From The Independent:
In my first year at Columbia University in New York, I met Sudeep, the only other Indian in my batch. This was in 1994. He told me he lived in a place called Churchgate, which I recognised from the Monopoly boardgame marked with Bombay names that I had owned as a boy (“Lower Parel” was right next to “Jail”: the association lingers). Sudeep and I went to Satyajit Ray films at the Lincoln Centre Theatre; he claimed his Bengali grandmother had been involved in the making of Pather Panchali.From him I formed my idea of the Bombay elite. Though he had been to Cathedral, apparently a posh school, his grades at Columbia were not particularly good; I thought they were disgraceful for an Indian. But he knew what he wanted in life; he had balance and moderation, rarer gifts of culture that were not part of my nervous small-town upbringing. I sensed that he would be a happier man than I ever would.
At Oxford University, where I studied from 1997 to 1999, I met another man from Mumbai, a rich lawyer's son who had a chipped tooth and nasty, winning ways with women: we took an instant dislike to each other. Boastful, proud of his status, obscenely well-connected, he seemed to me the incarnation of old money, old privilege, and old stupidity – the living reason that people like me from small towns had to leave India. There must be a whole caste of men like this in Mumbai, I thought, sipping gin-and-tonic and sucking the country dry. The two of them, the balanced Bengali boy and the lawyer's son with the broken tooth, haunted me for years; and I think I returned to India in 2003 to find these two men here. Make me a gentler, happier person like Sudeep, I used to pray to God, and let me also give that lawyer's son a good thump on the head. Contradictory goals, but both were somehow connected to the idea of living in Mumbai.
Ideas for scientific experiments come from all sorts of places (and fewer of them originate in the lab than you might think). A study on political orientation and brain structure, published in Current Biology, for example, got its start when the actor Colin Firth—credited as a co-author on the paper—was guest-editing a BBC Radio 4 program called “Today.” “This struck me as an opportunity to explore things which compel me…but about which I’m perhaps not sufficiently informed,” he told host Justin Webb. “I…decided to find out what was biologically wrong with people who don’t agree with me and see what scientists had to say about it.” Or to put it a bit more nicely, to see if the brains of people with different political leanings were truly different.
Ryota Kanai and Geraint Rees of University College London took that idea and ran with it. They performed MRI scans of 90 college students who had been asked about their political attitudes, and then looked at various structures in the brain. They found that a greater amount of gray matter in the anterior cingulate cortex was associated with liberalism and a greater amount in the amygdala was associated with conservatism. They confirmed the finding in a second set of 28 participants. These findings are consistent with previous studies showing greater brain activity in the anterior cingulate cortex of liberals. One of the jobs of that area of the brain is to monitor uncertainty and conflicts. “Thus, it is conceivable that individuals with a larger ACC have a higher capacity to tolerate uncertainty and conflicts, allowing them to accept more liberal views,” the scientists write.
Ezra Pound's Proposition
Beauty is sexual, and sexuality
Here is more or less how it works:
by Robert Hass
Beauty is sexual, and sexuality
Is the fertility of the earth and the fertility
Of the earth is economics. Though he is no recommendation
For poets on the subject of finance,
I thought of him in the thick heat
Of the Bangkok night. Not more than fourteen, she saunters up to you
Outside the Shangri-la Hotel
And says, in plausible English,
“How about a party, big guy?”
Here is more or less how it works:
The World Bank arranges the credit and the dam
Floods three hundred villages, and the villagers find their way
To the city where their daughters melt into the teeming streets,
And the dam’s great turbines, beautifully tooled
In Lund or Dresden or Detroit, financed
By Lazard Frères in Paris or the Morgan Bank in New York,
Enabled by judicious gifts from Bechtel of San Francisco
Or Halliburton of Houston to the local political elite,
Spun by the force of rushing water,
Have become hives of shimmering silver
And, down river, they throw that bluish throb of light
Across her cheekbones and her lovely skin.
