October 31, 2012
Franziska Michor on How Computational Biology Can Help Crack Cancer's Code.
JJC Smart, 1920-2012
Jane O'Grady in The Guardian:
Jack Smart, who has died aged 92, changed the course of philosophy of mind. He was a pioneer of physicalism – the set of theories that hold that consciousness, sensation and thought do not, as they seem to, float free of physicality, but can – or will eventually – be located in a scientific material worldview. His article Sensations and Brain Processes (1959) put forward his Type Identity theory of mind – that consciousness and sensations are nothing over and above brain processes. Invariably included in any collection of mind-body problem papers, it is now part of the canon, for, along with UT Place and David Armstrong, Smart converted what was once "the Australian heresy" into orthodoxy.
While all three were based principally at Australian universities, Place was born in Yorkshire and Smart to Scottish parents in Cambridge, where his father was professor of astronomy. Jack went to the Leys School in the city, studied maths, physics and philosophy at Glasgow University, and during the second world war served mainly in India and Burma. He gained a BPhil at Queen's College, Oxford, in 1948, under the behaviourist Gilbert Ryle, and in 1950 became professor at Adelaide, where he stayed until 1972.
Away from the language-centred philosophy of Britain, Smart was freer to draw the implications that science had for philosophy. He began to ask why consciousness alone should remain exempt from physico-chemical explanation. The behaviourist view he had espoused at Oxford got round this question by denying that mental states, like anger, pain or believing, can even qualify as things or events, whether physical or non-physical. Rather, to talk about mental states is, for behaviourism, simply to talk about collections of actual or potential behaviour. But Smart objected that in this case seeing an after-image due to strong light can amount to nothing more than saying "I have a yellowish-orange after-image". Such an utterance is surely superfluous to the sensation on which the utterer, who has just experienced it, would be "reporting".
Smart agreed with old-fashioned mind-body dualism – against behaviourism – that many mental states are indeed episodic, inner and potentially private; what he disputed was that this made their essential nature non-physical. "Why should not sensations just be brain processes of a certain sort?" he demanded. If regarded as neuro-physiological processes, they too would be potentially explicable by scientific laws.
The Art of the Art Heist
Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:
It is one of history's great art heists. This October 16th, thieves broke into the Kunsthal Museum in Rotterdam, circumvented the high-tech security system and stole seven paintings during the wee hours before the museum opened on Tuesday morning. They got two paintings by Monet, a Picasso, a Matisse, a Gauguin, a Lucien Freud, and one painting by Meyer de Haan.
In every great crime there is a clue. And the clue is often the element that doesn't fit. In this case, the thing that doesn't fit is the painting by Meyer de Haan. That's the one that makes you stop and think. Meyer de Haan. Why would anyone stealing expensive paintings from a major museum steal a Meyer de Haan?
The Meyer de Haan is a self-portrait by a minor artist most people have never heard of. It is worth only a fraction of what the other paintings are worth. Jop Ubbens, the general director of Christie's in Amsterdam told The Guardian that the de Haan "might have been stolen by mistake." The Guardian's art critic, Jonathan Jones, thinks "any idea that a tasteful collector commissioned this theft is undermined by the inclusion of Meyer de Haan's “Self-Portrait”. No offence, but this comparatively minor Dutch artist does not really belong in the company of the others whose works have been stolen." True. But suppose for a moment that it wasn't a mistake. Suppose that whoever masterminded this robbery actually did want the Meyer de Haan. Why? What does the painting by Meyer de Haan tell us? What might that self-portrait have to do with all the other, more famous paintings that were stolen? There is a mystery here, perhaps, that only needs the right key for unlocking, the right set of questions. And the first, most obvious question is staring us right in the face.
Who is Meyer de Haan?
Chekhov’s most exquisite beguilement
One departs and three more come charging in. It’s always rush-hour for Chekhov in the capital. As the Young Vic’s production of Three Sisters is drawing to a close, the Vaudeville is preparing to host a star-studded version of Uncle Vanya. Up the road, at the Novello, another Uncle Vanya is about to arrive from Moscow. And rehearsals are already under way for The Seagull, starring Matthew Kelly, at Southwark Playhouse. For years, we’ve been recreational users of Chekhov. We’re now in danger of becoming hopeless addicts. How come we’re hooked? Chekhov’s career as a dramatist was short and full of trouble. Early plays flopped. His breakthrough hit, The Seagull, also bombed when it was first performed in 1896 at the highly traditional Alexandrinsky Theatre in St Petersburg. Two years later, a revival at the more progressive Moscow Arts Theatre was a surprise success. Chekhov followed it up with Uncle Vanya (1899), Three Sisters (1901) and The Cherry Orchard (1904). Then he died.more from Lloyd Evans at The Spectator here.
The rap on Picasso during his lifetime and even today is that Matisse, not he, was the colorist. Picasso was the draftsman, the graphic master. (And, after all, who doesn’t love Matisse’s cosmic secret garden of color?) Ever competitive, Picasso regularly addressed the criticism himself: “Color weakens”; “I use the language of construction”; “If you don’t know what color to take, take black.” Picasso’s own dealer said he was “indifferent to … color.” I disagree, and concur with late MoMA curator and wild-man Picasso maniac, William Rubin, who crowed that Picasso was “one of the great colorists of the century.” Picasso is more of a hyena of color, rash, using it to reveal his animal-being, Yeats’s “terrible beauty,” omega points of form. For Picasso, black and white are colors, and so are the thousand shades of gray in between.more from Jerry Saltz at New York Magazine here.
lighting a little dark as I go
Though I have in my life experienced gout, bladder stones, a botched bone marrow biopsy, and various other screamable insults, until recently I had no idea what pain was. It islands you. You sit there in your little skeletal constriction of self—of disappearing self—watching everyone you love, however steadfastly they may remain by your side, drift farther and farther away. There is too much cancer packed into my bone marrow, which is inflamed and expanding, creating pressure outward on the bones. “Bones don’t like to stretch,” a doctor tells me. Indeed. It is in my legs mostly, but also up in one shoulder and in my face. It is a dull devouring pain, as if the earth were already—but slowly—eating me. And then, with a wrong move or simply a shift in breath, it is a lightning strike of absolute feeling and absolute oblivion fused in one flash. Mornings I make my way out of bed very early and, after taking all of the pain medicine I can take without dying, sit on the couch and try to make myself small by bending over and holding my ankles. And I pray. Not to God, who also seems to have abandoned this island, but to the pain. That it ease up ever so little, that it let me breathe. That it not—though I know it will—get worse.more from Christian Wiman at The American Scholar here.
One of the most famous stories of H. G. Wells, “The Country of the Blind” (1904), depicts a society, enclosed in an isolated valley amid forbidding mountains, in which a strange and persistent epidemic has rendered its members blind from birth. Their whole culture is reshaped around this difference: their notion of beauty depends on the feel rather than the look of a face; no windows adorn their houses; they work at night, when it is cool, and sleep during the day, when it is hot. A mountain climber named Nunez stumbles upon this community and hopes that he will rule over it: “In the Country of the Blind the One-Eyed Man is King,” he repeats to himself. Yet he comes to find that his ability to see is not an asset but a burden. The houses are pitch-black inside, and he loses fights to local warriors who possess extraordinary senses of touch and hearing. The blind live with no knowledge of the sense of sight, and no need for it. They consider Nunez’s eyes to be diseased, and mock his love for a beautiful woman whose face feels unattractive to them. When he finally fails to defeat them, exhausted and beaten, he gives himself up. They ask him if he still thinks he can see: “No,” he replies, “That was folly. The word means nothing — less than nothing!” They enslave him because of his apparently subhuman disability. But when they propose to remove his eyes to make him “normal,” he realizes the beauty of the mountains, the snow, the trees, the lines in the rocks, and the crispness of the sky — and he climbs a mountain, attempting to escape.more from Aaron Rothstein at The New Atlantis here.
Bid to curb fried-food chemical goes cold
The rich, roasted aroma of coffee or the golden-brown colour of crispy French fries are enough to set most mouths watering. But the high-temperature cooking that gives these foods their alluring taste, scent and texture also adds a sting: acrylamide, a probable human carcinogen. Swedish scientists discovered in 2002 that a wide range of baked and fried goods contain worryingly high levels of acrylamide1 — a simple organic molecule that is a neurotoxin and carcinogen in rats. The finding sparked an international effort to reduce concentrations of the chemical by changing ingredients and cooking methods. Ten years on, a report2 from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in Parma, Italy, suggests that this effort has stalled, amid patchy monitoring, uncertainty about acrylamide’s true health effects and the challenge of weeding out a molecule present in hundreds of products.
Soon after the Swedish discovery, two teams — one led by chemist Donald Mottram at the University of Reading, UK, the other by Richard Stadler at Nestlé in Lausanne, Switzerland — unpicked the chemistry behind the problem3, 4. They found that sugars and amino acids such as asparagine found in potatoes and cereals were making acrylamide (C3H5NO) as a by-product of the Maillard reaction, the very process that generates the heady blend of colour, flavour and taste in cooked foods. Subsequent epidemiological studies involving tens of thousands of people have looked for links between acrylamide and various forms of cancer in humans, including breast5 and colorectal cancer6. For the most part, the results have been negative. In 2007, however, a Dutch study7 of almost 2,600 women found that, among those who had never smoked, women consuming about 40 micrograms of acrylamide per day doubled their risk of developing cancers of the womb or ovaries, compared with those taking in roughly 10 μg per day. And last month, a study8 showed that women who ate acrylamide-rich food during pregnancy tended to give birth to smaller babies.
Wednesday PoemLaughing Heart
your life is your life
don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.
be on the watch.
there are ways out.
there is light somewhere.
it may not be much light but
it beats the darkness.
be on the watch.
the gods will offer you chances.
you can’t beat death but
you can beat death in life, sometimes.
and the more often you learn to do it,
the more light there will be.
your life is your life.
know it while you have it.
you are marvelous
the gods wait to delight
by Charles Bukowski
October 30, 2012
more from the Weather Channel here.
It doesn’t look good for the United States. We are proud when Iraqis and Libyans dodge bombs to vote in their first free elections in decades, and then, when it’s our chance, we barely exceed their turnout rates. Often, we do worse. Roughly half of us vote, and the other half don’t. It made me wonder: What’s stopping us? Do we have reasons not to vote? How can we hear so much about the election, and not participate? If hope isn’t doing it, isn’t the fear of the other guy winning enough to brave the roads, the long lines? In the middle of October, I spoke to more than 50 people between 18 and 40, almost all of whom are planning to go to the polls on Nov. 6. That made them exceptional: only 51 percent of young people voted in 2008. A smaller group is expected this year.more from Errol Morris with a short film at the NY Times here.
Thomas Nagel is not crazy
But what if science is fundamentally incapable of explaining our own existence as thinking things? What if it proves impossible to fit human beings neatly into the world of subatomic particles and laws of motion that science describes? In Mind and Cosmos (Oxford University Press), the prominent philosopher Thomas Nagel’s latest book, he argues that science alone will never be able to explain a reality that includes human beings. What is needed is a new way of looking at and explaining reality; one which makes mind and value as fundamental as atoms and evolution. For most philosophers, and many people in general, this is a radical departure from the way we understand things. Nagel, according to his critics, has completely lost it. Linking to one particularly damning review in The Nation, Steven Pinker tweeted, “What has gotten into Thomas Nagel? Two philosophers expose the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker.”more from Malcolm Thorndike Nicholson at Prospect Magazine here.
lies in Japan
One thing revived by the “3/11” earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster is the culture of protest, which had been pretty much moribund since the great anti–Vietnam War and antipollution demonstrations of the 1960s. In his new collection of essays, Ways of Forgetting, Ways of Remembering, John Dower describes these 1960s protests as a “radical anti-imperialist critique [added] to the discourse on peace and democracy.” There hasn’t been much of that in Japan of late. But now, since the nuclear meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi reactors, thousands of protesters gather in front of Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko’s Tokyo residence every Friday demanding an end to nuclear power plants. Even larger gatherings of up to 200,000 people have been demonstrating in Tokyo’s central Yoyogi Park, as part of the “10 Million People’s Action to Say Goodbye to Nuclear Power Plants.” Eight million have already signed. This has had at least some cosmetic effect.more from Ian Buruma at the NYRB here.
SEPTEMBER 18, 1991, WAS A HOT DAY IN GLOUCESTER, TOURISTS shuffling down Main Street and sunbathers still crowding the wide expanses of Good Harbor Beach. Day boats bobbed offshore in the heat shimmer, and swells sneaked languorously up against Bass Rocks. At Gloucester Marine Railways, a haul-out place at the end of a short peninsula, Adam Randall stood contemplating a boat named the Andrea Gail. He had come all the way from Florida to go swordfishing on the boat, and now he stood considering her uneasily. The Andrea Gail was a 70-foot longliner that was leaving for Canada's Grand Banks within days. He had a place on board if he wanted it. "I just had bad vibes," he would say later. Without quite knowing why, he turned and walked away.more from Sebastian Junger in Outside from 1994 here.
the nagel debate continues...
