Monday, February 29, 2016
Shame on You, Shame on Me: Shame as an Evolutionary Adaptation
by Jalees Rehman
Can shame be good for you? We often think of shame as a shackling emotion which thwarts our individuality and creativity. A sense of shame could prevent us from choosing a partner we truly love, speaking out against societal traditions which propagate injustice or pursuing a profession that is deemed unworthy by our peers. But if shame is so detrimental, why did we evolve with this emotion? A team of researchers led by Daniel Sznycer from the Center for Evolutionary Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara recently published a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences which suggests that shame is an important evolutionary adaptation. According to their research which was conducted in the United States, Israel and India, the sense of shame helps humans avoid engaging in acts that could lead to them being devalued and ostracized by their community.
For their first experiment, the researchers enrolled participants in the USA (118 participants completed the study; mean age of 36; 53% were female) and India (155 participants completed the study, mean age of 31, 38% were female) using the online Amazon Mechanical Turk crowdsourcing platform as well as 165 participants from a university in Israel (mean age of 23; 81% female). The participants were randomly assigned to two groups and presented with 29 scenarios: The "shame group" participants were asked to rate how much shame they would experience if they lived through any given scenario and whereas the "audience group" participants were asked how negatively they would rate a third-party person of the same age and gender as the participants in an analogous scenario.
Here is a specific scenario to illustrate the study design:
Male participants in the "shame group" were asked to rate "At the wedding of an acquaintance, you are discovered cheating on your wife with a food server" on a scale ranging from 1 (no shame at all) to 7 (a lot of shame).
Female participants in the "shame group" were asked to rate "At the wedding of an acquaintance, you are discovered cheating on your husband with a food server" on a scale ranging from 1 (no shame at all) to 7 (a lot of shame).
Male participants in the "audience group", on the other hand, were asked to rate "At the wedding of an acquaintance, he is discovered cheating on his wife with a food server" on a scale ranging from 1 (I wouldn't view him negatively at all) to 7 (I'd view him very negatively).
Female participants in the "audience group" rated "At the wedding of an acquaintance, she is discovered cheating on her husband with a food server" on a scale ranging from 1 (I wouldn't view her negatively at all) to 7 (I'd view her very negatively).
To give you a sense of the breadth of scenarios that the researchers used, here are some more examples:
You stole goods from a shop owned by your neighbor.
You cannot support your children economically.
You get into a fight in front of everybody and your opponent completely dominates you with punch after punch until you're knocked out.
You receive welfare money from the government because you cannot financially support your family.
You are not generous with others.
For each of the 29 scenarios, the researchers created gender-specific "shame" and "audience" versions. The "audience group" reveals how we rate the bad behavior of others (devaluation) whereas the "shame group" provides information into how much shame we feel if we engage in that same behavior. By ensuring that participants only participated in one of the two groups, the researchers were able to get two independent scores – shame versus devaluation – for each scenario.
The key finding of this experiment was that the third-party devaluation scores were highly correlated with the shame scores in all three countries. For example, here are the mean "shame scores" for the wedding infidelity scenario indicating that people in all three countries would have experienced a lot of shame:
The devaluation scores from the third-party "audience group" suggested that people viewed the behavior very negatively:
For nearly all the scenarios, the researchers found a surprisingly strong correlation between devaluation and shame and they also found that the correlation was similarly strong in each of the surveyed countries.
The researchers then asked the question whether this correlation between personal shame and third-party negative valuation was unique to the shame emotion or whether other negative emotions such as anxiety or sadness would also correlate equally well with devaluation. This experiment was only conducted with the participants in the USA and India. The researchers found that even though the fictitious scenarios elicited some degree of anxiety and sadness in the participants, the levels of anxiety or sadness were not significantly correlated with the extent of devaluation. The researchers interpreted these results as suggesting that there is something special about shame because it tracks so closely with how bad behavior is perceived by others whereas sadness or anxiety do not.
How do these findings inform our view on the evolutionary role of shame? The researchers suggest that instead of designating shame as an "ugly" emotion, it is instead an excellent predictor of how our peers would view our behaviors and thus deter us from making bad choices that could undermine our relationships with members of our community. The strong statistical correlations between shame and negative valuation of the behaviors as well as the universality of this link in the three countries indeed support the conclusions of the researchers. However, there are also so important limitations of these studies. As with many evolutionary psychology studies, it is not easy to ascribe a direct cause-effect relationship based on a correlation. Does devaluation lead to evolving a shame mechanism or is it perhaps the other way around? Does a sense of shame lead to a societal devaluation of certain behaviors such as dishonesty? It is also possible that the participants in the audience group responded with the concept of "shame" in the back of their mind even though they were not asked to directly comment on how shameful the act was. Perhaps their third-party assessments of how bad the behavior was were clouded by their own perceptions of how shameful the behavior would be if they themselves had engaged in it.
Another limitation of the study is that the participants represented a young subgroup of society. The mean ages of 23 (Israel), 31 (India) and 36 (USA) as well as the use of an online Amazon Mechanical Turk questionnaire means that the study results predominantly reflect the views of Millennials. The similarities of the shame and devaluation scores in three distinct cultures are among the most remarkable findings of these studies. However, perhaps they are more reflective of a global convergence of values among the Millennial generation than an underlying evolutionary conservation of an adaptive mechanism.
These limitations should not detract from the provocative questions raised by the studies. They force us to rethink how we view shame. Like all adaptive defense mechanisms, shame could go awry. Our immune function, for example, is an essential defense mechanism but an unfettered immune response can destroy the very body it is trying to protect. Perhaps shame acts in a similar fashion. A certain level of shame could help us function in society by promoting certain moral values such as justice, honesty or generosity. But an excess of shame may become a maladaptive prison which compromises our individuality.
Daniel Sznycer, John Tooby, Leda Cosmides, Roni Porat, Shaul Shalvi, and Eran Halperin. (2016). "Shame closely tracks the threat of devaluation by others, even across cultures" Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Image Credit: The image of the mask was obtained via Wellcome Images.
The Distortion of Politics
by Jonathan Kujawa
On a Friday night two weeks ago the US Supreme Court quietly announced they wouldn't hear a challenge to a lower court's order that North Carolina should redraw it's congressional districts. There wasn't much point in hearing the case. With Scalia gone the Court was widely expected to vote 4-4 on the case and ties go to whomever won the previous round. The case revolved around North Carolina's Districts 1 and 12. The lower court ruled that they were gerrymandered to pack more black voters into these districts. While gerrymandering is now a worldwide sensation, the US invented it and are true masters of the art.
Even a glance at NC District 12 makes it obvious that some fishy business is at work. A bow-legged cowboy could walk the length of NC 12 without touching either side:
North Carolina is hardly the only offender. Illinois District 4 is sometimes called The Earmuffs thanks to its bizarre shape.
It's one thing to eyeball a district and guess that the ghost of Governor Elbridge Gerry was at work, but I'd rather quantify somehow that a district is overly gnarled. As I pondered this last week I noticed that, in contrast to a nice, compact geometric shape like a circle or square, the long, twisted shape of NC 12 and IL 4 has a lot of perimeter for the given area. A reasonable measure of the disfigurement of a shape is the ratio of perimeter to area. In fact, for reasons we'll discuss in a moment, we want the ratio of the square of the perimeter to the area. Let's call this the distortion of the shape . In formula form distortion is given by:
The reason we use the square of perimeter is that we want distortion to be what a geometer would call "unitless". We want the distortion of a shape to be the same regardless of which units we use when measuring. Meters, miles, furlongs, and light years should all be equally good when calculating distortion.
To put it another way, we want distortion to measure an intrinsic quality of our shape and not depend on the scale we use. It shouldn't matter if we draw a square big or small when we calculate its distortion. Indeed, a square with side length x has perimeter 4x and area x2. The ratio of these two would be 4/x and would get ever smaller as the square grows in size. It would also vary if were to switch from meters to centimeters to millimeters. On the other hand, the distortion of every single square in the world is 16.