by Robert Hass
from Time and Materials. Poems 1997-2005
Ecco (HarperCollins Publishers), New York, © 2007
Christopher Hitchens in Vanity Fair:
Salman Rushdie’s upsettingly brilliant psycho-profile of Pakistan, in his 1983 novel, Shame, rightly laid emphasis on the crucial part played by sexual repression in the Islamic republic. And that was before the Talibanization of Afghanistan, and of much of Pakistan, too. Let me try to summarize and update the situation like this: Here is a society where rape is not a crime. It is a punishment. Women can be sentenced to be raped, by tribal and religious kangaroo courts, if even a rumor of their immodesty brings shame on their menfolk. In such an obscenely distorted context, the counterpart term to shame—which is the noble word “honor”—becomes most commonly associated with the word “killing.” Moral courage consists of the willingness to butcher your own daughter.
If the most elemental of human instincts becomes warped in this bizarre manner, other morbid symptoms will disclose themselves as well. Thus, President Asif Ali Zardari cringes daily in front of the forces who openly murdered his wife, Benazir Bhutto, and who then contemptuously ordered the crime scene cleansed with fire hoses, as if to spit even on the pretense of an investigation. A man so lacking in pride—indeed lacking in manliness—will seek desperately to compensate in other ways. Swelling his puny chest even more, he promises to resist the mighty United States, and to defend Pakistan’s holy “sovereignty.” This puffery and posing might perhaps possess a rag of credibility if he and his fellow middlemen were not avidly ingesting $3 billion worth of American subsidies every year.
Tony Rothman in American Scientist:
Physics is the most fundamental of the natural sciences; it explains Nature at its deepest level; the edifice it strives to construct is all-encompassing, free of internal contradictions, conceptually compelling and—above all—beautiful. The range of phenomena physics has explained is more than impressive; it underlies the whole of modern civilization. Nevertheless, as a physicist travels along his (in this case) career, the hairline cracks in the edifice become more apparent, as does the dirt swept under the rug, the fudges and the wholesale swindles, with the disconcerting result that the totality occasionally appears more like Bruegel’s Tower of Babel as dreamt by a modern slumlord, a ramshackle structure of compartmentalized models soldered together into a skewed heap of explanations as the whole jury-rigged monstrosity tumbles skyward.
Of course many grand issues remain unresolved at the frontiers of physics: What is the origin of inertia? Are there extra dimensions? Can a Theory of Everything exist? But even at the undergraduate level, far back from the front lines, deep holes exist; yet the subject is presented as one of completeness while the holes—let us say abysses—are planked over in order to camouflage the danger. It seems to me that such an approach is both intellectually dishonest and fails to stimulate the habits of inquiry and skepticism that science is meant to engender.
Amitava Kumar in bookslut:
I’m not much of a sentence man myself, although I wish I were, but I have a notion that those who are usually express their fetish by quoting first sentences from novels. (“Call me Ishmael.” “ It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” “A screaming comes across the sky.” “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.” Etc.) In his new book, How to Write A Sentence, literary critic Stanley Fish devotes a chapter to first sentences and another to last sentences, but his taste isn’t reducible to a vulgar fetishism.
Like all academics, Fish also wants to understand. Part formalist, part forensic reader, he is interested in drawing our attention to a wide range of sentences and then explaining to us why they work. Here’s an early example from Fish: John Updike’s sentence telling us of the home run hit by Ted Williams in his last at bat in Fenway Park in September, 1960: “It was in the books while it was still in the sky.” This is part of what Fish has to say about what makes the depiction of that instant so effective in this sentence:
…he confers that mythical status on the moment before it is completed, before the ball actually goes out of the park. Indeed, in his sentence the ball never gets out of the park. It is “still in the sky,” a phrase that has multiple meanings; the ball is still in the sky in the sense that it has not yet landed; it is still in the sky in the sense that its motion is arrested; and it is still in the sky in the sense that it is, and will remain forever, in the sky of the books, in the record of the game’s highest, most soaring achievements. On the surface, “in the book” and “in the sky” are in distinct registers, one referring to the monumentality the home run will acquire in history, the other describing the ball’s actual physical arc; but the registers are finally, and indeed immediately (this sentence goes fast), the same: the physical act and its transformation into myth occur simultaneously; or rather, that is what Updike makes us feel as we glide through this deceptively simple sentence composed entirely of monosyllables.
