Ned Block in the New York Times Book Review:
In “Self Comes to Mind,” the eminent neurologist and neuroscientist Antonio Damasio gives an account of consciousness that might come naturally to a highly caffeinated professor in his study. He emphasizes wakefulness, self-awareness, reflection, rationality, “knowledge of one’s own existence and of the existence of surroundings.”
That is certainly one kind of consciousness, what one might call self-consciousness. But there is also a different kind, as anyone who knows what it is like to have a headache, taste chocolate or see red can attest. Self-consciousness is a sophisticated and perhaps uniquely human cognitive achievement. Phenomenal consciousness by contrast — what it is like to experience — is something we share with many animals. A person who is drunk or delirious or dreaming can be excruciatingly conscious without being wakeful, self-aware or aware of his surroundings.
The term “conscious” was first introduced into academic discourse by the Cambridge philosopher Ralph Cudworth in 1678, and by 1727, John Maxwell had distinguished five senses of the term. The ambiguity has not abated. Damasio’s distinctive contributions in “Self Comes to Mind” are an account of phenomenal consciousness, a conception of selfconsciousness and, most controversially, a claim that phenomenal consciousness is dependent on self-consciousness.
Peter Carlson in Smithsonian Magazine:
Elvis was traveling with some guns and his collection of police badges, and he decided that what he really wanted was a badge from the federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs back in Washington. “The narc badge represented some kind of ultimate power to him,” Priscilla Presley would write in her memoir, Elvis and Me. “With the federal narcotics badge, he [believed he] could legally enter any country both wearing guns and carrying any drugs he wished.”
After just one day in Los Angeles, Elvis asked Schilling to fly with him back to the capital. “He didn't say why,” Schilling recalls, “but I thought the badge might be part of the reason.”
On the red-eye to Washington, Elvis scribbled a letter to President Nixon. “Sir, I can and will be of any service that I can to help the country out,” he wrote. All he wanted in return was a federal agent's badge. “I would love to meet you,” he added, informing Nixon that he'd be staying at the Washington Hotel under the alias Jon Burrows. “I will be here for as long as it takes to get the credentials of a federal agent.”
After they landed, Elvis and Schilling took a limo to the White House, and Elvis dropped off his letter at an entrance gate at about 6:30 a.m. Once they checked in at their hotel, Elvis left for the offices of the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. He got a meeting with a deputy director, but not approval for a bureau badge.
Paul Harris in The Guardian:
In theory it was not an event that should have created a stir: a philosophical debate on the moral merits of religion. In an age of reality TV drama and Hollywood blockbusters loaded with special effects it would seem hard to get the masses to flock to witness such an old-fashioned, high brow spectacle.
But when the two debaters are the world's most famous recent Roman Catholic convert in the shape of Tony Blair and the charismatic yet cancer-stricken sceptic Christopher Hitchens suddenly it becomes easier to sell tickets.
Two thousand seven hundred tickets to be precise. For that was the size of the crowd that packed the space age-looking Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto late last night to watch the two ideological foes – when it comes to religion – spar and trade verbal blows.
The occasion was part of the Munk Debate series, organised by the Aurea Foundation group, and the motion was simply: “Be it resolved, religion is a force for good in the world”.
Both men were unabashedly stalwart in their positions. Hitchens, one of the leading “new atheists” and author of the hit book God Is Not Great, slammed religion as nothing more than supernatural gobbledegook that caused untold misery throughout human history. “Once you assume a creator and a plan it make us subjects in a cruel experiment,” Hitchens said before causing widespread laughter by comparing God to “a kind of divine North Korea”.
From The New York Times:
ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — It is an audacious experiment: two small, oil-rich countries in the Middle East are using architecture and art to reshape their national identities virtually overnight, and in the process to redeem the tarnished image of Arabs abroad while showing the way toward a modern society within the boundaries of Islam. Here, on a barren island on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi, workers have dug the foundations for three colossal museums: an $800 million Frank Gehry-designed branch of the Guggenheim 12 times the size of its New York flagship; a half-billion-dollar outpost of the Louvre by Jean Nouvel; and a showcase for national history by Foster & Partners, the design for which was unveiled on Thursday. And plans are moving ahead for yet another museum, about maritime history, to be designed by Tadao Ando.
