Tuesday, September 30, 2014
Daniel Cressey in Nature:
Earth’s wild vertebrate populations have dropped to one-half the size they were in the 1970s, according to an analysis of more than 3,000 species. Researchers from the WWF wildlife NGO, headquartered in Woking, UK, and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) aggregated data on 10,380 populations from 3,038 species into an index of the health of the five main groups of vertebrates — mammals, birds, reptiles, fishes and amphibians. Set at 1 in 1970, this index has decreased to 0.48 (meaning by 52%) since then, according to their latest report.
This analysis is the tenth ‘Living Planet Index’ from WWF and ZSL, but this year’s has a crucial difference from previous editions in that it is weighted to take account of the make-up of biodiversity in different areas. Previous versions treated every species on which data were available equally, whereas the new edition attempts to correct for the size of each taxonomic group in a region, for example by giving more weight to fish than mammals in the palearctic. The last index – published in 2012 – showed a 28% decrease between 1970 and 2008. The bleaker picture painted by the 2014 edition comes both from real declines in newer data, and from the new weighting.
Malcolm Thorndike Nicholson in Prospect:
If you study philosophy at a British or American university, your education in the history of the subject will likely be modest. Most universities teach Plato and Aristotle, skip about two millennia to Descartes, zip through the highlights of Empiricism and Rationalism to Kant, and then drop things again until the 20th Century, where Frege and Russell arise from the mists of the previous centuries’ Idealism and call for a new kind of philosophy rooted in formal logic, science, and “common sense.” In most of your courses, you will probably be able to do well without reading a single paper written before the 20th century.
This is peculiar because, unlike science, philosophy is not a discipline in which new theories bury the old ones. Philosophers can resurface long after we think we’ve disposed of them. This tendency of old ideas to rise from the dead has led to some of the most interesting work in contemporary philosophy. The revival of virtue ethics owes much to figures such as Philippa Foot, whose re-evaluation of Plato, Aristotle and Nietzsche, helped her form a theory of normative ethics that offered an alternative to the two dominant schools, Kantian ethics and consequentialism. In epistemology, the celebrated American philosopher, Wilfrid Sellars, was deeply influenced by his close reading of Kant and Hegel. (Sellars also famously stated “philosophy without the history of philosophy is, if not blind, at least dumb.”) David Lewis’s reading of St Anselm and Leibniz led him to thinking about so-called “possible worlds;” now one can’t sit in a metaphysics seminar without talking about them.
Scholarship aimed at increasing our awareness of the history of philosophy is, in short, a good thing. That was my optimistic viewpoint as I began reading Peter Adamson’s Classical Philosophy: a history of philosophy without any gaps (OUP, £20), the first instalment of a series of books aimed at producing a more comprehensive history of philosophy.
Steven Salaita in the Chicago Tribune:
Being recruited for a tenured faculty position at a major university is no small feat, nor should it be; tenure represents the pinnacle of an academic career. In my case, it involved numerous interviews with faculty in the American Indian studies program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and an intensive review of my scholarship, pedagogy and professional service.
I survived this rigorous review and, having accepted an employment offer from the dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, resigned my tenured position at another university and prepared my family to move. A few weeks before classes were to start, and without any warning, I received a letter from the chancellor, Phyllis Wise, informing me of my termination.
How did this happen?
In the weeks before my move, I watched in anguish as Israel killed more than 2,100 people during its recent bombing of Gaza, 70 percent of them civilians, according to the United Nations. Like so many others, I took to my Twitter account. I posted tweets critical of Israel's actions, mourning in particular the death of more than 500 of Gaza's children.
David P. Barash in the New York Times:
It’s irresponsible to teach biology without evolution, and yet many students worry about reconciling their beliefs with evolutionary science. Just as many Americans don’t grasp the fact that evolution is not merely a “theory,” but the underpinning of all biological science, a substantial minority of my students are troubled to discover that their beliefs conflict with the course material.
Until recently, I had pretty much ignored such discomfort, assuming that it was their problem, not mine. Teaching biology without evolution would be like teaching chemistry without molecules, or physics without mass and energy. But instead of students’ growing more comfortable with the tension between evolution and religion over time, the opposite seems to have happened. Thus, The Talk.
There are a few ways to talk about evolution and religion, I begin. The least controversial is to suggest that they are in fact compatible. Stephen Jay Gould called them “nonoverlapping magisteria,” noma for short, with the former concerned with facts and the latter with values. He and I disagreed on this (in public and, at least once, rather loudly); he claimed I was aggressively forcing a painful and unnecessary choice, while I maintained that in his eagerness to be accommodating, he was misrepresenting both science and religion.