You, dear teacher, could use the above passage to teach your undergrad to slow down and appreciate what he or she had just read. But Fish’s aim is more specific and goes further: he wants your student try to write a perfect sentence. To write a sentence like Updike’s, your student will have to take note of the form and imitate it by “arranging clauses in somewhat the same way.” Fish is upbeat about the results, including his own, and quite encouraging: “And once you get the hang of it — of zeroing in on a form that can then be filled with any number of contents — you can do it forever.”
My son and I represent two generations of X-fans. I came of age in the ’80s and ’90s and can still recall when Xavier’s students were lords of the Underground, and the phrase “comic book movie” conjured absurd images of David Hasselhoff donning an eye patch. The boy is of the present era, where the geeks and nerds throne and Hollywood is compelled to seriously contemplate the cinematic potential of B-listers Namor, Luke Cage and Ant-Man. Still, we were united across the ages in our love for the X-Men — patron-saints of the persecuted and the champions of freaks and pariahs across the globe.
In print, the X-Men are an elite team culled from a superpowered species of human. The mutants, as they are dubbed, are generally handled roughly by the rest of humanity and singled out for everything from enslavement to internment camps to genocide. As if to ram the allegory home, the X-Men, for much of their history, have hailed from across the spectrum of human existence. Over the decades, there have been gay X-Men, patrician X-Men, Jewish X-Men, Aboriginal X-Men, black X-Men with silver mohawks, X-Men hailing from Russia, Kentucky coal country, orphanages and a nightmarish future.
But as “First Class” roars to its final climatic scene, it appeals to an insidious suspension of disbelief; the heroic mutants of America, bravely opposing bigotry and fear, are revealed as not so much a spectrum of humankind, but as Eagle Scouts from Mayfield. Thus, “First Class” proves itself not merely an incredible film, but an incredible work of American historical fiction. Here is a period piece for our postracial times — in the era of Ella Baker and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the most powerful adversaries of spectacular apartheid are a team of enlightened white dudes.
In The Telegraph:
The artist, whose full name was Maqbool Fida Husain but who was popularly known as “MF”, began his career in the 1940s as a poster artist for the Bollywood film industry. He rose to prominence after Independence and was later hailed as “India’s Picasso”. His paintings and drawings are eagerly sought by India’s new rich, and in 2005 he became the first living Indian artist to command $1 million for a painting. In early 2008, his Battle of Ganga and Jamuna: Mahabharata 12, a large diptych, fetched $1.6 million, setting a world record at a sale of South Asian Modern and Contemporary Art at Christie’s, New York.
Husain was a master of vibrant colour and dynamic movement, and his boldly-drawn, figurative compositions, often featuring horses or women, bore the clear influence of artists such as Chagall and Kandinsky, but combined western modernism with classical Indian folk art traditions. In India no fewer than four museums are dedicated to his work and, though less well known outside India, from the 1950s his work was widely exhibited in Europe and America. In 2008 the Serpentine Gallery included several of his paintings in an exhibition of modern Indian artists.
Husain’s reputation was undoubtedly enhanced by his striking, ascetic looks and his mild eccentricity. With his free-flowing white beard and hair, unshod feet peeping out beneath impeccably-tailored Hermes suits, and “baton” (an oversized paintbrush modelled on a type devised by Matisse), he cut an instantly recognisable figure in India’s art world. His gentle, softly-spoken, watchful manner commanded attention and respect.
