Saturday, January 31, 2009
The Artistic Animal
John Horgan and Denis Dutton discuss Dutton's new book, The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution:
Bruce Alexander's The Globalization of Addiction
Mike Jay in nth position:
Bruce Alexander is best known - though deserves to be much better known - for the 'Rat Park' experiments he conducted in 1981. As an addiction psychologist, much of the data with which he worked was drawn from laboratory trials with rats and monkeys: the 'addictiveness' of drugs such as opiates and cocaine was established by observing how frequently caged animals would push levers to obtain doses. But Alexander's observations of addicts at the clinic where he worked in Vancouver suggested powerfully to him that the root cause of addiction was not so much the pharmacology of these particular drugs as the environmental stressors with which his addicts were trying to cope.
To test his hunch he designed Rat Park, an alternative laboratory environment constructed around the need of the subjects rather than the experimenters. A colony of rats, who are naturally gregarious, were allowed to roam together in a large vivarium enriched with wheels, balls and other playthings, on a deep bed of aromatic cedar shavings and with plenty of space for breeding and private interactions. Pleasant woodland vistas were even painted on the surrounding walls. In this situation, the rats' responses to drugs such as opiates were transformed. They no longer showed interest in pressing levers for rewards of morphine: even if forcibly addicted, they would suffer withdrawals rather than maintaining their dependence. Even a sugar solution could not tempt them to the morphine water (though they would choose this if naloxone was added to block the opiate effects). It seemed that the standard experiments were measuring not the addictiveness of opiates but the cruelty of the stresses inflicted on lab rats caged in solitary confinement, shaved, catheterised and with probes inserted into their median forebrain bundles.
Salman Rushdie reflects on 20-year-old fatwa
February 14th marks the 20th anniversary of the Khomeini's fatwa calling for the death of Salman Rushdie for The Satanic Verses. [I may buy another copy to commemorate.] Hillel Italie in the AP:
The Ayatollah is long dead and Rushdie has stopped worrying about his safety, although the fatwa has never been withdrawn. On Sunday night, he questioned the accuracy of the Quran, used profanity when referring to Islamic leaders and bragged about once wearing a T-shirt that read, "Blasphemy is a Victimless Crime."
But he believes that "a culture of offendedness," in which any religious criticism is regarded as insensitive or even blasphemous, has intimidated others. Last year, Rushdie strongly criticized his own publisher, Random House, Inc., for pulling Sherry Jones' "The Jewel of Medina" over fears that the novel would set off violence. ("The Jewel of Medina," about one of the Prophet Muhammad's wives, was released by Beaufort Books without major incident).
Calling himself an early victim of attempted censorship, Rushdie likened his place in history to a scene from Alfred Hitchcock's thriller, "The Birds." He recalled a scene in which Tippi Hedren spotted a crow outside her window. Hedren paid little attention until she noticed hundreds more had arrived.
"I think I was the first crow," Rushdie said.
Wen Jiabao Points Fingers for the Crisis at Davos
Blogging the Origins
John Whitfield is blogging the Origins of the Species over at his Seed blog, between now and February 12th:
Man, this guy didn't know anything.
I don't mean that as an insult. Darwin, as he admits, knew almost nothing about inheritance, about how variation is produced, or about the origins and history of domesticated plants and animals. You'd think that would be a handicap in using domestication as an analogy for evolution.
And yet, in chapter 1 of the Origin, 'Variation Under Domestication', Darwin uses what little knowledge he has so deftly that nowhere do you feel his conclusions are outstripping his data. This, believe me, is quite a skill, both in a scientist and a writer. What, he asks, is the minimum we can infer from what we know?
Well, here's what his readers can be sure of at the end of the chapter:
Domestic animals and plants vary - most obviously between different breeds of the same species.
Domestic animals and plants have changed through time.
This change results from humans breeding selectively from individuals that carry a valuable trait, because offspring tend to look like their parents. And that's about it -- hard to argue with any of that, then or now. Darwin does speculate about mechanisms: most variation, he suggests, comes from within the organism, by "the conditions of life ... [acting] on the reproductive system". You could see this as analogous to mutation, although I think that would be stretching inference beyond knowledge. There's also a shorter discussion of inheritance, the laws governing which are "quite unknown".
