October 31, 2009
Dreams of Better Schools
Andrew Delbanco reviews E.D. Hirsch Jr.'s The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools and Mike Rosein's Why School? Reclaiming Education for All of Us in the NYRB:
Ever since its beginnings in antebellum Massachusetts, public education has been regarded as a national imperative, yet running the schools has generally been left to the states. Before the Civil War, when one western state school superintendent observed the "futility of attempting to operate a Free School System, without proper supervisory agents," supervision was considered a state responsibility, and so it has remained ever since. During the short-lived experiment of Reconstruction, Congress did seek to influence local educational practices through its oversight of the new state constitutions, and through the Freedmen's Bureau, which set up schools in the South for black Americans who had previously been denied access to education. But it took nearly a century till the US Supreme Court, in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), issued its order that all public schools must be integrated. And it was not until the presidency of Lyndon Johnson that the federal government got substantially involved in school reform by directing funds to the states through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), with the goal of improving schools in high-poverty neighborhoods.
So it is all the more remarkable that it was under George W. Bush, a president full of platitudes about the virtue of local autonomy and the folly of "big government," that Washington entered the field of public education more aggressively than ever before. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, supported by many liberal Democrats, notably the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy, required that states institute standards defining what students must learn grade by grade, test student achievement school by school and district by district, and improve—or, in the absence of improvement, eliminate—schools that fail to meet the standards.
In general, the Obama administration remains committed to such mandates.
Jon Stewart: For Fox Sake!
The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c For Fox Sake!
Political Humor Health Car e Crisis
teachout defends "civilization"
Television can make you famous, but it can't keep you famous. It's a bit like heroin: No sooner do you stop taking your daily fix than you get all pale and clammy, after which you vanish in a puff of smoke. So far as I know, there's never been a TV star who lingered in the public eye for very long after departing from the airwaves—least of all Kenneth Clark. Even among his fellow art historians, Clark is only modestly well remembered. Most of his books are now out of print, and you're not likely to know his name if you're much under the age of 50. But Clark became a full-fledged celebrity in his late 60s when, in 1970, the newly hatched Public Broadcasting Service aired a 13-part TV series called "Civilisation: A Personal View" in which he escorted his viewers through a thousand years of cultural history. The program had been a huge success when broadcast by the BBC the preceding year, and it made a similar splash in America: In addition to launching PBS with a bang, "Civilisation" spawned an eponymous coffee-table book that cracked the best-seller list. It was the first time that PBS aired the kind of show that has since been dubbed "appointment TV." Everybody felt they had to see it—and talk about it.more from Terry Teachout at the WSJ here.
Reporting from San Francisco - William T. Vollmann hardly looks like one of the most ambitious authors of his generation. Walking on Haight Street in his rumpled jeans, ball cap and black T-shirt, shoulders bowed beneath a heavy backpack, he seems an older version of the street kids who still congregate in the tawdry heart of Haight-Ashbury -- young men mostly, carrying bedrolls, panhandling for change. In a lot of ways, these are Vollmann's people: outsiders, on the fringes, whom society tends to disregard. Outsiders have motivated his writing, from his 1987 debut novel, "You Bright and Risen Angels," which posits a war between insects and human beings, through his most recent effort, the monumental "Imperial" (Viking: 1,306 pp., $55), which tracks another kind of conflict: the battles, real and metaphorical, that define Imperial County -- battles over immigration and water, identity and the reach and limitations of political power. The book, which came out in August, is perhaps the clearest expression of Vollmann's career-long commitment to immerse himself in complexities.more from David L. Ulin at the LA Times here.
The Rags of Time
Part of the delight in “The Museum of Innocence” is in scouting out the serious games, yet giving oneself over to the charms of Pamuk’s storytelling. He often makes use of genre, turns the expected response to his purpose. His 1998 book “My Name Is Red” may be claimed as a historical novel with an embedded mystery, and yet again as a political story — the miniatures of Eastern book art headed toward obsolescence, facing off with Western art, its perspective and freedom of invention. Such worldly engagement is of no concern to Kemal: “I have no desire to interrupt my story with descriptions of the street clashes between fervent nationalists and fervent Communists at that time, except to say what we were witnessing was an extension of the cold war.” It’s one of many denials that maintain his indifference to the political scene, and it’s in keeping with his character. A feckless soul, an aging bachelor living with his mother, he is dealt a position in a family business he barely attends to. Meanwhile, during the years of their separation, the beautiful Fusun has married a would-be movie director. Night after night Kemal joins them at her family’s dinner table, a threesome locked in a hopeless love story. It never occurs to the constant lover that Fusun may be ordinary — much like the adored girl in Nabokov’s “Lolita.” Kemal is chauffeured from his mother’s house in Nisantasi to Cukurcuma, passively watching the nightly news with Fusun’s family. Years flipping by, he tags along with the cinema crowd in Beyoglu, the beloved one aiming to be an actress. Kemal’s dogged endurance may try our patience, though his dead-end accounting provides a bleak comedy: “According to my notes, during the 409 weeks that my story will now describe, I went there for supper 1,593 times.” Maureen Freely’s translation captures the novelist’s playful performance as well as his serious collusion with Kemal. Her melding of tones follows Pamuk’s agility, to redirect our vision to the gravity of his tale: “This is not simply a story of lovers, but of the entire realm, that is, of Istanbul.”more from Maureen Howard at the NYT here.
Taking the novel seriously
From The Guardian:
The winner of a literary prize is sometimes surprised, often delighted, seldom ever disappointed. But when I finally caught up with the novelist Rana Dasgupta, speaking on a patchy mobile phone as he drove through rural India a couple of weeks after his novel, Solo, had been voted the winner of the Guardian's inaugural Not the Booker prize, he confessed that he found his victory "very depressing". After a month-and-a-half of discussion on the Guardian books blog, Dasgupta was chosen from a shortlist of six by an open vote in an atmosphere which he describes as "incredibly chaotic".
"I had loads of people emailing me, asking 'Can I post this to the discussion?'," he says. "A lot of people were immensely irate about the whole thing – I was amazed by the passion it raised. I was mostly saying 'Please don't post anything'." A user with the postername John Self posted an invitation Dasgupta had sent via Facebook for friends to come and vote on the Not the Booker thread, and at that point "anything that was said about my book was a conspiracy," Dasgupta continues, "and people were saying that I was behind it all." It reached a point where Dasgupta felt there was "no way of arguing with any of this", and posted on the thread himself to withdraw from the competition.
According to Dasgupta, this was partly because he'd transgressed on an unwritten assumption among those commenting on the blog. "One thing that really surprised me was the expectation that authors should be this completely separate group who wouldn't even know how to send an email," he says. "There's this particular idea of what an author should or shouldn't do, and when you infringe that view there's an incredible violence. Most publishers are putting enormous pressure on their authors to publicise their own work, but it's as if a fiction must be maintained that you have no part in this; that if you were nominated for some prize you'd have no idea."