In Mind and Cosmos, Nagel holds that materialism can’t deliver the goods. Drawing on his bolder and more recent paper “The Psychophysical Nexus,” he now says that materialistic reductionism is false, not that we currently don’t understand how it could be true. For Nagel, perception and other psychological processes involve irreducibly subjective facts; important aspects of the mind are, therefore, forever beyond the reach of physical explanation. This position is compatible with many doctrines that are associated with materialism. For example, Nagel doesn’t gainsay the slogan “no difference without a physical difference”—if you and I have different psychological properties, then we must be physically different. Indeed, Nagel’s position is even compatible with the idea that every mental property is identical with some physical property—for example, it may be that being in pain and being in some neurophysiological state X are identical in the same way that being made of water and being made of H2O are identical properties.more from Elliott Sober at The Boston Review here.
Here we go, trying
the infinite possibilities of life
from the limited circumstances
At the last breath
none of us know
whether it was
or the grain
that flew off in the wind.
by Simon Ó Faoláin
from Anam Mhadra
publisher: Coiscéim, Dublin, 2008
Mind games: Why everything you thought you knew about yourself is wrong
From The Independent:
So you remember your wedding day like it was yesterday. You can you spot when something is of high quality. You keep yourself well-informed about current affairs but would be open to debate and discussion, You love your phone because it's the best, right? Are you sure? David McRaney from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, is here to tell you that you don't know yourself as well as you think. The journalist and self-described psychology nerd's new book, You Are Not So Smart, consists of 48 short chapters on the assorted ways that we mislead ourselves every day. "The central theme is that you are the unreliable narrator in the story of your life. And this is because you're unaware of how unaware you are," says McRaney. "It's fun to go through legitimate scientific research and pull out all of the examples that show how everyone, no matter how smart or educated or experienced, is radically self-deluded in predictable and quantifiable ways." Based on the blog of the same name, You Are Not So Smart is not so much a self-help book as a self-hurt book. Here McRaney gives some key examples.
The Misconception: Your opinions are the result of years of rational, objective analysis.
The Truth: Your opinions are the result of years of paying attention to information that confirmed what you believed, while ignoring information that challenged your preconceived notions.
Killing the Computer to Save It
From The New York Times:
Many people cite Albert Einstein’s aphorism “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” Only a handful, however, have had the opportunity to discuss the concept with the physicist over breakfast. One of those is Peter G. Neumann, now an 80-year-old computer scientist at SRI International, a pioneering engineering research laboratory here.
As an applied-mathematics student at Harvard, Dr. Neumann had a two-hour breakfast with Einstein on Nov. 8, 1952. What the young math student took away was a deeply held philosophy of design that has remained with him for six decades and has been his governing principle of computing and computer security. For many of those years, Dr. Neumann (pronounced NOY-man) has remained a voice in the wilderness, tirelessly pointing out that the computer industry has a penchant for repeating the mistakes of the past. He has long been one of the nation’s leading specialists in computer security, and early on he predicted that the security flaws that have accompanied the pell-mell explosion of the computer and Internet industries would have disastrous consequences.
October 29, 2012
A presumably minor gripe about experimental philosophy
by Dave Maier
My grad school colleague M.B. once told me about an exchange he had had with one of our professors. His area was personal identity, and his dissertation advanced a view about same which our professor found counter-intuitive – or at least worried about whether most people would do so. His response, he told me, was this: "Why should I worry about what most people think about this issue? Who is more likely to be right about it – someone who has spent five years becoming an expert on this very topic, considering the arguments for and against it in minute detail? or someone who knows virtually nothing about it, but simply asserts his immediate intuitive reaction as fact?"
I thought this was very well said, but I still wasn't sure. One of the tradeoffs of highly technical philosophy is that the more comprehensive and ironclad a theory is, the more likely it is to stretch our ordinary concepts to the breaking point. Whether or not this is a bad thing will depend on how you feel about comprehensive, ironclad philosophical theories, as opposed to speaking normally with one's friends and neighbors (should they not be professional philosophers).
As the "experimental philosophy" movement is typically construed, it joins this battle of philosophical intuitions firmly on the side of the folk. It's not, as critics sometimes charge, that x-phi wants to put philosophical theories to a vote – after all, my colleague had plenty of arguments to go along with his intuitions – but to the extent that it is indeed a battle of intuitions, x-phi is determined not to let traditional philosophers get away with simply saying "it seems to me that in such a case we would say that _______".
3QD readers know all about x-phi, naturally, as our Top Philosophy Quark for 2012 was Wesley Buckwalter's most interesting post on an x-phi consideration of non-factive conceptions of knowledge. I say "an" x-phi consideration because x-phi is no one monolithic, um, monolith, but an umbrella term for a wide variety of related approaches (for more on this see here, and the links therein). That is, it doesn't have to take the form of surveys of intuitions; but sometimes it does, and in this post I wonder aloud about what we should really make of the results of such surveys.
First, let's review. The image of the "burning armchair" suggests the following caricature of the x-phi project in this narrow sense. Traditional philosophers see themselves as discovering non-empirical, abstract truths about the world. Consequently, philosophical method consists of the construction of rigorous a priori arguments (thus the "armchair") for the truth of philosophical theories. They must show that their theory provides the correct necessary and sufficient conditions for, say, something's being knowledge or an ethical action or a person or whatever their theory is about. This requires that they consider all kinds of proposed counterexamples to their theories, of which the philosophical literature is full to bursting.
To do this, however, they must rely on their own intuitions about what "we" would, or should, say when. If Commander Riker is split into two by an unfortunate transporter malfunction, is he now one person or two? Or maybe the question is: is this one the "real" Commander Riker, or that one, or both? The proponent of a particular theory of personal identity must show that his theory captures "our" intuitions here. This is where the x-phi-er steps in. Who says what "we" would say? Let's not sit in our armchairs and pontificate – let's go find out!
This intervention can be made to sound quite compelling. However – and this is what we lose when we think of it as a battle between the Old Guard vs. the Young Turks of X-Phi – you don't have to be an "experimental philosopher" to object to this "traditional" conception of philosophy and its appropriate method. The rest of us wonder whether x-phi (again, construed narrowly as this sort of criticism of dogmatic "intuition", to be rectified with surveys of the folk), is really scratching where it itches.
Let's look at Wesley's post to see why, or at least how. As he points out, most philosophers of knowledge simply assume that knowledge must be true. Why? Well, if we consider whether I can know that, say, 2 + 2 = 5, "we would say" (says our philosopher) that that isn't knowledge, but instead false belief. But this non-explanation raises the famiiar red flag for x-phi: and when we investigate, we find that indeed, many people do indeed say that knowledge, as Wesley puts it, can be "non-factive". People say, for example, that the ancients knew that the earth was flat, or that scientists knew that ulcers were caused by stress – even while they acknowledge that the beliefs in question are false.
When we consider the x-phi challenge, we are encouraged to ask: who is right? Can knowledge really be non-factive? Or is the near-universal intuition of professional philosophers correct? X-phi's emphasis on the empirical nature of its inquiry, as symbolized by the burning armchair, leaves in place the idea that our concern with intuitions is whether they – and the philosophical theories they support – are true or false: i.e., a dogmatic conception of philosophical method.
[I won't say much here about the problems with philosophical dogmatism, but for now consider the slide from "once we've decided what we mean by knowledge or an ethical action or a person, then it's an objective matter whether they apply to any particular thing: things are the way they are independent of what we may happen to believe" – which is ordinary common sense – to "given that knowledge and people, like everything else, are really out there independent of us, our task as philosophers is to characterize them accurately, with a correct philosophical theory" – which I take to express a tendentious philosophical platonism.]
If we accept that non-factive uses of "know" [NFK] are perfectly cromulent – which is all that the experiment in question can show – it seems that we have two options about what to say:
1) Wow, that means that philosophical theories of knowledge that require a truth condition are false!
2) Okay, so there's another use of "know" than the usual one. How about that.
In fact I said this very thing (2) in a comment on Wesley's post at the time. Now it may be a good thing to have learned, if we are to get people to understand what we say when we speak philosophically about knowledge (i.e. of the truth), that if we just plunk down the truth condition as "intuitively obvious" [= true dogma] then people will take NFK to be a counterexample, and thus a potential refutation. So if I want to say something about knowledge considered as a variety of true belief, I need to translate it into the popular idiom. But again, this seems to mean that what I say can't simply be "I have discovered through philosophical reflection and rigorous analysis that knowledge = (some kind of) true belief, so there's that problem solved."
In other words, if that's what we thought we were doing – coming up with the true (uniquely accurate) theory of knowledge – then the existence of popular disagreement on the matter would force us either to a) condemn the popular view as mistaken; b) give up our claims as insufficiently grounded in intuition; or c) acknowledge that the philosophical theory, while not refuted, refers not to knowledge after all, but to some narrow technical concept, one which may be of only academic interest, and, again, is not what it was billed as: a non-empirical truth about knowledge, established by rigorous philosophical argument.
As Wesley puts it:"[C]ould it really be that the folk concept of knowledge is truly a non-factive concept? After all, if true, it seems this would have a series of important epistemic and methodological implications about the connection between the ordinary concept and the (decidedly factive) concept of knowledge philosophers have historically been interested in analyzing." However, as you may remember, he continues by challenging this experiment, albeit on its own terms: "another possible explanatory hypothesis of these linguistic data (like the ulcer case) is that ordinary uses of ‘knows’ are highly sensitive to something called ‘protagonist projection’", which he attempts to establish with an experiment of his own (see his post for details).
I still think that (2) is better than (1), but here I would like to give the matter a further twist. Even (2) seems to imply (as "linguistic philosophers" are supposed to do) that in rejecting dogmatism, we turn instead to matters of meaning as opposed to fact – thus inviting familiar charges of "linguistic idealism" or worse. But when I judge "what it would be natural to say", I am doing two things, not one: I am making a cognitive judgment about how things are (that it is wrong to kill a man to harvest his organs, or that we cannot know that P if P is false), and I am giving my sense as an English speaker of how the words in question are properly used (so, "what it would be natural to say" in this sense: how we would express in English the fact in question, assuming that it is a fact).
In other words, as we Davidsonians say, the concepts of belief and meaning are interconstitutive, and whenever we speak we do both of these things: we manifest both our doxastic and semantic commitments simultaneously (as well as our existential commitments, but that's another story). That's why, as I like to put it, inquiry is interpretive, and interpretation is ... well, "inquiry-ish" isn't a word, so I have to say that in order to make judgments about meaning, or to mean anything ourselves for that matter, we must make factual judgments as well (that is, about how things are).
But wait: what is my own attitude toward these assertions? Is mine not a philosophical theory, a typically philosophical attempt to establish a non-empirical truth about the world? After all, it seems that if what I say is false – and I have given no argument for its truth, but instead simply plunked it down, just as if preceded by "we would surely say here that ..." – then surely it is worthless, a failed dogma to be tossed on the junkheap of history, to rot there with alchemy, logical positivism, and the phlogiston theory. And indeed, like any assertions, they purport to express my beliefs on the matter.
But what are they? What do I mean by these assertions? As they themselves say – and as I believe – their point is not that you can rip them out of their philosophical context and hold them up as an accurate picture of reality in the dogmatist manner. Instead, it is that in grappling with their significance, and the arguments for their truth, we uncover and diagnose the conceptual tangles underlying the traditional dogmatic conception of philosophy, at all levels. Talking this way, I believe, allows us to bypass most of the traditionally intractable problems and cast them in a new light. Something like this dissolution is what led Richard Rorty to declare the "end of philosophy", but the reality is not nearly so apocalyptic. And in fact experimental philosophy, more broadly construed, may have much to contribute once we show the old traditional formulations of our problems out the door.
In any case, Wesley agrees with me about the acceptability of factive knowledge ... but for experimental reasons; which suggests that you can defend almost anything if you designed the experiment the right way. Is this a bad thing, as this wording suggests? As I have already mentioned, I think we should be prepared to say that words have different senses, and that philosophers might have perfectly good reasons, given the context of what they are doing, for using terms in the way they do, even when there are other uses as well (which is all that the original experiment shows, the one to which Wesley is responding with his own counter-experiment).
So the issue is not whether NFK or FK is the correct conception of "knowledge." After all, here's another use still. Sometimes people use "know" (and "believe") in such a way as to acknowledge their lack of objective evidence for a belief to which they are nevertheless committed, thus:
(3) "I believe P, but I don't know it."
For example, maybe P is a religious conviction (as I recall, Dinesh D'Souza uttered  in his debate with Daniel Dennett, where P was something like "there's a God"). In such cases the speaker seems to assert that a) the objective evidence available to him fails to rule out the possible falsity of P, and that yet b) further inquiry is unnecessary or even futile, as his belief is already fully established. We might say this whenever we "take something on faith," whether a religious conviction or not; and indeed it seems that some beliefs are like this.