But none of this speculation is load-bearing -- the only essentials are right before our eyes.
Can We Transform the Auto-Industrial Society?
Emma Rothschild in the NYRB:
The cataclysm of the American automobile industry has been an odd combination, so far, of immediate and historical anxieties. The government loan of $13.4 billion to General Motors and Chrysler in December 2008 was presented by the outgoing administration as an unsolicited gift, lest a "disorderly liquidation of American auto companies" should "leave the next President to confront the demise of a major American industry in his first days of office." It was restricted explicitly to the very short term: "The firms must use these funds to become financially viable.... In the event that firms have not attained viability by March 31, 2009, the loan will be called."
But there are also intimations of the deep past and the distant future. The present and impending disorder of the automobile companies is a reminder, even more than the decline of the housing and banking industries, of the desolation of the Great Depression. It is a reminder, too, of economic history, or of the rise and decline of industrial destinies. When the listing of the "Fortune 500" began in 1955, General Motors was the largest American corporation, and it was one of the three largest, measured in revenues, every year until 2007. GM was the "largest industrial corporation in the world," in its own description of 1989, and it was engaged, at the time, in "the most massive reindustrialization program ever attempted." It was an incarnation of American economic change, as a GM vice-president suggested during the earlier automotive crisis of 1973: "To say that a company that has successfully grown over a period of 65 years—a period marked by two world wars and a major economic depression—will suddenly be unable to adapt to the changing challenge...flies in the face of common sense"; it "denies history."
Can you grow one? YES YOU CAN. Easy to do... Fun to Grow. Full growth 1-2 weeks Reuse your Chia indefinitely Contains: * Chia Obama handmade planter * Chia Seed packet for 3 plantings * Convenient Drip Tray * Planting and care instruction sheetmore from Chia Obama here.
Dutton has evidently spent plenty of time wrestling with the theories of art propounded by thinkers from Aristotle and Kant to Clive Bell and Michel Foucault. He touches on all the major issues of aesthetics in this fairly short book and invariably illuminates them. There are also treatments of such lesser riddles as why we have art of sounds and colors, but not of smells. Of particular value is his discussion of three heated controversies: the role of artists’ intentions; the implications of forgery and plagiarism; and the status of Dadaist provocations, like Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” — a urinal put forward for exhibition in 1917. He tests these cases against a cluster of 12 characteristics that he argues are collectively definitive of art and finds that the difficulties stem from conflicts or tensions among these characteristics. Thus a perfect forgery may succeed in producing the same pleasure the original was designed to elicit, but we nevertheless feel cheated because it does not demonstrate the originality of mind we expect to find expressed in art. For Dutton, this expectation of originality derives from art’s ancient function of demonstrating that the artist would make a desirable mate. But it seems to me that his analyses work just as well without such sexual speculations.more from the NY Times here.
a big, inconsistent, brave man
It was Tuesday, May 30, 1922, the day of the dedication of the solemn and splendid memorial to Abraham Lincoln in Washington, and the ceremony on the Mall featured speeches by President Warren Harding and Chief Justice William Howard Taft. The most interesting observations about the 16th president, however, were not spoken amid the pomp but in the pages of the Crisis, the journal of the NAACP founded by W.E.B. DuBois. "Abraham Lincoln was a Southern poor white . . . poorly educated and unusually ugly, awkward, ill-dressed. . . . He was big enough to be inconsistent -- cruel, merciful; peace-loving, a fighter; despising Negroes and letting them fight and vote; protecting slavery and freeing slaves. He was a man -- a big, inconsistent, brave man." DuBois' observations were brief yet controversial (one reader called them "unkind and uncalled for"), and he defended them in the next edition of the magazine. "We love to think of the Great as flawless," DuBois wrote. "We yearn in our imperfection toward perfection -- sinful, we envisage Righteousness." Such idolatry, however, serves little purpose: If we require the perfect and the righteous to lead us to higher ground, then we are not likely to get there, for there is not exactly a burgeoning oversupply of perfect and righteous leaders.more from the LA Times here.
