Monday, April 20, 2015
Akram Dost Baloch. Code # 14355.
Mixed media on canvas board.
The Perils of Majoritarianism
By Namit Arora
(On the ethnic history and politics of Sri Lanka and a review of Samanth Subramanian’s This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War. A shorter version appeared in the Times Literary Supplement earlier this month. Below is the original long version—the director’s cut.)
Few regions in the world, of similar size, offer a more bracing human spectacle than the beautiful island of Sri Lanka. It abounds in deep history and cultural diversity, ancient cities and sublime art, ingenuity and human folly, wars and lately, even genocide. It has produced a medley of identities based on language (Sinhala, Tamil, English, many creoles), religion (Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, animism), and geographic origin (Indian, Malaysian, European, Arab, indigenous), alongside divisions of caste and class. Rare for a country its size are the many divergent accounts of itself, fused at the hip with the politics of ethnic identities—a taste of which I got during my month-long travel on the island in early 2014.
The Sri Lankan experience has been more traumatic lately, owing to its 26-year civil war that ended with genocide in 2009. The country’s three main ethnic groups—Sinhalese (75 percent), Tamil (18 percent), and Muslim (7 percent)—now live with deep distrust of each other. One way to understand Sri Lankan society and its colossal tragedy is to study the causes and events that led to the civil war. What historical currents preceded it? Did they perhaps make the war inevitable? What was at stake for those who waged it? What has been its human toll and impact on civic life? In his brave and insightful work of journalism, This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War, Samanth Subramanian attempts to answer such questions while bearing witness to many of its tragedies.
A Brief Social History of Sri Lanka
Around two-and-a-half millennia ago, waves of migrants from the Indian subcontinent overwhelmed the island’s indigenous hunter-gatherers, the Veddah (a few descendants still survive). Migrants arriving from modern day Bengal, speakers of Prakrit—an Indo-European language that evolved into Sinhala—intermixed with indigenous islanders to later become the Sinhalese. Other migrants from southern India, speakers of Tamil and other Dravidian languages and belonging mostly to the Saivite sect, also intermixed with the islanders to later become the Tamils of Sri Lanka. Which group of migrants arrived first, a question hotly pursued by the nationalists, lacks scholarly resolution. Both groups established themselves in different parts of the island: the Sinhalese in the center, south, and west, the Tamils in the north and east.
From the 3rd century BCE, Anuradhapura was the Sinhalese capital city for 1,300 years, notable for its water management, palaces, dagobas, temples, and monasteries patronized by kings. According to the Mahavamsa, the ‘Great Chronicle’ of Sri Lankan Buddhism written in this city in the 6th century CE, the Sinhalese are a special race descended from a lion and a princess. Ignoring the chronology of Buddhism’s arrival via emperor Ashoka’s emissaries, the Mahavamsa claims that the Buddha himself flew thrice from India to the island, deemed the Sinhalese his ‘chosen people’ and Sri Lanka the final ‘refuge of his faith’, and commanded his followers to defend the faith at all costs, with militant violence if necessary. One of the epic’s main heroes, king Dutugemunu, grows up hating Tamils and massacres many in a great battle (the epic, written soon after a battle between Sinhalese and Tamil royals, reflects a briefly heightened antipathy). Like Ashoka, he is overcome by remorse, but unlike Ashoka who renounced violence, Dutugemunu happily ‘casts away his mental confusion’ when the city’s Buddhist clergy tells him that he has committed no sin because the non-Buddhist Tamils he killed were ‘heretical and evil and like animals’ and he in fact made ‘the Buddha’s faith shine’. This precedent-setting justification of violence in the defense of faith would echo down the ages—for instance, after winning the civil war, President Rajapaksa was eulogized by his fans as the modern-day Dutugemunu. It’d also become an oft-cited instance of Sri Lankan Buddhism’s departure from the Buddha’s message, as it is more widely understood.
Sri Lanka’s early and medieval history includes wars and other conflicts between the Tamils and the Sinhalese but also long stretches of peaceful coexistence, intermarriage, and cross-fertilization of ideas. Lured by its proximity, Tamil kings from south India sometimes invaded and ruled the island, including its Sinhalese domains. But proximity also enabled peacetime trade and cultural exchange, including the migration of sculptors and architects. The island’s rival identities coalesced quite early around language, not religion—back then, Buddhism also flourished in south India and many Sri Lankan Tamils were Buddhists too. Indeed, across the Palk Strait the two Buddhist traditions enriched each other for centuries. Among other syncretism, Hindu gods—such as Kataragama (aka Murugan, son of Shiva and Parvati), Vishnu, and Ganesh—also became part of the Sinhalese Buddhist pantheon. Passing through a forest near Sigiriya last year, my tuk-tuk driver, a Sinhalese Buddhist, stopped to pray at a roadside shrine to Ganesh. He requested safe passage and protection from wild elephant attacks—the sort of mundane matters Hindu gods attended to, in contrast to the relatively aloof Buddha.
More recent migrations brought Arab Muslim traders, Christian colonials from Portugal, Holland, and Britain, and Malay Muslim soldiers from the Dutch- and British-ruled Malay Peninsula. Identities multiplied. While language remained the primary ethnic marker for both the Tamils (Hindu, Christian) and the Sinhalese (Buddhist, Christian), religion trumped language for the Muslims, most of whom now claim Tamil as their mother tongue. Another ethnic subdivision arose among Tamil speakers with the arrival of ‘Plantation Tamils’, laborers brought from India by the British to work on coffee, tea, and rubber plantations in the central highlands. The older communities of Sri Lankan Tamils (aka ‘Jaffna Tamils’) looked down on these rustic ‘Plantation Tamils’. Nor did the many Christian denominations have equal social standing. Further subdivisions of caste existed in most groups, especially among the Tamils, and would later play a part in their experience of the war.
The Rise of Sinhalese Nationalism
Given Sri Lanka's recent travails, it’s hard to believe that in the early 1950s, a Singaporean delegation had visited Sri Lanka—then seen as a prosperous and peaceful multi-ethnic state with high literacy and an inclusive public life—to learn how it managed ethic diversity so well. Some might question this image and cite the many communal conflicts and wars in Sri Lanka’s past, but that would be a mistake. The default condition of the past was peaceful coexistence and syncretism, not discord. Even in times of discord, Sinhalese and Tamil identities had never been as exclusive or feverishly ideological or religiously polarized as they became after the rise of ethnic nationalisms in the late colonial and post-colonial era. For instance, the last four rulers of the Sinhala kingdom in Kandy until 1815—as John Clifford Holt, editor of The Sri Lanka Reader points out—had been ‘ethnic Tamils who ruled over a predominantly Sinhala but ethnically variegated population.’
Sri Lanka’s encounter with Portuguese and Dutch colonialism—in whose wake came proselytizing Christians, and conversion to Christianity became mandatory for public employment—soon generated a Buddhist reaction and revival. It was led by Henry Steel Olcott, an American Buddhist, and Anagarika Dharmapala (1864–1933). Dharmapala, perhaps the foremost Sri Lankan nationalist, began creating a ‘Buddhist modernism’ and what some have called ‘Protestant Buddhism’. Stung by the supremacist attitudes of the colonizers, he made up a glorious Sinhalese past that, he alleged, had been blemished by the last four Tamil Kings of Kandy, and was presently being infected by degenerate European faiths. He eulogized the ‘Aryan Sinhala race’, the Buddha’s ‘virile, vigorous manly ethics’, and called Jesus ‘an absolute failure’, ‘a victim of megalomania [and] paranoia’, whose ‘congregation was the riff-raff of Galilee.’ He promoted the ludicrous idea that the Sinhalese were racially distinct from ‘the filthy Tamils’, denigrated the Muslims of Sri Lanka as ‘an alien people’ who had used ‘Shylockian methods’ to become prosperous like the Jews, and advised Sinhalese women to preserve their ‘Aryan blood’ by not breeding with the minorities. It’s easy to dismiss Dharmapala as a man of his times but the Sinhalese political and religious elites still revere him as a great nationalist, patriot, hero, saint, and savior of Buddhism; they even celebrated 2014-15 as Dharmapala Year.
The Buddhism promoted by Dharmapala and his followers was exclusive, aggressive, and nationalistic. It equated an arid notion of the Sinhalese ethnic identity with the national identity (the religious revival and nationalism that Dharmapala injected into Sinhalese Buddhism had its counterpart in Indian Hinduism through Vivekananda, Saraswati, Tilak, Savarkar, and others). As in all nationalisms, control over the writing of history became pivotal. Citing the Subcontinent’s historical rejection of their ‘noble Aryan Dharma’, these new Buddhists built up a sense of fear that Buddhism in Sri Lanka was besieged. They fueled resentment against Sri Lankan Tamils, portraying them as foreigners and representatives of a Hindu civilization hostile to Buddhism. It didn’t help that the island’s Tamils evinced a strong sense of pride in their own language and religion, that now practically none of them were Buddhists, and that they had done well under the British, holding disproportionately many professional and civil service jobs by the mid-20th century. As Subramanian explains,
‘Through a quirk of colonial character, the British had set up few schools in the country’s south, compelling Sinhalese children to earn their education in the local language; in the north, though, generations of Tamil students attended schools established by American missionaries, growing fluent in English, the language of pedagogy and administration. Through no doing of their own, the Tamils found themselves unfairly advantaged.’
Fueled by cultural insecurities, victimhood narratives, and jaundiced readings of religious texts like the Mahavamsa, Buddhist monks from multiple monastic orders began spewing prejudice and intolerance against ethnic minorities. They wanted Sri Lanka to be an indivisible Sinhalese state, with Buddhism as its state religion and Sinhala its sole official language. Leading Buddhists and intellectuals, such as Walpola Rahula, rejected the idea of Sri Lanka as ‘a multi-national and multi-religious state’, drowning out the saner voices on the perils of majoritarianism—i.e., a form of majority rule in which a majority group acts to privilege itself at the expense of others. To attain their sectarian aims, even monks later used democratic mobilization and ran for office. Little did the Singaporeans know—when they came to learn from this former ‘model colony’ and newly independent republic—that its bleak strand of Sinhalese nationalism, to be met by a reactive Tamil nationalism, was just starting to poison social life and set the stage for the civil war.
The Outbreak of War
Subramanian, a Tamil from India, grew up in Madras, Tamil Nadu. Sri Lanka’s proximity but also its ‘ties of politics and language’, he writes, bound it to Tamil Nadu ‘like a tugboat to an ocean liner.’ Sri Lankan news ‘made bigger headlines than news from distant New Delhi’ and its relentless war became ‘a constant acquaintance’. He recalls the commotion on his train to Madras when news came that a suicide bomber, ‘a toothy, bespectacled woman with flowers in her hair’, had assassinated Rajiv Gandhi. Subramanian wondered about her, why she had joined the Tamil Tigers, and ‘the stories of other people—the displaced, the bereaved, the chauvinist, the young—that were being drowned out by din of the fighting.’ From 2004, he began making short trips to the island. In 2011, two years after the war’s end, he moved to an apartment in Colombo for ten months, arriving ‘in the spirit of a forensics gumshoe visiting an arson site, to examine the ashes and guess at how the fire caught and spread so cataclysmically, but also to see if any embers remained to ignite the blaze all over again.’
Subramanian is an astute observer, with a sharp eye for the hypocritical and the comic in human affairs. His writing is lucid, vivid, and often memorable (he describes a person’s face as ‘always utterly unflappable; even a smile, I came to feel, would be too severe a storm upon that placid sea’). He judiciously considers the agencies and events that widened the schisms between the ethnic communities and led to the war: the British emphasized differences and communal identities as part of their divide-and-rule policy; the Sinhalese nationalists voted to make Sinhala the sole official language in 1956, effectively shutting out Tamils from government jobs and requiring even loan applications to be filled out in Sinhala; affirmative action policies in jobs and university admissions favored the Sinhalese and were seen as discriminatory by the Tamils; the new constitution of 1972 gave Buddhism ‘the foremost place’ among Sri Lanka’s religions, formally ending the separation between religion and the state. Though the linguistic and affirmative action policies were later toned down, differences continued to intensify and discrimination grew against the Tamils, who felt like second-class citizens in their own country. They demanded regional autonomy under a federal state, but this was anathema to the Sinhalese nationalists. With ‘democratic methods of the Tamil parties floundering’, Subramanian writes, the Sinhalese ended up creating a space for the militants.
‘Over and over, through the 1970s, Sri Lanka found ways to tell its Tamils that their status in their country was subject to change. It was during this period that Tamil political parties decided to press for full sovereignty rather than regional autonomy. During this period also, new militant groups in Jaffna, like the Tigers, decided that a sovereign Tamil state—an Eelam—could never be wheedled out by political procedure and that it was far better demanded from behind the comforting stock of a gun.’
It didn’t help that the Sri Lankan economy suffered during the 1970s, creating a large pool of unemployed young men. Riots followed the 1977 elections in which the Tamils voted for a separate state, their grievances outlined in the Vaddukoddai Resolution. In 1978, the government passed the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act, ‘granting lavish freedom to security forces to arrest, seize, interrogate and detain people as they liked.’ In 1982, for refusing to pledge allegiance to the state, the main Tamil political party, TULF, was expelled from the parliament. Decades of state-sponsored ‘land colonization’, whereby tens of thousands of landless Sinhalese peasants were given land in areas that Tamils traditionally saw as their own, had continued to fuel ethnic tensions.
Subramanian describes the Black July riots of 1983, the official start of the civil war ‘when the [Tamil] Tigers killed 13 soldiers in an army patrol in Jaffna.’ In a week-long pogrom reminiscent of Kristallnacht, ‘Sinhalese mobs visited retribution upon Tamils across the south of the country, killing more than three thousand men, women and children, unhindered—and sometimes even abetted—by the police.’ According to the BBC, ‘People were burned alive in their cars, stripped naked. Women were raped ... soldiers stood by and even supplied petrol.’ Thousands of Tamil homes and shops were looted and destroyed, tens of thousands fled for safety to the north. President Jayewardene appeared on TV to calm the nerves of the Sinhalese but uttered not a word of regret or sympathy for the Tamils. All this further marginalized the moderate Tamil politicians, radicalized the youth, and paved the way for the militant struggle for the independent state of Tamil Eelam.
Wanting to understand more fully the roots of this conflict, Subramanian revisits the island’s ancient history and notes how it has been twisted and politicized. He describes how he read the Mahavamsa in a state of delirium when suffering from a fever. Considering the rise of Sinhalese nationalism in colonial times and characters like Dharmapala, he finds Sri Lankan Buddhism to be ‘just as fluid as any other faith, just as easily poured into new and unexpected moulds.’ Even monks felt no compulsion to refrain from ‘worldly pursuits and temporal authority’. He cites many politicians, radical monks, and hotheaded militants to provide a compelling portrait of how the ethnic strife grew and spiraled out of control.
The Discreet Charm of the Tigers
Subramanian has an impressive knack for finding the right people and extracting from them some amazing stories. He probes with care and sensitivity, mindful of the risks they are taking in talking to him. There is a description of a Tamil politician who was critical of the Tigers and survived eleven assassination attempts, including one befitting a Tamil gangster film in which he lost his sarong during an escape and ran down a Colombo street in his underwear, ‘firing his gun back over his shoulders, trying to pick off the guys who are chasing him.’ Subramanian meets some of the earliest accomplices of young Velupillai Prabhakaran, the ruthless chief of the Tigers, aka the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). They reflect on his charisma, his persuasive powers, his paranoia, and the quirky minutiae of their messy upstart guerilla operations. They share spellbinding stories of their hidings, jailbreaks, assassinations, romances, and betrayals. He even flies to Canada to meet a Tamil man, an ex-major in the Sri Lankan army in the 1970-80s. This man describes the army culture that he once loved, before his painful disenchantment with the army’s rising suspicion of his loyalties, its enveloping racism, and its casual brutality towards Tamil civilians.
On the Jaffna Peninsula, Subramanian finds an oppressive army presence and checkpoints manned by Sinhalese men who speak no Tamil. He finds many abandoned houses, ‘some of them so consummately wrecked that they looked like strange outgrowths of stone rather than disintegrated structures.’ During the Tigers’ control of the north before 1995, these parts were heavily bombed. When the first low-flying aircraft came, people came out to gawk in wonder, until the planes started dropping bombs. ‘To hide from the shelling, people dug bunkers in the ground, covered over by tarpaulins’ and fortified by ‘improvised sandbags—packs of loose earth sewn into the saris of women.’ During this time, writes Tamil historian A. Jeyaratnam Wilson, Sinhalese soldiers committed ‘atrocities like gang rapes and wholesale plunder … and bombed churches, temples, hospitals, and innocent civilians’. In those days in Jaffna, a taxi driver tells Subramanian, ‘I was driving my car more as a hearse than as a taxi.’ The multiyear blockade of Jaffna caused massive shortages and unemployment, leading many to drift ‘inevitably, into the Tigers, enlisting to fight or to work in some of the Tigers’ own factories, which manufactured weapons and boats’. Another painful Jaffna episode Subramanian relates quite well is the ethnic cleansing of 1990. The Tigers, having grown suspicious of the loyalties of Muslims—who’d lived as peaceful neighbors, schoolmates, and colleagues for centuries—rounded up all 75,000–80,000 of them, looted their belongings, and forcibly expelled them from the peninsula.
Subramanian describes how the Tigers came to love violence and even turned on their own: via extortion, forced recruitments—including of children as young as 13—and the killing of dissenters. He despises their ‘genius for brutality’ and their indiscriminate violence, such as installing landmines (the Sri Lankan army did that too), blowing up buses, and killing monks, pilgrims, women, and children. He carefully separates ‘the Tigers from the grievances of the Tamils,’ and he sympathizes with the latter. Supported by interviews with ex-Tigers, their spouses and other civilians, his portrait of the pathological culture of the LTTE, along with its transformation over the years down to its bitter end, is a fine achievement.
Subramanian is especially curious about how ordinary Tamils related to the Tigers’ violence. He finds a continuum, from those who actively supported them to others who abhorred their ways. At least one member from each family had to join the Tigers. There was also peer pressure, continuous indoctrination, and, for some, even ‘a scruffy romance to the life of a guerrilla’. The Tigers, Prabhakaran emphasized, were part of a national liberation movement as ‘freedom fighters, not terrorists’. Many Tamils believed the Tigers’ claims of acting for their greater good, which, the Tigers said, required some excesses and personal sacrifices in their march towards the Promised Land of Eelam. Besides, who else was fighting for their grievances? With all the bad blood between the two ethnic groups, no compromise seemed possible. Given the unrelenting hostility of the Sinhalese army—no Tamils were left in the Sri Lankan army—many saw no alternative but to support the Tigers. Or rather, as the Tigers persuaded them, their only alternative ‘was life under the heel of a Sinhalese-dominated Sri Lanka.’