Monday, September 29, 2014
by Hari Balasubramanian
The Shortest Path
How does Google Maps figure out the best route between two addresses? The exact algorithm is known only to Google, but probably some variation of what is called the shortest path problem has to be solved . Here is the simplified version. Suppose we have a network of nodes (cities, towns, landmarks etc.) connected by links (roads), and we know the time it takes to travel a particular link. Then what is the shortest path from a starting node A to a destination node D?
In the instance above, there are 4 nodes. The rectangles provide the link travel times. The B-C link takes 2 time units to travel; the A-D link takes 5; the C-D link takes 1; and so on. The five possible routes from A to D are: A-D; A-B-D; A-C-D; A-B-C-D; and A-C-B-D. The easily spotted shortest path is A-C-D, with a total length of 3. But what if a network has hundreds of nodes and links? It would be impossible to visually identify the shortest path. We would need an efficient algorithm. By that I mean an algorithm whose execution time on a computer stays reasonable even when the problem size – the number of nodes or links in the network – gets bigger.
In 1959, Edsger Djikstra published just such an algorithm. Djikstra's Algorithm doesn't simply look for all possible routes between the start and destination nodes and then choose the shortest. That kind of brute-force approach wouldn't work, given how dramatically the number of possible routes increases even with a slight increase in network size. Instead, Djikstra's Algorithm progressively explores the network in a simple yet intelligent way. It begins with the start node A, looks at all its immediate neighbors, then moves on to the closest neighbor, and from there updates travel times to all as yet unvisited nodes if new and shorter routes are discovered. I am fudging important details here, but this basic procedure of moving from a node to its nearest neighbor and updating travel times is repeated deeper and deeper in the network until the shortest path to the destination is confirmed. Wikipedia has a good animation illustrating this.
How fast does the algorithm run? Let's say there are V nodes. Then, in the worst case, Djikstra's Algorithm will take in the order of V x V steps to compute the optimal path. An algorithm like this that grows polynomially with the problem size is something we will call efficient (of course lower order polynomials, such as the square function, are preferable; V raised to the power 50 wouldn't be helpful at all). So a 10-node problem might take around 100 steps; a 1000-node problem will take 1000000 steps. This increase is something a modern day computer can easily handle. The algorithm might do much better in most instances, but the worst case is commonly used as a conservative measure of efficiency. There are faster variations of Djikstra's Algorithm, but for simplicity we'll stick to the original.
Early Autumn Surf
but today is an anomalous summer day
which, breaking protocol,
has oozed into early fall
with temperate trappings
lulling me with spacious softness
and late brilliance,
being the last echo of July,
the final peal of August’s bell
expanding as I surf,
gliding down the hump of its luxurious waveform
under the comfort of its breaking curl
by Jim Culleny
Photo and poem, shot
and jotted together
by Brooks Riley
Why not? There are worst entities for a come-back kid when its mortal coil is taken up again. As a capybara you would live in a small community of peaceful vegans, free to join the party or to wander off on your own without being ostracized. You'd enjoy communal living with all the advantages, including a swimming hole in the vicinity. Your leader would be the biggest male, not a testosterone-driven despot intent on hoarding all the females for himself, but a gentle giant who shares. He might get first choice, but there's plenty enough to go around. If the kids got on your nerves, allomothers would take over for a while.
The real question is, why would you want to come back at all?
Hope is like a birthmark no one can see: Everyone has one, and it doesn't go away. It all starts with hoping to inhale your first breath, and progresses to hoping your mother will pick you up when you cry. It ends with hoping there's something to look forward to when you die—call it heaven, call it oblivion. As the hopes in this life diminish, they get transferred to the other side, even if there's no there there, as Gertrude Stein once said of Oakland, California.
The problem is that our notions of heaven are so pathetically limited. Why would I want to sit on a cloud playing a harp? If I wanted to play a harp, I'd have tried it in this life. And what if I see my loved ones in that light at the end of the tunnel? What then? Do I embrace them over and over again? For men who dream of an endless supply of virgins, is heaven just a coitus repetitus? Let's face it, nothing we can possibly imagine or wish about heaven can allay the inevitable tedium that would arise from a satisfaction repeated many times over. Our visions of heaven quickly expose themselves as visions of hell, adulterated by endless repetitions and endless time. Even Pope Benedict suggested as much.
