Tuesday, September 30, 2014
The Poor Don’t Need Pity
Joanna Scutts reviews Linda Tirado book, Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America, in In These Times (Photo by Lisa F. Young via Shutterstock):
This is scary to admit. In a country with vast resources but a social safety net that’s been shredded to ribbons, “the layer between lower-middle class and poor is horrifyingly porous from above,” Tirado writes. “A lot of us live in that spongy divide.” Our finely tuned class distinctions are a way of trying to order that “spongy divide” and predict who will fall—not us! Tirado’s distinctions, on the other hand, are rooted in experience: “Poverty is when a quarter is a fucking miracle. Poor is when a dollar is a miracle. Broke is when five bucks is a miracle.” Working class, you have a place to live; middle class, that place is secure, even “nice,” and you can buy furniture and toys; and “rich is anything above that.” This is not about the 99% and the 1%, terms Tirado doesn’t use. When she addresses “rich people,” she means the people who can afford to buy this book and have the leisure to read it—not Koch-level plutocrats. People whose lives are relatively stable, who might have a decent credit score, health insurance, a bank account, retirement savings, the basic requirements of civic life that we have redefined as luxuries for the luckiest.
This important redefining of “rich” means that when Tirado addresses a final chapter to “Rich People,” the reader has to line up with the straw men: right-wing hypocrites who think the poor are lazy, or smug urbanites who believe that a lack of organic kale equals child abuse. I’m not a rich person, you want to protest—I don’t think it’s superior to get drunk on claret in a restaurant rather than on moonshine at the side of the road. But Tirado keeps tapping your knee and she’ll find a place that makes you jerk, where you find yourself thinking, I wouldn’t do that. You should make a different choice. Her refusal to flatter the reader gives the book its urgency and its force. It’s not a sob story (though it could make you weep with frustration); it’s a confrontation with the way that poor people are seen and judged day after day—by good liberals as well as evil Republicans, by the 99% as well as the 0.01%.
Tirado’s stories, her calculations, and her statistics are not new. When you reach a chapter called “You Can’t Pay a Doctor in Chickens Anymore,” you take a deep breath, because you know what’s coming. It’s still shocking, though, that an expectant first-time mother on Medicaid can’t find a clinic to give her care and has to rely on books, friends and Google until she shows up at the ER to give birth. Dental care, mental health care, vision care, preventative care—it all costs money, and its lack is written on the bodies of the poor. We might imagine that people who clean toilets or fry fast food are exhausted and demoralized; we might not appreciate that they probably have to ask their boss for permission to pee, since American workers aren’t guaranteed bathroom breaks. We might not always register that the service worker speaking in perky inanities is reading from a script and can be fired if she misses a word. We might not do the math to calculate that the earnings from a 40-hour-a-week job on minimum wage, after half go to housing, equal $7,540. Per year. Even a more generous calculation—10 bucks an hour, one-third on rent—gives you 10 unallocated dollars a day, so “the world is your oyster.” In case the tone’s too subtle here, Tirado clarifies: “The math doesn’t fucking work.”
God and Gab: The Second Sex by Michael Robbins
Piety and profanity both require devotion. Graham Greene knew that. Greene was received into the Roman Catholic Church in 1926, and announced the conversion to his mother by writing “I expect you have guessed that I am embracing the Scarlet Woman.” He later identified as a “Catholic agnostic,” which complemented his baptismal name of Thomas, “after St. Thomas the doubter and not Thomas Aquinas.” He found God, but hadn’t lost his wit.
To say that Greene was a troubled Catholic would be the same as calling him a Catholic at all. He dramatized the obscenities of a Mexican whiskey priest hunted by Tomás Garrido Canabal’s Red Shirts in The Power and the Glory. In one scene, the priest has been jailed for possessing brandy, and shares a dark cell with others, including a couple having sex. A “pious” woman, jailed for having religious books, calls the copulating pair “brutes” and “animals.” She hates their “ugliness.” The whiskey priest knows better. He tells the woman to not believe that, “Because suddenly we discover that our sins have so much beauty.”
Michael Robbins is our contemporary poet laureate for beautiful sins of language. The New Republic calls Robbins a prankster. He rather reminds me of that whiskey priest, his lines by turns abrasive and aphoristic, but never apathetic.
contemporary art from and about the Arab world
“In the presence of the violent reality of war,” wrote Wallace Stevens in 1942, “consciousness takes the place of the imagination.” What the poet meant is that in wartime, “everything moves in the direction of reality, that is to say, in the direction of fact,” so that “we leave fact and come back to it, come back to what we wanted fact to be, not to what it was, not to what it has too often remained.” But this pressure toward fact and the desire to change, to remake the facts, become “overwhelming.”
It was difficult to look at “Here and Elsewhere,” the capacious exhibition of “contemporary art from and about the Arab world” (to quote from the press release), without sensing this overwhelming pressure toward fact. In part, this was a matter of timing. My first visit to the show, on view at the New Museum in New York City through September 28, took place the day after it opened on July 16, and just after Israel launched Operation Protective Edge, the attack on Gaza that killed more than 2,000 people, most of them civilians and many of them children, and left many more homeless. To encounter so much art so deeply marked by the fact of violence was hard to bear. My attention was relentlessly drawn to works like those from Lamia Joreige’s Objects of War series, begun in 1999, in which videos of people being interviewed about objects that evoke memories of the wars that ravaged Lebanon in the 1970s and ’80s are juxtaposed with the objects themselves. There was also Khaled Jarrar’s 2012 feature-length video Infiltrators, which follows the agonizing efforts of Palestinians to breach the wall separating Israel from the Occupied Territories—not to commit acts of terrorism, but mainly for economic and personal reasons.
three years on Rikers
On the morning of July 28, 2010, Browder was awakened at around half past four. He was handcuffed to another inmate and herded onto a bus with a group of other prisoners. At the Bronx County Hall of Justice, they spent the day in a basement holding pen, each waiting for his chance to see a judge. When Browder’s turn came, an officer led him into a courtroom and he caught a glimpse of his mother in the spectator area. Seventy-four days had passed since his arrest. Already he had missed his seventeenth birthday, the end of his sophomore year, and half the summer.
A grand jury had voted to indict Browder. The criminal complaint alleged that he and his friend had robbed a Mexican immigrant named Roberto Bautista—pursuing him, pushing him against a fence, and taking his backpack. Bautista told the police that his backpack contained a credit card, a debit card, a digital camera, an iPod Touch, and seven hundred dollars. Browder was also accused of punching Bautista in the face.
A clerk read out the charges—“Robbery in the second degree and other crimes”—and asked Browder, “How do you plead, sir, guilty or not guilty?”
“Not guilty,” Browder said.
Animal populations ‘have halved since 1970’
Daniel Cressey in Nature:
Earth’s wild vertebrate populations have dropped to one-half the size they were in the 1970s, according to an analysis of more than 3,000 species. Researchers from the WWF wildlife NGO, headquartered in Woking, UK, and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) aggregated data on 10,380 populations from 3,038 species into an index of the health of the five main groups of vertebrates — mammals, birds, reptiles, fishes and amphibians. Set at 1 in 1970, this index has decreased to 0.48 (meaning by 52%) since then, according to their latest report.
This analysis is the tenth ‘Living Planet Index’ from WWF and ZSL, but this year’s has a crucial difference from previous editions in that it is weighted to take account of the make-up of biodiversity in different areas. Previous versions treated every species on which data were available equally, whereas the new edition attempts to correct for the size of each taxonomic group in a region, for example by giving more weight to fish than mammals in the palearctic. The last index – published in 2012 – showed a 28% decrease between 1970 and 2008. The bleaker picture painted by the 2014 edition comes both from real declines in newer data, and from the new weighting.
Does the history of philosophy matter?
Malcolm Thorndike Nicholson in Prospect:
If you study philosophy at a British or American university, your education in the history of the subject will likely be modest. Most universities teach Plato and Aristotle, skip about two millennia to Descartes, zip through the highlights of Empiricism and Rationalism to Kant, and then drop things again until the 20th Century, where Frege and Russell arise from the mists of the previous centuries’ Idealism and call for a new kind of philosophy rooted in formal logic, science, and “common sense.” In most of your courses, you will probably be able to do well without reading a single paper written before the 20th century.
This is peculiar because, unlike science, philosophy is not a discipline in which new theories bury the old ones. Philosophers can resurface long after we think we’ve disposed of them. This tendency of old ideas to rise from the dead has led to some of the most interesting work in contemporary philosophy. The revival of virtue ethics owes much to figures such as Philippa Foot, whose re-evaluation of Plato, Aristotle and Nietzsche, helped her form a theory of normative ethics that offered an alternative to the two dominant schools, Kantian ethics and consequentialism. In epistemology, the celebrated American philosopher, Wilfrid Sellars, was deeply influenced by his close reading of Kant and Hegel. (Sellars also famously stated “philosophy without the history of philosophy is, if not blind, at least dumb.”) David Lewis’s reading of St Anselm and Leibniz led him to thinking about so-called “possible worlds;” now one can’t sit in a metaphysics seminar without talking about them.
