August 31, 2004
Portraying 9/11 as a Katzenjammer Catastrophe
"The central image in Art Spiegelman's new book of comics is that of the north tower's glowing skeletal form, incandescent and ghostly in the fleeting seconds before its collapse: a searing image, witnessed by the author himself, that sunny morning of Sept. 11, 2001. It is an image that conjures up the moment when history swerved from its expected course and time seemed to stop, and an image, too, that embodies the haunting aftermath of 9/11, the afterimage that's been burned into our collective imagination... It is a testament to Art Spiegelman's uncompromising vision that 'In the Shadow of No Towers' - his account of 9/11 and its aftermath - makes no effort to contain or domesticate the surreal awfulness of that day."
Book review here by Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times.
Lop-sided features linked to temper
Maybe this explains my temper: "Sometimes it can be worth judging by appearances: it seems that people with less symmetrical features are likely to be more aggressive. In a study of stressful telephone conversations, those with uneven faces and bodies were more prone to angry reactions." More here from Nature.
The Neverending Story (in brief)
Jordan Ellenberg reviews Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity by David Foster Wallace here in Seed Magazine. If you want to get a substantive taste of the subtle intricacies of Cantorian mathematics, read this challenging but ultimately rewarding book. But you have to be willing to get used to David Foster Wallace's eccentric and sometimes bratty prose.
Douglas Lenat and the Cyc Project in AI
I have become addicted to playing 20 questions at 20Q.net which Robin posted a few days ago. (Try it here, it's really fun.) It made me think of how few attempts there have been to give computers the kind of commonsense knowledge of the real world that we take for granted, and then I thought of Douglas Lenat's Cyc project. Lenat is a very interesting figure in AI, who has always done his own thing. I first came across Lenat's work as an undergraduate. He had written a simple but clever program that started with some knowledge of arithmetic, then randomly applied a handful of heuristic rules to generate theorems that it then rated on "interestingness". Lenat described how the program quickly found many basic theorems, including coming up with the Goldbach Conjecture, then produced some new interesting theorems. Later, during the notorious "AI Winter" of the 1980s, Lenat became interested in endowing computers with the massive amounts of common sense knowledge that each of us have of the physical world. This is a project that had long been recommended by such AI luminaries as Marvin Minsky (see here and here, for example), and Lenat called it the Cyc (pronounced psych) project. For example, "Cyc knows that trees are usually outdoors, that once people die they stop buying things, and that glasses of liquid should be carried right-side up." The information has had to be painstakingly entered using a special language based on the predicate calculus, but is becoming easier to feed data to Cyc as it learns more and more. The good thing is, it only has to be done once, then will be available to any computer than wishes to use it. In addition to a knowledge base, Cyc also contains an inference engine which allows it to deduce other facts from what it already knows. You can learn more about Cycorp, the company that Lenat heads and that is building Cyc, and about the project itself, here.
August 30, 2004
More on Counting Crowds
"Another, more ingenious method of estimating crowd size is by examining the quantity of artifacts they leave behind. To say it less delicately, one way of counting a crowd is to weigh how much garbage it leaves behind. Since sanitation trucks are weighed electronically at the disposal site, it has always been an easy matter to measure the amount of debris left after New York's famed ticker tape parades down the 'canyon of heroes.'" More here.
In keeping with the previous posting, which linked to an ethics test that ranked attitudes by philosopher, there's this, the Belief-O-Matic, which ranks your attitudes towards religion and spirituality according to its proximity to belief systems. (Via normblog.) Ironically, the three that I know best and grew up with are among the furthest from my own views: Orthodox Christianity, Roman Catholicism and Hinduism. (I am disturbed that I'm closer to New Age and Scientology than I am to Catholicism.)
1. Secular Humanism (100%)
2. Unitarian Universalism (98%)
3. Liberal Quakers (81%)
4. Nontheist (81%)
5. Mainline to Liberal Christian Protestants (74%)
6. Theravada Buddhism (67%)
7. Neo-Pagan (62%)
8. Taoism (49%)
9. Bahá'í Faith (46%)
10. New Age (44%)
11. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) (41%)
12. Reform Judaism (37%)
13. Orthodox Quaker (35%)
14. Christian Science (Church of Christ, Scientist) (33%)
15. Mahayana Buddhism (31%)
16. Mainline to Conservative Christian/Protestant (29%)
17. Sikhism (27%)
18. New Thought (26%)
19. Scientology (22%)
20. Jainism (19%)
21. Jehovah's Witness (18%)
22. Seventh Day Adventist (15%)
23. Eastern Orthodox (12%)
24. Islam (12%)
25. Orthodox Judaism (12%)
26. Roman Catholic (12%)
27. Hinduism (7%)
Minimalism in Art
Along the lines of Slow Art discussed by Abbas and in the thoughtful piece by Marko, minimalism in many art forms may also be seen as a reaction to the vast and insurmountable information age. In music:
"Bjork, whose seventh album, "Medulla" (Elektra), will be released this week, has made a career of subtraction. She recorded boisterous rock with the Icelandic new wave band the Sugarcubes, started a solo career with eccentric dance-floor hits and then followed through with a series of albums that have been unpredictably sumptuous or sparse. As early as her 1993 album "Debut" (Elektra), Bjork was poking holes in her music, and since then those holes have been widening into chasms. With "Medulla," she pushes to a new extreme: most of the music is made with voices alone. While the album might seem to be a conceptual stunt, it finds gorgeous and startling new ways to extend Bjork's longtime mission: merging the earthy and the ethereal." This from the NY Times, Sunday, August 29th.