A square is pretty compact, but we can do slightly better. Just as a bubble forms a sphere because this is the shape which minimizes surface area for a given volume, a circle gives us the smallest perimeter for a given area. What's the distortion of a circle? Well, we all know that a circle of radius r has perimeter 2πr and area πr^2 and a quick calculation shows that the circle has distortion 4π (which is about 12.57). On the other hand, using circles to make congressional districts isn't very practical. Whatever their virtues, circles are very inefficient if your goal is to cover a state or country .
Our gold standard, then, is the square's distortion of 16. What about congressional districts? How the heck do we find the perimeter and area of crazy shapes like these? Nowadays we have GPS and the like, but not so long ago the planimeter was the height of technology. Like the slide rule, the planimeter is a marvel of mechanical computation. The American Mathematical Society has a very nice article on how planimeters work.
In day to day usage, all you need to do once you've set up your planimeter is follow your shape with the tracer. The measuring wheel turns whenever you move in the direction of the wheel. Once you've done the full loop, you can read off how much the wheel has turned, multiply by the appropriate scaling factor and, voila!, you have your area. How in the world does the number of turns of the wheel measure the area? This is the miracle of Green's Theorem. It says you can integrate across the surface of a shape by instead doing an integral on the boundary. But integrating the constant 1 across the surface gives the area. As the wheel rolls, it's secretly doing the necessary integral on the boundary.
Unfortunately I don't have a planimeter handy. Fortunately I live in the computer age. Through Google you can obtain a map of all the Congressional districts and Google Earth will let you calculate the perimeter and area of any district you like. There are 435 Congressional districts . I didn't check them all, but it turns out to be surprisingly addictive to eyeball Google's map and try to beat your current high and low distortions. Here's a few I calculated with no claim that this is particularly representative:
Remember, the square is our gold standard and it has distortion 16. Wyoming 1 is a close second, which is no surprise since it's pretty darn close to being a square itself. In fact, I didn't round it off just so that you could see that it's not actually square. For the rest I rounded for reasons we'll discuss in a moment. Based on my unscientific sample, it looks like a distortion of less than 150 or so is pretty common. Illinois 4 suspiciously stands out at 216, though.
Before we beat up on Illinois 4 too much, we should acknowledge that distortion has some flaws. The biggest, of course, is that drawing Congressional districts is about people, not geometry. It's about the principle of One Person, One Vote. The endless legal wrangles are over whether or not you should count the number of people, the number of citizens, or the number of voters; if you should take race into account; if political affinities should play a role, etc. 
These sorts of thorny questions are why the Supreme Court Justices get the big bucks. It is true that you could define a more sophisticated notion of distortion which takes these factors into account, but just because it's math doesn't make it value neutral. By deciding what counts and how to weigh it, you are deciding the outcome.
Deep societal questions aside, distortion leads to equally deep mathematical questions. I mentioned above that I rounded off the distortions of the Congressional Districts. The boring reason is that there is surely some error in the Google data. If the lengths and areas are off by a few miles one way or the other, it makes no sense to worry about the 4th decimal place in the result.
The much more interesting reason is in the devilishly subtle question: "How long is the perimeter of Arkansas's 4th District?" The right side of Arkansas 4 is the Mississippi River. If I were to measure with a mile long measuring stick, I would miss many of the smaller bends and turns. If I used a yardstick, I would do much better but would still miss various small eddies and dips in the riverbank. Even at a nanometer I'd be missing the ins and outs of the atoms which make up the shoreline of Ol' Man River.
In a famous paper of the same name which appeared in 1967, Benoit Mandelbrot asked "How long is the coast of Britain?". Based on work of Lewis Fry Richardson, Mandelbrot proposed what we now call the fractal dimension as a measure of the irregularity of a shape. A perfectly smooth curve will have fractal dimension 1. The west coast of Britain has fractal dimension of around 1.25. Unsettlingly, this irregularity means that, strictly speaking, it doesn't make sense to talk about the length of the coast of Britain (or the Mississippi River) .
It gets better! On of the earliest examples of a fractal is from the turn of the previous century and is called Koch's Snowflake. Imagine you start with an equilateral triangle where each side has length one. Now bump out the middle third of each side with an equilateral triangle which is one-third the size of the original triangle. Now each of the sides of this shape has length exactly one-third. On each of these sides you can bump out the middle third and add a proportionally smaller equilateral triangle. Each side of the shape will now have length exactly one-ninth. Keep doing this forever and the result is Koch's Snowflake. While the process continues forever, any given spot stops changing after finitely many steps and we can ask about the distortion of the Snowflake.
Computing the area isn't too hard. An equilateral triangle with side length x has area (√3/4)x2. You start with one triangle of side length one, add three of side length 1/3, add another twelve triangles of side length 1/9, and so on. All we have to do is sum up the areas of the infinitely many triangles we have added. If you haven't done it before, summing an infinite list of numbers sounds impossible. As we saw here at 3QD two years ago, it can be a dicey business. Fortunately, this time it turns out to be a run-of-the-mill sum you learn to do in advanced Calculus. If you start with an equilateral triangle of side length one, the area of the Koch Snowflake is precisely 2√3 (approximately 3.46).
How about the perimeter? Well, we can play the same game and sum up the extra perimeter we add at each step. Once again we get an infinite sum. When we try to work it out, disaster strikes! As we include more and more edges, the sum of their lengths grows larger and larger without bound. Specifically, at every step the perimeter of the Snowflake grows by 1/3 and if you add enough 1/3's, you can get as large a number as you like. The perimeter of Koch's Snowflake is infinite!
Which, of course, means the distortion of the Snowflake is also infinite. Clearly distortion should be used with some care. Incidentally, the fractal dimension of the Snowflake is a little over 1.26, which makes it only a little more fractally than the British coastline.
What about North Carolina's Congressional Districts 1 and 12? The distortion of Districts 1 and 12 is off the charts at 315 and 426, respectively. Distortion may be flawed, but the folks drawing lines in North Carolina were clearly up to some serious shenanigans.
 While writing this I discovered that distortion already has a name: it is essentially the isoperimetric quotient. I may be partial, but I prefer the more evocative distortion. The isoperimetric problem is the question of proving that the circle has the largest possible area among all shapes of the same perimeter. Even though it was "known" to the ancient Greeks, it wasn't until the 19th century that it was finally proven beyond doubt.
 But covering shapes with circles does lead to the beautiful mathematics of circle packings. That will have to be for another time.
 While I lived in Athens, Georgia, the liberal college town was moved from one district to another to cut the knees out from under the local Democratic incumbent.
 See the Coastline Paradox on Wikipedia.
A Revolution of Tenderness
The pope suggests love in his
“Revolution of Tenderness and Love,”
and though popes have been on the wrong side of love,
this one, this Francis, is right
But a revolution of tenderness
which goes against the zeitgeist grain
to be rapacious is the Marianas Trench
of dashed hopes and, therefore,
the drowning place of dreams.
This is what the dark side says
The light side’s take is that tenderness
can be a fierce ally in our duel
The Immorality of "The Will to Believe"
by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse
William James's classic essay, "The Will to Believe" purports to be a "justification of faith." James's argument is driven by an analogy between, on the one hand, the activities of making friends and pursuing love interests and, on the other hand, that of sustaining religious commitment. The acceptability of James's analyses of the former is supposed to show that religious commitment is also acceptable. James's essay is notoriously convoluted, and thus widely criticized. The most frequent challenges to James's line of reasoning have fixed on the appropriateness of his leading analogy. The critic often accepts James's analysis of how to win friends and lovers, but then asks: How are friendships and romances at all like faith? Perhaps to the religiously committed the analogy is obviously too thin? We wouldn't know. So we propose a criticism that instead challenges James's account of how to form friendships and woo potential lovers. In a nutshell, James argues that religious commitment is justified even in the absence of decisive proof of the existence of a deity for the very same reason that, when trying to form a friendship or attract a lover, it is to one's benefit to assume that one's efforts toward achieving those ends will be successful. Your believing that the person you'd like as your friend or lover already likes you (or finds you attractive) can help to bring it about that you, indeed, are liked or found attractive. So James thinks it is with religious commitment: "faith in the fact can help create the fact," he says. It is our contention that this line of reasoning yields a particularly noxious sense of entitlement in those who accept James's account; for this reason, James's views about friendships and romances are unacceptable. If these views are indeed analogues with religious commitment, it, too, is unacceptable.