Scholarship aimed at increasing our awareness of the history of philosophy is, in short, a good thing. That was my optimistic viewpoint as I began reading Peter Adamson’s Classical Philosophy: a history of philosophy without any gaps (OUP, £20), the first instalment of a series of books aimed at producing a more comprehensive history of philosophy.
Steven Salaita: U. of I. destroyed my career
Steven Salaita in the Chicago Tribune:
Being recruited for a tenured faculty position at a major university is no small feat, nor should it be; tenure represents the pinnacle of an academic career. In my case, it involved numerous interviews with faculty in the American Indian studies program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and an intensive review of my scholarship, pedagogy and professional service.
I survived this rigorous review and, having accepted an employment offer from the dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, resigned my tenured position at another university and prepared my family to move. A few weeks before classes were to start, and without any warning, I received a letter from the chancellor, Phyllis Wise, informing me of my termination.
How did this happen?
In the weeks before my move, I watched in anguish as Israel killed more than 2,100 people during its recent bombing of Gaza, 70 percent of them civilians, according to the United Nations. Like so many others, I took to my Twitter account. I posted tweets critical of Israel's actions, mourning in particular the death of more than 500 of Gaza's children.
Talal Asad: Reflections on the Origins of Human Rights
God, Darwin and My College Biology Class
David P. Barash in the New York Times:
It’s irresponsible to teach biology without evolution, and yet many students worry about reconciling their beliefs with evolutionary science. Just as many Americans don’t grasp the fact that evolution is not merely a “theory,” but the underpinning of all biological science, a substantial minority of my students are troubled to discover that their beliefs conflict with the course material.
Until recently, I had pretty much ignored such discomfort, assuming that it was their problem, not mine. Teaching biology without evolution would be like teaching chemistry without molecules, or physics without mass and energy. But instead of students’ growing more comfortable with the tension between evolution and religion over time, the opposite seems to have happened. Thus, The Talk.
There are a few ways to talk about evolution and religion, I begin. The least controversial is to suggest that they are in fact compatible. Stephen Jay Gould called them “nonoverlapping magisteria,” noma for short, with the former concerned with facts and the latter with values. He and I disagreed on this (in public and, at least once, rather loudly); he claimed I was aggressively forcing a painful and unnecessary choice, while I maintained that in his eagerness to be accommodating, he was misrepresenting both science and religion.
Monday, September 29, 2014
The shortest path, the traveling salesman, and an unsolved question
by Hari Balasubramanian
The Shortest Path
How does Google Maps figure out the best route between two addresses? The exact algorithm is known only to Google, but probably some variation of what is called the shortest path problem has to be solved . Here is the simplified version. Suppose we have a network of nodes (cities, towns, landmarks etc.) connected by links (roads), and we know the time it takes to travel a particular link. Then what is the shortest path from a starting node A to a destination node D?
In the instance above, there are 4 nodes. The rectangles provide the link travel times. The B-C link takes 2 time units to travel; the A-D link takes 5; the C-D link takes 1; and so on. The five possible routes from A to D are: A-D; A-B-D; A-C-D; A-B-C-D; and A-C-B-D. The easily spotted shortest path is A-C-D, with a total length of 3. But what if a network has hundreds of nodes and links? It would be impossible to visually identify the shortest path. We would need an efficient algorithm. By that I mean an algorithm whose execution time on a computer stays reasonable even when the problem size – the number of nodes or links in the network – gets bigger.
In 1959, Edsger Djikstra published just such an algorithm. Djikstra's Algorithm doesn't simply look for all possible routes between the start and destination nodes and then choose the shortest. That kind of brute-force approach wouldn't work, given how dramatically the number of possible routes increases even with a slight increase in network size. Instead, Djikstra's Algorithm progressively explores the network in a simple yet intelligent way. It begins with the start node A, looks at all its immediate neighbors, then moves on to the closest neighbor, and from there updates travel times to all as yet unvisited nodes if new and shorter routes are discovered. I am fudging important details here, but this basic procedure of moving from a node to its nearest neighbor and updating travel times is repeated deeper and deeper in the network until the shortest path to the destination is confirmed. Wikipedia has a good animation illustrating this.
How fast does the algorithm run? Let's say there are V nodes. Then, in the worst case, Djikstra's Algorithm will take in the order of V x V steps to compute the optimal path. An algorithm like this that grows polynomially with the problem size is something we will call efficient (of course lower order polynomials, such as the square function, are preferable; V raised to the power 50 wouldn't be helpful at all). So a 10-node problem might take around 100 steps; a 1000-node problem will take 1000000 steps. This increase is something a modern day computer can easily handle. The algorithm might do much better in most instances, but the worst case is commonly used as a conservative measure of efficiency. There are faster variations of Djikstra's Algorithm, but for simplicity we'll stick to the original.
The Traveling Salesman (TSP)
Now consider a slightly different problem. We are still interested in the shortest route, but we want the route to be such that it starts at some node A, covers all other nodes in the network without visiting any of them twice, and finally returns to A. In other words, we are interested in the shortest all-city tour that starts and finishes at A. This is the traveling salesman problem (TSP). The person delivering the mail; the therapist traveling to different patient homes in the city; the truck dropping off supplies at different stores: all face some version of the TSP (though no one may think of it as that, and there may be other practical constraints). The TSP isn't simply restricted to people or vehicles touring destinations; it also arises in genome mapping, the sequence in which celestial objects should be imaged, and how a laser should tour thousands of interconnections on a computer chip.
What is the shortest tour in the simple 4-node instance we saw in the figure earlier? Suppose we have to start and end at A. Then there are six possible tours that reflect the order in which we visit the other three cities: A-B-C-D-A; A-B-D-C-A; A-C-B-D-A; A-C-D-B-A; A-D-B-C-A; and A-D-C-B-A. The shortest tours are A-C-D-B-A and A-B-D-C-A (each is the other in reverse), both with a total length of 7.
Things get very complicated if there are hundreds of nodes. Turns out that there is no efficient algorithm yet that can guarantee the shortest possible tour for large instances. The only algorithm that will work for sure is listing all possible tours and then picking the best. When there are 4 cities this is not a problem as only 6 tours have to be evaluated. When there are 11 cities, there are suddenly 3.6 million possible tours. When there are 23 cities, the number of possible tours is 51,090,942,171,709,440,000 (I got this number from William Cook's book ). Compare this with the 23 x 23 = 529 steps that Djikstra's Algorithm needs, in the worst case, to find the shortest path between any two nodes in a 23-city network. Our brute-force algorithm for the traveling salesman is terribly inefficient. We may still get a modern day supercomputer, working full time, to get us an answer to the 23-city traveling salesman. But listing all possible tours for a 100-city instance is beyond the scope of the best computing power currently available on the planet .
Now, there are much smarter algorithms that have successfully tackled large TSP instances. See above image and other examples at this website. In fact, an 85,900-city instance has been solved optimally – an astonishing achievement (though it took 84.8 years of computing time ). But no algorithm has been able guarantee finding the best tour for every large instance of the TSP. What works in one 86,000-city instance may not work for another. What Djikstra's Algorithm efficiently guarantees for every large instance of the shortest path problem, no one has been able to achieve for the traveling salesman.
The Unsolved P versus NP Question
So what is it that makes the shortest path "easy" to solve in a large network and the traveling salesman "hard"? Certainly both problems are easy to understand; a layperson can figure out answers for small instances. The intuition underlying both is also clear to everyone: to make use of short links as much as possible – with the occasional, unavoidable longer link thrown in – so that the final routes or tours, which sum up these component links, remain short. Both problems seem so closely related. It would seem that even large instances of the TSP, like the shortest path, should be solvable in reasonable time. Yet, despite more than 50 years of intensive research, no one has an an efficient algorithm yet!
In moving from the shortest path between two cities to the shortest all-city tour in a network, we have crossed an unproven but widely accepted "boundary" that currently separates "easy" and "hard" optimization problems. To understand what this means more formally, we'll have to redefine our problems as decision questions with "yes" or "no" answers.
Consider the decision version of the shortest path. Is there is a path from the start node to the destination node whose length is less than some value L? To answer this "yes" or "no" question for a large network, all we have to do is to run Djikstra's algorithm, figure out what the shortest path is, and whether its length is less than L. So with Djikstra's algorithm we can efficiently (1) find a solution if one exists, and (2) verify its correctness. All decision problems for which these conditions are met said to belong to class called P. The term P stands for Polynomial.
Contrast this with the decision version of the traveling salesman. Is there an all-city tour in the network whose length is less than some value L? If somebody provides us a candidate tour, we can easily verify whether the tour covers all cities and whether the length is indeed shorter than L or not. So checking the validity of a candidate tour is easy: we can design an efficient algorithm even when there are a large number of cities. But actually finding a tour whose length is less than L in a large network? Well, there is no efficient algorithm yet. All decision problems for which we can check a particular candidate solution's validity easily but struggle to find a solution efficiently are said to belong to a class called NP-complete. NP stands for the strange-sounding Non-deterministic Polynomial.