Many didn’t seem to have agonized much about joining the Tigers. ‘The moral decision that transfixed me so much’, writes Subramanian, ‘had been made without any fuss—as a matter of course, even—by tens of thousands of people’. He wonders if he had ‘been too spoiled by peace to understand when it became necessary to fight.’ He keeps probing and finds a complex moral landscape full of ambiguity, with ‘as many answers as there are people’. He meets a family in which the Tigers had recruited a person, killed another out of sheer pique, earned the hatred of a third, and snared a fourth by marriage. ‘The web of these relationships,’ he writes, their ‘loyalties and loathings, was [so] densely knotted [that] they were impossible to unravel and understand.’
Oddly, Subramanian doesn’t investigate the Indian government’s role in, as he says, ‘covertly training and arming the Tigers in the 1980s’—a role similar to that of the U.S. State Department and Pakistan’s ISI in the training and arming of the Mujahideen in the 1980s. Nor does he discuss the grave misadventure of the Indian peacekeeping forces that led to Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, or the choppy relationship between India and Sri Lanka over this conflict. Another omission is an exploration of caste in shaping Tamil nationalism and the civilians’ experience of war. One of his interviewees notes ‘how riven with divisions of caste and class the country’s Tamils were’ but Subramanian doesn’t pursue this further. Prabhakaran came from a low caste fishing community and despised caste discrimination in Tamil society. He claimed ideological allegiance to secular socialism and promised ‘total eradication of the caste system’ in LTTE pamphlets. His two main rival militant groups in the 1980s—PLOTE and TELO—brutally eliminated by the LTTE, were both peopled by dominant caste Vellalar Tamils. Did the LTTE downplay caste later to expand its support base and attract more funds from the Tamil diaspora for the ‘greater’ cause of Tamil nationalism? Which castes predominated among its middle and upper ranks as well as its ‘cannon fodder’? The Dutch scholar Joke Schrijvers reported from an earlier phase of the war that a disproportionate number of internal Tamil refugees in camps had lower-caste backgrounds.
Endgame and Aftermath
Subramanian visits the Vanni region to learn about the last days of the war and genocide. He talks to many survivors. From Dec 2008, one man says, ‘the fighting felt more urgent, more frenzied, more one-sided, more final.’ An estimated 5,000–11,000 Tigers were pitted against 200,000 soldiers in the Sri Lankan army. Within months, hundreds of thousands of civilians had fled from the advancing army into a small coastal area, ‘carrying whatever they could on their heads or on bicycles’. The army surrounded them, blocked entry for food, medicine, journalists, and the Red Cross, and began ‘shelling indiscriminately or specifically targeting civilians. A no-fire zone would be declared, and once people hurried eagerly into its borders, they would be promptly shelled.’ Makeshift hospitals and a UN compound, a refuge for civilians, were intentionally bombed. Prabhakaran and his loyal bodyguards died fighting. The war of three decades ended in May 2009 with vast numbers of the ‘limbless and the dying … strewn about the stretch of coast.’
According to the UN, 40,000 civilians were killed in the final weeks. Many who surrendered were taken away and machine-gunned. Countless were herded into internment camps lined with barbed-wire fencing, where ‘food, water and sanitation were in sorely short supply.’ Many died or were killed inside; others reported widespread torture and sexual abuse by soldiers; thousands are still ‘missing’. The government’s Orwellian description of this last phase of war was ‘humanitarian operations’.
The civil war is over, but will the Tamils easily forget or forgive the atrocities against them? There is no major reconciliation effort in sight, tens of thousands have been forced off their lands, and there are still 100,000 refugees in India, afraid to return. Tamil areas remain under an oppressive army presence. While many aspects of life are returning to normal, resentments still simmer beneath the surface. Sinhalese pride and triumphalism have meanwhile resurged, with the same sort of chauvinism and hubris that begat the conflict forty years ago. As the Rajapaksa family mafia took control of all major organs of government, economic growth and tourism picked up and the Chinese began investing in the country. But this corrupt and authoritarian regime rebuffed calls to investigate war crimes, brooked no criticism, and sharply curtailed freedom of the press. Disappearances became common. Journalists critical of the regime were harassed, beaten and even killed; many fled the country. Subramanian, himself a journalist, covers their stories with extra attention. Hardline monks, like schoolyard bullies who know that the headteacher won’t punish them, turned to persecuting Muslims and Christians. Many Muslim and Hindu religious buildings were torn down and Buddhist ones built in their place, largely to serve as ‘a taunt, a stamp of Buddhist domination, a permanent reminder of the order of things in Sri Lanka’. The new president Maithripala Sirisena, a former political ally of Rajapaksa, leads a coalition of political parties and ran on a platform of anti-corruption and anti-nepotism. Tamil and Muslim voters supported him largely because they consider him less awful than Rajapaksa—Sirisena largely shares his predecessor’s stance on Sinhalese nationalism, the army’s presence in Tamil areas, and political concessions to the Tamils.
Subramanian doesn’t say whether the embers still remain ‘to ignite the blaze all over again’ but he ends with a note of lament. ‘Gradually, in my head,’ he writes, ‘the boundaries between these slices of time—between wartime and post-war Sri Lanka—melted away. The phrase “post-war” lost its meaning … an unbroken arc of violence stretched from the war right into our midst … Having acquired the temperament of a country at war, Sri Lanka had forgotten any other way to live.’ The powerful human stories in This Divided Island—told lucidly and vividly—show what Sri Lankans have won and lost, a prerequisite to any attempt to forge a more inclusive polity for future generations.
Monday, April 13, 2015
Xoo-ang Choi. The Wing, 2008.
Oil on resin.
by Mathangi Krishnamurthy
Anthropologists are supposed to be masters of the art of the rooting and uprooting. I learned very early on in my graduate school career the art of attaching, but never too much. Never owning a place, always on the move, and becoming excellent at thrift store shopping for furniture were some of the skills I carried with me into adulthood. These things I only realized recently when I experienced intense panic as I stood in my adult living room looking around at all the "good" furniture I owned, things that were too solid to find takers on Craigslist.
Nevertheless, some of my most striking memories of "im"permanence are of the housed I inhabited, especially during the time I conducted fieldwork in the city of Pune. Over the course of a year and a half, I moved three times across four houses. For the first three months, I was a paying guest at the house of a friend. She had a beautiful home on the outskirts of the city. While the location was hardly convenient, the pleasure of her company and the promise of good food kept me rooted to the place. I had a lovely first floor room with its own bathroom, a bed, and a carved wooden desk. Her two dogs were an added joy. She had glass baubles in the windows, classical music wafting out of her room in the mornings, and a kitchen stuffed with interesting chutneys and condiments. Eclectic crystal and glassware dotted the cupboard in her dining room, and we spent many evenings conjuring cocktails and sipping wine.
The house was my respite from the frustrations of fieldwork, and its objects were sources of contemplation when the city offered none. Even the light filtering through its corner windows seemed imbued with its own enchantments and possibilities. It smelled of a delightful comfort.
It was, of course, too good to last.
After three months, I commenced nighttime work at a place far away from her home and it was time for me to find a new place. She came to my rescue however, and suggested that I meet her sister who lived in another part of the city and had a studio apartment to rent. The catch was that I would have to fend for myself for two months before the current tenants were ready to leave.
The two houses I inhabited for the two months that I was ungrounded were remarkable in the ways that they evoked emotions that can only be said to be in opposite quadrants of the affective pantheon.
The first was cold, white, bare, and clean but untended. It was a single room with a bathroom, the outhouse of another friend's parents' house. It seemed to reflect in some ways their personalities. His father was a nice man, albeit clinical and often, distant. Like many of the men of an older generation in my family, the only forms of conversation he was comfortable with were politics, technology and philosophy. His mother, on the contrary was chatty, lonely and often, wily. She wanted me to set up her son, who had been single for a while (or so she thought) and shared everything she could about her own youth and life. The room I inhabited was in many ways an epitome of the relationships in the house; guarded, cold, insufficient and unhappy. I slept very little and dreamed of ghosts. Waking up to bare walls was a nightmare in itself. The bathroom had brightly colored blue and yellow tiles though. Perhaps, if I had tarried longer, I could have filled it up with color, objects and people. But I was not allowed to have people over and the family hesitated at the strange hours I might have to keep if I were to begin working at the call center. So I left and took nothing with me. Perhaps just a bad memory of the room.
In despair and depression, I reached out to another friend who lived in the heart of the city and asked if she would let me live with her for a month before I moved to my studio. In warmth and friendship, she opened her house to me, and I found for another month a place to live in and a space to inhabit. Her late husband's paintings hung on the living room walls and her dining room table was always well stocked with fruit. Each morning, I helped her pick out saris to wear to work. We would chat late into the night and drive downtown to buy music. Her daybed always bore bright colored block-printed covers and I shared her hand lotions. She introduced me to a cereal called Weetabix and made sure there was always chocolate in the refrigerator. I bought fresh vegetables many nights from her favorite vendor down the street and together we discussed the colors that she might paint on her walls.
When I left, she gave me three things; a necklace, a pasta plate for my morning cereal, and notes on a well-stocked refrigerator. The necklace was beaded with large ceramic painted globes made in Jaipur. I wore it once kitted out as Calypso to a costume party . The plate had delicate ferns painted on its edges.
My new studio apartment was all of 400 square feet. My landlords were easygoing and seemed to genuinely treat me like an adult. The space was like a canvas for me to fill. The apartment was on the first floor; the French windows opened out onto a large balcony, which overlooked the street. It had a daybed to double up as a couch and a sideboard that could serve as my bookshelf. A frugal wooden table divided the kitchen area from the living room and in-built shelves lined one side of the kitchen counter. A small refrigerator stood guard on the other end and the tiny bathroom was tucked away to one edge behind the sideboard.
On the first day, I took a dear friend's advice and stocked my refrigerator. The cheeky salesman at the corner store, a young boy, bantered and flirted as he offered to deliver my large order to the apartment. In relief and gratitude, I dropped off my list and he came by later in the day with milk, eggs, butter, bread, rice, lentils, spices (coriander, cumin, chilli powder, anise, fennel, mustard, turmeric, cloves, cinnamon, bay leaves) and Nutella. Later in the day, he brought soap, shampoo, cleaning liquids and washing powder; Lux and Sunsilk and Vim and Surf. He gazed amused at my apartment and its messiness. As I set things down, I caught a whiff of my mother's kitchen. This kind of "turning into our parents" I could deal with, I thought.
The next day I traipsed off to Tulsi Baug, Pune's own cornucopia of all things householderly. Directing the autorickshaw driver to a store unsurprisingly named Tulsi, I entered, brave of heart and firm of resolve, all of which melted the moment I espied the goods on display.
(Perhaps, a note to readers might be required here. Pune is a curious city, bearing in equal measure, mom and pop stores, artisanal offerings and large departmental behemoths. To know Pune is to know it in all its scales.)
Tulsi is tucked away in the middle of a busy road lined end-to-end with hole-in-the-wall stores selling a wide variety of goods including silver, toys, household linen, water bottles, lunch boxes, "fancy" bags, cotton "nighties" and "maxis", refrigerator pouches, pantry containers, handkerchiefs and slips. Tulsi had all of the above, and then some. Dodging reckless scooters and motorbikes, I walked across the road and entered what thankfully, even in my adult view, was magical. Like a magpie, I began to peck. Soon I was trudging back and forth from various counters to the cashier's desk to line up my wares. In my head, I began allocating space to each of my finds. The three large containers on the top shelf, the wire baskets to be nailed to the walls in the bathroom, the cane baskets could hold lotion and lipsticks and sit on the sideboard, plates on the third shelf, glasses on the third too and knives and cutlery on the kitchen counter. Three vases for various corners, extension cords for lamps I intended to buy and two coffee mugs for wherever I worked (one for me, one in the hope of company). Weighed down by three large bags, I headed back, excited and exhausted.
Now my house had food, silverware, plates, cutlery and storage containers.
The next item required some serious thought. In the alcove between my refrigerator and the bathroom was enough space for a tiny cupboard; the kind one might read about in children's books where everything is neatly ordered, small people sized and beautiful. While I enjoy walk-in closets as much as the next consumptive person, there is something so much more interesting about a cupboard. Its musty insides seem to speak of long-forgotten clothes hidden away only to come out in surprising moments of boring lives. One of my favorite activities as a child was to open my parents' cupboard, to sift through photographs and enchantingly obtuse paperwork (bills, identity cards, old letters where my grandfather writes in equally obtuse longhand to my parents). Opening the locker required special permission and supervision. So once a week I would sit under the watchful eyes of a parent and work my way through jewelry, gold and silver, tiny and large, ornate and ugly.
So I wanted myself a cupboard too. For this errand, my scooter would suffice. Riding onto the busy street, avoiding faster motorbikes and looming smoking trucks, I made my way to a cane store in the middle of the city. I had passed this store many times on my rides through town and always wondered at the variety of furniture it stocked. Sofas, lamps, bookshelves, coffee tables, chairs, tables, beds, all woven exquisitely from cane and rattan. Cane furniture, I've been told, is difficult to clean. Dust settles in the gaps between the strands and makes a home. But cane makes me think of colonial bungalows and gracious hosts and sunlit patios. So I walked in and spoke to the proprietor, a middle-aged man with a lovely moustache. Together, we designed an alcove-sized cupboard and a high-backed chair. He even offered to make a cup-holder for the chair. The furniture would be delivered within two weeks, he assured me. I took with me an exquisite oval lampshade to hang from the ceiling.
My last task for the week involved linens and curtains. Across the street where I lived was a store that carried cotton rugs, curtains, and floor cushions. I had always lamented the lack of bright, cotton linen in the US. Here I bought a tan rug with ochre, yellow and purple diamond patterns and two bright orange floor cushions. My scooter was also made to carry two sets of curtains in sage green and transparent pewter and three bedcovers in bright turquoise, purple, yellow and green. The latter I found at an "exhibition" or traveling fair, where wares from various Indian states were sold. Here, I also bought two paper lamps and an ashtray in delicate papier-mâché.
Some things came with me from my parents' place. An old National Panasonic that my parents had bought the year I was born took pride of place on a rickety cane chair by the door. It played Radio Mirchi, the city's single FM channel all day long. To this day, I know the lyrics of all the Bollywood film songs released in 2007. I also brought with me books, comics, and cassettes. My comics had been bound meticulously by my father years ago and had been lying in the attic for too long. For a year, they came back to a bookshelf.
The week ended with various plumbers, carpenters and Internet service agents traipsing through the apartment to string lamps, fix cabinets, repair modems, check the water heater, and construct bulletin boards. Over the year, they would begin to recognize my apartment and be back many more times.
Over the year, besides the itinerants, two others would become permanent members of my home, Kantha and her son. Kantha was a middle-aged woman of great cheer who tended to many houses in the apartment complex. Kantha knocked on my door the day I moved on and offered to help with cleaning and cooking. I was more than happy to agree. Over the many months since that day, she would come by once to make me chapattis(which I cannot for the life of me figure out how to make to this day), and stave away dust and degeneration. Together we would brew tea; she would wrinkle her nose at my preferred Darjeeling without milk and make us strong, milky, black tea instead. Many a day after my night shift, I would return home in the morning and collapse on the bed. Kantha would let herself in, wake me up and bring with her the day and often, fresh greens. As she cooked, her son would come by and together we would work through his English textbook. She would keep a watchful eye on him before leaving to her other households. Some days we would gossip about her mortal enemy, the woman who helped at my landlord's and who, according to Kanta often came by to look through my various lotions and herbal facemasks. Once she suggested that I buy the apartment.
In this apartment, I hosted dinners, threw parties, shared drunken secrets, and interviewed respondents. Here, I cooked, talked, gossiped, sang, danced, and stumbled. In this tiny studio of four hundred square feet, people tended to stay. I was never short of company or music.
I had to dismantle everything when I left.
Monday, April 06, 2015
An Atheist Considers God's Plan
by Akim Reinhardt
"It's all part of God's plan."
That's bad enough. But I go a little nuts whenever someone says: "Everything happens for a reason."
After all, if you actually believe that we're all just mortal puppets dancing on a divine string, then there's really no point in us having an adult conversation about cause and effect.
But unlike God's plan, "Everything happens for a reason" does not suggest a deep detachment from reality, which is precisely what makes it far more exasperating than assertions of, say, childhood leukemia being an important cog in God's grand machinations.
Rather than embracing wild delusion or concocting a fantastic blend of paternal benevolence and cruelty, "everything happens for a reason" suggests a far murkier and depressing version of surrendering reality. Like the "God's plan" adage, it indicates the speaker just can't live up to the horrors of life, and is wont to soothe oneself with the balm of inevitability. But it also leads me to suspect that while the speaker is sane enough to dismiss sadistically intricate divine plans, s/he has been reduced to hiding behind the gauze of unstated and unknowable "reasons."
Everything happens for a reason.
In other words, even the worst of it can be justified, even if we don't know how.
To say childhood leukemia is part of God's plan is to give that reason a name. Specifically, God's plan is how one justifies the horror. That's pretty awful.
But to say childhood leukemia happens for a vague, unnamed reason is to accept that it's justified in some way, but to not know what the justification is. That seems even worse.
Both proverbs, to my mind, are patently dishonest sentiments. But while I can easily dismiss the former as delusion in the face of pain, the latter reveals just enough self-awareness to anger me.
God's plan is the refuge of those who, unable to face up to harsh realities, opt for fantasy. But to recognize that childhood-leukemia-as-God's-plan is a form of lunacy, yet hide your own weak-kneed desperation behind claims of "reason," is really insulting. It's one thing to dismiss rational thought altogether when attempting to face life's horrors. It's quite another to bastardize and mangle rational thought to create a shield against life's horrors.
Or so it seemed to me when I first considered these aphorisms.
But such a critique, while containing some important truths, is also very problematic.
One problem, of course, is that it's a bit cruel. After all, life can be a real motherfucker. It's wholly understandable that people would struggle to cope with the existence of something like childhood leukemia, especially when it afflicts and claims a loved one.
Whether seeking shelter from the storm of pain and misery in supernatural mumbo jumbo or ill-defined inevitability, that pain and misery is nevertheless very real. If someone hides behind one of these veils to help them make it through, so be it. It might be nonsense, but that's absolutely no reason to belittle or insult someone wrestling with deep anguish, or to feel personally betrayed by their approach.
The other problem with the above critique, however, is that it completely misses a fundamental truism about the saying "Everything happens for a reason."
That maxim isn't just a middle-of-the-road crutch for dealing with emotional and psychological torment. It also reflects a much broader human inclination.
To say everything happens for a reason is to voice support for the system. It is an expression of conformity. It's a refusal to fight for fundamental change.
To understand this one axiom, perhaps it is best to call upon another: Better the devil you know.