Now I can perfectly well acknowledge this phenomenon, and even concede the rationality of this attitude, without granting that this refutes the idea that (as I would rather say, for philosophical purposes) that if one believes something, one generally takes oneself to know it. For all we have here is a different use of "know", used to make precisely this point about certain beliefs "taken on faith." And naturally if you insist on making the point in this way, I can't stop you, nor – as the relevant experiments would surely suggest – do I have a right to complain. But saying this doesn't show my conception of knowledge and belief to be false.
Because that conception is not a philosophical theory. Speaking the way I do allows us to capture succinctly the ideas I use for philosophical ends – e.g. fighting the pernicious dualisms characteristic of modern and pre-modern philosophy (so in this sense I suppose I count as a "post-""modernist"). If you insist on speaking "with the folk" in saying either  or NFK when defining knowledge, again, I can't stop you; but if you do it will take much, much longer for me to explain what I think we should do in philosophy: I'll have to invent new words, for example, and scrupulously address in tedious detail all the inevitable misunderstandings which will arise from shoehorning all of our uses of "know" and "believe" into one correct definition. And why would you want that?
The Damned Don’t Cry (But They Ought To)
by James McGirk
After four debates and with a tsunami of political advertising inundating the United States, it is clear that neither presidential candidate is willing to act decisively on what should be the most pressing issue of our day: student loan debt.
Democrats offer crumbs. Republicans even can’t be bothered to pander to young voters. Yet no other issue so neatly encapsulates the miseries of contemporary American existence. An entire generation of smart, educated people are being crippled with debt. Without some sort of relief, upward mobility will vanish, the gap between rich and poor will yawn wider, our economy will be left in ruins, and what’s left of our once vaunted ability to innovate will die. The parasite is killing the host.
The time has come for decisive action. Student loan debt must be forgiven completely. The federal government should not be lending money to students. All it does is drive up prices and push us deeper in debt. Offer amnesty, get rid of the program, and let colleges pare down tuition until it makes sense for a family to save up or borrow money privately for their children to go. At the very least, let these loans be dischargeable in bankruptcy. This may seem like a drastic thing to do, but the situation is out of control. Something has to be done.
Student loan debt now accounts for 18 percent of American consumer debt. Unlike a mortgage there is no way to discharge a student loan (short of total medical disability). The interest is painful: 3.4 percent for a loan taken out as an undergraduate, and a usurious 6.8 percent for a graduate student. The interest capitalizes. Not only is it charged on the principal, but on any unpaid interest as well, meaning that a loan balloons while student is in school, or during the increasingly frequent forbearances necessary during periods of unemployment. There is no risk of default to the lender. The government guarantees all student loans. Nor is there any risk to universities. It is a trough of free money and these swine have gorged themselves, shamelessly raising tuition year after year, at a rate far outpacing inflation.
The class of 2011 graduated with $26,600 worth of debt each. That’s just for a bachelor’s degree. And those numbers include the lucky third that graduated with no debt at all. For a shot at a job that might offer entrée into a white-collar career you need a graduate degree and a year or two of unpaid internships. Lawyers and doctors, the traditionally secure gateways into America’s upper middle class can easily amass hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of debt. A year of unemployment could wipe them out completely. Very few people who graduate with six-figures of un-dischargable debt will take risks. Every wonder why so many math and science PhDs are taking jobs on Wall Street? Wonder no more.
An entire generation of students has been snarled in debt. And for what? Why do we allow ourselves to be sucked into this disgusting situation? The truth is that in contemporary America, college has become a proxy for status. This torrent of debt, the millions of lives now locked in indentured servitude have gone to pay for little more than a signaling mechanism. A token that guarantees a modicum of basic reading and writing skills that ought to have been learned in high school. Education is no better now than it was twenty years ago when college tuition cost a tenth of what it does today. What college really is for, is to signal to one another that we are belong to a certain social class or rank.
Going to an elite private school tells someone that you were born into an upper-middle class family that knew enough to care about education and had the resources to pay for it. Smart in the United States really means belonging to the professional class. America’s supposed anti-intellectualism is really just subterranean class warfare. There is a reason why there are Supreme Court cases about something as seemingly so banal as college admission. The difference between going to University of Texas at Austin and Louisiana State University may not seem like much to an outsider but to an American, who doesn’t have an aristocratic title, or much of a family history, his or her college is the only tribal affiliation he or she has. And not getting into the one he or she thinks she deserves to get into feels like exile. It’s a social death. And this is why people are willing to borrow themselves into penury to go to college.
For-profit schools deservedly receive the most criticism but the non-profits and state schools deserve a heap of blame too. Useless masters degrees created for the sole purpose of sucking up student loan money. Enormous loans are recklessly dispersed to heavily indebted students and families. The so-called elite schools are as bad as any other. They exploit students just as much, the only difference is that their students can usually scrape together enough to eventually pay their loans back. But that isn’t because the content of what they are teaching is any better.
Our money has been spent on the most trivial things: foolish expansions overseas, stadiums, state-of-the-art gyms, dorms and centers, and above all the rapidly metastasizing administrations. Unnecessary deans, overlapping bailiwicks, admissions teams, compliance crews, lawyers, webmasters, layer after layer of bloat, almost all of it unnecessary, cushy and highly paid. The typical officer at a University earns more than an adjunct professor, and often receives the same package of benefits. Cadillac health insurance (subsidized by the student body), free tuition, scholarships for their children and a generous pension. A department director or assistant dean can easily command six figures and will leach off the system for years, even after they retire. The cruelest indignity may be that these parasites are eligible to have their own debts forgiven after ten years of “public service.”
Their snouts drip from feasting at the trough of our collective futures. Yet who could blame them? Universities act rationally. It’s the tragedy of the commons. They see a public good being devoured. Why not cram their faces in and glut themselves with it? Everybody else is doing it. Never mind their purported missions, which commit them to service for the public good. Besides, where is the outcry from parents and pupils?
Without decisive action, without amnesty, the parasite will kill the host. Our university system has been a sacred cow for too long. The system needs to be shocked. Let state schools consolidate if they have to, let the brilliant minds at our elite private schools dream up a cost-cutting solution. In Britain there barely are any administrators. Just professors and classrooms. Tuition must go down. Student loans must end. Demand this of whomever you vote on November 6th. And readers outside of the United States: Don’t ever let an abomination like this happen to your country.
Perceptions (of approaching storm)
by Maniza Naqvi
I called this essay “Owning our Stories” when it was published as a paper for a conference on sustainable development held in Islamabad in 2003. At the time I wrote this I was becoming increasingly anxious and worried about one of the greatest dangers facing the world: the justification of terror and war through the dangerous revival of a singular and value laden narrative and image of good and evil with its time released poison of hate.
At the end of October 2012 we are all aware of the results of this narrative: there are at least four wars underway that are justified through this narrative. There is the surveillance of Muslims in the US (here). There is the Supreme Court of the United States decision in 2010 in the case the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission which ruled that under the First Amendment corporations are people and can not be prohibited in election spending (here). Private militaries and security corporations, are participating in the prosecution of wars in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan (here,here,here, here and here). There is the National Defense Authorization Act which allows the indefinite detention of anyone in the world including Americans citizens without trial (hereand here); Under the provisions of the Military Commission Act of 2006 the President can declare anyone an enemy combatant and order their execution or assassination (here and here); the President of the United States has a kill list and can and does order extra judicial killings including with drone attacks. (here, here,here,here, here, here).
I was invited to the conference in December 2003 in Islamabad as an artist, as a writer:
All Our Stories: Stories, I think do not reveal the truth, they do however expose untruths. A multitude of narratives, all versions of perceived reality prevent the rise and tyranny of a singular narrative. And in this way, through a multitude of stories, a balance is maintained and truth whether it exists or not is safeguarded by not being singled out. In receiving these narratives we are able to reason that all versions matter; all must be given consideration; that all opinions must be questioned and that all perceptions have validity. All truths are untruths all untruths are true. In the absence of a multitude of narratives, reason remains ruined.
I see reason ruined every day in newspapers, in images on TV channels and in the stacks of books, the so called literature of experts on all things Muslim, Pakistani and Middle eastern. One of the greatest dangers facing the world today is the dangerous revival of a singular and value laden narrative of good and evil with its time released poison of hate. This view perceives the world in terms of fenced in real estate not earth and in terms of corporate interests not cooperation. These story-tellers with their narratives of antipathy are given credence branded as secular as they view the world through an optic of fear and control while weaving stories full of hate: Stories that justify the existing divisions in our world geographical, social and economic. Language today continues to be used as a weapon with representations of whole peoples in dangerous ways instead of building understanding.
A dangerous narrative of good and evil is steadily being crafted. I remember viewing a painting that had halted me in my tracks this year in April at the Neue Museum. It was of a middle aged man, who looked very much like an uncle of mine: balding, overweight, clearly distraught and under stress, his hands wrung together, his eyes bloodshot and worried, seated on a wooden chair outdoors in winter, looking up as though at someone. The crumbling wall behind him through a gaping hole in it showed a gray city building in snow. The subject has been stripped of his comfortable context and seemed isolated or being interrogated. The portrait had been commissioned by a wealthy well connected lawyer who upon seeing it, was so angry that he refused to accept it. He was insulted at the insinuation. The artist was Otto Dix the subject of the portrait, was a Jewish lawyer, Dr. Fritz Glaser, the city was Dresden, the year was 1921 (here, here, and here). In 1921 amongst the other lone voices this artist, Otto Dix, had warned of the times to come given all the hatred in the literature of the day in the Weimar Republic. And the victim had been insulted.
Ignorance of each others stories leads us to assume that we know them. It allows us to maintain our perceptions of differences based on our own pre-conceived notions. When we do understand each others stories, we are transformed. We find that we don’t know ourselves and we grow and gain.
These stories and their usage of language nurtures violence. Violence requires the other. Violence requires a lack of narrative of the other. It requires that the other remain silent or be articulated through a single voice. Violence, its organization and place in our societies; its place within us; its control and rule over us; and our own stakes in its enterprise demands that no one speaks the truth without consequences. Whether, truths about an individual, a family, a community or a country the only way left to speak it, write about it and be heard is to call it fiction.
From where I view the world what do I see? First, I see that there is no difference of feelings, emotions and values amongst people everywhere. Everywhere people want to send their kids to school, everywhere people want to be able to walk without fear in their streets and parks. Everywhere people want to be able to earn their livelihoods.
Everywhere people do not want to receive handouts. Everywhere people want a fair hearing. Everywhere people want a fair and equitable justice system. I see a lot of people with common notions of kindness, peace, generosity, community. I see a lot of people who want to do the right thing and who are searching for what that means. I see a lot of dedicated people who are asking the important questions and making the irrefutable case for changing the current trade regimes. I also see that the anti-globalization protest has been joined by parents and grand parents in growing numbers that coalesced in the anti war demonstrations. This growing number is asking the fundamental structural questions of why the world is organized the way it is. In the places I go to for work I meet people who were willing to kill each other not too long ago are slowly moving back towards each other in peace. People who were willing to kill each other to partition themselves from each other and create divisions and lines, are ignoring those borders that they helped create. I see that I cannot as a foreigner, tell the difference between a Palestinian or an Israeli unless they are wearing a military uniform. This holds for Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks. It holds for Pakistanis and Indians.
Everywhere I see boys at risk. Being pushed into violence and presumed guilty before they even know the definition of innocence. I see that I cannot tell the difference between the motivations of a young American soldier who joined the army to find a way out of poverty and a child in a madrassa in Pakistan. From where I am, I cannot see the reasons for closed borders and boundaries. The colleagues that I work with come from all the nations of the world, yet I find that we are one citizenship, that of the earth. It works for us, why can’t it work for all?
Albert Camus considered art and writing the novel an act of rebellion because the artist and the novelist perceives and creates a different reality. But this rebellion, this powerful peaceful expression of questioning and expressing old and new truths is denied to more than half of Pakistan’s population who are locked out of an education. They will never read a novel, let alone write one. They will never read or write. Meanwhile others will take it upon themselves to describe and define Pakistan as they see convenient with very little else to provide a balance. The way the world is organized today limits our stories, the terms and conditions that influence our abilities to access opportunities and articulate our aspirations and translate those into action truncate our streams of thoughts and so only a few selective stories get the opportunity to be widely read and only a few ever get written.
All our stories matter, all are valid. Isn’t it time we did something about that? Our stories should speak about the possibilities of a different world where if there is evil it should be termed as that power that denies people access, equity, accountability and democracy. These are the themes of my two novels Mass Transit and On Air. My third novel Stay with Me is set in the context of a secret interrogation and incarceration.
These are without doubt challenging times for the entire world. It seems as though in Pakistan all of the difficulties imposed upon us and tolerated by us in the last fifty years and those with which we continue to struggle have become the way of the entire world (here, here, here, here, here) It is as though all that plagued us--------now plagues the world. Pakistan’s many realities have become the new world order.