I can't wait to hear "Medulla".
An ethical question raised by Mark Thatcher's exploits
Richard Ingram at the Observer finds an intriguing political and ethical question in the story of Margaret Thatcher’s son Sir Mark Thatcher and his attempted coup d’etat against the thuggish government of President Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea.
“Listeners to the BBC's Today programme voted last week that philosophy should be taught in schools. They might usefully begin by considering whether there is any moral distinction to be drawn between Sir Mark Thatcher and the Prime Minister, Tony Blair.
As far as one can see, both men had precisely similar aims - i.e., to rid the world of an evil dictator who was causing his subjects a great deal of misery. In the case of Saddam Hussein, Blair insists that he did the right thing when he and his friend, George Bush, overthrew the tyrant.
Sir Mark, who was arrested, has yet to give the world the justification for his alleged role in the attempted coup in Equatorial Guinea. But perhaps he, too, would maintain that the world would be a better place without President Teodoro Obiang, a man who, like Saddam, has a contempt for civil rights and a liking for torture and execution.”
Daniel Davies at Crooked Timber puts it plainly. “The serious issue raised by this [Ingram’s] joke is, if we accept the logic of the 'strong version' of humanitarian intervention, then why should we also say that it is only the job of states to carry out such interventions? Since, ex hypothesi, any special position for states is ruled out by the strong pro-war internationalist liberal stance, why shouldn’t groups of private individuals take action? For example, Harry’s Place has five main contributors, each of whom could probably raise about $200,000 if they took out a second mortgage; maybe they should be ringing up Executive Outcomes and getting a few estimates in on smallish African states. Why leave this to the government?”
Certainly, the non-Spanish volunteers who fought against Franco in the Spanish Civil War didn't leave it to government and are largely seen as heroes for not having done so. (To the extent that it was left to government, in the form of Soviet support for the Spanish Republic, it was a disaster. Enough betrayal and authoritarianism to disillusion thousands of members of the left and disabuse many more of the Soviet illusion.) And until we (here in this part of the world) realized that they were crazy, the foreign mujahadeen fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan were given more accoladdes than one thought imaginable for politicized reactionary Islamists.
My own guess is that the fact that there's not really an "A" for effort in politics leaves the outcomes as the basis of assessment for the most part. If Mark Thatcher had managed to get rid of Teodoro Obiang and the population of Equatorial Guniea consequently had been grateful, the act would've validated itself. But I'm not sure.
Some time ago, our own Marko Ahtisaari wrote a beautiful medidative piece on what he has come to call "Slow Art".
"Slowness can only be experienced in media – be it live or recorded music, film, video, theatre, dance – where one of the measurable dimensions of the artwork itself is time. This is what slowness means, that less is happening in some set period of time."
It is a short piece and worth reading. Look at it here.
The Green Monster
"Recent research on jealousy has been predominantly inspired by an evolutionary psychological analysis of sex-specific differences in the responses to a mate's sexual and emotional infidelity. According to this analysis, a woman's sexual infidelity could reduce a man's reproductive success because of the ensuing risk of inadvertently losing an opportunity to reproduce and of investing limited paternal resources for the benefit of genetically unrelated offspring. A woman's reproductive success, in contrast, is endangered if she loses a male's resources and assistance in raising her offspring. A man's mere sexual infidelity does not necessarily imply the risk of losing his paternal investment. Rather, this resource threat arises if he develops a deep emotional attachment to another mate. As a consequence of these sex-specific reproductive threats, the male jealousy mechanism (JM) is hypothesized to be particularly concerned with a mate's sexual infidelity, whereas the female JM is hypothesized to be particularly concerned with a mate's emotional infidelity."
The issue is looked at in greater depth in this experimental study reported in Evolutionary Psychology.
Incidentally, the best literary treatment of male jealousy I have read yet is in "The Kreutzer Sonata" by Leo Tolstoy, which you can read here.
Lost your luggage? Buy someone else's stuff...
Fed up with philosophers' obsession with the ontological status of various objects, real and abstract, Daniel Dennett once asked in what sense the "lost-sock center of the world" exists. (Somewhat like the center of gravity of an object.) Though the L-SC remains a thought experiment, there is, in Scottsdale, Arizona, a place where all the lost and unclaimed luggage from all of the U.S. airlines accumulates. And they sell off the stuff. If you're the sort of person who is addicted to Ebay, you might want to hunt for bargains here.