Generally speaking, most people do not want to experience profound change. Even when things are bad, people typically don't want something radically different; they want a better version of what they already have.
As someone who thinks radical change is usually not given due consideration, I struggle to understand why people prefer the devil they know. Why so many people, no matter how bad it gets, do not take more risks.
I suspect there are probably evolutionary and neurological factors at play, but those are bit beyond my scope. There are also probably cultural and social factors at work, and I might explore those in the future. But for now, I would like to focus on more an explanation that considers individuals: the possibility that most people fear the unknown and/or lack imagination.
I do realize that that sounds incredibly patronizing. But I don't mean it as such, and I do think it's fair, because it's not just about people's shortcomings. It's not just about what they run from and fail to do, but what they are drawn to and the faith they have.
Familiarity, they say, breeds contempt. But it is also provides a sense of security. Like Linus clutching his blue blanket, people fear loss, even of that which can be readily improved upon. They cannot imagine what comes next, so they cling to the threadbare and make the most of it. They will defend what disappoints them, arguing for its lesser merits and hoping for its marginal improvement.
In one way or another they say: this thing, this not very good thing, this unreliable thing, this unsteady thing, this broken thing, this thing of betrayal, it is my thing. It is our thing. It is what we have. So please, do not make me dispense with it. Do not pull it from my grasp. Do not make us break it. It may be bad, but you are wrong. It is all we have, all we know, so let us put faith in its restoration instead of in the unknown future.
That attitude often causes me no small degree of consternation. And the frequency of my dismay only reinforces how widespread such recalcitrance really is.
When faced with circumstances ranging from the unpleasant to the dire, many if not most people will corral their sadness and anger, and steer it into calls for improving what's wrong instead of demanding that the offender be dismissed and replaced with something else altogether.
It's why they choose the Democrats over the Republicans or vice versa, instead of looking to a third party, or supporting measures to make additional political parties more viable, or advocating other more substantive changes to the political system, despite their near perpetual disappointment in the major party they do support, even when it wins. Especially when it wins.
It's how the American Revolution in some ways wasn't very revolutionary at all, but was rather a movement by colonial elites to modify the old British monarchal system by, among other things, replacing the hereditary monarch with a nominally elected president, and replacing the hereditary House of Lords with Senators selected by regional elites.
It's acquiescence. It's complacency.
It's sending your child to college when he or she would do better to wait a few years.
It's staying in that shitty apartment, shitty job, shitty marriage.
It's why people crave ideology and rules.
It's why people choose Pepsi over Coke. Or Chipotle over Taco Bell. And insist they've made a choice.
Burmese political activist Aun San Su Kyi's famous critique of colonialism and totalitarianism is entitled Freedom From Fear. The truth, however, is that many people fear freedom.
When the possibilities are limitless, many people freeze. But when options are limited, people often have an easier time making decisions. "Do this or that" focuses people in a way that "Do whatever you want" does not. And so "Do whatever you want" becomes something to avoid, something to be feared and despised.
As recently retired NFL football player Nick Hardwick put it:
In theory, freedom sounds great. We all want more freedom. But when I retired and I had all the freedom in the world, the only thing I craved was that structure.
The expressly divine: It's all part of God's plan.
The vaguely secular: Everything happens for a reason.
At first glance, sentiments such as these are not just coping mechanisms for those dealing with real anguish. They also seem to be expressions of timidity and impotence.
Don't question it. Don't try to imagine a radically different alternative. It's already bad enough as it is, so don't risk making it worse by introducing unknown variables. Just accept it.
But such sentiments are so widespread as to make one wonder what's normal or right. When so many people eschew freedom, is it fair to label them as unimaginative cowards? Is it actually unreasonable for people to err on the side of caution?
Am I the unimaginative coward for not understanding better those who see God's plan or put faith in the haze of unknowable reasons?
Michaël Borremans . Vertebra, 2004.
Oil on canvas.
Ishiguro's The Buried Giant and The Ethics of Memory
by Leanne Ogasawara
An elderly couple embark on a quest. Wandering the countryside in which a mysterious mist has robbed everyone of their memories, the two are unable to recall exactly what they are doing at any given moment. This makes for a challenge since they know they are on a quest-- but it is never completely clear where they are going and what exactly happened in the first place.
And what is made even worse than being on a quest where you can't keep the facts straight is that each wonders whether their loss of memory will not mark the end of their marriage--for without shared memories, what will be left to bind them together? The elderly wife wonders. But at the same time, she also cannot help but worry whether in reality they are not better off not remembering?
In the early pages of Ishiguro's The Buried Giant, I assumed it would be a very different story. Like this reviewer here, at first I was sure the book would be about the sadness of a life ending in memory loss; about dementia in the elderly and love falling apart. But then (also just like the reviewer) I wondered if the novel wasn't actually some kind of exploration about the myth-making we do collectively --for indeed, it is not just the elderly couple but all the characters in the book who are suffering from memory loss as they struggle to recall what it means, for example, to be a Christian Briton or pagan Saxon, in the wake of the Roman withdrawal.
Is it glorious King Arthur or Arthur the mass murderer?
It all depends on how you remember things, right?
A coincidence (or maybe he is reading the same book) but a friend on Facebook (deliciously literary Mikhail Iossel) today wrote this:
We all know, or at least suspect, that many of the memories dearest to our hearts have never happened. To a considerable degree, our lives are the products of our own imagination -- for that's what memory is, by and large: an introspective, inward-bound imagination.
It's true, but then what to do in the face of trauma? Ishiguro in several interviews wrote of wanting to write about Rwanda or Yugoslavia. He wondered how it was possible that groups of people, who up till then had been living in relative harmony, turn so savagely upon each other? What kinds of repressed hatred had to be cultivated over the years (or generations) within them, he asks. And likewise, what of our personal traumas?
My astronomer says that someday they will perfect a pill to let you forget specific groups of memories. (Sometimes it feels like Americans think there should be a pill to solve everything).
But memory is not contained just within one person's mind, is it? And indeed more and more it seems people are becoming cut off from the collective traditions that allowed them to seek shared meaning (and forgiveness) in terms of the past. It is indeed a slippery slope --since in the process of personal meaning-making, one can get stuck in just the kinds of memory loops that the drone operators describe... or worse, in a complete burying one's head in the sand about things. For as Ishiguro says in this interview:
It might seem the best thing to just bury them. With something like a marriage you have to ask, if you just deny that something’s happened, and you literally forget it, what does that do to the love? Is it somehow inauthentic? Is it “real” love still? On the other hand, if you do actually go back and look at it squarely, would that destroy the love as well?
The more I read his novel the more questions arose. And without any real answers I started to realize just how crucial the questions themselves are.
What is the cost of remembering; what is the cost of forgetting? Asks Ishiguro. But maybe a better question is to ask: What is the obligation to remember?
I really like Avishai Margalit's book, The Ethics of Memory. I wonder if anyone else out there read it?
Without so much as a word about Palestinian memories of humiliation (!), Margalit uses the lens of the holocaust to explore questions regarding the obligations to remember.
The book has an absolutely haunting beginning in which Margalit recalls a conversation that took place between his mother and his father when he was an adolescent. In the face of what amounted to the obliteration of both their extended families during the holocaust, his mother suggests that all that is left to them as the survivors is to become vessels of memories, like candles for the dead, she says. It is a beautiful image that struck me very much. His father, however, not surprisingly recoils at the suggestion saying--we are not candles! "We must turn our eyes to the future and become strong," he insists.
In The Buried Giant, uncovering the truth could lead to what is not just the collapse of what appears to be a very beautiful marriage but it could also lead to the resumption (resurrection) of war, thereby causing death and destruction to come to the land again. With this in mind, the author wonders whether it is, therefore, not more moral (and ethical) to repress and leave the giant buried?
Margalit, being a philosopher, is tentative when it comes to drawing conclusions on this same topic--though reading the book, one feels he must believe (like Thoreau) that human beings crave truth above everything, so that a future not consciously informed by the past will lead to a repetition of past wrongs. A future based on a lie will also be inauthentic, like being hooked up to a happiness machine (for isn't that what the happy elderly couple is doing--standing in for "ignorance is bliss"?) That is to say, when it comes down to it, most people would not choose a happy marriage if it is based on a lie? Or a peace based on a lie if that peace can turn to savage butchery in what seems like the blink of an eye.
Sins of the father.
Margalit's Ethics of Memory is continental style philosophy, and is written in the classical form of a meditation. Philosopher Galen Strawson picked out his three central premises to the book as follows: 1) it is care, or caring, that lies at the core of thick (or particular) relations; 2) memory is the cement that holds thick relations together; and 3) "we dread the idea of dying without leaving a trace." (David Mitchell's project as well).
Strawson's rebuttal to Magalit's points is great. Obviously as Strawson insists, not everyone will agree that care is based on shared memories or requires any remembering after death. And some will even dismiss the so-called horror of dying without leaving a trace. Personally, while I myself readily accept all three of Margalit's points, I can at least imagine there are people who don't feel dread at the idea of not leaving a trace. Not to mention those enlightened beings who are truly capable of living in the present tense without anxiety toward the future or angst concerning the past, as Strawson suggests. David Mitchell is very interesting here, I think, in the way he portrays the way our past (each and every action) reverberates into our present thereby becoming our future. Every action is like a ripple across time. So, even if one forgets, it doesn't change the facts.
Whatever one might think about memory informing human care and the traces of time (humans as "bone clocks"), Margalit makes one move at the end of his book that is very interesting. Like Ian Buruma's classic book Wages of Guilt, which compares the reaction of the Germans versus that of the Japanese to wartime guilt, Margalit also examines both of these cases to illuminate the different approaches countries can take in examining past transgressions.
He uses the analogy of gift giving to make his point. He begins by explaining that some academics have looked at the gift-giving practices of some cultures as being transactional (give and take). But this simply is not accurate, Margalit says. Gift-giving is an almost ritualized practice for re-enforcing relationships, he insists. I think this is true.
In the Japanese countryside, it seemed like an endless cycle. Where I lived, such exchanges with neighbors and family were constant and never-ending. For me, there was stress in living up to my side because I am not that organized and get overwhelmed by finer details but after two decades I came to see it as like a cement to bond people to one another--the constant exchanges were simply small shows of care and over time it turned into something reassuring (in the US, I dearly miss those small signs of care that kept me feeling busy when I lived in Japan, because it kept me from feeling lonely).
Margalit uses this as an analogy of how one should look at memory and forgiveness. To keep the giant buried (by hiding things under the rug), one is not processing things. This we all can probably agree to. But instead of focusing on the perpetrator or the victim, perhaps we should concentrate on the relationship between the two agents. In this way, for example, if one side of the relationship is angry (Korea or Japan), it is neither here nor there to say "we dealt with this already" or worse to brush it under the rug. What is needed is another session of remembering since remembering is a form of mercy and grace, says Margalit. This occurs first and that is the obligation of the side who wronged. The other side then has a choice to overcome their resentment and anger or to push for more discussion on the remembering.
Whether forgiveness happens or not is not up to us, the obligation is only to address issues, rather than brushing things under the rug. That is, not to ignore the pain of the other side and to step up in recalling things and making honest reparations as a commitment to real peace until peace is achieved. Dialogue as a commitment to the relationship and to truth is what matters. For as David Mitchell says in Bone Clocks:
Nothing lasts and yet nothing passes either, and nothing passes just because nothing lasts.
In this way, Ishiguro's novel ends the only way it could.
The Magic of the Bell and a Glimpse of Spirits
by Bill Benzon
Call it “animism” if you wish, but it will no longer be enough to brand it with the mark of infamy. This is indeed why we feel so close to the sixteenth century, as if we were back before the “epistemological break,” before the odd invention of matter.
—Bruno Latour, An Attempt at a “Compositionist Manifesto”
This essay starts with an experience I had some years ago in a basement in Troy, New York, while rehearsing with three colleagues: Ade (who had toured with Gil Scott-Heron in his youth), Druis, and Fonda. We were each of us playing bells when at some point we heard high-pitched twittering sounds that none of us were playing. Where did they come from? What were they?
I can easily imagine how someone might think they were hearing a spirit or spirits. The Western scientific impulse is quite different. We know that spirits do not exist and therefore there must be some other, some physically plausible, account of those twittering sounds. My purpose here is not to reject the physical account. On the contrary, I believe it to be foundational. But I also believe that, carefully considered, it points to a way of making sense of the idea of spirit.
Instrument and Player
It is well known that B.B. King’s guitar is named Lucille. Why is it named at all? Perhaps it’s a gesture of affection. The guitar, after all, is very close to him. It is one of his voices; it is, in some sense, part of him.
It may be more than that. The name may well reflect the subtle intricacy of King’s relationship to his guitar, his instrument. To play an instrument well, one must learn to yield to its physicality, to blend with it. You cannot dominate it. Well, you can try, and you CAN succeed. But you pay a cost. Your musicianship suffers.
As I’m not a guitar player, however, I can’t tell you what it means to yield to a guitar. I suppose I could talk about the trumpet—I’ve been playing one for half a century—but that’s just a little complex. And my point really isn’t about complexity. It’s about subtlety.
Let us begin by talking about playing a very simple instrument, the claves.
The claves are a pair of short sticks that tend to be roughly eight inches long and an inch in diameter. They’re used in many genres of Latin music to produce a sharp penetrating percussive sound. They’re usually made of hard dense wood. Mine are made of fiberglass (see below). You hold one clave in your left hand and then strike it with the other one, held in your right hand (if you’re right handed).
It’s more like you cradle one clave (it doesn’t matter which one) in your left hand. You hold your hand palm-up, lay the clave across it, and grip it only so much as needed to keep it in place. You do not need to grip it tightly, nor do you even WANT to grip it tightly. If you do that, then your hand will dampen the vibrations and dull the sound. The ‘crack!’ will no longer be sharp and crisp.
You must of course grip the other clave to keep it from falling to the ground. But, and here is the subtlety, you do WANT it to fall, which is its natural behavior under gravity. It should fall toward the stationary clave and rebound from it. The quicker the two sticks separate after impact, the sharper and louder the sound. There’s nothing you can do with your will and muscle that is more effective than simply getting out of the way. Let natural elasticity do its work.
Use your right hand to regulate how the clave falls. In effect, you’re dropping the clave and using your right hand to follow the fall. For a soft sound, start the fall close to the target clave. If you start the fall further away, you’ll get a louder sound. For a still louder sound, you can impart energy to the clave with your hand. Now you ARE gripping it and dominating it, but just a bit.
Played in this way it is easy to get a loud satisfying crack from the claves with little effort, an important consideration if you’re playing a four or five hour gig. But, if you don’t know this, if you have never been shown or never figured it out, you can exert considerably more effort playing the claves, and get much less sound from that effort.
I witnessed that several years ago when I was working with a street band in New York City. I played trumpet most of the time, but had some bells and the claves for people to pick up and join the band. One young man who said he was a drummer wanted to play the claves. I gave them to him and away he went.
He gripped each clave hammer-style, and then banged the free ends together with fairly considerable force. He hit them so hard that he managed to knock small chips out of them. These claves were made of fiberglass specifically so they could withstand hard use; that’s why I bought them. And yet the man managed to knock chips out of them while not getting much sound out of them at all. As I recall, he noticed that himself and was frustrated, but the situation wasn’t one where I could stop what I was doing and give him a clave lesson in mid-performance. Nor was it obvious to me that he would have gotten the lesson quickly. He seemed determined to demonstrate his will and enthusiasm by expending maximum effort.
The point, then, is that technique matters, and that just what and how it matters is not immediately obvious. The musician must assimilate the instrument to their body schema and play it as though it were their own body. Just what that entails will vary from one instrument to another. For example, the physical aspects of playing the trumpet (my main instrument) are quite different from playing the claves; they are more difficult to conceptualize as they involve the mouth (lips, teeth and tongue); the arms, hands, and fingers; and the trunk and breathing apparatus. But we don’t need to deal with all that, as my primary example is very much like the claves.
The Magic of the Bell
It involves playing bells, such as those following this paragraph. You hold the bell or bells in one hand and a beater, often an ordinary drum stick, in the other. But the bells give you more options than the clave; they have more affordances, to use a term from the ecological psychology of J. J. Gibson. Exactly where and how hard you hit matters, as does just how you grip the bell. You can also damp the sound with your fingers or by lowering the bell to your thigh (when playing while seated).
The bells really get interesting when played in a group, for now you have multiple bell sounds interacting with one another. I’ve described how this works in Beethoven’s Anvil (pp. 23-24). This paragraph describes the basic phenomenon:
This is a story about me and three other musicians. Led by Ade Knowles, we were rehearsing a piece based on Ghanaian musical principles. Each of us had a bell with two or three heads on it—the bells were of Ghanaian manufacture. Ade assigned three of us simple interlocking rhythms to play and then improvised over the interlocking parts. Once the music got going, melodies would emerge which no one was playing. The successive tones one heard as a melody came first from one bell then another and another. No person was playing that melody; it arose from cohesions in the shifting pattern of tones played by the ensemble. Depending on the patterns he played, Ade could direct the tonal stream perceived as the melody, but the tones he played weren't necessarily the melody tones. Rather, they served to direct the melodic cohesions from place to place.
Those emergent melodies are important. They were and are clear and obvious, a single discrete stream of tones where the individual tones were played by different individuals rather than all of them being played by a single individual. Because no one person was playing every note in these emergent melody lines, we can take these lines as a phenomenon and expression of group unity. In fact, those interlocking and emergent lines in African bell choirs and drum choirs have posed considerable problems for ethnomusicologists. It is all but impossible to figure out what the individual lines are simply by listening to the whole. At the same time, it is difficult for individual musicians to play a single line without the support of the whole group.
Think about those two related phenomena for a moment. The auditory array has a segmentation that is natural to the human ear, but that segmentation doesn’t divide the array into streams each of which is executed by a single individual. At the same time individuals cannot properly execute his or her own component without hearing the others with which it is interlinked. It is not merely that the sonic array is being created by a group, but that the group seems to have entered the mind of each individual so that individual actions require group support and the “virtual” actors one hears, the auditory streams, are each of them products of group action.
Let’s get back to those bells. Now the event gets even more subtle and interesting (Beethoven's Anvil, p. 24):
Occasionally, something quite remarkable would happen. When we were really locked together in animated playing we could hear relatively high-pitched tones that no one was playing. That is, while each bell had a pitch tendency (these bells were not precisely tuned), these particular high tones did not match the pitch tendency of any bell. The tones were distinct, but not ones that any of us appeared to be playing.