drinking through it
The following information came round on the Rappahannock grapevine. If you had purchased $1,000 of Nortel stock one year ago, it would now be worth $49; the same investment with Enron would have left you with $16.50, Delta Airlines $49 and United Airlines nothing. If, however, you had purchased $1,000-worth of beer a year ago, drunk the beer, and then turned in the cans for the aluminium recycling fund, you would now have $214. This piece of retrospective investment advice is only one of many arguments to suggest that drinkers have done rather better than abstainers in the current crash. And winos have done best of all.more from the New Statesman here.
Friday, January 30, 2009
Liberals and Libertarians: Kissing Cousins or Distant Relatives?
Joshua Cohen discusses in Boston Review:
“Liberals and Libertarians: Kissing Cousins or Distant Relatives?” That question was debated at a January 13 event sponsored by Stanford University's Program in Ethics in Society and the Cato Institute. Boston Review co-editor Joshua Cohen gave these comments.
In his book Political Liberalism, John Rawls offers a general description of a liberal political outlook. He intends the description to cover views ranging from the classical liberalism of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, arguably in the tradition of Locke and Adam Smith, to the more egalitarian liberalism of his own Theory of Justice. Rawls writes, “the content of a liberal political conception of justice is given by three main features:
1. a specification of basic rights, liberties and opportunities (of a kind familiar from constitutional democratic regimes);
2. an assignment of special priority to those rights, liberties and opportunities, especially with respect of claims of the general good and perfectionist values; and
3. measures assuring to all citizens adequate all-purpose means to make effective use of their liberties and opportunities.
These [three] elements can be understood in different ways, so that there are many variant liberalisms.”
Aren’t these just the typically vacuous abstractions that only a philosopher could love? No. Quite to the contrary, Rawls here identifies the common ground shared by classical and egalitarian liberals. And, I think, the common ground occupied by the participants in this discussion.
The abstract description of shared ground is located at the level of principle, not policy, but it is not vacuous at all, and in two important ways.
Is the Republican Party Viable?
Nate Silver over at 538 (via Andrew Sullivan):
That's right: just five states, collectively containing about 2 percent of the American population, have statistically significant pluralities of adults identifying themselves as Republicans. These are the "Mormon Belt" states of Utah, Idaho and Wyoming, plus Nebraska, plus Alaska. By contrast, 35 states are plurality Democratic, and 10 states are too close to call.
Now then for a couple of caveats. Firstly, Gallup's numbers consist of interviews with all adults -- not registered voters, and certainly not likely voters. Depending on the particular application that we're using this data for, that may be helpful or unhelpful. What this perhaps indicates, however, is that even after all the millions of new voters that the Democrats registered and brought to the polls in 2008, there are still probably some marginal gains to be had, particularly in areas like the deep South that the Obama campaign did not really concentrate in.
Secondly, these totals include "leaners" -- independents who lean toward one party or another, but don't identify themselves as such. This tends to increase the Democratic margin by a couple of points.
Thirdly and perhaps most importantly is a point that both Michael Barone and I have raised at various times: one consequence of the Democratic coalition being larger, particularly as it tends to include a miscellany of groups that don't always see eye-to-eye with one another (African-Americans, Hispanics, coastal liberals, union workers, young voters, etc.), is that it is more difficult to harness the entirety of that coalition in national elections.
Amazonian indigenous culture demonstrates a universal mapping of number onto space
Over at EurekAlert, via bookforum:
The research was conducted with the Munduruku, an Amazonian indigenous culture with a limited vocabulary of number words and spatial terms, little or no formal education, and little or no experience with maps, graphs, and rulers.
Munduruku adults and children spontaneously placed numbers on a line in a compressed, logarithmic function, such that smaller numbers appeared at greater spatial intervals. The study suggests that a propensity to relate numbers to space is universal, but that the mapping of successive integers and constant spatial intervals, as on a ruler, is culturally variable and linked in part to education.