Ayn Rand’s Revenge
From The New York Times:
A specter is haunting the Republican Party — the specter of John Galt. In Ayn Rand’s libertarian epic “Atlas Shrugged,” Galt, an inventor disgusted by creeping American collectivism, leads the country’s capitalists on a retributive strike. “We have granted you everything you demanded of us, we who had always been the givers, but have only now understood it,” Galt lectures the “looters” and “moochers” who make up the populace. “We have no demands to present you, no terms to bargain about, no compromise to reach. You have nothing to offer us. We do not need you.”
“Atlas Shrugged” was published 52 years ago, but in the Obama era, Rand’s angry message is more resonant than ever before. Sales of the book have reportedly spiked. At “tea parties” and other conservative protests, alongside the Obama-as-Joker signs, you will find placards reading “Atlas Shrugs” and “Ayn Rand Was Right.” Not long after the inauguration, as right-wing pundits like Glenn Beck were invoking Rand and issuing warnings of incipient socialism, Representative John Campbell, Republican of California, told a reporter that the prospect of rising taxes and government regulation meant “people are starting to feel like we’re living through the scenario that happened in ‘Atlas Shrugged.’ ”
The Berlin wall had to fall, but today's world is no fairer
Mikhail Gorbachev in The Guardian:
Naturally, we politicians from the last century can be proud of the fact that we avoided the danger of a thermonuclear war. However, for many millions of people around the globe, the world has not become a safer place. Quite to the contrary, innumerable local conflicts and ethnic and religious wars have appeared like a curse on the new map of world politics, creating large numbers of victims.
Clear proof of the irrational behaviour and irresponsibility of the new generation of politicians is the fact that defence spending by numerous countries, large and small alike, is now greater than during the cold war, and strong-arm tactics are once again the standard way of dealing with conflicts and are a common feature of international relations.
Alas, over the last few decades, the world has not become a fairer place: disparities between the rich and the poor either remained or increased, not only between the north and the developing south but also within developed countries themselves. The social problems in Russia, as in other post-communist countries, are proof that simply abandoning the flawed model of a centralised economy and bureaucratic planning is not enough, and guarantees neither a country's global competitiveness nor respect for the principles of social justice or a dignified standard of living for the population.
More here. [Thanks to Kris Kotarski.]
Dennett and Kitcher write to the New York Times
From Philip Kitcher's letter in the New York Times:
To the Editor:
In his review of “The Greatest Show on Earth,” Nicholas Wade charges that Richard Dawkins is guilty of a philosophical error. According to Wade, philosophers of science divide scientific propositions into three types — facts, laws and theories — and, contrary to Dawkins’s assertions, evolution, which is plainly a systematic theory, cannot count as a fact. However, contemporary philosophy of science offers a vastly more intricate vocabulary for thinking about the sciences than that presupposed in Wade’s oversimplified taxonomy and in his confused remarks about “absolute truth.” Although philosophers may quarrel with aspects of Dawkins’s arguments on a range of issues, he has a far firmer and more subtle understanding of the philosophical issues than that manifested in Wade’s review.
The crucial point is that, as Dawkins appreciates, the distinction between theory and fact, in philosophical discussions as in everyday speech, can be drawn in two quite distinct ways.
Best Halloween Comic Book Costume
Putting Caste on Notice
Barbara Crossette in The Nation:
Navi Pillay, the South African judge who became the United Nations high commissioner for human rights last year, is moving to the forefront of a campaign to free more than 250 million people from the indignities and horrors of caste discrimination. No previous commissioner has dared to openly take on this pernicious system, the majority of whose miserable victims live in India.
"This is the year 2009, and people have been talking about caste oppression for more than a hundred years," Pillay says. "It's time to move on this issue."
For Pillay, who is of Indian descent, the subject of caste has been hidden too long by obfuscation on the part of governments, not only in India, that have successfully argued in UN conferences that existing international conventions against human rights abuses do not apply. Caste did not figure in the official conclusions of a conference on racism and other forms of intolerance in Durban in 2001, after intense lobbying by India, and remained on the periphery of a review of that conference earlier this year.
That being the case, Pillay said in an interview in her New York office on a visit from her headquarters in Geneva, there may well have to be a new international convention written to apply directly to caste.
October 30, 2009
The Explainer: P vs. NP
Larry Hardesty in MIT News:
In fact, in a 2002 poll, 61 mathematicians and computer scientists said that they thought P probably didn’t equal NP, to only nine who thought it did — and of those nine, several told the pollster that they took the position just to be contrary. But so far, no one’s been able to decisively answer the question one way or the other. Frequently called the most important outstanding question in theoretical computer science, the equivalency of P and NP is one of the seven problems that the Clay Mathematics Institute will give you a million dollars for proving — or disproving. Roughly speaking, P is a set of relatively easy problems, and NP is a set of what seem to be very, very hard problems, so P = NP would imply that the apparently hard problems actually have relatively easy solutions. But the details are more complicated.
Computer science is largely concerned with a single question: How long does it take to execute a given algorithm? But computer scientists don’t give the answer in minutes or milliseconds; they give it relative to the number of elements the algorithm has to manipulate.
Imagine, for instance, that you have an unsorted list of numbers, and you want to write an algorithm to find the largest one.
Will we ever be able to think of Hannah Arendt in the same way again? Two new and damning critiques, one of Arendt and one of her longtime Nazi-sycophant lover, the philosopher Martin Heidegger, were published within 10 days of each other last month. The pieces cast further doubt on the overinflated, underexamined reputations of both figures and shed new light on their intellectually toxic relationship. My hope is that these revelations will encourage a further discrediting of the most overused, misused, abused pseudo-intellectual phrase in our language: the banality of evil. The banality of the banality of evil, the fatuousness of it, has long been fathomless, but perhaps now it will be consigned to the realm of the deceitful and disingenuous as well. The first of the two new reports—and the one most overlooked here in America, perhaps because it's not online—appeared in the sober pages of London's Times Literary Supplement on Oct. 9. It was titled "Blame the Victim—Hannah Arendt Among the Nazis: the Historian and Her Sources." Arendt—the German-born refugee intellectual, author of the influential The Origins of Totalitarianism and the controversial Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil—has come under fire before for "blaming the victim" in her Eichmann trial book, but the author of the TLS piece, the distinguished British scholar Bernard Wasserstein, breaks new ground here with material I found shocking.more from Ron Rosenbaum at Slate here.
a foolish boyle
Robert Boyle (1627-91) was, at least by reputation, the greatest scientist in the period between the condemnation of Galileo and the triumph of Newton. A founder member of the Royal Society, he did a great deal to win respect for the new experimental science and the mechanical philosophy. His early experiments with a vacuum pump (published in 1660) became famous as a refutation of Aristotelian physics (which denied the possibility of a vacuum), and led to the formulation of Boyle's Law relating the volume and pressure of gases. These achievements were accompanied by a commitment to religion that was even more important to him than science. He was much concerned with the propagation of the Gospel in foreign lands and foreign languages (including Gaelic), and paid for a translation of Grotius's De veritate into Arabic (surely a futile undertaking if ever there was one). At his death Boyle left a bequest to fund an annual series of lectures defending the truths of religion against atheism. He clearly hoped that scientific methods would provide indisputable confirmation for religious truths: the existence of life after death, for example, was to be confirmed by investigation of the mysterious drummer of Tedworth, a poltergeist.more from David Wootton at Literary Review here.
