The Revolution Will Not Be PowerPointed

by Hasan Altaf

Blog_powerpoint1 In a city like DC, the think tank circuit does a roaring trade in “developing countries,” their problems, and an endless list of ways to solve those problems and take those countries, to use the easy dichotomy of think tanks, from developing to developed. The hottest commodity on the market, lately, the dream subject of international development, is Pakistan. It has become the perfect laboratory for think tank experiments, a veritable Petri dish of everything that could go wrong and every possible way to imagine a solution; rarely does a week go by without a presentation or, at least, a visiting expert.

Recently, I went to one such presentation at a respected think tank in DC. It was raining, and people straggled in one by one, shucking off their overcoats and placing their umbrellas carefully under their chairs. The room filled up with suits and briefcases as the interns ran sound checks. The atmosphere, as the audience milled around waiting for the presentation to start, was so far removed from what we were there to hear about that it felt almost theatrical. It’s hard to tell, in such circumstances, whether you are part of the show or simply there to applaud – or, perhaps, both.

My usual instinct, out of not so much cynicism as sadness, is to avoid these events, and I had forgotten that their real purpose is never the one stated. The presentation is an afterthought, a sweetener. The real point is the social gathering, the first ten minutes and the last ten minutes. It was fascinating to watch the not-so-idle chitchat as people ran into old friends and found new ones, to overhear the experts trading war stories from their time “in the field.” People discovered friends or colleagues in common, experiences they had shared, times they had just barely missed each other. In a way, it was heartwarming. This world, of international development and the research that surrounds it, is a small one, and people stick together.

Somehow, though, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was off. It felt as though the last century had disappeared and that all of a sudden we were back in the olden days. Coffee and bagels have replaced the gin and tonic, we have lunch meetings instead of chhota pegs and rounds of polo, and we wear business casual instead of whatever they wore back then, but the spirit of the thing is the same. These are safe spaces, as far as possible from the noise and the mess, for the agents of civilization – and, now, the native elites – to discuss and fix problems that are oceans away, to alter the courses of lives that are not their own.

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Of Mice and Memory

Years ago, London neurobiologists discovered a way to visualize the structural dynamics of memory formation using just a laser, a microscope, and a window. To start, they vivisected the craniums of dozens of laboratory mice and surgically embedded tiny glass panels into the outer fleshy folds of the living, exposed brains. Brain

The researchers specifically targeted an area of the brain known as the visual cortex; their goal was to define the relationship between vision and memory. These implanted bits of glass were to serve as physical windows to the branching, ductile neurons of the brain; when scanned by a laser, they would allow for capture of microscopic images of fluorescing neurons and provide a glimpse into the creation of memories.

In 2009, their laborious efforts paid off. Mark Hubener’s lab at University College reported in January’s issue of Nature magazine that they had found a link between distinct neural growths and memories of past experiences. Through miniscule peepholes, Hubener’s team saw bud-like spines emerging from the branches of the brain’s neurons. These spines seemed to sprout most in response to new experiences, implicating them as the brain’s physical storage areas for memory.

Because Hubener’s work is fairly visual in nature, it’s easiest to begin with a mental picture of the brain. Let’s start by imagining its most basic component, the neuron, as a tree in winter, leafless with many branches, or dendrites. If the neuron is a tree, then the brain, quite simply, would be the forest where it resides. Now, if you can imagine that forest with one hundred billion trees densely packed into a space the size of a grapefruit, then you’ve got a basic idea of what the human brain looks like. Bonsai

Not impressed? Each tree in your brain forest physically contacts the branches of thousands of other trees; in children, these contacts, or synapses, number a quadrillion, in adults, this number decreases then stabilizes to a mere few hundred trillion. If synapses were dollars, we’d have enough money to pay for the Bush administration’s tax cuts… for two thousand years*.

So, what’s the purpose of all of these branching contacts? Synapses serve as conduits of communication between neurons- they allow information to race from dendritic branch to dendritic branch, relaying messages of sense, perception, reaction, and thought. But what about memory? Where are our recollections of past experiences stored among this vast network of neurons?