The research was conducted by Stanislas Dehaene, professor of cognitive psychology at the College de France in Paris; Elizabeth Spelke, Marshall L. Berkman Professor of Psychology at Harvard University; Veronique Izard, a postdoctoral researcher in psychology at Harvard; and Pierre Pica of Paris VIII University in Paris.
I have a soft spot for art that, in terms of subject matter and material, is in bad taste. It’s art that pushes against psychological and social expectations, that tries to transform decay into something generative, that is replicative in a baroque way, that isn’t about progress, and wants to—as Walt Whitman put it— “contain multitudes.” I am not talking about messiness, schlock, theatricality, or ambition. I am thinking of Paul McCarthy’s excremental installations, Peter Saul’s twisted painted figures penetrating one another, Kara Walker’s race wars of sex and violence, and the Nazis in hell of Jake and Dinos Chapman, art that almost seems too much to take or even to look at, that resists aesthetic metabolism, that exudes a sort of poetics of apotheosis. It’s the way Andrea Fraser slept with a collector on camera, calling it art, and somehow the work escaped being silly academic nonsense or brainy porn. Many artists work with bad taste, but they do so in such conventional ways that their art ends up being predictable and gratuitous but little else. As for pornography, if it isn’t made in a particular way, it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do; in this way porn is almost like Egyptian art, in that it hardly ever changes. What shocked the art world about Jeff Koons’s porn work was that he so fully and bizarrely crawled into its conventions that it seemed to sprout new conventions.more from New York Magazine here.
What I prized most about Updike, though, was his marvellous ear for a sentence. In the stories especially, he caught the shimmer of light on the grass, for example, with uncanny skill. He could describe a twitching face, a wrinkled elderly hand, a fond gesture of affection, with shocking ease. I doubt I shall ever forget the painful stories about a family coming apart in Problems (1979); 'Separating' is one story I've read again and again through the years, with increasing admiration. My guess is that he will long be remembered as a master of the short story, the American equivalent of Maupassant. He will also be considered as a faithful reporter of his era, one of those writers who live fixedly in their own time, paying a kind of rueful but affectionate attention to its idiosyncrasies, its foibles, and its passing glories.more from The Guardian here.
how to think about science
If science is neither cookery, nor angelic virtuosity, then what is it? Modern societies have tended to take science for granted as a way of knowing, ordering and controlling the world. Everything was subject to science, but science itself largely escaped scrutiny. This situation has changed dramatically in recent years. Historians, sociologists, philosophers and sometimes scientists themselves have begun to ask fundamental questions about how the institution of science is structured and how it knows what it knows. David Cayley talks to some of the leading lights of this new field of study.An impressive series put together by CBC Radio. There are 24 episodes and while I haven't listened to them all yet I also haven't been disappointed yet. So, check it out here.
Michelle, Our Belle
From The Root:
It’s difficult to avoid being completely fascinated with our new First Lady, Michelle Obama. She’s an Ivy League black woman who’s as tall and fashionable as a supermodel. She’s the mother of 10-year-old twist sporting Malia and sassy Sasha. And President Obama glows every time she’s by his side. But The Buzz is not alone in its “Barack & Michelle Forever” fixation. Tim Shipman, a journalist for the British newspaper The Telegraph, details all the aspects of Michelle’s First Lady swagger in an article published last Saturday.
Shipman writes, “Barack Obama would not be where he is today without Michelle Obama. She helped him understand his race and his country. She showed voters that he is a loving father and that he is a mortal man, one who does not pick his dirty socks off the bedroom floor, rather than a messiah.” And it’s obvious that even Barack knows this. From the way that he looked at her during their first dance, and his many testimonies to Michelle’s strength and intelligence, Barack understands that Michelle was his guiding light during a grueling, yet successful campaign.