In this paper I outline the thoughts that occupy my mind when I think of poverty, democracy, justice, peace and development in the context of war, occupation, trade, corporations, development assistance and the international court of justice. The implications of the way the world is chalked out today has a profound impact on our abilities to speak, to write, to be heard. South Asia has an enormous role to play in redefining our roles as story tellers.
The world is indeed shrinking, but not the way we wanted it to become smaller. Its not a global village the way we might have wanted it to be, that of cooperating harmonious integrated communities and cooperatives sharing common lands, objectives and values. It is not the world which would settle differences through arbitration. Its more like a feudal village with one powerful landlord while the rest are landless tenants: the mazaras and the haris.
The only way forward is through education. What impact would there be on our stories if there was 100 percent literacy and enrollment of children in school? Where everyone has enough to eat and where people were not indebted to others for the sake of being able to provide a meal for their families. What would be our stories if policy makers realized and acted upon the realization that the best and only homeland security and defense is education for the people. Here at home 24 million Pakistani children are not in school. Not even in primary school, so they are lost into silence, unable to participate and connect with the world and unable to access information. They are about 17% of Pakistan’s population; and 20% of the world’s population of illiterates. Pakistan therefore has a large share of the world’s illiterate population. 90 million Pakistanis cannot read or write. If we are interested in the defense of Pakistan, their education is our defense.
Perspective of a different place/Locating ourselves: I’ll begin by outlining a world different from the one we are grid-locked in today. When we look at the images of earth taken from outer space we see our planet differently from the way it appears in maps. We see it without the lines that crisscross and divide it in the maps of the world.
The context of almost all of the world’s policy arenas today is the protection and enforcement of these lines. The policy arena of today is trying to shift from this context as can be seen by the various debates and discussions on trade regimes but is for the most part guided by and indeed controlled by the need to justify these lines. Lines that keep people in and lines that keep people out. Bottom lines that keep most people out. Lines of exclusion; lines that stop goods from being traded freely; lines that stop the movement of people: a gridlock of lines. And in between all these lines live people. People trapped by their circumstances. And it is these lines and their protection which has influenced and shaped the nature of political processes around the globe and spawned new lines. Refugee lines: Lines of desperate frightened people waiting to flee, waiting to return, waiting for work, for food, for water, for medicine at border crossings and boundaries. And there are the other lines of blindfolded men incarcerated without trials; protest lines, police lines, supply lines, headlines, frontlines.
People are angry, people are displaced, people are locked out and despite the availability of tremendous information people cannot take advantage of it. The gap between the rich and the poor continues to increase. The gap between the rich and the middle income is increasing.
Today these lines are the reasons why 10 million refugees seek refuge from war and hunger in the world. A total of 30 million people are displaced. There are people seeking jobs and a better life, fleeing war, violence and hunger and finding themselves incarcerated and subjected to further violence in the countries were they are fleeing too. We should discuss the possibility of a world where everyone would have a home, feel at home and the rights of the landless would be secure. A world, in which, no one would be displaced or homeless. Where people seeking homelands, safety, refuge and a better life would not be trapped at border crossings and locked up instead in concentration camps. Where, militaries would not patrol borders and water ways, hunting down the poor who are seeking jobs. The world to the hunted is a place of barbed wire and barricades and secret camps (here). Internment camps for illegal immigrants and whole populations living under occupation. We should discuss a world where secret camps, concentration camps called holding centers and off shore holding centers for refugees such as Baxter which replaced the notorious Wormarea would not exist (here). world were 3 million people would not be locked up in their own homeland in a virtual jail of barbed wire closures and would instead be free in a home land called Palestine. A world, in which, extra judicial killings would cease to occur.
These lines are the reasons for why so called democracy flourishes in one country while dictator after dictator rules another. We should discuss a world where stability would not be defined by the absence of political agitation and activism. A world where stability would not be defined by the presence of military forces or MacDonald franchises but instead by the diversity and cacophony of political discourse, the riot of voices and the rough and tumble of forward moving action for cooperation and creativity. We should discuss a world where political solutions are the first and the last solutions. We should discuss a world where people and their discourse are the safe guards and guardians of democracy not military might.
These lines are very significant, in creating lies, myths and untruths about our human common bond. In creating conflict these lines are very significant. The enforcement of these lines, these 19th and 20thcentury borders influence culture, class and politics of the world and will continue to have a profound effect on democracy and peace in the 21stcentury.
South Asia’s Stories: And today these lines, these border conflicts have the potential to end our planet. Pakistan and India are a case in point. We the citizens of Pakistan and India bear the amazing responsibility and burden for the wellbeing of our planet. More than 1.5 billion people or 1/6th of the world’s population lives here. The world’s largest democracy is here and one of its potentially great democracies in waiting, playing the part of the worst dictatorship is here too. The rapid changes that have occurred on the sub-continent, in the creation of states, changes in ideology, ideas and languages over centuries and in the last fifty-six years, make this region a breathtaking example of modernity. Yet approximately 40% of the world’s poverty sits here. Geography has been our selling point, and our curse. We sit in the heart of Asia, in fact to me, the very shape of the subcontinent resembles the shape of the heart.
One of the first English novels I was given to read when I was a kid was “The Heart Divided” by Mumtaz Shahnawaz, one of the first Pakistani English novel, if not the first, to be published. English is a language that has come to belong to this gorgeous and variegated sub-continent where more than a hundred languages are spoken. It is our second language. And a significant number speak it. Combined with all the other factors and our ability to communicate between ourselves and the rest of the world in English, we the people of South Asia will have a significant influence on shaping world opinion and in shaping the world’s story. But first we must learn to rely on and respect each others opinions. There must be a reliance and respect between Indians and Pakistanis. Our strongest ally in the world forums can only be and should only be our neighbors.
Imagine what our stories would be if the sub-continent was a common economic space, a common cultural space not constrained by its borders. Think about the myths we would have to give up before we can do that. Imagine the influence we could have in changing the terms and conditions of interaction in the world. Fifty-six years ago we were left divided as a result of confronting empire. Is there a chance now perhaps that we may join forces to confront it as it rears its ugly head again? Are we to write our story about the end of empire, or one about its short recess and continuation? Are we not to rise beyond that? In a world where power is defined by weapons, we must choose words. In a world where the use of weapons is justified by words and the word of the powerful is English, we must choose to win the battle for ourselves. In English therefore, we articulate and formulate the argument and counter argument, reorient opinion and the optic through which the world is viewed, and views us. It is in this second language of ours that we reach those who are disoriented, to reorient them to a story about ourselves told by us. We reorient ourselves as well. Where, news about us, is written by us and definitions of us are by us. Analysis of what we are and what we are not, by us. We must take back the space that has been taken from us. Is English the language of imperialism? It belongs to us, it is ours. It allows us to articulate our story ourselves to an audience beyond ourselves, it shifts the balance of power if not in weapons then in words and that alone is the greatest fight and the greatest battle to be won.
Let’s talk about a world where value laden definitions cease to exist because of our influence. Where all things good are not considered as “western” where secular does not mean European in its roots, where democracy does not have a definition embedded in the model followed by one country; where war is terrorism; and where the concept of progressive is not considered as“western”. Where, no definition is unique to just one country, race or religion. A world where what holds true for one must hold true for all.
What are our definitions? Our human indicators show us as being socially and humanely rich. Our story is of strong families and our values for human relationships make us a people of peace, love and care. Our story is of social informal systems delivering on peace and equity. Our story is one of peace and social justice. Our story is one that values social equity and well being over, financial dominance. Our story is of being socially and spiritually rich. Our story is of our investments in social and spiritual well being. Our story is of our people being socially and spiritually highly developed of placing a higher value on humanity. And this is borne out by indicators and statistics. There are more than 1.5 billion people living in South Asia and yet on a day to day basis the least amount of strife and violence occurs in South Asia compared to elsewhere. Industrialized countries have the highest amount of violence, strife and crime. The Subcontinent, both India and Pakistan are oft painted and represented to the world as violent and lawless. Much has been written about the most dangerous place on earth. Is that what we are? No doubt that with such a large population of over 1.5 billion people and population density we have our share of violence. But are the people, the ordinary citizens violent or lawless? Are they more violent than elsewhere? That’s what the stories seem to say in the news each day. Statistics interestingly enough say otherwise. Take for example Scandinavian countries, always held up as examples of the highest standards of living. Per 100,000 persons there are 13,000 incidents of crime. In Bangladesh per 100,000 there are 89 incidents of crime. In India and Pakistan per 100,000 the number is around 600. In the US per 100,000 the number is 4000. The US spends US$150 billion on its criminal justice system. There are 2 million people incarcerated in the US and this goes up to 6 million if you count everyone in the system in jail, in probation in half way houses and so on. That’s 2.1 percent of the US population incarcerated. And 2 million people are employed in the industry of keeping people jailed. The prison industrial complex in the US is a significant industry.
We are defined by justice, human rights, idealism, passion, poetry, inspiration, the power of persuasion, the power of words, the defense of the human spirit. This was our story, this should be Our-story and it will be ours. The world refers to this way as secular, we call it desi. Our way. We protect the space required for freedom of speech, we can only do so if we are educated. We can lead in the world forums because we can speak English. If we want Urdu, Punjabi, Sindhi, Baluchi, Pushto, Dari, Bengali, Kashmiri and all the other languages to flourish freely and fearlessly we must be educated. Only and only if we focus on a solid world class education for our children, can we have the most powerful defense. We must be articulate and eloquent, we must demonstrate that Pakistan and its people want to be understood by the world, want to engage the world and they want to do it on their own terms, peacefully.
Recently, while I was in Bosnia for work a colleague’s bad heart condition was explained to me using the metaphor of the entity lines dividing Bosnia. The metaphor resonated deeply with me of divisions as illness, and the homeland as the heart. In July a Pakistani child went to have her heart repaired in India. Pakistan’s Noor, protected by Indian doctors. Would this story have had any poignancy at all for us, if it had been England or the US that Noor had gone to for her medical treatment? I wonder. I don’t think so. Because I think this story, of little Noor, is our story, in all its ironies, tragedies and joys and therefore it has the capacity to touch us deeply and indeed break our hearts. To quote from On Air “If it doesn’t have the capacity to break your heart, it can’t be love.” Naz replies “Everyone wants a guarantee for the unbreakable”. The caller replies “There’s no way to do that.” And Naz asks.“So nothing ever gets broken?” And the caller reassures her, “Divided, yes, parted, yes, separated, yes. But whole. All outcomes are predictable. Just solve for X where X=1. X being unity. Unity implies whole.”
The ability to speak in English or write it should not be equated with modernity or moderation or secularism. That has been part of the problem. All definitions of us spewed out to us in English by others have been accepted as truths. To consider the ability to speak in English in that way would be a grave injustice to the diversity of languages and cultures of this land. We are a people of ideas and words and should be unwilling to be defined. We are as a region that much stronger, that much more vibrant that much more multi-dimensional, that much more enriched, that much more resilient and English, is our common denominator amongst ourselves in the entire region of over one hundred different languages from Baluchi to Malyalam. English is one of our languages. It is the language of today of sciences, of research and of businesses and of stock markets. The Russians, the French, the Germans, the Japanese, the Chinese concede to this. To enter into the international arena of any debate, to hold sway, to be a force of persuasion, requires that English be spoken and understood.
Pakistan’s Stories: Pakistan is running on the dedication, commitment, dynamism, and creativity, of its thoroughly modern citizens who are also aggressively and quite humorously outwardly and upwardly mobile. Their stories are largely untold. They neither smoke designer cigarettes, nor drink European or American made liquor, or recline on period or post modern furniture in their well air conditioned homes. They are farmers, engineers, factory workers, lawyers, trade unionists, home-makers, doctors, shopkeepers, students, day laborers, street vendors, architects, urban planners, masons, journalists, bankers, micro finance specialists, writers, painters, dancers, musicians, machinists, mechanics, dock workers, weavers, film makers, tailors, tanners, teachers, traders, , taxi, truck and rickshaw drivers, carpenters, money lenders, dalals and hundreds of others. This is from where Pakistan’s leadership is emerging. They are completely comfortable in their identity and location. This leadership is home-grown, answerable to the residents in their neighborhoods. Pakistan is organized and run by these leaders who are responsible for providing services and access to people in everything from jobs, to land, to finance, to water, to transport, to electricity. Pakistan is not being run by its government. The Government is strangling these leaders.
There is nothing anti modern in Pakistan except those who will not give up power and their control over all of Pakistan’s wealth. The vast majority of Pakistanis are modern though they would blush to admit it or at the very least be surprised to know it. Modernity is defined in the Webster Dictionary as that which breaks with the past and is new; a self-conscious break with the past, and a search for new ways of expression. Pakistan by definition then is modern. It is only 56 years old. Those who live in Pakistan, willingly or unwillingly, broke with the past when Pakistan was created: for better or for worse. For the better part of these 56 years Pakistanis have been stopped on that natural course of moving forward, and have been forced to take the worst course of modernity. That is the story of the mullahs, monarchies and militaries developed during the cold war period all over the world.
