these digital monitors, which can be worn around the wrist, on collars and belts, even as jewelry, record how and how much you move throughout the day. Some aim to do a great deal more. Makers of the devices have begun intensive campaigns aimed at convincing the large population of “worried well” consumers to get wired and start recording their every move. How well do these work? Curious about the benefits and limits, I’ve been testing as many different models as possible — wearing them day and night for six months, 11 models in all, sometimes four at once. I’ve learned a great deal about these gadgets. And about myself.
I’d thought I was a fairly active person: I bike to work most days and hit the gym or get other physical activity two or three times a week. The trackers, on the other hand, showed that aside from those spates of exercise, for the vast majority of each day I was completely sedentary. But that may not be the whole story. Activity trackers typically combine a wearable device with a website or smartphone app to view data collected about your movements. The goal is to measure not only your steps from the parking lot to your desk, but also your sedentary down time at work or in front of a television, bursts of intense exercise and even your sleep habits — all to create a complete picture of your most and least healthful behaviors. Some models also offer tips and set goals based on your data.
Monday, March 10, 2014
Alphabetical list of nominated blog names followed by the blog post title:
(Please report any problems with links in the comments section below.)
For prize details, click here.
- 3 Quarks Daily: Can America Survive What Our 1% And Their Useful Idiots, The GOP And The Dems, Have Done To Us?
- 3 Quarks Daily: Enduring Sharedom
- Abandoned Footnotes: Francisco Franco, Robust Action, and the Power of Non-Commitment
- Another Amateur Economist: Walmart, Oligopoly and Community Economy
- Committee on the Anthropology of Science, Technology, and Computing: What’s the Matter with Artificial Intelligence?
- Corey Robin: Jews Without Israel
- Family Inequality: State of Utah falsely claims same-sex marriage ban makes married, man-woman parenting more likely
- Forbes: How Putin Invented The New Authoritarianism
- Huffington Post: Love in the Syrian Revolution
- In Search of Enlightenment: Ottawa Talk on "Bridging the Gap"
- Los Angeles Review of Books: I Am Malala : The Girl Who Stood Up For Education and Was Shot by the Taliban
- Monkeypicked Aspie: Einstein-Rosen-Podolsky and Me
- New Economic Perspectives: Bow down to the Bubble: Larry Summerian Endorses Bubbleonian Madness and Paul Krugman Embraces the Hansenian Stagnation Thesis
- Open Democracy: A Cuban Diary
- Oxford Human Rights Hub: Malaysia’s Dangerous Path Towards “Allah”
- Pandaemonium: In Defense of Diversity
- Religious Left Law: Hugo Chávez and Chavismo: The Venezuelan Transcendence of Neo-Liberalism
- Save the Post Office: Betrayal without remedy: The unwinding of the Postal Service
- Social Pulses: Democratic Austerity: Semi sovereign states, semi sovereign peoples
- The Belgravia Dispatch: An Epidemic of Putin Derangement Syndrome
- The New Yorker: The Trial of Pervez Musharraf
- The Philosopher's Beard: Britain's sudden and bizarre resentment of migration
- The Philosopher's Stone: How to Do History
- Unreported: The Poster Boy For Unending War
- U.S. Intellectual History Blog: Gramsci, Our Contemporary, Part II
- U.S. Intellectual History Blog: History, Memory, and THE ACT OF KILLING
- U.S. Intellectual History Blog: How American Studies Matter
- U.S. Intellectual History Blog: Not Everyone Wants to Hear Lee Atwater Sing the Blues
- U.S. Intellectual History Blog: Signs of the Times
- U.S. Intellectual History Blog: Thinking Like a Gramscian Historian: An Introduction, a Provocation, and Guide to the Basics
- Whispers of Satan: Keeping Ukraine Together
- XPostFactoid: What if the (Republican) dog catches the Obamacar(e)?
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by Gerald Dworkin
It has been a well-recognized phenomenon for some time that how we frame our questions to others affects the answers they give. The best known work on the topic is by Kahneman and Tversky. They give examples such as the following.
Subjects were asked to choose between two treatments for 600 people who had a fatal disease. Treatment A was predicted to result in 400 deaths.
Frame Treatment A
Positive saves 200 lives
Negative 400 people will die
Treatment A was chosen by 72% of participants when it was presented with positive framing ("saves 200 lives") dropping to only 22% when the same choice was presented with negative framing ("400 people will die").
Another example: 92% of Ph.d students registered early when there was a penalty for late registration, but only 67% did so when the penalty was framed as a discount for early registration.
Those who choose because of these framing effects display a cognitive bias leading to choices that are less than fully rational.
More recently psychologists and philosophers who are part of the so-called experimental philosophy group (x-phi) turned their attention to whether such framing effects affect judgments about what to do in various well-known examples of moral dilemmas such as the notorious trolley problems. Those of you lucky enough to have escaped the latter will be exposed to them anon.
Here are some examples of framing effects in people's responses to the following hypothetical cases used by philosophers to determine what are called "moral intuitions." These are the judgments that people make about what is right or wrong, and what they would choose to do in these cases.