Jay Kelly. Before Your Very Eyes. 2013.
Collage & resin on panel, 60"x96" made of vintage magazines, hand dyed paper, novels & art books.
Current show in Boston.
by Emrys Westacott
Like millions of other people, I found the recent Israel-Gaza conflict sickening and depressing. After fifty days of military exchanges from July 8 to August 26, over 2,000 Gazans had been killed of which, even according to Israeli government estimates, over half were civilians. Around 11,000 Gazans had been injured, and several hundred thousand had been displaced from their homes and needed emergency assistance. On the Israeli side, 62 soldiers and 6 civilians were killed, and around 1,300 were injured. To what end?
While it went on I read, watched and listened to dozens of interviews and debates about the conflict. These involved Israeli government ministers, leaders of Hamas (the governing party in Gaza), journalists, scholars and political analysts, some highly critical of the Israeli government, others defending its actions. Two things struck me about what I heard.
First, there was a great deal of repetition: "Israel has the same right as any other country to defend itself against attacks." –"The people of Gaza have the right to resist occupation." – "Israel is ultimately responsible for the conflict because they continue to impose intolerable living conditions on the Palestinians." –"Hamas is responsible because they committed the first acts of violence." –"Israel targets civilians in breach of basic moral principles and international law." –"So does Hamas." –"Hamas still won't recognize the right of Israel to exist." –"Israel continues to undermine the possibility of a viable Palestinian state by constructing new settlements." Listening to these debates is like being on a merry go round, going round in circles, seeing the same sights come and go; you hear the same points being made again and again in more or less the same order.
Second, the points made by the parties to the debates typically pass each other like skew lines, not quite engaging. Question: "Isn't the Israeli governments showing a callous disregard for the lives of Palestinian civilians?" Answer: "It's Hamas with their rockets that is targeting civilians. And why is Israel being singled out for special criticism when other countries also kill civilians when they're fighting a war?" Question: "Does Hamas accept the right of Israel to exist?" Answer: "The Israeli occupation of Palestine is illegal under international law." So often, the answers don't engage with the questions. This aspect of the debates is most frustrating.
by Mathangi Krishnamurthy
On July 15, 2013, after a hundred and sixty-three years of witnessing birth, death, revolution and marriage, the Indian telegraphic service sent out its last telegram. I felt a small sense of loss, but truth be told, the telegram was already a thing of the past to my communicative repertoire. In all my life, I had neither sent nor received a telegram. Also, with all my Hindi film infused understanding of the world, I assumed that all they ever brought was bad news. I would however be more than heartbroken if some day the postal service stopped sending letters.
The first letter I ever received was from my father. Truth be told, it was a postcard. He was away in faraway lands and had sent me a one-line missive with a picture of some Disneyland minion in Mickey Mouse costume, looking both avuncular and eerie. I remember feeling a distinct happiness at the sight of his handwriting, all beautiful, cursive, and grand. People wrote me letters for a large part of my life. My father, my grandfather, two cousins, friends that moved away, and friends in foreign lands. I have letters bearing dates right up until the nineties. I wrote back letters and in the process, accumulated beautiful pens, inkpots, and thick, fancy letter-writing paper. Also, for those who remember, I owned blotting paper; inspite of that, my hands were permanently ink-streaked. I always owned what used to be called a China pen even though it bore the brand name "Hero". The need for good handwriting was drummed early into my head. Pages of pages of cursive writing have rendered permanent the callus on my middle finger.
Two things show up regularly on my reading list these days; one, the daily habits of artists, scientists, thinkers, and writers, and two, their prolific and thoughtful correspondence. As others have argued so forcefully, letter writing was for writers, not merely a distraction but a way to find some breathing space from their craft while also allowing them the possibility of re-infusing it with vigor and vitality. Through letters they made manifest their orientation towards life and the world, but also communicated and cleansed new ways of thinking about their craft. Writing about writing to empathetic interlocutors seems to also been also about finding community, and laying the foundations for a new world.
by Charlie Huenemann
How much of the world do we actually experience? Of course, I'm not bemoaning the shortness of human life, or the narrow range of the visual spectrum, or the insensitivities of our skins and tongues. There's no doubt we're missing out on a lot. But within the world of our experience - how much of it do we in fact experience?