August 29, 2004
Tennis Style Wars
New York City's best sporting event, the U. S. Open tennis tournament in Flushing Meadows, Queens, begins tomorrow (here are the draws; here's the daily order of play). This is the year's final Grand Slam, on the fairest surface (clay is slowest, grass is fastest), so it determines who’s on top to a greater degree than Wimbledon. People complain contradictorily about the state of the game today, some claiming it's all serving, others saying not enough net play, others that there aren't enough Americans(!). Don't believe the hype: the top men's players show a wonderful variety of styles, strategies, and personalities, and none depend on power alone. Most of the press (what little there has been due to the RNC and the Olympics) has concerned the smooth-operating artist-genius and world number one, Roger Federer; the defending champion and tennis's most powerful player, Andy Roddick; and the most beloved player in history, the incomparable Andre Agassi (I would love to see him win; to do so he'll probably have to defeat Federer in the quarterfinal). Still, a couple of other names bear mentioning: Lleyton Hewitt, whose saw-toothed passion compensates for his slight build, is playing as well as he ever has - he'll likely meet Roddick in the semifinal. Nicholas Kiefer, long ago Boris Becker's protege, has lately begun playing a similarly tenacious style to excellent effect. And the overzealous, ball-crushing Chilean Fernando Gonzalez arrives at the site of his best previous results carrying an Olympic bronze medal. Injuries and the waning interest of Serena Williams have taken some of the luster from women's side, especially compared to the late nineties when it was more entertaining than the men's. Lindsay Davenport is on a heavy roll, but Justine Henin-Hardenne (of the superb backhand and fierce mien) is back from a long layoff and either Williams is talented enough to win. I don't think any of the Russian brigade can hack New York just yet; my sleeper for the women is France's unintimidated Tatiana Golovin. If you want to attend, get a grounds pass during the first week and you'll see amazing stuff all day from courtside.
The RNC protests are in full swing, and if nothing else, attending one may rejuvenate your belief in the existence of civically minded citizens, and lots of them. For lists of events and news from the front, tryhere.
Tattoos In Baghdad
"Need a skull, a dragon or a naked woman? Descend a flight of steps to a dingy corridor and step into Baghdad's only tattoo parlor."
Article in Reuter's.
August 27, 2004
Time to Go Nuclear
"This is a leap in thinking that distinguished scientists are already taking - from Sir David King, chief scientific adviser to the government, to James Lovelock, guru of Gaia and arch-environmentalist. Both started out from an anti-nuclear bias but, on the basis of empirical scientific evidence, arrived at the same conclusion. In the age of global warming, opposition to nuclear power is a cop-out rather than a rational or responsible position."
From this week's Observer. Outraged comments can be posted in the comments section.
Booker longlist announced today
"The judging panel of the Man Booker prize for fiction, one of the literary world's most prestigious and lucrative awards, today announced its longlist for 2004. The 22 books that made it onto the longlist were chosen from a pool of 132 entries. The most distinguishing feature of this year's lengthy longlist, which otherwise contained few great shocks, was the number of first-time novelists featuring in it - six out of 22."
Sarah Crown writes more here in The Guardian.
Dualists from Birth
"We naturally see the world as containing both material objects, which are governed by physical laws, and mental entities, whose behavior is intentional and goal–directed. Some things in the world, such as people, can be seen either way, as physical bodies or as intentional agents. However, as Bloom describes, we tend toward the latter interpretation whenever possible, even attributing intentions to animated shapes on a computer screen if they move in certain ways. According to Bloom, dualism is the product not of nurture but of nature—specifically, evolution by natural selection. It was adaptive for our ancestors to be able to predict the behavior of physical objects and social creatures..."
Ethan Remmel reviews Descartes' Baby: How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human by Paul Bloom, here in American Scientist Online.
August 26, 2004
Help this AI
"20Q.net is an experiment in artificial intelligence. The program is very simple but its behavior is complex. Everything that it knows and all questions that it asks were entered by people playing this game. 20Q.net is a learning system; the more it is played, the smarter it gets."
The game: "Think of an object and the A.I. will try to figure-out what you are thinking by asking simple questions. The object you think of should be something that most people would know about, but, never a specific person, place or thing."
It's pretty good. I thought about the color blue, and it managed to guess the answer in about 20 questions.
Physicans vs. "naturopaths"
Following up on Sughra's post, a debate-discussion between physicians and "naturopaths" on the PBS show Closer to Truth addresses how to evaluate alternative medicine.
The "two sides argue fiercely about the efficacy and dangers of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). Three of the guests can see both sides of the issue to various degrees. Only retired physician Wallace Sampson, Editor in Chief, Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine sees the field in black and white '…what we're dealing with in most of alternative medicine is self-delusion.' His points are cogent: how can standardization occur when naturopathic remedies are effected by such things as growing conditions, time of harvest, and length of storage? Dan Labriola, a naturopathic physician who specializes in cancer and heart diseases actually concurs: what PR company has ever publicized that the use of tests show that certain antioxidants prevent the effects of chemotherapy from killing tumor cells? But scientific testing also corroborates the effectiveness of the natural substances glucosamine and chondroitin for joint and cartilage-related pain. And mold from the common canteloupe provided the first effective immunizations for Polio."
Watch it here (click on the video images).
Homosexuality in the Land of the Pure
"LAHORE - The first time Aziz, a lean, dark-haired 20-year-old in this bustling cultural capital, had sex with a man, he was a pretty, illiterate boy of 16. A family friend took him to his house, put on a Pakistani-made soft-porn video, and raped him. Now, says Aziz (who gives only his first name), he is 'addicted' to sex with men, so he hangs around Lahore's red-light districts, getting paid a few rupees for sex. At night, he goes home to his parents and prays to Allah to forgive him."