"I am so in love with them being in love," says SweetBee, the 35-year-old from Raleigh, North Carolina, who runs the trailblazer-firstlady website. "For Barack to choose a tall, brown, beautiful woman as his wife means a lot to me. Barack, you single-handedly made it cool once again to love your lady."
"Definition of Stranger"
Person not a member
of a group. A visitor,
guest, or the breast
that brushes your arm
on the subway. Person
with whom you've had
no acquaintance but who's taken
your rocking chair
from the curbside
and curls up in it
and closes her eyes.
Person in line
behind you now, waiting
for a glass of water,
or of whiskey, of elixir.
Person logging online
at the same second
from the Home Depot in Lima.
Or in search of the Dalai Lama.
Person not privy or party
to a decision, edict, et cetera,
but who's eaten
from the same fork
at the pizzeria
and kissed your wilder sister
on New Year's. Person assigned
to feed the tiger at the zoo
where you slipped your hand
into the palm
of somebody else's father.
Her Brother's Keeper
Ron Charles in The Washington Post:
There are books you recommend to everybody, and then there are books you share cautiously, even protectively. Jayne Anne Phillips's "Lark and Termite" is that second kind, a mysterious, affecting novel you'll want to talk about only with others who have fallen under its spell. On the surface, nothing about the West Virginia family in "Lark and Termite" seems especially noteworthy, except perhaps the consistency of their misfortune, but the author reveals their tangled secrets in such a profound and intimate way that these ordinary, wounded people become both tragic and magnificent.
Phillips has garnered plenty of praise in the past, but she's a slow writer by today's book-a-year standard, and she has made us wait almost a decade since her most recent novel, "MotherKind". The product of that labor is this strangely discordant story of violence and passion, affection and longing. It takes place during two very different Julys ? 1950 and 1959 ? in two very different places.
The first page drops us immediately into the early days of the Korean War. Devastating losses have pushed Cpl. Robert Leavitt quickly up the ranks, and now, as the North Koreans advance, he commands a thinly stretched platoon charged with evacuating refugees. In the ensuing chaos, American fighter pilots strafe the peasants under his charge and send them scurrying into a tunnel, where they're pinned down by panicked U.S. servicemen.
Thursday, January 29, 2009
Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:
There is, perhaps, no other American painting as recognizable and as loved as "Christina's World." The only other painting that comes to mind is "American Gothic" by Grant Wood. But for all his popularity (or because of it), Wyeth has generally been scorned by the critics. He has been called a cheap sentimentalist applying painterly tricks in the service of an empty nostalgia. New Criterion founder Hilton Kramer said simply, "he can't paint." Dave Hickey said Wyeth's palette was "mud and baby poop."
I keep coming back to the strangeness, the sense of unease that always bubbles up whenever I look at "Christina's World." Look at her hands and arms, spindly and wraith-like. Look, in particular, at the strange contortion in her right arm as she holds herself up. Something is wrong. Wyeth himself saw in Christina a kind of heroism. She was a real person living near his vacation home in Maine. She had been crippled by polio as a child but refused to use a wheelchair or to have much help at all. Wyeth admired her.
Still, I don't see much heroism in the painting. If this is nostalgia, it is not the nostalgia of wistful and pleasant longing. It’s a nostalgia closer to its Greek roots. The "algia" part of nostalgia comes from the Greek word "algos," meaning pain and grief. The pain and grief, the longing for a home, is not necessarily a curable condition. Wyeth has often been criticized for his nostalgia for a pre-modern, rural America shot through with Puritanism and a fundamental simplicity. I think the case is slightly different. Wyeth was fascinated with those kinds of solitary American scenes because they evoked for him a feeling, a not-quite-tangible sense of painful longing that is always gnawing at the corners of our experience.
A trumpet with an uncertain (but compelling) sound
In Evolutionary Psychology, Michael Austin reviews Jonathan Gottschall's Literature, Science, and a New Humanities:
There are two problems with this line of reasoning. First, it does not really produce any new knowledge. The claim that gender conventions have a biological basis is a cornerstone of modern evolutionary psychology and has been supported time and again with much more impressive data than Gottschall marshals. If the objective of a “new humanities” is simply to demonstrate how literature supports the foundational claims of evolutionary psychology, then I fear that this new field of study will soon run out of useful work; there are only so many times that these claims need to be tested and proved. To remain vital for very long, quantitative literary theory will have to develop interesting ways to interpret literature.
