The Loyal Opposition of Paul Krugman

Krugman-economy-BZ01-vl-vertical Evan Thomas in Newsweek:

Paul Krugman has all the credentials of a ranking member of the East Coast liberal establishment: a column in The New York Times, a professorship at Princeton, a Nobel Prize in economics. He is the type you might expect to find holding forth at a Georgetown cocktail party or chumming around in the White House Mess of a Democratic administration. But in his published opinions, and perhaps in his very being, he is anti-establishment. Though he was a scourge of the Bush administration, he has been critical, if not hostile, to the Obama White House.

In his twice-a-week column and his blog, Conscience of a Liberal, he criticizes the Obamaites for trying to prop up a financial system that he regards as essentially a dead man walking. In conversation, he portrays Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and other top officials as, in effect, tools of Wall Street (a ridiculous charge, say Geithner defenders). These men and women have “no venality,” Krugman hastened to say in an interview with NEWSWEEK. But they are suffering from “osmosis,” from simply spending too much time around investment bankers and the like. In his Times column the day Geithner announced the details of the administration's bank-rescue plan, Krugman described his “despair” that Obama “has apparently settled on a financial plan that, in essence, assumes that banks are fundamentally sound and that bankers know what they're doing. It's as if the president were determined to confirm the growing perception that he and his economic team are out of touch, that their economic vision is clouded by excessively close ties to Wall Street.”

If you are of the establishment persuasion (and I am), reading Krugman makes you uneasy. You hope he's wrong, and you sense he's being a little harsh (especially about Geithner), but you have a creeping feeling that he knows something that others cannot, or will not, see.

Voodoo Correlations in Social Neuroscience

HP_12-22-med Via Discover, a new paper by Hall Pashler raises many claims based on fMRI based studies:

Abstract: Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging studies of emotion, personality, and social cognition have drawn much attention in recent years, with high-profile studies frequently reporting extremely high (e.g., >.8) correlations between behavioral and self-report measures of personality or emotion and measures of brain activation. We show that these correlations often exceed what is statistically possible assuming the (evidently rather limited) reliability of both fMRI and personality/emotion measures. The implausibly high correlations are all the more puzzling because method sections rarely contain sufficient detail to ascertain how these correlations were obtained. We surveyed authors of 54 articles that reported findings of this kind to determine a few details on how these correlations were computed. More than half acknowledged using a strategy that computes separate correlations for individual voxels, and reports means of just the subset of voxels exceeding chosen thresholds. We show how this non-independent analysis grossly inflates correlations, while yielding reassuring-looking scattergrams. This analysis technique was used to obtain the vast majority of the implausibly high correlations in our survey sample. In addition, we argue that other analysis problems likely created entirely spurious correlations in some cases. We outline how the data from these studies could be reanalyzed with unbiased methods to provide the field with accurate estimates of the correlations in question. We urge authors to perform such reanalyses and to correct the scientific record.

Why Minds Are Not Like Computers

Ari Sculman in New Atlantis:

Since the inception of the AI project, the use of computer analogies to try to describe, understand, and replicate mental processes has led to their widespread abuse. Typically, an exponent of AI will not just use a computer metaphor to describe the mind, but will also assert that such a description is a sufficient understanding of the mind—indeed, that mental processes can be understood entirely in computational terms. One of the most pervasive abuses has been the purely functional description of mental processes. In the black box view of programming, the internal processes that give rise to a behavior are irrelevant; only a full knowledge of the input-output behavior is necessary to completely understand a module. Because humans have “input” in the form of the senses, and “output” in the form of speech and actions, it has become an AI creed that a convincing mimicry of human input-output behavior amounts to actually achieving true human qualities in computers.

The embrace of input-output mimicry as a standard traces back to Alan Turing’s famous “imitation game,” in which a computer program engages in a text-based conversation with a human interrogator, attempting to fool the person into believing that it, too, is human. The game, now popularly known as the Turing Test, is above all a statement of epistemological limitation—an admission of the impossibility of knowing with certainty that any other being is thinking, and an acknowledgement that conversation is one of the most important ways to assess a person’s intelligence. Thus Turing said that a computer that passes the test would be regarded as thinking, not that it actually is thinking, or that passing the test constitutes thinking. In fact, Turing specified at the outset that he devised the test because the “question ‛Can machines think?’ I believe to be too meaningless to deserve discussion.” But it is precisely this claim—that passing the Turing Test constitutes thinking—that has become not just a primary standard of success for artificial intelligence research, but a philosophical precept of the project itself.