This is from Miranda Kennedy's piece entitled "Open Secrets" at The Old Town Review.
Chemical and biological weapons--weapons of minimum destruction
In the post-9/11, Gulf War world, we have just taken at face value the idea that a terrorist armed with chemical or biological weapons is much more dangerous than those who just have 'conventional' ones.
"David C Rapoport, professor of political science at University of California, Los Angeles and editor of the Journal of Terrorism and Political Violence, has examined what he calls 'easily available evidence' relating to the historic use of chemical and biological weapons.
He found something surprising - such weapons do not cause mass destruction. Indeed, whether used by states, terror groups or dispersed in industrial accidents, they tend to be far less destructive than conventional weapons. 'If we stopped speculating about things that might happen in the future and looked instead at what has happened in the past, we'd see that our fears about WMD are misplaced', he says.
. . .'We know that nukes are massively destructive, there is a lot of evidence for that', says Rapoport. But when it comes to chemical and biological weapons, 'the evidence suggests that we should call them 'weapons of minimum destruction', not mass destruction'." (Read on.)
Darfur, one week until the UN deadline
With much of the international news focused on Darfur as the one month deadline given by the Security Council to the government of Sudan approaches next week, press coverage of Sudan has become more in-depth and insightful. Samantha Power, author of The Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, has a piece in the New Yorker.
"[A]s I talked with the policemen inside one tent, a forbidding trio of men on camelback carrying G3 rifles rode by outside. I pointed to the janjaweed and asked the policemen, who were African, if they would make arrests if they learned of attacks on the refugees. 'We don’t have instructions to arrest them,' one said. 'If we captured them, we would be sacked.' Another added, 'There are six of us here and thousands of them. They have heavy weapons and modern weapons, and we have these old Kalashnikovs. If we arrest one of them, they’ll come after our families.' The policemen said that the government had given each of them only one gun cartridge."
It doesn't look promising, but intervention is far from a forgone conclusion. And international opinion is far from unified on the Sudan. Read this depressing account in The Daily Star (Lebanon) of the reception of Amnesty International's latest report on Darfur, which it released in Beirut. (By way of normblog.)
And for those in New York and so inclined to join, the American Anti-Slavery Group is holding a rally on Darfur in front of the United Nations (Dag Hammerskjold Park at 47th Street by the UN) on September 12th, just as the UN convenes. (Also by way of normblog.)
August 25, 2004
"The TerraServer-USA Web site is one of the world's largest online databases, providing free public access to a vast data store of maps and aerial photographs of the United States. TerraServer is designed to work with commonly available computer systems and Web browsers over slow speed communications links. The TerraServer name is a play on words, with 'Terra' referring to the 'earth' or 'land' and also to the terabytes of images stored on the site.
Exploring our planet by studying maps and images is a fascinating experience! Not surprisingly, the first place many people visit is their own neighborhood." Or in my case, Abbas' neighborhood, the "home" of 3QD.
Smart cell phones, really smart
From Eureka Alert comes this glimpse of the near-future.
"Carnegie Mellon University's Institute For Complex Engineered Systems will sign a research agreement today with French Telecom that could revolutionize the future of mobile phone devices. The technology, developed by Carnegie Mellon professors Asim Smailagic and Dan Siewiorek, is a state-of-the-art, context-aware mobile phone that can track a multitude of everyday details in a person's life–the email sent, the phone calls made and a user's location. The phone also adapts to dynamically changing environmental and psychological conditions, including monitoring heart rates and helping to determine a user's state."
Deliberative Polling as a Means of Making Better Voters
Following Asad's post on voting, it seems appropriate to mention experiments in deliberative polling. The experiments grow out of an old concern with the secret ballot. J.S. Mill worried that the secret ballot would lead people to vote on the basis of their narrow interests. When the vote is open, we have to justify to others our electoral preferences. Reason giving would lead to a deliberative discusssion, and people's choices would be more reasonable as a result. Of course the flip side is that an open ballot could easily lead to coerced votes.
But there may be answers found in the experiments in deliberative polling. This article offers a brief overview.
"Bruce Ackerman [at Yale] and James Fishkin [at Stanford these days] propose 'Deliberation Day'. Instead of standing alone, voting day would be preceded by a national holiday to be held one week before major national elections. Voters would be called together in neighborhood meetings to discuss the central issues of the campaigns. . . Their proposal draws on Fishkin’s work on the “deliberative poll,” in which respondents don’t simply answer questions out of the blue, but come together in small groups to discuss issues.
One of the more dramatic uses of deliberative polling occurred in Australia just before the national referendum on whether it should become a republic . . .Several hundred randomly chosen Australian voters gathered for a weekend to confer with experts and politicians and among themselves. Initially most could not correctly answer basic questions about their constitution or the referendum. By the end of the weekend, they got 80 to 90 percent of the questions right. And support for the referendum shifted from 50 percent to 73 percent."
This summary page of Fishkin's Center for Deliberative Democracy has the results of a dozen such experiments, and plugs from people as diverse as Bill Archer and Al Gore. And the results are surprising.