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Where do our rights come from?

Newt_gingrich In the wake of Republican defeat in the 2008 election, conservatives started casting about for a new standard-bearer. One name which then resurfaced was that of Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House of Representatives. A conservative firebrand during his Congressional days, Gingrich had reinvented himself as a pragmatic innovator, pushing high-tech solutions for our continuing dependence on fossil fuels. However, as we’ve seen from his subsequent output, he's still the same old culture warrior in other ways. Here he is in a 2006 interview, discussing his then-recent book The Creator’s Gifts: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness: “[I]n the minds of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and the people who wrote that document, they literally meant that your rights come from God, that you then loan them to the government, which is why the Declaration of Independence begins ‘We the people…’. And therefore if we drive God out of the public square we drive out the source of our own rights and our own source of power.”

Of course, it's the Constitution, not the Declaration, which begins “We the people…”; but anyone, even a history Ph. D., can misspeak in an interview. The important point is this conception of the “creator's gifts” and their significance. Alan Keyes, whom Barack Obama defeated in their 2004 Senate contest, strongly endorsed the same idea during his own presidential run. What should we make of the idea that our rights “come from God”?

This idea of rights given by God is the conceptual flip side of duties imposed by God: any right possessed by A is ipso facto a duty imposed on B not to violate that right. This latter idea has traditionally provoked the question of whether morality should, or even can, be identified with divine command. The paradox of this account of morality, first discussed 2500 years ago in Plato's Euthyphro, is brought out by this question: Is something the right thing to do because God orders it, or does God order it because it's the right thing to do? The second answer simply abandons the divine command theory, but the first answer isn't any better. It requires us to say why something we know to be wrong – say, torturing the innocent – would not thereby be made right if God happened to demand it. One natural answer is that God, being ideally good, wouldn't actually do that; but now we are explaining morality in terms of God's ideally good nature, and not in terms of divine command after all.

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Should We Fear Fear Itself?

People are worried about the Euro. As bad news flows out of Europe – persistent unemployment, popular discontent over painful austerity measures, and catastrophic bank losses tied to still-deflating real estate markets – international investors continue to cast doubt over the Euro-Zone’s short- and long-term stability. Fear of at least a partial disintegration of the monetary union is rampant. Indeed, Morgan Stanley recently released the results of a survey of 150 of its clients; while only 3 percent of the investors thought there is more than a 60 percent chance that the Euro-zone will break up, three-quarters of the respondents thought there was some probability of a breakup. These statistics raise a double concern. First is the fear that this nightmare scenario will come to pass, an unprecedented event that could fatally wound investor confidence in the Euro, potentially eliminating its viability as a secure store of value. Second, one might fear this fear itself, as these investors’ worries might contribute to their own realization.

File:2 euro Ireland.png

Financiers justify the distinctive double movement of the last several decades by arguing that markets are efficient. Neither the proliferation of capital markets nor the wearing away of regulations on them would be legitimate cause for concern if markets could be counted on to allocate capital to the areas of the economy that deserve it. Yet this period’s continual booms, busts, and crises provide a substantial and ever-increasing body of evidence that these supposedly rational capital markets are, in fact, anything but. As much as Florida’s decaying, uninhabited subdivisions attest to the dangers of irrational exuberance, Ireland’s swaths of unsold houses and imploding, too-big-to-fail banks attest to the power of expectations. They demonstrate that rather than allocating resources on the basis of soberly considered “economic fundamentals,” capital markets have a stubborn tendency to synthesize their own realities from the grist of investors’ expectations.

Consider how the now-familiar contagion of financial crisis replays itself in each of the PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, Spain), adding to the uncertainty about the Euro-Zone’s continued solidarity. First, the hard slap of reality deflates a convenient and officially supported untruth, swamping the government’s budget with red ink. In Greece, it was Prime Minister George A. Papandreou’s acknowledgement that his predecessor had been hiding massive government obligations in complex financial instruments, cleverly designed by the whizzes at Goldman Sachs. Ireland’s difficulties stem from the painful popping of its massive real estate bubble, which hit its banking sector with losses so big they overwhelmed the Irish state’s aggressive bailout attempts. In both cases, deficits quickly piled up and investors started to worry that the governments might default on their sovereign debts.