These tones only appeared when we were in the state of relaxation conducive to intense playing, a groove, if you will—a groove I could certainly feel as a “buzz” in my body. Without the relaxation, no emergent tones and melodies. According to Ade, that's how it always is. The “magic” of the bell happens only when the musicians are in a groove. My friend Jon Barlow tells me that a similar phenomenon is familiar to people who gather together and chant long tones in unison. When the chanting is going well, and only then, the chanters hear distinct and relatively high-pitched tones that seem to be located near the room’s ceiling. It is those magic tones (for what it is worth, about 2000 Herz and above), tones played by no one at all, but emerging through the group to form their own auditory stream, that is what I want you to think about—I certainly did, for years, and I am still thinking about them. If I hadn’t ‘known better’ I would have said, straight up, that they were spirit voices, or some such thing. But I believed then, and now, that such spirits do not and cannot exist.
If I couldn’t call them spirit voices then what could I call them?
I searched for written accounts of the phenomenon, but could find none, though I found accounts of similar phenomenon. I made inquiries of other musicians, ethnomusicologists, and experts in psychoacoustics. No one was familiar with the phenomenon; though some offered an opinion that the sounds may well have been real sounds that one could pick up with microphones and record on tape. That’s what I think, too. But none of us really knows.
The phenomenon remains something a puzzle.
Spirits, Why Not?
Why not think of this twittering bell tones as manifestation of spirits? But not spirits conceived as incorporeal sprites littering hither and yon in the material universe in mysterious ways. Rather, they are concrete and indivisible manifestations of group activities. They express and are deeply grounded in collectivity.
To that end I insist on treating the sounds and their performance context as a single unified entity. Without that context, which of course includes the performers, then, yes, those sounds are just sounds. If we had recorded that rehearsal, only the sounds would be in the recording, but not the spirits of which they are manifestations. For those things I am calling spirits are intermingled with the performers and are not physically separable from them.
It is important to emphasize that those sounds happened only when we were in a focused state of mind. The sounds existed only through our collective interaction. It is that collectivity as it “attaches” itself to the sounds that I am calling a spirit. The sounds are an audible manifestation of a special and temporary relationship among the four of us. To say that those twitterings are spirits, or voices of spirits, is to speak figuratively, where the figure is synecdoche, using the part (the twitter sounds) to stand for the whole (group locked in very intense musical activity).
Now, let us increase the conceptual ante. There are musically driven ceremonies all over the world in which people are said to become possessed by spirits. Such ceremonies have been observed and documented in photographs, sound recordings, film and video. The details of these ceremonies differ from place to place, but the central phenomenon is the same: some person or persons become possessed by some other being.
These other beings are generally well known to the community. They have been entering people for generations. Often many such beings will be known in a community with different people being devotees of different spirits. Let us turn to Gilbert Rouget’s classic Music and Trance (1985 p. 325). There are many rituals where the principal celebrants are said to become possessed by a spirit. These celebrants are not themselves making music. They are dancing to music made by others:
The trance itself, in other words the period during which the subject settles himself, so to say, into his other persona and totally coincides with it, has, on the contrary, quite a stable relation to music...Here the function of the music is obvious. It is due to the music, and because he is supported by the music, that the possessed person publicly lives out, by means of dance, his identification with the divinity he embodies. The music ... is essentially identificatory. By playing his “motto” [a rhythm characteristic of a particular divinity], the musicians notify this identity to the entranced dancer, those around him, the priests, and the spectators....Music thus appears as the principal means of socializing trance.
Rouget was thinking about social function, not neural foundations. The celebrant identifies with the divinity, and that divinity is signaled by characteristics of the music that are specific to the divinity. The music functions as a vehicle for a collective intentionality, one that slips beneath the barriers of individuality and the imperatives of autonomous selves. In music thus shared, my rhythms and your rhythms are the same. And thus we are the one in spirit if not in body.
Spirit possession is thus quite different from the bell spirits I have been talking about. For one thing, in the particular case of bell spirits, none of the four musicians were raised and socialized in a bell-playing culture. Hence, perhaps, the adventitious nature of the phenomenon. It was a one-time occurrence because none of us was raised in a culture where such experiences are available almost at will.
For another, there was no possession. We all retained our individuated identities. No one disappeared into a spirit identity.
Now invert that: Think of the spirit identity as something ready and waiting, like a coat hanging on a rack. You get together with your friends, play the right music, dance the right steps and Shazaam! you ‘disappear’ into that identity, you don the coat and, for the nonce, become the spirit.
Think of the brain – your brain, my brain, everyone’s brain – as a 100 billion tiny oscillators. When we make music and dance the music entrains our oscillators – yours, my, everyone’s – to one another in one large and tightly coupled pool. What’s a spirit? It’s an intricate pattern of action rippling through the coupled pool of oscillators, no more.
* * * * *
Bill Benzon blogs at New Savanna, is on Facebook, and posts his academic work to Academia.edu. This essay is revised and adapted from the first third or so of a working paper, The Magic of the Bell: How Networks of Social Actors Create Cultural Beings. I’ve collected by 3QD posts from 2014 into a single document, 42 Quarks: Getting from here to there.
Monday, March 30, 2015
STEM Education Promotes Critical Thinking and Creativity: A Response to Fareed Zakaria
by Jalees Rehman
All obsessions can be dangerous. When I read the title "Why America's obsession with STEM education is dangerous" of Fareed Zakaria's article in the Washington Post, I assumed that he would call for more balance in education. An exclusive focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is unhealthy because students miss out on the valuable knowledge that the arts and humanities teach us. I would wholeheartedly agree with such a call for balance because I believe that a comprehensive education makes us better human beings. This is the reason why I encourage discussions about literature and philosophy in my scientific laboratory. To my surprise and dismay, Zakaria did not analyze the respective strengths of liberal arts education and STEM education. Instead, his article is laced with odd clichés and misrepresentations of STEM.
Misrepresentation #1: STEM teaches technical skills instead of critical thinking and creativity
If Americans are united in any conviction these days, it is that we urgently need to shift the country's education toward the teaching of specific, technical skills. Every month, it seems, we hear about our children's bad test scores in math and science — and about new initiatives from companies, universities or foundations to expand STEM courses (science, technology, engineering and math) and deemphasize the humanities.
"The United States has led the world in economic dynamism, innovation and entrepreneurship thanks to exactly the kind of teaching we are now told to defenestrate. A broad general education helps foster critical thinking and creativity."
Zakaria is correct when he states that a broad education fosters creativity and critical thinking but his article portrays STEM as being primarily focused on technical skills whereas liberal education focuses on critical thinking and creativity. Zakaria's view is at odds with the goals of STEM education. As a scientist who mentors Ph.D students in the life sciences and in engineering, my goal is to help our students become critical and creative thinkers.
Students learn technical skills such as how to culture cells in a dish, insert DNA into cells, use microscopes or quantify protein levels but these technical skills are not the focus of the educational program. Learning a few technical skills is easy but the real goal is for students to learn how to develop innovative scientific hypotheses, be creative in terms of designing experiments that test those hypotheses, learn how to be critical of their own results and use logic to analyze their experiments.
My own teaching and mentoring experience focuses on STEM graduate students but the STEM programs that I have attended at elementary and middle schools also emphasize teaching basic concepts and critical thinking instead of "technical skills". The United States needs to promote STEM education because of the prevailing science illiteracy in the country and not because it needs to train technically skilled worker bees. Here are some examples of science illiteracy in the US: Fort-two percent of Americans are creationists who believe that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years or so. Fifty-two percent of Americans are unsure whether there is a link between vaccines and autism and six percent are convinced that vaccines can cause autism even though there is broad consensus among scientists from all over the world that vaccines do NOT cause autism. And only sixty-one percent are convinced that there is solid evidence for global warming.
A solid STEM education helps citizens apply critical thinking to distinguish quackery from true science, benefiting their own well-being as well as society.
Zakaria's criticism of obsessing about test scores is spot on. The subservience to test scores undermines the educational system because some teachers and school administrators may focus on teaching test-taking instead of critical thinking and creativity. But this applies to the arts and humanities as well as the STEM fields because language skills are also assessed by standardized tests. Just like the STEM fields, the arts and humanities have to find a balance between teaching required technical skills (i.e. grammar, punctuation, test-taking strategies, technical ability to play an instrument) and the more challenging tasks of teaching students how to be critical and creative.
Misrepresentation #2: Japanese aren't creative
Zakaria's views on Japan are laced with racist clichés:
"Asian countries like Japan and South Korea have benefitted enormously from having skilled workforces. But technical chops are just one ingredient needed for innovation and economic success. America overcomes its disadvantage — a less-technically-trained workforce — with other advantages such as creativity, critical thinking and an optimistic outlook. A country like Japan, by contrast, can't do as much with its well-trained workers because it lacks many of the factors that produce continuous innovation."
Some of the most innovative scientific work in my own field of scientific research – stem cell biology – is carried out in Japan. Referring to Japanese as "well-trained workers" does not do justice to the innovation and creativity in the STEM fields and it also conveniently ignores Japanese contributions to the arts and humanities. I doubt that the US movie directors who have re-made Kurosawa movies or the literary critics who each year expect that Haruki Murakami will receive the Nobel Prize in Literature would agree with Zakaria.
Misrepresentation #3: STEM does not value good writing
Writing well, good study habits and clear thinking are important. But Zakaria seems to suggest that these are not necessarily part of a good math and science education:
"No matter how strong your math and science skills are, you still need to know how to learn, think and even write. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon (and the owner of this newspaper), insists that his senior executives write memos, often as long as six printed pages, and begins senior-management meetings with a period of quiet time, sometimes as long as 30 minutes, while everyone reads the "narratives" to themselves and makes notes on them. In an interview with Fortune's Adam Lashinsky, Bezos said: "Full sentences are harder to write. They have verbs. The paragraphs have topic sentences. There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking."
Communicating science is an essential part of science. Until scientific work is reviewed by other scientists and published as a paper it is not considered complete. There is a substantial amount of variability in the quality of writing among scientists. Some scientists are great at logically structuring their papers and conveying the core ideas whereas other scientific papers leave the reader in a state of utter confusion. What Jeff Bezos proposes for his employees is already common practice in the STEM world. In preparation for scientific meetings and discussions, scientists structure their ideas into outlines for manuscripts or grant proposals using proper paragraphs and sentences. Well-written scientific manuscripts are highly valued but the overall quality of writing in the STEM fields could be greatly improved. However, the same probably also holds true for people with a liberal arts education. Not every philosopher is a great writer. Decoding the human genome is a breeze when compared to decoding certain postmodern philosophical texts.
Misrepresentation #4: We should study the humanities and arts because Silicon Valley wants us to.
In support of his arguments for a stronger liberal arts education, Zakaria primarily quotes Silicon Valley celebrities such as Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos. The article suggests that a liberal arts education will increase entrepreneurship and protect American jobs. Are these the main reasons for why we need to reinvigorate liberal arts education? The importance of a general, balanced education makes a lot of sense to me but is increased job security a convincing argument for pursuing a liberal arts degree? Instead of a handful of anecdotal comments by Silicon Valley prophets, I would prefer to see some actual data that supports Zakaria's assertion. But perhaps I am being too STEMy.
There is a lot of room to improve STEM education. We have to make sure that we strive to focus on the essence of STEM which is critical thinking and creativity. We should also make a stronger effort to integrate arts and humanities into STEM education. In the same vein, it would be good to incorporate more STEM education into liberal arts education in order to combat scientific illiteracy. Instead of invoking "Two Cultures" scenarios and creating straw man arguments, educators of all fields need to collaborate in order to improve the overall quality of education.
Gregory Holm, Matthew Radune. Ice House, Detroit. 2010.
Illegibility And Its Anxieties
"I would like to understand things better,
but I don't want to understand them perfectly."
~ Douglas Hofstadter, Metamagical Themas
A few weeks ago I went to an evening of presentations by startups working in the artificial intelligence field. By far the most interesting was a group that for several years had been quietly working on using AI to create a new compression algorithm for video. While this may seem to be a niche application, their work in fact responds to a pressing need. As demand for video streaming, first in high definition and increasingly in formats such as 4K, hopelessly outruns the buildout of new infrastructure, there is a commensurate need for ever-greater ratios of compression of video data. It is the only viable way to keep up with the reqirements of video streaming, and companies such as Netflix are willing to pay boatloads of cash for the best technologies. But the presentation also crystallized some interesting and important aspects of AI that go well beyond not just niche applications, but the alarmist predictions of people like Steven Hawking, Elon Musk and Bill Gates. What are we really creating here?
This startup, bankrolled by a former currency trader who, as founder and CEO, was the one giving the talk, has engaged in a three-step development program. The first step involved feeding their AI – charmingly named Rita – with every single video compression algorithm already in use, and having it (her?) cherry-pick the best aspects of each. The ensuing Franken-algorithm has already been tested and confirmed to provide lossless compression at a rate of 75%, which is already best in its class. The second step in their program, which is currently in development, charges Rita with the taking the results of everything learned in the first step, and creating its own algorithm. The expectation is that they will reach up to 90% compression, which is really rather extraordinary.
So far, so good. The final step of the program – one which expects to yield a mind-boggling 99% compression ratio – is where things get really interesting. For Rita's creators are now ‘entrusting her' (I know, the more you talk about AI, the more hopeless it is to attempt avoiding anthropomorphization) with the task of creating her own programming language that will be solely dedicated to video compression. There was an appreciative gasp in the room when the CEO outlined this brave next step, and during the Q&A I wanted him to explain more about what this meant.
The exchange went something like this:
Me: Ok, so I understand the first two steps. People have been using techniques of fitness selection to evolve algorithms in ways that humans could not design or even anticipate. Also, there is no reason why an AI couldn't evolve its own algorithm, given a well-defined outcome and enough inputs. But this last step – the creation of an entirely new, purpose-built language, for one purpose only – is this a language that will then be available to human programmers via some sort of interface?
CEO: No. It will be a black box. We won't know how Rita came to design what she did, or how it works. Just that it does what it needs to do.
Me, stammering: But…but…how do you feel about that?
Random guy in the audience: How does he feel about it? He feels pretty good! After all, he's a shareholder.
At which point the entire room erupted in laughter.
It became quickly apparent that the intent of my question was misconstrued, however, since the discussion then turned to what always seems to be the elephant in the room when it comes to AI research: What are the moral implications of surrendering our agency, of which this seemed to be a prime example? The usual suspects were trotted out – Skynet, the Matrix, HAL9000, blah blah blah. (They could have also included Colossus: The Forbin Project, a 1970 sci-fi thriller along the same lines, whose stills I include here). But my point wasn't about whether or how we ought best welcome our new robotic overlords. Rather, it was about legibility. What happens when we create things, that then go ahead and create other things that we don't understand, or even have access to? More to the point, what is lost?
Arguably, this signifies an inversion of what is understood as ‘progress', at least in an epistemological sense. For example, plant and animal breeders have refined and elaborated breeds to bring out desirable traits (drought resistance, hunting skills, cuteness) for hundreds, if not thousands of years, without knowing the underlying genetic principles. The identification of DNA as the enabling epistemological substrate of this program has rapidly accelerated these activities, but this has only added to the general illumination of these previously known processes. Genetically modified organisms fall into this category, even if the eventual consequences do not. What AIs such as Rita are empowered to effect, on the other hand, is a deliberately sponsored obfuscation of these processes of knowing. The implied trajectory is that we are willing to create tools that will help us do more things in the world, but that in the process we strike a somewhat Faustian bargain, pleased to arrive at our destination but forfeiting the knowledge of how we got there.
Now, I want to be clear that I am not at all interested in making a moral argument. Unlike what Hollywood would have us believe, there seems little point in arguing whether AIs will turn out to be good or evil. Such anxieties are more redolent of our narcissistic desire to feel threatened by apocalypses of our own manufacture (eg, nuclear war) than a genuine willingness to think through what it might mean for a machine intelligence to be authentically evil, or good, or – which is much more likely – something in between. And the above exchange with the startup's CEO illustrates the blithe manner in which capital will always perform an end-run around these considerations. "Being a shareholder" is sufficient justification for the illegibility of the final outcome, with the further implication that we should all be so lucky as to be shareholders in such enterprises.
Rather, any moral argument should be understood as a proxy for how alien any given technology may seem to us. Perhaps our tendency to assign it a moral status is more indicative of how unsure we are about the role it may play in society. The operational inscrutability of an AI (and not, I should emphasize, its ‘motivations') make the possible consequences so unpredictable that we may seek to legislate its right to exist, and the easiest means for enabling a legislative act is to locate it on a moral continuum.
The use of the word ‘legislate' is appropriate here, since what we are attempting to do is to, quite literally, make the technology and its action in society legible to us. Linguistically, both words share the same Latin root, legere. And if we cannot make the phenomenon of AI legible, then we may at least quarantine its actions and sphere of influence. In William Gibson's novel Neuromancer, this was the remit of the Turing Registry, which enforced an uneasy peace between AIs, the corporations that run them, and the world at large:
The Turing Registry, named after the father of modern computing, operates out of Geneva. Turing is technically not a megacorp, but instead a registry, and the closest thing to a body of government as far as artificial intelligences are concerned. The Turing Registry exists to keep corporations who use AIs and the AIs themselves in check. Every AI in existence, whether directly connected to the matrix or not, must be registered with Turing to enjoy the full rights of an AI. AIs registered with Turing enjoy Swiss citizenship, though the hardware itself that contains the 'soul' is connected to enough explosives to incapacitate the being. Any AI suspected of attempting to remove this device, escape Turing control, or enhance itself without proper Turing approval is controlled immediately.
Aside from the delicious detail that AIs are Swiss citizens (hey, it's not just corporations that can be people), what Gibson indicates to us is that the battle for legibility, in an epistemological sense, is already lost. Pre-emptively quarantining and, failing that, blowing up miscreant AIs is the best that the inhabitants of Neuromancer can hope for. Of course, the narrative arc of the novel concerns precisely this: the protean manner in which an AI attempts to transcend this restricted state. And Gibson implies that humanity, with its toxic mix of curiosity, greed and anthropomorphizing tendencies, is all too willing to be enlisted in this task.
And yet, to a large extent AI as the container par excellence for these anxieties is just a red herring, for this kind of illegibility is already rampant. Superficially, we seem to require a locus – a concrete something to which we can point and say "That's an AI" – that then becomes the appointed site for these anxieties. In this sense we are content to believe that, when we saw Watson clobbering his fellow contestants on Jeopardy!, the AI is ‘located' behind a lectern, with his hapless human competitors standing side-by-side behind their own lecterns: a level playing field if there ever was one. Our imagination does not accede to the notion that Watson is a large bank of computers located off-stage, in a different state, even, and ministered to by a team of highly trained scientists and engineers.
In fact, AI is not at all needed to fulfill the anxieties of illegibility. It certainly ‘embodies' those anxieties successfully, despite its own distinct lack of embodiment, by playing on the idea that an AI is something that is kind of like us, but isn't us, but perhaps wants to become more like us, until in the end it becomes something decidedly not like us at all, at which point it will already be too late (see: Hollywood). Except the traces of illegibility are already ubiquitous, in the form of algorithms that may not fall under the rubric of AI but certainly instigate a cascade of events that correspond to what we would identify as AI-like consequences.
