Tuesday, March 31, 2015
Would Telepathy Help?
Kat McGowan in Aeon (Anthony Quinn and Anna Karina on the set of 'The Magus'. 1976. Photo by Eve Arnold/Magnum):
Every modern generation has had its own idiosyncratic obsession with telepathy, the hope that one human being might be able to read another person’s thoughts. In the late 19th century, when spiritualism was in vogue, mind-reading was a parlour game for the fashionable, and the philosopher William James considered telepathy and other psychic phenomena legitimate subjects of study for the new science of psychology. By the 1960s, the Pentagon was concerned about Soviet telepathy research and reports that they had established remote communications with submarine commanders. In the 1970s, one ambitious Apollo 14 astronaut took it upon himself to try broadcasting his brainwaves from the moon.
In our technologically obsessed era, the search for evidence of psychic communication has been replaced by a push to invent computerised telepathy machines. Just last year, an international team of neurobiologists in Spain, France and at Harvard set up systems that linked one brain to another and permitted two people to communicate using only their thoughts. The network was basically one massive kludge, including an electroencephalography cap to detect the sender’s neural activity, computer algorithms to transform neural signals into data that could be sent through the internet and, at the receiving end, a transcranial magnetic stimulation device to convert that data into magnetic pulses that cross another person’s skull and activate certain clusters of neurons with an electrical field. With this contraption, the researchers were able to send a signal of 140 bits (the word ‘ciao’) from one person’s brain to another.
This apparatus is complex, expensive and extremely low-bandwidth, achieving a speed of about two bits per minute. Nonetheless, this study and others like it inspire a wave of hope that it might one day be possible to read another person’s thoughts. It’s easy to see why people won’t give up on the idea. Telepathy promises an intimate connection to other human beings. If isolation, cruelty, malice, violence and wars are fuelled by misunderstandings and communication failures, as many people believe, telepathy would seem to offer the cure.
Faith, Hope, and Chemistry
In my first year as a medical student I thought I had a pretty good notion of what medicine was all about. I saw it as a branch of mechanical engineering, like building bridges, say, but inside the human body. If you want to build a bridge across a river, you’d have to take measurements and make calculations, choose building materials and then construct your bridge. Doesn’t matter whether you are working in Timbuktu, in Marseille, or on the moon.
Medicine is not like that at all. In Timbuktu it’s a completely different enterprise than in Marseille and on the moon there is no medicine. This multifariousness of medicine was brought home to me when Professor B., after describing a very complicated surgical procedure, concluded the demonstration by adding, “Of course I would never do this type of operation in a patient who is above eighty.”
I was shocked. What’s wrong with patients older than eighty? Aren’t they worth the trouble? It took me quite some time before I realized that that was not the point. Humans form a biological population, which means that every individual is a little different from all the others. Without this variety there would be nothing to select within the evolutionary process. Every face is different. Every fingerprint, every nose, every tone of voice—they are all different. The same goes for all the potatoes and roses of one kind. They are all different from each other.
Anne Fausto-Sterling in Boston Review (Photo: Rachel Mack):
During the 1950s peanut butter came in notoriously hard-to-close pry-top jars, and an enterprising rat in my family’s home took advantage. At night, after my parents’ bedroom door clicked shut, they would hear a clatter as the rat removed the metal lid and dropped it to the floor. Eventually mom and dad poisoned the ingenious beast. My brother skinned it, tanned its hide, and nailed it to a bulletin board—a stark warning to future marauders.
Lately I’ve been thinking about that rat. How did it figure out how to open the jar? How did it learn that the coast was clear when my parents retired for the night? Did it have a lid-opening gene? A peanut butter gene? Was it predisposed to explore, or did its family and rodent companions teach it to investigate? Why did that individual, and not, for example, its twin or its sister, exploit this food source?
It is a quirky case, the condiment-thieving rat, but the question of how individual differences arise is important to us all. In his State of the Union address, President Obama made a big push for personalized medicine—based on the idea that if we know an individual’s genome, we can predict medical outcomes and tailor individual treatments—and the success of that enterprise relies on the right answer.
This is a complicated challenge because, as biologists first proposed in the early twentieth century, a genotype—all the genes in the cells of an organism—does not guarantee a phenotype—what the organism looks like and how it behaves. A vast territory links genes in their cellular starting environment to individual phenotypes. Recently behavioral biologist Julia Freund and her colleagues published a fascinating study that directly addresses this problem.
How the Golden Age Lost Its Memory
Andrew Heisel in the LA Review of Books:
THIS MAY BE a golden age of television, but it’s hard to feel particularly blessed about it. According to Brett Martin’s recent book Difficult Men, this TV golden age is actually America’s third. In fact, if you add up the spans of Martin’s different ages, we’ve spent more time since 1950 within a golden age of television than without. Our current one has been running since the late ’90s. This is odd, not because we’ve found ourselves so frequently in the company of great television, but because we’ve found ourselves in golden ages at all. For a long time, the idea of “the golden age” just didn’t work like that.
The Greek poet Hesiod gave the world its first glimpse of the golden age. In his Works and Days, from ca. 700 BC, he describes a decline of man, from golden to silver to bronze, to the iron present. In the golden age, humans were without flaw and the earth was cornucopial. Man did not have to work and knew no master. In the ongoing iron, we are “with toils and grief oppressed, / Nor day nor night can yield a pause of rest.” Over the years, Plato, Ovid, and Virgil all played with the idea, but the essential concept remained the same: the golden age already happened; things are worse now. The job of the golden age is to remind us how much better things could be.
And so the golden age remained, firmly Classical, mythic, and over. And not just among the poets. To see how it worked its way into present American usage, I’ve traced the concept’s deployment through databases covering British and American writing since the 16th century — thousands of old books and newspapers. They bear out my suspicion that the “golden age” simply isn’t what it used to be, and not just on television. What changed?
With few exceptions, in earlier eras nobody ever seriously declares, “This is the golden age.” Instead, they accuse opponents of saying it or put it in the mouth of a foolish narrator. It only exists in the present as a bill of goods. In Britain, it’s what those charlatans behind the Corn Laws, the Reform Laws, or the Poor Laws would have you believe they’re creating. It’s the false promise made by those trying to root out, as The London Morning Post put it in 1828, “the rusty old customs of their forefathers” and replace them with “the delightful pleasures of change and variety.” Dreamers no less dangerous than the French revolutionaries, Edmund Burke writes, sought “a golden age, full of peace, order, and liberty.”
Kerry Washington Brings the Fire in Her GLAAD Speech
E. Alex Jung in Vulture:
Thank you Ellen, thank you Ellen, thank you Ellen, thank you Ellen, so much. We just love having you and your beautiful, extraordinary wife in our Scandal family. It's a good night for Shondaland up in here. It's good. So, forgive me, so I thought I was going to have a podium, so I'm going to do this the best I can without one. I am truly honored to be here and to be receiving this award. When I was told I was going to get an award for being an ally to GLAAD, it got me thinking. Being an ally means a great deal to me, and so I'm going to say some stuff. And I might be preaching to the choir, but I'm going to say it. Not just for us, but because on Monday morning, people are going to click a link to hear what that woman from Scandal said at that award show, so I think some stuff needs to be said.
There are people in this world who have the full rights of citizenship in our communities, our countries, and around the world, and then there are those of us who, to varying degrees, do not. We don't have equal access to education, to health care, and some other basic liberties like marriage, a fair voting process, fair hiring practices. Now, you would think that those of us who are kept from our full rights of citizenship would ban together and fight the good fight, but history tells us that, no, often we don't. Women, poor people, people of color, people with disabilities, immigrants, gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, trans people, intersex people - we have been pitted against each other and made to feel like there are limited seats at the table for those of us who fall into the category of "other." As a result, we have become afraid of one another. We compete with one another. We judge one another. Sometimes, we betray one another. Sometimes, even within our own communities, we designate who among us is best suited to represent us, and who really shouldn't even be invited to the party. As "others," we are taught that to be successful, we must reject those other "others," or we will never belong. I know part of why I'm getting this award is because I play characters that belong to segments of society that are often pushed to the margins. Now, as a woman and as a person of color, I don't often have a choice about that - but I've also made the choice to participate in storytelling about the LGBT community. I've made the choice to play a lot of different kinds of people in a lot of different kinds of situations. In my career, I've not been afraid of inhabiting characters who are judged, and who are misunderstood, and who have not been granted full rights of citizenship as human beings.
The Condition Cancer Research Is In
Sabrina Tavernise in The New York Times:
In a letter to colleagues announcing his departure as the director of the National Cancer Institute, Dr. Harold Varmus, 75, quoted Mae West. “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor,” he wrote, “and rich is better.” The line was characteristic of Dr. Varmus: playful and frank, not what one might expect from a Nobel laureate. But it also distilled a central question facing biomedical research today. Is the decline in funding that has shaken universities and research labs here to stay? If so, what does that mean for scientific research? Dr. Varmus, whose last day at the cancer institute is Tuesday, recently reflected on financial constraints in science, the fight against cancer and his own efforts to remain healthy. Our interview has been condensed and edited for space.
Where are we in the fight against cancer?
One of the major advances we’ve had as a result of cancer research is deep recognition of the complexity of cancer. It’s not one disease, it’s lots of different diseases. Every single cancer is different when you look at it on a genetic level. When the president recently announced his precision medicine initiative, a lot of it was based on the information we are getting from genetic and molecular analysis of cancer. Precision medicine depends on being much more precise about diagnosis. That allows you to target therapies more correctly and make better inferences about likely outcomes. This is the most transforming thing that’s happened. We are beginning to understand now how different sets of mutations increase or decrease the likelihood that somebody’s going to respond to a therapy. There have been some sensational successes in immunotherapies. Some use antibodies that block the immune system’s self-regulation. I think there’s tremendous promise here. Cancer goes through an evolutionary process that is complex and not fully understood. There’s a tremendous amount of basic disease research to be done.
Is that basic research getting done?