Furthermore, almost 42% of Pakistan is now urban. Rural-urban migration has been intense. The context of cities, the terms of engagement required in city life force people into new ways of thinking. City life is based on a mentality of modernity which breaks away from traditional ways of life. In fact for one purpose or the other the population of Pakistan has been in constant flux, in constant movement. Begin five thousand years ago or begin a hundred years ago the story in one of constant influx and outward movement. Begin only sixty years ago then from partition till present day, the migrations, immigrations and movement internally have been immense. Rural to urban, and then outward, look at the number of Pakistanis working overseas. Traveling back, and forth from their places of work, to their family homes, in Pakistan. This change requires breaking from existing norms and traditions, adapting to new ways. This region is a mass of people constantly in transition. Constantly reinventing themselves. The people of this region are thoroughly modern.
By modernity I mean new and breaking from the past, this does not necessarily have a positive or negative meaning. The hijab in Pakistan is an indicator of modernity. As in my mother’s generation the burqa symbolized modernity, because it indicated that a woman had to step out of her home, the hijab today too indicates a higher mobility of women. As long as it is a matter of choice, the hijab remains modern. The moment it is worn or taken off at gun point or other threats it becomes something quite different. Look around you, what a large number of hijabs one sees, in offices, on buses, on the streets, in schools, in colleges, at hospitals. Don’t look at the head dress, count the heads. So many women, in the public space! A very different group that before had little access is making its way now into the forums of jobs and decision making. This is good!
The visibility of women in public spaces is higher than ever before. There are more women going to work, at schools, banks, hospitals, business offices and factories then ever before. There are more women in parliament then ever before. Look at the number of women in the parliament in Peshawer. Incredible! The hijab in Pakistan is a westernization coming from France, Germany, Indonesia, Malaysia and Turkey it is a process--- not permanence. It has assured and eased women’s mobility in the middle income groups and allows a culturally acceptable route to working in public spaces. As a fashion issue, it allows women coming from culturally conservative backgrounds a bridge for mobility, linking rural and urban sensibilities and east and west. And perhaps it allows women familiar with the west a way of experimenting and defining their melded identity. Who knows? The Human Development Report in July 2003 may offer up an economic explanation. It indicates that women in cities must work in order to make ends meet in household expenditures. The hijab perhaps allows urban women to work in a culturally acceptable way. As people adapt to women working there will be changes in what they consider as acceptable behavior. As long as this is a choice and not an imposition, it doesn’t matter. No condition is static. South Asia has always been a cross-roads a land of rivers and a flow of people, it has no room for stasis. That is the way of South Asia, this is the way of Pakistan and its modernity.
Pakistan has grown much more than other low-income countries, but has failed to achieve social progress commensurate with its economic growth. While infant mortality and female illiteracy rates declined by 73 and 60 percent, respectively, from 1960 to 1998 for countries that grew at about the same rate in Pakistan the declines were of the order of 43 and 20 percent, correspondingly.
Clearly, Pakistan is not the State of education, with 65% men and 70% of the women being illiterate. There are also significant gender gaps in both literacy and health status in Pakistan. While the male population completes an average of five years of schooling, the female population in Pakistan completes only two and a half years. The enrollment rate for boys is 77 percent as opposed to 60 percent for girls. 40% of Pakistan is literate compared to 64% for countries with similar per capita incomes. Why is that so? For starters, the State commits less than 3% of GNP as its expenditure on education per year. The private sector is taking up where the State absconds from doing. In Pakistan today an estimated 23% of primary enrollments 17% of secondary education enrollments are in private sector schools. These numbers exclude madrassas. The reality remains that the State has failed in its responsibility to its people.
In Pakistan, we have a dysfunctional and discriminating system of rule which is enabled and held together because of illiteracy. We must reverse the rule of illiteracy. Today, about 90 million of our fellow Pakistanis can’t read at all. Today, 24.5 million Pakistani children, don’t go to school at all in Pakistan. This is the situation now; today. Here is how much it costs to send a child to school in Pakistan per year: Six thousand rupees Rs. 6000. For those earning abroad, that’s about US$100. Included in this are the costs of text books; a snack at school; clothes; cost of the teacher; class room maintenance; and transportation. These are costs which are a composite of costs put together from estimates by leading NGOs in the field of education in this country. US$100 to send a kid to school! The good news is that NGOs and the private sector have been fighting the good fight against illiteracy and making in roads and we can strengthen their hand.
Imagine being able to open the world with knowledge for her and for him for only Rs. 6000 per year or US$100 per year. We could do this, one child each. That’s the cost of one cotton outfit at any boutique in Pakistan. That’s the cost of air conditioning a room for one month. Or a cell phone monthly bill. If you drive a car, that’s about the cost of your petrol for two months. If you drive one of those SUVs probably that’s the cost of petrol per month. The pair of gold earrings, you absolutely couldn’t resist. Or, a pack of cigarettes? Or one night out on the town with a couple of friends. And if you’re someone living and earning abroad, say in the USA, here’s how much you probably spend on your de cafe Mocca latte per day US$5. If you drink that every day, then for the amount of latte you drink you could have put 20 kids through school for a year in Pakistan! Can you imagine? If you give up one movie a month, you could put a kid through school in Pakistan. Give up two restaurant meals or one restaurant meal in a restaurant in London, or Dubai or Toronto, or DC or New York or San Francisco or LA or in Karachi or Lahore and you’ve got one kid in school for a year. Sending those 24 million kids to school is the responsibility of those of us who have an education.. Why? The answer is simple. We’ve had an education, (and possibly at the cost of others not getting educated) and 24 million kids won’t. All the resources of this country, were spent on us. Surely, it’s payback time? This is a fight we can afford and we can win. This is a fight we cannot afford not to afford.
Look into the faces of girls and boys---especially the boys condemned to an education of memorizing lines that they do not understand. These creators, builders, healers, sportsmen, planners, savers, our hope, our future are all locked out of realizing their potential. They are locked out of saving themselves and saving us. We owe it to them, we owe it to ourselves.
Almost 42% of Pakistan is now urban, where the formal and informal private sectors thrive in all sorts of things, from finance to fish and an education in English. While formal literacy rates, which are based on a measurement of government school enrollments, are very low, I would wager that the informal literacy rates are very high, thanks to the burgeoning private sector schools in the urban areas. And these numbers and trends, of private schools, of enrollments, of computer centers, of satellite dishes and TVs are growing every day. Good for them! Good for the country. Good for words, good for discourse. Good for business. Good for sales and circulations, say of an English novel.
Our stories: A World With a Different Context: As a writer, I believe in a world that can have a different context then the one we are living in today. I share with millions, with the majority of the world a fervent desire for a world where fear and war are no longer the context. A different world, where war would be a thing of the past and it would be defined as terrorism.
I share with billions of people a desire for a world where the terms of engagement that affect all our lives are in a framework of cooperation and not conflict. A world where every discussion on issues that affect us all would not be dismissive, disingenuous, reductionist, self-serving and bullying statements backed by military might for the sole purpose of profiteering, extraction of minerals, oil, arms sales, foisting bio-genetically modified foods on the world, or occupation and invasion, or the destruction of the environment, and threats of endless war. A world, where discourse is about protecting our planet, not real estate. We need cooperation instead of coercion and cooperatives instead of corporations. A world in which definitions of words like occupation, repression, liberation, invasion, war, terrorism, resistance would reflect the context, condition and stories of the majority of the people’s of the world. We should talk of a world where one country could not unilaterally impose definitions that it does not abide by itself. Where one country because of its military might cannot expect compliance from the world when itself it usually finds no need to comply with the world. Where one power cannot demand that the world comply when it has vetoed most of what the world wants to comply with. Where one power cannot refuse to sign on to the leading human rights treaties, such as women’s rights, children’s rights, economic rights, social and cultural rights.
What impact would there be on our story if arms sales and defense budgets would not dwarf the resources spent on education or on saving and improving human lives and the environment? There is a powerful narrative in these numbers: Trade subsidies and tariffs that bar the import of agricultural goods into developed countries amount to US$300 billion dollars annually; The US defense budget is US$400 billion annually and the developed world spends a total of 600 billion on defense annually ; Total monthly cost of war in Iraq and Afghanistan is approximately US$100 billion annually. Total development assistance to developing countries is US$56 billion annually (here).
What impact would there be on our story if free trade and privatization were to be qualified and defined as to what these terms mean. We should talk about a world where the discourse and actions for increasing trade and competition would mean that instead of lectures to low income countries on reform and privatization there would be a removal of trade subsidies and tariffs by the wealthiest countries who bar the entry of goods from low income countries into their markets. A world, in which, all countries compete on an equal footing. Then the development assistance transfers of today would be meaningless because countries could trade and earn revenues far exceeding the current total development assistance. Trade subsidies that bar goods and services from the developing world into the developed world amount toUS$300 billion in agriculture subsidies in 2003. We know that 70 percent of the poorest in the world rely on agriculture for their incomes. Total Development assistance over the past decade has been in the range of US$50-60 billion per year. If trade subsidies from OECD countries are removed then the gains for developing countries are enormous US$75 billion annually by 2015 in real income and if developing countries remove subsidies as well then the gains are US$120 billion per year. This is far greater than the total development assistance. It is estimated that consumers in OECD and in developing countries stand to gain if subsidies are removed (here). Then the question becomes, if consumers stand to gain, then who benefits from subsidies not being removed?
What impact would there be on our stories if our world was not controlled by those entities which are not governed by people’s will and peoples politics. Corporations are that one entity that have no problems whatsoever creating lines and crossing them. The 21st Century Corporation have more rights, resources and mobility then any individual or State, functioning very much like the colonizers of the 18th and 19th century. Indeed the Corporation has the world’s military might at its disposal. This entity is the only thing that can cross these lines, cross borders without hindrance without questions. This is the only entity that is never an illegal immigrant, never has to wait till the cover of darkness to hurry across a border, or cross a river, never dies or drowns, or gets shot at or lives in fear. It is this entity, the corporation, that has redefined the map of the world. It maps the world according to its jurisdiction: according to its airwaves, networks, satellite frequencies, patents, copyrights, markets, distribution systems, its supply sources, supercede the lines recognized by Government’s and States. Corporate entities and their cultures are at counter purposes with local political processes and development of democracy. Not only, in the developing world, but in the developed world, as well.
What impact would there be on our stories if the world as a community of humans focused on social equity rather than a strident ideological focus on economic growth and privatization defined by stock market rises and job-less economic recoveries. Much has been written about the roots of terrorism lying in poverty. Why does the world insult the poor, why does it hate the poor so much? The facts are that much of the roots of the world’s poverty lie in terrorism. The terrorism of centuries of empire and its arbitrary drawing of borders, occupation, genocide, rape, loot, war and indiscriminate plundering of the world’s wealth for the benefit of a few. That is terrorism. That is terrorism past and present.
The world is poor because the rich will not share. We always focus on the US$1.0 per day scenario. How the poor do with so little. We should increase our questioning of why the rich are not satisfied with so much and continue to waste the world’s finite resources. The per capita emissions of carbon dioxide in high income countries are 12.4 tons, while in the low income countries it is 1.0 ton. The rich generate most of the world’s pollution and the depletion of the environment and the poor bear the brunt of it since they are the most susceptible to the smallest changes in the climate, remember 70 percent of the poor rely on agriculture for their livelihoods (here). The world’s wealth is concentrated and embedded in the essentialness of discontent. And the rich everywhere, no matter what the country, seem to be a nationality apart.
More than 50 countries of the world grew poorer over the last decade (here). In a world of 6 billion people in which access to basic services such as water, shelter, education and health are constrained and limited; and in the case of health and water are diminishing; more than 90 percent of the wealth and resources of the earth are in the hands of less than 2 percent of the world’s population, and even this is increasingly in the hands of entities called corporations. And this imbalance is based on the enforcement of these lines. And yet, while people cannot cross borders to seek jobs, there is little or no enforcement of checks or regulations on corporations crossing borders.
The UNDP HDR for Pakistan’s reports that not only 65.1 percent of the extremely poor respondents were sick at the time of the survey but that they had on average suffered from their current sickness for the last 95 days. Can it be possible that 30 million Pakistanis on average are sick for 95 days out of the year?
Of the world’s population living in poverty, half live in South Asia. India has 40% of the world’s poor. And in Pakistan 33 percent of the population lives in poverty. And yet the Governments of both countries have focused on military spending and nuclear build up. They talk of war before they talk of life. This is criminal.
Poverty remains a serious concern in Pakistan with a per capita gross national income (GNI) of US$440. According to the latest figures (for 1998-1999), as measured by Pakistan's poverty line, 33 percent of the population is poor Pakistan is at a crucial point in its development where it could either face social and economic disaster or make a comprehensive strategy that addresses the problems of the poor, according to the National Human Development Report 2003 (here).
We should talk about a world where a price is not attached to human life. Where, a human life is not measured in dollars and cents, in rupees and annas. Any human being’s life is at all costs the most valuable. We should talk about a world where we get rid of the term human capital and ensure that we do not see human beings as property. We are not capital. We are not property, we are not an input, we are not to be judged as useful or obsolete, productive or unproductive. We are not a line item in the category of productive assets.