This is a big question always, but it was particularly big over the course of the 17th and 18th centuries. Some thinkers abided by the scholastic dictum - "there's nothing in the mind that isn't first presented by the senses" - which means that all of the content in our model of the world is gained through sensory experience. There is something very neat and tidy about this - nothing comes from nothing, and everything is accounted for.
Other philosophers found, as they carefully parsed their own sensory experience, that there was a lot less in it than they thought. We see patches of colors, not objects; we see sudden bright changes, and hear loud booms, and it is only with some mental effort that we combine them into a single event; we observe one change, and another, and we only come to think of the changes as causally related. The senses surely give us some data, these philosophers believed, but the mind is required to structure these data into a world. There is order in our experience that does not come from the senses.
The general debate became focused on a thought experiment raised by William Molyneux in a letter to John Locke (1693):
Suppose a Man born blind, and now adult, and taught by his touch to distinguish between a Cube, and a Sphere of the same metal, and nighly of the same bigness, so as to tell, when he felt one and t'other; which is the Cube, which the Sphere. Suppose then the Cube and Sphere placed on a Table, and the Blind Man to be made to see. Quaere, Whether by his sight, before he touch'd them, he could now distinguish, and tell, which is the Globe, which the Cube.
Those of us used to coordinating sight and touch must make some effort to imagine what it would be like to see a sphere and a cube for the first time, without already knowing from experience what each would feel like, were we to reach out and touch it. Without having had that experience, would it be obvious that one shape would feel sphere-y, and obvious that the other would feel cube-y?
by Brooks Riley
by Carl Pierer
Hard-working, dedicated snow plough driver, Nils Dickman (Stellan Skarsgård), is living a peaceful life with his wife Gudrun in a small, rural town in Norway. Just after being named Citizen of the Year, their son is found dead, apparently due to an overdose. The beautiful shots of wintery Norwegian landscapes, Nils' doubts that his son could ever have been an addict and Gudrun's acceptance of this fact seem to set the scene for a sombre Nordic drama. The film shifts gears, however, as Nils starts to investigate his son's death. The rest of the film, reminiscent of the blockbuster "Taken", sees Nils meticulously eliminating gangsters one after another, thereby incidentally causing a drug war between the Norwegian-Swedish gang, headed by "the Count" (Pål Sverre Valheim Hagen), and the Serbian gang under "Papa" (Bruno Ganz). Rather predictably, it all ends in a final showdown between all the major actors involved. While the plot suggests an action film à la Hollywood, the film playfully escapes confinement to this category.
It is not quite clear to whom the Norwegian title of Hans Petter Moland's new film, "Kraftidioten" (roughly: ‘really dumb person'), is meant to refer. Any of the characters seem to be a suitable candidates. The English title, on the other hand, "In Order of Disappearance" points toward the first central element in the film's comedy: it lets the audience expect, but meets those very expectations only through inversion. For instance, the film flips the standard cast-list in the closing titles. Instead of their order of appearance, a brief obituary is shown as the characters disappear throughout the film. This motif is varied on different levels: the evil boss of the Norwegian drug gang, "the Count", is indeed a very progressive and forward thinking individual. He is a vegan, gets coffee for his men while they are busy torturing one of their victims, and does not readily give in to his ex-wife's custody battle over their son. In short, a modern business leader. Nils, in contrast, is a calculating, cold-blooded serial killer. He shows no signs of pain nor remorse. Yet, the film challenges the viewer subtly: while "the Count" should be appreciated (and Nils condemned) because of their respective deeds, the audience sympathises with Nils' Nordic Stoicism. Fortunately, this moral dilemma is resolved for the spectator in the second half of the film as "the Count" acts more and more as an evil overlord is supposed to do: shooting his own men, hitting his ex-wife, killing his informants after they delivered their information.