The decision version of the TSP is just one of many, many problems, relevant in practice, that fall in the NP-complete category – from Boolean logic problems, to processing of strings, to games and puzzles. Just one other example is the subset sum problem: given a set of integers that can be either positive or negative, is there a subset of them whose sum is 0? Notice how deceptively easy this problem sounds.
In the early 1970s, Stephen Cook and Richard Karp -- and Leonid Levin working independently in the Soviet Union -- showed a very deep result that inextricably tied together the fate of all these NP complete decision problems. They showed that all NP complete problems, although seemingly different in their manifestation -- what could boolean logic and subset sum and the traveling salesman possibly have in common? -- are fundamentally identical in their underlying structure. This remarkable unity implies that If you find an efficient algorithm for just one NP complete problem, you will have found an efficient algorithm for all such problems. Solve the subset sum problem or one of the Boolean problems efficiently and you will have solved the traveling salesman!
The unsolved question -- one of the biggest in mathematics and computer science -- is whether there exists such an all-conquering efficient algorithm (which would imply P = NP), or whether all the NP complete problems are somehow intrinsically harder than the problems in P (P≠NP). The Clay Mathematics Institute (CMI) has a million dollar reward for anyone who proves the result, either way:
"If it is easy to check that a solution to a problem is correct, is it also easy to solve the problem? This is the essence of the P vs NP question. Typical of the NP problems is that of the Hamiltonian Path Problem: given N cities to visit, how can one do this without visiting a city twice? If you give me a solution, I can easily check that it is correct. But I cannot so easily find a solution." [link]
In his wide-ranging essay on the P vs NP question, Scott Aaronson, a computational complexity researcher at MIT, poses a literary analogy: "What is it about our world that makes it easier to recognize a great novel than to write one, easier to be a critic than an artist?" One reason, he argues, is the explosive, exponential growth in the number of possibilities – the sheer number of paths that one can choose from. We may get lucky once in a while, but the vast majority of paths, although promising for some time, will not lead us to optimal end outcomes.
If our current model of computing using binary bits is incapable of dealing with such complexity, then is thre another type of computing device that can? Aaronson points out that even the qubits of quantum computing – implemented through particles which randomly spin up (1) or down (0) and both up and down simultaneously, enabling (as an example) 1000 randomly spinning particles to store an astonishing 21000 possibilities simultaneously – will still have trouble breaking the NP complete barrier. Indeed, Aaronson explains that while hypothetical computing devices that solve NP-complete problems efficiently can be constructed, they would require implausible kinds of physics – such as allowing time travel, or sending signals faster than the speed of light. This leads him to predict that "the hardness of NP complete problems…will be seen as a fundamental [physical] principle that describes part of the essential nature of the universe."
I've overstretched myself in this last part: I know little to nothing about quantum computing and related physics, so I won't say much more – I am sure there are better informed 3QD readers who can comment.
1. "Google Maps -- It's All Just One Big Graph", link.
2. Much of my information on the TSP comes from William Cook's excellent, if somewhat technical, book, In Pursuit of the Traveling Salesman: Mathematics at the Limits of Computation. Companion website with lots of information about the traveling salesman is here.
Early Autumn Surf
but today is an anomalous summer day
which, breaking protocol,
has oozed into early fall
with temperate trappings
lulling me with spacious softness
and late brilliance,
being the last echo of July,
the final peal of August’s bell
expanding as I surf
down the hump of its luxurious waveform
under the comfort of its breaking curl
by Jim Culleny
Photo and poem, shot
and jotted together
Heaven and Earth
by Brooks Riley
Why not? There are worst entities for a come-back kid when its mortal coil is taken up again. As a capybara you would live in a small community of peaceful vegans, free to join the party or to wander off on your own without being ostracized. You'd enjoy communal living with all the advantages, including a swimming hole in the vicinity. Your leader would be the biggest male, not a testosterone-driven despot intent on hoarding all the females for himself, but a gentle giant who shares. He might get first choice, but there's plenty enough to go around. If the kids got on your nerves, allomothers would take over for a while.
The real question is, why would you want to come back at all?
Hope is like a birthmark no one can see: Everyone has one, and it doesn't go away. It all starts with hoping to inhale your first breath, and progresses to hoping your mother will pick you up when you cry. It ends with hoping there's something to look forward to when you die—call it heaven, call it oblivion. As the hopes in this life diminish, they get transferred to the other side, even if there's no there there, as Gertrude Stein once said of Oakland, California.
The problem is that our notions of heaven are so pathetically limited. Why would I want to sit on a cloud playing a harp? If I wanted to play a harp, I'd have tried it in this life. And what if I see my loved ones in that light at the end of the tunnel? What then? Do I embrace them over and over again? For men who dream of an endless supply of virgins, is heaven just a coitus repetitus? Let's face it, nothing we can possibly imagine or wish about heaven can allay the inevitable tedium that would arise from a satisfaction repeated many times over. Our visions of heaven quickly expose themselves as visions of hell, adulterated by endless repetitions and endless time. Even Pope Benedict suggested as much.
Everything we might hope for in a next life is based on what we love in this one. But pleasures are ephemeral, whether it be a good book, a tasty meal, a glorious day, or a full life—they all end. We experience tiny deaths at every turn—the end of a movie, the last spoonful of ice cream, the sun sinking below the horizon, the last chord of a symphony. Without its inherent finiteness, a pleasure is indistinguishable from a heartbeat.
Reincarnation comes with its own set of problems. Why would I want to come back as a different person? Whatever my fate in this life, as a human being I've been there, done that. But given that existence on this earth is the only thing I know, I can well imagine returning to it in some other form. As a capybara, for instance.
Or a cat: I'm convinced my own cat was once someone else when she gives me that ‘I-know-where-you're-coming-from' look. But statistically speaking I'd probably end up as a feral cat instead of a house cat. As a feral cat I might find life jolly in the Forum Romanum, or on Larry Ellison's Hawaiian island, but otherwise, life would be hard.
If I were into extreme sports, I can imagine coming back as a capuchin monkey, bungee-jumping from tree to tree with great esprit. But then again, it might be better to return as one of the hundreds of endangered primates, just to help swell the ranks. De Brazza's monkey, or the Golden Lion Tamarin.
People into skydiving might choose a falcon or an eagle: Imagine being free of the paraphernalia and the fear!
If you like to travel, consider storks. They go places in winter. At home they've got the best view in town.
Coming back as an ant? Too much work.
A dolphin, maybe? Yes and no. Leaping from the watery depths into the air looks like fun, but terra firma is my environment of choice.
Life is hard no matter who you are. Some creatures live only 24 hours, of all work no play. Other creatures wait decades to come alive, like those crustaceans (triops) in Monument Valley, whose birth depends on the rare, serendipitous rainfall.
I'd like to be all of them for a few days or a few weeks. I want to sing like the merle in springtime. I want to run up the tree like the squirrel. I want to dive into the depths like the sea lion. I want to swing from tree to tree like a monkey, I want to have night vision like an owl, I want to soar over the earth like an eagle. But not for long. Their problems are physical, mine are metaphysical and existentialist. A few weeks in their shoes wouldn't change that.
Still, if life is the jackpot handed out to us all, I've won big. Why wish for more in the hereafter?
Jay Kelly. Before Your Very Eyes. 2013.
Collage & resin on panel, 60"x96" made of vintage magazines, hand dyed paper, novels & art books.
Current show in Boston.
Israel, Gaza, and the stupidity of leaders
by Emrys Westacott
Like millions of other people, I found the recent Israel-Gaza conflict sickening and depressing. After fifty days of military exchanges from July 8 to August 26, over 2,000 Gazans had been killed of which, even according to Israeli government estimates, over half were civilians. Around 11,000 Gazans had been injured, and several hundred thousand had been displaced from their homes and needed emergency assistance. On the Israeli side, 62 soldiers and 6 civilians were killed, and around 1,300 were injured. To what end?
While it went on I read, watched and listened to dozens of interviews and debates about the conflict. These involved Israeli government ministers, leaders of Hamas (the governing party in Gaza), journalists, scholars and political analysts, some highly critical of the Israeli government, others defending its actions. Two things struck me about what I heard.
First, there was a great deal of repetition: "Israel has the same right as any other country to defend itself against attacks." –"The people of Gaza have the right to resist occupation." – "Israel is ultimately responsible for the conflict because they continue to impose intolerable living conditions on the Palestinians." –"Hamas is responsible because they committed the first acts of violence." –"Israel targets civilians in breach of basic moral principles and international law." –"So does Hamas." –"Hamas still won't recognize the right of Israel to exist." –"Israel continues to undermine the possibility of a viable Palestinian state by constructing new settlements." Listening to these debates is like being on a merry go round, going round in circles, seeing the same sights come and go; you hear the same points being made again and again in more or less the same order.
Second, the points made by the parties to the debates typically pass each other like skew lines, not quite engaging. Question: "Isn't the Israeli governments showing a callous disregard for the lives of Palestinian civilians?" Answer: "It's Hamas with their rockets that is targeting civilians. And why is Israel being singled out for special criticism when other countries also kill civilians when they're fighting a war?" Question: "Does Hamas accept the right of Israel to exist?" Answer: "The Israeli occupation of Palestine is illegal under international law." So often, the answers don't engage with the questions. This aspect of the debates is most frustrating.