In India, he was seldom out of the news. There was a story of how once, being chauffeured to the airport to catch an international flight from Calcutta, he suddenly ordered his driver to pull over. Stepping from the car, Husain settled himself under a nearby tree for a relaxing afternoon nap. Duly missing his flight, he returned to Calcutta, apparently unperturbed. Throughout the Nineties, Indian public life was enlivened by accounts of his obsession with the Bollywood star Madhuri Dixit (aka India’s “Oomph Queen’’), whom he adopted as his muse and featured in a film, Gaja Gamini, which he financed himself to the tune of £2 million.
Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science:
Erez Lieberman Aiden is a talkative witty fellow, who will bend your ear on any number of intellectual topics. Just don’t ask him what he does. “This is actually the most difficult question that I run into on a regular basis,” he says. “I really don’t have anything for that.”
It is easy to understand why. Aiden is a scientist, yes, but while most of his peers stay within a specific field – say, neuroscience or genetics – Aiden crosses them with almost casual abandon. His research has taken him across molecular biology, linguistics, physics, engineering and mathematics. He was the man behind last year’s “culturomics” study, where he looked at the evolution of human culture through the lens of four per cent of all the books ever published. Before that, he solved the three-dimensional structure of the human genome, studied the mathematics of verbs, and invented an insole called the iShoe that can diagnose balance problems in elderly people. “I guess I just view myself as a scientist,” he says.
His approach stands in stark contrast to the standard scientific career: find an area of interest and become increasingly knowledgeable about it. Instead of branching out from a central speciality, Aiden is interested in ‘interdisciplinary’ problems that cross the boundaries of different disciplines. His approach is nomadic. He moves about, searching for ideas that will pique his curiosity, extend his horizons, and hopefully make a big impact. “I don’t view myself as a practitioner of a particular skill or method,” he tells me. “I’m constantly looking at what’s the most interesting problem that I could possibly work on. I really try to figure out what sort of scientist I need to be in order to solve the problem I’m interested in solving.”
It’s a philosophy that has paid dividends. At just 31 years of age, Aiden has a joint lab at MIT and Harvard.
God The Unbeliever
God! Tell me the truth!
God! Oh God!
by Nazih Abou Afach
© Translation: 2011, John Peate
God! Tell me the truth!
My enemies say:
“Everybody wants . . .” and so on.
And my enemies’ enemies say:
“Everybody wants . . .” and so on.
As for me, since you created all of them and all of them,
I still – being assured of your integrity and justness –
Raise my hand
Like a schoolchild threatened with expulsion,
But, without end,
Getting no one’s permission to say a thing.
God! Oh God!
God of the worms, the vegetation, the cattle and the creatures that weep
Have you been mocking me, perhaps?! . .
What everybody says means that there’s an “everybody” which is right
And another “everybody” which is also right.
What everybody says means that I don’t exist.
What everybody says means that nobody except everybody exists.
What they say means
That you’ve been mocking me.
by Nazih Abou Afach
from Dam’u Al-Yamaam (The Dove’s Tear; forthcoming)
© Translation: 2011, John Peate
First published on PIW, 2011
The title of “Confessions of a Young Novelist,” Umberto Eco's new book , is characteristically sly. Eco is not exactly wet behind the ears — he will turn 80 next year — but as he reminds the reader on the first page, he did not publish his first novel, “The Name of the Rose,” until 1980. “Thus,” he explains, “I consider myself a very young novelist, who has so far published only five novels and will publish many more in the next fifty years.” That seems unlikely, but you wouldn't want to bet against Eco. After all, “The Name of the Rose” — a debut novel by a middle-aged academic, packed with medieval history and intricate literary allusions — wouldn't have been anyone's pick to become a bestseller. In fact, Eco writes, “the first critics who reviewed [it] said it had been written under the influence of a luminous inspiration, but that, because of its conceptual and linguistic difficulties, it was only for the happy few. When the book met with remarkable success, selling millions of copies, the same critics wrote that in order to concoct such a popular and entertaining bestseller, I had no doubt mechanically followed a secret recipe.”