And here's a paper on the differences between conventional polling and deliberative polling. But of greater interest may be Fishkin's paper, "Virtual Democratic Possibilities: Prospects for Internet Democracy".
Of cinnamon and cloves
Years ago when I was suffering from a very painful sore throat, my oldest sister suggested that I drink a "tea" made by boiling a cinnamon stick and a bunch of cloves in some water until the color is rich mahogany. Optional additions include ginger root and cardamoms. It proved to be a most soothing concoction and has become my mainstay in fighting the oft recurring viral attacks we all suffer, especially in the northeastern winters. In a public radio discussion yesterday I heard of a recent study performed in Pakistan, looking at other amazing benefits of cinnamon. Truly exciting!
As for cloves, according to the American Cancer Society website, they "are said to have antiseptic (germ killing) and anesthetic (pain-relieving) properties. Undiluted clove oil is often applied topically to relieve pain from toothaches and insect bites. Some proponents also claim that, taken internally, cloves and clove oil combat fungal infections, relieve nausea and vomiting, improve digestion, fight intestinal parasites, stimulate uterine contractions, ease arthritis inflammation, stop migraine headaches, and ease symptoms of colds and allergies. " Not to mention it's use as a fish anesthetic, or claims that clove oil can repel snakes and mosquito, and cure ear aches. Apparently European doctors used to breath through leather "beaks" filled with cloves to ward of the plague (here)! Very impressive range, but there's still little scientific evidence for most of these. Learn more here.
In the meantime, enjoy your cinnamon toast crunch or sprinkle cinnamon on your granola.
Always Shuck your Tamales: on the rationality of voting
Two recent essays treat the issue of the rationality of political affiliations from very different methodological angles. Both are short pieces intended for lay readers, so it's probably unfair to take potshots at their simplicity... but I'm going to anyway.
Steven Johnson (author of Emergence) wonders here whether perhaps brain chemistry can explain the tendency of "liberals" to be more sensitive than others to human suffering and more averse to retributive justice: Democrats, a study suggests, "think more" with the amydala (part of the limbic system), the seat of the emotions. Right away, my balderdash-detector buzzes: I can think of many leftist positions (Whig progressivism, Marxism) that we associate with the denial of emotionalism in favor of analytical calculation, and many rightist tendencies that prefer strong, "gut feelings" to logic (nearly all forms of fundamentalism, for instance). Correlating amydala activity to political positions seems quixotic, at the least, to me. But what Johnson giveth, he quickly taketh away: "One thing is certain: evidence of a neurological difference between liberal and conservative brains would not be another instance of genetic determinism, since patterns of brain activity are shaped by experience as much as by genes." This would seem to retract much of the explanatory power Johnson promised, and we are left with the somewhat tautological conclusion that emotional people's brains are emotional, however they got that way. At this point Johnson retreats to this position: perhaps people choose their political party by sensing temperamental commonality between themselves and peers of their party, which is interesting but again strongly reductive. As with much neuropsychology, my sense is that the levels of complexity intervening between neurological and social phenomena need far more elaborate treatment.
Louis Menand, in this piece, comes at the issue from the perspective of an intellectual historian reviewing sociological analyses of voting behavior. Menand refers extensively to the work of political scientist Philip Converse, who concluded in a 1964 article "that 'very substantial portions of the public' hold opinions that are essentially meaningless." Menand then provides more figures that bespeak the utter insufficiency of rational choice theory to account for voting behavior: "In 2000, eighteen per cent said that they decided which Presidential candidate to vote for only in the last two weeks of the campaign; five per cent, enough to swing most elections, decided the day they voted. ...Seventy per cent of Americans cannot name their senators or their congressman." Adducing various theories (election results are arbitrary, they are oligarchical struggles amidst the "elite"), Menand finds one with the potential to salvage some civic belief, namely, that voters may respond to irrationally chosen cues, but that these cues are nonetheless accurate heuristics ( a primary example being Mexican-Americans' support for Carter in '76 after Ford tried to eat the corn husk of a tamale - a different kind of gut response, I guess). Menand rightly is skeptical of the rather Panglossian heuristic theory, but follows with a pretty unsatisfactory conclusion: "For most people, voting may be more meaningful and more understandable as a social act than as a political act." Surely the political is always a subset of the social, unless by social Menand means the restricted sense of immediate interpersonal relations. Oddly, in begging the question, he has arrived at a similar black box to Johnson, that of the social roots of behavior, only from the opposite epistemological starting point.
Let's Go To Mars
After the last space shuttle blew up some people got conservative and some people got misty eyed. I think it is time to start feeling intrepid again. The chance that NASA will try and get a manned mission to Mars is probably slim. Still, recent successes in the private sector have been pretty inspiring and there are always the pictures from Mars and the surrounding neighborhood to keep the heart jumping. In the end, we may have to rely on some grad students from Texas to get the job done. Such would be the ironies of it all.
August 24, 2004
There is a tide in the affairs of men...
Holidaying at the seaside last week I became obsessed with the local bay beach. At low tide we walked endlessly on the ocean floor, marvelling at the bounty of life teeming in the tidal pools; and then the entire scene would transform into a raging sea of crashing waves on a windy evening at high tide. As I described this to my brother later, he wondered why we have never channeled the immense energy of diurnal tides to generate power. Here are some explanations and more about tides.