This is when a new and dangerous set of self-reinforcing expectations took hold of the situation. To appease investors worried about the riskiness of their debts, the Greek and Irish governments were forced to raise the yields on their bonds. Perversely, increasing the price of their sovereign debt service further strained their budgets and made defaults more likely. This, in turn, made international investors more cautious about lending to these governments, necessitating further increases in bond yields. Worse, the more concerned investors become about any one of the PIIGS, the more likely it is that the contagion will spread to the other fragile countries gorging themselves at the trough of international capital markets.

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Jijiga Nights

By Maniza NaqviRedLightNightC

On the way to Elderidge street to view Saul’s work on, well, as later we discuss at the gallery, over beer and wine and under fluorescent light: Man’s Hegemony–Anyway—On the way there, changing from the One to the D to meet Ali at 42nd street, speeding, hurtling downtown —reading poetry, MTA’s overhead, that is, and surrounded by every type of light and commotion and the train’s rattling —pounding out the question it seemed to me–What is slow and what is night? Over and over again and again the same sound. What is slow and what is night? Then, came to mind another town. There, in that quiet and hush in dark’s first blush an inkling of slow and of night when the sun goes down. Then, a single naked bulb, lit and dangling from a wire, each, in each shack teases beauty through a quivering tungsten tongue murmuring of a still and separate universe. In the near black out town, of Jijiga when the sun goes down every shack and dozens more begin to glow and seem to unwrap themselves like tiny gift boxes, in rows upon rows. And just beyond and out of reach how indeed a sensation begins to grow as the stars too, descend to take dominion over the earth. Every evening, in Jijiga’s night and slow, every shack unfolds its own magical show. Which illuminated, so, each a miniature carefully curated. Colored tarps stand in as walls in emerald, turquoise, orange, blue along the narrow Jijiga dirt roads. Day light’s hovels by night transformed as though each one a story’s page. Or each one a framed painting —Or, perhaps, each a window onto something else. Or each a separate theater set or a stage. There, look, just beyond the glow a silhouette of a warrior, in shadow, chewing chat taking a rest from the undeclared war for his oil and gas. For which the script directs that he will lose to a foe, a stronger and a most unwelcome guest, sneaking, slinking and slithering in. A year, perhaps, to photograph all this? Another two perhaps to write it all down? And then to sketch and paint it too—for display in some far away space and perhaps to win accolades? On the way to Elderidge street to view Saul’s work on, well as we discuss later at the gallery, over beer and wine and under fluorescent light: Man’s Hegemony–Anyway—On the way there, changing from the One To the D to meet Ali at 42nd street, speeding, hurtling downtown surrounded by every type of light and sound I thinking of what is slow and what is night: In Jijiga’s quiet and hushed streets a single naked bulb, lit and dangling from a wire, each, in each shack teases beauty through a quivering tungsten tongue murmuring verse of a still and separate universe.

Lions and Hyenas

No I never heard them fight,

The lions and hyenas late at night

I guess I slept too well in Jijiga.

Gathered there as we were,

Us—

With all the feigned piety involved for

Transfers

Ourselves,

Migrant workers at a high price

Exchanging astonishments for all the places in

Common:

Last promotions, last stations

Last incarnations.

You too? No! In Dushanbe?

1996 and 2004?

Kabul—2002 through six months ago?

Well of course!

And now Jijiga!

What are the odds of that?

No I never— heard them fight

The lions and Hyenas late at night

I guess I slept too well in Jijiga

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The Trouble with Models

Tribbles The economy, political events and even the sun’s course have converged to make these bleak and darkening days for many of the world’s developed nations, and certainly for America. What we need is expert and effective guidance on the impact of policies and programs. What we get is a cacophony of conflicting, often incoherent, ill-informed just-so stories backed by some combination of intuition, self-interest, resentment, herd thinking, natural and social scientific theory, and cherry-picked statistics. The modern social sciences in particular, which had as their mandate and their promise to guide us in times like these, have often become simply another part of the problem, providing dueling experts for hire with dubious track records. That is, when they are not busy generating results that are completely irrelevant to real life practical problems.