Offspring of wanton wants, they arrive, together, these gods of war and weather, to the beating drums, and sound of thunder, crying out crisis, each September. This century's, Septembers, all arrive back to school, as it were, refreshed from resorts and beaches, in need of replenishing, their depleted coffers, of personal savings, and future job offers.This century's, September, as if afraid of endings, arrives as though, its own immortal endless season, of unceasing sameness, an eerie stillness of repeated scripts and finite possibility: War as weather and weather as war. Each September, reminds us, of an, unchanging, unreformed industry, of needs, that guarantees, more spectacular bombs and thunderous storms. Bombs and storms. Lovingly named for eradicated tribes, victims of genocide, and of course women. Apache Helicopters, and Tomahawk missiles, Rita, Katrina, and Ophelia. Do you even remember, come September, as we lurch from one year to the next, all the threats and crisis, these Septembers past have presented as pretexts? And we, the video generation, watching and watched, posting selfies, need only a video to suspend belief, acquiesce and agree. War is peace! This is a crisis, indeed. These past, two half dozens, and change, Septembers,this same cry of crisis? And we, resolutely unquestioning, of how rules were changed, to protect us, from ourselves. The Patriots Act? Remember? In September 2005 came Katrina, after Rita,and Ophelia: and army boots and troops came out, to act and protect the land, while patriots drowned? Boots on the ground? This ground. Remember Septembers past, and to come. Then, came FISA ‘Protect America Act', in September 2007. Do you remember? (here.) Do you remember the rules, that changed, on how you were to be protected, by being watched and listened to, and put in your place, if needed, by guns and batons, and military courts, and tear gas and bullets and fantastical costumes of robot cops and juggernauts. For your own protection, for your own, good, of course. Who elses'? Do you remember, the Financial Crisis, come September in 2008? The rules that changed? And Wall Street won and you lost your gains—and your roof, in its name, and, of course, your good name? And then, came the Gulf spill and by September 2009 British Petroleum, how it threatened, do you remember, the war on life? Or the threat for burning of the Quran, again godsent, then, in September 2010 that almost ushered in the chance on changing the rules on freedom of speech? And in September 2011, the Occupy Movement, which revealed, to us, the extent of our powers, against power, which as it turned out, were: None. That revealed to us, that the police, primarily protects property. That even a movement for rights and freedom, uses the term, Occupy. Are we mystified? And then the storm of Sandy which by September 2012 had made it clear, as it battered and washed away, our water front properties and flooded, Wall Street how powerless the batons, bullets, the tear gas, the shells, the bombs were against, the real threat. That year, they bombed Libya straight to hell. Then, a video of insanity, and that September, the attack at the embassy, in Bengazi? Yes, that was September 2012. Come September 2013, the drums of war turned to a deafening roar—that bloodlust's design, to go bomb Syria, all the way back to Afghanistan and more, Iraq and Libya and even Iran! A video, several, tried to help. Always a video, to make the case, to go bomb and invade, yet another place.That juggernaut denied its chance, by another hegemon, rose again, metamorphosed to fight another day. And come September now today, bombing of Syria, anyway---just the same, for now, lo and behold, there it is, ISIS, proof in hideous videos, for our eyes to suspend disbelief, that lets them there drop their bombs, which they had baked, and ached to drop for years, and almost did, last year. Iraq, has been bombed, for twenty five years! A gift from God, for endless war. Who created this new Goddess? This new crisis, of this ISIS? (here,here,here and here). So here we are, this September, with the headlines developed so far, which we won't remember, this time, next year, which gives us, our latest bed time story, and the newest season of hideous videos galore. No way, not today, will we slash defense spending, cut down weapons, roll back armies as was proposed. Hurray, we are on our way, again to war and endless hay. Hurray, for this new goose, this ISIS, and to the golden eggs, that it lays! And yet another resolution, a rule that claims, the right to kill belongs to only one hegemon, one Military. This, we will have forgotten by next September? Remember? War and weather. Bombs and storms. Rita, Ophelia, Katrina, Gustave, Ike and Sandy. Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, Libya, now Syria. And what can we do except this time, too, accept and: Cry, it is a crisis, upgrade the flat screen, store canned food, buy rubber boots and torches and: Cry Isis.
More Writing by Maniza Naqvi here.
by Thomas Rodham Wells
‘Libertarian paternalism' is how Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein characterise their big idea, redesigning how choices look so that we will be nudged to choose the option in our own best interests. Their proposal has come in for fierce and sustained academic criticism, from both left and right, and from both philosophers and economists. But all the critiques I've read seem misguided in important ways.
Thaler and Sunstein argue that the behavioral economics evidence is quite clear that people do not choose as rationally as standard economic theory (or our folk psychology) suggest. In particular, people's choices are often strongly influenced by what should be irrelevant features of how their choices are framed. People tend to put more food on their plate if the plate they are handed is bigger; most of us go along with whatever the default option is for choices about pension contributions and organ donation; and so on. In many cases it seems that we don't have an existing specific preference over outcomes and are therefore open to having our subjective valuations shaped or induced by how the options are presented.