Consider this 2011 talk by developer and designer Kevin Slavin (you can get the Cliffs Notes version in his TED Talk): the fact that, at the time, about 70% of all stock trading was driven by algorithms buy and selling shares to other algorithms. Sure, computer scientists would tweak things here and there, but the cumulative effect of unassisted trading has led to some extraordinary outcomes. Most dramatically, the Flash Crash of 2010, which saw the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunge about 9% in a matter of minutes and on no news at all, was likely precipitated by a few rogue algorithms. In the absence of substantive regulation, the markets have learned to live with daily flash crashes.
The financial markets do not hold a monopoly on unintended consequences, however. Slavin also gives further examples of Algorithms Gone Wild with a funny anecdote concerning a biology textbook that was listed on Amazon initially at $1.7 million, only to have the price rise, in a few hours, to $23.6 million, which was odd because the book is out of print, and therefore no one was either selling or buying it. To Slavin, these are "algorithms locked in loops with each other", engaging in a form of silent combat. Critical to this point is that, while these developments occur at lightning speeds, the disambiguation, if humans even choose to pursue it, takes much longer. In the case of the Flash Crash, it took the SEC five months to issue its report, which was heavily criticized. To this day, there is no consensus on what actually happened in the markets that day. As for the biology textbook, it lives on merely as an anecdote for TED audiences.
So the consequences of an AI-like world are, in fact, here already. To invite AIs into the party is more or less beside the point. Our world has become so deeply driven by software that our capacity to ‘read' what we have created is already substantially, and, in all likelihood, permanently eroded. That this has happened only gradually and in subtle, nearly invisible ways has made it that much more dificult to realize. In this sense, AI, or at least a certain way of thinking about AI, may provide an interesting counterpoint.
If one goes back to its roots, AI research sought to understand intelligence as it existed in the world already, and take that learning and bring it in silico. That this has so far failed – despite substantial progress in the brain sciences – is uncontroversial and well understood. In parallel, the precipitous decline in the costs of computing, bandwidth and storage have enabled the rise of probabilistic approaches to intelligence, rather than behavioral ones, hence the primacy of the algortihm. As Ali Minai, professor at the University of Cincinnati, writes:
AI, invented by computer scientists, lived long with the conceit that the mind was ‘just computation' – and failed miserably. This was not because the idea was fundamentally erroneous, but because ‘computation' was defined too narrowly. Brilliant people spent lifetimes attempting to write programs and encode rules underlying aspects of intelligence, believing that it was the algorithm that mattered rather than the physics that instantiated it. This turned out to be a mistake. Yes, intelligence is computation, but only in the broad sense that all informative physical interactions are computation - the kind of ‘computation' performed by muscles in the body, cells in the bloodstream, people in societies and bees in a hive.
Minai goes on to equate intelligence with ‘embodied behavior in a specific environment'. What I find promising about this line of inquiry is its modesty, but also its ambition. If we begin from the premise that life has done a pretty fine job in not just evolving behavioral intelligence, but in doing so sustainably, this is a paradigm that leads us to a certain way of looking at not just the kind of work machine intelligence can do, but the place that it also ought to occupy, in relation to all the things that are already in the world. This is simply due to the fact that this kind of intelligence is can only exist based on embodiment. In contrast, the bare algorithms running around in financial markets or anywhere else are much more akin to viruses.
I do not know if it is possible to actually create a machine intelligence based on these principles – after all, this is something that has eluded computer and cognitive scientists for decades and continues to do so. But I do believe that such an intelligence will be more legible to us, even if its internal workings remain inscrutable, because our relationship to it will be based on behavior. If Minai's school of thought has merit, this may well be a saving grace. On the other hand, if there is any substantial danger posed by AI, it comes from an utter lack of constraint or connection to the physical world. The issue is whether we as a society will offer ourselves any choice in the matter.
Monday, March 23, 2015
A Chronicle of the Minutiae
by Namit Arora
A review of Odysseus Abroad, a novel by Amit Chaudhuri.
Ananda Sen, the young Bengali protagonist in Amit Chaudhuri’s sixth novel, Odysseus Abroad, is an aspiring poet, singer of ragas, and seeker of the romantic spark in London, 1985. Raised in Bombay but with ancestral roots in Sylhet, Bangladesh, Ananda has been studying English literature for over two years at a university in London—all details that also describe Chaudhuri’s own past. Ananda’s maternal uncle, Radhesh Majumdar—a character based on Chaudhuri’s own uncle—is in London too, in a Belsize Park bedsit for 24 years. Odysseus Abroad is a portrait of Ananda, Radhesh, and their relationship, rendered through their memories, everyday experiences, and responses to contemporary British culture.
Odysseus Abroad is not a traditional novel. It has no plot, no existential crisis, no darkness lurking in any soul; nor does it abound in moral conflicts or messy heartbreaks. In a recent interview, Chaudhuri, professor of contemporary literature at a British university, claimed to have ‘rejected the monumental superstructure of the novel in favour of the everyday rhythms of the day.’ Sadly, in Odysseus Abroad, this feels like the author taking away the cake and not offering any pudding either.
The novel opens with Ananda, 22, who dreams of getting published in Poetry Review, practices singing twice a day, and frets about his noisy Indian neighbors above and below his flat. From the daily rhythm of noises—creaking floorboards, kitchen sounds, a new kind of ‘angry, insistent’ music called ‘rap’—he has figured out the patterns of life of the young Gujaratis upstairs. Though ‘disengaged from Indian politics’, he is ‘dilettantishly addicted to British politicians—the debates; the mock outrage; the amazing menu of accents’ on TV. We learn that his privileged class status in India—marked by a ‘cursory but proud knowledge of Bengali literature’, ‘lettuce sandwiches as a teatime snack’, speaking English at home, ‘a diet of Agatha Christie and Earl Stanley Gardner’ in his early teens—meant that he remained largely oblivious to class until he came to England.
Financed by his parents, he lives frugally, eats Chinese takeout, suffers from acidity, and masturbates often—his two sexual encounters with others are limited to ‘coitus with prostitutes’ in Bombay, which had settled that he is not gay. He reads the Oxford Companion to Modern British Literature, and—idly and preciously—dwells on ‘cherished lines and phrases’ by and about Shakespeare, Shelley, Auden, Keats, Larkin, and others. Wasn’t it only in England, he wonders, that he had discovered the beauty of the word ‘summer’ (as in ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’)? About Larkin’s three slim volumes of poetry, wasn’t there ‘something wonderful about their antithetical efflorescence, their muted hostility to their own existence’? Alongside such reflections, Ananda imagines his own poems to be ‘frozen pieces of music’ shaped by viraha—an Indian variant of eros suffused with a sense of separation from, and longing for, the nameless beloved.
Ananda’s first two years in London, we learn, were painful. He felt ‘terribly excluded’ from his social milieu. He stopped attending lectures and only appeared for his tutorials, where he had some mildly amusing interactions with three tutors, including a beautiful young feminist. His co-students filled ‘him with nervousness and distrust because of their pink complexions and blue eyes’. He finds himself developing ‘a strange unconscious familiarity’ with all non-Caucasians in London, who ‘could be presumed upon in a way that the white man couldn’t.’ Unlike non-Caucasians, whose ‘consciousnesses were fuzzier, less individual, and softer, like their physical features—noses, jawlines, bodies’, the ‘very clarity and perfection of features made each version of [the white man] separate, singular, and quietly nervous-making’ to Ananda.
He meets his uncle once or twice a week. ‘They got on each other’s nerves, but had grown fond of the frisson. He was Ananda’s sole friend in London—and Ananda his.’ Ananda’s parents, before his birth, had lived in the same building in Belsize Park where Radhesh had arrived and still lives. Radhesh reminisces about his time in London with Ananda’s parents and their childhood in Sylhet. His account abounds in quotidian details, trifling resentments, and repetitive musings. Radhesh never married and Ananda even suspects him to be a virgin. His big regret in life is to not have become a director at Philipp Bros, a shipping company where he worked as a Chartered Shipbroker, before he was made redundant. Now a pensioner, he obsessively cleans his bowels every morning, rarely bathes, wears an old three-piece suit, watches B-grade action films, relates ghost encounters, and reads the Pan Book of Horror Stories. He defends Tagore as the only worthy poet ever, dismisses Western civilization and its technological marvels as ‘a brash, superficial form of energy’, and sees himself as a pillar of his family for sending money to relatives in various ‘corners of Bengal and Assam’. Even Ananda cannot tolerate him without mild irritation.
The only chronological actions in the novel are the ordinary events of a day in Ananda’s life. He meets his tutor, pays his rent, and visits Radhesh at the latter’s bedsit that afternoon. They engage in desultory talk, wander a few streets, and dine at an Indian restaurant. The novel does evoke a modest sense of place, especially the streets of London. Many South Asian immigrants may recognize aspects of their experience in Britain—their fears, responses, patterns of life—but the novel offers little beyond the occasional pleasure of recognition or amusing repartee. More often than not, its two main characters seem tediously self-absorbed; it’s hard to care for them or their trivial concerns. Chaudhuri’s prose is well-wrought and very readable but almost always his portraiture amounts to little more than a parade of pallid vignettes, pedestrian observations, and superficial cultural and personal idiosyncrasies.
Contrast Ananda’s story with another quasi-autobiographical story, of the young South African protagonist in JM Coetzee’s Youth (2003), also an aspiring poet and artist who arrives in London and takes up residence in a Belsize Park bedsit. Like Ananda, his life in London is dreary and hard, devoid of any romantic sparks to sweep him away. His awkward social and sexual encounters lead him to think that ‘he is still a child ignorant of his place in the world, frightened, indecisive. What is he doing in this huge, cold city where merely to stay alive means holding tight all the time, trying not to fall?’ Ananda rarely offers us such probing self-reflection. Youth, unlike Odysseus Abroad, is a dazzling portrait of a young man’s inner life and his growing artistic, emotional, and moral self-awareness.
Chaudhuri has been called a miniature artist. This is a claim about form—the size of his canvas—not the quality of its content. Miniature artistry can be moving and profound. What’s problematic with Odysseus Abroad is not the form but the content. If the miniature artist depicts the mundane and the impressionistic, as Chaudhuri does, at the expense of the many deep and invisible motive forces in our lives, we’re left with a mere chronicle of the minutiae. What artists offer to the world is up to them but shouldn’t we demand more from the art we applaud? To call this a retelling of the tale of Odysseus and Telemachus seems pretentious. Rather, it’s a middling, if lovingly told, story of two unheroic immigrants. Odysseus Abroad is not only a portrait of the banal, it’s also a banal portrait.
More writing by Namit Arora?
Fatwas and fundamental truths
by Mandy de Waal
A South African literary event called 'The Time of the Writer' was to have been a moment of celebration for local writer Zainub Priya Dala. The author's debut novel, called What About Meera, was due to have been launched at the Durban festival.
Instead Dala was nursing injuries after being attacked at knifepoint with a brick and called [Salman] "Rushdie's Bitch!" The attack – which shocked and outraged SA's literary community – happened one day after Dala had expressed an appreciation of Rushdie's work.
"Dala was followed from the festival hotel and was harassed by three men in a vehicle who pushed her car off the road," a statement by Dala's publishers read. "When she stopped, two of the men advanced to her car, one holding a knife to her throat and the other hitting her in the face with a brick while calling her ‘Rushdie's bitch'. She has been treated by her doctor for soft-tissue trauma, and has reported the incident to the police."
The author – who is also a therapist who counsels autistic children – said through her publishers that she believed the attack stemmed from her voicing support for Rushdie's writing style. Dala was at a school's writing forum and was asked which writers she admired. She offered a list of writers including Arundhati Roy, and said that she "liked Salman Rushdie's literary style." After saying she appreciated Rushdie, a number of teachers and students stood up and walked out in protest. The next day Dala was attacked.
After discovering what happened to Dala, Rushdie Tweeted: "I'm so sorry to hear this. I hope you're recovering well. All good wishes." Dala's response? "Thank you. I have my family and children around me and am recovering."
SA literary site, www.bookslive.co.za stated that "the assault counts as an extension of Rushdie's complicated history with South Africa." BooksLive explained that Rushdie "was famously ‘disinvited' from a literary festival in 1988, after the Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa was issued against him and his novel, The Satanic Verses."
Rushdie was invited to South Africa 27 years back by a top investigative newspaper to give a public lecture on censorship. He was due to have shared a platform with Booker prize winners Nadine Gordimer and JM Coetzee.
As news of the invitation spread, the paper received threats of violence. The Africa Muslim Agency demanded that the invitation be withdrawn, and The Islamic Missionary Society stated that "there was every likelihood that [Rushdie] would be assaulted." The Islamic society warned that blood would flow. "There are secret Muslim hit squads who have vowed to avenge the honour of the Holy Prophet Muhammed," it stated.
After long, careful and painful negotiation by multiple parties involved in the event, the invitation was withdrawn, an outcome that JM Coetzee condemned. "Islamic fundamentalism in its activist manifestation is bad news. Religious fundamentalism in general is bad news. We know about religious fundamentalism in South Africa. Calvinist fundamentalism has been an unmitigated force of benightedness in our history," Coetzee told a meeting in Cape Town.
"Wherever there is a bleeding sore on the body of the world, the same hard-eyed narrow-minded fanatics are busy, indifferent to life, in love with death. Behind them always come the mullahs, the rabbis, the predikante [ministers], giving their blessings," Coetzee added.
"There is nothing more inimical to writing than the spirit of fundamentalism. Fundamentalism abhors the play of signs, the endlessness of writing. Fundamentalism means nothing more or less than going back to an origin and staying there. It stands for one founding book and thereafter no more books," he said.
"As the various books of the various fundamentalisms, each claiming to be the one true book, fantasise themselves to be signed in fire or engraved in stone, so they aspire to strike dead every rival book, petrifying the sinuous, protean, forward-gliding life of the letters on their pages, turning them into physical objects to be anathematised, things of horror not to be touched, not to be looked upon," said Coetzee.
In the wake of this awful attack on freedom of speech and on a promising young writer, how does one show support for Dala? As anchor, author and journalist, Imran Garda eloquently tweeted, we support Dala by buying her book. By championing the "endlessness of writing" - her writing - we eloquently add to the roar of writers globally who condemn this heinous act.
Mandy de Waal is a writer and journalist based in Cape Town South Africa. Follow her on Twitter: @mandyLdewaal
Fireflies and Fiery Fatherly Love: An Excerpt from What About Meera by ZP Dala
South Africa: Clash of the Booker titans in The Guardian.
Frances Stark. Pull After Push, 2010.
Paint, printed matter, linen tape, stickers on panel
All The Wrong Places
by Lisa Lieberman
Hollywood, California, Summer 1941
I believe that the person you are when you're eight years old is the person you really are.
I was creeping up on Geoffrey as he sat meditating on the lawn—not that I could be invisible, my girl's body draped in my mother's mink coat—but Geoffrey was in one of his trances. I could have danced naked in front of him and he'd have continued to stare into the void.
Sometimes I did go naked; lots of people did at Walden Lodge in those days. My father was known as a bohemian and bathing suits were optional around the pool, although you had to dress for dinner in the lodge. Winters could be chilly even in Southern California, but there were always a few diehards who went skinny dipping regardless of the weather. Starlets who'd do anything to get a part in one of Father's pictures. Englishmen, like Geoffrey, who'd gone to boarding schools where they made you bathe in cold water, year-round. He got used to it, found it invigorating. "Manly," as my brother Gray put it, the arch tone in his voice laced with affection.
"Gray, darling. How would you know?" said Vivien, my mother, in the same tone, minus the affection.
I paused to kick off Vivien's high heels, which kept sinking into the earth. Barefoot, I moved stealthily over the silky grass, stalking my prey. The air smelled of citrus, the overripe sweetness of oranges that had fallen on the ground and were beginning to rot in the sun. We picked as many as we could, but there were always fruits we couldn't reach.
Years later, when I was in Sicily filming a B-movie with Adrian, beautiful, wounding Adrian, we stayed in a pensione in Taormina. Three months with my love in Italia! The movie was forgettable but I finagled a print from the director, mostly because of my scenes with Adrian. The Italian actress they got to dub my dialogue had this wonderful, husky voice. It's a treat watching us in Italian, where you don't have to pretend to follow the plot.
The pensione had a swimming pool set in a terraced garden that reminded me of Father's, complete with lemon trees. For breakfast, they served us juice made from blood oranges. I couldn't get over the ruby red pulp. That was Sicily, always surprising you with its vibrancy. Of course, I was passionately in love at the time and everything seemed bright and intense—especially in contrast to England, where Gray and I had been living for several years by that time on account of the blacklist. I swear it had rained every single day we'd been in London. I'd grown accustomed to the dreariness, everything subdued, even the kitten I found near our flat in Soho, a pitiful blue Persian with copper eyes.
"Her name is Fog," I informed my brother, "and we're keeping her." Not that he would have denied me anything at that point in our bleak exile. I was seventeen when we arrived and had just given up my newborn son for adoption. I was desperate for something to love. As was he, poor Gray, although being seventeen, I thought only about my own sorrows.
Geoffrey was wearing a khaki jacket over baggy shorts, one of those belted safari outfits with multiple pockets. He looked like an insect, a grasshopper, maybe, his spindly legs folded awkwardly beneath him, Indian fashion. That's what they called it then, Indian fashion, and I imagined him as an American Indian, sitting cross-legged on the ground. But Geoffrey was being the other kind of Indian, the Hindu kind. Every morning he did an hour of yoga, followed by a dip in the pool, au naturel. He was before his time, a visionary. I'll give him that. Walden Lodge is now a fashionable spa where celebrities go to lose weight and detox. Clothing is optional, I've heard, and yoga is all the rage.
I drew the mink coat over my head like a hood and tied the sleeves around my neck, to free up my paws for pouncing. With a snarl, I launched myself at Geoffrey, catching him squarely in the middle of his chest and knocking him backward onto the ground.
"Ouf!" he gasped. "I've just been attacked by a . . . what kind of creature are you, Cara child?"
"I'm a cheetah. I'm extremely fast. You didn't have a chance," I consoled him as I brushed him off and helped him resume his yogi pose.
"A cheetah?" He still sounded a bit winded. "Are cheetahs native to this region? If so, it's the first I've heard of it." Geoffrey once told me that he'd been picked on at school for being a know-it-all.
"Very well. I'm a puma, then. I'm still pretty fast and I've been known to eat humans. In one sitting."
He extracted his monogrammed cigarette case from a pocket. "Do you mind? I always smoke at times like this," he said. "Calms the nerves."
Strange, now that I think of it. Those were his exact words when I found him standing over Vivien's body.