How has this happened? We can blame human nature or ideological corruption, but I think it’s time to come to terms with the fact that one of the central activities of social science is a fool’s errand, because a core assumption that underlies it is wrong. That central activity is to create mathematical models that explain social phenomena by identifying and measuring a limited set of contributing causes. This is done using statistical tests for significance, explanatory power, accuracy and reliability (the p-values, F-tests, confidence intervals, factor analyses and so on). With minor variations, this is what the “scientific” work of political science, sociology, educational theory and social psychology consists in. Doing this is what it takes to get published in major journals and achieve tenure at major universities. Even economics uses these and related statistical methods, when it stops being social metaphysics and decides to get dirty with evidence. A core assumption that underlies this work is that there are unchanging relationships between the variables that can be identified in causal models.

Despite millions of hours of effort, the inconvenient truth is that there is not a single non-controversial quantitative model in the social sciences. I don’t mean a qualitative model which reformulates a truism, or is logically derived from prior assumptions. Nor am I referring to a mere statistical snapshot with no claim to durability (though the vast numbers of these too are contested). I mean a robust causal model, with dependent and independent variables, with measured and fixed coefficients giving the relative influence of the independent variables on the result, and applicable beyond the test scenario to a wider range of cases which have been successfully applied with precision. The sort of thing that litters the natural sciences like bones on a particularly grisly battlefield, allowing experts to build hydroelectric dams, synthetic organisms and Xbox 360s by exploiting precise and unchanging mathematical relationships. If there is such a quantitative model (or, one hardly dare utter the word, “law”) in the social sciences, I have not seen it. I’m willing to bet that neither have you.

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BAPTISM BY SODA: A look at the Juggalo Phenomenon

Insane_Clown_Posse_umvd01 As legions of cool-hunters trawling the Internet and bohemian sectors of cities are well aware, given that most subcultures are spun around a kernel of hoodlum glamour and guilt-free rutting, selling youth culture is not exactly hard. Youth movements are appropriated and neutralized at such a ferocious rate, that no musical subculture since “Gangsta Rap” has been subversive enough to resist the American mainstream for long save for one: the juggalos (sic) – the off-brand soda flinging, hatchet-wielding followers of The Insane Clown Posse.

Insane Clown Posse are a band of forty-somethings who sing threatening lyrics set to menacing music, all while wearing full circus makeup. The ICP aesthetic is flabbergasting in its audacity and tastelessness – picture jarringly artificial colors appropriated from energy drinks and candy wrappers, loose prison garb and a symbology incorporating death’s heads, jesters and improvised weaponry. Their lyrics hew close to contemporary gangsta rap and other so called hard-core bands, using a lot of profanity to describe violence and sex with a certain swaggering bravado. Every now and then they’ll put out a more soulful, slow, softer ballad that often digs into the band’s philosophy.

Humble-born youth have always managed to appall their elders and betters, but juggalos are so spectacularly unappealing to mainstream tastes that in the eighteen years the band has been playing for major audiences they remain a cult phenomenon. This is despite albums that have gone platinum and gatherings that attract tens of thousands of teenage fans clutching wads of disposable cash. ICP has such a hold on its fans that juggalos have actually been buried in the bands colors. Juggalos are more a collective than anything else; they refer to themselves as “Family” and defend their lifestyles fiercely.

So why can’t the clowns cash in? Gangsta Rap was arguably more of a threat to mainstream America than the Insane Clown Posse, with lyrics as fierce and misogynistic, and an added element of racial outrage and shock. Aside from the purely aesthetic (Blender famously voted Insane Clown Posse as the worst band in any genre in 2004 and reviews in general have tended to be sharply critical) last month came a clue as to how the clowns can maintain such a hold on their fans while paradoxically repelling mainstream consumer culture.