From Scientific American:
X-Men: First Class, like earlier movies in the series, repeatedly invokes the idea that its mutants and humans are engaged in an evolutionary struggle for dominance like the one between humans and Neandertals thousands of years ago. Professor Xavier and Magneto talk about the Neandertals having resentfully looked at the superior new species moving in, and the moderns having displaced and slaughtered the older species. At least this movie has the excuse of being set in 1962, when such ideas about human evolution were more common. Neandertals were then typically portrayed as a species of mentally inferior brutes who could not compete with the smarter, more technologically and culturally advanced Homo sapiens who evolved later.
But today, the paleoanthropological picture of the relations between Neandertals and modern humans is completely different. Skeletal reconstructions show that Neandertals had brains larger than our own, and archaeological digs reveal that they had a distinct culture but sometimes used some of the same tools that our ancestors did. Indeed, studies published in 2010 by Svante Pääbo's group at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig concluded that several percent of non-African people’s genes came from Neandertals, so Neandertals may not even have been a species apart. Most important, little evidence supports the idea that Neandertals and modern humans were in much open conflict. During the last ice age, Neandertals may simply have fared poorly and gone extinct largely on their own, with modern humans later occupying their old territories and perhaps breeding with some stragglers. One recent controversial study has even suggested that Neandertals were essentially gone from Europe by 40,000 years ago, thousands of years before modern humans arrived. In any case, Professor X and Magneto had it wrong.
Andrea Kuszewski in Scientific American:
Chess-boxing is divided into eleven short, rapidly rotating rounds—six four-minute rounds of speed chess, alternated with five three-minute rounds of boxing. Winning is achieved by KO, checkmate, or in the case of a draw, points determine the winner.
The idea of performing at such a high physical level (boxing) as well as a high mental level (chess) seems arduous enough. But it isn’t just the physical effort plus the mental effort of the two sports combined that makes it especially daunting—it’s the constant alternating back and forth between the two that’s the real challenge.
What is it about the alternating rounds that make this so intensely demanding? Interestingly, the answer lies largely in emotion regulation. The strength of a world-class boxer, and the high rank of a chess player are of no use if a player lacks the one all-important skill—his ability to effectively regulate his emotions in order to maintain cognitive control.
For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For is this done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his fore-paws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the fore-paws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For Sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For Seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For Eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
For Ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For Tenthly he goes in quest of food.
For having consider'd God and himself he will consider his neighbour.
For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.
For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it chance.
For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying.
For when his day's work is done his business more properly begins.
For he keeps the Lord's watch in the night against the adversary.
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.
For in his morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him.
For he is of the tribe of Tiger.
For the Cherub Cat is a term of the Angel Tiger.
For he has the subtlety and hissing of a serpent, which in goodness he suppresses.
For he will not do destruction, if he is well-fed, neither will he spit without provocation.
For he purrs in thankfulness, when God tells him he's a good Cat.
For he is an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon.
For every house is incompleat without him and a blessing is lacking in the spirit.
For the Lord commanded Moses concerning the cats at the departure of the Children of Israel from Egypt.
For every family had one cat at least in the bag.
For the English Cats are the best in Europe.
For he is the cleanest in the use of his fore-paws of any quadrupede.
For the dexterity of his defence is an instance of the love of God to him exceedingly.
For he is the quickest to his mark of any creature.
For he is tenacious of his point.
For he is a mixture of gravity and waggery.
For he knows that God is his Saviour.
For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest.
For there is nothing brisker than his life when in motion.
For he is of the Lord's poor and so indeed is he called by benevolence perpetually —
Poor Jeoffry! poor Jeoffry! the rat has bit thy throat.
For I bless the name of the Lord Jesus that Jeoffry is better.
For the divine spirit comes about his body to sustain it in compleat cat.
For his tongue is exceeding pure so that it has in purity what it wants in musick.
For he is docile and can learn certain things.
For he can set up with gravity which is patience upon approbation.
For he can fetch and carry, which is patience in employment.
For he can jump over a stick which is patience upon proof positive.
