Tuesday, January 31, 2017
Poetry Should Talk Honestly About Money
Aaron Giovannone in The Walrus:
But it’s worse this season. The college where I have been teaching for two years, filling in for professors on leave, doesn’t need to rehire me. Soon my unemployment benefits will run out, and I’ll untie again, sail off. It’ll be my fourth move in three years. And moving is a lot of work, even if, like me, you live in a cheap one-bedroom apartment, and you sleep on an air mattress (and have another air mattress as a “couch”) and you don’t bother unpacking anymore, and you only own a few pieces of disintegrating, assemble-it-yourself furniture. My attachments to people, places and things are disintegrating too, but I don’t have time to worry about that. I’m thirty-six, and need a job.
But while I make my living as an English professor, that job stems from my career as a poet, without which I wouldn’t have earned my degrees or found teaching jobs. Many poets and other creative writers are in the same situation, struggling to make money in the academy. For those in the publishing industry, the situation is worse.
Few poets, however, write honestly about their economic situation. Indeed, it’s a challenge to find any poet willing to come clean about money: wanting it, enjoying it, needing it, or lacking it—even though this must necessarily be our condition.
POETRY BY LEE YUK SA, Translated by Sekyo Nam Haines
Ever ailing, my breath drifts lazily today
above the silver waves like a moon over the ocean.
O Plantain, lift your long green sleeve,
and wet my burning lips with your moist tenderness.
Long ago, we were two separate souls, parted
without a word on that last day of the Saracen kingdom.
The young women’s firm and slender hands at the cuffs of your sleeves,
the delicate lines in their palms still weaving their dreams.
Each time when you saw the new flowers and the constellation afar,
how often have you tried to re-imagine the forgotten seasons?
Oh, better a thousand years from now, on this autumn night,
you and I together, let’s measure how long the sound of rain is!
As dawn comes, somewhere in the sky, a rainbow will rise—
treading on that rainbow, let us return to our endless parting.
Translators note; plantain leaves resemble the sleeves of Korean women’s traditional blouse.
Hydrogen turned into metal in stunning act of alchemy
Ian Johnston in The Independent:
Now, in a stunning act of modern-day alchemy, scientists at Harvard University have finally succeeded in creating a tiny amount of what is the rarest, and possibly most valuable, material on the planet, they reported in the journal Science.
For metallic hydrogen could theoretically revolutionise technology, enabling the creation of super-fast computers, high-speed levitating trains and ultra-efficient vehicles and dramatically improving almost anything involving electricity.
And it could also allow humanity to explore outer space as never before.
But the prospect of this bright future could be at risk if the scientists’ next step – to establish whether the metal is stable at normal pressures and temperatures – fails to go as hoped.
Professor Isaac Silvera, who made the breakthrough with Dr Ranga Dias, said: “This is the holy grail of high-pressure physics.
“It's the first-ever sample of metallic hydrogen on Earth, so when you're looking at it, you're looking at something that’s never existed before.”
Drake Baer in New York Magazine:
Let’s say you recently marched with 3.2 million people, celebrated a 108-year wait for a World Series, or raved deep into the night. The contagious euphoria you felt has a name: “collective effervescence,” coined a century ago by the French sociologist Émile Durkheim. It’s that glowy, giddy feeling where your sense of self slackens, yielding to a connection with your fellow, synchronized humans.
In an instance of sublime timing, I caught SUNY Buffalo psychologist Shira Gabriel’s presentation about collective effervescence at the the Society for Personality and Social Psychology conference on Saturday. According to her forthcoming research, these effervescent experiences fill the human need for belonging in a way that most social psychology research — so long preoccupied with couples, families, and small groups — has tended to overlook. It underscores how customs as ancient as pilgrimages and feast days, and modern as protests and pro sports, help people to lead happier, connected, and more personally meaningful lives.
Gabriel, who was initiated into effervescence by following Phish during her grad-school years, said it’s the sort of thing most people experience without ever considering. Think about why people go to concerts, for instance: The sound is loud, the drinks expensive, the people sweaty, and you can hear the same songs at home. “What is so positive about being in the spot where the music is made?” she said in an interview. While you don’t say to yourself that you’re going to the show to fulfill your need for collective effervescence, the need is being met.
Scott Aaronson: What is Mathematical Truth?
Video length: 8:20
Sick But Not Sick
Suzanne O’Sullivan is a neurologist specializing in epilepsy who practices in London. Many of her patients suffer from so-called conversion disorders: somatic symptoms caused by psychological distress that defy ready diagnosis by medical tests or physical examination. “They are medical disorders like no others,” O’Sullivan writes. “They obey no rules. They can affect any part of the body…. Almost any symptom we can imagine can become real when we are in distress.”
Physicians who practice family medicine, pediatrics, or internal medicine learn that a substantial proportion of people seeking care have inexplicable complaints. Some surveys indicate that at least a quarter of such patients report symptoms that appear to have no physical basis, and that one in ten continues to believe that he has a terminal disease even after the doctor has found him to be healthy.1
Understandably, because the symptoms obscure the psychological genesis, patients seek a physical disorder to explain their condition, and turn to doctors like O’Sullivan to provide a diagnosis.
Finding the Blank Spaces in a Well-Mapped World
Explorers have long filled in our understanding of the world, using and then discarding the sexton, the compass, MapQuest. “The project of mapping the Earth properly is to some extent complete,” Hessler says. But while there are no longer dragons fleshing out far-flung places, a surprising number of spaces are still uncharted—and the locations we’ve discovered to explore have only expanded. “Where we were just trying to accurately map terrestrial space,” Hessler says, we’ve moved into a “metaphor for how we live. We’re mapping things that don’t have a physical existence, like internet data and the neural connections in our heads.”
From mapping the dark between stars to the patterns of disease outbreaks, who is making maps today, and what they’re used for, says a lot about the modern world. “Now anything can be mapped,” says Hessler. “It’s the Wild West. We are in the great age of cartography, and we’re still just finding out what its powers are.”
The Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station sits on the Earth’s axis, at an altitude just above 9,000 feet, smack in the world’s largest, coldest desert, where a small settlement of metal shipping containers takes shape in rows on a windblown sheet of continental ice. Heavy equipment beeps in the polar air. In these harsh conditions, Naoko Kurahashi Neilson has been trying to map black holes.
The 100 best nonfiction books: – De Profundis
Robert McCrum in The Guardian:
In his cell, between January and March 1897, in preparation for his release from Reading jail in April, Oscar Wilde began to write an extraordinary letter. He wanted to address his notorious relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, the fin-de-siècle romance that had swiftly become a fatal tragedy. “Bosie” had remained aloof from his former lover throughout the two years of Wilde’s sentence (“with hard labour”), and the 80 pages of manuscript written on 20 folios of thin blue prison paper became Wilde’s tormented bid for some kind of rapprochement. What began as an act of would-be reconciliation blossomed into an excruciating, and utterly compelling, chapter of autobiography, an aesthetic apologia (Epistola: In Carcere et Vinculis – “Letter: from Prison and in Chains”) , and finally a tour de force of prose by a late-Victorian writer of genius.
...“I now see that Sorrow is at once the type and test of all great Art. What the artist is always looking for is that mode of existence in which soul and body are one and indivisible: in which the outward is expressive of the inward: in which Form reveals…” “To the artist, expression is the only mode under which he can conceive life at all. To him what is dumb is dead. But to Christ it was not so...
The Right Way to Say ‘I’m Sorry’
Jane Brody in The New York Times:
Most people say “I’m sorry” many times a day for a host of trivial affronts – accidentally bumping into someone or failing to hold open a door. These apologies are easy and usually readily accepted, often with a response like, “No problem.” But when “I’m sorry” are the words needed to right truly hurtful words, acts or inaction, they can be the hardest ones to utter. And even when an apology is offered with the best of intentions, it can be seriously undermined by the way in which it is worded. Instead of eradicating the emotional pain the affront caused, a poorly worded apology can result in lasting anger and antagonism, and undermine an important relationship. I admit to a lifetime of challenges when it comes to apologizing, especially when I thought I was right or misunderstood or that the offended party was being overly sensitive. But I recently discovered that the need for an apology is less about me than the person who, for whatever reason, is offended by something I said or did or failed to do, regardless of my intentions. I also learned that a sincere apology can be powerful medicine with surprising value for the giver as well as the recipient.
In the very first chapter of her new book, “Why Won’t You Apologize?,” Dr. Lerner points out that apologies followed by rationalizations are “never satisfying” and can even be harmful. “When ‘but’ is tagged on to an apology,” she wrote, it’s an excuse that counters the sincerity of the original message. The best apologies are short and don’t include explanations that can undo them. Nor should a request for forgiveness be part of an apology. The offended party may accept a sincere apology but still be unready to forgive the transgression. Forgiveness, should it come, may depend on a demonstration going forward that the offense will not be repeated. “It’s not our place to tell anyone to forgive or not to forgive,” Dr. Lerner said in an interview. She disputes popular thinking that failing to forgive is bad for one’s health and can lead to a life mired in bitterness and hate.
We Lived Happily During the War
And when they bombed other people’s houses, we
but not enough, we opposed them but not
enough. I was
in my bed, around my bed America
was falling: invisible house by invisible house by invisible house.