Nearly 200 miles across the Persian Gulf, Doha, the capital of Qatar, has been mapping out its own extravagant cultural vision. A Museum of Islamic Art, a bone-white I. M. Pei-designed temple, opened in 2008 and dazzled the international museum establishment. In December the government will open a museum of modern Arab art with a collection that spans the mid-19th-century to the present. Construction has just begun on a museum of Qatari history, also by Mr. Nouvel, and the design for a museum of Orientalist art by the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron is to be made public next year. To a critic traveling through the region, the speed at which museums are being built in Abu Dhabi — and the international brand names attached to some of them — conjured culture-flavored versions of the overwrought real-estate spectacles that famously shaped its fellow emirate, Dubai. By contrast, Doha’s vision seemed a more calculated attempt to find a balance between modernization and Islam.
5. The INS rejects the Enlightenment’s version of time: of time as progress, a line growing stronger and clearer as it runs from past to future. This version is tied into a narrative of transcendence: in the Hegelian system, of Aufhebung, in which thought and matter ascend to the realm of spirit as the projects of philosophy and art perfect themselves. Against this totalizing (we would say, totalitarian) idealist vision, we pit counter-Hegelians like Georges Bataille, who inverts this upward movement, miring spirit in the trough of base materialism. Or Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, who, hearing the moronic poet Russel claim that “art has to reveal to us ideas, formless spiritual essences,” pictures Platonists crawling through Blake’s buttocks to eternity, and silently retorts: “Hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges to the past.” 6. To phrase it in more directly political terms: the INS rejects the idea of the future, which is always the ultimate trump card of dominant socioeconomic narratives of progress. As our Chief Philosopher Simon Critchley has recently argued, the neoliberal versions of capitalism and democracy present themselves as an inevitability, a destiny to whom the future belongs. We resist this ideology of the future, in the name of the sheer radical potentiality of the past, and of the way the past can shape the creative impulses and imaginative landscape of the present. The future of thinking is its past, a thinking which turns its back on the future.
more from the INS at The Believer here.
Just inside the entrance to the National Design Triennial, at the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York, sits the Solvatten, a shiny, black rectangular plastic container resembling an ordinary gasoline canister. Your first reaction upon seeing it might be to wonder why it’s sitting inside a design museum; however, the nondescript package masks world-changing functionality. When the container is set out in the sun, it purifies water — no energy required. It’s not the only unlikely object in the exhibition. Climb the dark, intricately carved wooden staircase to the second floor (the museum is located in Andrew Carnegie’s former mansion, completed in 1902), and you’ll encounter the NeoNurture car parts incubator. As the name suggests, it provides life support for newborn babies, with an enclosure powered by heat-generating car headlights and a motorcycle battery. A replacement for fussy hospital incubators, the NeoNurture is intended for use in developing countries, where it can be repaired with just a little automotive know-how and readily available parts. And for when death finally comes knocking, the room next door holds the Return to Sender Artisan Eco-Casket, which is made from biodegradable bent plywood instead of potentially contaminating wood composites or PVC. As soon as it’s buried, it slowly starts to disintegrate.
more from Tim McKeough at The Walrus here.
First, DeLong in Project Syndicate:
I would confidently lecture only three short years ago that the days when governments could stand back and let the business cycle wreak havoc were over in the rich world. No such government today, I said, could or would tolerate any prolonged period in which the unemployment rate was kissing 10% and inflation was quiescent without doing something major about it.
I was wrong. That is precisely what is happening.
How did we get here? How can the US have a large political movement – the Tea Party – pushing for the hardest of hard-money policies when there is no hard-money lobby with its wealth on the line? How is it that the unemployed, and those who fear they might be the next wave of unemployed, do not register to vote? Why are politicians not terrified of their displeasure?