1) Standard trolley case. A runaway trolley is heading for a track on which five people are trapped. You are standing by a switch that can divert the trolley onto a track where there is only one person trapped. Should you or should you not divert the trolley?
2) Heavy Man. There is a heavy man standing on a bridge over the tracks. He is standing on a trap door that you can release by pulling a lever. If he drops onto the track with the five people ahead his body will stop the trolley before it gets to them.
3) Heavy Man. Same as above but you are standing on the bridge and have to push him over.
Many people believe that while you ought to divert the trolley in the standard case one ought not to do so in the Heavy Man case. It does not matter, for our purposes, whether you agree or not. What you probably do not believe, and should not believe, is that the order in which you present the cases should affect your judgments about what to do. That is, if we present 1 and then 3, or 3 and then 1, the judgments about what one ought to do in the two cases should not be affected.
by Tasneem Zehra Husain
"Pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas". - Albert Einstein, (Obituary forEmmy Nother)
The first time you encounter a truly dazzling idea, its light seems almost blinding; slowly, your eyes grow more accustomed, and the glare dulls down to a glow which pleasantly illuminates your outlook. At least, that's how it usually happens, but Noether's Theorem is in a class of its own. I first came across it as a graduate student, about fifteen years ago, and to this day, I am stunned by its unfading brilliance.
I find it a travesty that Emmy Noether and her beautiful work are not more widely known. With International Women's Day just behind us, and Noether's birth anniversary around the corner, this seems like a good time to right that wrong. But before I introduce you to Emmy Noether, let me first tell you about her work. That, I am convinced, is how she would have wanted it.
Symmetries & Conservation Laws
The fact that the total energy of a system must always stay fixed, has been used to tremendous effect, countless times and in several contexts; from calculating the height to which a ball will rise, to predicting the existence of the neutrino. The laws of conservation of energy, momentum and charge, have long been considered sacrosanct, but for centuries, no one knew where they came from. To what do we owe the pleasure of their (very welcome) protection? Emmy Noether figured it out: Conservation laws arise out of symmetries, she said. And suddenly, just like that, there was a deeper underlying reason behind these mysteriously powerful statements - they had an origin.
Noether's theorem states that, to every (continuous) symmetry of a theory, there corresponds a conservation law.
What exactly does that mean? Physicist Philip Morrison writes, "symmetry is related to the indiscernibility of differences. Once you walk into the hall of a Palladian building, you can't quite remember whether you turned left or right". ‘The indiscernibility of differences', while not a formal definition, is a good working description. An object is symmetric if some operation can be performed on it without leaving a trace: a circle, for instance, is rotationally symmetric, because can be rotated (about its center) through any arbitrary angle, and no one will know the difference.
The symmetries Noether was concerned with are far more abstract - they are symmetries of the equations that describe a process (more properly speaking, symmetries of the Lagrangian), not symmetries of the objects participating in the process. In other words, they refer to differences that are indiscernable to the laws of physics.
I'm sitting in the empty bathtub with all my clothes on and my laptop in my lap, because it's the only place I can't hear the neighborhood jackhammer, when a headline from The Onion catches my attention: 15 Years In Environment Of Constant Fear Somehow Fails To Rehabilitate Prisoner. "About time," I shout, to the empty bathroom. The satirical article goes on:
[O]fficials at Woodbourne Correctional Facility struggled Tuesday to make sense of how the prisoner had not been rehabilitated by 15 years of constant threats, physical abuse, and periodic isolation. "It just doesn't seem possible that an inmate could live for a decade and a half in a completely dehumanizing environment in which violent felons were constantly on the verge of attacking or even killing him and not emerge an emotionally stable, productive member of society"…
A story's inclusion in The Onion signals its self-evidence. The story—in this case, the inefficacy of incarceration—must be so obvious, so incontrovertible, that it's funny to dress it up as breaking news. It bodes well, I think, that this particular joke is getting some mainstream laughs because it hasn't always. (To be clear, by "joke" I mean "farce" and by "laughs" I mean "attention." The distinction is important because lately prisons have become the object of increased media consideration, but sometimes the spotlight takes a precarious form. Does entertainment like Orange is the New Black help or hurt? Do we care? When it inspires fans to dress up in blackface and orange prison garb for Halloween, you might see the risk. A young friend of mine, someone who narrowly escaped the pipeline to prison himself, interpreted the name of the show as a reference to skin color, rather than fashion: "the new black," he said, pointing to his bare arm. The intended joke was lost on him.)
And the notion that the prison system works—that it makes us safer, that it doles out appropriate punishment to deserving offenders and offers meaningful rehabilitative opportunities to those willing to change—has become a notion deserving of derision. It remains one of the greatest farces of our current justice system. I know a few who have served time and had an experience, sometimes a miracle, that changed them for the better. But mostly these experiences transpired in spite of, not because of, the environment. Incarceration, in its current form, does not rehabilitate but rather exacerbates criminality and mental illness.
by Brooks Riley