I took a chair outside and watched the sun.
In the sixth month
of a disastrous reign in the house of money
in the street of money in the city of money in the country of money,
our great country of money, we (forgive us)
lived happily during the war.
by Ilya Kaminsky
from Poetry International Website
Monday, January 30, 2017
Deep learning dead languages
by Espen Sommer Eide
It is a tingling sense of presence in the room, when I finally press play on the generated audio file, and hear my trained deep-learning neural net try to formulate new and never before spoken sentences in a language where the last fluent speaker passed away in 2003. When Edison invented the phonograph, it was soon conceived as a means not primarily to play music, but to hear voices of dead persons. The voices recorded on the phonograph were experienced as sounds without bodies, as spirits in space. Listening intensely to the sound, at first I can hear only static noise, but deep inside it various spectral shapes and pulses are starting to make themselves present. I think this is what it must have felt like for Edison when he played his first ghost-like recording of a human voice.
Two early versions of experiment:
Recently there have been big breakthroughs in the field of artificial intelligence and machine learning. Over a period of just a couple of years, it has found new and novel uses in everything from self-driving cars and medical image processing to automatic translation algorithms, including speech recognition and natural language processing. Companies such as Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and the Chinese firm Baidu are currently competing in hunting down and clearing out whole computer science departments at universities around the globe, in order to employ the best heads in the field.
One of the technologies driving this revolution goes by names such as deep learning and deep neural networks. In short, the form of computing that is inspired by the brain and its billions of neurons working in parallel to interpret and act in accordance with its surroundings. What has made this old idea of neural networks make such a comeback is the recent availability of big data – large data sets used in the training of the networks, and also the speed of parallel processing in modern GPU chipsets.
As an artist and electronic musician with a keen interest in language and computing, I came across an article published fall 2016, where a group of Google scientists had turned towards the field of audio to try to improve artificial speech. What triggered my imagination was not the fact that they had succeeded in making computer speech sounding much more natural, but the weird by-products of trying the technology out on musical material and other sounds. I had to try this out myself and I fearlessly installed the necessary software on one of Google's cloud-based computing engines to run the tests. My first experiments were with a collection of water-insect field recordings, and also with my own music to see if it could learn to "sound" like tracks of my musical projects phonophani or alog (possibly putting me out of work in the process!).
The really big step forward compared to previous techniques is that the trained model is on a sample-by-sample level, so the algorithm really doesn't care if the sounds used for training are a factory siren, a water insect or a piano. The neural network becomes a black box where it is hard to visualise what is actually going on inside. It learns by itself with no instructions on how to replicate the sounds it is fed. And if not correlated with some strictly labelled material it just babbles away meaninglessly like it is speaking in tongues. Or in case of musical material it sounds like a stuttering of half thought-out musical phrases. One big challenge for working with music and deep learning will be the access to a big dataset. In computer vision research, large databases of tagged visual material are readily accessible, and have been for a decade or so. This is what has made the striking visual art of the various neural deep dreaming projects possible (inspired by the 2015 Google inceptionism project). But in the field of music and sound large datasets for this purpose are just now being assembled for the first time.
I turned my experiments back towards language again. Would it be possible to train a deep learning network for a dead language? I have in my previous art projects worked extensively with languages that are endangered or already extinct – so called dying languages. Every ten days a language disappears, and at that rate, within a few generations, half of the approximately 6000 languages in the world today will be extinct. The concept of a dying language is a highly complex mechanism. In order for language to survive, it is of central importance that the language is in use, especially in normal households, and between generations of a family. Can a language be kept and conserved for future generations, or is a language alive only when actively used and spoken between people in a society? Can a language be detached from a people's culture, knowledge and identity? Among the family of Sámi languages (of the indigenous groups of northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia), several of the languages are already extinct or with very few and old speakers left, but efforts are being made to help revive some of them.
From a contact in the Freiburg Research Group in Saami Studies, I got hold of the last remaining recorded material from an already dead language, Akkala Sámi, from north-west Russia. One of the last speakers, "Piotr", tells a story and sings a song. What if I trained a deep learning model to speak this lost language, using this material for the training? Could it be a way to hear the language spoken again, as if it were living? Could it give any insights into how it sounds that are not already present in the final recordings? Could it somehow give a language its illusive sense of presence back?
Original story used for training (excerpt):
Three stages in the learning process:
From the vantage point of art, it is not so important whether what comes out of this experiment keeps intact the meaning of some speaker, some knowledge, correct grammar etc. I only care for the sound itself, the material content, or the medium itself. Some of the uncanniest generated files are the ones that are almost silent, where only the breathing and some small sounds of the mouth between words are generated. This babbling, or "dreaming" as it is often also called when the neural network is turned inward on itself, is an excellent method to highlight the pure audible element of speech. Also it makes clear what is unique to a certain language, and therefore a possible answer to the question of what is lost if the language is lost.
In the end, I would not label my experiments a success. They are a sketch of a rudimentary idea, a proof of concept at most. In my experiments with musical material, it is not the quality of the musical results that interests me, but the sense of an outside presence or otherness in the sounds generated without a plan or program formulated by a human consciousness. I think this is a central part of my experience of any "deep" art, that there is some singular and unknown method or secret autonomous algorithm working within the piece that makes it endlessly fascinating. In short, the work becomes a character – a face in front of you – but not necessarily a human face.
The oft-cited Turing test is used to measure the success of an artificial intelligence like the one I have created. In this case a slightly amended version, a Turing test for art. In the original test, a human subject is to determine whether he or she is fooled by the machine to count it as a human consciousness. Much can be argued against such a simplistic test, but I think its biggest flaw is that it is fundamentally anthropocentric in its approach. Why should a human determine what intelligence is? If we at any point should meet a form of artificial intelligence in this "strong" sense, it will be characterised by its total otherness, and not in any way comparable to our way of thinking. It will be like the black box of the deep learning layers, where we will not ever be able to visualise its multi-dimensional structure. Similarly to the question of whether animals can think or feel like us, the whole question of intelligence becomes too narrow in scope. What matters is our natural reactions and emotions when put in front of the other.
This is how far the experiment got before publishing this text. The result of one and a half month of 24 hour deep learning Akkala Sámi on a cloud-based cpu-server. I felt something happening the final few days, it was as if the voice was starting to coalesce into less stuttering – less like Schwitters "Ursonate" and more flow, and maybe less anger and shouting? Or is it just my mind playing tricks with me? It is one of the biggest challenges to know when to quit. Just one more hour of learning... Just one little change of code and try again... The main weakness in my experiment was the limited amount of source material. I would need access to a larger data corpus of a language to move further. This highlights the increased importance of archives in the future. The world must become even more "data-centric". How will artificial intelligence change a world characterised by homogeneity and the destruction of diversity? Will artificial intelligence make possible a new way of preserving the unique and singular? A preserving of the past by making it present all around us?
In the case of my experiment the next logical step will be to team up with linguists and computer scientists to move the idea further. Still, it is a case in point that I, with my limited specialist knowledge of the technology, was capable of running experiments of this kind. The technology will become even more democratised when the prices of fast GPU processors come down to a consumer level. How could artificial intelligence assist in the creation of art? Will it be a new form of post-human art, as some speculate? The bigger question is what deep learning will mean for art and culture, for creativity, for social studies and the humanities. This is a future that I, and many others will discover and take part in shaping over the coming years.
 For more examples visit the full set: https://soundcloud.com/user-614303604/sets/deep-learning-dead-languages
* * *
Espen Sommer Eide is a musician and artist based in Bergen, Norway. With his music projects Phonophani and Alog, he has composed and performed a series of experimental electronic works. As an artist his works investigates subjects ranging from the linguistic, the historical and archival to the invention of new scientific and musical instruments for performative fieldwork. His works has been exhibited and performed at Bergen Kunsthall, Nikolaj Kunsthal, Manifesta Biennial, Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, Stedelijk Museum, GRM, De Halle Haarlem, Bergen Assembly, Sonic Acts, Mutek, Performa and more. He is also a member of theatre-collective Verdensteatret with works performed at the Shanghai Biennial, Exit festival Paris, BAM New York and more.
Email: espensommer A gmail D com
‘Alternative Facts' and the Necessity of Liberal Education
by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse
Kellyanne Conway's January 22 appearance on Meet the Press (transcript) has already attracted a good deal of attention, given her use of the seemingly Orwellian expression ‘alternative facts.' The idiom serves to confirm the view many take of the Trump administration's approach to honest deliberation. In light of the fake news and post-truth politics issues and the fact that the Trump administration has required many agencies to close down their communications with the public, Conway's line is an easy fit with a broad and disconcerting narrative of willful irrationalism and bold abuse of power. In many ways, we are sympathetic with this interpretation of Conway's term; as she deployed it, it indeed sounded as the Orwellian assertion our-say-so-trumps-is-so. However, there is an interpretation of Conway's turn of phrase and her broader point that, though still disappointing, is considerably less Orwellian. And it occasions a crucial lesson about the place of liberal education in a democratic society.