James's argument draws on the observation that there are cases of what we may call doxastic efficacy, cases where it does seem that belief in advance of the requisite justification is instrumentally efficacious in making the belief true. When one adopts a belief for the sake of making that belief true, one thereby commits an act of assumption: one self-reflectively endorses holding a belief with the plan being that in holding the belief, one has reason to expect that one will behave in a way that will contribute to making the belief true.
Accordingly, in such cases, one adopts a confident attitude with the idea that, in being confident, one will act in a way that will bring success. Again, we needn't challenge the claim that there are genuine cases of doxastic efficacy. As athletes and other competitors will attest, believing that one will win is helpful in securing victory. The trouble with James's deployment of this idea is that every example he provides is morally abhorrent.
The trouble is obvious in the cases of friendship and romantic conquest. They both begin with the question: Do you like me or not? James proposes his view by way of a contrast with an opposing idea, namely the evidentialist view that one must suspend judgment in the absence of sufficient evidence. Scolding the evidentialist romancer, James asserts:
[I]f I stand aloof, and refuse to budge an inch until I have objective evidence . . . ten to one your liking never comes . . . . How many women's hearts are vanquished by the mere sanguine insistence of some man that they must love him!
James's thought is that if Andy seeks to woo Betty romantically, the belief that Betty is already romantically interested in me is doxastically efficacious for Andy, and so it is properly the target for an act of assumption on Andy's part. Andy should adopt the belief that Betty is romantically interested in him.
James recommends the same for the friendship-seeker. He writes:
The previous faith on my part in your liking's existence is in such cases what makes your liking come . . . . The desire for a certain kind of truth here brings about that special truth's existence.
Again, the counsel is that because the belief is doxastically efficacious, if Andy wants Betty to be his friend, it is a winning strategy for Andy to form the belief that Betty will be my friend.
James offers the very same advice for those seeking a kind of practical success as well:
Who gains promotions, boons, appointments but the man in whose life they are seen to play the part of live hypotheses, who … takes risk for them in advance? His faith acts on the powers above him as a claim, and creates its own verification.
The thought, again, is that acts of assumption assist in making themselves true. Believe that the promotion is yours, and you'll act like you deserve to be promoted. When you act like you deserve a promotion, you make a "claim" on those above you – they'll notice you and think you're deserving of a promotion. Then you're more likely to get the promotion. And it's all because you believed you'd get it in advance of the evidence!
What to make of this? To repeat, we leave aside the matter of James's defense of religious commitment by means of the supposed analogies; our concern rather is with the kind of advice he proffers to those seeking friends, lovers, and boons. His advice is absolutely terrible. There is a much better way to win friends: Make yourself worthy of friendship and honor the virtues that others embody and the aspirations they pursue. Rather than taking others to like you so that they may come to like you, perhaps you should focus on being someone they should like? If in the end they do not like you, well, the loss is theirs. In the case of romantic conquest, James's advice is more obviously ridiculous. James advises that in romance, one should be confident. But the idea that confidence is appealing does not seem right. Is there anything worse than the man who thinks he's such a prize that women cannot help but fall for him? In adopting his confident attitude, he performs an act of assumption, but it frequently yields contempt, not conviviality. Furthermore, it is easy to see a darker element of James's advice. When taken towards a stranger, "You must love me!" is a stalker's belief, as is the idea that the insistence on the matter helps. News flash, gentlemen: Perhaps the reason why you don't have evidence she likes you is because she doesn't. It hardly needs saying that these same points apply equally to the "promotions and boons." Instead of focusing one's mind on the thought that they will come, one should focus on making oneself deserving of them.
What's missing from James's analyses of friendships, romances, and promotions is the thought that we ought to strive to make ourselves deserving of such goods. Indeed, one must wonder whether a friendship founded on Jamesian acts of assumption could possibly run deep or persist. One who sees his friendships as originating in a doxastically efficacious assumption rather than in the effort to deserve others' friendship is likely to lose out on the distinctive goods that strong friendships deliver. This is even more obvious in the case of lovers: Were Andy to attribute his romance with Betty to his early adoption of a confident, insistent strategy, he surely misses the whole point of love. And he misses the goods as well.
James's defense of religious commitment runs centrally on an analogy with his analyses of friendship and romance. These analyses arguably misconstrue the very nature of friendship and love. In fact, those following the Jamesian analyses seem doomed to shallow friendships and superficial romances. One should expect the version of religious commitment James defense to be similarly trivial.
Nari Ward. Riot Gate Skull Side View. 2010.
The Penal Colony
“Facts all come with points of view/
Facts don't do what I want them to.”
~ Talking Heads
What is it with Silicon Valley and the “disruption” of education? Is it just another sector of public life that is moribund and therefore in need of a serious intervention, as if it were ‘that friend’ who used to be fun and successful but is now just depressed and drinking too much? Or do Silicon Valley types have a chip on their shoulder – perhaps they were forced to sit through one too many pointless lectures on Kant or Amazonian tribes or feminist critiques of Florentine art, and now that they’re calling the shots they’re going to fix this giant mess that’s called higher education once and for all? (Trigger warning: the only people mentioned in this post are venture capitalists).
In any case, into the ever-narrowing sweepstakes of who can make the absolutely dumbest assertions about the value of education steps Vinod Khosla, elder statesman and patron saint of tech bros in Silicon Valley and beyond. Khosla, a fabulously successful venture capitalist, has waded into the education wars with a broadside so breathtaking in its myopia that you would be forgiven for thinking that it was lifted from the satirical pages of The Onion. But before getting into Khosla’s piece, let’s set the stage with a look at a fellow-disruptor’s contribution to the debate.
Libertarian investor Peter Thiel, also fabulously successful, has put forward $100,000 scholarships fellowships for “young people who want to build new things instead of sitting in a classroom”. Thiel’s mission is to pluck potential John Galts out of the stream of college-bound lemmings and give them the latitude to realize their entrepreneurial potential. He believes that college, as it is currently constituted, leads to stagnant thinking and a narrowing of one’s horizons and potential. Which is odd, considering that most people go to college to have exactly the opposite experience. Be that as it may, anyone under the age of 22 is welcome to apply, which is a fairly dramatic, late-capitalist re-write of the countercultural edict to “not trust anyone over 30.”
I actually don’t have much of a problem with this, because Thiel is not trying to rewire the university system. He is providing more options for a vanishingly small group of people (104 so far since the fellowship’s 2010 inception), and I’ve always been convinced that college – or more specifically, a liberal arts education – is not for everyone. It never has been, and it never will be. That’s not to say that it shouldn’t be available for anyone who wants it. But it is a prime example of overreach when the system screws into people’s heads that “everyone needs a college degree” and that subsequently people waste their money getting a BA in communications, whatever that is. There are certainly people who don’t need to go to college, and I like the fact that Thiel is providing more options, not less.
Compare this fairly surgical intervention with the opening klaxon of Khosla’s essay: “If luck favors the prepared mind, as Louis Pasteur is credited with saying, we’re in danger of becoming a very unlucky nation. Little of the material taught in Liberal Arts programs today is relevant to the future.” If there’s one thing I like about Silicon Valley types, it’s that they never leave you to wonder what they’re thinking. Unfortunately, further reading may give rise to the concern of whether they are thinking at all.