People feel their likelihood of getting funded is greater if they work on things that may have a clinical application. I’m worried about that, because I look at the big things that have changed the face of health care, and it’s usually the result of some pioneering discovery not made in conjunction with the notion of how to treat somebody. You’ve got to do clinical testing, but if we become slackers on funding the absolutely most fundamental things, we will not hit upon the real answers. To understand how a normal cell becomes a cancer cell — we can’t lose sight of that.
What’s your advice on staying healthy?
I don’t want to go to my doctor, ever. I know flesh is heir to disease. I’ve been taking aspirin every day. It can be protective against cancers, heart disease and some strokes. I believe in keeping cholesterol levels down and keeping a healthy lifestyle. I try to be on my bike or doing something every day. Not just for health — I choose the sports I like. It’s a social event as well.
We'll all eat grasshoppers--once we know how to raise themLizzie Wade in Wired:
Read the rest here.
Go to any market in Mexico and you’ll see piles of grasshoppers—dusted with chile powder, roasted with garlic, sprinkled with lime juice. I’ve eaten grasshoppers ground up in salsas and semi-pulverized in micheladas, their intact legs floating in the refreshing mix of beer, lime juice, and hot sauce. If you’ve ever been served chile-dusted orange slices along with a shot of mezcal—surprise! That chile powder was actually ground up grasshoppers.
By now you’ve probably heard that entomophagy—insect eating—is in our dietary future, or at least should be. Put aside the yuck factor; insects are packed with protein, much less damaging to the environment than other livestock, and can even be killed humanely by popping them in the freezer. It’s all so crazy it just might work; the United Nations published a whole book in 2013 promoting edible insects as a solution to global food insecurity. With Earth looking down the barrel of a population of 9 billion humans, all of them hungry for protein, it makes sense to cultivate animals with 80 percent-edible bodies (crickets) instead of 40 percent (beef), and that don’t require 10 pounds of feed to get two pounds of meat (pigs). In theory.
President Obama talks to The Wire Creator David Simon
Political Cartooning after the Charlie Hebdo Attacks
Jonathan Guyer in Nieman Reports:
The Charlie Hebdo murders, and an attack aimed at Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks, who had drawn images of the Prophet Muhammad many Muslims considered offensive, a month later in Copenhagen, focused attention on the threat to Western satirists. But political cartoonists around the world are at risk.
In Turkey in 2014, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was then prime minister, brought a criminal complaint against cartoonist Musa Kart, who in the midst of a corruption investigation into Erdogan’s inner circle depicted a hologram of Erdogan standing watch as thieves stole money from a safe. Lawyers sought nine years imprisonment; Kart was acquitted but Erdogan has appealed. In Ecuador, one of the best-known cartoonists in Latin America, Javier Bonilla, whose pen name is Bonil, is accused of “socioeconomic discrimination” for mocking the stutter and questioning the suitability for office of Agustin Delgado, a congressman from President Rafael Correa’s ruling party. In Singapore, the government charged Leslie Chew with sedition for the cartoonist’s criticism of state discrimination against ethnic minorities in his strip “Demon-Cratic Singapore.” And in Malaysia, Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government also accused cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Haque, known as Zunar, of sedition, for a cartoon criticizing a corrupt judiciary. “He points out corruption,” says John A. Lent, editor in chief of the International Journal of Comic Art, of Zunar. “He’s what a political cartoonist is supposed to be: a watchdog on government.”
Monday, March 30, 2015
The Puzzle of Political Debate
by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse
We've noticed a strange phenomenon in contemporary political discourse. As our politics at almost every level become increasingly tribal -- devoted to circle-the-wagons campaigns and on-point messaging of carefully curated party-lines -- the dominant images of our politics are all the more dressed in the rhetoric of reason, debate, evidence, and truth. Hence a puzzle: political communication is almost exclusively conducted by means of purported debate among people with different views, yet citizens seem increasingly unable to grasp of the perspectives of those with whom they politically disagree. Indeed, that there could be reasoned disagreement about politics among well-informed, rational, and sincere people is a though that looks increasingly alien to democratic citizens. Consequently, despite all of the rhetoric, citizens show very little interest in actually talking to those with whom they disagree. In short, as appeals to reason, argument, and evidence become more common in political communication, our capacity to actually disagree -- to respond to criticisms and objections, to address considerations that countervail our views, and to identify precisely where we think our opponents have erred -- has significantly deteriorated. That's an odd combination of phenomena. Let's call it the puzzle of political debate.
To be sure, the images that dominate the landscape of political communication are mere images. Popular tropes such as "the no spin zone," "fair and balanced" reporting, "straight talk," "real clear politics," and so on are merely slogans. And, similarly, the dominant "debate" format of television news is mostly political theater. However, these images and practices prevail. And they prevail because they are effective as marketing tools. So one must ask why citizens should demand that political views come packaged in this way. Here's an answer: an unavoidable fact about us is that we need to see ourselves as reasoners, debaters, and thinkers; and we need to see our own views regarding pressing social and political matters are the products of epistemically proper practice.
Consequently, any vision of democracy that prizes public discourse and civic debate must be supplemented by a properly social epistemology, an account of the ways in which people should go about forming, maintaining, and revising their political views, and a corresponding view of how democratic political institutions can aid or obstruct these processes. In providing a normative account of such matters, a social epistemology can also serve as a critical tool for assessing our present conditions.
Return now to the puzzle of political debate. What could explain the odd combination noted above of the enhanced appeal to the rhetoric of reason and argument in political communication, with the deterioration of skill and willingness to actually argue? The following is a brief sketch of one possibility.
Our shrinking social and political world has made it evident that we are socially embedded individuals. The fact of our dependence on others is unmistakable. Moreover, it has become increasingly obvious that we not only need others, but we need to be needed by others. That's how we make sense of ourselves as being reliable, honest, or generous. We can't manifest those virtues (or any other) without someone depending on us to be so. This enhanced sense of our moral interdependence brings the recognition of a similar epistemological interdependence. Here's why: As the social and political world gets smaller, it also grows more obviously complex, complicated, and confusing. This leaves individuals all the more aware of their relatedness (and the limits of those relations), but less sure about what to make of their contingency and fragility. Thus a premium is placed on epistemological stability, consonance, clarity, and ease. This is why it's easy for our political rhetoric to look so tribal in the first place. There are in-groups who get it and preserve it, and then there's everybody else.
Consequently, a market emerges for supplying a kind of epistemological service to bewildered individuals. The products in currency on this market are relatively simple and stable social and political perspectives, frameworks for thinking about complex and unfamiliar phenomena. But any such perspective can actually bring the desired stability only if it presents itself as uniquely reliable and accurate. And it can do that only if it can present itself as epistemically superior to opposing perspectives. Here a difficulty arises. The epistemological superiority of any given perspective can't actually be established except by honest engagement with opposing perspectives. However, honest engagement of this kind reintroduces all of the complexity and complication that the perspective was supposed to alleviate.
Those who seek to provide this epistemological service find themselves in a bind. They must portray their perspective as superior without actually engaging with any actual opposing views. Thus, there must only be the appearance of debate and argument, but not the real thing. Hence a media and news environment emerges where debate is mimicked for the sake of an onlooking audience. And, as we should expect, the central aim of mimicked debate is not that of making a direct case for one's favored view, but rather that of making the opposing views look unintelligible and incompetent rather than merely mistaken.
We see, then, that the puzzle of political debate is not so puzzling after all. The popular political rhetoric is not mere sloganizing and the practice of televising purported debate is not merely political theater. These are in the service of mimicking argument, providing imposters that serve to trick citizens into taking themselves to have done due epistemic diligence in forming and holding their political views. Hence it is no surprise that as citizens take themselves to know more about political affairs, they actually know less; for similar reasons, one should expect that citizens' confidence in their political views is inversely correlated with their ability to identify the most prevalent and formidable criticisms of them.
Now, one central task for a social epistemologist in a democratic society is to theorize the ways in which mimicked reasoning works. This would involve devising categories for diagnosing the mimicry, and developing strategies for disarming the mimics. We've taken a shot at the former task here, but there remains much work to be done. Our conclusion at present is modest but perhaps surprising: democratic theorists need to do epistemology.
It is Time to Think About Dark Matter
by Alexander Bastidas Fry
The most commonly used noun in the English language is time. Yet time is nothing more than an idea. It is an intangible concept invoked to make sense of the world such that, ‘everything doesn't happen at once,' as Einstein said. The actual most common thing in the universe is dark matter. Dark matter purports to be more than an idea. It has some kind of elusive tangible existence, yet it has never been held in anyone's hands.
The nearly invisible components of nature such as cells or atoms can only be seen with the aid of tools. If you see a cell with a microscope there exists a physical and philosophical stratification between your perception, your eye, the optics of the microscope, and the observed cell. If you see an atom on a computer monitor rendered from data from an atomic microscope then the layers of complex stratification between you and the atom are monumental. What can we truly know about the nature of things which can only be observed through tools? I would argue quite a lot. Dark matter will always remain isolated from basic human perception, but we can know it through tools or imagination.
Imagine a sea of particles gliding through you unnoticed; this is dark matter. Imagine anything, and dark matter doesn't stop for it. Dark matter doesn't interact strongly with earth, fire, wind or water. There are many particles that have elusive existences similar to dark matter like photons or neutrinos. Unfamiliarity with these known particles doesn't hinder your ability to imagine dark matter: even these particles were not discovered without stratification between human perception and the thing itself. Imagine bits of dark matter passing through you brain at this moment, every moment, because it probably is. And if it is, but it never interacts with you in any way, does it matter?
The truth is that we don't know exactly what dark matter is. It may not be a particle at all. It could have other curious kinds of existence, but those ideas are disfavored. We know a few basic things about dark matter. It interacts very weakly with matter, if at all, so it is not very luminous. It is stable over the current age of the universe. It has a speed that is much smaller than the speed of light. And finally, we know it is not made of the regular matter that makes up galaxies, planets, stars, or you.