First, consider the more charitable interpretation of Conway's term. In both cases where Conway uses the expression alternative facts, she is talking about how the evidence relevant for settling a question is often more complicated than it may at first seem. In the two cases where she appeals to ‘alternative facts,' the point at issue is whether Sean Spicer's claim at his January 21 Press Conference, "That was the largest audience to witness an inauguration, period," was accurate. Chuck Todd's challenge was that Spicer's claim flew in the face of widespread photographic evidence that showed clearly that the crowd at Trump's inauguration was smaller than the crowd at Obama's '09 inauguration. Yet Spicer claimed that the size of the crowd at the mall belied a number of things about how the crowd was handled for the inauguration; moreover, his statement precisely was that the event was witnessed by more people – which included television and live-streaming. So, as the reasoning went, the photographic evidence doesn't seal the deal, because none of those folks watching Fox News or streaming the event on Breitbart were in the frame.
And on this matter of crowd size, I think it is a symbol for the unfair and incomplete treatment that this president often receives. I'm very heartened to see Nielsen just came out with the ratings, 31 million people watching the inauguration. President Obama had 20.5 million watching his second inauguration four short years ago. So we know people are also watching the inauguration on different screens and in different modes.
Conway was arguing that Spicer's claim referenced the number is of witnesses to the event, which includes those who see it on their screens, not the number of attendees in Washington.
Now, of course that's slippery. And it doesn't reflect the reasons Spicer gave at the 1/21 Press Conference (analysis here). But the point is that there is a considerably less disconcerting interpretation of Conway's lines. She said to Todd,
You're saying it's a falsehood. And . . . Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that.
And later, Conway claimed
. . . we feel compelled to go out and clear the air and put alternative facts out there.
Interpreted more charitably, Conway's ‘alternative facts' involve (1) clarifications of the Press Secretary's claims, and (2) evidence in favor of those clarified claims. To be sure, even on this charitable interpretation, Conway's remarks are disappointing, if only because it's the Press Secretary's job to clarify claims by the administration, not to deliver statements that are in need of clarification. But there is another, more significant, disappointment.
The trouble starts with Conway's use of the word ‘facts.' She really means something like counter-evidence or complicating consideration. Confusion emerges because, when disagreeing over the facts (in this case, the number of people who witnessed an event), one must present other facts. That is, one must argue, and when we deploy, we must first distinguish between premises and conclusions and then assess how the premises support those conclusions. That's simple logic, but it's all important.
The Orwellian interpretation has it that Conway flatly asserted a favored alternate conclusion, and presented no arguments, but only referred to ‘facts' of her own creation. But the more charitable line we've suggested has it that she presented complicating reasons, or rebutting facts: (1) Spicer was talking about witnesses rather than attendees; (2) the number of witnesses to the inauguration (on television and streaming media, et al, worldwide) was far larger than the number of attendees in Washington.
Still, the conclusion is muddied, and Conway even concedes this:
Look, I actually don't think that-- maybe this is me as a pollster, Chuck. And you know data well. I don't think you can prove those numbers one way or the other. There's no way to really quantify crowds. We all know that.
Conway here makes it hard to defend Spicer's "period" at the end of his statement. But what's important is that, even on the charitable reading of ‘alternative facts', Conway is confused. Why? She's still employing the word ‘facts' to make a point about evidence and reasons. Had she claimed to be interested in presenting countervailing evidence, there would be nearly nothing remarkable about her interview.
There are a few lessons to be drawn from the Meet the Press debacle. First, things have spun out of control precisely because Conway did not employ the right concept for making her intended point, and then proved unable to clarify it. In addition, on all sides of the subsequent dispute, there seems to be an unwillingness to identify cases where discussants are simply talking past each other. There are related difficulties in identifying conditions under which a disagreement is about a value and not a fact; and mot generally an incapacity to recognize when operative vocabularies are too simplistic to do all the things we need to do with them.
In the coming months and years, we as a democratic citizenry will need to develop the skills necessary for avoiding and diagnosing such failures of discourse. We need to reacquaint ourselves with concepts like reason, evidence, justification, argument, and objection. We need also to cultivate skills of reading and listening closely, not with suspicion, but with a critical eye and ear. And these skills enable creative and clear thinking, too.
It's for this reason we think that the humanities and liberal arts are good for democratic citizens. Reading, thinking, and writing about literature and ideas sound to too many like only so much indulgent bullshit, but it's not. At least when it's done well. (We addressed this point in reply to Marco Rubio's line about "less philosophers, more welders" line.) Why is this? For starters, it's because these activities teach us how to disagree and argue properly with each other over things that matter. A liberal arts and humanities education teaches us that when it comes to the most important matters, things are complicated, the evidence is complex, and smart people disagree. And we see how smart people handle their disagreements. How do they do it? They've developed not only particular skills, but they've been deploying vocabularies for working out those disagreements, making clear how they see the reasons come out in their favor. Even in the process of acknowledging that someone else has made a good point.
On our more charitable interpretation, then, Kellyanne Conway's alternative facts phrase isn't the dark Orwellian statement so many see. Rather, it's an awkwardly phrased and largely inept observation that issues are complicated and reasons can conflict. And she's frustrated that she's being interpreted so consistently badly. But it all comes out in such a muddle, and it's all too easily seen in the objectionable frame of willful and brutish anti-intellectualism. It's a great irony that the necessity of liberal arts education and the humanities in a democratic society can be recognized only when we are on the brink of being too late to save them.
Wallpaper for the Mind: Interior Decorating under Trump
by Amanda Beth Peery
"Spend five minutes looking at some beautiful scene. Realize you do not have to buy beauty to possess it." So wrote author and actress Margery Wilson in her popular 1942 self-help book for women. This is startling advice, coming up as #5 on her list of suggestions, after "Keep your voice soft, lilting, and uncomplaining." It's startling because it says something simple and real. And, I think, it teaches us something important about the mind.
I like to think of my mind as a room I live in. I can walk around all day, moving from corner to corner. I can peer out the windows or place an object on the table for examination. Life in the room is illuminated by light coming in through the windows—direct impressions of the outside world—but it is also tinted by the tone of the wallpaper. This wallpaper is made up of the images and sounds in the background of my thoughts, the things that are stuck in my head. We all have mental wallpaper, and this half-conscious backdrop drastically colors our experience of the world. Especially now, when we're bombarded with lies and prejudice, ugliness can linger there. But we can change the paper. We can shape what happens in the background of our minds.
When I was in college, I took a poetry seminar with a kindly professor who thumped his foot rhythmically on the floor all through class. One day, the professor thumped his foot and told us about mental wallpaper. It was my first introduction to the idea: as you pass through life, visions and sounds are plastered up against your mind's walls. Sometimes a song gets stuck in your head, sometimes an image from the news plays back all day, and sometimes it can be a sentence or a headline. But these sounds and images are quiet, humming behind your noisy thoughts, and you can go through your day or your whole life barely noticing them.
I knew what he meant. I hadn't started thinking of my mind as a room yet, but I knew how the things I watched, read, and saw could become the background of my mind, looming behind my passing thoughts.
Ads, headlines, and slogans are designed to become this wallpaper, and they often succeed. Today, I've seen Donald Trump's face so many times—used to advertise news channels and plastered across websites and magazines—that it leers at me from my mind's inner wall. But it's possible to make mental wallpaper beautiful and interesting, or at least to find beautiful, interesting things to occasionally replace the other images. Choosing beautiful wallpaper is not about taking shelter from an ugly world but about stashing away resources to face (and sometimes fight) the ugliness. By changing the background pattern, we can find new ways to understand what the world is and can be.
Most people do not actively curate their mental wallpaper. They read a particular book or watch a particular movie because they like the author or the actors, because they are interested in the topic, or because it relaxes them after a long day. People rarely choose a book or movie based on how it might linger in their thoughts, affecting how they perceive the world. Maybe we should be more deliberate. The sounds and images in the backs of our minds might even change the tone and structure of our thoughts.
A friend told me that after reading a novel for a while, he finds himself thinking in the author's voice, narrating his own life with the author's cadences. Certain books have the same effect on me. More subtly, the language and themes of some of the books I love most have lingered for years, shaping what I think and write. I'm not alone—artists and writers tirelessly echo each other's work. The language of a beloved book or the composition of a brilliant painting creeps into the artist's thoughts, and groundbreaking past works define the territory through which she roams.
For most of the Western literary tradition, educated people, including the majority of artists and writers, have been well versed in the Christian Bible. Even today, the Bible is at the roots of Western literature. A few years ago, a New York Times article about the King James Bible said, "You can hear its distinctive cadences in the speeches of Lincoln, the poetry of Whitman, the novels of Cormac McCarthy." The Bible was, and still is, a common pattern in the wallpaper of many minds. Its presence goes beyond tone and language. Many writers have modeled their work on the Bible's structures and stories, or have spent their lives responding to its themes.
Fyodor Dostoevsky is an extreme case. He was exiled to Siberia and lived for four years in prison camp, where, most of the time, the only book he was allowed to read was the New Testament. He was a political prisoner, but he lived among dangerous and violent offenders. The bible and the prison camp are in the background of everything he wrote afterwards. The world that Dostoevsky recreated in literature was a world of extremes, of unimpeachable virtue and horrible vice, the heights of hope and miserable despair. In great novels like Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, he endlessly struggled with the contradiction between the just God of the New Testament and the evils of mankind, evils that were all around him at the camp. Dostoevsky's post-exile novels are attempts to figure out what the Bible can mean in a prison camp.