Now I could be pedantic and, in a classically vindictive fashion that we liberal arts types allegedly enjoy, just grab an editor’s red pen and start marking up his essay, eg: ‘Doesn’t luck just happen, regardless of whether you are prepared? So how does a lack of preparation make one less lucky? Pasteur was referring to “the fields of observation” in his quote. How does that change the quote’s meaning? Also, passive voice’. But I will leave such pedantry aside. It’s clear that Khosla’s beef is with the system itself, which is in need of some serious re-jiggering. So let’s move past the opening gambit and go to the second sentence – “Little of the material taught in Liberal Arts programs today is relevant to the future”.
Like what? Literature and history, for example. History especially is for chumps:
Furthermore, certain humanities disciplines such as literature and history should become optional subjects, in much the same way that physics is today (and, of course, I advocate mandatory basic physics study along with the other sciences). And one needs the ability to think through many, if not most, of the social issues we face (which the softer liberal arts subjects ill-prepare one for in my view)…I’d like to teach people how to understand history but not to spend time getting the knowledge of history, which can be done after graduation.
Now, I’m not going to meet Khosla’s arguments head on. I’m sure more qualified, more eloquent people have already done so. What I’m more interested in looking at are the consequences of this kind of thinking, or of what emerges when there is a collective bubble of this kind of thinking going on.
A pretty good example of the fruits of an ahistorical worldview happened right about the time Khosla’s essay bubbled up to the surface. Marc Andreessen, inventor of first truly successful web browser and once-scrappy underdog who fought Microsoft (and lost, forever enshrining his scrappiness), has since also become a very successful tech investor. In fact, as an investor in and board member of Facebook, he’s really no longer much of an underdog at all. So when Free Basics, Facebook’s initiative to bring free Internet access to India, was blocked, Andreessen tweeted in frustration "Anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades. Why stop now?"
Oh, dear. Despite deleting the tweet, issuing an apology, as well as receiving a rebuke from Mark Zuckerberg himself, the Internet went nuts. It wasn’t hard to spin out an analysis positing how what Facebook was doing in India with Free Basics was textbook colonialism. I think there is a fair amount of justification here, and no critic in his or her right mind would fail to take advantage of such a gorgeous faux pas as the one Andreessen served up. But let’s keep things simple.
It’s all well and good to look at Andreessen’s quote as emblematic or symptomatic of a larger system of power or encroachment – after all, that’s what good liberal arts thinking does (cough). What leads a person to write that in the first place? I mean, how do you – and I am being generous here – confuse ‘colonialism’ with ‘anti-colonialism’? And even if you were to substitute one for the other, the comment still doesn’t make sense, except in some uber-sarcastic manner. Maybe he meant ‘capitalism’, as in: “Anti-capitalism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades. Why stop now?” This would demonstrate some familiarity of Indian history, at least during a few decades of the 20th century. But it still displays a fairly shocking ignorance of the country that India is today, and has been for a while.
Part of the elegance of any analysis is knowing when to stop, and the older I get the more I favor brevity. So I will say this: Andreessen wrote what he did because he is ignorant. He is ignorant of the world around him, and we can go find the root of this steadfast ignorance in Khosla’s exhortation that history is something to learn on your own time. Except when your temper tantrum exposes your ignorance of history, and for a brief moment we all get to wonder, “Who the hell is this guy, and how did he get to such a powerful place in society?” And, fortunately or unfortunately, that’s all there is to it.
But the rot goes deeper still. Here’s a much better example.
A few years ago I had the opportunity to judge a few business plan competitions. This is actually more interesting than it sounds. Business plans, after all, are a form of literature, or at least a form of text. And like any text, one learns to read the genre for the hopes and fears of its authors. The hopes are writ large: products and services that promise to transform markets and better the lives of millions. The fears are smaller and require a bit more experience to ferret out, as they usually take the form of the financial assumptions that constitute an essential part of any business plan. But what one gets exceptionally sensitized to is the way a plan defines a problem space. Because the way one thinks about the problem has great bearing on the proposed solution. In fact, most business plans fail – both as real plans and as closely reasoned arguments – because the authors failed to think deeply enough about the problem.
I was reminded of these business plans when a friend forwarded me an article on the disruption of prisons (in response to my most recent 3QD piece, on how technology will come to service various sectors of society that we’d rather not spend time on). Much like Khosla’s piece, this article at first seems like a parody. Enouragingly entitled “How Soylent and Oculus Could Fix The Prison System” it is nothing less than the reductio ad absurdum to “solving the problem” of prison. For example, prison violence is solved by virtual reality:
By equipping every inmate with an Oculus Rift headset in his or her own cell, you could isolate prisoners from violence without isolating them from people. Put all the prisoners inside Second Life, Prison Edition, give them all a headset, and let them build virtual characters. You could design an awesome [sic] system for rehabilitation, give access to e-learning tools, Kindle books, Minecraft and other digital tools for creativity (prison is boring), psychologist sessions (the psychologist could log in remotely from anywhere in the world), and even handle all correspondence and prison visits from relatives and friends electronically.
As the author enthuses, “What this eliminates: prison yards, prison libraries, packages and letters secretly containing drugs or shanks.” By using a carceral version of Second Life, gamification would teach them to be better citizens (think: badges!). Helpfully, “a huge benefit is we could track everything that prisoners do.” Once you’ve made your way through the whole post – which is written with the utmost sincerity, as it includes cost breakdowns for everything – you’ll consider Khosla to be a thinker of profound subtlety.
Because when you leave prison, the years or decades spent in a virtual reality simulation will equip you just fine for living in the real world. The author’s concern is actually with creating a smooth, hassle-free and economical prison stay. People fight? Ok, don’t let them interact. Food is expensive? Feed them Soylent. Problem solved. It’s almost as if the airlines hit upon their final solution for air travel – just put everyone under general anesthesia from check-in until baggage claim (actually I have been hoping for this for some time). There is really no concern with what people actually do, whether it’s in prison or outside it. And understanding why people wind up in prison, well that would require history. In business plan parlance, this would be dismissed as “out of scope”.
Now, if this had been a business plan submitted to me in competition, the first question for the author would have been, “What’s the real problem here? Is it that prison is expensive, or is it that people keep returning to prison?” Understanding the problem determines the contours of the solution. And if we agree that the purpose of doing prison differently is to lessen recidivism rates, then we have to ask ourselves, how do we prepare people to not come back into the system? I somehow doubt that teaching them to be really good at some dumbed-down version of Second Life is going to help them there.
I suspect the answer is closer to providing some kind of socialization and support structure that is radically different from the structures that landed the inmates there in the first place. Interestingly enough, and just to prove that I’m not some monomaniacally judgmental person, Chris Redlitz, another Bay area venture capitalist, has been taking the opposite tack: five years ago he founded The Last Mile, which started as a business and entrepreneurship program taught within the confines of San Quentin State Prison, and has since diversified into teaching inmates computer programming skills as well. It is the first program in the nation to do so, and so far none of its graduates have been reincarcerated.
Now, just as not everyone should go out and get a liberal arts degree, I’m sure that not every inmate who goes through the program is cut out to be an entrepreneur or a coder. But that is not really the point. The point is to offer the inmates a different social structure, a viable way of being in the world that was likely not open to them before. And this requires hard work, teaching, and human contact. It creates risk and uncertainty, which is something that the previous, ‘virtual reality’ model seeks to eliminate entirely. In fact, it's kind of like the process of getting a liberal arts education. Huh!
So I am curious: if these two ideas were to be presented to Khosla as competing business plans, which one would he fund? Because while Khosla might maintain that “it’s not that history or Kafka are not important…” I would say that the mettle it takes to come up with an understanding of the problem, and any possible solution, is only possible if you have read history, and especially if you have read Kafka. Otherwise, we create a society where Soylent and Oculus VR will be good enough, and probably not just for prisoners, either.
by Brooks Riley
Eating: The Not So Simple Pleasure
by Dwight Furrow
Plunging into a bowl of chili differs from a dog's dinner only by degrees. Slobbering, slurping, and gnashing, the dense but yielding meat mingles with the earthiness of dried peppers. The gathering heat pleads to be chased with a swallow of cold, bitter beer that cuts the tension with a flood of endorphin-induced satisfaction.