An open letter to Steve Levitt
Raymond T. Pierrehumbert, Louis Block Professor in the Geophysical Sciences, The University of Chicago, in Real Climate:
Dear Mr. Levitt,
The problem of global warming is so big that solving it will require creative thinking from many disciplines. Economists have much to contribute to this effort, particularly with regard to the question of how various means of putting a price on carbon emissions may alter human behavior. Some of the lines of thinking in your first book, Freakonomics, could well have had a bearing on this issue, if brought to bear on the carbon emissions problem. I have very much enjoyed and benefited from the growing collaborations between Geosciences and the Economics department here at the University of Chicago, and had hoped someday to have the pleasure of making your acquaintance. It is more in disappointment than anger that I am writing to you now.
I am addressing this to you rather than your journalist-coauthor because one has become all too accustomed to tendentious screeds from media personalities (think Glenn Beck) with a reckless disregard for the truth. However, if it has come to pass that we can’t expect the William B. Ogden Distinguished Service Professor (and Clark Medalist to boot) at a top-rated department of a respected university to think clearly and honestly with numbers, we are indeed in a sad way.
By now there have been many detailed dissections of everything that is wrong with the treatment of climate in Superfreakonomics , but what has been lost amidst all that extensive discussion is how really simple it would have been to get this stuff right. The problem wasn’t necessarily that you talked to the wrong experts or talked to too few of them. The problem was that you failed to do the most elementary thinking needed to see if what they were saying (or what you thought they were saying) in fact made any sense. If you were stupid, it wouldn’t be so bad to have messed up such elementary reasoning, but I don’t by any means think you are stupid. That makes the failure to do the thinking all the more disappointing. I will take Nathan Myhrvold’s claim about solar cells, which you quoted prominently in your book, as an example.
As quoted by you, Mr. Myhrvold claimed, in effect, that it was pointless to try to solve global warming by building solar cells, because they are black and absorb all the solar energy that hits them, but convert only some 12% to electricity while radiating the rest as heat, warming the planet. Now, maybe you were dazzled by Mr Myhrvold’s brilliance, but don’t we try to teach our students to think for themselves? Let’s go through the arithmetic step by step and see how it comes out. It’s not hard.
Joe Lieberman has become the Balloon Boy dad of the Senate
Maura Keaney in The Guardian:
Joe Lieberman has become the Balloon Boy dad of the Senate Democratic caucus, a fame-whore so addicted to media attention that he hatches ever-more-desperate and risky schemes that sell out his "family" to earn press attention.
Progressives can only hope that, like Richard Heene, Lieberman will finally be exposed as a fame-seeking fraudster after his latest stunt, Tuesday's threat to filibuster any bill for healthcare reform that includes a public option.
No one who's been paying attention should be surprised by Lieberman's move, yet the Washington press corps responded as if they'd never heard of the boy who cried wolf. This is Lieberman's schtick, the only act that's ever consistently gotten him ratings.
Mind in the Forest
From Orion Magazine:
I TOUCH TREES, as others might stroke the fenders of automobiles or finger silk fabrics or fondle cats. Trees do not purr, do not flatter, do not inspire a craving for ownership or power. They stand their ground, immune to merely human urges. Saplings yield under the weight of a hand and then spring back when the hand lifts away, but mature trees accept one’s touch without so much as a shiver. While I am drawn to all ages and kinds, from maple sprouts barely tall enough to hold their leaves off the ground to towering sequoias with their crowns wreathed in fog, I am especially drawn to the ancient, battered ones, the survivors.
Recently I spent a week in the company of ancient trees. The season was October and the site was the drainage basin of Lookout Creek, on the western slope of the Cascade Mountains in Oregon. Back in my home ground of southern Indiana, the trees are hardwoods—maples and beeches and oaks, hickories and sycamores—and few are allowed to grow for as long as a century without being felled by ax or saw. Here, the ruling trees are Douglas firs, western hemlocks, western red cedars, and Pacific yews, the oldest of them ranging in age from five hundred to eight hundred years, veterans of countless fires, windstorms, landslides, insect infestations, and floods.
I had walked since dawn and lay down to rest on a bare hillside
Above the ocean. I saw through half-shut eyelids a vulture wheeling
.....high up in heaven,
And presently it passed again, but lower and nearer, its orbit
.....I understood then
That I was under inspection. I lay death-still and heard the flight-
Whistle above me and make their circle and come nearer.
I could see the naked red head between the great wings
Bear downward staring. I said, "My dear bird, we are wasting time
These old bones will still work; they are not for you." But how
.....he looked, gliding down
On those great sails; how beautiful he looked, veering away in the
.....over the precipice. I tell you solemnly
That I was sorry to have disappointed him. To be eaten by that beak
.....become part of him, to share those wings and those eyes--
What a sublime end of one's body, what and enskyment; what a life
by Robinson Jeffers
Palestinian equal rights joins the progressive agenda on ‘The Daily Show’
Adam Horowitz at Mondoweiss:
I don’t want to recount the whole interview, you can watch it. I have to say, I was blown away. Although I was laughing out loud for the first two segments, I was on the verge of tears throughout the interview. Here was a Palestinian leader demanding equal rights and an anti-Zionist Jew calling for boycott, divestment and sanctions to pressure Israel towards peace on The Daily Show and they were being applauded, while the traditional pro-Israel hasbara was being shown the door.
Palestinian equal rights was placed directly next to health care and the economy on The Daily Show’s progressive agenda and the audience was totally along for the ride. I could hardly believe my eyes, and yet it made perfect sense at the same time. Who can argue that it is necessary to deny people water? Who can argue against equal rights? The answer is increasingly no one, and if The Daily Show’s audience is any indication, the next generation will be leading this fight in a much different direction.
|The Daily Show With Jon Stewart||Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c|
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Are there asexuals among us?