Economic questions abound, too. Why are the principles of nominal income determination, which I thought largely settled since 1829, now being questioned? Why is the idea, common to John Maynard Keynes, Milton Friedman, Knut Wicksell, Irving Fisher, and Walter Bagehot alike, that governments must intervene strategically in financial markets to stabilize economy-wide spending now a contested one?
It is now clear that the right-wing opponents to the Obama administration’s policies are not objecting to the use of fiscal measures to stabilize nominal spending. They are, instead, objecting to the very idea that government should try to serve a stabilizing macroeconomic role.
Paul Krugman adds, over at his blog:
[W]atching the failure of policy over the past three years, I find myself believing, more and more, that this failure has deep roots – that we were in some sense doomed to go through this. Specifically, I now suspect that the kind of moderate economic policy regime Brad and I both support – a regime that by and large lets markets work, but in which the government is ready both to rein in excesses and fight slumps – is inherently unstable. It’s something that can last for a generation or so, but not much longer.
By “unstable” I don’t just mean Minsky-type financial instability, although that’s part of it. Equally crucial are the regime’s intellectual and political instability.
From The Paris Review:
“This is like Top Chef,” I muttered. I was standing with my boyfriend, Fred, in the D’Agostino’s on Hudson Street, with exactly three hours on the clock until we were due to arrive at David Byrne’s office in Soho bearing a turkey-shaped comestible made by me. I was a participant in the annual Todo Mundo Turkey Competition held by Danielle Spencer, Byrne’s art director, and I had no idea what I was doing. Turkey competition? Let me explain. A few years back, Spencer ordered this mold off the Internet. “It comes with this recipe,” she explained to me last year, “where you can make it look realistic. You make peach Jell-O and add a little green food coloring and condensed milk, and it mixes into a sickly fleshlike substance. It’s absolutely revolting. The only person who would touch it was David.”
Sign me up, I remember telling her. I’ll totally come next year. I have a billion ideas. Whether or not Danielle believed me, my mold arrived in the mail in October. I was confident I’d come up with the perfect molded turkey—the winning molded turkey.
The claim that mysterious dark energy is accelerating the Universe's expansion has been placed on firmer ground, with the successful application of a quirky geometric test proposed more than 30 years ago. The accelerating expansion was first detected in 1998. Astronomers studying Type 1a supernovae, stellar explosions called “standard candles” because of their predictable luminosity, made the incredible discovery that the most distant of these supernovae appear dimmer than would be expected if the Universe were expanding at a constant rate.1 This suggested that some unknown force – subsequently dubbed dark energy – must be working against gravity to blow the universe apart.
Since that time, studies comparing variations in the cosmic microwave background radiation — an echo from the Big Bang — with the distribution of galaxies today have allowed cosmologists to trace how the Universe has expanded, supporting the idea of dark energy. They have also suggested that the Universe is 'flat' — that is, it contains just enough matter to keep it delicately poised between collapsing in on itself and expanding forever2. These two assumptions have become a fundamental part of cosmologists' understanding of the Universe. Now Christian Marinoni and Adeline Buzzi of the Centre for Theoretical Physics at the University of Provence in Marseilles, France, have independently checked these ideas by analysing the geometry of orbiting pairs of galaxies. Their study is published this week in Nature3. The researchers used a version of the Alcock–Paczynski test, which relies on identifying symmetrical objects in space and using them as 'standard spheres'. Any distortions in space caused by the expansion of the cosmos would cause the most distant standard spheres to appear asymmetrical. “This provides a similar level of accuracy to supernovae,” says Marinoni. “It's a direct proof of dark energy.”
I Live, I Die, I Burn, I Drown
I live, I die, I burn, I drown
I endure at once chill and cold
Life is at once too soft and too hard
I have sore troubles mingled with joys
Suddenly I laugh and at the same time cry
And in pleasure many a grief endure
My happiness wanes and yet it lasts unchanged
All at once I dry up and grow green
Thus I suffer love's inconstancies
And when I think the pain is most intense
Without thinking, it is gone again.