We should think about a world with common institutions where all the nations would be involved and have an equal voice in the decisions which affect all of us and where there would be a strong General Assembly with one vote per country and without a coterie or club of veto powers.
We should talk of a world where food and medical assistance would be easily accessible to those in need, instead of rotting in warehouses because of inadequate or ruined distribution systems. Where children, all children would go to school, live in a safe environment and have access to health care. We should talk about a world where everyone would have access to resources including financial services.
We should talk about a world in which legitimacy of actions are judged by the rule of law: a world where the greatest ability to inflict violence does not have legitimacy. A world where might is not right and where technological supremacy, does not mean ultimate legitimacy over ethics, morality or principles. A world, in which profit and technology, do not trump humanity and democracy. We should talk about a world where governments should serve the people and not be replaced by the surveillance of people.
We should discuss the urgency for a world where everyone would be assured of justice, where there would be justice for all and no one would be above the law. We should discuss a world where a strong International Criminal Court would prevail and where truth and reconciliation would be the order of the day.
We should work towards and write about a world where our collective experience would be referred to as Our-story. Where the definitions and terms for the human condition are agreed upon by all of us and are not laden with the value judgments of those in power. A world which would face up to this collective story and forgive and reconcile and where instead of debt relief there would be moral reparations for crimes against humanity. A world where borders would cease to matter and there would be a free flow of people.
In Pakistan we need to recognize how far away we have moved from the ideals envisioned by Pakistan’s founding leaders: the ideals for peaceful co-existence. We must move towards these ideals in unison for cooperative co-existence, respecting each others differences and recognizing that those differences are not greater than our commonality of being human beings. We have strayed dangerously far from the ideals. As Pakistanis, as good neighbors as good citizens we need to understand and re- dedicate ourselves to common principals that range from co-operation, co-existence, common economic space, sharing of resources, justice and the safeguarding of everyone institutions of faith and learning.
Ideals, no matter how lofty which speak only through or adhere to a religious or racial identity will go horribly and terribly wrong because they begin to unravel the idealism of social justice in the logic of exclusivity of religion and race. This holds true for other countries as well.
The Reality: The world is locked in an embrace with death, hate and injustice. It is urgent now to end this process of hate and break the cycle by establishing the international court of criminal justice. We need to do this as a world community. We need to embrace forgiveness, sympathy and understanding. We need to embrace the very powerful notions of fragility and vulnerability. Our world is as fragile as are our limbs and emotions. How long can this fragile and intricately intertwined earth endure the ravages and disdains of business interests that cause the wastage of oil resources, dangerous fuel emissions, use of uranium depleted ammunitions, bombings, depletion of water resources and the destruction of forests, animal species, humans and erosion of our skies and our soil? How long will the world believe the myth that technology can fix everything, that technology can replace everything?
But the context of today is not one that embraces peace or mutually beneficial cooperation and understanding. Instead the world and its citizens are locked in a very different and deadly embrace. And war-mongers are calling themselves peacemakers. Principals are being shunned for profit and personal gains. Predators roam the skies. And fear stalks the earth.
What ever else one can say for September 11th, it is as though the hideous attack was embraced by all those wishing to control, rule, occupy, plunder, profit, beg and borrow. Every pundit and pontificator had an explanation for it. All of us had an explanation for it. Every greed and profit making motive on earth whether it was for denying peoples’ rights to land or self determinations or putting into print deeply held notions and preposterous ideas of hate embraced it. And every greedy power hungry politician and business who could do so, embraced it for the purpose of swallowing up land, or aid, or guns, or power. Power and greed embraced it closest of all. All information has been reduced to the ridiculous. The population of the world has been reduced to being termed as a focus group. A media term, an advertising term, a marketing tool used by businesses.
And no one seemed to embrace or even allow for the thought that violence is a senseless act. That violence is without reason. That violence occurs when reason fails. It seemed that this idea of treating murder as senseless could not be sold, there was no profit in it, and therefore it was worthless.
And in all the causes and the reasons given, for September 11, no one can say with certainty which one was the real cause, because all are conjectures. But all this conjecturing and finger pointing spoke volumes about us what we are and what is the state of the world. All the reasons provided were centered around hate; religious fanaticism; revenge, poverty. And those who have embraced it most have done it for the insatiable need for fear, profit, greed, opportunism and war. And, in doing so, we have in a way anesthetized ourselves from feeling anything.
And with the vanishing of innocent people, vanished the future of thousands upon thousands more, vanished a moment to feel our own vulnerability, vanished the opportunity to realize in this our collective fragility and our collective strength. The moon must have hid her face in pain, as we collectively gouged out our third eye.
And even the voices raised against war and retribution, seemed to be saying that war was wrong because it would spawn more terrorism. They seemed to be arguing that the victims would rise to seek revenge. So in a way, many of the voices against war were not saying lets not harm them because they are human and like us but let’s not harm them because they will harm us.
We should discuss the possibility of a world where the following definition of terrorism would apply: Violence by states, individuals or groups, directly or against unarmed civilians with the purpose of instigating fear, murder, coercion, repression, subjugation, resulting in psychological and physical injury including the deaths and displacement of civilian men, women and children. A definition is required for terrorism, if the world is to be spared the past and move peacefully, humanely and progressively forward.
We are now in the closing month of a horrific year, 2003, for peace. And language is being used as weapon. Another year, in which, the message is clear: Might is right. All, power to the violently powerful. All, power to the violently wealthy. And yet, most, refuse to accept this and are horrified and disgusted by it. And all the signs so far are that we’ll continue to be horrified. The world is back to a blatant age of empire and occupation.
The world is a place of lines, barricades, and password like never before. Either you’re in or you’re out. That’s the bad news. The good news is that 6 billion of us are out. And a very few people are in. There’s a lot more of us. And you can’t blame the kid wearing the military uniform of the invading forces in Iraq. Chances are he or she isn’t even a citizen, or if they are, they’re trying to make their way out of a ghetto or a Reservation through the opportunities for an education and income that the military provides them with. Look at their honest faces, their innocent bright eyed faces to see the truth of their circumstances and the choices they’ve had to make. Just like the faces of the children in the madrassas of Pakistan. Innocent, deprived, looking for a way out to a better life, thinking they’re going places. They are all part of the 6 billion who are occupied.
I want to believe that the world is not uni-polar and that there are checks on this unquestionable might. I want to believe that the most powerful force of all is the one that stands in the streets and avenues of the world to protest unchecked power. Millions of voices are not a focus group to be ignored and disdained.
The essence of democracy is in the asking of questions and the posing of questions. Democracy is essential for development and for a mutually sympathetic and kind world. Democracy is essential for social justice and equity.
And finally, we should discuss a world where the right to question is not conditional. There are no conditions for democracy, it is or it isn’t. There is no need for lead up time, no bench marks. Democracy is a human right. The telling of one’s own story and having it heard is a human right. This notion, that democracy requires some pre conditions is false. We should discuss a world where this notion that historical, cultural, and political circumstances in certain parts of the world make some people or societies more able then others to be democratic is deemed self serving for those in power who will not share it. A peaceful and democratic environment cannot exist without politics. In fact, in the absence of politics and debate, there can be no sustainable development.
If the world was such where there was democracy and accountability what would be the stories we’d tell and in the absence of all this, what are the stories we continue to tell and who tells them?
Other Writings by Maniza Naqvi (here).
by Kevin S. Baldwin
We really do coinhabit the earth with mythical creatures. Werewolves have recently occupied my home. Let me explain: Two of my kids are young teens, who have transformed practically overnight into hairy, musky, snarling, nocturnal beasts with insatiable appetites for food, media, novelty, and the company of other werewolves.
Of course, I am not the first to make this lupine-teen connection, and I can still appreciate the situation from my kids' perspectives: One day you're a fairly carefree child and suddenly you have hairs sprouting in new places, insistent demands from your digestive and reproductive tracts governing nearly every decision (tubular hells?), and are facing fear and loathing from peers and parents alike while trying to decipher and navigate a suddenly unfamiliar, yet vitally important social landscape.
Adolescence is a human universal, yet there are some features that make our 21st Century, First-World situation a bit unusual. One is that our kids are entering adolescence earlier than ever. Whatever mismatches exist between our bodies and brains during this transitional period may be exaggerated as a result of this shift in timing. Immature minds partially in control of mature bodies is less than ideal for lots of reasons. Another feature of our society is that it fetishizes teenhood and young-adulthood to an extraordinary degree. Yet another feature unique to our situation may be that so many more of us actually survive adolescence and live to a ripe old age. For much of our evolutionary history, the aspects of our lifecycles that have mattered most, played out while we were still essentially adolescents. Teen marriages were common. Vanishingly few of us made it past the age of 30. No wonder we, as a species, are such crooked timber! Only recently, have there been enough older folk in the population to have much of an effect on population level characteristics, or even merely reflect on the phenomenon of puberty itself.
Adolescence is akin to metamorphosis from a tadpole into a frog or a caterpillar into a butterfly plus all the angst of being somewhat self-aware. You couldn't pay me enough to relive those years, yet I suppose it is a form of karma to have to relive adolescence from an adult's perspective:
Could I have possibly been this irrational, self-absorbed, and ungrateful?
Should I try to impart to my kids what little I've learned in the roughly three decades that have elapsed since my own adolescence?
Will it do any good?
Probably not. They will have to learn these lessons themselves.
We are consigned to an intergenerational version of "Groundhog Day:" The same mistakes over and over again with seemingly little chance of resolution. Perhaps this is one aspect of the cycle of suffering that the Buddha alluded to. In some ways, youth is wasted on the young and by the time we begin to figure it all out, we're in decline or perhaps even nearing the end of our time on this planet.
If species can be thought of as having life cycles, Homo sapiens may be in its adolescence as well. The Fall symbolized our transition from the hunter-gather life to the blessing and curse of the agricultural revolution. With our newly discovered independence we severed many of the ties and connections that had previously held us in check for so many millennia. Industrial capitalism, has locked us further into this adolescent stage of self-absorption and instant gratification. We have enjoyed the power resulting from the increase in our numbers and our ever-growing technological footprints, but have yet to own up to the responsibilities associated with being embedded in a larger community. We are metaphorical teen-wolves, convinced of our own self-importance, with little regard for others.
Eventually, I hope my werewolves will realize that despite all the gadgets in their lives that begin with the prefix "i-," life is not really all about them. They are of course individuals, but ones that live within a family and a community that ranges from our neighborhood to all the other people and species on this planet. Hopefully, humanity can also weather the transition into adulthood before we irreversibly damage all the relationships that surround and sustain us.
October 28, 2012
Atul Gawande: Excellence Is Recognizing Details, Failures
From Harvard Magazine:
In the professional world, what separates greatness from mere competence? Why is a cystic fibrosis treatment center in Minnesota miles ahead of a similar program in Cincinnati? Why are certain teachers getting first-rate results in the classroom when others are merely getting by?
Atul Gawande, a Harvard Medical School professor, surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and New Yorker staff writer who has traveled the country researching answers to this question, says the answer has little to do with income level, education, or high intelligence. The key to being great at any given profession, he says, is the ability to recognize failure. “What I found over time, trying to follow and emulate people that were focused on achieving something more than competence, is that they weren’t smarter than anybody else, they weren’t geniuses,” Gawande told an audience at the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Askwith Forum on Wednesday. “Instead they seemed to be people that could come to grips with their inherent fallibility—fallibility in the systems that they work in, and with what it took to overcome that fallibility.”
BRAINS PLUS BRAWN
Daniel Lieberman in Edge:
I've been thinking a lot about the concept of whether or not human evolution is a story of brains over brawn. I study the evolution of the human body and how and why the human body is the way it is, and I've worked a lot on both ends of the body. I'm very interested in feet and barefoot running and how our feet function, but I've also written and thought a lot about how and why our heads are the way they are. The more I study feet and heads, the more I realize that what's in the middle also matters, and that we have this very strange idea —it goes back to mythology—that human evolution is primarily a story about brains, about intelligence, about technology triumphing over brawn.
Another good example of this would be the Piltdown hoax. The Piltdown forgery was a fossil that was discovered in the early 1900s, in a pit in southern England. This fossil consisted of a modern human skull that had been stained and made to look really old, and an orangutan jaw whose teeth had been filed it down and broken up, all thrown into a pit with a bunch of fake stone tools. It was exactly what Edwardian scientists were looking for, because it was an ape-like face with a big human brain, and also it evolved in England, so it proved that humans evolved in England, which of course made sense to any Victorian or Edwardian. It also fit with the prevailing idea at the time of Elliot Smith, that brains led the way in human evolution because, if you think about what makes us so different from other creatures, people always thought it's our brains. We have these big, enormous, large, fantastic brains that enable us to invent railways and income tax and insurance companies and all those other wonderful inventions that made the Industrial Revolution work.