Dark matter outweighs regular matter by a factor of five in our universe. Dark matter's presence in our universe is inferred through its observed gravitational effects. It forms a dark cosmic scaffolding that hosts the galaxies we do see—the conspicuous galaxies we can observe are always nestled in the heart of much more massive diffuse dark matter clouds or halos. Dark matter controls the architecture of the universe at the largest scales because it dominates the gravity of the universe and gravity is is the only significant long-range force. A myriad of robust observations lead us to the conclusion that dark matter is a necessary component of the universe. Dark matter is the simplest solution to the complex observations. And yet Dark matter is one of the great unsolved problems in physics. Theories for detection of dark matter are abundant. Do we even have a chance to ever catch dark matter?
We can know dark matter with tools. The current generation of dark matter experiments has already placed strong constraints on what dark matter is not. There is a lot of exploration to be done. The hunt for dark matter can be broken into three categories: creation, direct detection, and indirect detection.
The creation of dark matter would be ideal, the way world peace would be ideal. A particle accelerator, like the Large Hadron Collider for example, could hypothetically create dark matter particles. The new particle would right zip out of the machine ignoring the detectors, the magnetic fields, and the zoo of other particles present. So, the signature of dark matter would be missing energy and momentum inside the detectors. Nothing would be something, but so far nothing—nothing has been seen. Particle physicists have hypothesized a dark matter candidate particle known as the Weakly Interacting Massive Particle or WIMP. The WIMP is an appealing candidate for dark matter because it would naturally satisfy all of the current constraints and it is motivated from fundamental theoretical considerations. A WIMP could come in many varieties. A particularly strong candidate is the neutralino which is the supersymmetry partner of the neutrino. Supersymmetry is a theoretical speculation that predicts every particle in the Universe would have at least one super partner (for example there could be five total Higg's Bosons). The super symmetric counterparts of most particles would be unstable, but the very lightest weight super partner would be stable for the age of the universe and it could be the dark matter. The best shot at discovering supersymmetry right now is the Large Hadron Collider which is being restarted this year at the highest energies ever.
Direct detection of dark matter involves spotting the interaction of dark matter with regular matter in the laboratory. Dark matter's feeble interaction with regular matter, if it occurs at all, would be rare. For some theories there would be an occasional collision of a dark matter particle, perhaps a WIMP, with the nucleus of an atom inside detectors. We are just beginning to build experiments with the necessary sensitivity to find some kinds of dark matter in deep underground labs around the world. Direct detection experiments must be shielded from stray particles that come from distant astrophysical objects and from the radioactive decay of atoms on Earth. Directly detecting dark matter is a waiting game. Only non-detections have been made so far. Direct detection experiments must make assumptions about what kind of thing dark matter is, so theory dictates what kind of experiment and what conclusions can be drawn.
Indirect detection of dark matter relies upon the possible self-annihilation of dark matter in outer space. The idea is that when two dark matter particles meet they may annihilate and ultimately covert their mass (via Einstein's equation E=mc2) into photons. These energetic photons could be observed by telescopes such as the Fermi Gamma Ray Telescope. So far no convincing signal of excess photons has be seen in the sky, but many mysterious signals have been seen. Skeptical reasoning would argue that every signal seen from space so far is consistent with statistical noise or standard astrophysical sources: space is filled with massive collapsing stars, pulsars, black holes, and exotic objects that emit high energy photons that could mimic the effect of annihilating dark matter. Either dark matter isn't annihilating or our telescopes are right on the edge of detecting it.
The possibility remains that dark matter really doesn't have any interaction with regular matter: particle physicists will never create, observe, or detect any sign of it. This would leave astronomical observations of its gravitational signatures as the only way forward. It would leave the door open to the so called 'dark sector' where some traditional rules of physics could be largely thrown out. In my research I have explored one variety of strange dark matter: the possibility of self-interacting dark matter. This particular form of dark matter would scatter off of itself in dense galaxy cores, but would be a largely unnoticed phenomena in other realms of astrophysics. Naturally it would fit all cosmological theories at large scales. Through supercomputer simulations of galaxies we have noticed that self-interacting dark matter could even ameliorate some issues we have had in trying to match simulated galaxies to real galaxies.
Illuminating the problem of dark matter is proving as subtle as its existence. The current direct detection experiments have placed upper bounds on the interaction rate of dark matter with regular matter and indirect detection observations have place upper bounds on the self-annihilation rate of dark matter. Science is more in the business of saying what is not rather than what is. We will continue to place stricter constraints on the properties of dark matter, but if nature is unkind we will never break through to actual detection. We will never grasp dark matter in our hands no matter how long we wait.
On a street
to make one
On a street
On a street
On a street
by Jim Culleny
STEM Education Promotes Critical Thinking and Creativity: A Response to Fareed Zakaria
by Jalees Rehman
All obsessions can be dangerous. When I read the title "Why America's obsession with STEM education is dangerous" of Fareed Zakaria's article in the Washington Post, I assumed that he would call for more balance in education. An exclusive focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is unhealthy because students miss out on the valuable knowledge that the arts and humanities teach us. I would wholeheartedly agree with such a call for balance because I believe that a comprehensive education makes us better human beings. This is the reason why I encourage discussions about literature and philosophy in my scientific laboratory. To my surprise and dismay, Zakaria did not analyze the respective strengths of liberal arts education and STEM education. Instead, his article is laced with odd clichés and misrepresentations of STEM.
Misrepresentation #1: STEM teaches technical skills instead of critical thinking and creativity
If Americans are united in any conviction these days, it is that we urgently need to shift the country's education toward the teaching of specific, technical skills. Every month, it seems, we hear about our children's bad test scores in math and science — and about new initiatives from companies, universities or foundations to expand STEM courses (science, technology, engineering and math) and deemphasize the humanities.
"The United States has led the world in economic dynamism, innovation and entrepreneurship thanks to exactly the kind of teaching we are now told to defenestrate. A broad general education helps foster critical thinking and creativity."
Zakaria is correct when he states that a broad education fosters creativity and critical thinking but his article portrays STEM as being primarily focused on technical skills whereas liberal education focuses on critical thinking and creativity. Zakaria's view is at odds with the goals of STEM education. As a scientist who mentors Ph.D students in the life sciences and in engineering, my goal is to help our students become critical and creative thinkers.
Students learn technical skills such as how to culture cells in a dish, insert DNA into cells, use microscopes or quantify protein levels but these technical skills are not the focus of the educational program. Learning a few technical skills is easy but the real goal is for students to learn how to develop innovative scientific hypotheses, be creative in terms of designing experiments that test those hypotheses, learn how to be critical of their own results and use logic to analyze their experiments.
My own teaching and mentoring experience focuses on STEM graduate students but the STEM programs that I have attended at elementary and middle schools also emphasize teaching basic concepts and critical thinking instead of "technical skills". The United States needs to promote STEM education because of the prevailing science illiteracy in the country and not because it needs to train technically skilled worker bees. Here are some examples of science illiteracy in the US: Fort-two percent of Americans are creationists who believe that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years or so. Fifty-two percent of Americans are unsure whether there is a link between vaccines and autism and six percent are convinced that vaccines can cause autism even though there is broad consensus among scientists from all over the world that vaccines do NOT cause autism. And only sixty-one percent are convinced that there is solid evidence for global warming.
A solid STEM education helps citizens apply critical thinking to distinguish quackery from true science, benefiting their own well-being as well as society.
Zakaria's criticism of obsessing about test scores is spot on. The subservience to test scores undermines the educational system because some teachers and school administrators may focus on teaching test-taking instead of critical thinking and creativity. But this applies to the arts and humanities as well as the STEM fields because language skills are also assessed by standardized tests. Just like the STEM fields, the arts and humanities have to find a balance between teaching required technical skills (i.e. grammar, punctuation, test-taking strategies, technical ability to play an instrument) and the more challenging tasks of teaching students how to be critical and creative.
Misrepresentation #2: Japanese aren't creative
Zakaria's views on Japan are laced with racist clichés:
"Asian countries like Japan and South Korea have benefitted enormously from having skilled workforces. But technical chops are just one ingredient needed for innovation and economic success. America overcomes its disadvantage — a less-technically-trained workforce — with other advantages such as creativity, critical thinking and an optimistic outlook. A country like Japan, by contrast, can't do as much with its well-trained workers because it lacks many of the factors that produce continuous innovation."
Some of the most innovative scientific work in my own field of scientific research – stem cell biology – is carried out in Japan. Referring to Japanese as "well-trained workers" does not do justice to the innovation and creativity in the STEM fields and it also conveniently ignores Japanese contributions to the arts and humanities. I doubt that the US movie directors who have re-made Kurosawa movies or the literary critics who each year expect that Haruki Murakami will receive the Nobel Prize in Literature would agree with Zakaria.
Misrepresentation #3: STEM does not value good writing
Writing well, good study habits and clear thinking are important. But Zakaria seems to suggest that these are not necessarily part of a good math and science education:
"No matter how strong your math and science skills are, you still need to know how to learn, think and even write. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon (and the owner of this newspaper), insists that his senior executives write memos, often as long as six printed pages, and begins senior-management meetings with a period of quiet time, sometimes as long as 30 minutes, while everyone reads the "narratives" to themselves and makes notes on them. In an interview with Fortune's Adam Lashinsky, Bezos said: "Full sentences are harder to write. They have verbs. The paragraphs have topic sentences. There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking."
Communicating science is an essential part of science. Until scientific work is reviewed by other scientists and published as a paper it is not considered complete. There is a substantial amount of variability in the quality of writing among scientists. Some scientists are great at logically structuring their papers and conveying the core ideas whereas other scientific papers leave the reader in a state of utter confusion. What Jeff Bezos proposes for his employees is already common practice in the STEM world. In preparation for scientific meetings and discussions, scientists structure their ideas into outlines for manuscripts or grant proposals using proper paragraphs and sentences. Well-written scientific manuscripts are highly valued but the overall quality of writing in the STEM fields could be greatly improved. However, the same probably also holds true for people with a liberal arts education. Not every philosopher is a great writer. Decoding the human genome is a breeze when compared to decoding certain postmodern philosophical texts.
Misrepresentation #4: We should study the humanities and arts because Silicon Valley wants us to.