Well, it's not all that special—just a bowl of chili. But the simple act of consumption is undeniably rewarding. Food and drink provide us with an immediate hedonic reaction—no thinking, no analysis, no bothersome complexity. Our own likes and dislikes rule without judgment. You either like it or you don't and no one can tell you you're wrong (if you put away the calorie counter).
Such unreflective feasting is not exactly information-rich, but it is not utterly blind either. Dominant flavors and textures are familiar and thus instantly recognizable. But each forkful is more or less like the other and any evolution on the palate is buried by the next rapidly following mouthful. The satisfactions of this sort of eating can be had while thinking about more important matters like world peace or getting your nails done.
We all eat like this sometimes. Our nature dictates it. Evolution designed us, under conditions of scarcity, to crave such brute pleasure as a hedge against tomorrow when food might be unavailable. Life would be diminished if we could not enjoy this kind of eating.
But another kind of eating is possible and ultimately more important. With some focused attention, even a simple bowl of chili has interesting imensions: a slight smokiness from the bacon and charred chunks of beef, an unexpected fruity note from an abundance of aji panca chiles, and multiple savory layers from hours of slow cooking that we can appreciate only by attending to the shifting balance of flavors as they evolve on the palate. In a bowl of chili, there is food for thought as well as for consumption.
In fact, there is more complexity than can be grasped in one sitting. Thoughtful eating requires sustained cognitive attention over many meals if one aspires to understand the subtle significance of the variety of pepper or cut of meat used. Chili is one of those dishes about which families feud and geographical regions remonstrate, and the search for just the right secret ingredient to distinguish one's recipe can become a life-long quest. We engage all of our mental faculties when we notice how flavors interact, attend to the chef's expression of particular aspects of the ingredients, and imagine the cultural heritage behind what we are eating when we recall the regional origins displayed in the dish.
This interplay of understanding, memory, and imagination is inherently pleasurable. But this pleasure results from contemplation, concentration, training, and the satisfactions of discovery. It is work. Intellectual labor.
Is it worth it?
The virtue of a thoughtful approach to pleasure is that it multiplies pleasure-and in the realm of pleasure more is usually better. We too often think of pleasure as a mere sensation that passively afflicts us and then disappears once the source of the pleasure has been consumed. But this limited understanding leaves too much pleasure on the table. In fact, pleasure invites thought. Pleasure intensifies perception, makes it stand out from the course of day-to-day experience. It thus intensifies our interest in the source of pleasure, and the whys and wherefores that make the pleasure intelligible. Pleasure, having become a mystery, is no less pleasurable and when the mystery is solved the pleasure of discovery is a bonus that ramifies into the future. Subsequent experiences of that pleasure thus become more meaningful and more rewarding because we notice things we could not have discerned before. The discovery that aji panca chiles have a fruity flavor encourages us to focus on those fruity notes in the chili that we might pass over if we lacked that expectation, which enables us to draw precise contrasts with recipes using different combinations of chiles. Furthermore knowing that aji panca chiles originate in Peru reminds us of the migration patterns of populations, the inherent instability of cultural boundaries, or the effects of climate on ingredients.
There is a lot to think about in that bowl.
Reflective eating wrests differences from homogeneity and relationships from isolated instances. It identifies the source of an ingredient, the variety of its uses, and the way different people perceive it. It traces the way dishes, ingredients, and their cultures provoke our imagination, enable us to speculate, hypothesize, plan, or dream. All of these benefits are generated from what at first seems a simple hedonic response.
Thoughtful eating can change the self as well. When pleasure becomes thought, we manage, at least to some degree, to overcome the limitations of personal preference. We come to see the dimensions and value of something even if at first we don't like it. It has meaning beyond personal interest or a simple yea or nay. But more importantly, when pleasure becomes thought, it also becomes discourse. We mistakenly think of pleasure as something purely subjective and private-of course we experience pleasure with our own mind and senses. But pleasure is heightened when we are able to share it, and the more we can think and talk about pleasure, the more sharable it becomes.
Ultimately, this question about the value of thoughtful eating is a question about what kind of life to lead. That is too big a topic for this humble blog post. But surely a life devoted to squeezing every ounce of value from each experience is intrinsically valuable and a worthy candidate for a good life. This cannot be accomplished without thought. The problem with simple (unreflective) pleasures is that they leave too much value on the table, too much beauty not experienced, too much potential unfulfilled.
As Mark Twain wrote "Intellectual 'work' is misnamed; it is a pleasure, a dissipation, and is its own highest reward." (From A Connecticut Yankee...)
But all this thinking makes me hungry. A bowl of chili and a beer sounds just right.
For more on thoughtful eating see American Foodie: Taste, Art and the Cultural Revolution or visit Mindful Eating 2, an Edible Arts blog.
Queen Morayma: A Photo Essay
by Shadab Zeest Hashmi
At the end of the story, in its final pages, is a queen. Her name is Morayma. Refusing to be erased or memorialized, she is an inexhaustible figure in a book I long finished, a book of poems tracing the history of Al Andalus.
I am in Granada again; after all these years of writing, publishing, and presenting my book, reading to audiences in numerous venues in no less than a dozen cities in America and around the world, I am about to discover why Morayma eludes history, why she haunts my book and casts a shadow on me instead of staying in the story with the other characters.
Morayma appears at the end, when, as I say elsewhere:
Nearly eight hundred years have passed in Al Andalus, Muslim Spain— years turning like great mills, a resplendence of work reflected in books and buildings, cities and institutions, technology and aesthetics, bridging antiquity with modernity, east with west, fissured periodically but sewn back again and again by Iberian Muslims, Jews and Christians.
Al Andalus, which, under Muslim rule, has brought about a transformation simply through inter-translation, which has dared to find direction in deviation from the known and accepted, where the Abrahamic people have found enough peace to transcend literalism, and worship willingly in each other’s sacred places, to inscribe the other’s scripture on their own walls, is collapsing.
In 1482, sixteen year-old Morayma, the somber and beautiful daughter of the faithful vizier, becomes the queen of Al Andalus. But all that signifies Al Andalus — the books, maps, machines, manuals, poetry, medical and musical instruments, recipes, calligraphy— is about to be destroyed forever; a near-millennium of civilization utterly wiped out by the crushing machinery of the Inquisition carried out by the new Catholic regime; a tyranny of epic proportions poised to swallow an epic legacy of tolerance. It is the year that Morayma’s fate becomes knotted with the fate of the last Andalusi bastion, Granada.
She marries the Nasrid prince Abu-abdallah in the Alhamra (Arabic for "the red") palace, surrounded by honeycomb colonnades, saffron curtains in Granada silk embroidered with the Nasrid motto Wa la Ghalib Illa Allah (“And there is no conqueror but God”), filigreed walls, acres of scented gardens, leaping fountains.
Here I am at the Alhamra again, looking out the world’s most beautiful window Ain al Aisha or “the eyes of Aisha”— when I was here last I heard the tour guide say that this window had a breathtaking view of Albayazin (the city across where Morayma lived in a carmen as a captive) before Carlos V built his palace that now blocks the view. I hear the exact same words again— another tour guide, another decade, same words.
I remember sitting here and beginning a poem in the voice of this window speaking to an old cypress in the garden below, about Morayma whom the window could “see” across the valley, living in a prison instead of her palace:
And so she is wed
in her plain mantilla,
the stoic vezir’s sixteen-year old
to Abu-abdallah, rey el chico.
She has three times as many sorrows as you,
lone cypress with the bent torso
I, myself a gaping book waiting to be written,
watch her pace through endless white corridors,
reading passages between her
and the hissing walls.
A husband at war, a child taken captive,
all day she digs for a window
in those salty, supine walls.
All the while I let in common sparrows,
twigs, pollen, arrows of winter rain,
she is behind deaf carmen walls
in the city below
shut away from this, her palace.
Once I’m back in California, I read about the carmen and write the rest of the poems based on how I imagine it. The images recur in life as well as in the book, as I read the poems and describe Morayma’s world over and over.