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Gender and Philosophical Intuition

Gendlerstich Tamar Gendler and Stephen Stich, over at Philosophy TV

Empirical evidence collected by Stich and Buckwalter suggests that “standard” intuitions about philosophical thought experiments (e.g. Gettier cases) are more common among men than women. Stich and Gendler examine the merits of this evidence. They consider what might explain gendered differences in intuitions, and whether such differences can help to explain why women are underrepresented in professional philosophy. They also discuss alternative explanations for the gender gap, including the effects of sexism and the shortage of female professors and graduate students to serve as role models for female undergraduates. Finally, they ask why a gender gap has been a larger problem in philosophy than other fields.

Cables Shine Light Into Secret Diplomatic Channels

29cables-web1-articleLarge Scott Shane and Andrew Lehren in the NYT:

The cables, a huge sampling of the daily traffic between the State Department and some 270 embassies and consulates, amount to a secret chronicle of the United States’ relations with the world in an age of war and terrorism. Among their revelations, to be detailed in The Times in coming days:

¶ A dangerous standoff with Pakistan over nuclear fuel: Since 2007, the United States has mounted a highly secret effort, so far unsuccessful, to remove from a Pakistani research reactor highly enriched uranium that American officials fear could be diverted for use in an illicit nuclear device. In May 2009, Ambassador Anne W. Patterson reported that Pakistan was refusing to schedule a visit by American technical experts because, as a Pakistani official said, “if the local media got word of the fuel removal, ‘they certainly would portray it as the United States taking Pakistan’s nuclear weapons,’ he argued.”

¶ Gaming out an eventual collapse of North Korea: American and South Korean officials have discussed the prospects for a unified Korea, should the North’s economic troubles and political transition lead the state to implode. The South Koreans even considered commercial inducements to China, according to the American ambassador to Seoul. She told Washington in February that South Korean officials believe that the right business deals would “help salve” China’s “concerns about living with a reunified Korea” that is in a “benign alliance” with the United States.

The FBI successfully thwarts its own Terrorist plot

Glenn Greenwald in Salon:

Md_horiz The FBI is obviously quite pleased with itself over its arrest of a 19-year-old Somali-American, Mohamed Osman Mohamud, who — with months of encouragement, support and money from the FBI's own undercover agents — allegedly attempted to detonate a bomb at a crowded Christmas event in Portland, Oregon. Media accounts are almost uniformly trumpeting this event exactly as the FBI describes it. Loyalists of both parties are doing the same, with Democratic Party commentators proclaiming that this proves how great and effective Democrats are at stopping The Evil Terrorists, while right-wing polemicists point to this arrest as yet more proof that those menacing Muslims sure are violent and dangerous.

What's missing from all of these celebrations is an iota of questioning or skepticism. All of the information about this episode — all of it — comes exclusively from an FBI affidavit filed in connection with a Criminal Complaint against Mohamud. As shocking and upsetting as this may be to some, FBI claims are sometimes one-sided, unreliable and even untrue, especially when such claims — as here — are uncorroborated and unexamined. That's why we have what we call “trials” before assuming guilt or even before believing that we know what happened: because the government doesn't always tell the complete truth, because they often skew reality, because things often look much different once the accused is permitted to present his own facts and subject the government's claims to scrutiny. The FBI affidavit — as well as whatever its agents are whispering into the ears of reporters — contains only those facts the FBI chose to include, but omits the ones it chose to exclude. And even the “facts” that are included are merely assertions at this point and thus may not be facts at all.

More here.

I’m just here to measure your penises

Jesse Adelman in McSweeny's:

Rapi_scan_lg There's been quite a bit of scuttlebutt in the press and amongst the civil liberties crowd about what we—myself and my fellow full-body scanners—are coming to your airports to do. What is our real purpose? How invasive, truly, are these full-body scans? Will air travel, over time, become somehow less dignified, less “private”?