And speaking of the bounty of tidal flats (we had some phenomenally delicious oysters) and the effects of the full moon on ocean tides, here's a quote from Worldwide Gourmet about oysters: "In love, you know, shellfish are your allies," said Brillat-Savarin. Full of iodine, phosphorus and trace elements, oysters are stimulants and have always been a symbol of femininity. It is said that at the time of the full moon, oysters secrete an aphrodisiac hormone - but do you dare ask your fishmonger if he knows when his oysters were collected?"
I wonder what the oysters are like in the Bay of Fundy where the highest tides occur in the world.
Richard Pena does it again
This year's New York Film Festival will assemble a pretty great lineup, including new movies from Almodovar, Alexander Payne, Hou Hsou-Hsien, Zhang Yimou, Mike Leigh, Agnes Jaoui and, for good measure, Jean-Luc Godard. Catch some at the one of the best places to see a flick in the city, the Walter Reade Theater. Here's a review of what's coming.
Mapping your ethics on a moral philosophy scale, sort of
In keeping with Battleground God, there's this. This Ethical Philosophy Selector offers a set of questions. "These questions reflect the dilemmas that have captured the attention of history’s most significant ethical philosophers. Answer the questions as best you can. When you’re finished answering the questions, press 'Select Philosophy' to generate your customized match of ethical philosophers/philosophies. The list orders the philosophers/philosophies according to their compatibility with your expressed opinions on ethics."
My results, which left me horrified at least by the position of Ayn Rand (too high), Bentham (too high), and the Epicureans (too low):
1. John Stuart Mill (100%)
2. Kant (99%)
3. Prescriptivism (78%)
4. Jean-Paul Sartre (71%)
5. Aquinas (68%)
6. Ayn Rand (66%)
7. Jeremy Bentham (63%)
8. Aristotle (61%)
9. Epicureans (60%)
10. Spinoza (45%)
11. Stoics (45%)
12. Ockham (40%)
13. St. Augustine (38%)
14. Nel Noddings (34%)
15. Plato (33%)
16. David Hume (26%)
17. Nietzsche (24%)
18. Thomas Hobbes (13%)
19. Cynics (3%)
Judging what's most untranslatable
Today Translations' site lists the most untranslatable words, as measured by a poll of a thousand professional translators and interpreters it conducted for the BBC. "Plenipotentiary" won as the most untranslatable English word. The winner among foreign language words is "ilunga [a Tshiluba word for a person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time; to tolerate it a second time; but never a third time. Note: Tshiluba is a Bantu language spoken in south-eastern Congo, and Zaire]."
However, Lanuage Log is skeptical. "The thing that puzzles me, though, is where Zilinskiene [head of Today Translations] turned up 1,000 linguists who know Tshiluba vocabulary. I'm beginning to get the feeling that this survey might have been a class project in one of Zilinskiene's Problematics courses..."
August 23, 2004
"Can your beliefs about religion make it across our intellectual battleground? In this activity you’ll be asked a series of 17 questions about God and religion...The aim of the activity is not to judge whether these answers are correct or not. Our battleground is that of rational consistency." To test whether or not your religious belief cuts the logical mustard, click here.
Review of Eqbal Ahmad's Between Past and Future
"In May, the White House announced that George W. Bush would deliver five weekly speeches intended to shore up support for his Iraq policies. How many of the five did he deliver before abandoning the effort?
One question in an amusing if predictable Bush quiz from the current New Yorker. Also check out this obliquely related but fairly thrilling profile of the Olympic experience of the Iraqi soccer team, from the same organ.
In the wake of the theft of Edvard Munch's The Scream yesterday, here's a short review of recent thefts of major artworks from Scotland on Sunday.
Musical Travelling Theory
I've been doing a lot of driving lately and this has provided an occasion to reappreciate the Avalanches' 2002 record, Since I Left You. It is a modern classic, and one of the few pieces of music I've heard that uses the potential of sampling technology as the basis for a new formal art. As with most formally brilliant aesthetic output, repeat auditions reward the listener with previously unnoticed features. Their sound has tremendous density and a symphonic tendency for elements to fade in and out of conscious hearing: the horse's whinny that has structurally replaced the hip-hop horn, the sunken counterpoint to a haunting piano riff, the celebrated use of the bassline from Madonna's "Holiday." Additionally, I love the Avalanches' internationalism: they're Australian djs who happily circumnavigate in search of cool sounds. They also invent a space in which the listener (temporarily) becomes a global citizen, travelling the world and thinking contrapuntally. In short, a work of genius. If you want an accurate review try here.
August 22, 2004
Catullus in Rioplatense
A great thing about the world wide web is that people do things like this. There is no better reason to brush up on your Latin than Catullus' delightful hendecasyllables. Coleridge's ode to those syllables (from Matthison) can be found here.