If experiences and memories like Dostoevsky's can be a part of our mental wallpaper, along with songs, cadences, words, and visions, does that mean that everything we've ever seen or known is part of the pattern on the walls? I don't think so. What I call mental wallpaper is defined by its place halfway between the surface and the depths of the mind. These are the visions and sounds that we've memorized or internalized and that have become a part of our selves.
If the mind is divided into the conscious and the subconscious, the impressions that make up the wallpaper hover somewhere over the abyss between the two. They are not subconscious objects, held in dark depths and milled back up in dreams, but they are not quite in the open. Often, when I suddenly realize that I have a song stuck in my head, or that an ad or a painting has been floating in my mind for a while, the sound or vision seems to come from within myself, familiar and uncanny like looking down at my feet in a new pair of shoes.
We cannot choose all of the aspects of our mental wallpaper, but we do have some choice. A religious person might say the same prayers every night, carving the holy words into his mind's walls. I get nervous when I fly, so I start flights by reciting a poem I memorized once, "The Cold Heaven," by W.B. Yeats. It's a strange choice—a poem with an uncertain and cruel view of death—but it is beautiful and unflinching, and, if the plane starts to dive, I want to have those words in my head and heart.
To have something by heart is a radical form of possession. As Margery Wilson wrote, you do not have to buy beauty to possess it. Memorizing something is a way of bringing it inside the mind's room and making it your own. When a billionaire buys a Van Gogh, he is buying beauty born out of the way the artist learned to see. Van Gogh's way of seeing through his eyelashes (as he described it in a letter to his brother) let him perceive the shapes and colors of the world changed and made new. You do not have to buy the painting in order to learn this way of seeing and to participate in its unsettling beauty. If you spend five minutes really looking at it, it might unlock new possibilities for perception.
The things we have by heart, like poems or paintings that we've memorized or looked at for a long time, are longstanding fixtures of our mental wallpaper. We can determine what these things are by choosing what we look at long enough or repeat often enough to possess. We might not be able to avoid a jingle or a slogan, but if the plane starts to dive, we can replace the slogan with a poem or a prayer and have something beautiful in mind on the way down.
We can also curate our mental wallpaper by deciding what content we take in in the first place. I'm not talking about filtering the facts and ideas we choose to engage with. I'm talking about what we allow to fill up the background. Deliberately curating the wallpaper of our minds is a way of resisting propaganda and other imagistic, half-conscious forms of manipulation. This is an exercise in mental freedom.
Our mind's wallpaper is important because it is the context of our thoughts, and it is what we are left with when we are most alone with ourselves. If at the end of the day we're only left with Breitbart headlines and Trump tweets, images from the news and jokes from unimaginative, norm-reinforcing sitcoms, these things become what we know best about the world. They become the pieces of reality that we truly possess. But if we deliberately take in beauty, it might help us keep our souls intact in a world that is often determined to destroy things that are lovely and complicated.
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Amanda Peery is an Assistant Editor of History at Princeton University Press. She has also worked in philosophy, literary criticism, and economics at Harvard University Press.
Muslim Ban, American Republic
by Ahmed Humayun
As an American – as a Muslim American - I want our country to be safe. I also want our country to live up to its values. A sweeping ban on the entry of Muslims into our country does not make us secure, and contradicts the abiding aspirations of our republic.
Of course, America should be kept safe from terrorism. I grew up in Karachi: I have directly witnessed the destruction inflicted by terrorists who justify their actions in the name of Islam. I know the innocents they have assassinated, including friends of mine, the families wrecked. I have seen the progress of an entire society hampered by a tiny but organized, violent, and fanatical minority.
But though we need vigorous policies to counter Islamist terrorists, these policies should not target the entire populations of entire countries. Such policies are not only ineffective, they are counterproductive and feed the falsehoods that terrorists peddle. Terrorists claim that Islam and the West are inherently at odds, and that there can be no peace between Muslims and non-Muslims. Peaceful and prosperous Muslim communities in the West are the clearest refutation of this false propaganda.
Yet the strongest reason to be critical of the Muslim Ban is not because it plays into the hands of the terrorists. The fact is that such policies are contrary to the best ideals of our American republic. Terrorists cannot destroy our republic, but they won't need to if we diverge from our principles. We do not impose religious tests in the United States of America. We do not discriminate against people on the basis of their background, their national origin, their ethnicity, their sexual orientation, their gender, or anything else. We do not subscribe to the notion of collective guilt: we do not punish innocent individuals for the sins or crimes of others. We judge individuals on their merits, and afford all the opportunity to pursue their dreams.
Our striving to achieve these ideals makes the concept of "American exceptionalism" something more than a self deceiving myth or trite marketing catch phrase. Of course, we have often not lived up to these ideals. Yet that does not lessen the nobility or distinctiveness of the aspiration. Over the years, we have steadily expanded the rights of all the people in our union. These moral advances have been achieved after an enormous amount of work by many people over many years; they are precious; and they benefit all of us. We should not stop now.
The Muslim Ban is just one part of a wide collection of attitudes, policies, and programs being advanced today that should concern us all. The prospect that the rights of women, of gays, of minorities, of the impoverished, vulnerable and dispossessed, of all Americans, might be jeopardized are as real as they have ever been. These initiatives contradict the spirit of America and seek to roll back the real moral advances of our country.
I don't want an America in which women don't have the right to choose. I don't want an America in which gays are demonized and prevented from exercising their civil rights. I don't want an America in which any ethnicity or race – black, brown, white, or whatever– is judged on the basis of vicious stereotypes. There should be no place for anti-semitism, misogyny, racism, and xenophobia in America.
I am heartened to see that so many Americans feel the same way. In recent days, we have seen an enormous number of people participate in peaceful marches in support of vital principles. We have seen an outpouring of direct engagement with our elected representatives. We have seen targeted legal action against fundamentally flawed and pernicious executive policies. We have seen concerted media advocacy in support of those who are most vulnerable in our society. In one sense the real story of the last few weeks has been that the spirit of civic engagement in our country remains much stronger than many imagined.
Of course, we should have no illusions that the road ahead is easy. There will need to be a lot more of this type of civic activity. To be the citizen of a republic means something more than showing up once every 2 or 4 years to vote. It means participating actively in local organizations, pushing our elected representatives to do the right thing, and improving the quality of our representatives over time. It means defending our civil liberties and fighting for our beliefs. I am grateful to live in a country where we can still exercise these rights, and together, struggle for a better world.
Perceptions of Refugees
Great outdoor action from Amsterdam. This shadow art was made for World Refugee Day on June 20, 2013, and was shown at various locations in the city.
The idea behind the campaign is about invisibility of refugees. We don’t know their faces and their background. What we do know is that they need help.
The copy that was placed next to the visual: “There are over 40 million lives hidden today, living as shadows suppressed by war and violence. We often don’t know about them. But they deserve to be seen. And helped. Support another family through Stichting Vluchteling – The Dutch Refugee Foundation”.
For years now, I have been dreaming this dream that our national park rangers would rise up and lead a coup.
Whenever I used to return to the US from Japan or Hong Kong -it was always so appalling flying into LAX (a truly banana republic experience), our infrastructure seemed as shabby as our healthcare was inhumane. Things felt incredibly chaotic and wild west--in many ways, quite uncivilized. On the few occasions, however, when I managed to find myself in a national park, everything began to look up. Suddenly things ran smoothly. There were trams to get people from point a to point b; rooms for all budgets, great cafeteria food often with local ingredients-- and everything felt somehow rational. Kind of like Europe, I always thought.
We have to thank the rangers for this. For they are an amazing group of people. Committed ecologists and educators, so many of them even have a sense of humor. Able to live off grid, I think they are totally bad ass! How many times have I thought over the years that if only the United States was run like our national parks we wouldn't be nearly as much trouble.
One of the things I love best about them is they don't negotiate when it comes to the environment. The parks are not about "consumer choice." You have to keep things green--or else. There is no blaming Republicans or Liberals, no discussion of faith when it comes to the environment, climate "believers" or not, you have to live by the rules of the parks. Yep, that means no plastic water bottles are sold. Hallelujah, and is it really that hard?
Given my great fondness for them, I took more than a little delight to see them running rogue last week with NASA.
I am going to write here next week about Amitav Ghosh's new book, The Great Derangement. Has anyone read it yet?
In the book, Ghosh asks, Are we deranged?
And guess what his answer is.
For the upcoming post, I decided not to talk about the ending of his book, because I thought it might make people uncomfortable. That is because in a very unexpected move, Ghosh,suggests that it is religious groups that are perhaps best suited to tackle the wicket issue of climate change. Why, you might ask. Well, believing that there is no time to wait for momentum to mount in creating a secular movement, he suggests that these groups are already mobilized to work together in a way that goes beyond personal self-expression. Religious organizations are able to quickly mobilize as a group working on a shared cause.
This issue of "self expression" in politics is really interesting. Much as Charles Taylor did in his A Secular Age, Ghosh sees the Protestant Reformation as having played "one of the major roles in the creation of our modern world." And that this Reformation brought with it a strong focus on personal expression--since Salvation was no longer given by Grace but by a person's authentic self expression of faith. This over-focus on self-expression is something, Ghosh writes, that permeates all aspects of modern life, including our political lives as well. He says:
In other words, the public sphere, where politics is performed, has been largely emptied if content in terms of the exercise of power: as with fiction, it has become a forum for secular testimony, a baring-of-the-soul in the world as church. Politics as thus practices is primarily an exercise in personal expressiveness.