For he can spraggle upon waggle at the word of command.
For he can jump from an eminence into his master's bosom.
For he can catch the cork and toss it again.
For he is hated by the hypocrite and miser.
For the former is affraid of detection.
For the latter refuses the charge.
For he camels his back to bear the first notion of business.
For he is good to think on, if a man would express himself neatly,
For he made a great figure in Egypt for his signal services.
For he killed the Ichneumon-rat very pernicious by land.
For his ears are so acute that they sting again.
For from this proceeds the passing quickness of his attention.
For by stroaking of him I have found out electricity.
For I perceived God's light about him both wax and fire.
For the Electrical fire is the spiritual substance,
which God sends from heaven to sustain the bodies both of man and beast.
For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements.
For, though he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer.
For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadrupede.
For he can tread to all the measures upon the musick.
For he can swim for life.
For he can creep.
by Christopher Smart (1722 – 1771) [Thanks to Jeff Strabone.]
Benjamin S Nelson in The Philosopher's Magazine:
Atheism and agnosticism. If you ask some people, atheism is just a sexed up version of agnosticism. After all, atheism is about what you believe (or don’t believe), and agnosticism is about what you know (or don’t) — so when we say that we’re atheists, we’re just putting accent on the fact that God is really really really super unlikely. But others will say that atheism and agnosticism are perfect companions. They’ll tell you that agnosticism is just a closeted form of atheism. After all (they’ll say), since agnostics dislike being called ‘theists’, they must be atheists — the one position collapses into the other.
To see an example of this contrast in action, consider the views of Bertrand Russell and Anthony Grayling. Russell argued for atheism in public, and only called himself an agnostic among philosophers. That’s because he thinks there’s a significant gulf between atheism and agnosticism. By contrast, in a difficult-to-parse exchange with Jerry Coyne, Anthony Grayling begged to differ — an agnostic is either an atheist, or just plain irrational.
Grayling does himself a disservice by repeatedly claiming that “an assimilation of proof concerning matters of fact to proof of the demonstrative kind”, when that doesn’t really seem to be exactly what’s going on. This post is going to be my attempt to make sense of what Grayling is up to, and an argument about why he hasn’t got it right.
This fight comes down to a complaint in the theory of knowledge. Grayling’s claim is that Russell tacitly bases the distinction between atheism and agnosticism on “a quibble about proof”.
Joshua Knobe in the NYT:
Mark Pierpont used to be an important figure in the evangelical Christian effort to help “cure” gay people of their homosexual desires. He started out just printing up tracts and handing them out in gay bars, but his ministry grew over time, and eventually he was traveling the world and speaking to crowds that sometimes numbered in the thousands. There was just one problem. Mark Pierpont himself was gay. He continued to feel sexual desires toward other men and was constantly engaged in an effort to suppress them. In the documentary film “Protagonist,” Pierpont movingly describes his inner conflict, saying that he sometimes felt an almost physical revulsion at his own desires and would then think: “Good. I hate this. I hate sin, just like God hates sin.”
Faced with a case like this one, we might be tempted to give Pierpont some simple advice. We might tell him that what he really needs to do is just look deep within and be true to himself. Indeed, this advice has become a ubiquitous refrain. It can be found in high art and literature (Polonius’s “To thine own self be true”), in catchy pop songs (Madonna’s “Express Yourself”) and in endless advertisements for self-help programs and yoga retreats (“Unlock your soul; become your authentic self”). It is, perhaps, one of the distinctive ideals of modern life.
Yet, though there is a great deal of consensus on the importance of this ideal, there is far less agreement about what it actually tells us to do in any concrete situation. Consider again the case of Mark Pierpont. One person might look at his predicament and say: “Deep down, he has always wanted to be with another man, but he somehow picked up from society the idea that this desire was immoral or forbidden. If he could only escape the shackles of his religious beliefs, he would be able to fully express the person he really is.”