Time and again, people on both sides will make their statements, many of which seem quite plausible. (Not all, though. I can't take seriously either the Israeli government's protestations that they bend over backwards to minimize civilian casualties, or Hamas' denial that they deliberately employ tactics that will increase their civilian casualties.) But the parties don't recognize or even adequately engage the other side's perspective. Added to this is the unfortunate phenomenon of the reductive "Which side are you on?" mentality. Someone posts a link to a news item about children being killed by Israeli shells while playing on the beach, and the antenna of one side twitch with suspicion. Someone else points out that Hamas spokesmen regularly declare the holocaust a fiction, and the party of the second part assumes that person must be a lackey or a dupe of the Israeli government. Someone tries to enter the debate without immediately alienating readers of either stripe and they'll be accused straight away of failing to recognize the moral imbalance between what the Israeli government does and the actions of Hamas.
But for what it's worth, here is my view of the conflict. I believe the long-term policies and the short term tactics of the Israeli government have been cynical, callous, and stupid. I think the actions of Hamas, on the other hand, have been cynical, callous, and stupid.
The reasons for viewing both sides as cynical and callous are precisely those that the critics of both sides repeat endlessly, so I won't repeat them here. The cynicism is revealed by the obvious discrepancies between the words and deeds of the principal actors. The callousness is evident from their apparent indifference to the suffering their actions bring about. So let me explain, instead, why I view both sides as acting stupidly.
It's common for analysts to assume that political leaders are smart. Whether they're writing about Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, Nixon, Kissinger, Yasser Arafat, Saddam Hussein, Vladimir Putin, Benjamin Netanyahu, or Bashar al Assad, the default perspective tends to be that these people, and those around them, are, to be sure, cynical, scheming, callous, manipulative, and egocentric; but they're really clever in their Machiavellian way. They're shrewd. They're cunning. They're masters of the game of realpolitik. There are exceptions to prove the rule, of course: George W Bush was never accused of being especially clever. But then W. was widely seen as the puppet of Dick Cheney, who was viewed this way.
But this assumption about the intelligence of leaders is very often mistaken. These people may be good at scoring small short-term victories over their rivals and enemies, but they're typically very bad at securing their deeper, longer-term objectives. They are like chess players who excel at spotting opportunities to win a bishop or a pawn, but who don't actually win their games—which is and should be the longer term goal. What Plato says about tyrants applies to many of these supposedly clever political players. They may seem able to get what they want, but in fact they invariably end up failing completely to get what they really want.
Take the situation of the Palestinians in Gaza. Suppose you could go back in time and interview ordinary Palestinian men and women sixty years ago, and you were able to show them the situation in Gaza as it is today. Would they be pleased? Would they say: "That's encouraging! Sixty years of struggle leads to 1.8 million of us penned up on a tiny strip of land with widespread poverty, failing infrastructure, a failing economy, no control over imports or exports, total dependence on Israel for many basic needs, and hardly any other countries willing to offer meaningful aid or support. That shows that our leaders have been extremely clever at advancing the interests of their people?" Or suppose you interviewed the leaders themselves sixty years ago. Would they be likely to say: "So that's where are policies and tactics are taking us? Great! That proves we must be on the right track."
It's hard to imagine this would be the response. Some perhaps would just bite the bullet and fall back on mantras about how they know the struggle will be long but justice will prevail in the end. But I prefer to think that many would be in despair, because that would show that they were reasonable people.
Now in making this argument I am not for a moment suggesting that the current plight of the Palestinian people is simply their own fault or simply the fault of their leaders. Obviously, Israeli policies have been a major determinant in bringing about the present situation. But clever leaders, like good chess players, are supposed to be good at taking into account what the opposition will do. So either the Palestinian leadership over many years has done poorly on this front, or they have pursued policies that they recognized would likely lead to the current miserable impasse.
Of course, someone might object that the Palestinian leaders have done the best they could in an impossible situation. But I don't think that's true. The plain fact is that organizations like Hamas want to eliminate the state of Israel and replace it with the state of Palestine with Jerusalem as its capital. And that isn't going to happen. If they think it is, they're deluded. And the tactics they employ aren't actually advancing either that cause or any more limited, worthwhile, achievable cause.
Now suppose you could go back in time to interview Israelis of sixty years ago and show them the current state of affairs. Would they be cheered or appalled? Perhaps they'd be pleasantly surprised at Israel's military might and relative economic prosperity. But many of them would surely be horrified at the inhumane policies pursued over many years by their government toward the Palestinians; shocked at the sight of their army using its vast technological superiority to bomb schools, hospitals, and residential districts with apparent indifference to civilian casualties; sickened by the fact that Israel is still not at peace; and deeply disturbed by the fact that its actions are condemned by liberal-minded people around the world. In its early years Israel was a place where moral idealism flourished. Today, that idealism seems to have withered on the vine.
The shift in world public opinion of Israel over the past half century is significant. Where Israel was once viewed positively both for its idealism and for its steadfastness in fending of attacks from its more powerful neighbours, it is now one of the least admired countries in the world according to a 2013 poll conducted by the BBC. Defenders of Israel can argue that this is mainly or entirely due to old-fashioned anti-Semitism along with a tendency to hold Israel to a higher standard than other nations; but this is self-deceiving. To be sure, anti-Semitism may be a tributary factor. But the primary reason for Israel's current unpopularity is that year after year people witness it pursuing policies that thwart the hopes, degrade the living conditions, and systematically humiliate the Palestinians, using one of the most powerful and sophisticated military forces on the planet against pathetically inferior forces and civilians.
Defenders of the Israeli government typically respond to this by claiming (a) that the world media systematically treats Israel unfairly, being quick to focus attention on its controversial policies while ignoring the many unpleasant things that go on other countries, particularly in the Middle East, that are on many counts less liberal and less enlightened; and (b) that Hamas launches rockets from sites close to schools and hospitals in order to provoke Israeli responses which they hope will yield heartrending photos and footage of civilian casualties to further tarnish Israel's image. Regarding (a), they have a point. Certainly, when it comes to such things as democratic government, enlightened laws, the rights of women, gay rights, freedom of speech, and so on, Israel compares favourably with most of its neighbours. (According to Human Rights Watch, Saudi Arabia beheaded nineteen people in August, including one for sorcery.) But regarding (b), we come back to the problem of stupidity.
Defenders of Israel typically claim that in the recent conflict Hamas cleverly provoked Israeli shelling of civilian areas so that they could use images of the resulting carnage to gain sympathy for their cause and damage Israel's reputation. This was very cunning, they say. And Hamas was also brilliant at making sure those images reached the widest possible audience. OK, let us grant that this is correct. Notice the paradox that follows. Hamas was clever enough to completely outwit Israel in the PR department; yet the most intelligent course of action for Israel to follow was…….to do exactly what Hamas wanted them to do.
Given that Israel and Hamas have totally different goals, it isn't possible for them both to be acting intelligently. At least one of them has to be hopelessly misguided. It is possible, though, that both sides are horribly misguided–which is my view. When I say the leaders are stupid, what I mean is that they are not wise. What is wisdom? Fundamentally, it is a matter of understanding the relative value of things and acting accordingly. Plato argues that tyrants aren't wise because they mistakenly think that enjoying absolute power will enable them to gratify every desire, and that this will make them happy and admired. But they are sadly mistaken. Tyrants typically end up lonely, fearful, and despised.
What should be the primary long-term national goals of wise political leaders? There are many: for instance, peace, security, justice, material well-being, environmental protection, a vibrant culture. Sometimes these can conflict, which is when the rare combination of wisdom and shrewdness exemplified by leaders like Lincoln or Mandela is especially needed. In the Israel-Gaza conflict there was, and no doubt will continue to be, a deficit of wisdom on the part of those responsible. The leaders of Hamas, if they were wise, would place a much higher value on the goal of improving the material circumstances of the Palestinian people. The Israeli government, if they were wise, would recognize that their oppressive policies towards the Palestinians is taking them away from, not toward, the sort of circumstances they want to live in and the kind of society they should aspire to be.
Both sides respond to criticism of their actions with the same question: what choice do we have? Defenders of Israel argue that no country would allow themselves to be attacked and not respond militarily. Defenders of Hamas argue that kidnappings, suicide bombings, and rocket attacks are what you can expect when an oppressed people has other means of resistance closed off to them. In both cases these arguments, while apparently reasonable, turn attention away from the underlying reasons for the ongoing impasse. It is in Israel's power (and long-term interest) to adopt entirely different policies towards the Palestinians. Hamas could ditch their anti-Semitic rhetoric, unrealistic objectives, and ineffective tactics for more sensible ends and means. One significant obstacle in both cases, however, is the attitude not just of the leaders but of those they lead. Surveys show that during the recent conflict, a large majority in Israel approved of the military campaign in Gaza, while in Gaza itself approval of Hamas surged. Sadly, it is not only leaders who lack wisdom.