Jesse Bering in Scientific American:
At least, that’s what most people tend to think. But actually, some scientists believe that there may be a fourth sexual orientation in our species, one characterized by the absence of desire and no sexual interest in males or females, only a complete and lifelong lacuna of sexual attraction toward any human being (or non-human being). Such people are regarded as asexuals. Unlike bisexuals, who are attracted to both males and females, asexuals are equally indifferent to and uninterested in having sex with either gender. So imagine being a teenager waiting for your sexual identity to express itself, waiting patiently for some intoxicating bolus of lasciviousness to render you as dumbly carnal as your peers, and it just doesn’t happen. These individuals aren’t simply celibate, which is a lifestyle choice. Rather, sex to them is just so ... boring.
True Love: How to Find It
From Scientific American:
Nicholas and his wife, Erika, like to joke that they had an arranged marriage, South Asia–style. Although they lived within four blocks of each other for two years and were both students at Harvard, their paths never crossed. Erika had to go all the way to Bangladesh so that Nicholas could find her. In the summer of 1987 he went to Washington, D.C., where he had grown up and gone to high school, to care for his ailing mother. He was a medical student, single and, he foolishly thought, not ready for a serious relationship. His old high school friend, Nasi, was also home for the summer. Nasi’s girlfriend, Bemy, who had come to know Nicholas well enough that her gentle teasing was a source of amusement for all of them, was also there. She had, as it turned out, just returned from a year in rural Bangladesh, doing community development work.
In the wood and tin hut where Bemy had spent her year abroad was a beautiful young American woman with whom she shared both a burning desire to end poverty and a metal bucket to wash her hair. You probably know where this story is going. One afternoon, in the middle of the monsoon, while writing a postcard to Nasi, Bemy suddenly turned to her friend Erika and blurted out: “I just thought of the man you’re going to marry.” That man was Nicholas. Erika was incredulous. But months later she agreed to meet him in D.C., and the four of them had dinner at Nasi’s house. Nicholas was, of course, immediately smitten. Erika was “not unimpressed,” as she later put it. That night, after getting home, she woke up her sister to announce that she had indeed met the man she was going to marry. Three dates later Nicholas told Erika he was in love. And that is how he came to marry a woman who was three degrees removed from him all along—she was connected to him through two intermediate social ties, a friend of a friend of a friend—someone who had lived practically next door, whom he had never previously met, but who was just perfect for him.
October 29, 2009
Question your tea spoons
When a person is sick, Jews pray for him by reciting the verses of Psalms that begin with the letters of his name; Psalm 119 is often used for this purpose, as it is made of 22 sets of eight verses that begin with the same Hebrew letter, and the sets are arranged alphabetically—or, perhaps, aleph-betically. Accordingly, my Hebrew name, Yosef, is symbolized by Psalm 138:8, which in Hebrew begins with a yod, the first letter of Yosef, and ends with a fey, the last letter of Yosef; the entirety of the sentence that should save my life reads, in English: “The Lord will perfect that which concerneth me: thy mercy, O Lord, endureth for ever: forsake not the works of thine own hands.” Indeed, it seems like the majority of Jewish liturgy not taken directly from the Torah is made of devotions arranged by permutations of letters, and interpolations of sums: for centuries, rabbis have composed acrostic prayers that spell their own names; and any visit to any synagogue on any day of the week at any of the three daily services will tell you that the number of times a text is repeated is just as important as what that repeated text actually means. The occasion for these thoughts is no religious epiphany, but rather a rereading of French writer Georges Perec, whose 1978 masterpiece Life: A User’s Manual was just republished in a definitive translation by David Bellos.more from Joshua Cohen at Tablet here.
When was the last time you enjoyed a painting that was sexy, odd and hilarious all at once? Just visit the all-round wonderful show "Watteau, Music, and Theater" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Sept. 21-Nov. 29, 2009, and look for The Surprise by the Rococo artist, Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721). The elegant and witty game of love turns suddenly serious in this small oil painting on wood from ca. 1718. A guitarist dressed as the commedia dell’arte character Mezzetin, splendidly attired in satin with a lace ruff, looks up from tuning his instrument to watch a couple whom he has been, or was about to begin, serenading. The swain has suddenly, violently embraced his lady, swiveling her body across his as he steals a passionate kiss. He grasps her left arm, which he attempts to place around his neck, while her other arm dangles passively, suggesting that at least for the moment she does not reciprocate his ardor.more from N.F. Karlins at artnet here.
Has any major postwar American author taken as much critical abuse as Ayn Rand? Her best-known novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, have sold more than 12 million copies in the United States alone and were ranked first and second in a 1998 Modern Library reader survey of the "greatest books" of the 20th century. Yet over the years, Rand's writing has been routinely dismissed as juvenile and subliterate when it has been considered at all. During the height of the Cold War, she managed to alienate leftists by insisting that capitalism was not simply more productive but more moral than socialism or a mixed economy because it allowed the individual to express himself most fully. And she angered the anticommunist Right with her thoroughgoing materialism, lack of respect for tradition, and atheism. (She once told William F. Buckley he was "too intelligent" to believe in God.) The publication of Anne C. Heller's Ayn Rand and the World She Made and Jennifer Burns's Goddess of the Market indicates that a belated but timely reconsideration of Rand's place in American cases for Rand's importance to the past 80 years of American intellectual and cultural life all the more convincing. That Rand's life story is in many ways more melodramatic, unbelievable, and conflicted than one of her own plots certainly helps to keep the reader's attention. As Burns puts it, "The clash between her romantic and rational sides makes [her life] not a tale of triumph, but a tragedy of sorts."more from Nick Gillespie at Reason here.
Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better
David Runciman reviews The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, in the London Review of Books:
The argument of this fascinating and deeply provoking book is easy to summarise: among rich countries, the more unequal ones do worse according to almost every quality of life indicator you can imagine. They do worse even if they are richer overall, so that per capita GDP turns out to be much less significant for general wellbeing than the size of the gap between the richest and poorest 20 per cent of the population (the basic measure of inequality the authors use). The evidence that Wilkinson and Pickett supply to make their case is overwhelming. Whether the test is life expectancy, infant mortality, obesity levels, crime rates, literacy scores, even the amount of rubbish that gets recycled, the more equal the society the better the performance invariably is. In graph after graph measuring various welfare functions, the authors show that the best predictor of how countries will rank is not the differences in wealth between them (which would result in the US coming top, with the Scandinavian countries and the UK not too far behind, and poorer European nations like Greece and Portugal bringing up the rear) but the differences in wealth within them (so the US, as the most unequal society, comes last on many measures, followed by Portugal and the UK, both places where the gap between rich and poor is relatively large, with Spain and Greece somewhere in the middle, and the Scandinavian countries invariably out in front, along with Japan). Just as significantly, this pattern holds inside the US as well, where states with high levels of income inequality also tend to have the greatest social problems.
Us and Them: The Science of Identity
Jodi Forschmiedt in Metapsychology:
Turns out, they are all imagined.