* * * * *
Lisa Lieberman's debut historical noir has just been published in hardcover by Five Star. Fans of Lisa's film reviews will get a kick from All The Wrong Places, a mystery set in exotic European locales which pays tribute to the films of the forties and fifties, capped off with a thrilling finale straight out of Hitchcock. Order it from your favorite independent bookseller or buy it online from Amazon.
Monday, March 16, 2015
by Hari Balasubramanian
A selection of facts, research and personal encounters involving beavers and their habitat.
In October 2007, an 835-meter long beaver dam was discovered on Google Earth. It remains the longest one found so far. The dam was in the "thick wildness of Northern Alberta", in Wood Buffalo National Park. In July 2014 someone called Rob Mark, an amateur explorer from New Jersey, managed to reach the dam. He reports that it was incredibly difficult terrain to get through. The mosquitoes in Alberta were much worse than the Amazonian rain forest; they sounded like helicopters and bit through his clothes. When Mark finally got to the dam, a resident beaver announced its displeasure with angry slaps of its flat tail on the water.
It was wonderful and somehow liberating to hear this last detail. To the beaver of course, the effort that had gone into this journey of discovery – the sort that seems to matter a lot of us humans – meant absolutely nothing; it only counted as an intrusion.
But I do understand why Mark made the journey. I've been chasing beavers myself in the conservation areas of Amherst, Massachusetts (where I live). Last year, I designed my summer and fall hikes so as to cover as many beaver ponds as possible: like a traveling salesman trying to cover all customer locations efficiently. One evening, with light fading fast, I was walking along the Fort River, a tributary of the Connecticut. Suddenly, there was a tremendous splash as if a boulder had been thrown from a considerable height into the water. It was October, and with winter fast approaching, the beavers were trying to dam the river. A red maple tree, leaves still clinging to its branches, had been felled. But it wasn't the tree that had caused the splash; the tree had been brought down perhaps a couple of days ago. The deep, explosive noise – impossible though that seemed – was the flat tail of a beaver hitting against the running water! As if to dissuade me from exploring further, the beaver produced yet another equally noisy warning.
Intrigued, I visited Amherst town offices a couple of days later, to ask if someone there had information on beavers in conservation areas. A town official heard me out, but he was concerned: "It would be unacceptable if the Fort River was being dammed as you say. This would flood nearby homes. Beavers change the ground water level so even people with homes that are far away from beaver dams notice flooding in their basements and are puzzled. I need to send my land manager out immediately." A bearded stranger, who happened to be passing by and had overheard, stopped and said eagerly: "Do you need to take care of beavers? Because I know someone who does a very good job." In effect he was claiming he knew a Beaver Hitman.
These reactions left no doubt about the beaver's modern status as a pest in residential areas. But there is another kind of status this natural engineer has, and it has to do, among other things, with how well it retains water on the landscape even in periods of drought and creates conditions where diverse types of wildlife can thrive. Let's take a closer look.
The North American beaver, Castor Canadensis, is a large, furry rodent. Most beavers are dark-brown, though some have lighter coats. The darker ones I sighted early on in Amherst reminded me of the big, scary rats I used to spot back in India, disappearing into the gutters and plumbing tunnels of railway stations. But beavers are actually closer to squirrels and marmots than to rats. They diverged 90-100 million years ago from their closest living relatives  and have since then charted a unique course as ecosystem engineers.
Those of you who are unfamiliar, here are some important details about the North American beaver (you can also check out this info-graphic):
1. A busy, mostly nocturnal and semi-aquatic creature, the beaver brings down trees by chewing on their trunks with its powerful teeth. Living in the vicinity of rivers and streams, the beaver builds dams and lodges with mud, material collected from the fallen trees, and stone. A vegetarian, the beaver feeds on barks, twigs, leaves and aquatic vegetation. Dams are usually not as large as the one discovered in Alberta: it's more common to spot dams like this one I found last October in Amherst.
2. Dams allow the beaver to create deep ponds which predators have a hard time accessing. To further protect themselves, beavers build multi-chambered lodges in the ponds that only have entrances underwater. The lodge is where a family stays. A family consists of two parents that typically mate for life, and their offspring. In places where the water freezes, temperatures in the lodge stay in a narrow range between 0.8-1.6 degree Celsius, even as the outside maximum and minimum fluctuate between -21 and -6.8 degree Celsius . While in the lodge, the beavers live off a nearby cache of twigs and branches collected before winter begins.
3. Once widespread in North America, beavers were trapped and their fur used to create hats fashionable in Europe from the 17th-19th centuries. The fur trade between Native Americans and Europeans brought numbers down dramatically. In many states, like Massachusetts and New York, beavers disappeared completely. In the 20th century, they were reintroduced in many wilderness areas in the United States and Canada, and have made a very strong recovery.
Mitigating the Effects of Drought
In 1941, beavers were re-introduced into Elk Island National Park in south-central Alberta. Park wardens kept detailed records and maps of how many beavers were active and in which ponds. Here was a long term natural experiment, a unique opportunity to quantify the impact of beavers. A researcher named Glynnis Hood began looking at this data spanning 54 years, from 1948-2002 .
In the years following the reintroduction, there were very few beavers. But fifty years later, the number of active lodges in the ponds had gone up significantly. And so, it turned out, had the area of open water. When Hood her co-author Suzanne Bayley looked at the area of open water – measured by digitizing aerial photographs taken in the park over the 54 year period – they found that it was strongly positively correlated with the number of active beaver lodges.
The authors also looked at a host of other variables, such as mean maximum annual temperature, precipitation and rainfall in the months and years leading up to a particular year. These variables, along with the number of active and inactive beaver lodges, were tried as inputs to a statistical model, a regression. The goal was to identify which variables best explained the area of open water. The authors found that the number of active beaver lodges was by far the most significant factor, comfortably surpassing temperature and precipitation.
What's so special, you might ask: beavers simply chase water, which might explain the correlation. But there was an important catch: 2002 was the driest year on record, with the lowest precipitation, yet ponds with active beaver in them had nine times more open water compared to the exact same ponds in 1950, a year that had 47% more precipitation compared to 2002 but no beaver activity! If we take the mean annual precipitation 2-years prior to a particular year we get the following results for 1948, 1950, 1996 and 2001. The numbers here are based my visual inspection of the graphs in the Hood and Bayley paper  (I do not have access to the raw numbers, so these are only approximately accurate values). The data below is for ponds that did not have active beaver in them in 1948 and 1950, but did have active beaver colonies in 1996 and 2001.
Notice that while the precipitation levels in 1948 and 1950 are fairly similar to those in 1996 and 2001, differences in open water area are huge!
Hood explains the implications in the PBS Nature documentary, Leave It To Beavers: "In 2002, we had the worst drought on record. The only places where we had water in natural areas was where we had beaver. And farmers were actually seeking out neighbors who had beavers on their landscape to water their cattle. So with beavers back on the land, even during the worst drought on record, they were mitigating the effects of drought and keeping water on the landscape."
How exactly did beavers manage this? "In part, they were digging these channels," Hood says. "The bottom of a beaver pond is really, really convoluted, it's flying through the Grand Canyon, where you've got these deep, furrowed valleys and dynamic pond bottoms. Deeper ponds keep more water because you have less evaporation coming off of them. Beavers were using that to their advantage, digging deeper and deeper and allowing water to focus in here, so the ponds with beaver had water, and ponds without beaver didn't, plain and simple." [short video]
Enabling a Diversity of Wildlife
When a species engineers the retention and flow of a natural resource as important as water, its presence naturally influences the well-being and prevalence of a host of other species. For millions of years, beavers have co-evolved with a wide variety of organisms that take advantage of the engineered habitat. "Minks, muskrats, and bats forage in and around beaver ponds. Salamanders, frogs, turtles, water snakes, herons, grebes, ducks, rails, swallows, hawks, owls, flycatchers, and kingfishers all rely quite heavily on beaver-created habitats" . It's no surprise that the beaver is considered a keystone species.
Beavers eventually abandon their ponds and move on to create new ones. The abandoned ponds then turn into meadows where, after many years, trees of the type the beaver felled now may take root again. This means that at any time there are a patchwork of different habitats, each benefiting a different set of species. Beaver landscapes thus produce results that are far more robust and interesting from a species diversity viewpoint compared to reservoirs and ponds created by human dams, which are not as dynamic.
Enter a beaver pond and you'll notice immediately that something is different. To me, the most striking thing about these ponds is how disorderly they are; they are the opposite of manicured, symmetric lawns and well kept gardens. The still water of the pond sets up the tranquil mood, but otherwise there are logs and broken stumps haphazardly strewn and poking out of the water at odd angles; dead but still standing trees with no leaves, trees that died when the beaver flooded the area. My favorite pond is adjacent to a relatively busy road in south Amherst. In late summer and early fall, a great variety of birds are active there. Woodpeckers, cedar waxwings, wood thrushes, blue jays, goldfinches, cardinals, chickadees, warblers: I saw them all regularly and easily, and always returned from my walks thrilled and rejuvenated.
Most striking of all, a Great Blue Heron would fly in and perch itself on one the dead but standing trees. It happened so often, that I started counting: on 5 successive visits to the same pond, I saw a heron 4 times. I wondered if there was an explicit connection. Turns out that the Great Blue Heron made a convincing recovery in Massachusetts in the 20th century thanks to habitat created by beavers, who were making their own 20th century comeback: "As trees are flooded by rising waters they provide nesting habitat for colonies of great blue herons." . In the book, Beaver: Its Life and Impact , I found this sentence: "The great blue heron exists in the Adirondack Mountains [of New York State] because of the dead standing trees that have been killed by beavers."
All this chasing of beavers in the summer and fall had an interesting personal consequence. One day my wife and I were set to drive to a theater to watch the much acclaimed Bollywood movie, Haider. Just before we left, I noticed a tick entrenched in my upper back. We brought out a magnifying glass: it was a deer tick, the kind which can transmit bacteria that cause Lyme disease. In seeking beavers, I had walked through so many trails thick with vegetation brushing constantly against me that a tick bite at some point was inevitable. So no movie that day – and I still haven't seen Haider! -- instead, I went to a walk-in clinic to get the tick removed. Fortunately, I'd spotted the tick early and there have been no symptoms of Lyme so far. But it did deter, to some extent, my beaver-pond tours for the rest of the season; and maybe this year too. The beavers could use a little privacy.
1. Muller-Schwarze, D. (2011). The beaver: its life and impact. Cornell University Press.
2. Hood, G. A., & Bayley, S. E. (2008). Beaver (Castor canadensis) mitigate the effects of climate on the area of open water in boreal wetlands in western Canada. Biological Conservation, 141(2), 556-567. pdf
3. Scott Jackson and Thomas Decker, 2004, Beavers in Massachusetts, pdf. The lovely black and white illustrations used in this essay are from this document. The illustrator's name is Nancy Haver. Scott Jackson, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, was kind enough to speak to me for 45 minutes.
Imtiaz Dharker. Untitled.
Drawing by a most talented poet!
Thanks to Nargis Raza.
by Mathangi Krishnamurthy
I tremble in anticipation of beginning to write this piece. I want to write about Japan, you see? And I want to write about having traveled to Japan. This, as you may have surmised, is a hopeless task. For Japan is overlain with meaning as umami-like and as un-graspable as the coating of wasabi on your peas. See? I did it already. I gave you a familiar metaphor, and I gave you a visceral sensation to inhabit. Done and dusted, and here I give you Japan in a sealed aluminium foil package. But surely there is more I can say? Surely I can give you many more metaphors to make clear the fact that I do not grasp anything at all.
This, in writing, is not admissible. The least, one has to be able to say, is that one does not find things familiar, and hence one dislikes the place. Hark then to the first of the Great Mughals, Babur telling us how he hates India because it lacks wine, melons, and gardens. I must at least feel like Malinowski, who sits notebook in hand, frustrated and complaining about the Trobrianders, and yet forging along seeking meaning. And yet, I do not want to write of strong likes or dislikes, because my travels produced none.
A friend and I made plans to go to Japan during the Chinese New Year. This was only the beginning of our various confusions. Inspired by Junot Diaz's article where he implores one to visit Fukuoka, we booked tickets instead to Tokyo, and the bullet-train to Kyoto. Also, I ignored how his visions of chicken sashimi did not account for my vegetarianism. I read nothing, I anticipated nothing. Armed with a passport and visa, I set of to conquer the Far East.
Arriving at the end of winter, in the middle of an already hectic year, I landed in Tokyo on a cold, rainy day and walked into a universally familiar neon-lit airport populated by tourists and residents also clad in orange neon platform shoes. After having sleepily concluded that the country seemed to have put in place some sort of national costume, I awoke to the epiphany that I had mistaken a set of people traveling together for all of Japan. Maybe the neon shoes helped them keep track of each other. Disciplinarity with flair, I concluded. I liked the sound of this country already, even if I only liked people in its transitional spaces.
My first evening at the airport also involved my first successful act of cultural negotiation, or in other words, the Japanese toilet. The Japanese toilet is a work of art. Never mind the warmed seat, or the accompanying music. Focus instead on the intricacy of the washing arrangements provided from within the humble commode – shower (warm and cold), bidet, and spray. I did not want to leave. Zizek, I thought, might want to look at redoing his terribly entertaining discussion on toilets and ideology.
This cultural translation aside, everything else about Japan remained untranslated. Very few signs English, and most people launched into rapid Japanese at the sight of my decidedly un-Japanese face. I realize this is also a cliched reference. Japan, lost in translation, and therefore continually inscrutable should clearly be a project that I refuse participation in, if only to salvage my academic credentials.
Yet, this lack of translation produced the one thing so decidedly Japanese that days after returning, I am struck by epiphany. Silence. My travels produced silence. I heard nothing that I understood; I needed to say nothing to induce understanding. There is an incredible liberty in being released from language. It produces quietude, thought, ignorance, and non-curiosity. Sounds wafted past in non-language and did not register, and I pointed at things to make myself understood. My traveling companion did one better, and made gargling noises at drugstore personnel to indicate her needs for cough syrup.
In parallel, it also produced a sharp attentiveness to a world of objects. Subway station maps, convenience stores, signboards, posters, buildings, graffiti, teddy bears by riverbanks, screen-printed doors and shutters, sweets of all shapes and sizes and persuasions, wrapping paper, stationery, policemen's bicycles with specially crafted slots for batons, sticks with tiny toys dangling from one end and held up music-conductor-like by tour organizers, and lace doilies on cab seats.
We also noticed people's faces. In the absence of communication, we stared long and hard, hoping that faces would give something away. While we received no insights, and were stared at as many times as we looked, we noticed what is common knowledge about Japan's aging population. Wikipedia informs me solemnly that in 2011 around 23% of the country's population were over 65, while 11.4% were already over 75. This is a grave concern for an already indebted country, and a general area of interest for this world that privileges the excesses of an able, working, and productive young population. Except that in this country of gerontology's excesses, we espied this aging population on their feet and up and about far more than any teenyboppers I've ever had the good fortune of knowing. In a tiny Kyoto lane we sat ourselves down in a café owned and staffed by an elderly lady and gentlemen who brought us coffee, even as another entertained us with his tales of having been on the Buddhist trail in India. Everywhere we went, even as we complained about having to walk endlessly, we saw other aging Japanese walking and working about their daily lives. All the taxi drivers who ferried us around were over 65, treated our lack of both linguistic and topological knowledge with gentle courtesy, and steered us our ways anyway. The country might well need to start offering lessons in knowing how to age gracefully.
We were also lost very often. That terribly useful instrument of modern life, Google Maps, was a spectacular failure for us in Japan. All signs and signals showed up, but in Japanese. We gazed long and hard into our telephone screens, and then walked on perplexed. As a result, we walked many kilometers a day circling around our destinations, and attempting many a conversation. J.R.R.Tolkien might have produced in us the notion that not all who wander are lost, but we most certainly were; and in perpetuity at that. But then, the pleasure of being lost is only available on holiday.
One morning, in the process of being so lost, we set out in search of the famed Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. Many subway stops, and many wrong turns later, we found our way into one of its gates by the time it was afternoon. Bundling up our jackets, we wandered around in search of some sign of an early cherry blossom, if only to have pictures to show how our travels to Japan had not been in vain. As we wandered, we grew quieter, and the sun came out. We walked to the open spaces that displayed resplendent lone trees with early pink blushes. In true Japanese form, a horde of photographers bearing frightening looking zoom lenses of various sizes had gathered around, and were clicking away in apocalyptic frenzy. Even as we heard the whirring of shutters, three little green birds with disproportionaly large white eyes were putting on a show. They strutted and somersaulted and whizzed past the blossoms, waiting for the cameras to catch them. For a moment, everything came together.
Pico Iyer writes eloquently about how "The Japanese room is a training in inwardness", and how clutter in a room produces a mind that "gets dizzy and overwhelmed; if there is just one, it grows so calm and spacious – so attentive – that in that one it can find a universe." It is true that I traveled through Japan, a rather oblivious spectator. I more often than not did not find things. Neither a love for seafood, nor a working knowledge of Japanese, nor Mt. Fuji. I tried, albeit halfheartedly, and then resumed wandering, slowly. But I grew quiet, and let go of plans, itineraries, tourist cravings, and meaning. I let things happen slowly.
Encounters with the Other take on different modalities. They produce resistance, anger, curiosity, dissent, enthusiasm, and friction. My encounters with Japan produced things I cannot seem to be able to articulate. I imagine I will have to go back.
Monday, March 09, 2015
This Essay is Still not about American Sniper or Even the Travesty of Boyhood Not Winning Best Picture
by Akim Reinhardt
Last month I offered about 2,000 words on the meaninglessness of life.
"Life is meaningless," I said. "Nothing matters, nothing at all."
I suggested that "meaning and truth are just illusions that humans chatter about incessantly because they can't stomach the sheer meaninglessness of it all."
Indeed, your birth was an act of unfathomable randomness, as is the very existence of life on Earth and the rise of humanity. We delude ourselves by creating and embracing meaning. But the absence of truth is the only truth I know and meaninglessness is the only thing I have.
"And today," I said last month, "I just can't bring myself to pretend otherwise."
But 4 Mondays ago isn't everyday. The fact is, many days, perhaps most, I do pretend that things matter and that truth exists and that morality is real.
I pretend even though I know I'm pretending. I can't help myself. I'm not a guru of nihilism with single-minded purpose of pulling back the curtain to reveal the empty chair where you thought sits the wizard. I'm not a sociopath incapable ascertaining that anything might matter beyond me.
I'm just a regular person for the most part. One with a devilish smile and more corduroy than the average person does or should have in their wardrobe, perhaps. But regular in most ways. And so even though I know deep down that life is meaningless, I usually give in to the temptation to pretend that things do matter. Pretending this way comes naturally, and to a large degree I'm happy with the results.