Longing for Letters
by Mathangi Krishnamurthy
On July 15, 2013, after a hundred and sixty-three years of witnessing birth, death, revolution and marriage, the Indian telegraphic service sent out its last telegram. I felt a small sense of loss, but truth be told, the telegram was already a thing of the past to my communicative repertoire. In all my life, I had neither sent nor received a telegram. Also, with all my Hindi film infused understanding of the world, I assumed that all they ever brought was bad news. I would however be more than heartbroken if some day the postal service stopped sending letters.
The first letter I ever received was from my father. Truth be told, it was a postcard. He was away in faraway lands and had sent me a one-line missive with a picture of some Disneyland minion in Mickey Mouse costume, looking both avuncular and eerie. I remember feeling a distinct happiness at the sight of his handwriting, all beautiful, cursive, and grand. People wrote me letters for a large part of my life. My father, my grandfather, two cousins, friends that moved away, and friends in foreign lands. I have letters bearing dates right up until the nineties. I wrote back letters and in the process, accumulated beautiful pens, inkpots, and thick, fancy letter-writing paper. Also, for those who remember, I owned blotting paper; inspite of that, my hands were permanently ink-streaked. I always owned what used to be called a China pen even though it bore the brand name "Hero". The need for good handwriting was drummed early into my head. Pages of pages of cursive writing have rendered permanent the callus on my middle finger.
Two things show up regularly on my reading list these days; one, the daily habits of artists, scientists, thinkers, and writers, and two, their prolific and thoughtful correspondence. As others have argued so forcefully, letter writing was for writers, not merely a distraction but a way to find some breathing space from their craft while also allowing them the possibility of re-infusing it with vigor and vitality. Through letters they made manifest their orientation towards life and the world, but also communicated and cleansed new ways of thinking about their craft. Writing about writing to empathetic interlocutors seems to also been also about finding community, and laying the foundations for a new world.
Maria Popova at Brain Pickings has curated a beautiful set of these lively and charged letters. Read, for example, Freud's elaborate and thoughtful response to Einstein's call to thinking about the menace of war, where he begins thus, "All my life I have had to tell people truths that were difficult to swallow. Now that I am old, I certainly do not want to fool them." Vincent Van Gogh writes heartbreakingly to his brother, "Everyone who works with love and with intelligence finds in the very sincerity of his love for nature and art a kind of armor against the opinions of other people." In another creative take on letter-writing, Anna Deavere Smith composes thoughts to an imaginary audience, "I am trying to make a call, with this book, to you young brave hearts who would like to find new collaborations with scholars, with businesspeople, with human rights workers, with scientists, and more, to make art that seeks to study and inform the human condition: art that is meaningful." And in one of the more joyous defences of letter writing Italo Calvino declares to his best friend Eugenio Scalfari, "A fine thing it is to have a distant friend who writes long letters full of drivel and to be able to reply to him with equally lengthy letters full of drivel; fine not because I like to plunge into captious polemics nor because I enjoy getting certain ideas into the head of some idiot from the Urbe, but because writing long letters to friends means having a moral excuse for not studying."
Teaching university and college students, I am always struck by their tender age and its susceptibility to alienation and anomie. When I read letters from famous parents to their children, I marvel at how they seem to be able to offer wisdom and love in the same breath, while also tethering the child to some form of parental surety, phantasmic albeit. In an age when community comes far more from friends and colleagues than family, and empathy is sought only from the like-minded, these parental missives offer hope for empathy within the family and a world not so necessarily overdetermined by the generation gap. My favorite from this list is Nobel laureate John Steinbeck's 1958 letter to his son who is in love. He begins thus, "First — if you are in love — that's a good thing — that's about the best thing that can happen to anyone. Don't let anyone make it small or light to you", and ends thus, "And don't worry about losing. If it is right, it happens -- The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away."
This brings me to my other favorite genre of letters, the love letter, chief architect of the epistolary romance. How can love ever be love without love letters, I have often wondered. How does love persevere in the absence of material instantiations of its declaration? If one were to follow Badiou and understand love as he does in "In Praise of Love", then how does one turn a chance encounter into a pursuit of truth if not through the love letter? If love must be constructed and understood as destiny, then the raw material of this construction must necessarily construct letter by letter the edifice upon which it stands. I read love letters to convince myself of the possibility that love can indeed stand both in and outside the world. When I think about Frida Kahlo writing to Diego Rivera these lines, "Your presence floats for a moment or two as if wrapping my whole being in an anxious wait for the morning. I notice that I'm with you. At that instant still full of sensations, my hands are sunk in oranges, and my body feels surrounded by your arms", I wonder at the paucity of feelings that do not feel like this.
Frida Kahlo letter to Diego Rivera, 1940; (c) 2014 Archives of American Art, Smithsonian
Articles like The Death of Letter Writing or The lost art of letter-writing rehash arguments in favor of the beauty of the letter, but then lament the force of technology and a new way of life taken over by speed and that animal we call communication. We say more and more, and communicate less. We favor speed and instantaneity as substitutes for spontaneity, and prefer regularity and availability over presence. Emails stand in for everything, and texts, facebook status updates, and twitter shoutouts seem to be our small and temporary ways of stating self in the world. We neither know nor necessarily care about interlocutors unless they are consumers of this self. These days, I might have to pay someone to either write me a letter or respond to mine. Letters are now artifacts. They lie dusty in my attic and are petrified objects offering nostalgia, and a seemingly slower, less communicative, but more attentive time.
My longing for letters however is not merely nostalgia. The last letter I received in recent times takes pride of my place in my living room. Abuelo Sam wrote me letters. Abuelo Sam is my friend Susy's grandfather. When I theorize love and its machinations, I think of this man who lived in the desert, awaited UFOs and talked to the stars. He built things and he looked at the world anew everyday. He sparkled and his eyes sang as he held my hand and pinched my nose. He wrote me letters, in envelopes with wings drawn to seal the flap. And I wrote him back because I wanted more of his letters. Abuelo Sam was to me the continued possibility of a different time, space, and pace. His letters bore testimony to such possibility. In these strange times, we need such testimonies.
Even as I do not anymore bear the capacity for writing long pages, or unedited content, I try every now and then to pull out a page and sit at a desk, ink pen in hand, willing a few thousand words into material being. Envelope in hand, I fold carefully fold my letter and tuck it in, just so. Gluing the flap into place, I hunt for stamps, spit on one and write an address in bold, black ink. (My obsession with stamps and my thoughts on philately I will save for another article). At the end of this process, I feel slightly accomplished. But I also feel that I have given away some of myself, and this unexpected capacity for generosity both surprises and warms me. The ability to save some piece of myself from the compulsions of everyday communication allows me the fantasy of a different self.
It is therefore not merely in nostalgia that I believe in the need for a return to letter writing. I think we ought to be made to inhabit a different time and space in lieu of lament. I think it's time we were forced to think ourselves complete thoughts, write complete sentences, and regrow our calluses.
Quaere, how much do we really see?
by Charlie Huenemann
How much of the world do we actually experience? Of course, I'm not bemoaning the shortness of human life, or the narrow range of the visual spectrum, or the insensitivities of our skins and tongues. There's no doubt we're missing out on a lot. But within the world of our experience - how much of it do we in fact experience?
This is a big question always, but it was particularly big over the course of the 17th and 18th centuries. Some thinkers abided by the scholastic dictum - "there's nothing in the mind that isn't first presented by the senses" - which means that all of the content in our model of the world is gained through sensory experience. There is something very neat and tidy about this - nothing comes from nothing, and everything is accounted for.
Other philosophers found, as they carefully parsed their own sensory experience, that there was a lot less in it than they thought. We see patches of colors, not objects; we see sudden bright changes, and hear loud booms, and it is only with some mental effort that we combine them into a single event; we observe one change, and another, and we only come to think of the changes as causally related. The senses surely give us some data, these philosophers believed, but the mind is required to structure these data into a world. There is order in our experience that does not come from the senses.
The general debate became focused on a thought experiment raised by William Molyneux in a letter to John Locke (1693):
Suppose a Man born blind, and now adult, and taught by his touch to distinguish between a Cube, and a Sphere of the same metal, and nighly of the same bigness, so as to tell, when he felt one and t'other; which is the Cube, which the Sphere. Suppose then the Cube and Sphere placed on a Table, and the Blind Man to be made to see. Quaere, Whether by his sight, before he touch'd them, he could now distinguish, and tell, which is the Globe, which the Cube.
Those of us used to coordinating sight and touch must make some effort to imagine what it would be like to see a sphere and a cube for the first time, without already knowing from experience what each would feel like, were we to reach out and touch it. Without having had that experience, would it be obvious that one shape would feel sphere-y, and obvious that the other would feel cube-y?
Molyneux's problem, by the way, was rooted in his own experience. In 1678 he had married Lucy Domville - "a lady noted for intelligence, amiability, and great beauty." But just a few months into the marriage, Lucy fell ill and became blind. The diagnosis is unclear. She lived in constant pain for another thirteen years, dying just two years before Molyneaux was to send his letter to Locke. It is said that Molyneux had turned to mathematics and philosophy over this dark period as a means for coping with his frustration at not being able to do anything to help his wife. Those heady distractions led eventually to his own fame, as he founded not only the Dublin Philosophical Society but also helped to found or inspire several other organizations that promoted sharing scientific discovery. He went on to argue for equal rights for Ireland, only to see his book burned during the reign of William and Mary. He died in 1698 of kidney disease.