Drawing on history, biology, psychology, and recent events, Berreby demonstrates again and again that we invent categories with which to classify and group one another. When the circumstances change, we just as easily regroup. A classic example: the Cagots were a despised caste in fifteenth century France. The lived apart from others, had separate entrances to churches, married only amongst themselves, had no social or political rights, and were confined to certain occupations. This discriminatory treatment continued until the French Revolution changed the rules. Now, though their descendants may still live in France, no trace of the Cagots remains. The change in French law and culture simply eliminated the category.
In a fascinating chapter titled "Inventing Tradition in Oklahoma, or What I Did on My Summer Vacation," Berreby details a study conducted by Muzafer Sherif in 1954. Two groups of boys, carefully matched in age, race, and background, were sent to separate areas of a summer camp and given time to form tight bonds with their own groups before encountering the others. In a short period of time, each group developed a strong identity, complete with values, traditions, and mores unique to them. The boys also developed an instant antipathy to the other group, even though they were indistinguishably similar.
H. M. Naqvi reads from his excellent debut novel, Home Boy
Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.
And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
In the sun that is young once only,
Time let me play and be
Golden in the mercy of his means,
And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,
And the sabbath rang slowly
In the pebbles of the holy streams.
All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay
Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air
And playing, lovely and watery
And fire green as grass.
And nightly under the simple stars
As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away,
All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the nightjars
Flying with the ricks, and the horses
Flashing into the dark.
And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white
With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all
Shining, it was Adam and maiden,
The sky gathered again
And the sun grew round that very day.
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm
Out of the whinnying green stable
On to the fields of praise.
And honoured among foxes and pheasants by the gay house
Under the new made clouds and happy as the heart was long,
In the sun born over and over,
I ran my heedless ways,
My wishes raced through the house high hay
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
Before the children green and golden
Follow him out of grace.
Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.
By Dylan Thomas
Memo to grammar cops: Back off!
From The Telegraph:
"Passions run hot when the discussion turns to language," writes Rutgers English professor Jack Lynch in his sprightly new history of the notion of "proper" English, "The Lexicographer's Dilemma." "Friends who can discuss politics, religion and sex with perfect civility are often reduced to red-faced rage when the topic of conversation is the serial comma or an expression like more unique." Ain't it the truth? My favorite call-in radio program regularly invites "word maven" Patricia T. O'Conner to come on and talk about new and old figures of speech. O'Conner clearly prefers to marvel over the language's diversity, but the half-hour is inevitably eaten up by people kvetching about their pet peeves, more often than not some barely detectable error or non-infraction that makes the caller apoplectic -- such as the phrase "gone missing," which is "perfectly standard," according to Lynch. But who am I to mock? I, who have gnashed my teeth countless times over the dangling participles that abound on NPR
Lynch would like us all to calm down, please, and recognize that "proper" English is a recent and changeable institution. "The Lexicographer's Dilemma" recapitulates the long argument between two schools of thought: the prescriptive -- which holds that the job of language experts is to lay down the law by telling us how to speak and write -- and the descriptive, which holds that compilers of dictionaries and other guides are in the business of describing, not dictating, how the language is used. The latter group includes most professional linguists and lexicographers, but the former -- self-appointed pundits like the late William Safire and Lynne Truss, author of the bestselling rant about punctuation errors, "Eats, Shoots and Leaves" -- know that the real money lies in validating the ire of purists.
CRITICAL TRANSITIONS IN NATURE AND SOCIETY
John R. McNeill in American Scientist:
Like many before him, Marten Scheffer is impressed with parallels between social systems and natural systems. Moreover, he is convinced that problems confronting the human race require something more integrated than the fragmentary knowledge of the various academic disciplines. In short, he seeks to span the famous “two cultures” and to take a long stride toward consilience. Coming from a background in limnology and aquatic ecology, Scheffer is inevitably more at home in some arenas of knowledge than others, and his new book, Critical Transitions in Nature and Society, is mainly about the critical transitions in nature that are of interest to society. An example with which he begins the book is typical: the transformation of the Western Sahara into desert about 5,500 years ago as a result of initially small climate change that built on itself because the drier climate reduced vegetation, thereby heightening albedo.
Part of Scheffer’s aim is to contribute to the study of how well the theory of system dynamics corresponds to real life, in the behavior both of nature and of society. “If we are able to pin down the mechanisms at work,” he says, “this may eventually open up the possibility of predicting, preventing, or catalyzing big shifts in nature and society.” To be able to do so is a long-standing human ambition, which has been given fullest rein in political regimes that have seen utopia just over the horizon and have aimed to get there as soon as possible. In the abstract, such ambition seems laudable. In practice, it has led to many regrettable “big shifts” in nature and society, such as those undertaken in the headiest days of the Soviet Union or Mao Zedong’s rule in China. To date, those most keen on provoking “big shifts” have known far too little, and perhaps cared too little as well, about the possible outcomes of their actions. When results did not conform closely enough to their hopes, they used their powers to try to force society and nature into preferred channels, which led to gulags and environmental disasters. When trying to catalyze big shifts in nature and society, one must really know what one is doing—and that is very, very hard to do.
Grandma Plays Favorites
Most women have their last child before age 40. Why would Darwinian evolution favor such a cutoff, especially when most other mammals reproduce until they die? A new study finds support for the "grandmother hypothesis," the idea that older women spread their genes most effectively by helping their daughters take care of their children. In 1998, behavioral ecologist Kristen Hawkes of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and her colleagues proposed that grandmothers lend their skill and experience to the rearing of their grandchildren. Hawkes and others cited the Hadza, a modern foraging society in Tanzania, in which grandmothers search for tubers while their daughters are breastfeeding their babies. Given that tubers are thought to have become an important staple during the early days of human evolution, a selective advantage for "grandmothering" rather than "mothering" by older women might have arisen in our species.
Over the past decade, a number of researchers have tried to test the hypothesis by looking at the relationship between grandmothers and their grandchildren. Some studies found that when grandmothers live near their grandchildren and/or live longer, their grandchildren have higher survival rates. But other studies did not see this correlation.
October 28, 2009
Sita Sings the Blues
Amitava Kumar in India Uncut:
Paley has set the story of the Ramayana to the 1920s jazz vocals of Annette Hanshaw. The epic tale is interwoven with Paley’s account of her husband’s move to India from where he dumps her by e-mail. The Ramayana is presented with the tagline: “The Greatest Break-Up Story Ever Told.”