In addition, real power and governing--rather being held by politicians-- is wielded by an interlocking association of powerful corporations and institutions. This is known as "deep state." Ghosh argues that the politicians that we see on the TV function more as a kind of performative display. This is why, for example, our political sphere has taken on what can only be described as a reality TV aspect and personality cults. And we, "the viewers" are involved only in terms that relate to our personal journeys toward authenticity and personal expression, for example, on social media or in marches.
I do agree with Ghosh that our political lives have taken on a TV show-quality. And, what is much more worrisome is that within what is a kind of spectacle, rather than working together toward collective action, as citizens, we have become more like consumers, exercising our "free choice" in terms of self expression. Citizenship as consumer. This perhaps can explain why, now we will be seeing more and more people decrying climate change in terms of the personality of who is in the White House--rather than in how the global capitalistic systems that we ourselves are participating in and enabling are destroying the planet.
(Highlighted quote just above from Roy Scranton's must-read Learning to Die in the Anthropocene).
Ghosh continues by saying that even more than their capability for issue-focused group mobilization, religious organizations can serve a crucial role in combatting climate change because they are already standing outside the current paradigm. And this is a crucial point. He says:
“Religious worldviews are not subject to the limitations that have made climate change such a challenge for our existing institutions of governance: they transcend nation-states, and they all acknowledge intergenerational, long-term responsibilities; they do not partake of economistic ways of thinking and are therefore capable of imagining nonlinear change…in ways that are perhaps closed to the forms of reason deployed by contemporary nation-states.”
He is very critical about the way the current environmental movement remains embedded in the fundamental values and notions of the neoliberal capitalist system--- the very framework that caused the problems in the first place.
This echoes Einstein, of course, who famously said: We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.
I agree with Ghosh that we will ultimately fail when it comes to the environment if we continue placing our hopes in "innovation" or worse, in government-corporate associations that never even question the idea that limitless growth is the answer to our problems. I think we will also fail if we think that just saying we believe in global warming or somehow blaming politicians for the situation in which we find ourselves is also counter-productive, as Roy Scranton says above.
But, religious organizations are not the only groups that stand outside the current neo-liberal and global capital worldview. And this is what I really love about the park rangers.
One of my favorite novelists to read in my bleaker moments is Tom Robbins. The man simply refuses to conform. Like a lot of people, I first got "turned on" to Tom Robbins when I was young. Just back from India and living in Berkeley, all I wanted to do was travel back in time to become a flower child. So for me, eternal hippie and ultimate playmate Tom Robbins was the perfect read. He was--and maybe still is-- utterly uninterested in practical life or bourgeois concerns. From mortgages to inner angst, he has so much better things to do. In one of his more recent novels, Villa Incognito, there are these three Vietnam Vets who decide to go MIA. Choosing to remain in Laos after the war is over (why not, right?), the men live in Sybaritic indulgence in a village full of high-wire walkers and pretty ladies--living the life, until things fall totally apart and their paradise found becomes paradise lost. All good things come to an end, of course, and main character Dickie Goldwire eventually finds himself back in the old US of A. And the changes stun him. I think his adjustment disorder was even more intense than my own (both of us gone missing for twenty years). Dickie cannot get over the advertising on everything. Everything was stamped with brand names and consumer choices ruled the world, which was, I probably don't have to explain an utterly and relentlessly consumer-driven world. He hates it and doesn't really see the point either. Life is short and the people back home don't even seem that happy.
Zizek said this the other day (I realize not everyone likes him--but he makes an important point):
"Isn’t is sad that the best left-liberal critique of Trump is political comedy? People like Jon Stewart, John Oliver and so on. It’s nice to make fun of him, but you laugh at him and he wins. My God! There is something terribly wrong with playing this game of ironically making fun of Trump. You know, in medicine they call it symptomatic healing, when you take some things, they just neutralize the effects, like you have this pain, but they don’t heal the disease itself. Criticizing Trump is just symptomatic healing. Trump is an effect of the failure of the liberal-left. Everybody knows this knows this now. The only way to really beat Trump is to radically rethink what does the left mean today. Otherwise he will be getting ordinary people’s votes. "
Trump is a wake-up call.
Injustice and inequality did not suddenly happen on January 20th. Trump did not cause climate change. He did not oversee what was the greatest transfer of wealth in the history of the US or introduce relentless money into politics. At most, he is a symptom --and even though we cannot ignore this odious and malignant symptom-- we also need to take a hard look at the causes. And, keeping our eye on the ball, we must as Zizek urges, radically rethink what the Left means and come up with a fundamentally new approach.
For if we don't get money out of politics and resist the current financial models that have caused so much destruction to the earth we will be lost.
But maybe we are too big and things are too far gone to fix? Because let's face it, after 8 years of outrageous and very costly obstructionism by congress, we are now witnessing a power grab akin to a coup (airports were distraction for Bannon's quiet power grab) Is this even fixable anymore?
I personally have come to like the idea of a West Coast secession. Uniting to create a truly progressive state --with west coast federation universal healthcare; federation-funded democratic education; and bullet trains connecting our totally green cities-- we would aim to create a new society that is sustainable to the earth and achieves true economic justice. With Portland as our capital, we could organize our progressive homeland on sustainable values. We are, after all, paying more to the federal government than we take out ---and all this without fair representation. And looking around, it seems that for years, we are so engaged in fighting a kind of culture war that there is no loner any room or energy left to move forward in terms of the environment, education, and health. Maybe we simply don't work anymore?
This is not just about dismantling this administration --but it is about fundamentally reinventing our society to create a country where economic practice and policy serve the common good. For justice and a fair distribution of wealth and services for all. Like the national parks, we must create a place where financial bottom lines are never prioritized at the expense of the earth; and where love and ecology are our national religion.
Either that or take to the hills...?
To join the darkside: www.altnps.org -Arches, Glacier, Everglades, Cuyahoga Valley, Rocky Mountain, Shenandoah, Yosemite, Badlands, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Blue Ridge Parkway, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Who Can Afford to Call 911?
by Olivia Zhu
As I wrote in a post back in June, reporting bias is a phenomenon that significantly detracts from the efficacy of potential predictive policing measures. Simply put, if underserved communities don’t trust the police and are less likely to report crime as a result, the resulting data is incomplete, inaccurate, and therefore useless when considering measures such as hotspot analysis or setting new patrol routes. This month, I’d like to explore a particular reason why underreporting of crime might occur, with a particular focus on socioeconomic factors that drive who can or is willing to call 911.
It’s easy to make two major assumptions about 911. First, that 911 services are free, or at least are public services paid for by taxpayer money. And second, that they are consistent across the nation. After all, there’s a whole alphabet soup of government agencies that establish standards and rules for dialing 911, among them the Federal Communications Commission and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Consider also organizations such as the National Emergency Number Association and any number of police, fire, and emergency medical service professional organizations to increase oversight and regulation of the service.
The first assumption is proven false by the fact that most states charge a 911 service fee. In theory, fees such as these feed into a Universal Service Fund intended to normalize 911 service across a coverage area, thereby reducing socioeconomic effects. However, the FCC collects this fee from mobile service providers, and while the “FCC does not require this charge to be passed on to you… service providers are allowed to do so.” That’s just for standard 911 calls. For Enhanced 911 (E911) calls, which provide latitude and longitude data for callers using cell phones instead of land lines, service providers may charge a fee as well. E911 calls are especially important given that most 911 calls today are made from mobile phones, not land lines, and without E911, it’s difficult for first responders to accurately locate callers. Let me add onto that.
The second assumption, that 911 services are consistent across the nation, hinges on the availability of E911 and the more advanced Wireless 911 Phases I and II across the nation. NENA’s county-by-county 911 deployment map (with color legend here) indicates significant swathes of the country only have basic, or possibly even no 911 services. That doesn’t even begin to speak to the fact that some public safety answer points (PSAPs), the call centers that handle 911 calls, may not be equipped with dispatch software that is E911 compatible. That is, even if someone calls 911 and location information is available, it may not be recorded or usable if the PSAP is running legacy software.
It’s actually this second point—about the consistency of 911 resources across the country—that I think is more critical here, for the simple reason that I assume all service providers are going to want to pass on those 911 service fees to their customers. This is a topic I’d like to explore further, but my guess would be that it’s the wealthier cities and counties (with the higher-earning tax base) that can afford E911 and Wireless 911 enhancements along with better PSAP equipment. So, already there are going to be socioeconomic inequalities here based on where a 911 caller lives.
Let’s add on to that the fact that there are cities and councils that are charging people who call 911 an additional first responder service fee—on top of what is already paid to the service provider—sometimes in the hundreds of dollars.