Libertarian paternalism is the ethical thesis that, since how people make many choices is so influenced by their framing, it is right and proper for governments to try to design the choices people face in a helpful way (paternalism). Yet nothing about designing the presentation of choices forces people to choose what the designers had in mind. People are still as free as ever to choose what they want, if they know what they want (libertarian). (Sunstein went on to try to put some of his ideas into practice as Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs from 2009-12.)
Now, the critics of this approach have landed a couple of good blows.
First, how do we know what the 'rational' choice is that people should be making? In order to design choice architectures that nudge people to make the 'correct' choice - e.g. about signing up as an organ donor - policymakers must believe that they know the correct answers to these. In other words, government civil servants (no doubt with the assistance of behavioural economics consultants) are supposed to be able to work out what is in the best interests of 'ordinary' people more accurately and reliably than we can.
Sunday, September 28, 2014
Peter D. O. Smith in Scientia Salon:
This article is neither a defense of nor an attack against either religion or secularism. It treats them as well established sociological facts and no more than that. I take them as given and argue that a greater moral good can be achieved if the two belief systems find common moral ground in virtue ethics.
Moral choices infuse most aspects of our life, whether we know it or not. And a great number of these moral choices are bad ones. This is why our prisons are filled to overflowing , and recidivism is so high at 66% . This is why we have so many war dead and this is why so many die violent deaths at the hands of murderers or radical ideologues. This is also why we have such an inequitable distribution of wealth. This is why cheating is rampant at schools and universities . We maintain large standing armies to protect ourselves from the bad moral choices of others and on occasion we use it to inflict our bad moral choices on others. This is why we have no qualms in spying on our own citizens  or in killing without due process. This is why almost everyone has been the victim of crime, unfairness, injustice, discrimination, bullying , sexism, racism, ageism or other forms of bigotry, bias, and discrimination. This is why stalking is commonplace .
Bad moral choices touch us all and are the major cause of suffering in today’s world. Every person who has been jilted by a cheating partner has felt that suffering. Marital infidelity is the most common cause of divorce and abuse is another important cause . One in five women are sexually assaulted at university . Even natural disasters such as earthquakes or floods are compounded by moral failures as nations don’t respond adequately. Famines become moral failures when we cannot distribute food where and when it is needed. Our economic systems become moral failures when they turn into instruments of greed. Our political systems become moral failures when they are used for the advantage of the powerful, to exploit or neglect the weak.
The point I am making is that moral suffering is real, pervasive and needs attention. We have made great progress in reducing material suffering, but only some progress in reducing moral suffering. This is the important challenge that faces us today, to reduce moral suffering with the same degree of success that we have reduced material suffering.
Carl Zimmer in the New York Times:
In the early 1920s, farmers in New Jersey noticed their potatoes were shriveling, their leaves becoming deformed. The plants were sick with an illness that came to be known as potato spindle tuber disease. But it took almost five decades for someone to find the cause.
In 1971, Theodor O. Diener, a plant pathologist at the Department of Agriculture, discovered that the culprit is an inconceivably tiny pathogen — one-80th the size of a virus. Dr. Diener called it a viroid.
Since Dr. Diener’s initial discovery, scientists have identified nearly three dozen species of viroids that attack crops from tomatoes to coconuts, as well as flowers such as dahlias and chrysanthemums. In many cases, the only way to stop an outbreak is to destroy all the infected plants. These days many countries require that plants be certified viroid-free before being imported.
But viroids may be much more than agricultural pests. New research suggests that they existed at the earliest stages of life on Earth, enduring in their primitive state for billions of years. These are the pterodactyls of the microbial world — except that they are still very much with us. We just didn’t realize it.
Clare Melamed in Aeon:
Close observers of the development scene will have noticed an interesting shift over the past few years. Where once institutions such as the World Bank and charities like Oxfam described their goal as simply ‘ending poverty’, today they tend to frame things in terms of poverty and inequality. Well, that makes sense: doesn’t it seem intuitively obvious that these two things must be connected in some way?
Yet those links can be surprisingly hard to bring into focus. In 15 years of working in the development sector – first for international NGOs and more recently running a research programme on poverty and inequality – I have found myself explaining over and over again exactly what the one has to do with the other. What does it matter to an impoverished farmer in South Sudan if 85 people hold as much wealth as half the world’s population? If those 85 people gave everything away, would that actually help the farmer?
The problem, I have come to think, is that there are two very different ways of thinking about inequality. The first is all about the rich. The second is all about the poor. The first is the one we usually hear about. The second is the one that really matters.