Back to the main story. John Locke was firmly within the neat and tidy "nothing in the mind that doesn't come from the senses" party, so he ruled that the Man would not be able to tell sphere from cube by sight alone. Leibniz was on the other side of the debate. In his commentary and critique of Locke, he prepared his answer with utmost care:
[Let us assume] a condition which can be taken to be implicit in the question: namely that it is merely a problem of telling which is which, and that the blind man knows that the two shaped bodies which he has to discern are before him and thus that each of the appearances which he sees is either that of a cube or that of a sphere. Given this condition, it seems to me past question that the blind man whose sight is restored could discern them by applying rational principles to the sensory knowledge which he has already acquired by touch [....] My view rests on the fact that in the case of the sphere, there are no distinguished points on the surface of the sphere taken in itself, since everything there is uniform and without angles, whereas in the case of the cube there are eight points which are distinguished from all the others.
What the Man could observe, according to Leibniz, is that one of these shapes has a homogeneous surface, and the other does not; and since he knows from his previous experience of touch that a sphere feels homogeneous and the cube does not, he should be able to figure out which was which, from his new sight alone.
For Leibniz, the mind informs our experience with rational principles. In this case, the rational principle at work is that differences found in one sensory domain must transfer to the others. (Actually, that statement is too strong. Some differences might not transfer: think of Bertie Bott's Every Flavour Beans, whose flavors vary in dramatic ways even when they look identical. This is why Leibniz insisted on the condition that the Man know in advance the nature of the choice being presented to him.)
The world didn't have to wait long for an actual Molyneux case, though it came too late for Molyneux, Locke or Leibniz (let alone poor Lucy). In 1728, the English physician William Cheselden restored sight to a 13-year-old boy who had been blind since birth. (One imagines a convoy of carriages loaded with philosophers racing to the scene, each armed with cubes and spheres.) Well? The result? Hard to say. As Cheselden reported:
When he first saw, he was so far from making any judgment of distances, that he thought all object whatever touched his eyes (as he expressed it) as what he felt did his skin, and thought no object so agreeable as those which were smooth and regular, though he could form no judgment of their shape, or guess what it was in any object that was pleasing to him: he knew not the shape of anything, nor any one thing from another, however different in shape or magnitude; but upon being told what things were, whose form he knew before from feeling, he would carefully observe, that he might know them again.
But it sounds like a win for Locke.
Still, recent experiments suggest that while it takes some experience to begin to parse the data from newly-acquired vision, people take to the task pretty quickly. It may be that some of Leibniz's rational principles are indeed at work, but just buried deeper in the process.
Degenaar, Marjolein and Lokhorst, Gert-Jan, "Molyneux's Problem", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2014/entries/molyneux-problem/>.
Glenney, Brian, "Molyneux's Question", The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, URL = <http://www.iep.utm.edu/molyneux/>.
O'Conner, J. J. and E. F. Robertson, "William Molyneux", URL = <http://www-history.mcs.st-and.ac.uk/Biographies/Molyneux_William.html>.
by Brooks Riley
The Humour of Disappearance
by Carl Pierer
Hard-working, dedicated snow plough driver, Nils Dickman (Stellan Skarsgård), is living a peaceful life with his wife Gudrun in a small, rural town in Norway. Just after being named Citizen of the Year, their son is found dead, apparently due to an overdose. The beautiful shots of wintery Norwegian landscapes, Nils' doubts that his son could ever have been an addict and Gudrun's acceptance of this fact seem to set the scene for a sombre Nordic drama. The film shifts gears, however, as Nils starts to investigate his son's death. The rest of the film, reminiscent of the blockbuster "Taken", sees Nils meticulously eliminating gangsters one after another, thereby incidentally causing a drug war between the Norwegian-Swedish gang, headed by "the Count" (Pål Sverre Valheim Hagen), and the Serbian gang under "Papa" (Bruno Ganz). Rather predictably, it all ends in a final showdown between all the major actors involved. While the plot suggests an action film à la Hollywood, the film playfully escapes confinement to this category.
It is not quite clear to whom the Norwegian title of Hans Petter Moland's new film, "Kraftidioten" (roughly: ‘really dumb person'), is meant to refer. Any of the characters seem to be a suitable candidates. The English title, on the other hand, "In Order of Disappearance" points toward the first central element in the film's comedy: it lets the audience expect, but meets those very expectations only through inversion. For instance, the film flips the standard cast-list in the closing titles. Instead of their order of appearance, a brief obituary is shown as the characters disappear throughout the film. This motif is varied on different levels: the evil boss of the Norwegian drug gang, "the Count", is indeed a very progressive and forward thinking individual. He is a vegan, gets coffee for his men while they are busy torturing one of their victims, and does not readily give in to his ex-wife's custody battle over their son. In short, a modern business leader. Nils, in contrast, is a calculating, cold-blooded serial killer. He shows no signs of pain nor remorse. Yet, the film challenges the viewer subtly: while "the Count" should be appreciated (and Nils condemned) because of their respective deeds, the audience sympathises with Nils' Nordic Stoicism. Fortunately, this moral dilemma is resolved for the spectator in the second half of the film as "the Count" acts more and more as an evil overlord is supposed to do: shooting his own men, hitting his ex-wife, killing his informants after they delivered their information.
The film constantly creates expectations but fails to deliver, thus de-masking the elements of run-of-the-mill action films. For instance, trouble is brewing at home when Nils sets out to kill the gangsters. Of course, Gudrun, his wife, cannot stay with him as he turns into a ruthless serial killer and the audience is led to expect her leaving. They stop talking to each other. There is nothing they have to say, at dinner they sit in silence. One evening, then, Nils finds her gone and a letter on the bed. As the background music strikes a more melancholic tone and as he opens the letter, a drama is imminent; this letter will shatter Nils' already fragile world. Indeed, Nils discovers a most unsettling and disturbing note: a mere blank page. The film, however, moves on without exploiting the philosophical potential of this ingenious gag. Although Gudrun has left him, Nils does not seem to bother too much and continues to hunt down the mafia-like henchmen.
Geir and Aron Horowitz are two of "the Count's" closest henchmen. Jointly, they act as surrogate fathers whenever "the Count" is too busy to take care of his son himself. Geir displays empathy both with the son and "the Count's" ex-wife, whereas Aron is charged with making sure that the boy will eat his vegetables. Quite evidently, a good, honest action film must not lack a proper love story. The audience expects and the film provides, but yet again with a twist. The two henchmen are shown watching their victim's fumes rise from a chimney and shortly afterwards kissing ferociously.
While all the "indigenous" Norwegian/Swedish characters in the film are latently or manifestly xenophobic, the second criminal gang, the Serbs, are merely a group of playful men. Although they pursue their interests just as ruthlessly as their Norwegian/Swedish counterparts, they are endeared to the spectator when these smartly dressed, harsh-looking criminals frolic in the Norwegian snow.
The second basic comic element of the film is its merciless realism. Scenes are shot just a tiny bit too long, too realistically for a standard action film. Reality breaks through the apparent narrative of the film and lays bare the idealisation predominant in the films caricatured. At one point, Nils is just about to commit suicide, with the gun already in his mouth, when he is distracted at the last second. When he tries to remove the gun from his mouth, the camera lingers just a second longer to show how his upper lip sticks to the icy metal. This happens in reality, not in films. Furthermore, since the realism achieves a comic effect, the blatant gore of the film is digestable. The amount of blood and other bodily fluids shown on-screen falls nothing short of any Tarantino film. However, in this context, it is not merely violent and gruesome, but a side-effect of the realism on display.
The film indulges in disappointing its viewers. A great many expectations are created and although they are partially met, it is never quite the way the audience would expect or desire it. None of the characters are truly likeable because they are all essentially flawed. Yet, neither are they worth condemnation. They are too shallow, too much of a cliché to be interesting. Nonetheless, they are not stereotypical enough to spoil the story. The film is predictably unpredictable: the plot is just as one would expect for any revenge action story. But because the film constantly defies this very category, the audience expects some major key change in the unfolding of the plot as well. Again, the film does not deliver.
Repeated, beautiful shots of snowy Norwegian landscapes and their reflections in the windows of Nils' snow plough really spells it out for the spectator: they are obviously profound metaphors for Nils' icy character. But then again, as soon as the spectator is brought to this insight, a different landscape is shown: another of Nils' victims is laid to rest in a similar setting – wrapped in chicken wire, they are tossed over a waterfall – underlined with epic choral music. The comic effect of the repetition of this ceremony time and again transfers to the repeated landscape shots. So maybe those do not have any deeper meaning after all. The film successfully evades any serious interpretation.