August 21, 2004
muslims and stuff
I'm not sure if they have quite captured the full humor potential here but it is worth taking a look at the first Islamic version of Onion Magazine. By the way, this site was brought to my attention by Alan Koenig of Doghead. If there is a better place for analysis and insight into the policy twists and turns of the Iraq war I don't know what it is, though Ackerman's Iraq'd is always worth reading. And, if you don't know of Juan Cole you have your head in the sand on the matter.
Benjamin Lee Whorf Resurrected?
In 1956, Benjamin Lee Whorf published Language, Thought, and Reality, which he concluded with the following.
"Actually, thinking is most mysterious, and by far the greatest light upon it that we have is shown by the study of language. This study shows that the forms of a person's thought are controlled by inexorable laws of pattern of which he is conscious. These patterns are unperceived intricate systematizations of his own language--shown readily enough by a candid comparison and contrast with other languages, especially those of a different linguistic family. His thinking itself is in another language--in English, in Sanskrit, in Chinese."
A year later, Noam Chomsky published Syntactic Structures and launched the Chomskyan revolution in linguistics and, well, a bunch of fields, effectively destroying claims such as Whorf's and inaugurating one of the most successful research projects in modern science.
But now comes this.
"[A]re there concepts in one culture that people of another culture simply cannot understand because their language has no words for it?
No one has ever definitively answered that question, but new findings by Dr. Peter Gordon, a bio-behavioral scientist at Teachers College, Columbia University, strongly support a "yes" answer. [Details of the study will appear in the Thursday, August 19, issue of the journal Science.] Gordon has spent the past several years studying the Pirahã, an isolated Amazon tribe of fewer than 200 people, whose language contains no words for numbers beyond "one," "two" and "many." Even the Piraha word for "one" appears to refer to "roughly one" or a small quantity, as opposed to the exact connotation of singleness in other languages.
What these experiments show, according to Gordon, is how having the right linguistic resources can carve out one's reality. 'Whorf says that language divides the world into different categories,' Gordon said. 'Whether one language chooses to distinguish one thing versus another affects how an individual perceives reality.'
When given numerical tasks by Gordon in which they were asked to match small sets of objects in varying configurations, adult members of the tribe responded accurately with up to two or three items, but their performance declined when challenged with eight to 10 items, and dropped to zero with larger sets of objects. The only exception to this performance was with tasks involving unevenly spaced objects. Here, the performance of participants deteriorated as the number of items increased to 6 items. Yet for sets of 7 to 10 objects, performance was near perfect. Though these tasks were designed to be more difficult, Gordon hypothesizes that the uneven spacing allowed subjects to perceive the items as smaller 'chunks' of 2 or 3 items that they could then match to corresponding groups.
According to the study, performance by the Piraha was poor for set sizes above 2 or 3, but it was not random. . ." (read on)
images of others
Amidst the twaddle and bilge written about modern “media culture” (e.g., bad academese, exhibit one , and bad academese, exhibit two ) some serious and insightful commentary on the role of images in everyday life still somehow manages to get written. One of the many morals of the past century must surely be that "we" have a weird fascination not only for images of celebrities and of the “lifestyles” of the insanely wealthy, but also for photographs of “Others” – preferably when they are compromised, suffering, in pain, and /or dying. However disturbing, this fascination is nothing new (e.g., Goya's "Disasters of War" ).
The photographs taken at the Abu Ghraib prison, the internet broadcast of beheadings, and the lynching of American soldiers have collectively posed some truly basic but interesting and knotty questions: should pictures of the dead and dying be published? Should we even be looking at these kinds of images (and if so, to what end? and if not, what is lost? – is it better to see these kinds of military engagements from afar, as cinematic fireworks raining down on some far away city, or to see the casualties see up close, made to face the mutilated bodies of the dead…)? and finally, the big question: why are we so drawn to such things, anyway? Luc Sante wrote one of the most compelling essays on the Abu Ghraib scandal, which can be found here . The indispensible thoughts of Susan Sontag on "regarding the pain of others" can be found here. If you want to read an intelligent critique/commentary on Sontag’s book, (it’s an email conversation b/w Luc Sante and novelist Jim Lewis), you can find it here . Rightly or wrongly, no iconic images seem to have emerged from 9/11 (unlike the Abu Ghraib scandal, which produced at least one remarkably iconic image, the one you no doubt know, which can be found here . Art critic Abigail Solomon-Godeau has written a brilliant essay on one image that might fit the bill. That weirdly beautiful image is a photograph of the falling body of a man positioned precisely between the two towers, plunging Icarus-like to the pavement far below. Although this photograph was initially reprinted widely (the NY Times, for example, published it), it was quickly taken out of circulation, and has rarely been seen since. You can find that photograph, along with an essay by the photographer, here . There clearly IS something unsettling about finding images of catastrophe and suffering somehow beautiful (although one wonders about how an image like this will be viewed in the future...we seem to require an icon to suggest national trauma: one thinks of Dorothea Lange's Migrant Mother). Anyhoo, all discussions about what images mean tend to hinge upon (economic, social, aesthetic, or historical context); if you want to indulge in the rare pleasure of viewing photographs some guy found and put up on the internet (i.e., photographs with no context whatsoever), you can find some great ones here .