This precept is based on a crucial misunderstanding of why computers work the way they do.

g20 stinks


The draft G20 communique, as published on the FT’s website, is not encouraging. To be sure, there are humorous moments, such as: each of us commits to candid, even-handed, and independent IMF surveillance of our economies and financial sectors, of the impact of our policies on others, and of risks facing the global economy; Major countries have never allowed this and never will, despite a long tradition of such statements (e.g., ask about whether Gordon Brown welcomed frank assessments of the UK economy during the time he was chair of a ministerial committee that oversees the IMF). Asserting something blandly in a communique does not make it true, but it does – amazingly – often convince much of the media to applaud politely. Watching the spinmeisters at work is always entertaining although, under these circumstances, also more than a little scary. On the real substance, the G20 punts on most of the big issues – as predicted, the language on monetary policy and fiscal policy is completely vacuous…

more from Baseline Scenario here.

isabella’s insect porn


WE DEVOUR STORIES about the sex lives of others for the inordinate pleasure of discovering their similarities to, and differences from, our own; the sex lives of insects are no exception. The acts portrayed in Isabella Rossellini’s short-film series Green Porno (2008–2009) are a multifarious sampling of nature’s diversity—yet they are entirely enacted and narrated by Rossellini herself, who, dressed as a male insect, screws inanimate paper representations of her mates. In “Fly,” for example, Rossellini penetrates her “costar” with the lusty abandon of a sex maniac who bangs at “any opportunity, any female!” After this line, the camera lingers on the face of the cardboard fly and then cuts back to Rossellini, as she continuously thrusts. It’s anything but natural—it’s porn. It is thus a charming surprise that Green Porno’s power lies in what porn all too often lacks. What is best about Green Porno is what is best about sex: It can be joyful, surprising, goofy, guileless, funny, and fun. Even the scenes wherein the male star expresses outright terror and loses his life are delicious. The denouement of “Bee” rivals those found in classical tragedy. “I would die . . . without my penis . . . I would bleed to death” are the bee’s final words, and, while undeniably hilarious, there is something oddly antibathetic about this swan song, as it takes us from the ridiculous to the sublime.

more from artforum here.

It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window


He’s buried in the Mount Hope Cemetery in San Diego, in an undistinguished grave — just a simple, flat headstone set flush with the ground and surrounded by nearly identical markers arranged in long, boring rows. Nobody thought to plant him next to his wife, whose ashes were stored in a crypt not far away. By then nobody really cared what Chandler might have wanted. If you want to pay a visit to his grave, you have to hunt for it. And there it is: Raymond Thornton Chandler, Author, 1888-1959, In Loving Memory. The “author” part nails it in that sublimely minimal way. Still, it’s a pretty lousy little headstone for such a great writer. We remember Chandler for a lot of things. As the guy who put L.A. on the literary map, along with John Fante and Nathanael West, who published their first novels the same year The Big Sleep came out, in 1939 — a boffo year for L.A. letters. We remember him as the writer who gave the city a lasting identity. As the person who elevated the lowly mystery to the realm of literature. As a damn funny writer who mastered the art of repartee and the bon mot. The guy who took the language of the street, American slang, and made it sing. The King of the Simile. The Bard of Bad Blondes.

more from the LA Weekly here.

The finance industry has effectively captured our government

The crash has laid bare many unpleasant truths about the United States. One of the most alarming, says a former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, is that the finance industry has effectively captured our government—a state of affairs that more typically describes emerging markets, and is at the center of many emerging-market crises. If the IMF’s staff could speak freely about the U.S., it would tell us what it tells all countries in this situation: recovery will fail unless we break the financial oligarchy that is blocking essential reform. And if we are to prevent a true depression, we’re running out of time.