In support of his arguments for a stronger liberal arts education, Zakaria primarily quotes Silicon Valley celebrities such as Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos. The article suggests that a liberal arts education will increase entrepreneurship and protect American jobs. Are these the main reasons for why we need to reinvigorate liberal arts education? The importance of a general, balanced education makes a lot of sense to me but is increased job security a convincing argument for pursuing a liberal arts degree? Instead of a handful of anecdotal comments by Silicon Valley prophets, I would prefer to see some actual data that supports Zakaria's assertion. But perhaps I am being too STEMy.
There is a lot of room to improve STEM education. We have to make sure that we strive to focus on the essence of STEM which is critical thinking and creativity. We should also make a stronger effort to integrate arts and humanities into STEM education. In the same vein, it would be good to incorporate more STEM education into liberal arts education in order to combat scientific illiteracy. Instead of invoking "Two Cultures" scenarios and creating straw man arguments, educators of all fields need to collaborate in order to improve the overall quality of education.
At The Intersection of Math and Art
by Jonathan Kujawa
Human beings are tightly bound by the limits of our intuition and imagination. Even if we grasp an idea on an intellectual level, we often struggle to internalize it to the point where it becomes a native part of our thinking. Rather like the difference between being able to comfortably converse in a foreign language by translating on the fly and being fluent enough to think in the language like a native. Or, as the philosopher Stephen Colbert explained, it's the distinction between truth and truthiness.
We struggle to imagine things much different from what we see around us. This failure leads one in four Americans to believe the Sun goes around the Earth. It means we can't truly grasp the staggering, mind-boggling length of a billion years and this fuels skepticism about evolution. And for science fiction readers it leads to raging internet arguments about whether the authors have any imagination at all.
When it comes to geometry our everyday intuition tells us that we live in the planer geometry of good old Euclid. The angles of triangle add up to 180 degrees, parallel lines will never meet, and the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. But intellectually we know we live on the sphere called Earth, and that the geometry of the sphere leads to triangles whose angles sum to 230 degrees, parallel lines which meet, and flight paths between cities which follow "Great Circles".
Media portrayals to the contrary, mathematicians are human, too. From Euclid until the first half of the 19th century, everyone was on board with Euclidean geometry. After all, that was what their gut told them geometry should be. But then Bolyai and Lobachevsky showed us that there are more things in heaven and earth than Euclid could dream of. In two dimensions there are also hyperbolic and spherical (elliptic) geometry. In higher dimensions the possible geometries multiply like rabbits and Einstein's theory of relativity tells us that the geometry of our universe isn't Euclidean .
How can we free our feeble minds from their Euclidean prison and develop an intuition for these new geometries?
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries a niche industry developed in Germany to develop, build, and sell models of various geometric shapes in these new geometries. In a remarkable blend of mathematics, art, and craftsmanship, they built extraordinary models out of plaster, wood, metal, string, and other materials. Plücker, a famous mathematician in Bonn , was an early proponent of model building. The London Mathematical Society owns a set of 14 beautiful boxwood models designed by Plücker. The full collection can be viewed here, but I thought I should share my favorite:
Starting in the 1870s mathematical models were manufactured and commercially sold by several German firms. The mathematical, pedagogical, and aesthetic value of these models was quickly appreciated. As part of a demonstration of the high quality of German mathematics, Plücker's former student Felix Klein  organized an exhibition of German-made mathematical models for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
A good collection of models soon became de rigueur for any institution serious about research mathematics. Most universities have at least a few plaster models gathering dust in some display cabinet. But some institutions have truly remarkable collections. The Institut Henri Poincare in Paris, for example, has over 600 models!
In reading about the IHP's collection, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that mathematical models have made their mark in the art world. In the 1930s Max Ernst, Man Ray, and other surrealists took an interest in the IHP models. Man Ray, in particular, took a series of photos which he later used to inspire his "Shakespearean Equations" series of paintings. For example:
Images and text borrowed from the Experiment Station blog for the Phillips Collection. They are currently running an exhibit on Man Ray and his Shakespearean Equations series. If you're in Washington, DC you should check it out. Details here.
Even after nearly 100 years the original models are of considerable interest. Not only as mathematical objects, but as part of the history of science and as objects of art. People continue to study how they were designed, manufactured, and used. Just creating an accurate record of the various models and their mathematics is a monumental task. Here, for example, is the collection at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.
Something I find even more exciting is the recent resurgence in mathematical models. We're in a new golden era of model building. With computers and 3D printing we can design and build models which have a precision and intricacy beyond the wildest dreams of Klein and Co. Numerous mathematicians, designers, and artists are using new technologies to build beautiful objects which also embody cool mathematics.
A great example is the work of Henry Segerman and his collaborator Saul Schlemier. My department hosts an annual Math Day for local high school students. Last fall Henry (who is at a neighboring university) was kind enough to bring his 3D models to Math Day and explain the math and art behind his designs. Needless to say, Henry was a big hit! For example, he designed this cool model of stenographic projection:
Henry has also created intricate mathematical puzzles and interesting models of four dimensional geometric objects. And while it's true that three interlocking gears on a flat surface can never turn because one always blocks the other two, Henry showed with a working model that you can do it if you allow the gears to be placed in three dimensional space:
In a modern twist, for the cost of the 3D printing you can order a custom copy of Henry's models through his website.
If there is a rock star in the world of mathematical art it's surely Vi Hart. She is best known for her energetic YouTube videos . Vi is a self-described "recreational mathemusician" who builds all things mathematical: sculptures, music videos, video games, and more! Most intriguingly, for the past year she has put her considerable energy behind an open source research group called eleVR. They are developing tools to implement virtual reality. The technology is still a bit rough but the potential is amazing. At the moment they're still experimenting and making creepy videos straight out of a horror movie. But in a few years we will only be limited by what we can dream up. Imagine being able to manipulate and navigate your way through an exotic four dimensional geometry. Even the most seasoned geometer's intuition will be bent into knots!
 Worse, string theory predicts the universe has something like eleven dimensions with the majority of them tightly wound together to form one of the exotic geometries known as a Calabi-Yau space.
 In a happy coincidence I am enjoying the hospitality of the University of Bonn this week.
 Image borrowed from the LMS Plücker collection website.
 Of Klein bottle fame. The Klein bottle is a two-dimensional shape like a hollow sphere which, unlike the sphere, is unorientable. That is, there is no consistent way to establish a set of coordinates. The sphere has latitude and longitude but the Klein bottle has no such analogue. Even though it's only two dimensional, the Klein bottle cannot be placed in 3D space without causing self-intersections. It more naturally lives in 4+ dimensional space. With his brain wrestling with such fantastical geometric shapes, no wonder Klein was a fan of model building!
 Vi Hart's videos are great fun but those with a slow attention speed should fortify themselves with a double espresso first.
Gregory Holm, Matthew Radune. Ice House, Detroit. 2010.
In Dublin, beheading expositor speaks freely, potential victim censored
by Paul Braterman
"And if he insists on being killed … then at the end, by the authority of the ruling body, it's done."
Sheikh Kamal El Mekki, who expounds with apparent approval the law on beheading ex-Muslims, spoke this February at Trinity College Dublin. Maryam Namazie, equal law campaigner, ex-Muslim and prominent critic of political Islam, was, after agreeing to speak in March, presented with conditions impossible to accept. We know that El Mekki's talk went ahead without restrictions despite concerns expressed by the President of the Students Union. We know that Maryam's talk was cancelled, and by the College, not by her.
El Mekki is on video (embedded here; see also here), at an event organised by the AlMaghrib Institute (of which more below) in July 2011, describing how he explained to a Christian missionary the law about apostasy. The missionary was complaining because of his lack of success in Morocco, which he attributed to the law  against apostasy. In reply, El Mekki, visibly amused at the missionary's predicament, draws an analogy between apostasy and treason (a justification that when examined makes matters worse), and goes on to explain
It's not like somewhere you heard someone leaves Islam and you just go get him and stuff like that. First of all it's done by the authorities, there are procedures and steps involved. First of all they talk to him, yeah, about, yanni, the scholars refute any doubt that he has on the issue, they spend days with him refuting and arguing with him, trying to convince him. Then they might even, yanni, threaten him with the sword and tell him ‘You need to repent from this because if you don't you repent you will be killed.' And if he insists on being killed that means really, really believing in that. And then, after the procedures take their toll, and then at the end, by the authority of the ruling body, it's done.
"Yanni," a common interection in Arabic, means "kind of." I wonder how one "kind of" threatens someone with the sword. However, we are left with the impression that El Mekki would be opposed to recent well-publicised Jihadist beheadings, not out of any objection to beheading as such, but because of failure to conform to the proper procedures.
An on-line search also led me to here, where you can see El Mekki explaining why amputation is a more humane form of punishment than imprisonment.
Sheikh El Mekki's response to criticism was reported by the student newspaper. He said that the clip had been taken out of context and was an excerpt from a 39-hour course in which apostasy is dealt with twice, and wrote
[In the clip,] I first deal with the issue from the historical standpoint as you have seen, and then I revisit the issue for the sole purpose of explaining to students that apostasy law is not something that we advocate, nor is it something that we are trying to revive or practice. You will be surprised how many people I've met while I was the chaplain at George Mason University, who thought they had the right to carry out that law in America…. I believe the best way to stop extremism is through moderate Muslims and Imams speaking against it." (For the full text of El Mekki's statement, see Footnote .)
I leave it to readers to evaluate this claim to be a moderate in the light of his views on amputation and beheading.
El Mekki spoke at Trinity on February 25 at an event, open to all, jointly organised by the Muslim Students Association and a body called the alMaghrib Institute; for one of many critiques from within Islam of this Insititute's strict Salafism, see here. (Salafism is a rigid, fundamentalist, anti-intellectual form of Islam, closely related to the Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia.) This is the same Institute that had earlier hosted his remarks on beheading and amputation. It has branches in 12 countries, including the US, the UK, Ireland, Australia and Canada. and offers its own degree and diplomas, the curriculum for which includes a module on "Signs of the last day", which are "All Around Us".