Thus, last month's 2,000 words about why life is meaningless and how nothing matters, are now complemented by these 2,000 words about why and what I pretend is meaningful and matters.
People want to find meaning in life. To do so they embrace belief systems both vast and small. And their actions, in turn, are shaped by those beliefs.
Pretending to find meaning in life is a universal human trait. And when people pretend something is meaningful, they're usually not pretending in the play acting sense of the word. Rather, they truly believe many different pretenses about life's meaning, and they often act accordingly.
Thus, if you believe something is real, then it is real in some sense. It's real to you, and it informs your behavior. You might be wrong in an objective sense. The thing you believe might actually be make believe, but it's real to you, and the consequences of your belief are also real. So while there may not be any meaning to what we pretend is meaningful, it is important nonetheless.
It would be näive to suggest, as some do, that humans are one-dimensional beings who can be completely understood through beliefs systems they embrace and espouse. To the contrary, even the most dogmatic person is capable of betraying their values, of harboring heretical thoughts, of taking actions that defy their professed beliefs, or of engaging in simple hypocrisies. Indeed, to do so is itself a defining characteristic of humanity.
Belief systems then are best understood as a framework that influences actions to varying degrees at various times. But that influence is very real even if it is faulty. On the one hand, even ardent believers stray from time to time. On the other, even the uncommitted act in accordance with vague and banal belief systems much of the time.
As an atheist who doesn't accept supernatural explanations, and as a skeptic more generally, there's no prescribed book of truth in whose pages I can locate the meaning of life or a framework for my actions.
Furthermore, I don't merely reject dogma, I loathe it. Dogma makes people stupid to the point of being insufferable. So instead, whenever I have elected to pretend that life has meaning and that things matter, I've had to figure it out for myself.
What is one to do?
I, for one, have decided to consciously consider what I should pretend matters. I work hard to construct a moral framework that seems right and an ethical system that seems responsible. I try to locate the intersection between my gut and my brain, and from that position I determine what I should pretend matters.
After 47 years on this planet, here's what I've come up with. Let's start with the bad.
1. Wonton cruelty is bad
Suffering and pain are real. We can debate what they mean, if anything, but there's no debating the reality of physical and psychological/emotional pain. Sometimes shit hurts.
Life cannot be pain free. Allowances must be made for suffering and pain that is reasonably self-inflicted (eg. fasting), willingly received (eg. a rough game that one enjoys playing), or necessary for a greater good (eg. a medical procedure). But beyond such exceptions, pain and suffering are awful and I generally strive hard to avoid inflicting them upon other beings.
I'm not perfect. I fuck up. I hurt people sometimes. Skinny motherfucker like me, it's mostly the psychological or emotional variety. But that hardly makes it any better. By accident, carelessness, or weakness, I hurt others from time to time. I almost always regret it and try to learn from it by becoming more conscientious and aware of myself and others in the hope of avoiding the repeats.
I believe that sadism (again, allowing for what two consenting adults might do), is about as bad as human behavior gets. Intentionally causing the pain and suffering of another being for no justifiable reason, relegates a person to the lowest rung of humanity in that moment.
2. Killing is necessary but should be done with discretion and respect
No lives have meaning, which is just one of many reasons why I believe that human lives are not in fact more important than the lives of other sentient animals. Other sentient beings want to live just as much as we do. Perhaps even more so given that they rarely, if ever, commit suicide. Your life might be meaningless, but it's your meaningless life, and theirs is theirs, the only one any of us will ever have. And so killing other beings, human or otherwise, requires justification and care.
The most obvious justification is that all living things must kill and devour other living things in order to continue living. Such a cycle of life and death is not a moral issue in and of itself; it's just the nature of death and life on planet Earth. In an absolute sense, there's nothing moral or immoral about a lion killing and eating a gazelle. But there is also no relative morality since lions and gazelles are incapable of contemplating the morality of their existence.
As living beings, humans must also kill other living things to survive. But since we can contemplate the morality of our killing, we should. And while we are designed to be omnivorous, the fact is we can live very healthy lives by killing just plants for food. Here in the developed world of the 21st century, we need not kill animals for food. Meat is an unessential luxury item, and plants do not seem to be sentient.
So I refrain from eating mammals and birds.
Yet I continue eating fish. Why? Because I am a hypocrite. Or at the very least, inconsistent. I'm very human that way.
In a functional sense, I simply don't pretend that killing fish is wrong while I do pretend that killing mammals is wrong. I'm on the fence about birds, but once upon a time, giving them up was a good excuse not to eat my mother's chicken.
Did I mention that this is not a proselytizing essay? I have enough awareness of my own shortcomings to realize that I shouldn't be seeking converts, and I'm certainly not trying to create any dogma.
Anyway, I wouldn't go so far as to say that life is sacred. However, I choose to respect the desire of all mammals to live. Maybe it's because they're so much like us. Either way, that's enough for me to avoid killing them or to ask someone to kill them for me.
And when I do kill, I try to do so respectfully and to minimize pain. For example, when I go fishing, I fish to eat. And when I catch a fish, I kill it instead of throwing it into a cooler to suffocate to death. One sharp, strong blow to the head. Then I silently acknowledge the fish's loss of life and my role in it. It's not a prayer or a ritual. It's just an effort to remain conscious of the decisions I make and why.
Okay, enough of the bad. Now for the good.
1. Bring joy
I suppose this is the opposite of don't be cruel.
It's important to remember that joy is always circumstantial. So joy is difficult to find at times, and it is always fleeting, which makes it precious.
In the rough draft to this essay, I accidentally misspelled "fleeting" as "fleeing." That might actually be more apt. Joy finds you, sits on your lap, brings comfort, and then runs away like a cat frightened by the sound of your laughter.
Cherish it. Create it, for yourself and others when opportunity arises.
2. Be thoughtful
In the end, you have to figure it out for yourself. Whatever "it" is.
Your best chance of doing so is to sharpen your mind. Always strive to be smarter. And don't measure that by a tally knowledge. Rather, hone your ability to think. Strive to understand nuance and complexity. Be intellectually honest. Be courageous. Challenge yourself. Instead of merely accumulating knowledge, accept that the more you learn, the less you know; it is better to have a sliver of the big picture than most of a small one.
Being thoughtful is important because your beliefs do shape your actions. If you have shoddy beliefs, your actions will often follow suit. And so think instead of merely accepting what your eyes see or what everyone else tells is you true. The person who will not think for him or herself is more spectator than participant in their own life. Socrates was right. The unexamined life is not worth living.
Case in point: everything I've said in these two essays may be wrong. In fact, it probably is. Use your noodle. Recognize it.
While I don't believe it is possible to discern a purpose to our lives, I do pretend to find meaning in the way we live them.
So far as I can tell, the human quest for meaning is largely inescapable. Even if, like me, you attempt to peer through all the make believe and own up to the meaninglessness of it all, you're still apt to continue pretending life has various meanings. The human urge to do so is very strong.
As someone who rejects dogma, finding a meaningful life I can pretend is real is itself a work in progress. It's life by trial, and the consequences are as varied as life itself.
Along the way, I continue to interrogate the values and ideas that I'm willing to pretend are real. If a pretended ideal will define me or represent me, then it must remain palatable to me over time as I continue to taste test it again and again amid changing circumstances. What I pretend is meaningful today, I may disavow tomorrow. So don't hold me to anything I've said here. Rather, walk with me along this road, thoughtfully agreeing or disagreeing as you see fit, until the time comes when you feel you must take a different path. And I will wish you all the best on your journey.
Akim Reinhardt has a website. Sometimes he pretends it's meaningful, but deep down he knows better.
Zbigniew Rybczyński. Tango, 1981.
Thanks to Ryan Moritz.
by Leanne Ogasawara
“Life is a shipwreck, but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats.” --Voltaire
In heaven, there will be no more sea journeys, says Virgil. For much of human history, to journey by ship across open waters was thought of almost as an act of transgression. It was something requiring great temerity and audacity. It was therefore something not to be taken lightly.
Crossing boundaries, such journeys often ended in ruin.
Metaphors are Blumenberg's main philosophical project. According to Blumenberg, so fundamental to philosophy are they that they stand in for truth. He says:
The relevance of absolute metaphors, their historical truth . . . is pragmatic in a very broad sense. By providing a point of orientation, the content of absolute metaphors determines a particular attitude or conduct [Verhalten]; they give structure to a world, representing the nonexperienceable, nonapprehensible totality of the real. (Paradigms, 14)
That is to say, metaphors light up for us an irreducible and untranslatable truth about the "totality of the real."
What about shipwrecks then? What is it about the metaphor of being shipwrecked that lights up our understanding of being? Or putting it another way, what essential elements of being human are being illuminated by this metaphor according to Blumenberg?
Vous êtes embarqués, says Pascal.
This is the epithet of Blumenbeg's essay. Life is a journey; indeed, we are already embarked. This is akin to Heidegger saying we are born into thrown-ness. Our human condition cannot be grasped outside of our everyday projects and situatedness. Everything we know is dependent on our environment (umwelt) and is a necessary reflection of these temporal and cultural limits. But we are also on personal voyages of discovery.
Well, that is maybe the rub. Many people turn their back on the sea and journeys. Our culture now is particularly risk-averse and so maybe this above is all more about the hero's journey...? For maybe heroes alone are brave enough to risk storms and drowning? Montaigne, for example, following Horace strongly recommended NOT going to sea--not ever. Since the rational choice for man is to stay on shore.
Heroes risk everything by setting out to sea.
No, I don't think that's true. For the winds of fate are arbitrary and storms and disaster might find us no matter what--which is why this metaphor was so popular with the Stoic philosophers. For them, the goal was to cultivate one's character so that no matter what disaster strike, the philosopher will be capable of coming out of the catastrophe unharmed by the strength his own self-possession alone. Thus, Montaigne wrote:
The mariner of old said to Neptune in a great tempest, "O God! thou mayest save me if thou wilt, and if thou wilt thou mayest destroy me; but whether or no, I will steer my rudder true."
Man is shipwrecked in his own existence, says Blumenberg. I love that. My mom would call it a blessing in disguise. I would call it just the way the cookie crumbles.
It’s like Candide, if he hadn't been kicked out of his homeland, if he hadn't met with a shipwreck and washed unto Lisbon shores only there to be almost killed in a mega-earthquake; if he gone up against the Inquisition, if he hadn't traveled across America on foot, if he hadn't killed a baron, if he hadn't lost all his sheep in Eldorado, well, then he wouldn't have ended up sitting there in Constantinople eating some nice candied citron and pistachios where he would dream of spending his days cultivating his garden...
For only after all that catastrophe could Montaigne say: I want death to find me planting my cabbages... or perhaps as Tao Yuanming would have it, plucking chrysanthemums under the eastern fence (採菊東籬下)
Drinking Wine (#5)--Tao Yuanming
I’ve built my house where others dwell
And yet there is no clamor of carriages and horses
You ask me how this is possible-- (And so I say):
When the heart is far, one is transported
I pluck chrysanthemums under the eastern fence
And serenely I gaze at the southern mountains
At dusk, the mountain air is good
Flocks of flying birds are returning home
In this, there is a great truth
But wanting to explain it, I forget the words (牡丹訳）
Tao Yuanming#39;s poem is perhaps only interesting because the poet had previously passed the highest level of the examination system (科挙) and had lived the dazzling life of a scholar--but only then, after achieving a high level of accomplishment and cultivation in the world had left it to live in seclusion. That is, it would not have been as interesting if the poet had been born and never left that hut--for this poem is infused with the journey that came before it. It reminds one of something the Japanese monk Yoshida Kenko had written-- that the goal of Zen is to swim out into deep waters with the only real purpose to be finding oneself back up in the shallows again. Back in the shallows but with new vision.
Scattering blossoms, fallen leaves 飛花落葉-- life is a "sea of change" but this idea of gaining new vision is something universally embraced in many cultures as part of the hero's journey. Everything being a matter of the heart → 心持次第.
This is where Nietzsche's brilliance really shines, I think. For it was Nietzsche who insisted (no he delighted!!) that not only are we already embarked but that we are already shipwrecked.... shipwrecked in the existence of our own lives. Happiness, says Nietzsche is the liberation of the shipwrecked man, rolling back onto firm shore--for this is the New World.
In the horizon of the infinite.—We have left the land and have embarked. We have burned our bridges behind us—indeed, we have gone farther and destroyed the land behind us. Now, little ship, look out! Beside you is the ocean: to be sure, it does not always roar, and at times it lies spread out like silk and gold and reveries of graciousness. But hours will come when you will realize that it is infinite and that there is nothing more awesome than infinity. Oh, the poor bird that felt free and now strikes the walls of this cage! Woe, when you feel homesick for the land as if it had offered more freedom—and there is no longer any "land."
He says--evoking Columbus-- "the moral earth too is round.... there is another world to be discovered--and more than one. Embark, philosophers!"
When I first read this above as a young lady of 18, I was so happy I almost cried.
Odysseus in exile. The ultimate reluctant hero-- all he ever really wanted to do was return home. But as everyone knows, an odyssey is ultimately about the arbitrariness of fate. And exile never a matter of location --but rather is a matter of meaning; for as the Poet Cavafy says, "the Lestrygonians, the Cyclopes and the fierce Poseidon: these are all things we carry within our souls.
Robert Harrison, in an old Entitled Opinions show about Heidegger, talked about Odysseus' Second Journey. The one that occurred after he finally arrived back to Ithaka. Made to set out one more time; this time he was to carry an oar and walk as far as he could go until reaching a land where people didn't know salt or seafaring ships, and there, he was to plant his oar deeply into the ground and perform a sacrifice to Poseidon.
It's interesting, isn't it? The way a shipwrecked Hero must wander into exile/meaninglessness-- that is, he is required to go to a "place" where he is world-less, ground-less, and sight-less. To walk to a place where the meaning of an "oar" is no longer meaningful, and there, to plant it in the ground to make new meaning.
Is this not the existential journey par excellance? For as Harrison explains, those that do not undergo these journeys into foreign lands and instead stay at home without undergoing this kind of "estrangement" will forever remain estranged--estranged right there in their own homelands.
Getting my Jew on
by Sarah Firisen
I haven't spent a lot of time in churches over the years, being born a Jew and becoming an atheist as a teenager, it’s not a common hangout place for me. But when I have, weddings, christenings, sitting in the back during mass at various European cathedrals, there’s been a solemn stillness over the place, most people quietly paying attention to the priest-like person at the front talking until the moment when it was time for the whole congregation to sing a hymn in unison. Sitting in the ladies gallery of the conservative synagogue – shul - where my cousin’s daughter was bat mitzvahed yesterday, I was struck by how different a Shabbat service is from a Sunday morning in a church; it’s not quiet. For almost all of the service, all the men daven (pray) along with the Rabbi. They do it at slightly different speeds, so there’s little synchronicity involved. But behind this chanting, prayer and singing, there’s the buzz of conversation; Jews are pretty noisy in shul. The women, banished upstairs and not part of most of the service, have very little to do but chat with their neighbors. But even the men walk the aisles, shaking hands, pretty openly having conversations. It’s part of the melody of the service that it be interspersed with an occasional loud “shhhh” which brings the volume level down for about 30 seconds.
These sights and sounds are ones I remember well from childhood. In fact, even though this shul was not the one I grew up attending, it could have been; everything about it reminded me of a childhood spent attending Hebrew school and Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah services. And despite an adulthood spent firmly rejecting not just my own religion, but all religion and belief in God, to my surprise these memories were very pleasant and comforting to me. I've always felt something in the melodic patterns of Jewish chanting and music that has a pull on my DNA, not just taking me back through my own childhood, but linking me to the history, joy and sufferings of generations of my family.
I spoke to my Aunt on Friday night and we commented on how surprised we both are that her son, my cousin, has turned into such a practicing Jew and so involved with his shul community. But as I watched him below me interacting with this community, beaming with pride as his daughter gave her bat mitzvah speech, I understood why he’s chosen to “get his Jew on”. I have no idea what his actual beliefs in God are or aren’t. If I had to guess, I might say that many if not most of the people around me in that shul yesterday don’t have a really strong, active, serious belief in God. I know this sounds pretty radical, but I actually have long thought this about many “religious” people. In some kind of vague way they say they believe in God, but certainly very little about their actions implies they really do. The God of the Old Testament is a pretty demanding, unforgiving entity; he goes around smiting whole groups of people on very little provocation. If you really believed in him and in these stories, you'd probably follow his rules to the letter. But of course, most people don’t. They're what my father used to call “a la carte Jews”, picking and choosing the bits of a religion they feel like following – and I don't just mean Jews, I mean all religions – without any fear that he’s going to turn them all into pillars of salt.
But of course, what my cousin has chosen to immerse himself in really has very little to do with an actual belief in God; it’s about community and tradition. It’s about a shared set of values and rules and the order that can bring to a chaotic often very cruel world. And while I chose not to participate in this community and share their values, I can very much see the appeal of doing so. I can certainly see the appeal of raising children within this community. As I watched my cousin’s daughter participate in her rite of passage into this community, I did, just for a moment, regret that I've chosen not to give this to my children. Even though my ex-husband shares my views on religion and God, he started a tradition years ago of buying the children a little Chanukah present and making a brisket for dinner that night. At some point, we started our own very non-traditional Passover Seder that involved me telling the Passover story during dinner and pausing every few minutes to say “of course this is all just a silly story; you know none of it is true, right?” We ended the meal by playing the Passover songs on YouTube because neither the ex nor I really know how the songs go, but I had lovely memories of my grandmother singing them to me when I was a child.
Even as we were engaging in these pretty poor imitations of the real Jewish traditions, I realized that what we were doing was utterly irrational; we don't believe in the religion, we've chosen not to raise our children within it, so why are we sitting around telling them the stories and singing the songs? I think we did it because we felt some sense of loss at not giving them the exposure to their families’ traditions and culture. For the most part, I feel we've set them free to choose to believe or not believe whatever they want, to celebrate whatever they want, not bound by family and community expectations and judgments. But a very little part of me, a part that definitely was a little louder this weekend, feels sad that I haven't given them this and that I've chosen to walk away from it myself.
So as I got my Jew on this weekend. And as I did I thought, “if this were all there were to religion, people sharing food and music and friendship, I'd be okay doing this sometimes”. Aren't most religions usually more about community and food and music and traditions and holidays than they are about anything else? And on the surface of it, it’s difficult to see why your food, community, holidays and music need to clash with someone else’s. I have a dear Muslim friend who is as immersed in his culture and tradition as my cousin is in his; why does there have to be such a conflict in these two men both saying whatever words they want to whatever entity they may or may not believe while feeling part of welcoming communities?