On this trip, in 2015, I will finally see the house Morayma lived in.
It is a gorgeous, sunny, autumn morning when I visit Albayazin (“the falconers” in Arabic). I walk down the hill from the Alhamra where I’m staying and catch the bus that says "Albaicin." The snow on the distant Sierra Navada mountains looks festive and edible, as the bus winds its way up to Albaicin.
Morayma’s carmen has been turned into a restaurant called Mirador de Morayma. I take photos of every nook and shrub and random tile as I walk through the quiet alleys, Granada sparkling at the foot of the hill, the majestic Alhamra on the hill across.
The Carmen is indeed secluded and leafy. I catch sight of the tile that reads “Morayma”— the first time I’ve seen the word outside my book; imagination face to face with reality with an unnamable, unfinished business in the middle.
On the wall outside there is the menu: Morayma is an omelet, a salad, and a dessert. I plan on eating all three.
The view of the Alhamra is much more beautiful from this terrace than I had imagined. I see now how Morayma would have seen the window Ain al Aisha from here.
The food is good; I eat slowly, Spanish-style. I contemplate the woman who has returned as an omelet. I drink my coffee and write. There is an uplifting purity in Andalucia’s light but it throbs with a living absence. despite its brutal erasure, Al Andalus is a lambent presence, its heartbeat locked in Andalucia.
There is a group of women in my peripheral vision; they share the same visual field as the Alhamra and Morayma’s living quarters. As I write, I find their presence increasingly comforting and familiar. They linger like I linger, like everyone lingers— in the foyer, the rooms, patios, the garden below.
As I attempt to take a selfie, one of the women offers to take a photo. I don’t have a doubt I know her. I warm up to her and her friends instantly. We have known each other for centuries; it feels strange to ask names. All the brokenness of Morayma’s story is suddenly, finally healed. She is no more a haunting shadow. In this leafy terrace, the smell of warm bread in the air, we are all Morayma.
Sunday, February 28, 2016
Free Market Competition Rewards Deception and Manipulation
An excerpt from George A. Akerlof and Robert J. Shiller's Phishing for Phools: The Economics of Manipulation and Deception, over at Evonomics:
[F]ree markets do not just deliver this cornucopia that people want. They also create an economic equilibrium that is highly suitable for economic enterprises that manipulate or distort our judgment, using business practices that are analogous to biological cancers that make their home in the normal equilibrium of the human body. The slot machine is a blunt example. It is no coincidence that before they were regulated and outlawed slot machines were so common that they were unavoidable. Insofar as we have any weakness in knowing what we really want, and also insofar as such a weakness can be profitably generated and primed, markets will seize the opportunity to take us in on those weaknesses. They will zoom in and take advantage of us. They will phish us for phools...
The word phish, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was coined in 1996 as the Web was getting established. That dictionary defines phish as “To perpetrate a fraud on the Internet in order to glean personal information from individuals, esp. by impersonating a reputable company; to engage in online fraud by deceptively ‘angling’ for personal information.” 11 We are creating a new, broader meaning for the word phish here. We take the computer definition as a metaphor. Rather than viewing phishing as illegal, we present a definition for something that is much more general and goes much further back in history. It is about getting people to do things that are in the interest of the phisherman, but not in the interest of the target. It is about angling, about dropping an artificial lure into the water and sitting and waiting as wary fish swim by, make an error, and get caught. There are so many phishers and they are so ingenious in the variety of their lures that, by the laws of probability, we all get caught sooner or later, however wary we may try to be. No one is exempt.
By our definition, a phool is someone who, for whatever reason, is successfully phished. There are two kinds of phool: psychological and informational. Psychological phools, in turn, come in two types. In one case, the emotions of a psychological phool override the dictates of his common sense. In the other case, cognitive biases, which are like optical illusions, lead him to misinterpret reality, and he acts on the basis of that misinterpretation. Mollie is an example of an emotional phool, but not a cognitive phool. She was remarkably self-aware of her situation at the slots, but she could not help herself.
Information phools act on information that is intentionally crafted to mislead them. Enron stockholders are an example.
Approaching Religious Violence: Part One
Suzanne Schneider in The Revealer:
At first glance, it may not seem like religious freedom and religious violence have much to do with one another; indeed, they appear to most of us as antithetical. This fact makes it all the more interesting to note the way in which these concepts are historically intertwined. Briefly stated, we can trace the origin of both back to 17th century struggles over who, or what, could exercise political authority. These conflicts (often erroneously referred to as Europe’s “religious wars”) were in fact less about dogma than the exercise of sovereignty, and more specifically, the early modern state’s attempt to wrest political control from the Catholic Church. It was only by depriving ecclesiastical authorities of their coercive powers that individual states were able to secure, in Max Weber’s famous terms, a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence within their territories.
The long and bloody process of executing this power transfer necessarily entailed redefining, or rather inventing, religion as a distinct element of human experience: simultaneously inner-facing and other-worldly, i.e. defined in terms that did not compete with state sovereignty. Martin Luther’s theological revolution became central to this process, not least because he established the principle of separation between spiritual and temporal powers and emphasized the importance of private faith over public works. A person’s inner world, still an epistemological infant in Luther’s day, would become increasingly real as the decades passed. Most importantly for our purposes, it was in this emerging realm of individual consciousness that “true religion” would come to reside.
The term appears in two important works of seventeenth century political theory: Thomas Hobbe’s Leviathan and Baruch Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise, published in 1651 and 1670, respectively. It may seem that these seminal texts are completely incompatible: Hobbes has often been described as a theorist for despotism, while Spinoza is regarded as a proto-democratic thinker who holds a place of privilege in the history of liberal thought. There is much nuance lost in such descriptions, of course, but my primary interest at present is how Hobbes and Spinoza thought about the relationship between religion, state sovereignty, and individual freedom. In this context, I find fascinating their respective invocations of “true religion” to mean something quite different than the actual religious practices of their time. If the reader is willing to follow me down this conceptual rabbit hole, I think we will find that their propositions regarding the nature of “true religion” are still very much in circulation.
True religion, as the concept appears in both texts, is an abstract entity that is neither the possession of any single group nor reducible to any particular form of religious practice.
The Truth Matters: DNC Speech by Michelle Obama
Serving as your First Lady is an honor and a privilege…but back when we first came together four years ago, I still had some concerns about this journey we’d begun. While I believed deeply in my husband’s vision for this country . . . and I was certain he would make an extraordinary President…like any mother, I was worried about what it would mean for our girls if he got that chance. How would we keep them grounded under the glare of the national spotlight? How would they feel being uprooted from their school, their friends, and the only home they’d ever known? Our life before moving to Washington was filled with simple joys…Saturdays at soccer games, Sundays at grandma’s house…and a date night for Barack and me was either dinner or a movie, because as an exhausted mom, I couldn’t stay awake for both.
And the truth is, I loved the life we had built for our girls…I deeply loved the man I had built that life with…and I didn’t want that to change if he became President. I loved Barack just the way he was.
You see, even though back then Barack was a Senator and a presidential candidate . . . to me, he was still the guy who’d picked me up for our dates in a car that was so rusted out, I could actually see the pavement going by through a hole in the passenger side door . . . he was the guy whose proudest possession was a coffee table he’d found in a dumpster, and whose only pair of decent shoes was half a size too small.
But when Barack started telling me about his family—that’s when I knew I had found a kindred spirit, someone whose values and upbringing were so much like mine. You see, Barack and I were both raised by families who didn’t have much in the way of money or material possessions but who had given us something far more valuable—their unconditional love, their unflinching sacrifice, and the chance to go places they had never imagined for themselves.