Despite the apparent comedy, the viewer cannot laugh light-heartedly. For most parts, it is clear where the audience is supposed to laugh. Almost as explicit as the canned laughter in any sitcom, this creates an uncanny peer pressure for the viewer in the audience, leading to outbursts of giggling and laughter at rather inappropriate points. The German critic Joachim Kuntz writes: "Ex-Ehefrauen mit der Faust ins Gesicht zu schlagen ist definitiv nicht lustig" (roughly: „To hit ex-wives in the face is certainly not funny"). While Kuntz is right, the audience – keen on the next gory punchline – laughs frantically at this very scene. Similarly, the spectators find themselves laughing at blatantly racist, abusive and otherwise morally dubious scenes. Because the humour is not innocent but "dark", this makes for an uncomfortable situation. The trouble is, no one can feign ignorance of the fact that domestic violence, xenophobia, and misogyny are parts of our daily life. Now, if these societal evils are ridiculed in a film, the socially aware viewer is impaled on one horn or the other of a dilemma: either she shrugs her shoulders and laughs (thus accepting the evils as a comic part of society) or she does not find it funny (thus giving weight and importance to concepts whose truth she does not acknowledge). In either case, she is bound to feel uncomfortable and somewhat guilty. Nonetheless, she is more than willing to pay £7.50 for this experience, to expose herself to a situation in which she feels slightly uneasy.
Ultimately, the spectator finds himself laughing in the face of cruelty and gore, about condemnable attitudes and all too obvious jokes. By turning stereotypes upside down, the film ridicules the preconceptions of the viewer. The relentless realism demonstrates the utter ridiculousness of reality. However, the film strains these elements too much: the inverted cliché becomes itself a cliché, while the realistic lingering of the camera turns into a dictate to laugh. Being told which parts are to be found funny is simply annoying. This is the greatest flaw of the painfully unsophisticated "dark" comedy "In Order of Disappearance".
Offspring of wanton wants, they arrive, together, these gods of war and weather, to the beating drums, and sound of thunder, crying out crisis, each September. This century's, Septembers, all arrive back to school, as it were, refreshed from resorts and beaches, in need of replenishing, their depleted coffers, of personal savings, and future job offers.This century's September, as if afraid of endings, arrives as though, unrepentant, its own immortal endless season, of unceasing sameness, an eerie stillness of repeated scripts and finite possibility: War as weather and weather as war. Each September, reminds us, of an, unchanging, unreformed industry, of needs, that guarantees, more spectacular bombs and thunderous storms. Bombs and storms. Lovingly named for eradicated tribes, victims of genocide, and of course women. Apache Helicopters, and Tomahawk missiles, Rita, Katrina, and Ophelia. Do you even remember, come September, as we lurch from one year to the next, all the threats and crisis, these Septembers past have presented as pretexts? And we, the video generation, watching and watched, posting selfies, we need only a video to suspend belief, acquiesce and agree. War is peace! This is a crisis, indeed. These past, two half dozens, and change, Septembers,this same cry of crisis? And we, resolutely unquestioning, of how rules were changed, to protect us, from ourselves. The Patriots Act? Remember? In September 2005 came Katrina, after Rita,and Ophelia: and army boots and troops came out, to act and protect the land, while patriots drowned? Boots on the ground? This ground. Remember Septembers past, and to come. Then, came FISA ‘Protect America Act', in September 2007. Do you remember? (here.) Do you remember the rules, that changed? Rules on how you were to be protected, by being watched and listened to, and put in your place, if needed, by guns and batons, and military courts, and tear gas and bullets and fantastical costumes of robot cops and juggernauts. Do you remember that September? For your own protection, for your own, good, of course. Who elses'? Do you remember, the Financial Crisis, come September in 2008? The rules that changed? And Wall Street won and you lost your gains—and your roof, in its name, and, of course, your good name? And then, came the Gulf spill and by September 2009 British Petroleum, how it threatened, do you remember, the war on life? Or the threat for burning of the Quran, again godsent, then, in September 2010 that almost ushered in the chance on changing the rules on freedom of speech? And in September 2011, the Occupy Movement, which revealed, to us, the extent of our powers, against power, which as it turned out, were: None. That revealed to us, that the police, primarily protects property. That even a movement for rights and freedom, uses the term, Occupy. Are we mystified? And then the storm of Sandy which by September 2012 had made it clear, as it battered and washed away, our water front properties and flooded, Wall Street how powerless the batons, bullets, the tear gas, the shells, the bombs were against, the real threat. That year, they bombed Libya straight to hell. Then, a video of insanity, and that September, the attack at the embassy, in Bengazi? Yes, that was September 2012. Come September 2013, the drums of war turned to a deafening roar—that bloodlust's design, to go bomb Syria, all the way back to Afghanistan and more, Iraq and Libya and even Iran! A video, several, tried to help. Always a video, to make the case, to go bomb and invade, yet another place.That juggernaut denied its chance, by another hegemon, rose again, metamorphosed to fight another day. And come September now today, bombing of Syria, anyway---just the same, for now, lo and behold, there it is, ISIS, proof in hideous videos, for our eyes to suspend disbelief, that lets them there drop their bombs, which they had baked, and ached to drop for years, and almost did, last year. Iraq, has been bombed, for twenty five years! A gift from God, for endless war. Who created this new Goddess? This new crisis, of this ISIS? (here,here,here and here). So here we are, this September, with the headlines developed so far, which we won't remember, this time, next year, which gives us, our latest bed time story, and the newest season of hideous videos galore. No way, not today, will we slash defense spending, cut down weapons, roll back armies as was proposed. Hurray, we are on our way, again to war and endless hay. Hurray, for this new goose, this ISIS, and to the golden eggs, that it lays! And yet another resolution, a rule that claims, the right to kill belongs to only one hegemon, one Military. This, we will have forgotten by next September? Remember? War and weather. Bombs and storms. Rita, Ophelia, Katrina, Gustave, Ike and Sandy. Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, Libya, now Syria. And what can we do except this time, too, accept, and: Cry, it is a crisis, store canned food, upgrade the flat screen, consume the news, buy rubber boots and torches and: Cry Isis.
More Writing by Maniza Naqvi here.
2 Cheers for Libertarian Paternalism!
by Thomas Rodham Wells
‘Libertarian paternalism' is how Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein characterise their big idea, redesigning how choices look so that we will be nudged to choose the option in our own best interests. Their proposal has come in for fierce and sustained academic criticism, from both left and right, and from both philosophers and economists. But all the critiques I've read seem misguided in important ways.
Thaler and Sunstein argue that the behavioral economics evidence is quite clear that people do not choose as rationally as standard economic theory (or our folk psychology) suggest. In particular, people's choices are often strongly influenced by what should be irrelevant features of how their choices are framed. People tend to put more food on their plate if the plate they are handed is bigger; most of us go along with whatever the default option is for choices about pension contributions and organ donation; and so on. In many cases it seems that we don't have an existing specific preference over outcomes and are therefore open to having our subjective valuations shaped or induced by how the options are presented.
Libertarian paternalism is the ethical thesis that, since how people make many choices is so influenced by their framing, it is right and proper for governments to try to design the choices people face in a helpful way (paternalism). Yet nothing about designing the presentation of choices forces people to choose what the designers had in mind. People are still as free as ever to choose what they want, if they know what they want (libertarian). (Sunstein went on to try to put some of his ideas into practice as Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs from 2009-12.)
Now, the critics of this approach have landed a couple of good blows.
First, how do we know what the 'rational' choice is that people should be making? In order to design choice architectures that nudge people to make the 'correct' choice - e.g. about signing up as an organ donor - policymakers must believe that they know the correct answers to these. In other words, government civil servants (no doubt with the assistance of behavioural economics consultants) are supposed to be able to work out what is in the best interests of 'ordinary' people more accurately and reliably than we can.
The challenge is whether this is plausible, or whether governments are likely to do something else instead. Are governments really able and interested in working out what their people really want (i.e. what we would choose if our cognitive biases didn't pull us in other directions)? Or is it more likely that governments will instead take the opportunity to decide on what the correct choice should be - of course people should eat less, become organ donors, use less electricity.
The second challenge relates to this. Given that policymakers are apt to substitute their own value scheme for those of the people concerned, the way that libertarian paternalist policies work becomes very worrying. Recall that the problem Sunstein and Thaler identify is that people's choices are influenced 'behind their back' by how those choices are presented to them. Yet the solution they propose does not attempt to address this problem. Instead they propose to use the exact same 'behind your back' method to manipulate people into making the correct choices.
This, as several critics have noted, makes libertarian paternalism a rather insidious project. Perhaps more objectionable even than regular paternalism. Normally when the government wants you to do something (or stop doing something) they use very clear and obvious measures. They either ban things (like heroin or driving without insurance) or put whacking great taxes on them (like tobacco). These sanctions work by constraining or reshaping the options people have and their costs and benefits. Liberals since JS Mill have a principled objection to such treatment. It is obnoxious to have the state forcing us to behave in certain ways 'for our own benefit'. What right does the government have to control what I do if it doesn't hurt anyone else?