Paul Krugman reviews 'Seven Bad Ideas,' by Jeff Madrick, in the NYT's Sunday Book Review (picture by Michael Lionstar):
In “Seven Bad Ideas: How Mainstream Economists Have Damaged America and the World,” Jeff Madrick — a contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine and a frequent writer on matters economic — argues that the professional failures since 2008 didn’t come out of the blue but were rooted in decades of intellectual malfeasance.
As a practicing and, I’d claim, mainstream economist myself, I’m tempted to quibble. How “mainstream,” really, are the bad ideas he attacks? How much of the problem is bad economic ideas per se as opposed to economists who have proved all too ready to drop their own models — in effect, reject their own ideas — when their models conflict with their political leanings? And was it the ideas of economists or the prejudices of politicians that led to so much bad policy?
I’ll return to those quibbles later, but Madrick’s basic theme is surely right. His bad ideas are definitely out there, have been expressed by plenty of economists, and have indeed done a lot of harm.
So what are the seven bad ideas? Actually, they aren’t all that distinct. In particular, bad idea No. 1 — the Invisible Hand — is pretty hard to distinguish from bad idea No. 3, Milton Friedman’s case against government intervention, and segues fairly seamlessly into bad idea No. 7, globalization as something that is always good. As an aside, this sometimes makes Madrick’s argument more disjointed than I’d like, with key propositions spread across nonconsecutive chapters. But there is an important point here, and Madrick has clarified my own thinking on the subject.
Charles Green in Inside Higher Ed (image from Wikimedia Commons):
Rebecca Schuman...has a Ph.D. in German studies and a forthcoming book on Kafka, Wittgenstein, and Modernism. Despite those impressive credentials, she left academe and the crumbling job prospects of German studies in 2013, so she’s well-positioned to comment on the real crises in higher education. She even professes, in one essay, “I’m a higher-ed expert.”
While I sometimes agree with her, I think she crafts fundamentally anti-academic arguments, anti-academic in that they rely heavily on unsourced and unsupported generality clothed in hyperbole. While she frames her essays with her expertise and experience, she presents a funhouse image of the academic world as the norm and recreates fabulist stereotypes of the ivory tower gone mad. Ultimately, her writing most often fails to offer substantive critique of academe’s problems and instead offers empty amusement that misleads readers about the world she claims to analyze with expertise.
Her July 15, 2014 essay, “Revise and Resubmit,” exemplifies her anti-academic methods. Most prominently in that essay, Schuman revels in psychologizing straw men, scarecrows who lack not brains but hearts: “Think of your meanest high school mean girl,” she writes, “at her most gleefully, underminingly vicious. Now give her a doctorate in your discipline, and a modicum of power over your future. That’s peer review.” The peer reviewer is a type with easily decipherable, easily dismissed motives.
Yes, Schuman’s being amusingly hyperbolic — I see Regina George and the Plastics of Mean Girls with their burn book, telling lesser academics “Stop trying to make ‘synecdochic heteronormativity’ happen. It’s not going to happen. It’s problematic.” If Schuman’s writing then moved to a more complex, realistic, or data-driven exploration of peer review, I might accept one hyperbolic stereotype — but the psychological profile of straw men predominates her argument.
He even goes so far as to perform what appears to be a rhetorical exegesis of “Revise and Resubmit,” a roast of the humanities peer-review process done in my usual style, which is a mixture of dark humor, open hyperbole, and cutting truth — and which quotes, yes, a small sample of hilarious tweets about peer-review experiences from my readers, which I culled for their sharpness from a much larger “data set” of about 100.
But yes, the piece exaggerated. Every op-ed I write does. Every sentence I say at home does! My voice has, for better or worse, basically been what it is since my first turn as a columnist at the age of 17 (I appeared bi-weekly in Eugene, Oregon’s paper of record from 1993 to 1994 — kind of a big deal, I know). But it was sharpened in graduate school in a particular vein, as I fell in love with the crotchety Austrians who would come to define my research: Robert Musil, whose over-the-top satire of a bunch of rich drifters also belies harsh truths about the decline and fall of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy; the playwright Johann Nepomunk Nestroy, whose untranslatable humor involves saying something that is a massive exaggeration and an unfortunate truth at the same time; Karl Kraus, the patron saint of pithy bile and my personal hero.