Simon Johnson in The Atlantic:

ScreenHunter_01 Mar. 31 17.41 Every crisis is different, of course. Ukraine faced hyperinflation in 1994; Russia desperately needed help when its short-term-debt rollover scheme exploded in the summer of 1998; the Indonesian rupiah plunged in 1997, nearly leveling the corporate economy; that same year, South Korea’s 30-year economic miracle ground to a halt when foreign banks suddenly refused to extend new credit.

But I must tell you, to IMF officials, all of these crises looked depressingly similar. Each country, of course, needed a loan, but more than that, each needed to make big changes so that the loan could really work. Almost always, countries in crisis need to learn to live within their means after a period of excess—exports must be increased, and imports cut—and the goal is to do this without the most horrible of recessions. Naturally, the fund’s economists spend time figuring out the policies—budget, money supply, and the like—that make sense in this context. Yet the economic solution is seldom very hard to work out.

No, the real concern of the fund’s senior staff, and the biggest obstacle to recovery, is almost invariably the politics of countries in crisis.

More here.

Tuesday Poem

One Art
Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers and a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
thought it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Ants really are random wanderers


Ants Ants don't march in predictable patterns to search for crumbs, as you might have thought by watching them. Instead, new research suggests they roam randomly.

This is not a matter of ant versus human intelligence, because a seemingly blind search can still make sense in both practical and mathematical terms.

“The beauty of a mathematical random walk is that it eventually visits all points in space if you walk long enough — and it always returns to its starting point,” said William Baxter, an experimental physicist at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College.

More here.

The Biggest of Puzzles Brought Down to Size

Natalie Angier in The New York Times:

Angier-190 Grim though the economic spur may be, some scientists see a slim silver lining in the sudden newsiness of laughably large numbers. As long as the public is chatting openly about quantities normally expressed in scientific notation, they say, why not talk about what those numbers really mean? In fact, they shamelessly promote the benefits of quantitative and scientific reasoning generally. As they see it, anyone, no matter how post-scholastic or math allergic, can learn basic quantitative reasoning skills, and everyone would benefit from the effort — be less likely to fall for vitamin hucksters, for example, or panic when their plane hits a bumpy patch.

One excellent way to start honing such skills is with a few so-called Fermi problems, named for Enrico Fermi, the physicist who delighted in tossing out the little mental teasers to his colleagues whenever they needed a break from building the atomic bomb.

Here is how it works. You take a monster of a ponder like, What is the total volume of human blood in the world? or, If you put all the miles that Americans drive every year end to end, how far into space could you travel? and you try to estimate what the answer might be. You resist your impulse to run away or imprecate. Instead, you look for a wedge into the problem, and then you calmly, systematically, break it down into edible bits. Importantly, you are not looking for an exact figure but rather a ballpark approximation, something that would be within an order of magnitude, or a factor of 10, of the correct answer. If you got the answer 900, for example, and the real answer is 200, you’re good; if you got 9,000, or 20, you go back and try to find where you went astray.

More here.

Interpretations: The Metonymyville Horror (Put a Ring on it)

by Anjuli Raza Kolb

Patricia Highsmith, whose belated literary celebrity everyone is tearing their hair over, has these exquisite miniatures of horror that are so deadpan in their brevity that they often read like news items or reports, nearly unwritten. They lack even the tiniest indulgence in atmospheric detail or the fast and loose literary pop-psychology that sometimes comes with free indirect discourse. Some of them hardly bother with character. “The Hand,” published in her 1974 collection Little Tales of Misogyny is one such miniature. The story is about a grave misunderstanding; a two-part breakdown in the Herculean effort of language to haul around meaning. It begins, “a young man asked a father for his daughter’s hand, and received it in a box—her left hand,” and expires a page and a quarter later as the young man, “feeling now he was insane beyond repair, since he could make contact with nothing, refused to eat for many days, and at last lay on his bed with his face to the wall, and died.”

What can have happened to the young man’s love? What abyss can have opened up with such demonic speed between language and meaning? How could this ubiquitous, socially ratified expression—to ask for a hand when one means a woman’s life, her fidelity, her reproductive organs and genetic material—fail to do its shifty dance of signification? How does the literal reveal the horror of the figural? With stories of such lucid succinctness, what one can say runs the risk of putting a leaden helmet on a fledgling bat, intercepting its tightly calibrated sonar and chucking it earthwards. But since the horror of this story is first, that of misprision—a mistake or misunderstanding, a miss, or maybe a mrs.—and second, of “making contact with nothing,” I think it’s more like rehab than assault to bring Roman Jakobson’s amputated poetics of aphasia together with Highsmith’s “stump concealed in a muff” (not joking!) to let them make phantom contact.