Now, there are startups that are trying to address the gaps in 911 service (related to location-finding or other infrastructural flaws) by providing location data via an app. BlueLight, the manufacturers of eponymous emergency call phones on campuses, have launched an app that connects dispatchers to callers faster in rapidly-gentrifying Oakland, and they are charging a $20 annual subscription for it. Essentially, BlueLight stratifies rapid 911 access to those who can afford a smartphone, its data plan, and the app subscription while taking pressure off local authorities to improve connectivity and location-identification—a double whammy. Then there’s BlueLight’s fast-emerging competitor, RapidSOS, which offers its location-providing emergency app for a monthly subscription of $2.99 for an individual (an annual subscription of $35.88). RapidSOS does provide fee waivers, but again, the issue of smartphone access and taking pressure off city and county governments still stands.
These factors add up. It’s noted in some studies that there’s correlation between insurance and employment status regarding willingness to call 911 for a stroke, although the main study at the link found no significant association between financial factors and willingness to call 911. Another study found that poorer communities that do call 911 for stroke treatment do experience “statistically significant delays in prehospital times,” although these time differences were relatively small and “living in a poorer area does not appear to delay access to acute care for stroke in a clinically significant way.” I’ll add a quick note to these studies to say that they do have to do with a critical medical emergency, not those regarding criminal activity or less serious medical concerns, so it’s possible that there are socioeconomic differences that manifest more clearly under those conditions.
In sum: 911 service is not equal across the country, and may depend on the wealth of a particular region. Individuals can be served an additional first responder service fee that may be too costly for poorer callers. On top of that, faster and more accurate 911 service can be obtained through expensive apps, and all these factors may contribute to socioeconomic imbalances that skew who calls 911 when they really need to.
Plastic Words are Hollow Shells for Rigid Ideas: The Ever-Expanding Language of Tyranny
by Jalees Rehman
Words are routinely abused by those in power to manipulate us but we should be most vigilant when we encounter a new class of "plastic words". What are these plastic words? In 1988, the German linguist Uwe Pörksen published his landmark book "Plastikwörter:Die Sprache einer internationalen Diktatur" (literal translation into English: "Plastic words: The language of an international dictatorship") in which he describes the emergence and steady expansion during the latter half of the 20th century of selected words that are incredibly malleable yet empty when it comes to their actual meaning. Plastic words have surreptitiously seeped into our everyday language and dictate how we think. They have been imported from the languages of science, technology and mathematics, and thus appear to be imbued with their authority. When used in a scientific or technological context, these words are characterized by precise and narrow definitions, however this precision and definability is lost once they become widely used. Pörksen's use of "plastic" refers to the pliability of how these words can be used and abused but he also points out their similarity to plastic lego bricks which act as modular elements to construct larger composites. The German language makes it very easy to create new composite words by combining two words but analogous composites can be created in English by stringing together multiple words. This is especially important for one of Pörksen's key characteristics of plastic words: they have become part of an international vocabulary with cognate words in numerous languages.
Here are some examples of "plastic words"(German originals are listed in parentheses next to the English translations) – see if you recognize them and if you can give a precise definition of what they mean:
Even though these words are very difficult to pin down in terms of their actual meaning, they are used with a sense of authority that mandates their acceptance and necessity. They are abstract expressions that imply the need for expertise to understand and implement their connotation. Their implicit authority dissuades us from questioning the appropriateness of their usage and displaces more precise or meaningful synonyms. They have a modular lego-like nature so that they can be strung together with each other or with additional words to expand their authority; for example, "resource development", "information society", "strategic relationship" or "communication process".
How about the word "love"? Love is also very difficult to define but when we use it, we are quite aware of the fact that it carries many different nuances. We tend to ask questions such as "What kind of love? Erotic, parental, romantic, spiritual? Who is in love and is it truly love?" On the other hand, when we hear "resource development', we may just nod our heads in agreement. Of course resources need to be developed!
Pörksen published his book during the pre-internet, Cold War era and there have been new families of plastic words that could perhaps be added to the list in the 21st century. For one, there is the jargon of Silicon Valley that used by proponents of internet-centrism. Words such as digital, cyber, internet, online, data or web have entered everyday language but we rarely think about their actual meaning. The word internet, for example, technically refers to a bunch of servers and input devices and screen connected by cables and routers but it has taken on a much broader cultural and societal significance. An expression such as internet economy should elicit the important question of who is part of the "internet economy" and who is left out? The elderly and the poor have limited access to the internet in many countries of the world but we may gloss over this fact when we speak of the internet. The words innovation, integration, global and security/safety have also become key plastic words in the 21st century.
How do these plastic words become vehicles for the imposition of rigid views and tyranny? Two recent examples exemplify this danger.
The British Prime Minister Theresa May justified Britain's decision to leave the European Union after a campaign characterized by anti-immigrant prejudice and nationalism in a speech by invoking Britain's new global role:
"I want us to be a truly Global Britain – the best friend and neighbour to our European partners, but a country that reaches beyond the borders of Europe too. A country that goes out into the world to build relationships with old friends and new allies alike."
It is difficult to argue with the positive connotation of a Global Britain. Global evokes images of the whole planet Earth, and why shouldn't Britain forge new relationships with all the people and countries on our planet? However, the nationalist and racist sentiments that prompted the vote to leave the European Union surely did not mean that Britain would welcome people from all over the globe. In fact, the plastic words global and relationships allow the British government to arbitrarily define the precise nature of these relationships, likely focused on maximizing trade and profits for British corporations while ignoring the poorer nations of our globe.
Similarly, an executive order issued by the new American president Donald Trump within a week of his inauguration banned the entry of all foreigners heralding from a selected list of Muslim-majority countries into the USA citing concerns about security, safety and welfare of the American people. As with many plastic words, achieving security, safety and welfare sound like important and laudable goals but they also allow the US government to arbitrarily define what exactly constitutes security, safety and welfare of the American people. One of the leading enforcement agencies of the totalitarian East German state was the Stasi (Ministerium für Staatssicherheit - Ministry for State Security). It allowed the East German government to arrest and imprison any citizen deemed to threaten the state's security – as defined by the Stasi.
How do we respond to the expanding use of plastic words? We should be aware of the danger inherent in using these words because they allow people in power – corporations, authorities or government agencies - to define their meanings. When we hear plastic words, we need to ask about the context of how and why they are used, and replace them with more precise synonyms. Resist the tyranny of plastic words by asking critical questions.
Pörksen, U. (1988). Plastikwörter: die Sprache einer internationalen Diktatur. Klett-Cotta.
Poerksen, U. (1995). Plastic words: The tyranny of a modular language. Penn State Press.
by Brooks Riley
The (Slow) Art of Wine: Part 2
by Dwight Furrow
Over the past several months I've been writing about creativity in the arts, a project motivated by skepticism among philosophers that winemaking could legitimately be considered an art form. (See Part 1, and here, here, and here)
As Burham and Skilleas write on the decisions made in the vineyard and winery:
These decisions are intentions certainly and wine is also a product of human artifice. However, it is not intention in the same sense as a painter might have when he approaches a blank canvas. Vintner's decisions have only a very tenuous connection with expression in the arts which is typically expressions of aesthetic intention, feeling, and the like…Wine is not as malleable to intention as paint and the most important factor beyond the vintner's control is the weather. Try as they might few vintners can remove the sensory impact of the vintage. (The Aesthetics of Wine, p. 99-100)
Burnham and Skilleas seem to think that although winemakers have intentions they are not about aesthetics. This is a questionable assertion. There are countless decisions made by winemakers and their teams in the vineyard and winery that influence the intensity, harmony, finesse, and elegance of the final product and are intended to do so.
Burham and Skilleas go on to insist that "a vintner is simply not to be understood on the model of Kantian or Romantic aesthetics of fine art for whom originality or creativity are absolutely central features." Again, this is a questionable assertion, although it may be true of commodity wines. As James Frey, proprietor of Tristaetum Winery in Oregon's Willamette Valley and an accomplished artist as well as winemaker, told me in an interview: "Originality matters a great deal. No winemaker wants to hear that his wines taste like those of the winery down the street." Originality and creativity are central concerns of at least those winemakers for whom quality is the primary focus.
In addition to their circumscribed conception of winemaking, I think part of the problem with the analysis of Burnham and Skilleas has to do with confusion about what counts as creative intentions. When we get the right account of creative intentionality in the arts we see that winemaking and artistic production really belong in the same category.
As I argued last month, some of the best wines in the world do not involve a lot of high-tech manipulation in the winery but are largely expressions of their vineyard site. Thus part of the challenge will be to show how these wines, which require the cooperation of nature, can embody the creativity of works of art which are, after all, artifacts.
The role of inspiration in creativity has long puzzled philosophers and gave rise to the ancient idea that artists are divinely inspired, afflicted by a muse, or simply crazy. Where do their outlandish ideas come from? It is not at all obvious that the idea of intention does much work in explaining inspiration because artistic ideas often arise, not when we intend them, but when we least expect them. No doubt some works of art begin with a precise idea about what the artist is aiming at. But many do not. They begin with vague ideas which involve a lot of brainstorming or playing around in a medium until something interesting emerges. Inspired ideas often occur to us when we're not even focused on an artistic project.
A study of the creative process by neuroscientist Nancy Andreasan found common phrases used to describe the serendipity of creativity: "I can't force inspiration. Ideas just come to me when I'm not seeking them-when I'm swimming or running or standing in the shower." "It happens like magic." "I can just see things that other people can't, and I don't know why." "The muse just sits on my shoulder." "If I concentrate on finding the answer it never comes, but if I let my mind just wander, the answer pops in."