Then when I feel my joys certain
And my hour of greatest delight arrived
I find my pain beginning all over once again.
by Delmira Agustini
Graeme Wood in The National:
Researchers recently announced that what was thought to be the most arid place known to man might actually be wet enough to support life. Just one small truckload of its soil, they say, can support the drinking, cooking, and showering needs of a person for a day, as long as you are willing to spend the energy needed to wring the water out of the dirt that conceals it.
This surprisingly wet place is, of course, the moon. Residents of the Arabian Peninsula are in some ways in a more precarious situation. There is not a single river or lake in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and the factories that clean salt water consume massive amounts of energy, even though they are barely enough to meet the needs of the population. If these desalination plants were to shut down, Saudi Arabia would begin to die of thirst within days.
Toby Craig Jones's new book about the kingdom examines the Saudi state's relationship to water and oil, the twin resources that are its blessing and its curse (or, according to some, its two curses). Jones argues that Saudi ruling classes hold their inherently fragile state together through a strict and bold programme that manages these two substances. In Saudi Arabia, more so than in almost any other place on earth, the business of the state is the control of nature, because to control nature is to control people.
Richard J. Eskow in Campaign for America's Future:
Before everybody starts shouting about the foolish choices the public keeps making — Tea Parties and Republican victories, or that lame fashion trend of wearing tights without any pants, or the fact that Dollhouse got cancelled but Dancing With the Stars is still popular — listen to this:
The American public would rather raise taxes on the wealthy than cut Social Security. They want to protect Medicare from future cuts and ensure that the college loan program remains intact. They think Congress should focus on creating jobs and fixing the economy, and deal with deficit spending later. They'd rather see politicians support a “made in America” program than vote for more free trade. They want to see significant investment in infrastructure and want to end tax break for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans.
And that's not all. By enormous majorities, the public want to do more to reign in Wall Street, spend more to end poverty, and ensure that everyone has access to health care. When it comes to the issues, this country is overwhelmingly progressive, overwhelmingly pro-government, and overwhelmingly in favor of doing the things we need to do to build a better society.
But wait, as the late night TV ads say. That's not all. The public's preferred prescription for the nation — higher taxes for the wealthy, more infrastructure spending, preserved or expanded social programs, reigning in the bankers who wrecked the economy — is exactly what most economists think is needed to improve our financial picture. Once in a while that “wisdom of crowds” thing works. Now that's something to be grateful for.
Cory Doctorow in The Guardian:
A recurring question in discussions of digital copyright is how creators and their investors (that is, labels, movie studios, publishers, etc) will earn a living in the digital era.
But though I've had that question posed to me thousands of times, no one has ever said which creators and which investors are to earn a living, and what constitutes “a living”.
Copyright is in tremendous flux at the moment; governments all over the world are considering what their copyright systems should look like in the 21st century, and it's probably a good idea to nail down what we want copyright to do. Otherwise the question “Is copyright working?” becomes as meaningless as “How long is a piece of string?”
Let's start by saying that there is only one regulation that would provide everyone who wants to be an artist with a middle-class income. It's a very simple rule: “If you call yourself an artist, the government will pay you £40,000 a year until you stop calling yourself an artist.”
Short of this wildly unlikely regulation, full employment in the arts is a beautiful and improbable dream. Certainly, no copyright system can attain this. If copyright is to have winners and losers, then let's start talking about who we want to see winning, and what victory should be.
More here. [Thanks to Kris Kotarski.]
Luke Burns in McSweeney's:
Q: Do I have to kill the snake?
A: University guidelines state that you have to “defeat” the snake. There are many ways to accomplish this. Lots of students choose to wrestle the snake. Some construct decoys and elaborate traps to confuse and then ensnare the snake. One student brought a flute and played a song to lull the snake to sleep. Then he threw the snake out a window.
Q: Does everyone fight the same snake?
A: No. You will fight one of the many snakes that are kept on campus by the facilities department.
Q: Are the snakes big?