Trinity News, the excellent student newspaper, reported that eight students had expressed concerns over El Mekki's visit, among them the President of the Student Union, and an ex-Muslim student who is not willing to be named because of the implications for his own safety. However, Joseph O'Gorman, strategic development officer for the Central Societies Committee (CSC), told McGlacken-Byrne that he "cannot see why there can even be a discussion about cancelling the event or not". According to the CSC web page , Mr O'Gorman
is responsible for the development of the CSC's long term strategy. The SDO [Strategic Development officer, i.e., currently, O'Gorman] ensures that the support that the CSC gives societies matches their needs as much as possible. The SDO works with the College Civic Development Officer and the Dean of Students to ensure that College neither forgets the importance of societies to the well-being of students and of the College nor that societies exist for students not for College's own strategic aims. The SDO is responsible for the training and mentoring of the CSC Executive and Officers.
Maryam Namazie (shown R at the Council of ex-Muslims of Britain's 5th anniversary meeting) is an
outspoken ex-Muslim, vocal opponent of the creeping institutionalisation of Sharia law in British society, and well-known activist on behalf of freedom of thought, women's rights, and human rights in general. (I have written here before about her role in the successful campaign to persuade London's Law Society to withdraw its ill-judged guidance on the drafting of Sharia-based wills.) She was invited to speak at Trinity College Dublin on March 23rd, and the event was openly advertised by Maryam and on the inviting society's Facebook page.
I've just been informed, however, that college security (why security?) has claimed that the event would show the college is "one-sided" and would be "antagonising" to "Muslim students"; they threatened to cancel my talk. After further consultation with college management, they have decided to "allow" the event to go ahead with the following conditions:
* All attendants of the event must be 1) Trinity students and 2) members of the society hosting the talk.
* For "balance", they require that a moderator host the event; Prof. Andrew Pierce of the Irish School of Ecumenics has kindly agreed to do so.
I, however, will not be submitting to any conditions, particularly since such conditions are not usually placed on other speakers.
I intend to speak on Monday as initially planned without any restrictions and conditions and ask that TCD give me immediate assurances that I will be able to do so.
Dr Andrew Pierce is an Assistant Professor in Ecumenics, and Course Co-Ordinator of the M.Phil. in Intercultural Theology & Interreligious Studies. It is not clear whether he was aware that he had been invited to moderate behind Maryam's back. If he was not aware, he should say so. If he was aware, he has betrayed his academic calling by colluding in this disgraceful episode.
It is worth reiterating that, although the ostensive issue was security, Noel McCann, the TCD Facilities Officer, told one of the students involved in organising the event that Maryam's talk would (unlike El Mekki's?) show the college as "one-sided" and would be "antagonising" to "Muslim students". He also asked how "could she come and say whatever she wants without a moderator" and "with half the world knowing about it". He also threatened to cancel the talk and said that he was meeting with "highest management of Trinity" to discuss whether the event would be "allowed" to go ahead.
On learning that Maryam refused to accept these conditions, Trinity revoked the invitation, while leaving the student society involved and Trinity News under the impression that it was Maryam who had withdrawn.
In truth, Maryam remains eager to speak at TCD, as initially arranged and without imposed conditions, and has said so repeatedly.
So there we have it. According to TCD's criteria, it is legitimate for a college society to host, at an open meeting, someone who gives every impression of approving the idea of cutting Maryam's head off, provided due procedures are followed. However, Maryam herself is such a dangerous character that her presence requires a moderator, and the well-being of students demands that only members of the society that had invited her be exposed to her opinions.
I am sending Prof Pierce, Joseph O'Gorman, and Noel McCann copies of this piece, and invite their comments.
Disclosure: I have met Maryam and we have corresponded several times. I have not met or corresponded with any of the other individuals named here.
1] Laws Criminalizing Apostasy in Selected Jurisdictions (Law Library of Congress, May 2014) reports that
Morocco does not impose the death penalty against apostates under the provisions of its Penal Code. However, in April 2013, the Supreme Council of Religious Scholars issued a religious decree (fatwa) that Moroccan Muslims who leave Islam must be sentenced to death. Religious decrees are significant because Islam is the official state religion under article 3 of the Moroccan Constitution of 2011.54 Additionally, under article 41 of the Constitution, the Supreme Council of Religious Scholars "is the sole instance enabled [habilitée] to comment [prononcer] on religious consultations (Fatwas)."
Apostasy is explicitly punishable by death according to the legal codes of Afghanistan, Brunei, Mauritania, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. In Maryam's native Iran,
While Iranian law does not provide for the death penalty for apostasy, the courts can hand down that punishment, and have done so in previous years, based on their interpretation of Sharia’a law and fatwas (legal opinions or decrees issued by Islamic religious leaders).
2] This, posted by a student on Facebook, is the fullest version I could find of El Mekki's explanation:
That clip you watched was a five-minute excerpt from a 39 hour course in which apostasy is dealt with twice. I first deal with the issue from a historical standpoint as you have seen, and then I revisit the issue for the sole purpose of explaining to students that apostasy law is not something that we advocate, nor is it something that we are trying to revive or practise. You will be surprised how many people I've met while I was the chaplain at George Mason University, who felt they had the right to carry out that law! I believe that part of my responsibility as an educator is to work against any aspect that may lead to the radicalisation of Muslims. I have an entire course where one of the main themes is that bringing Sharia Law to the west has never been one of the objectives of Islam. At the end of the day, you find yourself attacked by Jihadi's [sic] and extremists on the one end, and misquoted by those who have other agendas on the other. I make the above points crystal clear to students, but I have no control over which clips people isolate and pulled on the internet; and definitely no control over those who purposely take them out of context! Extremism is something that needs to be dealt with, yet those who deal with it in the Muslim communities are misquoted and made to appear as the ones that should be stopped from speaking. Doesn't seem conducive to ending the problems that plague us! I will continue to be vocal and speak and critique what is wrong. I have not spared any one or group that advocates violence and that is what all our [the al-Maghribi Institute's] instructors continue to do.
(I would invite readers to watch the clips in question, if they wish to evaluate this explanation.)
Illegibility And Its Anxieties
"I would like to understand things better,
but I don't want to understand them perfectly."
~ Douglas Hofstadter, Metamagical Themas
A few weeks ago I went to an evening of presentations by startups working in the artificial intelligence field. By far the most interesting was a group that for several years had been quietly working on using AI to create a new compression algorithm for video. While this may seem to be a niche application, their work in fact responds to a pressing need. As demand for video streaming, first in high definition and increasingly in formats such as 4K, hopelessly outruns the buildout of new infrastructure, there is a commensurate need for ever-greater ratios of compression of video data. It is the only viable way to keep up with the reqirements of video streaming, and companies such as Netflix are willing to pay boatloads of cash for the best technologies. But the presentation also crystallized some interesting and important aspects of AI that go well beyond not just niche applications, but the alarmist predictions of people like Steven Hawking, Elon Musk and Bill Gates. What are we really creating here?
This startup, bankrolled by a former currency trader who, as founder and CEO, was the one giving the talk, has engaged in a three-step development program. The first step involved feeding their AI – charmingly named Rita – with every single video compression algorithm already in use, and having it (her?) cherry-pick the best aspects of each. The ensuing Franken-algorithm has already been tested and confirmed to provide lossless compression at a rate of 75%, which is already best in its class. The second step in their program, which is currently in development, charges Rita with the taking the results of everything learned in the first step, and creating its own algorithm. The expectation is that they will reach up to 90% compression, which is really rather extraordinary.
So far, so good. The final step of the program – one which expects to yield a mind-boggling 99% compression ratio – is where things get really interesting. For Rita's creators are now ‘entrusting her' (I know, the more you talk about AI, the more hopeless it is to attempt avoiding anthropomorphization) with the task of creating her own programming language that will be solely dedicated to video compression. There was an appreciative gasp in the room when the CEO outlined this brave next step, and during the Q&A I wanted him to explain more about what this meant.
The exchange went something like this:
Me: Ok, so I understand the first two steps. People have been using techniques of fitness selection to evolve algorithms in ways that humans could not design or even anticipate. Also, there is no reason why an AI couldn't evolve its own algorithm, given a well-defined outcome and enough inputs. But this last step – the creation of an entirely new, purpose-built language, for one purpose only – is this a language that will then be available to human programmers via some sort of interface?
CEO: No. It will be a black box. We won't know how Rita came to design what she did, or how it works. Just that it does what it needs to do.
Me, stammering: But…but…how do you feel about that?
Random guy in the audience: How does he feel about it? He feels pretty good! After all, he's a shareholder.
At which point the entire room erupted in laughter.
It became quickly apparent that the intent of my question was misconstrued, however, since the discussion then turned to what always seems to be the elephant in the room when it comes to AI research: What are the moral implications of surrendering our agency, of which this seemed to be a prime example? The usual suspects were trotted out – Skynet, the Matrix, HAL9000, blah blah blah. (They could have also included Colossus: The Forbin Project, a 1970 sci-fi thriller along the same lines, whose stills I include here). But my point wasn't about whether or how we ought best welcome our new robotic overlords. Rather, it was about legibility. What happens when we create things, that then go ahead and create other things that we don't understand, or even have access to? More to the point, what is lost?
Arguably, this signifies an inversion of what is understood as ‘progress', at least in an epistemological sense. For example, plant and animal breeders have refined and elaborated breeds to bring out desirable traits (drought resistance, hunting skills, cuteness) for hundreds, if not thousands of years, without knowing the underlying genetic principles. The identification of DNA as the enabling epistemological substrate of this program has rapidly accelerated these activities, but this has only added to the general illumination of these previously known processes. Genetically modified organisms fall into this category, even if the eventual consequences do not. What AIs such as Rita are empowered to effect, on the other hand, is a deliberately sponsored obfuscation of these processes of knowing. The implied trajectory is that we are willing to create tools that will help us do more things in the world, but that in the process we strike a somewhat Faustian bargain, pleased to arrive at our destination but forfeiting the knowledge of how we got there.