Thus it doesn't appear that creative activity at this generative stage requires specific intentions about aesthetic properties. It is the unconscious aspect of this that has fascinated writers throughout the centuries.
However, it would be a mistake to think there are no aesthetic-relevant intentions at work in these moments of inspiration. Behind the scenes there are general intentions that guide artists in their projects. There is a general conception of their project operating in the background. They intend to produce something of aesthetic interest, with some originality, and meaning. They may know the genre they wish a particular work to be placed in, have a sense of what can be done in the media in which they work, and be cognizant of their audience or patrons and what they will respond to. They may adhere to theoretical commitments or a sense of how their own body of work is evolving. Most importantly, through their training, history, and observations artists develop a cluster of norms and ways of making perceptual discriminations among works of art. In other words, they develop an aesthetic sensibility that guides their decisions about their own work. It's one thing to generate lots of ideas that are sufficiently unconventional to count as creative. But successful art is a matter of selecting which ideas are worth pursuing. These general intentions, an artist's sensibility and background, act as a filter enabling the experimentation and brainstorming to be productive and focused by tossing out what doesn't work and preserving what does.
These high-level, general intentions may be unconscious and inarticulable and do not require overt judgments about specific aesthetic properties. Nevertheless, they operate in the background regulating creativity activity. Thus, although specific aesthetic properties of a work of art may not be intended, they are a product of the more generalized intentions that arise from artists working within their art world. This, I want to suggest, is the best way to understand creative intentions that avoids attributing excessive deliberation and calculation to the creative process.
The crucial point for my purpose is that winemakers also have these background commitments that guide their winemaking. They also intend to produce something of aesthetic interest that has meaning in light of the winemaking traditions they work in. They also are cognizant of the creative possibilities within their medium and materials, the genres and styles they work in, how their work is evolving. Many, such as winemakers committed to natural wines, have theoretical commitments to which they adhere. Furthermore, since originality and distinctiveness are abiding concerns, part of this background is an implicit understanding of what counts as original within their winemaking culture. This is not to say they all succeed at making original wines. But neither do all artists succeed in their struggle for distinction.
As noted, there are countless decisions made in the vineyard and winery that are designed to realize these aesthetic intentions. But the most important background commitment that shapes the final product is an aesthetic sensibility developed through years of tasting. Winemakers taste repeatedly throughout the process of winemaking from sampling grapes in the vineyard to determining the final blend. In the end, it is what they taste that determines what they do. And because each individual tastes differently, their final product, if not distorted by the goal of homogeneity or consistency, will be different as well. The goal for many artisan winemakers is to preserve terroir, the distinctive features of grapes from a particular vineyard or region. But what that means will differ for each winemaker; each has an interpretation of what it means to preserve terroir through the idiosyncrasies of taste.
However, there is one fundamental difference between winemaking and creativity in the arts. Painting, music composition, literature, etc. usually involve persistent activity with lots of experimentation, erasure, and more experimentation as the work takes shape. Winemaking is different. Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyards, one of the most inventive winemakers in the world, told me that artisan winemaking primarily involves a lot of "watchful waiting", waiting for the weather to give shape to the growing season, waiting for grapes to develop in the vineyard, waiting for fermentations to finish, and especially waiting for the wine to age in barrel and bottle before it's ready to release. Watchful waiting does not seem like an accurate description of painting or musical composition and performance.
Nevertheless, given the above account of creative intentions, "watchful waiting" in the vineyard and winery turns out to be the way in which winemakers realize their creative intentions.
I've been arguing that we should understand creativity in the arts in terms of the possession of general intentions that regulate decisions, even in the absence of deliberation or the carrying out of specific, consciously held intentions to realize specific aesthetic qualities. I want to suggest that the central regulative role that these general intentions play is to provide criteria for a variety of "stopping heuristics", intuitive judgments about when a process is complete and needs no further additions or modifications. At various stages in every work of art there are points at which the artist says OK—that is what I'm looking for. She may not have known what that was ahead of time; she may in fact be really surprised by the result. So we are not talking about a conscious process here. But that eureka moment when you say "aha that's it", the moment when the aesthetic intention is realized, is possible only given a sensibility that defines the parameters of what she's doing. And of course these commitments can change during the process. This is not a set of rules but a sensibility that defines a point of view that is always a moving target.
Yet that is precisely what winemakers are doing with their watchful waiting. They are, after all, watching for something and waiting for something. These are intentional activities the aim of which is to identify when the grapes or wine show the aesthetic potential intended by the winemaker given her aesthetic sensibility.
Thus, a good artist (or winemaker) is not only someone who has the gift of coming up with new combinations of ideas and the skill to manipulate the medium in which she works. It is someone who also has the ability to react sensitively to his or her results selecting those that correspond to a scheme of artistic value embedded in the aforementioned general intentions. And, of course, part of this scheme will be an understanding of what counts as a new development or a departure from the past.
No doubt, in painting or musical composition there is more active, moment-to-moment, shaping of materials when compared to winemaking. The results of brush strokes or new harmonic configurations can be assessed immediately or at least without undue delay. Not so with winemaking. It is a slow art because experiments can take years to unfold. The results of modifications in vineyard practices or winemaking techniques may not be apparent until the wine has aged for several years. Yet, surely the slow pace of experimental results does not subtract from the aesthetic quality of the intention. Neither does the fact that winemakers depend on the cooperation of their materials, as I argued last month. The fact that winemakers give direction to nature in the development of their work is no more an impediment to artistic intent than the fact that painters depend on the cooperation of light or musicians on the structure of their instruments. The medium always shapes the message.
Thus, when sipping your next glass of Pinot Noir—because if you've made it this far in this essay you probably have one in your near future--slow down and savor the moment, for it was made with more patience than even Monet or Mozart could manage.
For more on the aesthetics of food and wine visit Edible Arts or consult American Foodie: Taste, Art and the Cultural Revolution
Baker of Tarifa: A Photo Essay
by Shadab Zeest Hashmi
Trying to name the peculiar sweetness of Spanish sunlight in winter (lemon soufflé? saffron ice cream? malai qulfi?) before touchdown in Granada, I feel the small plane shake, then gently glide into descent. I’m reminded of a poem of mine in which a character has a dream of flying over the Alhambra: She grew wings so long they dipped in the Vega… Flying over Alhambra, she looked for the mexura, the court of myrtles, granaries, the royal stables...
This is my first flight to Granada and first visit since I finished Baker of Tarifa— my book of poems based on the legendary “convivencia” (peaceful coexistence of the Abrahamic people) in al-Andalus or Muslim Spain (711-1492). In the many years since the book was published, it has traveled to numerous places but this place, Andalucia, is a return to the world it embodies, the spectacular bridge that al-Andalus was— a bridge between antiquity and modernity, between Africa, Europe and Asia, between Medieval Jews, Muslims and Christians.
I am here to present from Baker of Tarifa and I am exhilarated to meet the academics who have invited me, to meet students, to present my poems at venues that are only a few miles away from the great Alhambra. These are difficult times to be speaking about the Islamic Civilization as a Muslim; being in the line of fire from the weaponry of literalism on both sides of the war-terrorism binary, the only thing we can do is attempt to be a bridge, to revive a language that conceived pluralism, a time known to be the pre-cursor to European Renaissance. The history of Al-Andalus, spanning nearly a millennium and collapsing with the Spanish Inquisition, is not entirely free of conflict, but it offers a model for tolerance and intellectual efflorescence and inspires hope.
I arrive at Granada’s Federico Garcia Lorca airport but my luggage does not. It is disconcerting—who am I without my luggage: my Pakistani shawl, Turkish rings, high heels? How will I give a poetry reading without my book? For a moment, I’m a true outsider, an exile with no belongings, not unlike the founder of al-Andalus, the Syrian poet-prince Abd Rahman. The light, a gift from every window of the airport, lifts my spirits as I walk out. There is snow on the Sierra Nevada mountains, the air is crisp, the uber driver is playing an American song with the refrain “somebody that I used to know.” On my last visit and throughout the years I imagined this landscape, it was through traditional music— Sufi and Sephardic music, Christian Hymns, especially the richly varied compositions of the Al Andalus Ensemble— the music that inspired me to begin the project in the first place. As we approach the foothills of Sebeka through the alleys dappled in Mediterranean light, my mind tunes itself to Housnak Ishtahar fe Gharnata “A Beauty Famed in Granada” by the Al Andalus Ensemble: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sZXmyclsFso
Alhmabra’s many fountains and birdsong from the gardens accompany me on my climb up Sebeka to the hotel which is right next to the ancient baths and the mosque or mezqita.
My room has a balcony which reminds me of Lorca, Spain’s seminal poet and a true child of Andalucia who wandered through Alhambra’s gardens in his youth and had designs from the Alhambra copied on the floors in his home in Granada. At night, I study the moonlit shadows on the high towers, humming Lorca’s “Rider’s Song:” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ggtR8FVWQIQ
Among the few things that survived the complete erasure of al Andalus by the brutal forces of the Inquisition, were recipes that were passed down from generation to generation of exiles; bread, therefore became the primary metaphor of Baker of Tarifa. I find a place I can taste some of the food described in my poems, such as Bregua de pollo con pasas y nueces al estilo Arabe (fowl stew wrapped in fine dough with Chicken, raisins, nuts, caster sugar).