I'd like to take the opportunity of this writing to allay these and other misgivings. Please know: I'm just here to measure your penises. And I'm very, very good at it.

Can I see electronic components or liquid metals? Exotic bomb-making compounds? Timers or wires poking out of foreign orifices that mean us harm? No, no, and no, I cannot. And ladies, I have no interest in whatever arrangements you might have going on down there—no thanks! Fundamentally, I'm a specialist. I was built to measure penises for national security.

Many folks seem to have the impression that their penis scans will simply be appraised by a crew of chuckling, fantastically overweight elementary school dropouts in some musty back room near the baggage drop. While that may well be the case, you can rest assured that your penis will be regarded with the utmost professional care and clinical detachment until the very moment that a fine-grained digital image of your business leaves my fiber-optic cable en route to our vast federal crotch database.

More here.

The Top Ten Daily Consequences of Having Evolved

Rob Dunn in Smithsonian Magazine:

Consequences-of-evolution-388 1. Our cells are weird chimeras
Perhaps a billion years ago, a single-celled organism arose that would ultimately give rise to all of the plants and animals on Earth, including us. This ancestor was the result of a merging: one cell swallowed, imperfectly, another cell. The predator provided the outsides, the nucleus and most of the rest of the chimera. The prey became the mitochondrion, the cellular organ that produces energy. Most of the time, this ancient symbiosis proceeds amicably. But every so often, our mitochondria and their surrounding cells fight. The result is diseases, such as mitochondrial myopathies (a range of muscle diseases) or Leigh’s disease (which affects the central nervous system).

2. Hiccups
The first air-breathing fish and amphibians extracted oxygen using gills when in the water and primitive lungs when on land—and to do so, they had to be able to close the glottis, or entryway to the lungs, when underwater. Importantly, the entryway (or glottis) to the lungs could be closed. When underwater, the animals pushed water past their gills while simultaneously pushing the glottis down. We descendants of these animals were left with vestiges of their history, including the hiccup. In hiccupping, we use ancient muscles to quickly close the glottis while sucking in (albeit air, not water). Hiccups no longer serve a function, but they persist without causing us harm—aside from frustration and occasional embarrassment. One of the reasons it is so difficult to stop hiccupping is that the entire process is controlled by a part of our brain that evolved long before consciousness, and so try as you might, you cannot think hiccups away.

More here.

Margaret Atwood interview

From The Guardian:

Margaret-atwood-in-london-007 Atwood's pressing interest, as the daughter of an eminent Canadian entomologist, is our planet and its future. Nothing seems more important to her, and since this concern animates almost everything she does, her conversation segues as easily into global warming as Canadian literature: “The threat to the planet is us. It's actually not a threat to the planet – it's a threat to us.” She goes on: “The planet will be OK in its own way. No matter what we do to it, we won't eliminate every last life form from it.” As evidence of this, there's the Canadian city of Sudbury, a favourite of Atwood's. When she was growing up in the 1940s, the place was as “barren as the moon” through overlogging, forest fires and relentless mining. “All the rain was acid,” she says. It was so bad that “a Sudbury” became a unit of pollution. But then a volunteer programme of regeneration was launched. Earth and seeds were painstakingly stuffed into the cracks between the rocks. Now, “Sudbury has forests again, birds in the trees and fish in the streams.” For her, Sudbury, “a symbol of hope”, offers a paradigm for the planet. And so, Atwood continues, with rather bracing realism, “some form of life will remain after us. We shouldn't be saying 'Save the planet'; we should be saying: 'Save viable conditions in which people can live.' That's what we're dealing with here.”

Atwood likes to tell the Amoeba's Tale as an illustration of the “magic moment” at which planet earth now finds itself. There's this test tube, and it's full of amoeba food. You put one amoeba in at 12 noon. The amoeba divides in two every minute. At 12 midnight the test tube is full of amoebas – and there's no food left. Question: at what moment in time is the tube half full? Answer: one minute to midnight. That's where we are apparently. That's when all the amoebas are saying: “We are fine. There's half a tube of food left.”

More here.