Yet there is an advantage to a government being so obnoxiously direct about its paternalism: one can politicise and challenge the government's limitation of our choices. This may not be possible if the state instead tries to change how we behave by exploiting our cognitive weaknesses about how we understand the choices we face. How can you criticise such manipulation if you can't see it? How can you demand your freedom back if you never actually lost it? Democracy itself may seem to take on a reflexive character in this model: we choose a government on the basis of our understanding of our interests and values, but then the government shapes our understanding in turn.
These criticisms suggest a need for public transparency and accountability over any government nudge programme. But they don't undermine its legitimacy per se because it is still the ethically superior option once we can no longer pretend that government inaction is neutral. Indeed, it is the underlying research findings of behavioral economics about the limits of human psychology that the critics seem to be really complaining about, rather than Thaler and Sunstein's specific proposal. Liberalism is built on the normative ideal that human persons are sovereign, that we should have the right to decide for ourselves on matters that primarily concern ourselves. But it turns out that many liberals also make an empirical assumption that individuals are in fact the best judges of our own interests and are therefore best able to make decisions for ourselves. Behavioral economics research has shown that this convenient conjunction doesn't hold. This is upsetting to many people. Mainstream economists for example.
The core assumption of neoclassical economics is that agents are rational and markets are neutral. Market outcomes are naturalised because they are the outcome of the laws of supply and demand operating over rational agents; they are efficient because they allocate on the basis of rational effective demand; they are just because that allocation reflects agents' own free and rational decisions in furthering their own interests (of which only they can judge). If people aren't rational after all, and 'markets' are manufactured contexts (like supermarkets) that are not neutral, then markets cannot be counted upon to produce either efficiency or justice.
Even forcing people to make an explicit choice - for example requiring people to choose whether they want to donate their organs after death without a default option - imposes framing effects. It doesn't only reveal people's real preferences. Since most people don't have pre-existing preference rankings for a great many options we come across, we make our decisions about what we want in the face of the choice we are presented with in a way that is always systematically biased by the framing of that choice. This inconvenient fact has long been known to profit making companies, who exploit it to pull us into choosing expensive credit cards, the strangely expensive chocolate bars at cash registers, and so on. Indeed, this line of academic research has done much to help such companies organise their ad hoc methods more systematically.
Thaler and Sunstein's essential argument is that once one recognises the real world significance of framing, governments have an ethical obligation to step in to mitigate its potential to undermine people's ability to choose prudently - to safeguard and further their interests in health and wealth. Choosing not to try to frame choices better does not leave citizens free to make their own choices. It leaves us vulnerable to contingency and to exploitation by the corporations who employ framing effects to sell us stuff.
Indeed paternalsim is arguably essential to much of the freedom we take for granted, a point particularly emphasised by the development economist, Esther Duflo. In her 2012 Tanner Lectures she notes that rich world critics of paternalistic policies generally don't realise how far they themselves benefit from their own government having made default decisions in a helpful way, such as the drinkable water that comes straight out of the tap, immunisations arranged and scheduled at each stage of a child's life, automatic enrolment in state pension systems, and so on. Poor people are often criticised for their lack of will power and judgement. But this relates to the hard fact that poor people face the stress of vast numbers of significant choices every day where the default option is bad. Clean water is something they have to go out and find, likewise immunisations and schooling for their children, healthcare that isn't quackery, and so on. Choosing well is difficult and mistakes can be fatal.
The ability to easily choose prudently is something we take for granted. We'd like to think that it is something about us, but in general it turns out to a feature of the framing of the choices we face, like the rumble strips on motorway exit ramps designed to make you feel how fast you are still going and slow down. The idea that freedom consists in figuring all this out for yourself is a strange and unsustainable one. This is what institutions were invented for. In any case, there is a reason this approach is called libertarian paternalism: if you already know what you want, or you are so smart that you can see through framing effects all by yourself, you remain just as free as ever to figure out what choice is best for you.
Sunday, September 28, 2014
Virtue Ethics: an ancient solution to a modern problem
Peter D. O. Smith in Scientia Salon:
This article is neither a defense of nor an attack against either religion or secularism. It treats them as well established sociological facts and no more than that. I take them as given and argue that a greater moral good can be achieved if the two belief systems find common moral ground in virtue ethics.
Moral choices infuse most aspects of our life, whether we know it or not. And a great number of these moral choices are bad ones. This is why our prisons are filled to overflowing , and recidivism is so high at 66% . This is why we have so many war dead and this is why so many die violent deaths at the hands of murderers or radical ideologues. This is also why we have such an inequitable distribution of wealth. This is why cheating is rampant at schools and universities . We maintain large standing armies to protect ourselves from the bad moral choices of others and on occasion we use it to inflict our bad moral choices on others. This is why we have no qualms in spying on our own citizens  or in killing without due process. This is why almost everyone has been the victim of crime, unfairness, injustice, discrimination, bullying , sexism, racism, ageism or other forms of bigotry, bias, and discrimination. This is why stalking is commonplace .
Bad moral choices touch us all and are the major cause of suffering in today’s world. Every person who has been jilted by a cheating partner has felt that suffering. Marital infidelity is the most common cause of divorce and abuse is another important cause . One in five women are sexually assaulted at university . Even natural disasters such as earthquakes or floods are compounded by moral failures as nations don’t respond adequately. Famines become moral failures when we cannot distribute food where and when it is needed. Our economic systems become moral failures when they turn into instruments of greed. Our political systems become moral failures when they are used for the advantage of the powerful, to exploit or neglect the weak.
The point I am making is that moral suffering is real, pervasive and needs attention. We have made great progress in reducing material suffering, but only some progress in reducing moral suffering. This is the important challenge that faces us today, to reduce moral suffering with the same degree of success that we have reduced material suffering.
The Viroid: A Tiny Emissary From the Ancient Past
Carl Zimmer in the New York Times:
In the early 1920s, farmers in New Jersey noticed their potatoes were shriveling, their leaves becoming deformed. The plants were sick with an illness that came to be known as potato spindle tuber disease. But it took almost five decades for someone to find the cause.
In 1971, Theodor O. Diener, a plant pathologist at the Department of Agriculture, discovered that the culprit is an inconceivably tiny pathogen — one-80th the size of a virus. Dr. Diener called it a viroid.
Since Dr. Diener’s initial discovery, scientists have identified nearly three dozen species of viroids that attack crops from tomatoes to coconuts, as well as flowers such as dahlias and chrysanthemums. In many cases, the only way to stop an outbreak is to destroy all the infected plants. These days many countries require that plants be certified viroid-free before being imported.
But viroids may be much more than agricultural pests. New research suggests that they existed at the earliest stages of life on Earth, enduring in their primitive state for billions of years. These are the pterodactyls of the microbial world — except that they are still very much with us. We just didn’t realize it.
To end inequality, we must realise that it isn’t about the rich, it’s about the poor
Clare Melamed in Aeon:
Close observers of the development scene will have noticed an interesting shift over the past few years. Where once institutions such as the World Bank and charities like Oxfam described their goal as simply ‘ending poverty’, today they tend to frame things in terms of poverty and inequality. Well, that makes sense: doesn’t it seem intuitively obvious that these two things must be connected in some way?
Yet those links can be surprisingly hard to bring into focus. In 15 years of working in the development sector – first for international NGOs and more recently running a research programme on poverty and inequality – I have found myself explaining over and over again exactly what the one has to do with the other. What does it matter to an impoverished farmer in South Sudan if 85 people hold as much wealth as half the world’s population? If those 85 people gave everything away, would that actually help the farmer?
The problem, I have come to think, is that there are two very different ways of thinking about inequality. The first is all about the rich. The second is all about the poor. The first is the one we usually hear about. The second is the one that really matters.
Nasta'liq: The Genius of Persian Calligraphy
The Dismal Science
Paul Krugman reviews 'Seven Bad Ideas,' by Jeff Madrick, in the NYT's Sunday Book Review (picture by Michael Lionstar):
In “Seven Bad Ideas: How Mainstream Economists Have Damaged America and the World,” Jeff Madrick — a contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine and a frequent writer on matters economic — argues that the professional failures since 2008 didn’t come out of the blue but were rooted in decades of intellectual malfeasance.
As a practicing and, I’d claim, mainstream economist myself, I’m tempted to quibble. How “mainstream,” really, are the bad ideas he attacks? How much of the problem is bad economic ideas per se as opposed to economists who have proved all too ready to drop their own models — in effect, reject their own ideas — when their models conflict with their political leanings? And was it the ideas of economists or the prejudices of politicians that led to so much bad policy?
I’ll return to those quibbles later, but Madrick’s basic theme is surely right. His bad ideas are definitely out there, have been expressed by plenty of economists, and have indeed done a lot of harm.
So what are the seven bad ideas? Actually, they aren’t all that distinct. In particular, bad idea No. 1 — the Invisible Hand — is pretty hard to distinguish from bad idea No. 3, Milton Friedman’s case against government intervention, and segues fairly seamlessly into bad idea No. 7, globalization as something that is always good. As an aside, this sometimes makes Madrick’s argument more disjointed than I’d like, with key propositions spread across nonconsecutive chapters. But there is an important point here, and Madrick has clarified my own thinking on the subject.