My luggage does not arrive until the second day; I end up having to buy clothes and read poems from my laptop, but my luggage does arrive in time for the second event. I’m grateful to finally see Baker of Tarifa in Andalucia.
Data Nihilsm and Agnothology
by Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad
For those of us who work in the Sciences, the last decade or so has been a boon to research and new discoveries. This has been facilitated by the massive data collection and data analysis which would have been inconceivable just a few decades ago. The rapid change in the Sciences has been described as the forth paradigm of Science i.e., data intensive discovery. As a side consequence of these changes, many of us thought that the time has finally arrived where data will be the absolute arbiter of truth. If the global events of 2016 in general and the US elections in particular are any indication then we were dead wrong thinking this. One may even ask, in an era of post-Truth, fake news and alternate facts, is data really that relevant? One can do all the fact checking in the world but it won't matter if the person to whom the evidence is being presented gives the rejoinder, “What does evidence have to do with it?” Welcome to the brave new world of Data Nihilsm, a term coined by Terry Morse to denote outright denial of data. Closely related to the study of data nihilism is Agnothology or the study of culturally induced ignorance.
As a data scientist, I imagined that an argument based on careful analysis of data coupled with sound statistical reasoning and proper used of machine learning should be enough to convince any person of one’s argument. However in many contexts this may actually have the opposite effect. For one, the previous statement may actually sound elitist and there is strong evidence that if people have strong convictions about a certain belief then offering contradictory evidence may actually strength their belief instead of weakening it. Thinking about why people act this way becomes easier if we rather drop the assumption that people are rational and start thinking that people’s rationality is mediated via emotions. Leibniz theorized that one day we would have machines that will be able to calculate answers to any question for us and so people instead of arguing will just say let us calculate. One might argue that the data driven society that we are currently building is taking us close to this ideal. However there is a hidden assumption in this assertion that that all people evaluate evidence in the same manner. The presence of conformation bias and other cognitive biases in humans tell a different story altogether. People are more likely to be skeptical and thorough in investigation if evidence presented to them goes against what they already believe. Even things like what people perceive as the scientific consensus varies from person to person. Thus Creationists pounce over any alleged evidence that “proves” that the theory of evolution is false while neglecting any data that goes in its favor. The point is not whether one can use data to make one’s point but rather evidence is powerless if one has already made up one’s mind, to quote Salman Hameed who studies the public perception of the theory of evolution.
Robert N. Proctor, a professor at Stanford, who also coined the term Agnothology is a pioneer in this area and did a classic study of how the tobacco industry willfully spread ignorance regarding the hazards of tobacco. The tobacco industry employed a massive advertising campaign to create doubt in the mind of the public about the veracity of claims regarding the harmful effects of tobacco. The industry created confusion in the minds of people by pointing out that the studies regarding the harmful effects of tobacco had been done on mice and not people. So-called experts were called to talk about the other side of the debate when in fact there was no other side and the evidence was unequivocal. Inadmissibility of evidence or data nihilism is however different from culturally mediated ignorance. The information age only makes things worse by enabling the creation of echochambers. Thus the Internet has created a free for all lunch buffet of information where cherry picking the facts can be used to prove anything. If that does not work then one does not even need to cherry pick anything, one can just invent alternative facts and feed them to a populace willing to eagerly believe and regurgitate the ‘facts.’ In a quote from BBC, Professor Proctor summarizes and warns, “Even though knowledge is ‘accessible’, it does not mean it is accessed.”
The current political climate of data nihilism did not arise in a vacuum. In the nineties we had the culture wars including the assault on Science in public schools. Post-modernism also played a role in relativizing truth; the Sokal Affair comes to mind here. All this may sound gloomy as journalists even wrote about the death of facts as early as five years ago but now people are even questioning whether one can no longer even trust the data that the government is collecting. This problem is however not unprecedented or unique to the United States. The history of the 20th century is testament to data manipulation by different communist regimes and ideologically driven research agendas like Lysenkoism in the Soviet Union that led to nothing. Denialism is not necessarily a Liberal vs. Conservative phenomenon. Vaccine denialism is a rampant problem in some sections on the left and no amount of evidence can convince a person if they have already come to the conclusion that the world is only six thousand years old.
Then there is the Dunning-Kruger Effect where people will low competency tend to greatly overestimate their ability in a given area of expertise. Couple that with culturally induced ignorance and we have a recipe for disaster. Confucius had a maxim that real knowledge is to know the extent of one's ignorance. How does one even begin to talk to people who think that they have the best of knowledge and all their opponents are ignorant? The dominant paradigm among the elites and the educated in the West, especially since the fall of the Berlin Wall, has been that people are rational creatures who are motivated by self-interest. The rise of populism and authoritarianism in the world as of late has been a grim reminder that people are far from rational. The phenomenon of data nihilism and culturally induced ignorance do have one thing in common, an appeal to values. Perhaps not all is lost; it may still be possible to change people’s minds and have a semi-rational discussion. Studies show that people are more likely to change their minds if there is an element of social desirability involved. If a person thinks that changing their position in a certain context is non-threatening or desirable then they are more likely to engage and even change their position. If you are a conservative then perhaps you won't change your mind on climate change if you hear it from a scientist but a sermon from your pastor will convince you. Similarly a vaccine denier does not need to hear about the advantages of vaccination from a scientist but rather from a celebrity. Thus one can appeal to people’s values and one can have a discussion; present them with something threatening then they are unwilling to listen. Chris Mooney described this best in his words; “you don't lead with the facts in order to convince. You lead with the values—so as to give the facts a fighting chance.” So data scientists and journalists have a harder task at hand, not only do we have to use data to tell stories but also we have to use idioms and framing that makes the other side listen. That solves half of the problem i.e., the presence of ignorance but if the problem is just data nihilism then all bets are off.
Sunday, January 29, 2017
As Trump worked on his immigration ban, Hillary Clinton showed her support for immigrant cancer researchers like 3QD editor Azra Raza
Of course, Azra Raza is also my older sister! Rebecca Robbins in Stat:
During a week when President Trump’s efforts to ban immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim nations touched off alarms among scientists worldwide, his former rival was sending a very different message.
Hillary Clinton spent Wednesday evening at a star-studded fundraiser supporting the cancer research of two top scientists at Columbia University — both of whom happen to be immigrants.
One of the event’s beneficiaries was Dr. Azra Raza, who last summer wrote an opinion piece for STAT under the headline: “I’m an immigrant and a Muslim. And I’m here to cure cancer.” Raza, who researches early-stage leukemia, grew up in Pakistan. She said Clinton repeatedly thanked her for her work.
The fundraiser also raised money to support the work of Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the book “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.” Mukherjee, who studies blood cancers, was born in India.
Inside a Moneymaking Machine Like No Other
Katherine Burton at Bloomberg:
Sixty miles east of Wall Street, a spit of land shaped like a whale’s tail separates Long Island Sound and Conscience Bay. The mansions here, with their long, gated driveways and million-dollar views, are part of a hamlet called Old Field. Locals have another name for these moneyed lanes: the Renaissance Riviera.
That’s because the area’s wealthiest residents, scientists all, work for the quantitative hedge fund Renaissance Technologies, based in nearby East Setauket. They are the creators and overseers of the Medallion Fund—perhaps the world’s greatest moneymaking machine. Medallion is open only to Renaissance’s roughly 300 employees, about 90 of whom are Ph.D.s, as well as a select few individuals with deep-rooted connections to the firm.
The fabled fund, known for its intense secrecy, has produced about $55 billion in profit over the last 28 years, according to data compiled by Bloomberg, making it about $10 billion more profitable than funds run by billionaires Ray Dalio and George Soros. What’s more, it did so in a shorter time and with fewer assets under management. The fund almost never loses money. Its biggest drawdown in one five-year period was half a percent.
The computational foundation of life
Philip Ball in Quanta:
What’s the difference between physics and biology? Take a golf ball and a cannonball and drop them off the Tower of Pisa. The laws of physics allow you to predict their trajectories pretty much as accurately as you could wish for.
Now do the same experiment again, but replace the cannonball with a pigeon.
Biological systems don’t defy physical laws, of course — but neither do they seem to be predicted by them. In contrast, they are goal-directed: survive and reproduce. We can say that they have a purpose — or what philosophers have traditionally called a teleology — that guides their behavior.
By the same token, physics now lets us predict, starting from the state of the universe a billionth of a second after the Big Bang, what it looks like today. But no one imagines that the appearance of the first primitive cells on Earth led predictably to the human race. Laws do not, it seems, dictate the course of evolution.
The teleology and historical contingency of biology, said the evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr, make it unique among the sciences. Both of these features stem from perhaps biology’s only general guiding principle: evolution. It depends on chance and randomness, but natural selection gives it the appearance of intention and purpose. Animals are drawn to water not by some magnetic attraction, but because of their instinct, their intention, to survive. Legs serve the purpose of, among other things, taking us to the water.
Mayr claimed that these features make biology exceptional — a law unto itself. But recent developments in nonequilibrium physics, complex systems science and information theory are challenging that view.