All of this should make us curious. But there are other reasons for admiring this film:
the persian avant-garde
One afternoon a few years ago, Ata Ebtekar was poking through a Tehran CD shop. He’d returned to Iran, his home country, in hopes of introducing audiences there to experimental electronic music shot through with Persian elements. He had also been trying – unsuccessfully – to find other musicians doing similar work. So he was shocked to hear sounds much like his own playing through the store’s speakers. He froze in his tracks for a minute, then asked the clerk what he was listening to. Fashions rise and fall, trends evaporate, but snobby record shop employees are a worldwide constant. They transcend barriers of language, culture and geography to make potential buyers feel clueless. (I, for one, have been outright ignored or publicly humiliated by such employees on four continents.) The Tehrani salesman told Ebtekar that, as a matter of fact, he was playing a CDR of unpublished material from the classical composer Alizera Mashayekhi. Ebtekar was thrilled – and still remembers the exact phrasing the clerk used to put him down. “I told him: ‘I’m an electronic musician too, this is very close, aesthetic-wise, to what I’m doing.’ He was very cold, and he used the metaphor ‘well, I have a very nice bicycle at home, would you like to ride?’ And that’s his reply.”more from Jace Clayton in The National here.
the importance of dead whales
I am standing in the back of a large lorry, my feet submerged in a pool of blood, water and oil. The truck's container is open to a grey Welsh sky, but with high-sided walls to keep the blood and us hidden from view. I shout instructions to Nick, my PhD student, over the wind and rain: "Just climb on to its back and start cutting!" He looks doubtful. Our task lies stinking before us - a nine-metre whale corpse freshly pulled from the Bristol Channel. Before the concept of "health and safety" was invented, a whale stranding was an important public event. Edward II decreed that whales were the "fishes royal" and that stranded carcasses belonged to the Crown - legislation that still exists today. The carcasses were valuable, and often a popular tourist attraction. The whale might be brought into town squares for the public to see, poke, smell and eat. Whales inspired awe, fascination and greed. They still do, but the fascination is held at bay by poorly informed council workers tasked with the disposal job of their life; and the greed is in the prices quoted by the contractors asked to get rid of the body. A recent sperm whale disposal in Humberside cost the taxpayer over £20,000.more from Adrian Glover at The New Statesman here.
In 2008, half the people who watched the Fox News Channel were over sixty-three, which is the oldest demographic in the cable-news business, and, according to a poll, the majority of the ones who watched the most strident programs, such as Sean Hannity’s and Bill O’Reilly’s shows, were men. All that chesty fulminating apparently functions as political Cialis. Fox News shows should probably carry a warning: Contact your doctor if you have rage lasting more than four hours. By effectively cornering the market on anti-Administration animus, Fox News has had a robust 2009 so far, and the recent decision by the White House to declare war on the channel is not likely to put a dent in the ratings. That decision has dispirited some of the President’s well-wishers. It has also puzzled them. In American politics, it should be considered a good thing when, after you have won a Presidential election by more than nine million votes, your chief critics accuse you of filling your Administration with Nazis, Maoists, anarchists, and Marxist revolutionaries. That is the voice of the fringe, and the fringe is exactly where you want the opposition to set up permanent shop.more from Louis Menand at The New Yorker here.
The summer that I was ten --
Can it be there was only one
summer that I was ten?
It must have been a long one then --
each day I'd go out to choose
a fresh horse from my stable
which was a willow grove
down by the old canal.
I'd go on my two bare feet.
But when, with my brother's jack-knife,
I had cut me a long limber horse
with a good thick knob for a head,
and peeled him slick and clean
except a few leaves for the tail,
and cinched my brother's belt
around his head for a rein,
I'd straddle and canter him fast
up the grass bank to the path,
trot along in the lovely dust
that talcumed over his hoofs,
hiding my toes, and turning
his feet to swift half-moons.
The willow knob with the strap
jouncing between my thighs
was the pommel and yet the poll
of my nickering pony's head.
My head and my neck were mine,
yet they were shaped like a horse.
My hair flopped to the side
like the mane of a horse in the wind.
My forelock swung in my eyes,
my neck arched and I snorted.
I shied and skittered and reared,
stopped and raised my knees,
pawed at the ground and quivered.
My teeth bared as we wheeled
and swished through the dust again.
I was the horse and the rider,
and the leather I slapped to his rump
spanked my own behind.
Doubled, my two hoofs beat
a gallop along the bank,
the wind twanged in my mane,
my mouth squared to the bit.
And yet I sat on my steed
quiet, negligent riding,
my toes standing the stirrups,
my thighs hugging his ribs.
At a walk we drew up to the porch.
I tethered him to a paling.
Dismounting, I smoothed my skirt
and entered the dusky hall.
My feet on the clean linoleum
left ghostly toes in the hall.
Where have you been? said my mother.
Been riding, I said from the sink,
and filled me a glass of water.
What's that in your pocket? she said.
Just my knife. It weighted my pocket
and stretched my dress awry.
Go tie back your hair, said my mother,
and Why Is your mouth all green?
Rob Roy, he pulled some clover
as we crossed the field, I told her.
By May Swenson
From No More Masks; Anchor Books, 1973
The Saudi-isation of Pakistan
A stern, unyielding version of Islam is replacing the kinder, gentler Islam of the Sufis in Pakistan.
Pervez Hoodbhoy in Newsline:
Political leaders like Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan have no words of solace for those who have suffered at the hands of Islamic extremists. Their tears are reserved exclusively for the victims of Predator drones, even if they are those who committed grave crimes against their own people. Terrorism, by definition, is an act only the Americans can commit.
What explains Pakistan’s collective masochism? To understand this, one needs to study the drastic social and cultural transformations that have rendered this country so completely different from what it was in earlier times.
For three decades, deep tectonic forces have been silently tearing Pakistan away from the Indian subcontinent and driving it towards the Arabian peninsula. This continental drift is not physical but cultural, driven by a belief that Pakistan must exchange its South Asian identity for an Arab-Muslim one. Grain by grain, the desert sands of Saudi Arabia are replacing the rich soil that had nurtured a magnificent Muslim culture in India for a thousand years. This culture produced Mughul architecture, the Taj Mahal, the poetry of Asadullah Khan Ghalib, and much more. Now a stern, unyielding version of Islam (Wahhabism) is replacing the kinder, gentler Islam of the Sufis and saints who had walked on this land for hundreds of years.
More here. [Thanks to Mehreen Jabbar.]
Jerry Hall interview
From The Telegraph:
There’s something indecent about Jerry Hall – and it’s not the legs, platinum mane or sexually charged Tennessee Williams drawl. It’s the fact that at 53, the Texas-born model oozes contentment. Sacrilege, really, when you consider the current diktat that any woman nearing middle age should be preparing to live out her years mired in self-loathing. “A lot happens at 50,” Hall explains, “the best thing being that you just don’t care any more.” She tilts her head to one side and lowers heavily made-up lashes. “At 40, you still care. At 30, you care way too much – and your twenties are quite frankly a nightmare. Bring on 60, I say: just imagine the joy of having grandchildren.”