Now, I want to be clear that I am not at all interested in making a moral argument. Unlike what Hollywood would have us believe, there seems little point in arguing whether AIs will turn out to be good or evil. Such anxieties are more redolent of our narcissistic desire to feel threatened by apocalypses of our own manufacture (eg, nuclear war) than a genuine willingness to think through what it might mean for a machine intelligence to be authentically evil, or good, or – which is much more likely – something in between. And the above exchange with the startup's CEO illustrates the blithe manner in which capital will always perform an end-run around these considerations. "Being a shareholder" is sufficient justification for the illegibility of the final outcome, with the further implication that we should all be so lucky as to be shareholders in such enterprises.
Rather, any moral argument should be understood as a proxy for how alien any given technology may seem to us. Perhaps our tendency to assign it a moral status is more indicative of how unsure we are about the role it may play in society. The operational inscrutability of an AI (and not, I should emphasize, its ‘motivations') make the possible consequences so unpredictable that we may seek to legislate its right to exist, and the easiest means for enabling a legislative act is to locate it on a moral continuum.
The use of the word ‘legislate' is appropriate here, since what we are attempting to do is to, quite literally, make the technology and its action in society legible to us. Linguistically, both words share the same Latin root, legere. And if we cannot make the phenomenon of AI legible, then we may at least quarantine its actions and sphere of influence. In William Gibson's novel Neuromancer, this was the remit of the Turing Registry, which enforced an uneasy peace between AIs, the corporations that run them, and the world at large:
The Turing Registry, named after the father of modern computing, operates out of Geneva. Turing is technically not a megacorp, but instead a registry, and the closest thing to a body of government as far as artificial intelligences are concerned. The Turing Registry exists to keep corporations who use AIs and the AIs themselves in check. Every AI in existence, whether directly connected to the matrix or not, must be registered with Turing to enjoy the full rights of an AI. AIs registered with Turing enjoy Swiss citizenship, though the hardware itself that contains the 'soul' is connected to enough explosives to incapacitate the being. Any AI suspected of attempting to remove this device, escape Turing control, or enhance itself without proper Turing approval is controlled immediately.
Aside from the delicious detail that AIs are Swiss citizens (hey, it's not just corporations that can be people), what Gibson indicates to us is that the battle for legibility, in an epistemological sense, is already lost. Pre-emptively quarantining and, failing that, blowing up miscreant AIs is the best that the inhabitants of Neuromancer can hope for. Of course, the narrative arc of the novel concerns precisely this: the protean manner in which an AI attempts to transcend this restricted state. And Gibson implies that humanity, with its toxic mix of curiosity, greed and anthropomorphizing tendencies, is all too willing to be enlisted in this task.
And yet, to a large extent AI as the container par excellence for these anxieties is just a red herring, for this kind of illegibility is already rampant. Superficially, we seem to require a locus – a concrete something to which we can point and say "That's an AI" – that then becomes the appointed site for these anxieties. In this sense we are content to believe that, when we saw Watson clobbering his fellow contestants on Jeopardy!, the AI is ‘located' behind a lectern, with his hapless human competitors standing side-by-side behind their own lecterns: a level playing field if there ever was one. Our imagination does not accede to the notion that Watson is a large bank of computers located off-stage, in a different state, even, and ministered to by a team of highly trained scientists and engineers.
In fact, AI is not at all needed to fulfill the anxieties of illegibility. It certainly ‘embodies' those anxieties successfully, despite its own distinct lack of embodiment, by playing on the idea that an AI is something that is kind of like us, but isn't us, but perhaps wants to become more like us, until in the end it becomes something decidedly not like us at all, at which point it will already be too late (see: Hollywood). Except the traces of illegibility are already ubiquitous, in the form of algorithms that may not fall under the rubric of AI but certainly instigate a cascade of events that correspond to what we would identify as AI-like consequences.
Consider this 2011 talk by developer and designer Kevin Slavin (you can get the Cliffs Notes version in his TED Talk): the fact that, at the time, about 70% of all stock trading was driven by algorithms buy and selling shares to other algorithms. Sure, computer scientists would tweak things here and there, but the cumulative effect of unassisted trading has led to some extraordinary outcomes. Most dramatically, the Flash Crash of 2010, which saw the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunge about 9% in a matter of minutes and on no news at all, was likely precipitated by a few rogue algorithms. In the absence of substantive regulation, the markets have learned to live with daily flash crashes.
The financial markets do not hold a monopoly on unintended consequences, however. Slavin also gives further examples of Algorithms Gone Wild with a funny anecdote concerning a biology textbook that was listed on Amazon initially at $1.7 million, only to have the price rise, in a few hours, to $23.6 million, which was odd because the book is out of print, and therefore no one was either selling or buying it. To Slavin, these are "algorithms locked in loops with each other", engaging in a form of silent combat. Critical to this point is that, while these developments occur at lightning speeds, the disambiguation, if humans even choose to pursue it, takes much longer. In the case of the Flash Crash, it took the SEC five months to issue its report, which was heavily criticized. To this day, there is no consensus on what actually happened in the markets that day. As for the biology textbook, it lives on merely as an anecdote for TED audiences.
So the consequences of an AI-like world are, in fact, here already. To invite AIs into the party is more or less beside the point. Our world has become so deeply driven by software that our capacity to ‘read' what we have created is already substantially, and, in all likelihood, permanently eroded. That this has happened only gradually and in subtle, nearly invisible ways has made it that much more dificult to realize. In this sense, AI, or at least a certain way of thinking about AI, may provide an interesting counterpoint.
If one goes back to its roots, AI research sought to understand intelligence as it existed in the world already, and take that learning and bring it in silico. That this has so far failed – despite substantial progress in the brain sciences – is uncontroversial and well understood. In parallel, the precipitous decline in the costs of computing, bandwidth and storage have enabled the rise of probabilistic approaches to intelligence, rather than behavioral ones, hence the primacy of the algortihm. As Ali Minai, professor at the University of Cincinnati, writes:
AI, invented by computer scientists, lived long with the conceit that the mind was ‘just computation' – and failed miserably. This was not because the idea was fundamentally erroneous, but because ‘computation' was defined too narrowly. Brilliant people spent lifetimes attempting to write programs and encode rules underlying aspects of intelligence, believing that it was the algorithm that mattered rather than the physics that instantiated it. This turned out to be a mistake. Yes, intelligence is computation, but only in the broad sense that all informative physical interactions are computation - the kind of ‘computation' performed by muscles in the body, cells in the bloodstream, people in societies and bees in a hive.
Minai goes on to equate intelligence with ‘embodied behavior in a specific environment'. What I find promising about this line of inquiry is its modesty, but also its ambition. If we begin from the premise that life has done a pretty fine job in not just evolving behavioral intelligence, but in doing so sustainably, this is a paradigm that leads us to a certain way of looking at not just the kind of work machine intelligence can do, but the place that it also ought to occupy, in relation to all the things that are already in the world. This is simply due to the fact that this kind of intelligence is can only exist based on embodiment. In contrast, the bare algorithms running around in financial markets or anywhere else are much more akin to viruses.
I do not know if it is possible to actually create a machine intelligence based on these principles – after all, this is something that has eluded computer and cognitive scientists for decades and continues to do so. But I do believe that such an intelligence will be more legible to us, even if its internal workings remain inscrutable, because our relationship to it will be based on behavior. If Minai's school of thought has merit, this may well be a saving grace. On the other hand, if there is any substantial danger posed by AI, it comes from an utter lack of constraint or connection to the physical world. The issue is whether we as a society will offer ourselves any choice in the matter.
by Brooks Riley
Sexual Assault on Campus: A Response to Laura Kipnis
by Kathleen Goodwin
At the end of February, Laura Kipnis, a professor in the Department of Radio/TV/Film at Northwestern University, authored a piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled "Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe" which explores the ban some schools have placed on sexual relationships between students and professors and how it relates to the current atmosphere regarding sexual assault on college campuses. Kipnis is funny and perceptive, and I find her essay troubling precisely because I agree with many of her points at the same time that I find some aspects of her argument to be problematic because she fails to acknowledge overarching problems with gender dynamics among college students. I admire Kipnis for writing about a topic that, as she points out, most professors are too terrified to comment on. However Kipnis does not seem to recognize that female students today continue to feel disenfranchised in comparison to their male peers and that sexual assault is just one tangible way the unequal power dynamic plays out. Ridiculing her students and university administrators as paranoid is counter-productive to a dialogue on college sexual assault that has only been given the beginning of its due in the public consciousness.
I don't feel, as some Northwestern students do, that it is the responsibility of the University to condemn Kipnis's article. I respect the students' right to disagree with Kipnis and respond to her opinions; however, as Michelle Goldberg points out in The Nation, "Kipnis could hardly have invented a response that so neatly proved her argument…the demands for official censure, the claims of emotional injury—demonstrated how correct she is about the broader climate." One of Kipnis's central points is that conflating sexual assault between students with sexual relationships between professors and students reveals how misguided college administrators have become when it comes to handling sexual issues on campus. While many administrators used to try to sweep cases of sexual assault under the proverbial rug, the pendulum has swung so far that they now seek to regulate relationships between consenting adults.
Which leads to another one of Kipnis's points— it appears that both administrators and students themselves believe that undergraduates are not adults capable of engaging with the realities of the world. Kipnis brings up the example of the relationship of a 21 year old Stanford student, Ellie Clougherty and a 29 year old Silicon Valley entrepreneur, Joe Lonsdale, as reported in the New York Times Magazine in February. The two dated for a year and after they broke up Clougherty accused Lonsdale of "psychological kidnapping" and asked that Stanford launch an investigation into her allegations of his sexual misconduct. It is undeniable that there were a number of problematic aspects of the relationship— Lonsdale was both significantly older and wealthier than Clougherty and had been assigned as her mentor in a Stanford class before they began dating. However, as Kipnis observes, in Clougherty's narrative of the events, "She seems to regard herself as a helpless child in a woman's body…No doubt some 21-year-olds are fragile and emotionally immature (helicopter parenting probably plays a role), but is this now to be our normative conception of personhood? A 21-year-old incapable of consent?"