I realize that so much of what passes as religious battles, both cultural and literal battles, really have nothing to do with religion. They're about land and power; they're about politics and poverty. They're very often about deep rooted personal issues that somehow get played out in the public arena – it’s almost become an article of faith that the louder an evangelical preacher storms against homosexuality, the more likely it is that he'll be caught in an airport bathroom at some point trying to solicit gay sex. But most people practicing their religions are just average people trying to provide their children with a moral compass, a sense of tradition, a community. And as I watched this community yesterday perform its rituals, I felt a genuine affection for the traditions I was raised with. But as I walk away tomorrow, I’ll be equally happy that I’ve chosen a path that allows me, and my children, to make our value judgments and moral choices from a position that isn't in thrall to those traditions.
Cultural Styles in the 21st Century, or the High Tech Debt to Africa
by Bill Benzon
By the middle of the previous century anthropologists had come to argue that each culture has its own patterns and that those patterns pervaded its social practices, its practical arts, it’s beliefes and attitudes, and its expressive culture. The central expression of this conception can be found in Ruth Benedict's seminal study of Patterns of Culture. She argued her thesis by showing that the Pueblos of the American Southwest were Apollonian in their formality and emotional reserve, the Dobu of Melanesia were Paranoid in their bending of patterns of hostility into functioning social structures, while the peoples of America's Northwest Coast were Dionysian in their search for religious ecstasy. Cultures are not miscellaneous grab-bags of traits, they are patterned wholes.
So it is with European America and African America. Each of these cultures has a pattern, but those patterns have been blending and crossing for centuries. I have come to believe, for example, that the high tech world, though dominated by Americans of European descent, owes an enormous cultural debt to improvisational patterns of African American descent. Think of the difference between performances by a symphony orchestra and a bebop quintet. The orchestra is a large ensemble with a large number of well-defined specialists and it performs music that has been prepared beforehand under the direction of conductor who has ultimate control over every aspect of the performance. The bebop quartet is quite different, with much of the music made up on the spot. While one of the members more likely than not will be the leader, he (or she) does not dictate the performance.
In the next section of this “essay” I present a lyrical and impressionistic account of the America blending of Africa and Europe in the software world. Then I calm down and run through the same material in a more conventional matter, looking at basketball and football as embodying very different visions of organizational style and execution. At the middle of the previous century we have, for example, the steel industry and the automobile industry as examples of football-like organizational style. But the flourishing of software and related businesses in the last quarter of the century called for a more basketball-like style.
A Rhapsodic Invocation of the Software Mysteries
Why is America the software center of the Universe? Because it is also the Rap-Rock-Funk-Soul-Jazz-Blues center of the Universe. What does that have to do with the If-Then-Else imperatives of byte busting? Technology is not just technique. It is style and attitude. You can't write great software if your soul was nurtured on the mechanical clockwork and internal combustion rhythms of the Machine Age. You must free yourself from the linear flow of mechanical time and learn to improvise order from the creative chaos lurking in the multiple intersecting flows of the digital domain.
Roll over Beethoven, let Satchmo come over!
Cases in point: Steve Wozniak took time out from Apple to produce rock and roll concerts. Microsoft was co-founded by a guitar-playing Jimi Hendrix fan, Paul Allen. Software guru Alan GUI Kay, formerly of Xerox, Atari, and Apple, worked his way through graduate school as a jazz musician. Lotus founder Mitch Kapor took to riding the informatic frontier with Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow.
These high-tech funkateers didn’t come out of nowhere. In the Roaring 20s the sons and daughters of Henry “Assembly-Line” Ford and Tom “Light-Bulb” Edison cruised the night spots of African America dancing to the improvisations of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and all the other pioneering funkateers. Getting juiced, they got loose, and mechanical tick tock began to die.
Their sons and daughters dug Elvis the Pelvis and blew Bob Dylan's changing winds into the high-tech studio wizardry of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band. When Woodstock Nation faded into decaying reels of audiotape and videotape the young, the hip and the restless decided that communes were 19th century and created the video game and PC industry. (Pro-tip: See John Markoff, What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry, 2005).
In the last decades of the 20th century a cultural force emerged on the scene. Tempered in battle with Ronald Raygun and his Bush League Wrecking Crew, hip-hop reached back to the rhythms which created humankind on the African savannas and, through digital sampling, crossed those rhythms with our recorded musical legacy. Silicon Age rappers insinuated body-heart rhythm into the digital warp and woof of emerging cultural patterns. The anger cuts through accretions of industrial armor and creates room to grow, letting the neurons branch in new patterns.
That's where it all begins: the nervous system. While the genes lay down the basic plan, the detailed wiring is worked out through extended and intimate interaction with the environment. To update William Wordsworth, the jazz child is mother to the cybernetic man. The dancing you do at ten forms the matrix out of which you think when you are twenty. If you grow up to mechanical rhythms, digital dancing is unnatural. To be a natural born child of the 21st century you must dance at the wedding between the soul of John von Neumann and the science of Daniel Louis Armstrong.
* * * * *
And now, let’s turn down the heat a bit. Let’s relax. Take a couple of deep breaths. Think.
Basketball and Football
But it’s not just music, though music IS central. Let's consider two brief examples from sports, which are a microcosm of the larger society. Let’s look at basketball and football.
Football involves highly specialized players organized into elaborately structured units, enacting preplanned plays, and directed by a quarterback representing the coach (as the conductor of an orchestra represents the composer of a composition). Each team has eleven players on the field at a time, with the players being trained for very specialized roles. There is an offensive squad and a defensive squad—not to mention special-purpose units for executing and returning kicks. Each of these squads is, in turn, divided into a line and a backfield, with further specialization in each of these divisions. The offensive team is headed by the quarterback while the defense is similarly directed by one of the backfield players. The flow of the game is divided into four quarters each of which is punctuated by the individual plays of the game. The plays are divided into sets of four, called “downs”, with the players conferring between plays to decide what to do on the next play, or, at least, to confirm instructions sent in by the coach.
Basketball uses a smaller number of players, five, whose roles are less rigorously specialized. There is no distinction between offensive and defensive squads. And, while there are differentiated roles—a center, two guards and two forwards—this differentiation is not nearly so extensive as that in football. For example, on the offensive squad in football, there is a dramatic distinction between the interior line, whose players do not routinely handle the ball, and the backfield, whose players are supposed to handle the ball. No such distinction exists in basketball; all players are expected to handle the ball and to score. Beyond this, basketball involves a free flowing style of play which is quite different from discrete plays of football.
It makes sense to think of a football game as being composed while a basketball game is improvised. In both cases, the coaches ultimately decide how the came is to be played. But the roles of basketball players are, essentially, more fluid and various than those of football players, giving the individual players considerably more autonomy on the playing field. A football coach can easily intervene after each play, and does so routinely after each set of downs. Basketball coaches cannot, and do not, intervene so directly and so often. Consequently, the basketball team exercises a higher level of decision-making than the football team ordinarily does. African-Americans dominate basketball and, while they are prominent in football, they have been kept from the key role of quarterback, the director of the coach’s composition. Football thus is still largely a European-American sport, reflecting European-American cultural patterns.
Given this analysis of football and basketball, it is clear that, if we compare these two sports to music, then football resembles classical music while basketball resembles jazz. Football is composed while basketball is improvised. The football coach, or his defensive and offensive representatives, calls the plays according to a preset plan. The individual players then execute their specific assignment in each play. Basketball coaches act more like the jazz composer/arranger, who creates a melody and a set of chord changes, and then lets the players improvise their own moves for finding their way through the tune. The coach sets guidelines about the pace and style of the game, but game itself unfolds so fast that the players are responsible for the moves they make.
At this point it shouldn't be too difficult to see a resemblance between classical music and football, on the one hand, and the structure and style such corporations as General Motors and United States Steel. These corporations have highly specialized and compartmentalized work forces organized into deep hierarchies, just as football teams and symphony orchestras have many players with very specialized functions.
When I consider jazz and basketball in this context, what comes most quickly to my mind is the advice of management gurus about the need for a very fluid corporate structure, one which changes quickly and has multifunctional workers organized into relatively flat structures. Thus, in Liberation Management Tom Peters uses the carnival as one of his key metaphors. Carnivals run lean, quickly adapt to changing markets, and have employees who play multiple roles. Carnivals, and the corporation of the twenty-first century, are improvisatory. Likewise, when Michael Maccoby talks of the need for “corporate men and women who can work interdependently within a corporate structure that stimulates and rewards individual initiative and continual improvement” he describes a pattern of vigorous individuality in service of a group creation which is a fundamental requirement of jazz.
Duke Ellington's sidemen were all individualists who played their best music in Ellington's band; leaders such as Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, and Miles Davis were known for so successfully fostering the growth of their musicians that many of them went on to become leaders themselves. Jazz culture stresses the importance of finding your own voice, your own style, even to the basic sound you get from your instrument. In contrast, classical culture stresses adherence to an ideal sound and is doubtful about individuality, even from virtuoso soloists.
This similarity between high-tech management and improvisation is more than an abstraction to me. I have some direct experience of this relationship. In the previous century I spent two years writing technical documentation for MapInfo, Corp., which makes software for geographic data analysis—population distribution, market information, facilities location, etc. While the sixty to eighty mostly-young employees were not cut from the same mold—salespersons and programmers, for example, tend to be quite different—rock and roll was certainly the musical common denominator. After all, most of the employees were born After Elvis. Sean O'Sullivan, one of the young founders and formerly Chairman of the Board, would end many of his electronic mail communications with an exhortation to “rock and roll.” Half a year after I left, he resigned to pursue a career in rock and roll. Further, to adapt to its rapid growth MapInfo revised its management structure at least two times in the two years I was employed there and two times again in the year and a half after I left. Change was explicitly recognized as being essential to survival. Being able to initiate change thus becomes a competitive advantage.
Such anecdotes do not a historical truth make. But they are telling anecdotes. And my general impression is that they could be multiplied many times over.
However, these improvisatory corporations are not, for the most part, owned and managed by African Americans. Thus they exhibit a pattern which reverses that Henry Louis Gates, Jr. finds in various important African-American novels (for example, Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man). These novels use Western form to express African-American content. The high-tech corporations have an African-American style with a European-American technological content and management. Between the informal mores and prejudices of the corporate world and the unfortunate relationship between much of African America and the educational system, the corporate world remains largely European American. However, to the extent that these more fluid corporations are run by relatively young men and women, they are run by people who have, for example, grown up listening and dancing to rock and roll and have thus been significantly influenced by African-American expressive style.
One final contrast suggests itself. Classical music is the expression of a fully formed culture. Europe was under no pressure to conform to any standards other than its own. We know what a fully realized compositional culture and society are like. Jazz, however, is the creation of people under constant pressure to conform to conditions imposed on them. As critic Martin Williams asserted in his essay on “The Meaning of a Music”, “Jazz is the music of a people who have been told by their circumstances that they are unworthy. And in jazz, these people discover their own worthiness.” There is a sense, then, that jazz is the most advanced creation of an improvisational culture which has not yet fully revealed and realized itself. Whether or not this century will see that realization is question as open as it is exciting.
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Monday, March 02, 2015
Gordon Parks. Couple, with man playing cello. 1980.
Current exhibition at MFA, Boston.
Does Thinking About God Increase Our Willingness to Make Risky Decisions?
by Jalees Rehman
There are at least two ways of how the topic of trust in God is broached in Friday sermons that I have attended in the United States. Some imams lament the decrease of trust in God in the age of modernity. Instead of trusting God that He is looking out for the believers, modern day Muslims believe that they can control their destiny on their own without any Divine assistance. These imams see this lack of trust in God as a sign of weakening faith and an overall demise in piety. But in recent years, I have also heard an increasing number of sermons mentioning an important story from the Muslim tradition. In this story, Prophet Muhammad asked a Bedouin why he was leaving his camel untied and thus taking the risk that this valuable animal might wander off and disappear. When the Bedouin responded that he placed his trust in God who would ensure that the animal stayed put, the Prophet told him that he still needed to first tie up his camel and then place his trust in God. Sermons referring to this story admonish their audience to avoid the trap of fatalism. Just because you trust God does not mean that it obviates the need for rational and responsible action by each individual.
It is much easier for me to identify with the camel-tying camp because I find it rather challenging to take risks exclusively based on the trust in an inscrutable and minimally communicative entity. Both, believers and non-believers, take risks in personal matters such as finance or health. However, in my experience, many believers who make a risky financial decision or take a health risk by rejecting a medical treatment backed by strong scientific evidence tend to invoke the name of God when explaining why they took the risk. There is a sense that God is there to back them up and provide some security if the risky decision leads to a detrimental outcome. It would therefore not be far-fetched to conclude that invoking the name of God may increase risk-taking behavior, especially in people with firm religious beliefs. Nevertheless, psychological research in the past decades has suggested the opposite: Religiosity and reminders of God seem to be associated with a reduction in risk-taking behavior.
Daniella Kupor and her colleagues at Stanford University have recently published the paper "Anticipating Divine Protection? Reminders of God Can Increase Nonmoral Risk Taking" which takes a new look at the link between invoking the name of God and risky behaviors. The researchers hypothesized that reminders of God may have opposite effects on varying types of risk-taking behavior. For example, risk-taking behavior that is deemed ‘immoral' such as taking sexual risks or cheating may be suppressed by invoking God, whereas taking non-moral risks, such as making risky investments or sky-diving, might be increased because reminders of God provide a sense of security. According to Kupor and colleagues, it is important to classify the type of risky behavior in relation to how society perceives God's approval or disapproval of the behavior. The researchers conducted a variety of experiments to test this hypothesis using online study participants.
One of the experiments involved running ads on a social media network and then assessing the rate of how often the social media users clicked on slightly different wordings of the ad texts. The researchers ran the ads 452,051 times on accounts registered to users over the age of 18 years residing in the United States. The participants either saw ads for non-moral risk-taking behavior (skydiving), moral risk-taking behavior (bribery) or a control behavior (playing video games) and each ad came either in a 'God version' or a standard version.
Here are the two versions of the skydiving ad (both versions had a picture of a person skydiving):
God knows what you are missing! Find skydiving near you. Click here, feel the thrill!
You don't know what you are missing! Find skydiving near you. Click here, feel the thrill!
The percentage of users who clicked on the skydiving ad in the ‘God version' was twice as high as in the group which saw the standard "You don't know what you are missing" phrasing! One explanation for the significantly higher ad success rate is that "God knows…." might have struck the ad viewers as being rather unusual and piqued their curiosity. Instead of this being a reflection of increased propensity to take risks, perhaps the viewers just wanted to find out what was meant by "God knows…". However, the response to the bribery ad suggests that it isn't just mere curiosity. These are the two versions of the bribery ad (both versions had an image of two hands exchanging money):
Learn How to Bribe!
God knows what you are missing! Learn how to bribe with little risk of getting caught!
Learn How to Bribe!
You don't know what you are missing! Learn how to bribe with little risk of getting caught!
In this case, the ‘God version' cut down the percentage of clicks to less than half of the standard version. The researchers concluded that invoking the name of God prevented the users from wanting to find out more about bribery because they consciously or subconsciously associated bribery with being immoral and rejected by God.
These findings are quite remarkable because they suggest that a a single mention of the word ‘God' in an ad can have opposite effects on two different types of risk-taking, the non-moral thrill of sky-diving versus the immoral risk of taking bribes.
Clicking on an ad for a potentially risky behavior is not quite the same as actually engaging in that behavior. This is why the researchers also conducted a separate study in which participants were asked to answer a set of questions after viewing certain colors. Participants could choose between Option 1 (a short 2 minute survey and receiving an additional 25 cents as a reward) or Option 2 (four minute survey, no additional financial incentive). The participants were also informed that Option 1 was more risky with the following label:
Eye Hazard: Option 1 not for individuals under 18. The bright colors in this task may damage the retina and cornea in the eyes. In extreme cases it can also cause macular degeneration.
In reality, neither of the two options was damaging to the eyes of the participants but the participants did not know this. This set-up allowed the researchers to assess the likelihood of the participants taking the risk of potentially injurious light exposure to their eyes. To test the impact of God reminders, the researchers assigned the participants to read one of two texts, both of which were adapted from Wikipedia, before deciding on Option 1 or Option 2:
Text used for participants in the control group:
"In 2006, the International Astronomers' Union passed a resolution outlining three conditions for an object to be called a planet. First, the object must orbit the sun; second, the object must be a sphere; and third, it must have cleared the neighborhood around its orbit. Pluto does not meet the third condition, and is thus not a planet."
Text used for the participants in the ‘God reminder' group:
"God is often thought of as a supreme being. Theologians have described God as having many attributes, including omniscience (infinite knowledge), omnipotence (unlimited power), omnipresence (present everywhere), and omnibenevolence (perfect goodness). God has also been conceived as being incorporeal (immaterial), a personal being, and the "greatest conceivable existent."
As hypothesized by the researchers, a significantly higher proportion of participants chose the supposedly harmful Option 1 in the ‘God reminder' group (96%) than in the control group (84%). Reading a single paragraph about God's attributes was apparently sufficient to lull more participants into the risk of exposing their eyes to potential harm. The overall high percentage of participants choosing Option 1 even in the control condition is probably due to the fact that it offered a greater financial reward (although it seems a bit odd that participants were willing to sell out their retinas for a quarter, but maybe they did not really take the risk very seriously).
A limitation of the study is that it does not provide any information on whether the impact of mentioning God was dependent on the religious beliefs of the participants. Do ‘God reminders' affect believers as well atheists and agnostics or do they only work in people who clearly identify with a religious tradition? Another limitation is that even though many of the observed differences between the ‘God condition' and the control conditions were statistically significant, the actual differences in numbers were less impressive. For example, in the sky-diving ad experiment, the click-through rate was about 0.03% in the standard ad and 0.06% in the ‘God condition'. This is a doubling but how meaningful is this doubling when the overall click rates are so low? Even the difference between the two groups who read the Wikipedia texts and chose Option 1 (96% vs. 84%) does not seem very impressive. However, one has to bear in mind that all of these interventions were very subtle – inserting a single mention of God into a social media ad or asking participants to read a single paragraph about God.
People who live in societies which are suffused with religion such as the United States or Pakistan are continuously reminded of God, whether they glance at their banknotes, turn on the TV or take a pledge of allegiance in school. If the mere mention of God in an ad can already sway some of us to increase our willingness to take risks, what impact does the continuous barrage of God mentions have on our overall risk-taking behavior? Despite its limitations, the work by Kupor and colleagues provides a fascinating new insight on the link between reminders of God and risk-taking behavior. By demonstrating the need to replace blanket statements regarding the relationship between God, religiosity and risk-taking with a more subtle distinction between moral and non-moral risky behaviors, the researchers are paving the way for fascinating future studies on how religion and mentions of God influence human behavior and decision-making.
Kupor DM, Laurin L, Levav J. "Anticipating Divine Protection? Reminders of God Can Increase Nonmoral Risk Taking" Psychological Science(2015) doi: 10.1177/0956797614563108