Released from her troubled nine-year marriage to serial philanderer Mick Jagger a decade ago, Hall, a mother of four – Elizabeth, 25, James, 24, Georgia May, 17, and Gabriel, 12 – has been busy living out plans that have been a lifetime in the making. She has completed an Open University course in Humanities and the Enlightenment and built up a theatre repertoire on Broadway and in London’s West End, where she has, for the past four months, been playing Miss September in Calendar Girls, a stage version of the hit 2003 film about the British Women’s Institute calendar. Bearing all this in mind, it’s just possible that the shelving of a £1 million “explosive” autobiography earlier this year might be down to time constraints, and not, as has been suggested, because Hall refused to dish the dirt on her ex-husband.
Defending Science Isn’t Always Pretty
Sean Carroll in Cosmic Variance:
This month’s issue of WIRED features a great story by Amy Wallace: “An Epidemic of Fear: How Panicked Parents Skipping Shots Endangers Us All.” It’s an overview of the anti-vaccination movement in the United States, a topic that should be very familiar to anyone who reads Discover’s baddest astronomer. At ScienceBlogs, Orac and Abel Pharmboy gives big thumbs-up to the article.
The anti-vaccination movement is a little weird — they claim that vaccines, which are universally credited with wiping out smallpox and polio and other bad things, are responsible for causing autism and diabetes and other also-bad things, all just to make a buck for pharmaceutical companies. The underlying motivation seems to be a combination of the conviction that things must happen for a reason — if a child develops autism, there must be an enemy to blame — and a general distrust of science and technology. Certainly the pro-science point of view is fairly unequivocal; like any medicine, vaccines should be used properly, but they have done great good for the world and there are very real dangers of increased risk for epidemics if enough children stop receiving them. Good for WIRED for taking on the issue and publishing an uncompromisingly pro-science piece on it.
But the anti-vax movement is more than just committed; they’re pretty darn virulent. And since the article came out, author Amy Wallace has been subject to all sorts of attacks. She’s been documenting them on her Twitter feed, which I encourage you to check out.
From Scientific American:
A fierce crustacean known as the peacock mantis shrimp has eyes so refined they can perceive polarized light, including information that is invisible to nearly every other member of the animal kingdom. Not only can the ocean dweller extract polarization information from light, it can do so when the light is circularly polarized—an ability unknown outside a few species of the order of stomatopods to which the peacock mantis belongs.
Unlike linearly polarized light, in which the electric field oscillates along a plane, circularly polarized light's field twists like a spiral spring as the ray propagates. Such light is not commonly reflected from animal bodies and so was long dismissed as a virtual nonfactor in physiology, but research last year showed that some stomatopods have the ability to discriminate circular polarization. A paper published online October 25 in Nature Photonics unpacks the mechanism behind the mantis shrimp's ability and concludes that its eyes handle circularly polarized light more effectively than man-made optical devices do. (Scientific American is part of the Nature Publishing Group.)
Scientology Losing Ground To New Fictionology
According to a report released Monday by the American Institute of Religions, the Church of Scientology, once one of the fastest-growing religious organizations in the U.S., is steadily losing members to the much newer religion Fictionology.
"Unlike Scientology, which is based on empirically verifiable scientific tenets, Fictionology's central principles are essentially fairy tales with no connection to reality," the AIR report read. "In short, Fictionology offers its followers a mythical belief system free from the cumbersome scientific method to which Scientology is hidebound."
Created in 2003 by self-proclaimed messiah Bud Don Ellroy, Fictionology's principles were first outlined in the self-help paperback Imaginetics: The New Pipe-Dream Of Modern Mental Make-Believe.
Fictionology's central belief, that any imaginary construct can be incorporated into the church's ever-growing set of official doctrines, continues to gain popularity. Believers in Santa Claus, his elves, or the Tooth Fairy are permitted—even encouraged—to view them as deities. Even corporate mascots like the Kool-Aid Man are valid objects of Fictionological worship.
"My personal savior is Batman," said Beverly Hills plastic surgeon Greg Jurgenson. "My wife chooses to follow the teachings of the Gilmore Girls. Of course, we are still beginners. Some advanced-level Fictionologists have total knowledge of every lifetime they have ever lived for the last 80 trillion years."
Can We Talk About Religion, Please?
Randy Cohen in the New York Times Magazine:
We do accord special status to religious groups, even writing it into our Constitution. Some actions that are generally forbidden are permitted if undertaken as a religious obligation: for instance, Sikh transit workers in New York may wear turbans. But not everything goes. Polygamy is outlawed. Nor would we allow human sacrifice, even if requested by a deeply observant Aztec. That is, we do not regard these things uncritically. And remember: it is not just religious practice but free expression that the Constitution protects. To muffle our discussion of religiously motivated acts is to dilute the discourse that is essential to democracy.
And so it is disheartening that the editorial pages of our most important newspapers did not castigate the Vatican’s invitation to misogyny and homophobia. Some blogs did so. Daily Kos headlined its coverage, “Vatican Welcomes Bigoted Anglicans.” But the discussion provided by, say, network news barely rose above the demure. That’s not courtesy; it’s cowardice. Perhaps the networks fear being charged with anti-Catholic bias. This is not an unreasonable concern. When I reproved that real estate agent, my surname was no shield against accusations of anti-Semitism. But surely it is possible to disagree respectfully. To criticize a particular practice of Orthodox Jews need not be anti-Semitism. To denounce this Vatican policy need not be anti-Catholic bigotry. Criticism is not contempt.
More here. [Thanks to Greg Segraves.]
October 27, 2009
ghosts at the window
I can’t stop watching the film clip of Anne Frank. Ever since the Anne Frank House museum posted it on their new Anne Frank YouTube channel a few weeks ago, I have watched it again and again. I must have watched it a hundred times. It is 20 seconds of shaky, black-and-white silence, in which Anne Frank appears at a window on a summer day in 1941. It is the only known film of Anne Frank. Only, it’s not a film about Anne Frank. At least not intentionally. The stars of the film are a newlywed couple, walking out of the house next door. The bride carries a huge bouquet of flowers and wears a modest skirt suit. She holds the arm of a lanky groom, who dons a top hat and tails. They smile. The street gathers to watch them, the windows in the surrounding buildings fill with onlookers. The film’s guest star is Merwedeplein, the street in Amsterdam where the Frank family lived before they went into hiding at 263 Prinsengracht — now known as the Secret Annex — the following summer of 1942. It’s a clear day on Merwedeplein and everything seems as it should: little girls hold their mothers’ hands, teenage boys ride bicycles, cars whiz past a nearby park. It’s a time when the Jews of Holland were only being deported in handfuls, and there’s no sign at all of a country living under occupation.more from Stefany Anne Golberg at The Smart Set here.