Kipnis encourages students to view themselves as adults and to take responsibility for their decisions, rather than requiring their college to regulate their environment. I agree with her that current parenting techniques and college administrators seem to be preventing students from considering themselves fully grown adults who are both empowered and responsible for their decisions. With the example of relationships between students and professors she observes:
"Which isn't to say that teacher-student relations were guaranteed to turn out well, but then what percentage of romances do? No doubt there were jealousies, sometimes things didn't go the way you wanted—which was probably good training for the rest of life. It was also an excellent education in not taking power too seriously, and I suspect the less seriously you take it, the more strategies you have for contending with it."
Kipnis points out that power dynamics will continue to be difficult to maneuver once in the professional world and that shielding students from that reality is inauthentic and ultimately does them a disservice. While this may be true when it comes to consensual relationships, Kipnis doesn't explore how unequal power also presents an opportunity for sexual assault. The situations that precipitate students sexually assaulting their peers, can often be traced to gender inequality on campus—something I doubt Kipnis believes is "good training for the rest of life." It should be possible for students to consider themselves accountable adults and for colleges to create an environment where they are educated to fight the inequality of the wider world, rather than allowing the replication of unequal power distribution on campus among students.
I also agree with Kipnis's related argument that a consequence of the current atmosphere is that female students perpetually view themselves as vulnerable and there is an emphasis on victimhood. As she writes, "The feminism I identified with as a student stressed independence and resilience. In the intervening years, the climate of sanctimony about student vulnerability has grown too thick to penetrate; no one dares question it lest you're labeled antifeminist." While there should be a renewed focus on empowering female students instead of encouraging them to think of themselves as victims, I think Kipnis, who was born in 1958, fails to recognize the generational difference that created this issue in the first place. Her generation of women did not expect to be considered the full equals of men—whether it be in an academic setting, in the workforce, or maybe even in a marriage. Instead they fought to achieve equality themselves. However, many women in my generation, the one that is currently college-age, went through childhood and adolescence believing that we would no longer face the barriers our mothers had allegedly overcome. Many of us arrived on campus to find that we may be proportionally overrepresented as students, but we continue to face both institutionalized and hidden obstacles that prevent us from the enfranchisement that our male peers enjoy.
In academia, we find few female role models as tenured professors, especially in STEM departments and we are less likely to receive responses from professors when we seek mentors. In class, we are called on less frequently than our male classmates and interrupted by them when we do speak. As I've written on 3QD before, these inequities are even more stark on weekends when on many campuses social gatherings and access to alcohol are overwhelmingly controlled by male-only organizations where women require the favor of their male peers in order to participate.
Kipnis is correct that attitudes toward sexual assault are in some cases devolving into melodrama and narratives of victimhood. Rather than empowering women to combat the inequality that enables sexual assault, it seems that the current lens is infantilizing them and in some ways disempowering them further. However, her essay fails to recognize that many women on college campuses today continue to feel as if their power is limited and feminism has evolved into something different than it was when she was a student as a reaction to that reality. Both faculty and administrators have a responsibility to acknowledge the stunted successes of second-wave feminism and continue to work to foster environments where men and women are given equal opportunities and advantages.
Fragments from Firefly
A candle among the roses
In the garden
A shooting star
A loop of the moon's robe
A speck in the sun's hem
In and out of eclipse
Consul of day
In night's kingdom
Unknown at home
Lucid in exile
Unlike the moth
The firefly is light
Song is the nightingale's scent
Scent is song of the rose
Rose's scent is the firefly's radiance
by Rafiq Kathwari, whose book of poems, In Another Country, is scheduled for
publication in September 2015 by Doire Press, Ireland. More work here.
The Flavors of Home: The Art of Comfort Food
by Dwight Furrow
When we eat, if we pay attention at all, we focus on the pleasures of flavor and texture. But some meals have a larger significance that provokes memory and imagination. So it is with comfort food--the filling, uncomplicated, soft, and digestible comestibles that haunt our consciousness with thoughts of security, calm, nourishment, and being cared for, especially when triggered by memories of the flavors of home.
Apple pie, ice cream, chocolate cake, macaroni and cheese, chicken soup-their smell and taste can unfetter a flood of memories because our brains are wired to associate good feelings with specific flavors and aromas, especially when the flavors are fat, salt and sugar. In the face of such powerful stimuli, we succumb helplessly to the endorphin cascade. The foods of home have such a grip on us that we go to a great deal of trouble to bring our food with us when we travel. The spread of various foodstuffs throughout the world was made possible by armies, both military and migrant, determined to carry the taste of home with them. A visit to any ethnic market in a major city reveals the importance of these taste memories to our sense of well-being.
Home cooking has this significance because meals are as much about relationships as they are about food. Unlike other animals, we do not eat when food is available. We dine at particular times, in particular ways, and with particular table mates. Families interact around the kitchen table and are defined by the small daily rituals of gathering, preparing, and consuming food. Meals bring families together physically and emotionally and the tastes and smells become associated with the achievement of social solace and acceptance. "Homeyness", for want of a more elegant word, may be the most powerful and persistent meaning that attaches to food. Thus, the simplistic claim that food lacks meaning is obviously false. Mom's apple pie is as meaningful as anything in life for some of us.
But does comfort food have the kind of meaning that works of art have?
Do specific comfort foods represent home in the same sense that the Mona Lisa represents a woman with an enigmatic smile? Many philosophers argue that meanings associated with food are quite different from meanings associated with art. According to this skeptical argument, mom's apple pie means "homeyness" because it was made by mom, with love and care, and it was eaten on many occasions when the family was together, bonds were reinforced, and family rituals enacted. But these family bonds are facts external to the pie. They give mom's apple pie meaning but they are not "in the pie" in the way that flavor and texture are "in the pie". The taste of the pie itself does not confer these meanings; the story of one's family and home life, the context, confers the meaning. Without knowing the context, one could not "read off" the pie, the meanings relevant to home and family. Taste and smell trigger feelings and thoughts of home, but those tastes and smells have meaning, not because they are intrinsically connected to homes, but because there is a history that associates them with a particular home. The taste of warm apple, cinnamon, and baked, buttery crust does not mean "home" in the way that, for instance, the swirling brush strokes and the placement of characters in Munch's The Scream mean alienation.
This skeptical argument is right about some cases. I once had a Hawaiian acquaintance who professed a love for poi--the Hawaiian staple made from fermented taro root that gives the taste of library paste a bad name--because it reminded him so powerfully of home. Perhaps, any flavor flavor profile could trigger thoughts of home if it is associated with the people and rituals of one's home, which suggests that flavor is not essential to meaning. But this is not always the case and I doubt that it is typically the case.
I will use my own experience as an example. While I recognize that data is not the plural of anecdote, my aim in using this example is not so much to prove my point but to encourage readers to think about whether their experience resonates with mine. In my home, the dish that has always signified "homeyness" is macaroni and cheese made from a recipe originally gleaned from an old Fanny Farmer cookbook, although I have modified and refined it over many years. This is not a special occasion dish; no charged emotional episodes heighten its significance. It is just a supper dish. Yet, when it is on the menu, it is met by much anticipation, consumed with glee, and followed with much remonstration about whether I got it right or not this time. I have it on good authority--namely my wife and son--that the meaning of this dish is utterly dependent on its aesthetic properties. The precise flavor and textural characteristics explain why this dish has acquired its symbolic significance for us. But aside from this expert testimony, there is good evidence that it is flavor and texture that matter. Many other dishes I have made under similar circumstances do not acquire this significance, and I have made other versions of macaroni and cheese, with different flavors and textures characteristics, that are met with much less enthusiasm. There is something particular to this flavor and texture profile that explains its "homeyness". Thus, it is apparent that the aesthetic properties--flavor and texture--are generating meaning, despite the skeptical argument articulated above.
What is it about this dish that symbolizes "home"? As I noted above, there are generic features of comfort food that conventionally signify comfort. The macaroni is soft and, with the cheese, forms a homogeneous mass which indicates security because there is nothing fussy, challenging, or complicated about it. The fat, protein, and bulky carbs are stick-to-the-ribs filling indicating nourishment, and the fat and saltiness of the cheese give plenty of stimulation to the pleasure centers of the brain. The addition of apple, an unusual ingredient in macaroni and cheese, contributes sweetness which conventionally signifies "the good life". These qualities tend to mean "comfort food" which has obvious connotations to the home. They are conventional symbols much like a dove that represents peace or a star that represents hope in a painting.
The flavor and texture profile of this dish came together over many years and is the result of an intention to satisfy the preferences of my family. Importantly, the care with which a dish is conceived and executed is indicated by the aesthetic features internal to the dish--especially the precision of the execution and the balance of flavors and textures. These features can be tasted. Yet they are not merely flavors--they have meaning because they lend themselves to interpretation. They mean "homeyness" because they highlight, exemplify, the care and attention characteristic of home cooks. Of course, precision of execution and fineness of conception do not always indicate the kind of care associated with the home. A well-trained restaurant chef can conceive and execute a dish while being utterly indifferent to diners. But in the context of home cooking, with limited time, money, and other factors placing constraints on a commitment to cooking, fineness of conception and precision of execution are plausibly interpreted as signifying a commitment to the quality of home life. Love and care are not "in the dish" in the way flavor and texture are "in the dish". But they are contextual features that help interpret precision of execution and fineness of conception, which are in the dish, as indicators of the love and care associated with the home. Thus, precision of execution and fineness of conception are symbols of love and care in this context.
The third, and perhaps most important reason for thinking the flavor and texture profile of this dish means "homeyness" is that they represent a shared sensibility. All members of my immediate family find this particular dish extraordinarily satisfying. The dish not only refers to this shared sensibility but exemplifies it, represents it, and highlights it. The flavors display our shared sensibility just as the swirling brush strokes and juxtapositions of characters in The Scream not only indicate alienation but demonstrate it.