August 19, 2004
One of the reasons that some philosophers and, indeed, common sense itself, finds it difficult to accept Dennett's naturalism, though it is clearly correct, is that Dennett's naturalism is anti-intuitive. We feel as if our experience of the world and all its chance, will, and complexity cannot jibe with any version of determinism. Of course, it turns out that determinism and meaning, freedom, chance, etc., are fully compatible. But, dammit, it still seems like the aren't anyway. An interesting place to try and re-train your intuition is a website Dennett mentions in Freedom Evolves. There you can play the game Life, where a simple arrangement of 'cells', given simple rules and made to be 'live' or 'dead', generate something very complicated and autonomous out of something that isn't. Try playing it. You'll wonder why you ever thought that that ghost was running stuff in your head in the first place. We are mechanisms friends, but very cool ones, and it is going to be OK.
Review of The Wisdom of Crowds
"James’ [Surowiecki] book [The Wisdom of Crowds] goes in two directions as regards actual policy suggestions. As regular CT [Crooked Timber] readers will be expecting, I don’t really agree with either of them, but one is very much more interesting than the other."
August 18, 2004
Is Craigslist a Google 2.0?
"My found-through-Craigslist inventory runs deep. My last two apartments. My dining room table. My living room couches. My futon. Red Sox tickets. Freelance writing assignments. I sold my car through the service. Do you Craigslist? OK, it doesn't quite have the ring of the now-classic 'Do you Yahoo?' pitch line, but tech investors would do well to keep their eyes on Craigslist.org, the San Francisco-based international swap meet. Craigslist began as a daily e-mail sent out by founder Craig Newmark in 1995 and is now a motley collection of want ads and personals, with a little space left over for rants. Most of those ads are free, so the site has never seemed to have much of a business model." Article here from Business 2.0.
Economics and Islam
"In a new book, 'Islam and Mammon: The Economic Predicaments of Islamism' (Princeton University Press), Timur Kuran, professor of economics and law and the King Faisal professor of Islamic thought and culture at the University of Southern California, looks at the cluster of ideas known as Islamic economics. This concept, he notes, is a 20th-century one, developed in India before independence, when many Muslims worried that they would become an oppressed minority in a Hindu-ruled state. Some feared that Muslims might be so marginalized that they would lose their identity." Interesting article from the New York Times, via Arts and Letters Daily.
"I've always loved math, and as a child I especially loved word problems about everyday things. The idea that the real world can be described mathematically was, to me, simply wonderful. Today I get the same enjoyment from mathematical descriptions of nature, which are just more complicated versions of the word problems I adored in my youth. A truly breathtaking range of such problems can be found in John A. Adam's Mathematics in Nature, which tackles quite a broad assortment of nature's patterns, going beyond the typical ones with which we might all be familiar. Most, however, are within nearly everyone's realm of experience. For example, the book's 24 color plates present fascinating cloud patterns, a double rainbow, sand dunes, ocean waves, plant and floral forms, patterns on animals and cracks in asphalt. Adam builds the reader's mathematical intuition as he discusses these phenomena."
More of Will Wilson's review of Mathematics in Nature: Modeling Patterns in the Natural World by John A. Adam here, in American Scientist Online.
The Real and The Revealed
"Editor's Note: Czeslaw Milosz passed away on Saturday, August 14. In his honor, we are republishing Leon Wieseltier's August 1, 1983 review of The Witness of Poetry." Here it is, from The New Republic.
The always admirable David Aaronovitch in the always readable Observer on the continually depressing failure of the always less-than-adequate response to the situation in Sudan.
Alternating Currents - Abramovic and Tesla
"Marina Abramovic’s Count On Us – a work replete with spooky, haunted house imagery of skeletons, blackness, and the United Nations – is straight-up Abramovic. A dark, multi-paneled room at the 2004 Whitney Biennial displays a series of unnerving and sardonic videos that evoke the kind of weird chuckle one discharges when simultaneously being in on a joke and made fun of. On one wall, an unenthusiastic and black-clad children’s choir sings the praises of United Nations aid (directed with gusto by the artist in a skeleton costume). The choir sounds more like a mechanical hum than anything else. Another wall shows a close-up of a young girl and boy gazing upwards with stolid pride, or perhaps longing. And there is a human Soviet star comprised of (yep) children, in black, as the artist (still in her skeleton get-up) stands in the mush-pot. What is going on here?"
More in this short essay by Stefany Anne Golberg in The Old Town Review.
August 17, 2004
Richard Rorty on the use of Deconstruction in the arts
"One issue that is raised by Peter Eisenman’s writings, and especially by his exchanges with Jacques Derrida, is that of the relation of philosophy to the rest of culture. I am more suspicious of attempts to use philosophical ideas outside of philosophy than Eisenman is. In particular, I am not sure that the criticism of what Derrida has called “the metaphysics of presence” has much relevance to the work of architects, painters and poets. The first paper I ever wrote on Derrida’s work and influence was read to an audience of literary theorists and was called “Now that we have deconstructed metaphysics, do we have to deconstruct literature too?” That title expressed my skepticism about the attempt to turn what seemed to me a specifically philosophical movement, a commentary on specifically philosophical texts, into something larger and more pervasive. As I see it, the attempt to make philosophy useful to the arts is OK if philosophy is used as a source of inspiration but dubious if it is used as a source of instruction."