Read more »

The Journey | Home

By Aditya Dev Sood

T5 The body has its ways, and jetlag is one of them. I want to sleep and it wants to drum its fingers on the bed springs to – what is this rhythm? – a kind of bhangda-fandango. I want to go dancing but it has already clocked off, tuned out, leaving me to text out my regrets while I tuck it to sleep. In my years of managing jetlag, I’ve come to understand that I can only coax my system gently, never force it into an artificial pattern, for it will only revolt, and push back with stubborn insouciance: “You thought we could stay up late, but you know what, it’s time to wakey wakey again! Hmm-hm-hm-hm-hm-hanh-hanh, hail to the conquering heroes, hail hail to Michigan, the leaders and the best! Feeling drowsy now?” Like the flailing parent of a rebel teenager, I’ve completely given up the fight of late, allowing my body-clock to set his own times, picking up after him, hoarding midnight snacks for when he wakes up hungry and demanding, allowing him to break evening appointments without explanation. Jetlag is evidence that whether or not I feel at home in the world, my mindbody-system enjoys a home in time, where it is housed in the rhythms of sleep, the routines of rousing, the comforts of food and the movements of bowel.

Read more »

A Scientist Goes to an Ashram for a Personal Retreat – The Final Chapter

Part 1 of “A Scientist Goes to an Ashram for a Personal Retreat” can be found HERE.

Part 2 of “A Scientist Goes to an Ashram for a Personal Retreat” can be found HERE.

(Note: I do not use the real names of people, nor do I identify the specific Ashram. I changed a few details. The purpose is to protect the privacy of the individuals. Readers who are familiar with this Ashram will probably recognize it.)

The Idea of God

God is an idea. God is a thought. God is a concept. God is an abstraction. The idea of God originated in the human mind. Like any other idea, it has no reality apart from the human mind's ability to conceive it, develop it, use it, and communicate it to others.

As with other powerful ideas, the idea of God manifests itself in human experience. The idea of God is observed in the affairs of humanity in ways that are small and large, obvious and subtle, assuaging and painful, creative and destructive, capricious and profound, vengeful and compassionate, loving and tyrannical, indifferent and personal.

The idea of God can inspire the most exquisite of humankind's devotional expressions in art, poetry, literature, architecture, music, and ritual. The idea of God can be usurped and reshaped into an instrument of the powerful and the greedy. The idea of God can intoxicate the spirit of humankind in an embrace of all creation as one. The idea of God can corrode peoples and cultures when forged by the sadist and hater into a sword of punishment, suffering, and murder.

Because God is an idea, it is accessible, along with other related ideas, to science and the scientist. Science is an approach to understanding nature and ourselves. Science has method and it has content. The method of science is systematic observation of phenomena, and the recording of data. The content of science comes from organizing information into a body of knowledge.

The basic function of science is to describe the properties of things. Things include ideas. Darwinian evolution is an idea. The particle nature of subatomic phenomenon is an idea. Mating ritual is an idea. Borderline personality disorder is an idea. Darwin described the origin of species in words and illustrations. Physicists describe quantum mechanics with differential equations. Social scientists describe a culture's mating rituals in words, videos, and cross cultural comparisons. Psychiatrists and psychologists describe mental disorders in statistically consistent patterns of behaviors and objective assessments.

Read more »

Monday Poem

New Morning
Jim Culleny

First I check to see if the sun's up –yes.
There it is in the sash of the second window from the right
a third of the way across because it's the 25th of March.
It blazes in blue beyond imagination
radiating like a lover's heart.

Then I look left for you –you're there.
You under the blankets, a ridge undulating so much like
the mountain that has just produced the sun,
but rising and falling almost imperceptibly
still sleeping though the day's begun.

Third, I check to see if I breathe because it's clear
heaven's just another way of saying, “Here.”