This notion of a shared sensibility is important enough to dwell on for a moment. Maria Lugones in her widely reprinted essay "'Playfulness, "World"-Travelling, and Loving Perception'" writes that there are four ways of being at ease in a "world". You can be at ease in a "world" because you are a fluent speaker of the language or agree with the norms that operate in that "world". In addition, you can be at ease in a "world" if you are bonded by love to other members of that world, or share a history with them. But in her account of why she is incapable of being playful in certain "worlds" she enters, she leaves out an important dimension of being at ease or "at home". That dimension is a shared sensibility, shared "at easeness" with the physicality of what surrounds us. Nothing indicates "homeyness" more than the familiarity of surfaces--the precise way the wind nips at the collar while doing chores in the late afternoon or the hand traces the contours of a porch railing, the wisdom of feet navigating without inhibition through a darkened basement, or perhaps most saliently the taste and smells of a familiar kitchen. Comfort food operates as a kind of synecdoche symbolizing the fullness of familiar sensations that constitute our dwelling in a particular place and with the people with whom we share a life. But this is precisely what (some) art does. It puts us in touch with the elements of sensation, makes us aware of how these elements can be distinguished, separated, combined and re-combined to form the possible worlds that we inhabit.
The home is one small part of that larger world which artists are drawn to explore. But it is a part that is of a distinctly human scale which the edible arts are (uniquely?) well-equipped to explore. I don't mean to suggest that all comfort foods that signify "homeyness" are works of art--the goals of the home cook are typically different from those of an artist. But this argument does suggest that some of the meanings that attach to food have the kind of meaning we associate with art, and that the differences between edible arts and fine arts are practical, not theoretical.
For more ruminations on the philosophy of food visit Edible Arts.
by Tamuira Reid
"The world can't just fucking stop. It's ridiculous. We need to move on from this." It's a week after the Ferguson ruling and Beverley sits across from me, poking ice cubes in her empty cocktail glass with a straw. I don't like her but I'm trying. There's no one else to talk to here. They're all too drunk to care anymore.
"I mean, like, leave art alone. The movies, TV, sports even. Every time anything bad happens in this country it just shuts off. We need dumb stuff, too. I need my Scandal. And my boys need some fucking baseball, yeah? Not CNN all day. ESPN!" She pauses to pull her long red hair into a messy knot on top of her head. Lighting a cigarette, she takes a deep concentrated drag, as if to illustrate the intensity of what she's saying.
"Every magazine, every radio station – all of it. Consumed by racism and hate crimes. I get it, okay? It's not like I don't care about the people that die," she shakes her head wildly from side to side, striking an uncanny resemblance to a bobblehead doll. "Of course I care about those guys. But, like, why oppress the rest of us, you know? Life needs to go on."
I begin to wonder how many crap movies, Lifetime specials, 60 Minutes segments will come out of this newest tragedy. What the profit margin will be. It's perfect Hollywood fodder.
"Watch," Beverley continues. "Every awards show next year will have some fucking tribute to this. Some stupid montage, slow-mo crime scene shit."
It becomes clear to me that Beverley is more obsessed with the impact of racial injustice on popular culture than anything else. This obsession seems to be fueled by another; chain-smoking some obscene little white cigarette, the skinny kind the trendy girls smoked in the bathroom of my high school.
"Censorship. Denying the public access to culture. That's the true crime here. That's where it's really at. I turn on the TV and it's nothing but old assholes in bad suits talking about this cop and that man and this fucking gun and this fucked-up town. It gets sooo old after a while, you know?" I don't.
Her voice carries to all four corners of the room and someone applauds her sentiment. "Fuck the fucking news!"
I think about my four year-old son back at home. How, without fail, he will approach any cop -- on the street, in the train station, at a diner -- and smile, say Hi and Good job, guys. He still believes, without absolute faith and certainty, that those in positions of power are helpers. That those in positions of power use all their superhero skills for good.
I'm in a college dive bar with kids light years younger than me. I swapped vodka for fake beer years ago and sip on club soda tonight. Sometimes the loneliness of my occupation, writer, pushes me out of the apartment and into places like this, with people like Beverley. I feel out of place and worried, worried that that humanity is going to Hell in a hand basket, as my grandmother used to say. Worried because my family is on the other side of the country and I am forgetting what they look like, feel like. Worried that an entire police force let a bullet-riddled teenager lay in the middle of a hot Missouri street for four hours before moving him into an SUV. Where's the ambulance, I remember thinking. Where's the fucking ambulance?
A tall, lanky twenty-something with heavy eyes and a serious slouch, invites himself to join us. "What a sad, sad world, huh?" he says, barely audible over the jukebox. "I mean, Jesus, how sad can things get?"
He's just way too deep for me, but Bev takes the bait.
"You fucking said it," she sighs, her body rising then slowly melting back into her seat. "Amen to that. A travesty. That's what this all is. A big old American travesty."
Our visitor introduces himself as Chad, and asks Beverley to play pool. "Oh God, yes," she sort of squeals, swinging her legs out from underneath the table. I watch them saunter off to the back of the room, arms wrapping around waists. I almost wish some stupid guy would come sit close to me, invite me over to his house for a night of meaningless, probably shitty sex. But then I realize I'm not even up for that. I don't want anybody to touch me.
High-fives are being given, lighters flickering in the dark. Marvin Gaye's voice pours like silk into the air, What's going on? Yeah, What's going on?
Patrons gravitate towards the bar for last call, pressing up against each other, sweaty and wanting. Whipping out wads of cash and waving their hands in the air.
"Shut up for a sec," he orders over the chaos, shooing them away with a quick gesture of his hand.
"Gimme a pint of Bass."
"Bottle of Bud."
"I want something sweet."
He ignores them and turns up the television above the bar. The image of Michael Brown's grieving mother. The image of Michael Brown in a cap and gown. Darren Wilson's clear white face. And a hush falls over the room. For a moment we are left breathless.
If colors could talk, a scented talk...
by Shadab Zeest Hashmi
WRITING IS ALL ABOUT EXTENDING: When I was a child, I heard the story of the scholar jinn disguised as a boy, who once extended his arm all the way to the end of the palace courtyard to reach his ink pot, thus exposing his identity to his human tutor and risking rejection. Was he that absorbed in what he wrote, how he wrote? The tutor forgave his pupil’s deceptive guise on the grounds of his deep attention to the work at hand.
BEFORE LITERATURE, CAME WRITING: Penmanship was a dying art even in my school days, but luckily I learned to use a traditional bamboo pen at home; forming letters of the Nastaliq script of Urdu in jet-black ink. Layering the hand held wooden board with white clay paste, drying it in the sun, and writing with a reed pen that needed to be filled every few minutes, was messy and frustrating. As I fumbled with the materials, I began to acknowledge the muscles that are engaged in the physical work of writing. Forming letters became a fascinating study of lines and curves, symmetry and alignment. Soon I began to have a deeper appreciation for the calligraphic pieces hanging in the house. I noticed how well the artists conformed to rules and how gracefully they deviated, playing with form to create visual effects that influenced the meaning of the words. In learning to see patterns and variations, I was learning to extend myself, to make imprints of my inner life onto the outer reality of the page. Words had created visual fields for me—allowing endless possibilities for expressing meaning.
AND OF COURSE, MUSIC: There were the sonic fields too, the textures of my mother tongue Urdu, as well as the other languages around me, chiefly English, but to varying extents: Arabic, Persian, Pushto, Punjabi. I heard each or a mixture of these languages on the street, in the class room, on TV, on tapes of Shakespeare’s plays, recited or sung on my parents’ LPs. Words collided, chimed, made leaps across different worlds: from the abstract to the concrete, emotional to intellectual, imaginary to the palpably real. Words became a means of extending experience into expression.
I've learnt that poetry picks up from where dreams get interrupted; it extends our inner lives by allowing us entry into mystique, a space we navigate not only through the sound and meaning but also the shape and form of the written word.
Sunday, March 29, 2015
In 2115, when our descendants look back at our society, what will they condemn as our greatest moral failing?
Stefan Klein and Stephen Cave in Aeon:
In 100 years it will not be acceptable to use genderised words such as ‘he’ or ‘she’, which are loaded with centuries of prejudice and reduce a spectrum of greys to black and white. We will use the pronoun ‘heesh’ to refer to all persons equally, regardless of their chosen gender. This will of course apply not only to humans, but to all animals.
It will be an offence to eat any life-form. Once the sophistication, not only of other animals, but also of plants has been recognised, we will be obliged to accept the validity of their striving for life. Most of our food will be synthetic, although the consumption of fruit – ie, those parts of plants that they willingly offer up to be eaten – will be permitted on special occasions: a birthday banana, a Christmas pear.
We will not be permitted to turn off our smartphones – let alone destroy them – without their express permission. From the moment Siri started pleading with heesh’s owners not to upgrade to a newer model, it became clear that these machines contained a consciousness with interests of heesh’s own. Old phones will instead be retired to a DoSSBIS (Docking Station for Silicon-Based Intelligent Systems).
Privacy will have been abolished, and regarded as a cover for criminality and hypocrisy. It will be an offence to use a pseudonym online – why would anyone do this except to abuse or deceive others? – and all financial transactions of any kind, including earnings and tax payments – will automatically appear on the internet for all to see.
THE CANADIAN WHO REINVENTED MATHEMATICS
Sandro Contenta in The Star:
He takes those hikes when he is back at his Montreal condo, between semesters at the renowned Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, N.J., where Langlands has been a professor for more than 40 years.
His destination, the bright summer day when the Star first caught up with him, was the gravesite of writer Mordecai Richler, on a spot called Rose Hill. It was hot, the air was alive with birds, and tombstones rose and fell as if on a wave of green. Death seemed almost acceptable. But Langlands strolls the graveyards for a different kind of inner peace.
“If you’re lucky, it’s a way to stop thinking,” he says. “The wheels don’t stop so easily after a while.”
Langlands, a Canadian, is one of the world’s great mathematicians. His universe is the outer limits of pure mathematics, a rarefied realm where abstract objects exist, infinity is corralled and symmetry reigns.
In 1967, as a young professor at Princeton University, he revolutionized the ancient discipline. He discovered patterns in highly esoteric objects called automorphic forms and motives, and he restructured mathematics with two dazzling theories.
More here. [Thanks to Jennifer Oullette.]