Remembering Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields
Gareth Evans in Project Syndicate (illustration by Dean Rohrer):
Three years ago, in the bloody endgame of the Sri Lankan government’s war against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, some 300,000 civilians became trapped between the advancing army and the last LTTE fighters in what has been called “the cage” – a tiny strip of land, not much larger than New York City’s Central Park, between sea and lagoon in the northeast of the country.
With both sides showing neither restraint nor compassion, at least 10,000 civilians – possibly as many as 40,000 – died in the carnage that followed, as a result of indiscriminate army shelling, rebel gunfire, and denial of food and medical supplies.
The lack of outrage mainly reflects the Sri Lankan government’s success in embedding in the minds of policymakers and publics an alternative narrative that had extraordinary worldwide resonance in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. What occurred in the cage, according to this narrative, was the long-overdue defeat, by wholly necessary and defensible means, of a murderous terrorist insurrection that had threatened the country’s very existence.
The other key reason behind the world’s silence is that the Sri Lankan government was relentless in banning independent observers – media, NGOs, or diplomats – from witnessing or reporting on its actions. And this problem was compounded by the timidity of in-country United Nations officials in communicating such information as they had.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government claimed throughout, and still does, that it maintained a “zero civilian casualties” policy. Officials argued that no heavy artillery fire was ever directed at civilians or hospitals, that any collateral injury to civilians was minimal, and that they fully respected international law, including the proscription against execution of captured prisoners.
But that narrative is now being picked apart in a series of recent publications, notably the report last year of a UN Panel of Experts, and in two new books: UN official Gordon Weiss’s relentlessly analytical The Cage: The Fight for Sri Lanka and the Last Days of the Tamil Tigers, and BBC journalist Frances Harrison’s harrowingly anecdotal Still Counting the Dead: Survivors of Sri Lanka’s Hidden War.
What Can You Really Know? Another Round of Physicists vs. Philosophers
Freeman Dyson reviews Jim Holt's Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story, in the NYRB:
The fading of philosophy came to my attention in 1979, when I was involved in the planning of a conference to celebrate the hundredth birthday of Einstein. The conference was held in Princeton, where Einstein had lived, and our largest meeting hall was too small for all the people who wanted to come. A committee was set up to decide who should be invited. When the membership of the committee was announced, there were loud protests from people who were excluded. After acrimonious discussions, we agreed to have three committees, each empowered to invite one third of the participants. One committee was for scientists, one for historians of science, and one for philosophers of science.
After the three committees had made their selections, we had three lists of names of people to be invited. I looked at the lists of names and was immediately struck by their disconnection. With a few exceptions, I knew personally all the people on the science list. On the history list, I knew the names, but I did not know the people personally. On the philosophy list, I did not even know the names.
In earlier centuries, scientists and historians and philosophers would have known one another. Newton and Locke were friends and colleagues in the English parliament of 1689, helping to establish constitutional government in England after the bloodless revolution of 1688. The bloody passions of the English Civil War were finally quieted by establishing a constitutional monarchy with limited powers. Constitutional monarchy was a system of government invented by philosophers. But in the twentieth century, science and history and philosophy had become separate cultures. We were three groups of specialists, living in separate communities and rarely speaking to each other.
When and why did philosophy lose its bite? How did it become a toothless relic of past glories? These are the ugly questions that Jim Holt’s book compels us to ask.
Literature is not Data: Against Digital Humanities
Stephen Marche in The LA Review of Books:
BIG DATA IS COMING for your books. It’s already come for everything else. All human endeavor has by now generated its own monadic mass of data, and through these vast accumulations of ciphers the robots now endlessly scour for significance much the way cockroaches scour for nutrition in the enormous bat dung piles hiding in Bornean caves. The recent Automate This, a smart book with a stupid title, offers a fascinatingly general look at the new algorithmic culture: 60 percent of trades on the stock market today take place with virtually no human oversight. Artificial intelligence has already changed health care and pop music, baseball, electoral politics, and several aspects of the law. And now, as an afterthought to an afterthought, the algorithms have arrived at literature, like an army which, having conquered Italy, turns its attention to San Marino.
The story of how literature became data in the first place is a story of several, related intellectual failures.
In 2002, on a Friday, Larry Page began to end the book as we know it. Using the 20 percent of his time that Google then allotted to its engineers for personal projects, Page and Vice-President Marissa Mayer developed a machine for turning books into data. The original was a crude plywood affair with simple clamps, a metronome, a scanner, and a blade for cutting the books into sheets. The process took 40 minutes. The first refinement Page developed was a means of digitizing books without cutting off their spines — a gesture of tender-hearted sentimentality towards print. The great disbinding was to be metaphorical rather than literal. A team of Page-supervised engineers developed an infrared camera that took into account the curvature of pages around the spine. They resurrected a long dormant piece of Optical Character Recognition software from Hewlett-Packard and released it to the open-source community for improvements. They then crowd-sourced textual correction at a minimal cost through a brilliant program called reCAPTCHA, which employs an anti-bot service to get users to read and type in words the Optical Character Recognition software can’t recognize. (A miracle of cleverness: everyone who has entered a security identification has also, without knowing it, aided the perfection of the world’s texts.) Soon after, the world’s five largest libraries signed on as partners. And, more or less just like that, literature became data.
Remarkable Facts: Ending Science As We Know It
Elliott Sober reviews Thomas Nagel's Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, in Boston Review:
Thomas Nagel, a distinguished philosopher at NYU, is well known for his critique of “materialistic reductionism” as an account of the mind-body relationship. In his new and far-reaching book Mind and Cosmos, Nagel extends his attack on materialistic reductionism—which he describes as the thesis that physics provides a complete explanation of everything—well beyond the mind-body problem. He argues that evolutionary biology is fundamentally flawed and that physics also needs to be rethought—that we need a new way to do science.
Nagel’s new way is teleological—scientific explanations need to invoke goals, not just mechanistic causes. The conventional story of the emergence of modern science maintains that Galileo and Newton forever banished Aristotle’s teleology. SoMind and Cosmos is an audacious book, bucking the tide. Nagel acknowledges that he has no teleological theory of his own to offer. His job, as he sees it, is to point to a need; creative scientists, he hopes, will do the heavy lifting.
Nagel’s rejection of materialistic reductionism does not stem from religious conviction. He says that he doesn’t have a religious bone in his body. The new, teleological science he wants is naturalistic, not supernaturalistic. This point needs to be remembered, given that the book begins with kind words for proponents of intelligent design. Nagel applauds them for identifying problems in evolutionary theory, but he does not endorse their solution.
Nagel’s main goal in this book is not to argue against materialistic reductionism, but to explore the consequences of its being false. He has argued against the -ism elsewhere, and those who know their Nagel will be able to fill in the details. But new readers may be puzzled, so a little backstory may help.
murmuration of starlings
Hauerwas on Bonhoeffer
ride it on
the tragedy of the leaves
Sunday PoemSmell and Envy
You nature poets think you've got it, hostaged
somewhere in Vermont or Oregon,
so it blooms and withers only for you,
so all you have to do is name it: primrose
- and now you're writing poetry, and now
you ship it off to us, to smell and envy.
But we are made of newspaper and smoke
and we dunk your roses in vats of blue.
Birds don't call, our pigeons play it close
to the vest. When the moon is full
we hear it in the sirens. The Pleiades
you could probably buy downtown. Gravity
is the receiver on the hook. Mortality
we smell on certain people as they pass.
by Douglas Goetsch
from Nobody's Hell
Hanging Loose Press, Brooklyn, NY, 1999
October 27, 2012
Lewis Lapham's Antidote to the Age of BuzzFeed
The counterrevolution has its embattled forward outpost on a genteel New York street called Irving Place, home to Lapham’s Quarterly. The street is named after Washington Irving, the 19th-century American author best known for creating the Headless Horseman in his short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” The cavalry charge that Lewis Lapham is now leading could be said to be one against headlessness—against the historically illiterate, heedless hordesmen of the digital revolution ignorant of our intellectual heritage; against the “Internet intellectuals” and hucksters of the purportedly utopian digital future who are decapitating our culture, trading in the ideas of some 3,000 years of civilization for...BuzzFeed.
Lapham, the legendary former editor of Harper’s, who, beginning in the 1970s, helped change the face of American nonfiction, has a new mission: taking on the Great Paradox of the digital age. Suddenly thanks to Google Books, JSTOR and the like, all the great thinkers of all the civilizations past and present are one or two clicks away. The great library of Alexandria, nexus of all the learning of the ancient world that burned to the ground, has risen from the ashes online. And yet—here is the paradox—the wisdom of the ages is in some ways more distant and difficult to find than ever, buried like lost treasure beneath a fathomless ocean of online ignorance and trivia that makes what is worthy and timeless more inaccessible than ever. There has been no great librarian of Alexandria, no accessible finder’s guide, until Lapham created his quarterly five years ago with the quixotic mission of serving as a highly selective search engine for the wisdom of the past.
From The New York Times:
I want to hate David Benioff. He’s annoyingly handsome. He’s already written a pair of unputdownable books, one of which was made into Spike Lee’s most heartbreaking film, “The 25th Hour” — for which Benioff was asked to write the screenplay, leading to a second career in Hollywood. (They should just get it over with and put the man in the movies already.) He takes his morning orange juice next to Amanda Peet. And he’s still in his 30s. See what I mean?
Benioff’s new novel reveals why there are so many Russians — not oligarchs or prostitutes, but soldiers and old babushkas — in this nice American boy’s fiction. “City of Thieves” follows a character named Lev Beniov, the son of a revered Soviet Jewish poet who was “disappeared” in the Stalinist purges, as Lev and an accomplice carry out an impossible assignment during the Nazi blockade of Leningrad. Before Lev begins to tell his story, however, a young Los Angeles screenwriter named David visits his grandfather in Florida, pleading for his memories of the siege. But this is no postmodern coquetry. In fact, the novel tells a refreshingly traditional tale, driven by an often ingenious plot. And after that first chapter Benioff is humble enough to get out of its way. For some writers, Russia inspires extravagant lamentations uttered into the eternity of those implacable winters. Happily, Benioff’s prose doesn’t draw that kind of attention to itself.
More here. (Note: Old review but, thanks to Abbas and Margit, I just read the book now and recommend it strongly).
Little Richard "I'm Just a Lonely Guy" (1955)
[H/t: Todd Weeks]
Andrew Gelman on How Americans Vote
A Five Books interview:
I notice from your blog as well that one of the stereotypes that you are keen on debunking is this idea that working-class people in America vote conservative. A number of people have gone to some lengths to try to explain this phenomenon, but you seem to think it’s a bit of a red herring.
Somehow people on the left and on the right find it difficult to understand. On the left, people think that 100% of working-class people should vote for the left, so anything less than 100% makes them feel that there is something that went wrong. They just cannot understand how this could be. On the right, you get the opposite. It’s considered a validation – they want to believe that these more virtuous people are voting for them. But even in the days of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, a lot of low-income people voted Republican. There was no magic golden age in which lower-income working-class people were uniformly Democrat. It was always various subgroups of the population.
How many of the poor did vote for the Democrats, say, in the last election?
Of the lowest third of the population about 60% voted for the Democrats.
What if you narrow it down to blue-collar workers though? Don’t the majority of them vote conservative?
Then you have to ask, what does that exactly mean? Someone could make $100,000 a year and be blue collar. Conversely, if you’re a woman cleaning bedpans and making very little money, you’re not blue collar. Cleaning bedpans is not considered blue-collar work. There is the way that, firstly, blue collar conveys some sort of moral superiority, and secondly that it just happens to exclude a lot of the female workforce, who are more likely to be Democrats. If you take only blue collar – which is mostly male – and don’t even restrict for income and then you go beyond that to only include whites, you’re chipping away at various groups that support the Democrats, without noticing what’s happening. It sounds very innocuous to talk about blue-collar whites, but you’re selecting a subgroup among this social class which is particularly conservative, and then making some claims about them.
X-phi is Here to Stay
Richard Marshall interviews Chris Weigel in 3:AM Magazine:
3:AM: By 2009 you were enthusiastically supporting X-phi. You wrote a paper‘Experimental Philosophy Is here To Stay’. Why did you write that? Was there a feeling at the time that the approach needed defending?
CW: Yes, it did need defending and explaining and sometimes still does. In 2009, I bumped into someone at a conference who said, “Oh, you’re doing that? That’s too bad. I read a paper that refutes it.” And my thought was, “Which ‘it’ are we talking about? The projects are really diverse, and it seems unlikely that one argument could refute all of them at once.” Over time, that person and the field in general has become much more sympathetic. Writing the paper was a way not so much of defending but of explaining experimental philosophy systematically. After attending the phenomenal Experimental Philosophy summer workshop directed by Ron Mallon and Shaun Nichols, I wanted to try to explainexperimental philosophy to a wide audience.
3:AM: When talking about this approach to philosophy Josh Knobe, Shaun Nichols andothers give the impression that it is a more collaborative approach than the traditional, armchair variety. Have you found this to be the case in your own experience? It seems very cool and unstuffy. Josh Knobe in his interview said he feared ending up as being just an academic stuck being read by a couple of other academics. X-phi seems to be a way of escaping this fear. Is this something that you relate to?