Norms, Minorities, and Collective Choice Online
Henry Farrell and Melissa Schwartzberg in Ethics & International Affairs (via bookforum):
We believe that the case studies outlined above [Daily Kos and Wikipedia]—brief and preliminary though they surely are—support our basic claim that we can learn a lot about the consequences of collective projects on the Internet by looking at how the specific rules of these projects structure collective choice. In particular, we argue that it is revealing to look more closely at how these rules structure relations between majorities and minorities in both epistemic and political contexts.
First, it is clear not only that the rules of these communities structure relations between majorities and minorities, but that the problem of majority-minority relations is key to their internal governance. In contrast to many offline political communities, the most important problem in Wikipedia and the Daily Kos is often to prevent the tyranny of the minority from consistently overwhelming the majority. More generally, many forms of social activity on the Internet are much more open than their offline equivalents; it is extraordinarily easy to become a member of Wikipedia or the Daily Kos, to start commenting on a blog, and so on. This bias toward openness is part of what gives the Internet its "generative" character.22 However, it also means that collective online projects are vulnerable to disruption by outsiders who do not share the goals of the project, because they do not agree with them, because they enjoy being "trolls," or because they have harmful economic incentives (for example, they can profit by publishing spam comments).
Denis Dutton on Colbert
What do these enigmatic women want?
Greg Downey over at the blog neuroanthropology:
In particular, Bergner gives us thumbnail portraits of women engaged in sex research: Meredith Chivers of Queens University (Kingston, Ontario), Lisa Diamond of the University of Utah, and Marta Meana from UNLV, although there’s also commentary from Julia Heiman, the Director of the Kinsey Institute, and others. As with so much of contemporary science writing, we get researchers as characters, with quirky personal descriptions and accounts of meeting the author, each one standing in for a particular perspective in current scientific debates.
Chivers is portrayed as arguing that women are existentially divided ‘between two truly separate, if inscrutably overlapping, systems, the physiological and the subjective,’ Diamond is made to stand in for the ‘female desire may be dictated… by intimacy, by emotional connection,’ and Meana stands in for the argument that women are narcissists desiring to submit. Whether or not these are accurate portrayals—and they might be—the model is prevalent in science writing: get characters to represent lines of thinking, even though many of us are not so clearly signed on with a single theoretical team. Here, we know the score: Diamond arguing women want intimacy, Meana that they want a real man to take them, and Chivers that women want it all, even if they don’t realize it and contradict themselves...
One can imagine an article with the title, ‘What do diners want?’, which bemoaned the fickleness and impenetrable complexity of culinary preferences: Sometimes they want steak, and sometimes just a salad. Sometimes they put extra salt on the meal, and sometimes they ask for ketchup. One orders fish, another chicken, another ham and eggs. One day a guy ordered tuna fish salad on rye, and the next, the same guy ordered a tandoori chicken wrap, hold the onions! My God, man, they’re insane! Who can ever come up with a unified theory of food preferences?! Food preferences are a giant forest, too complex for comprehension. What do diners want?!
You get my drift. The line of questioning is rhetorically time-tested (can we say clichéd even?) but objectively and empirically nonsensical.
[Image by Ryan McGinley/Team Gallery from New York Times. H/t: Linta Varghese]
John Updike's "Requiem"
A poem from John Updike’s forthcoming collection, “Endpoint and Other Poems,” in the NYT:
It came to me the other day:
Were I to die, no one would say,
“Oh, what a shame! So young, so full
Of promise — depths unplumbable!”
Instead, a shrug and tearless eyes
Will greet my overdue demise;
The wide response will be, I know,
“I thought he died a while ago.”
For life’s a shabby subterfuge,
And death is real, and dark, and huge.
The shock of it will register
Nowhere but where it will occur.