Is Green correct that my 1,500-word op-eds (the appropriatelength for such a medium, ahem) are not researched with the same rigor as my academic book, which took seven years to write, and for which I am receiving the standard advance of zero dollars? He is.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum in The National (via Hussein Ibish):
Only one thing can stop a suicidal youth who is ready to die for ISIL: a stronger ideology that guides him onto the right path and convinces him that God created us to improve our world, not to destroy it. Credit is due to our neighbours in Saudi Arabia in this field for their successes in de-radicalising many young people through counselling centres and programmes. In this battle of minds, it is thinkers and scientists of spiritual and intellectual stature among Muslims who are best placed to lead the charge.
The second component is support for governments’ efforts to create stable institutions that can deliver real services to their people. It should be clear to everyone that the rapid growth of ISIL was fuelled by two governments’ failings: the first one made war on its own people, and the second one promoted sectarian division. When governments fail to address instability, legitimate grievances and persistent serious challenges, they create an ideal environment for hateful ideologies to incubate – and for terrorist organisations to fill the vacuum of legitimacy.
The final component is to address urgently the black holes in human development that afflict many areas of the Middle East. This is not only an Arab responsibility, but also an international responsibility, because providing grassroots opportunity and a better quality of life for the people of this region is guaranteed to ameliorate our shared problems of instability and conflict. We have a critical need for long-term projects and initiatives to eliminate poverty, improve education and health, build infrastructure, and create economic opportunities. Sustainable development is the most sustainable answer to terrorism.
Our region is home to more than 200 million young people. We have the opportunity to inspire them with hope and to direct their energies toward improving their lives and the lives of those around them. If we fail, we will abandon them to emptiness, unemployment and the malicious ideologies of terrorism.
Every day that we take a step towards delivering economic development, creating jobs, and raising standards of living, we undermine the ideologies of fear and hate that feed on hopelessness. We starve terrorist organisations of their reason to exist.
The house with the nick- and snigger-name Snort and Grunt .
Shunned trailer-house, (pocked) scorn-brunt. Side-indented,
thorn-bined, boondocked in a hollow.
In a green-holler clamber-mire of itch-moss and bramble.
Tremblescent ditch-jellies, globberous spawn-floss. Drupes of
(dapple-clinkling) bottle-glass in trees.
Strangs them old oaks of his with NEHI and liquor-pints. Magnesia!
Yard-splayed magnolia-blooms, carved of tractor-tire. Milk-
painted (fangle-plaited) barbwire-scapes and -vines.
And -fronds. A palm-shape gold with birds at the end of the yard.
Elaborated branches, branching. What is fixing to be a rose-bush
caning and twining. Is leaves.
by Atsuro Riley
from Romey's Order
University of Chicago Press, 2010
Dave Marsh in Counterpunch:
“…all unorganized violence is like a blind man with a pistol.” ~ Chester Himes
In his autobiography, Really the Blues, Mezz Mezzrow, locked up in a New York City jail on a drug charge, convinces the warden that he has a black mother and therefore must be placed in the Negro section of the prison – his life depends on it. Mezz Mezzrow, a pot proselytizer and dealer as well as a pretty good trumpet player, was white, or at least he came from an all-white family. His is one of the few real-life stories in American history in which a white man passes for black and gets away with it. Whether John Howard Griffin, author of Black Like Me, in which a middle-class white writer blackens his skin in order to research what the too-much-melanin blues are like, got away with it is open to debate. He did not die, as has been widely reported, from cancer caused by Oxsoralen, the chemical he used to darken his skin, but the fact that the idea persists thirty years after his death suggests what grim desires his project may have inspired. Griffin is not by any means the only mortal casualty of the American obsession with melanin.
Give or take Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson, a reasonably fine novel, and Norman Mailer’s essay, “The White Negro,” which is a complete crock, that’s about the end of the literary aspect of passing for black. In Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison’s nameless protagonist, unquestionably a black citizen, has retreated to a clandestine life in a cellar in a whites-only building somewhere in New York. This man is invisible because other people refuse to see him. And throughout the story, whenever he is seen, disaster of one degree of another ensues. Somewhere among these fantasies lies a truth about George Zimmerman, who, by his own account, accidentally on purpose murdered Trayvon Martin. Somewhere in there is an authentic human being, like Mezzrow, who imagined himself a superhero. Mezz sold reefer to the stars; Louis Armstrong was his best customer. George Zimmerman stalked the streets of a podunk Florida condo community with a gun by his side, a Batman vigilante.