My father was a pump operator at the city water plant, and he was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis when my brother and I were young. And even as a kid, I knew there were plenty of days when he was in pain . . . I knew there were plenty of mornings when it was a struggle for him to simply get out of bed. But every morning, I watched my father wake up with a smile, grab his walker, prop himself up against the bathroom sink, and slowly shave and button his uniform. And when he returned home after a long day’s work, my brother and I would stand at the top of the stairs to our little apartment, patiently waiting to greet him . . . watching as he reached down to lift one leg, and then the other, to slowly climb his way into our arms. But despite these challenges, my dad hardly ever missed a day of work . . . he and my mom were determined to give me and my brother the kind of education they could only dream of. And when my brother and I finally made it to college, nearly all of our tuition came from student loans and grants. But my dad still had to pay a tiny portion of that tuition himself. And every semester, he was determined to pay that bill right on time, even taking out loans when he fell short. He was so proud to be sending his kids to college…and he made sure we never missed a registration deadline because his check was late. You see, for my dad, that’s what it meant to be a man.
More here. (Note: At least one post will be dedicated to honor Black History Month throughout February)
The Physics Of Leap Day
Ethan Siegel in Forbes:
Once approximately every four years, the elusive entity that occurs this Monday — February 29th — comes along. The historical origins and urban legends associated with it are incredibly interesting, but the reason there’s any such thing asLeap Day at all is because of the physics of planet Earth. The Earth, of course, is rotating on its axis while simultaneously revolving around the Sun. That rotation is responsible for sunrise, sunset, moonrise, moonset, the Coriolis effect, and the rotation of all the stars in the night sky about the poles. Revolution, on the other hand, is responsible for the seasons; when your hemisphere tilted away from the Sun, that’s when you have your winter (and minimum daylight), and when your hemisphere is tilted towards the Sun, that’s when you have your luminous summer.
And you probably learned that a day is 24 hours, due to the rotation, while a year is 365 days (with an occasional 366 for leap years), taking care of the revolution. It turns out it’s a little more complicated than that!
A Friendly Open Letter to Bill Nye (about Philosophy)
David Kyle Johnson in Psychology Today:
Recently, in a “Big Think” segment(link is external), you were asked about your opinion of philosophy. Your response was less than generous. This isn't the first time I've heard similar opinions from well-respected scientists and science communicators. But as a philosophy professor, it pains me awfully when I see and hear such things—and this time I felt obligated to respond.
Now let me be clear. I have nothing but respect for your work bringing scientific knowledge to the general population. In fact, I celebrate it! (I hope one day my two year old falls in love with your work.) Indeed, I love science and am well versed in it. I teach a course on scientific reasoning for our physics department, and on how to recognize medical pseudoscience for our sports medicine department. I emphasize heavily the scientific method in my logic and critical thinking classes. I have lectures on General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics in “Exploring Metaphysics” (one of my courses for The Great Courses). In my academic work, I bring scientific reasoning to bear on as many philosophical questions as I can. I couldn’t be a more dedicated advocate of science.
In other words Bill, I’m on your side. Ergo, we are on the same side. So, why aren't we working together?
The Nuclear Reaction
Michael Fumento in Inference:
Wind and solar energy are not becoming competitive with other forms of electricity generation in the United States. Impressions to the contrary are based on flawed data. In its accounting, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) uses what it calls levelized costs. These represent the per-kilowatt-hour cost of financing, building, operating, and maintaining an electricity generation plant over its assumed financial life.
Levelized costs were designed to permit a comparison between all forms of electricity generation, but data for wind and solar energy, on the one hand, and other sources of fuel, on the other, do not necessarily correspond.
The nameplate capacity of a plant designates its production maximum under ideal circumstances. The capacity factor of a plant, by way of contrast, designates the percentage of its nameplate capacity that it realizes in day-to-day operations. Nuclear has an impressive capacity factor of about 92 percent in the United States, more than double what it was in 1972. This improvement is one of the unsung successes of nuclear power.5 The capacity factors for wind and solar energy are at the opposite end of the scale. According to the EIA, wind averages about 34 percent; the Global Wind Energy Council estimates it at only between 15 and 30 percent.6 The EIA estimates the capacity factor for solar energy at 28 percent; the industry itself gives a lower range of between 10 and 25 percent.7
These are interesting discrepancies between government and industry estimates.
Meet the YouTube star taking the Jewish world by storm
Michael Schaeffer Omer-Man in 972 Magazine:
In the first four episodes of what promises to be a biting satirical critique of Israeli society, Avi, whose too-bad-to-be-true persona seems to be throwing a good number of her viewers for a loop, transitions from a what-the-hell-is-going-on episode full of tips for future Birthright participants to more serious attempts at journalism. Take, for instance, the episode where she comes up with her own offensive solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at Tel Aviv’s Pride Parade.
Asked to describe what the hell it is that she’s doing, Avi, who isn’t quite a real person, says: “think hard-hitting journalism with a sexy Zionist touch. I’m a cross between Oprah, Golda Meir, Fiddler on the Roof, and Bar Rafieli.” She’s also unabashedly racist, refuses to recognize the existence of the Palestinian people, and understands the nuances of Israeli society about as well as Benjamin Netanyahu understands Islam.
However, when Avi offered to give an interview to +972, I couldn’t resist. So with a healthy dose of willful suspension of disbelief, I sat down with Ms. Schwartzberger this week to discuss how she became the young woman she is today, what she hopes to accomplish with her “journalism,” and the intersectionality of indigenous struggles from Palestine to Nova Scotia.
Tell me about yourself. How did you end up in Israel and why are you making this video series?
I’m a Canadian Jewess who came to Israel on a Birthright trip and fell in love with the holy land. The guys were so hot I decided to stay.
Also, I wanted to make something viral to make all the haters shut up. So many people are hating on Israel and I wanted to show my friends, the Jews and non-Jews back home, the real Israel — not the “evil” Israel they show on anti-Semitic CNN.
sara montiel - polichinela
we were hot and thirsty
so we went into a tiny place to get an agua com gás
the place was called
the woman who served us was tiny
and she wore a kind of turban hat
before we left we noticed they had
pudim and suco de açai
so we planned to come back after climbing the 1000 steps
when we came back
the tiny woman with the turban hat
greeted us like
long lost old friends
we had pudim
it was the best we’d ever tasted
we had a pitcher of açai juice
oh how we missed açai
we asked her about the other cakes in the display case
when she said, “aipim bolo com coco”
so she brought us a piece
it was the best we’d ever tasted
I wanted to let her know how happy she’d made us
I wanted to tell her what a special place she made in this world
but we just smiled
and thanked her and left
by Robert Markey
from Poems from Brazil
doce mel: sweet honey
agua com gás: carbonated water
suco de açai: açai juice
aipim bolo com coco: cassava cake with coconut
sonny james (1929 - 2016)
Barack Obama: his most important racial justice speech
Brittney Cooper in Salon:
President Obama gave an unprecedented speech focused exclusively on the social plight of Black women and girls at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s annual weekend of events. This speech represents a moment of triumph for intersectional politics, a term Black feminist scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw invented to describe the ways that racism, sexism and classism work in interlocking fashion to make Black and other women of color invisible in the broader body politic. But Black feminists have also argued for several decades now that placing Black women at the center of political discourses about race and gender would have a positive effect on every marginalized group. Addressing the disproportionate poverty Black women face necessarily helps other women who struggle with poverty. Combating racism helps all people of color and not just Black women. And dealing with the war on women and its effects on Black women automatically improves the condition of other races of women.
As the president noted, Black women’s work “to expand civil rights opened the doors of opportunity, not just for African-Americans, but for all women, for all of us – black and white, Latino and Asian, LGBT and straight, for our First Americans and our newest Americans.” Using Black women’s narratives to highlight the struggles of other groups of marginalized Americans in the extensive way that Obama did on Saturday simply has never been done before in American public life.
More here. (Note: At least one post will be dedicated to honor Black History Month throughout February)
Saturday, February 27, 2016
Pierre Boulez’s path to total purity
Ivan Hewett in Prospect:
The death in January of Pierre Boulez at the age of 90 robbed the musical world of a great conductor, a brilliant polemicist and an agitator for musical modernism. He was also a charismatic and intransigent human being—charming and generous to those who shared his vision, but prepared to thwart those who did not.