CW: Yes, and if you look at how so many of the major papers have co-authors, you’ll see that experimental philosophers tend to work collaboratively. I’ve also had many more opportunities for collaboration since starting in experimental philosophy. And I think you’re right about that the research tends to be, as you say, cool and unstuffy. I think of it like this: When my daughter was fifteen months old, I took her to a pumpkin patch, and she was so excited, she started uttering—screaming, really—her first sentence while pointing all around: “Look at that! Look at that! Look at that!” Experimental philosophy presentations have much the same feel. They offer a pumpkin patch full of philosophically rich ideas just waiting to be explored.
From the Naturalism Workshop, Part I
During the roundtable introductions, Dawkins (as well as the rest of us) was asked what he would be willing to change his mind about; he said he couldn’t conceive of a sensible alternative to naturalism. Rosenberg, interestingly, brought up the (hypothetical) example of finding God’s signature in a DNA molecule (just like Craig Venter has actually done). Dawkins admitted that that would do it, though immediately raised the more likely possibility that that would be a practical joke played by a superhuman — but not supernatural — intelligence. Coyne then commented that there is no sensible distinction between superhuman and supernatural, in a nod to Clarke’s third law.
There appeared to be some interesting differences within the group. For instance, Rosenberg clearly has no problem with a straightforward functionalist computational theory of the mind; DeDeo accepts it, but feels uncomfortable about it; and Deacon outright rejects it, without embracing any kind of mystical woo. Steven Weinberg asked the question of whether — if a strong version of artificial intelligence is possible — it follows that we should be nice to computers.
The first actual session was about the nature of reality, with an introduction by Alex Rosenberg. His position is self-professedly scientistic, reductionist and nihilist, as presented in his The Atheist’s Guide to Reality. (Rationally Speaking published a critical review of that book, penned by Michael Ruse.) Alex thinks that complex phenomena — including of course consciousness, free will, etc. — are not just compatible with, but determined by and reducible to, the fundamental level of physics. (Except, of course, that there appears not to be any such thing as the fundamental level, at least not in terms of micro-things and micro-bangings.)
A Matter of Taste?
William Deresiewicz in the NYT:
Foodism has taken on the sociological characteristics of what used to be known — in the days of the rising postwar middle class, when Mortimer Adler was peddling the Great Books and Leonard Bernstein was on television — as culture. It is costly. It requires knowledge and connoisseurship, which are themselves costly to develop. It is a badge of membership in the higher classes, an ideal example of what Thorstein Veblen, the great social critic of the Gilded Age, called conspicuous consumption. It is a vehicle of status aspiration and competition, an ever-present occasion for snobbery, one-upmanship and social aggression. (My farmers’ market has bigger, better, fresher tomatoes than yours.) Nobody cares if you know about Mozart or Leonardo anymore, but you had better be able to discuss the difference between ganache and couverture.
Young men once headed to the Ivy League to acquire the patina of high culture that would allow them to move in the circles of power — or if they were to the manner born, to assert their place at the top of the social heap by flashing what they already knew. Now kids at elite schools are inducted, through campus farmlets, the local/organic/sustainable fare in dining halls and osmotic absorption via their classmates from Manhattan or the San Francisco Bay Area, into the ways of food. More and more of them also look to the expressive possibilities of careers in food: the cupcake shop, the pop-up restaurant, the high-end cookie business. Food, for young people now, is creativity, commerce, politics, health, almost religion.
It took me some effort to explain to a former student recently that no, my peers did not talk about food all the time when we were her age, unless she meant which diner we were going to for breakfast. “But food is everything!” she said.
jacques barzun (1907-2012)
Unlike many of his colleagues, Professor Barzun showed little interest in taking overtly political positions. This was partly because he became a university administrator and had to stand above the fray, and partly because he approached the world with a detached civility and a sardonic skepticism about intellectual life. “The intellectuals’ chief cause of anguish,” he wrote in “The House of Intellect” (1959), “are one another’s works.” If Mr. Barzun kept the political issues of the day at arm’s length, he nonetheless developed a reputation as a cultural conservative after the student protests at Columbia in the late 1960s. He later argued that the “peoples of the West” had “offered the world a set of ideas and institutions not found earlier or elsewhere.”more from Edward Rothstein at the NY Times here.
On Henry James
These days, the rumblings of the James industry are louder than those of the Hawthorne industry, the Hemingway industry and even—mirabile dictu!—the Faulkner industry. But only the bulk of the industry’s output, if not its spirit or letter, is registered on ground level. V.S. Naipaul, for example, has remained deaf to the claims of the post-revival Jamesians, dismissing James on the ground that he “never went out in the world…ever risked anything…ever exposed himself to anything…ever thought he should mingle with the crowd.” But to the figure usually identified as “that mythical creature, ‘the Common Reader,’” James has become a solidly major figure, one of a handful of Big Names, as Michael Gorra’s thorough, level-headed new book, Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece, suggests. A scholarly (or fanatical) love letter, it reads like a biography of Portrait of a Lady—its gestation, development, reception—or perhaps a well-researched novel about Henry James that favors the early period, where Lodge and others favored the late.more from Leo Robson at The Nation here.
georgia on the mind
Georgia’s historical experience differs from that of other small nations such as the Baltic states and Finland, which fell under Russian or Soviet rule but eventually made a more complete escape. Georgia was absorbed into the tsarist empire in 1801, its royal family deported to Russia and its language replaced with Russian in public life. An opportunity for freedom arose after the February 1917 revolution, which overthrew the tsar, but after declaring independence in May 1918, the Georgians proved unable to sustain their state for more than three years. Rayfield points out that whereas Vladimir Lenin let the Balts and Finns go their own way, similar forbearance was unlikely in Georgia. The impulse to conquest was strong among Moscow-based Bolsheviks and thuggish Georgian comrades such as Josef Stalin and Sergo Orjonikidze.more from Tony Barber at the FT here.
The three titles just published are presumably about some certain thing but are really always about something else. Consider "The Osbick Bird": It's a sweetly melancholy surrealist fable about Edwardian eccentric Emblus Fingby's odd (but fond) friendship with the even odder bird of the title. Gorey, an only child and lifelong solitary, was famously an odd bird himself — tall, long-legged and gawky like the bird in the book, with the luxurious beard of a Victorian literatus and a sense of style that ran to fur coats and tennis shoes. Inevitably described as "flamboyant," he was often suspected of being a closeted gay, but when pointedly asked if he was, replied, "I'm neither one thing nor the other particularly." It's hard not to read the story as a daydream, at once wistful and resigned, about What Might Have Been, had he had a partner.more from Mark Dery at the LA Times here.
Reading and Guilty Pleasure
From The New York Times:
As we move into the summer season of beach and hammock reading, many of us reach for books that we describe as “guilty pleasures.” This notion has become an important category in our thinking about literature. Two prominent examples are NPR’s regular feature “My Guilty Pleasure” and Arthur Krystal’s recent New Yorker essay, “Easy Writers: Guilty pleasures without guilt.”
Reading Krystal’s subtle and savvy piece, it struck me that our talk of guilty pleasures involves two controversial assumptions: that some books (and perhaps some genres) are objectively inferior to others and that “better” books are generally not very enjoyable. Combined, the two assumptions lead to a view under which, to pick up Krystal’s metaphor, we think of books the way we often think of foods: there those that are “good for you” and those that merely “taste good.” Here I want to reflect on the viability of these two assumptions. Are some books objectively better than others, or are literary preferences ultimately just matters of subjective taste? In our democratic society, many take a relativist position: you can’t argue about taste, because there are no standards that allow us to establish higher quality as an objective fact. If I think that Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time” is a magnificent probing of the nature of time and subjectivity and you think it is overwritten self-indulgent obscurantism, we both have a right to our opinions. So doesn’t it follow that each opinion is only relatively right (right for me, right for you)?
October 26, 2012
How Did Milk Help Found Western Civilization?
Benjamin Phelan in Slate:
To repurpose a handy metaphor, let's call two of the first Homo sapiens Adam and Eve. By the time they welcomed their firstborn, that rascal Cain, into the world, 2 million centuries of evolution had established how his infancy would play out. For the first few years of his life, he would take his nourishment from Eve's breast. Once he reached about 4 or 5 years old, his body would begin to slow its production of lactase, the enzyme that allows mammals to digest the lactose in milk. Thereafter, nursing or drinking another animal's milk would have given the little hell-raiser stomach cramps and potentially life-threatening diarrhea; in the absence of lactase, lactose simply rots in the guts. With Cain weaned, Abel could claim more of his mother's attention and all of her milk. This kept a lid on sibling rivalry—though it didn't quell the animus between these particular sibs—while allowing women to bear more young. The pattern was the same for all mammals: At the end of infancy, we became lactose-intolerant for life.
Two hundred thousand years later, around 10,000 B.C., this began to change. A genetic mutation appeared, somewhere near modern-day Turkey, that jammed the lactase-production gene permanently in the “on” position. The original mutant was probably a male who passed the gene on to his children. People carrying the mutation could drink milk their entire lives. Genomic analyses have shown that within a few thousand years, at a rate that evolutionary biologists had thought impossibly rapid, this mutation spread throughout Eurasia, to Great Britain, Scandinavia, the Mediterranean, India and all points in between, stopping only at the Himalayas. Independently, other mutations for lactose tolerance arose in Africa and the Middle East, though not in the Americas, Australia, or the Far East.
In an evolutionary eye-blink, 80 percent of Europeans became milk-drinkers; in somepopulations, the proportion is close to 100 percent. (Though globally, lactose intolerance is the norm; around two-thirds of humans cannot drink milk in adulthood.) The speed of this transformation is one of the weirder mysteries in the story of human evolution, more so because it's not clear why anybody needed the mutation to begin with.
A Math Genius’s Sad Calculus
Adam Kirsch in Tablet Magazine [h/t:Tunku Varadarajan]:
Mandelbrot’s life work was to develop mathematical tools able to measure that kind of fiendishly difficult, real-world complexity. The challenge facing The Fractalist is that it is almost impossible for a non-mathematician to advance beyond these generalities and understand what precisely it is that Mandelbrot accomplished. Knowing this, he allows no mathematical formulas or notation in the book—the formula for the Mandelbrot set is the sole exception. It is clear enough, however, that the mathematics Mandelbrot worked with has nothing to do with the kind most of us learned in school; it is infinitely more creative and exciting. His own gift, he writes, was an intuitive ability to “see” complex shapes. As a student, he could solve difficult problems much faster than the rest of the class by turning equations into mental geometry: “In no time, searching for and studying symmetry became central to my work … hopelessly complicated problems of integral calculus could be ‘reduced’ to familiar shapes that made them easy to resolve.”
For this reviewer, reading The Fractalist is rather like reading about a poet who wrote in a foreign language for which no adequate translation is available. You know Mandelbrot is up to exciting things, but you have to take them mostly on faith. What he can share, and does copiously, are the steps of his worldly career: the professorial appointments, the job as a researcher at IBM, the papers published and colleagues courted and impressed. There is so much of this kind of thing in the second half of The Fractalist that it comes to read like an annotated CV, and it has the effect of making Mandelbrot seem very vain. But then, this is a man who decided early in life that he wanted to be a second Kepler, founding a new field of study and revolutionizing humanity’s picture of the world. (In his own view, he accomplished this: “In my Keplerian quest I faced many challenges. The good news is that I succeeded.”) All of this sits oddly with his later declaration that “a memoir is a lesson in humility.”
Your Brain on Pseudoscience: the Rise of Popular Neurobollocks
Steven Poole in New Statesman:
[A] new branch of the neuroscienceexplains everything genre may be created at any time by the simple expedient of adding the prefix “neuro” to whatever you are talking about. Thus, “neuroeconomics” is the latest in a long line of rhetorical attempts to sell the dismal science as a hard one; “molecular gastronomy” has now been trumped in the scientised gluttony stakes by “neurogastronomy”; students of Republican and Democratic brains are doing “neuropolitics”; literature academics practise “neurocriticism”. There is “neurotheology”, “neuromagic” (according to Sleights of Mind, an amusing book about how conjurors exploit perceptual bias) and even “neuromarketing”. Hoping it’s not too late to jump on the bandwagon, I have decided to announce that I, too, am skilled in the newly minted fields of neuroprocrastination and neuroflâneurship.
Illumination is promised on a personal as well as a political level by the junk enlightenment of the popular brain industry. How can I become more creative? How can I make better decisions? How can I be happier? Or thinner? Never fear: brain research has the answers. It is self-help armoured in hard science. Life advice is the hook for nearly all such books. (Some cram the hard sell right into the title – such as John B Arden’s Rewire Your Brain: Think Your Way to a Better Life.) Quite consistently, heir recommendations boil down to a kind of neo- Stoicism, drizzled with brain-juice. In a selfcongratulatory egalitarian age, you can no longer tell people to improve themselves morally. So self-improvement is couched in instrumental, scientifically approved terms.