But then another person could look at exactly the same case and arrive at the very opposite conclusion…
Glenn Greenwald in Salon:
There are few things more sickening — or revealing — to behold than a D.C. sex scandal. Huge numbers of people prance around flamboyantly condemning behavior in which they themselves routinely engage. Media stars contrive all sorts of high-minded justifications for luxuriating in every last dirty detail, when nothing is more obvious than that their only real interest is vicarious titillation. Reporters who would never dare challenge powerful political figures who torture, illegally eavesdrop, wage illegal wars or feed at the trough of sleazy legalized bribery suddenly walk upright — like proud peacocks with their feathers extended — pretending to be hard-core adversarial journalists as they collectively kick a sexually humiliated figure stripped of all importance. The ritual is as nauseating as it is predictable.
What makes the Anthony Weiner story somewhat unique and thus worth discussing for a moment is that, as Hendrik Hertzberg points out, the pretense of substantive relevance (which, lame though it was in prior scandals, was at least maintained) has been more or less brazenly dispensed with here. This isn't a case of illegal sex activity or gross hypocrisy (i.e., David Vitter, Larry Craig, Mark Foley (who built their careers on Family Values) or Eliot Spitzer (who viciously prosecuted trivial prostitution cases)). There's no lying under oath (Clinton) or allegedly illegal payments (Ensign, Edwards). From what is known, none of the women claim harassment and Weiner didn't even have actual sex with any of them. This is just pure mucking around in the private, consensual, unquestionably legal private sexual affairs of someone for partisan gain, voyeuristic fun and the soothing fulfillment of judgmental condemnation. And in that regard, it sets a new standard: the private sexual activities of public figures — down to the most intimate details — are now inherently newsworthy, without the need for any pretense of other relevance.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Mark Blyth in Foreign Affairs (photo from Wikipedia):
Why is surprise the permanent condition of the U.S. political and economic elite? In 2007-8, when the global ﬁnancial system imploded, the cry that no one could have seen this coming was heard everywhere, despite the existence of numerous analyses showing that a crisis was unavoidable. It is no surprise that one hears precisely the same response today regarding the current turmoil in the Middle East. The critical issue in both cases is the artiﬁcial suppression of volatility — the ups and downs of life — in the name of stability. It is both misguided and dangerous to push unobserved risks further into the statistical tails of the probability distribution of outcomes and allow these high-impact, low-probability “tail risks” to disappear from policymakers' ﬁelds of observation. What the world is witnessing in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya is simply what happens when highly constrained systems explode.
Complex systems that have artificially suppressed volatility tend to become extremely fragile, while at the same time exhibiting no visible risks. In fact, they tend to be too calm and exhibit minimal variability as silent risks accumulate beneath the surface. Although the stated intention of political leaders and economic policymakers is to stabilize the system by inhibiting fluctuations, the result tends to be the opposite. These artiﬁcially constrained systems become prone to “Black Swans” — that is, they become extremely vulnerable to large-scale events that lie far from the statistical norm and were largely unpredictable to a given set of observers.
Such environments eventually experience massive blowups, catching everyone off-guard and undoing years of stability or, in some cases, ending up far worse than they were in their initial volatile state. Indeed, the longer it takes for the blowup to occur, the worse the resulting harm in both economic and political systems.
Seeking to restrict variability seems to be good policy (who does not prefer stability to chaos?), so it is with very good intentions that policymakers unwittingly increase the risk of major blowups. And it is the same misperception of the properties of natural systems that led to both the economic crisis of 2007-8 and the current turmoil in the Arab world. The policy implications are identical: to make systems robust, all risks must be visible and out in the open — fluctuat nec mergitur (it fluctuates but does not sink) goes the Latin saying.
Just as a robust economic system is one that encourages early failures (the concepts of “fail small” and “fail fast”), the U.S. government should stop supporting dictatorial regimes for the sake of pseudostability and instead allow political noise to rise to the surface. Making an economy robust in the face of business swings requires allowing risk to be visible; the same is true in politics.