A: We have lots of different snakes. The quality of your work determines which snake you will fight. The better your thesis is, the smaller the snake will be.
Q: Does my thesis adviser pick the snake?
A: No. Your adviser just tells the guy who picks the snakes how good your thesis was.
Q: What does it mean if I get a small snake that is also very strong?
A: Snake-picking is not an exact science. The size of the snake is the main factor. The snake may be very strong, or it may be very weak. It may be of Asian, African, or South American origin. It may constrict its victims and then swallow them whole, or it may use venom to blind and/or paralyze its prey. You shouldn't read too much into these other characteristics. Although if you get a poisonous snake, it often means that there was a problem with the formatting of your bibliography.
Q: When and where do I fight the snake? Does the school have some kind of pit or arena for snake fights?
A: You fight the snake in the room you have reserved for your defense…
More here. [Thanks to Amitava Kumar.]
Johann Hari in his own blog:
Why are the world's governments bothering? Why are they jetting to Cancun next week to discuss what to do now about global warming? The vogue has passed. The fad has faded. Global warming is yesterday's apocalypse. Didn't somebody leak an email that showed it was all made up? Doesn't it sometimes snow in the winter? Didn't Al Gore get fat, or molest a masseur, or something?
Alas, the biosphere doesn't read Vogue. Nobody thought to tell it that global warming is so 2007. All it knows is three facts. 2010 is globally the hottest year since records began. 2010 is the year humanity's emissions of planet-warming gases reached its highest level ever. And exactly as the climate scientists predicted, we are seeing a rapid increase in catastrophic weather events, from the choking of Moscow by gigantic unprecedented forest fires to the drowning of one quarter of Pakistan.
Before the Great Crash of 2008, the people who warned about the injection of huge destabilizing risk into our financial system seemed like arcane, anal bores. Now we all sit in the rubble and wish we had listened. The great ecological crash will be worse, because nature doesn't do bailouts.
That's what Cancun should be about – surveying the startling scientific evidence, and developing an urgent plan to change course. The Antarctic – which locks of 90 percent of the world's ice – has now seen eight of its ice shelves fully or partially collapse. The world's most distinguished climate scientists, after recording like this, say we will face a three to six feet rise in sea level this century. That means the drowning of London, Bangkok, Venice, Cairo and Shanghai, and entire countries like Bangladesh and the Maldives.
And that's just one effect of the way we are altering the chemical composition of the atmosphere. Perhaps the most startling news story of the year passed almost unnoticed. Plant plankton are tiny creatures that live in the oceans and carry out a job you and I depend on to stay alive.
Christopher Hitchens in Slate:
Now we read that, in return for just 90 days of Israeli lenience on new settlement-building (this brief pause or “freeze” not to include the crucial precincts of East Jerusalem), Netanyahu is being enticed with “a package of security incentives and fighter jets worth $3 billion” and a promise that the United States government would veto any Palestinian counterproposal at the United Nations. Netanyahu, while graciously considering this offer, was initially reported as being unsure whether he “could win approval for the United States deal from his Cabinet.” In other words, we must wait on the pleasure of Rabbi Yosef and Ministers Atias, Yishai, and Lieberman, who have the unusual ability to threaten Netanyahu from his right wing.
This is a national humiliation. Regardless of whether that bunch of clowns and thugs and racists “approve” of the Obama/Clinton grovel offer, there should be a unanimous demand that it be withdrawn.
The mathematics of the situation must be evident even to the meanest intelligence. In order for any talk of a two-state outcome to be even slightly realistic, there needs to be territory on which the second state can be built, or on which the other nation living in Palestine can govern itself. The aim of the extreme Israeli theocratic and chauvinist parties is plain and undisguised: Annex enough land to make this solution impossible, and either expel or repress the unwanted people. The policy of Netanyahu is likewise easy to read: Run out the clock by demanding concessions for something he has already agreed to in principle, appease the ultras he has appointed to his own government, and wait for a chance to blame Palestinian reaction for the inevitable failure.