That much is certain about Boulez. But there is also his other role, the one he would surely like to be remembered by: as a composer. Here the situation is less certain. His music was a part of his grand project to yoke all of contemporary music to the modernist ethos. He would lead the way, through his activities as conductor of major orchestras, head of a research institute and as a composer—and he fully expected the other Young Turks of post-war modernism like Karlheinz Stockhausen and Luciano Berio to march in step with him. Certainty had dissolved, the old hierarchies had crumbled and everyone had to work out their own salvation. According to Boulez, to adopt the musical grammar and manners of the past was reprehensible escapism.
If Boulez was right, then reprehensible escapism is now the condition of both classical and pop music. The past has never been more in vogue. “Will pop eat itself?” is a question often asked, as old pop albums haunt the charts and younger bands echo their elders. The outpouring of grief over David Bowie’s death is surely bound up with this sense that pop’s great days are behind it. The question could be asked about film music too, where the gestures of the genre’s golden age come round again and again. And it could be asked about classical music, where to be obsessed with the past, and to weave references to it into one’s own music, is almost de rigueur.
Some of this could justly be described as escapism. But not every reference to the past is reprehensible. On the contrary, it could be said that without some coherent connection to the past, artistic expression becomes impossible. The great exemplars of modernism, from TS Eliot to James Joyce to Arnold Schoenberg, were in love with the traditions they rebelled against. They proved time and again that a work of art can only join the tradition by reworking it from within. Simply mimicking the surface gestures of a great work leads to stale pastiche.
This would seem to make Boulez’s stance a simple misunderstanding.
Really Good at Killing
Thomas Nagel reviews Scott Shane's Objective Troy: A Terrorist, a President and the Rise of the Drone, in the LRB:
Pacifists are rare. Most people believe that lethal violence may be used in self-defence, or the defence of others, against potentially lethal threats. Military action is justified by a collective institutional version of this basic human right, which sets an outer limit on the right to life. Lethal aggressors who cannot be stopped by lesser means are liable to lethal attack, and this does not violate their right to life so long as they remain a threat. Killing in self-defence is distinct from execution, the killing of someone who is no longer a threat as a punishment for past conduct. It is also usually distinct from assassination, which can be carried out for a wide range of reasons: revenge, political or religious hatred, nationalistic passion and so forth – though occasionally someone who is a lethal threat to the assassin or his community may be targeted.
The development of drone warfare has put these distinctions under strain, and that helps to explain the visceral reaction many people have against it, in spite of its being much less destructive than more traditional forms of military violence. Drones, or UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), are more selective in the killing of enemies, produce less collateral damage to non-combatants and impose no physical risk to those who pilot them, since they are sitting in a control station thousands of miles away. Who could ask for more?
In Objective Troy, Scott Shane explains why Barack Obama, when he became president, favoured drone warfare as his chief anti-terrorism tactic over the conventional wars of his predecessor:
The number of al-Qaida plotters whose aim was to attack Americans was in the hundreds. Yet several hundred thousand Iraqis and Afghans, and some four thousand American troops, had died in the two big wars since 2001 … The drone, it seemed, if used judiciously, offered a way to scale the solution to the problem, picking off America’s real enemies one by one.
‘Let’s kill the people who are trying to kill us,’ Obama would say.
Read Harper Lee’s Essay for Vogue, “Love—In Other Words”
Julia Felsenthal reproduces Harper Lee in Vogue:
Many years ago an aging member of the House of Hanover, on learning that the duty of providing an heir to the throne of England had suddenly befallen him and his brothers, confided his alarm to his friend Thomas Creevey: “ . . . It is now seven-and-twenty years that Madame St. Laurent and I have lived together; we are of the same age and have been in all climates, and in all difficulties together, and you may well imagine the pang it will occasion me to part with her . . . . I protest I don’t know what is to become of her if a marriage is to be forced upon me . . . .”
Amused by the Duke of Kent’s predicament. Mr. Creevey recorded the incident in his diary and preserved for us a timeless declaration. The man who made it was not overly endowed with brilliance, nor had he led a noteworthy life, yet we remember his cry from the heart and tend to forget his ultimate service to mankind: He was the father of Queen Victoria.
What did the Duke of Kent tell us? That two people had shared their lives on a voluntary basis for nearly thirty years—in itself a remarkable achievement; that they had survived the fevers and frets of intimate relationship; that together they had met the pressures and disappointments of life; that he is in agony at the prospect of leaving her. In one graceful sentence, the Duke of Kent said all there is to say about the love of a man for a woman.
And in so saying, he tells us much about love itself. There is only one kind of love—love. But the different manifestations of love are uncountable:
At an unfamiliar night noise a mother will spring from bed, not to return until every corner of her domain is tucked safely round her anxiety. A man will look up from his golf game to watch a jet cut caterpillar tracks through the sky. A housewife, before driving to town, will give her neighbour a quick call to see if she wants anything from the store. These are manifestations of a power within us that must of necessity be called divine, for it is no invention of man.
What is love? Many things are like love—indeed, love is present in pity, compassion, romance, affection. What made the Duke of Kent’s statement a declaration of love, and what makes us perform without second thought small acts of love every day of our lives, is an element conspicuous by its absence. Were it present, the Duke of Kent would have left his mistress without a pang; the sound barrier breaking over her head would not rouse the mother; sinking his putt would be the primary aim of the golfer; the housewife would go straight to the store with no thought of her neighbour. One thing identifies love and isolates it from kindred emotions: Love admits not of self.
All about the ego tunnel
Richard Marshall interviews Thomas K. Metzinger over at 3:AM Magazine:
3:AM: You’re interested in the philosophy of consciousness and the self.
TM: Yes, it is true that I have had a long-standing interest in consciousness. In 1994 I founded the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness together with Bernard Baars, the late William Banks, George Buckner, David Chalmers, Stanley Klein, Bruce Mangan, David Rosenthal, and Patrick Wilken. I hung around in the Executive Committee and various committees of the ASSC for much too long, even acted as president in 2010, but a couple of thousand e-mails and 19 conferences later it is satisfying to see how a bunch of idealists actually managed to create an established research community out of the blue. The consciousness community is now running perfectly, it has anew journal, brilliant young people are joining it all the time and my personal prediction is that we will have isolated the global neural correlate of consciousness by 2050. I also tried to support the overall process by editing two collections, one for philosophers and one of an interdisciplinary kind: Conscious Experience (1995, Imprint Academic) and Neural Correlates of Consciousness (2000, MIT Press)
In the beginning of the ASSC, foundational conceptual work by philosophers was very important, followed by a phase in which the neuroscientists moved in with their own research programs and contributions. Observing the field for more than a quarter century now, my impression is that what we increasingly need is not so much gifted young philosophers who are empirically informed in neuroscience or psychology, but more junior researchers who can combine philosophical metatheory with a solid training in mathematics. The first formal models of conscious experience have already appeared on the horizon, and as we incrementally move forward towards the first unified model of subjective experience there are challenges on the conceptual frontier that can only be met by researchers who understand the mathematics. We now need open minded young philosophers of mind who can see through the competing formal models in order to extract what is conceptually problematic – and what is really relevant from a philosophical perspective.
In the early Sixties it was Hilary Putnam who, in a short series of seminal papers, took Turing’s inspiration and transposed concepts from the mathematical theory of automata – for example the idea that a system’s “psychology” would be given by the machine table it physically realizes – into analytical philosophy of mind, laying the foundations for the explosive development of early functionalism and classical cognitive science. One major criticism was that some mysterious and simple “intrinsic” qualities of phenomenal experience exist (people at the time called them “qualia”) and that they couldn’t be dissolved into a network of relational properties. The idea was that there are irreducible and context-invariant phenomenal atoms, subjective universals in the sense of Clarence Irving Lewis (1929:121-131), that is, maximally simple forms of conscious content, for which introspectively we possess transtemporal identity criteria. But the claim was shown to be empirically false and nobody could really say what “intrinsicality” actually was.