creationism islam style
Americans familiar with the long and bitter battle over the teaching of evolution in our schools likely have a set of images of what creationism looks like: from the Scopes trial, and its dramatization in “Inherit the Wind,” to more recent battles over textbooks on school boards in Kansas and Georgia and in federal court in Pennsylvania. The doctrine of creationism, and its less explicitly religious cousin intelligent design, are extensively developed counter-narratives of the origin of life on Earth, fed by Christian concerns and shaped by Christian beliefs. In its more extreme forms, creationist thought is guided by a faith in the inerrancy of the language of the Book of Genesis, so that some creationists see in the fossil record evidence that Noah must have herded dinosaurs onto his ark along with the rest of creation. But there is another creationist movement whose influence is growing, and which is fueling challenges to science in countries where Christianity has little sway: Islamic creationism. Campaigners in countries like Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, and Indonesia have fought the teaching of evolution in schools there, sometimes with great success. Creationist conferences have been held in Pakistan, and moderate Islamic clerics are on record publicly condemning Darwin’s ideas. A recent study of Muslim university students in the Netherlands showed that most rejected evolution. And driven in part by a mysterious Turkish publishing organization, Islamic creationism books are hot sellers at bookstores throughout the Muslim world.more from Drake Bennett at The Boston Globe here.
The Philosopher-CitizenCharles Taylor on Jürgen Habermas:
Jürgen Habermas is known in the world of analytic philosophy primarily as a moral and political philosopher. He has striven against a slide which has often seemed plausible and tempting for modern thinkers, that towards a certain relativism or subjectivism in morals. The difficulty of establishing firm ethical conclusions in the midst of vigorous debate among rival doctrines, particularly when these disputes are contrasted to those among natural scientists can all too easily push us to the conclusion that there is no fact of the matter here, that ethical doctrines are not a matter of knowledge, but only of emotional reaction or subjective projection, that the issues here are not cognitive.
Habermas from the very beginning set his face against these non-cognitivist views. There can be ethical knowledge. But he wished also to break with a long-hallowed notion of what this knowledge must consist in, that which we find in the traditions which go back to Plato and Aristotle. According to these, ethical knowledge has for its object human nature, or the nature of things. In other words, it is grounded in some normative picture of what humans are like, or else of their place in the universe. According to Habermas, it was the discredit of these “metaphysical” views which gave colour to non-cognitivism in the first place. In order to refute subjectivism, morality needs another kind of rational basis.
The alternative route which he explored was that which makes the rationality of ethical conclusions a function of the rationality of the deliberation which produces them. A deliberation is rational if it meets certain formal requirements. This is, of course, the route which was pioneered by Kant. But Habermas made a revolutionary change in this tradition. Whereas for Kant the principal criterion of a rational and therefore defensible deliberation was that it was sought universalizable maxims, for Habermas the very notion of deliberation is transformed.
At the Edge of Perception
Greg Boustead in Seed:
[Luke] Jerram creates sculptures, installations, soundscapes, and live arts projects that investigate the mysterious process of how we construct inner worlds from objective reality. His work is inspired by such disparate areas of research as biology, acoustic science, sleep research, ecology, and neural pathways.
An ongoing theme of Jerram’s work is the animation of otherwise hidden phenomenon. Exploring the Moon’s invisible pull in his installation “Tide,” Jerram rigged a gravity meter to three water-filled globes, turning data from the meter into a resonating chorus based on Kepler’s theories of “music of the spheres.” In “Retinal Memory Volume,” Jerram uses light to exploit viewers’ retinal afterimages to construct ephemeral ghost-like sculptures.
On a lark, Jerram started looking at little creatures through borrowed light microscopes and via raw images from electron microscopy. He was amazed by the invisible world he witnessed, but when he compared what he saw to processed EM photographs and scientific drawings, they didn’t resemble his “beautiful translucent animals.”
Rachel Armstrong: Architecture that Repairs Itself?
[H/t: Jennifer Ouellette
A Trip to Chon Tash
Via Andrew Sullivan, Scott Horton in Harper's:
In 1980, Chingiz Aitmatov dedicated his essential novel, The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years (И дольше века длится день), to his father, whom he barely remembered. In this moving and powerful work, he presents a core theme: the dangers a society faces when it forgets its past, being subject instead to a counterfeit narrative designed to suit some political purpose. Such a society, Aitmatov argues, faces a bleak future. Battling the Soviet censors at every step, Aitmatov was presenting a critical view of the legacy of Soviet rule in Central Asia and his native Kyrgyzstan. But the novel shows how heavily the fate of his father hung over Aitmatov. A leading intellectual and advocate of nationalist ideas, though not an overt opponent of the Communists, Törökul Aitmatov had been arrested, transported to Moscow, and charged with “bourgeois nationalist” tendencies in 1937, when Chingiz was nine years old. The family was informed that he had been sentenced to prison camp “without right of correspondence,” meaning his family had no right to know of his whereabouts or seek to communicate with him. They feared the worst, but they had no way of knowing. The lack of certainty about his fate was a torment.
Then, late in 1991, something extraordinary happened. After the Soviet Union cracked and shattered in the wake of a failed putsch against President Mikhail Gorbachev, a woman appeared in a Bishkek police station with a riveting tale. “Is it safe now?” she asked. “Is Communism finally over?” Her father had been the custodian of a site in the foothills south of the capital since the 1930s, she explained. He had been sworn to absolute secrecy by the NKVD, the forerunner of the KGB. He had faithfully (and fearfully) kept that secret. But on his deathbed, he confided it to his daughter. “When the terror is over, when it is finally safe, tell them about it.” He told her, “the people must know.”
They brought me a quilled, yellow dahlia,
Flung out of a pale green stalk.
Round, ripe gold
Meticulously frilled and flaming,
A fire-ball of proclamation:
Fecundity decked in staring yellow
For all the world to see.
They brought a quilled, yellow dahlia,
To me who am barren
Shall I send it to you,
You who have taken with you
All I once possessed?
By Amy Lowell
from No More Masks; Anchor Books, 1973
There is no true war of ideas inside these countries — just a war
Shahid Javed Burki in Dawn:
Let me quote at length from a recent article by the journalist Thomas L. Friedman who has written extensively on the developing world, especially on Muslim countries. ‘In places like Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan or Pakistan you have violent religious extremist movements fighting with state security services. … And while the regimes in these countries are committed to crushing their extremists, they rarely take on their extremist ideas by offering progressive alternatives. And when these extremists aim elsewhere … these regimes are indifferent. That is why there is no true war of ideas inside these countries — just a war.’
This is a correct and insightful observation. ‘These states are not promoting an inclusive and tolerant interpretation of Islam that could be the foundation of people power,’ Friedman continues.
Pakistan, unlike the countries on Friedman’s list has had a ‘people power’ movement when the lawyers demonstrated that by acting with courage and resolution, they could bring about more than regime change. They could also force a strong executive to begin to show respect to the judiciary and its opinions. The same people power needs to be mobilised to rescue religion from the clutches of the extremists.