The World of the Intellectual vs. The World of the Engineer

Timothy Ferris in Wired:

Being an intellectual had more to do with fashioning fresh ideas than with finding fresh facts. Facts used to be scarce on the ground anyway, so it was easy to skirt or ignore them while constructing an argument. The wildly popular 18th-century thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose disciples range from Robespierre and Hitler to the anti-vaccination crusaders currently bringing San Francisco to the brink of a public health crisis, built an entire philosophy (nature good, civilization bad) on almost no facts at all. Karl Marx studiously ignored the improving living standards of working-class Londoners — he visited no factories and interviewed not a single worker — while writing Das Kapital, which declared it an “iron law” that the lot of the proletariat must be getting worse. The 20th-century philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend boasted of having lectured on cosmology “without mentioning a single fact.”

Eventually it became fashionable in intellectual circles to assert that there was no such thing as a fact, or at least not an objective fact. Instead, many intellectuals maintained, facts depend on the perspective from which are adduced. Millions were taught as much in schools; many still believe it today.

More here. And here is a reaction from Massimo Pigluicci in Rationally Speaking:

“The world of the intellectual vs the world of the engineer” […] is a quasi incoherent rant about the evils of intellectualisms and the virtues of applied science. Ferris writes, I would argue as an intellectual, in one of the most intellectual of contemporary publications, about how the battle between intellectualism and science-engineering has been waged since the beginning of the printing press. The results are in – science/engineering won hands down – time to close the curtain on intellectualism.

Ferris engages in such a stereotypical piece of anti-intellectualism that Richard Hofstadter (the sociologist who authored the classic Anti-intellectualism in American Life) could have used him as a poster boy. Hofstadter defined anti-intellectualism as “a resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it; and a disposition constantly to minimize the value of that life.” Indeed, Hofstadter even identified the precise category of anti-intellectualism to which Ferris’ rant belongs: instrumentalism, or the idea that only practical knowledge matters and should be cultivated. In America, the attitude traces its roots to the robber barons of the 19th century, as exemplified by the attitude of Andrew Carnegie about classical studies: a waste of “precious years trying to extract education from an ignorant past.”

More here.

Pixar Animator Rethinks Hindu Mythology

Hindudeities4Maria Popova over at Brain Pickings:

What if you could cross The Night Life of Trees, the magical artwork based on Indian mythology, with The Ancient Book of Myth and War, that delightful side project by a team of Pixar animators? You’d get The Little Book of Hindu Deities: From the Goddess of Wealth to the Sacred Cow — an impossibly charming illustrated almanac of gods and goddesses by Pixar animator Sanjay Patel. These beautiful stories from Indian mythology span the entire spectrum of human experience — petty quarrels and epic battles, love and betrayal, happiness and loss — with equal parts humor and respect, pairing each full-color illustration with a lively profile of that deity.

In the book’s introduction, Patel notes his fascination with Japanese animation, which influenced his style in depicting the Hindu deities — a curious case of creative cross-pollination across cultures. For an added smile, Patel originally self-published the book before Plume picked it up.

Is Self-Knowledge Overrated?

DKahnemanMore on Kahneman from Jonah Lehrer in the New Yorker:

[T]here is a subtle optimism lurking in all of Kahneman’s work: it is the hope that self-awareness is a form of salvation, that if we know about our mental mistakes, we can avoid them. One day, we will learn to equally weigh losses and gains; science can help us escape from the cycle of human error. As Kahneman and Tversky noted in the final sentence of their classic 1974 paper, “A better understanding of these heuristics and of the biases to which they lead could improve judgments and decisions in situations of uncertainty.” Unfortunately, such hopes appear to be unfounded. Self-knowledge isn’t a cure for irrationality; even when we know why we stumble, we still find a way to fall.

Consider the story of Harry Markowitz, a Nobel Prize-winning economist who largely invented the field of investment-portfolio theory. By relying on a set of complicated equations, Markowitz was able to calculate the optimal mix of financial assets. (Due to loss-aversion, most investors hold too many low-risk bonds, but Markowitz’s work helped minimize the effect of the bias by mathematizing the decision.) Markowitz, however, was incapable of using his own research, at least when setting up his personal retirement fund. “I should have computed the historical co-variances of the asset classes and drawn an efficient frontier,” Markowitz later confessed. “Instead, I visualized my grief if the stock market … went way down and I was completely in it. My intention was to minimize my future regret. So I split my contributions 50/50 between bonds and equities.”

Football coaches have performed just as badly. Although it’s now clear that their biases have a meaningful impact—a coach immune to loss aversion would win one more game in three seasons out of every four—their collective decision-making hasn’t improved.

This same theme applies to practically all of our thinking errors: self-knowledge is surprisingly useless.

Pakistan Aslant: the two-hour version

Christopher Lydon at Radio Open Source:

LydonHere’s the short form, as we say: nearly a month of strong conversation in Pakistan this past summer, distilled to two radio hours.

Both hours are illuminating the judgment that (1) Pakistan is not about to destroy itself, much less go away and (2) that Pakistan’s mutually-abusive marriage with the United States is not about to end, either. When our Pentagon accuses the Pakistan’s army intelligence of targeting American troops, and when Secretary of State Clinton says we’re not going to take it anymore, count on it that the Pakistan story is with us for a while. But what’s the history unfolding here? How did it come to this? What do Pakistanis say?

What I didn’t know, going in, was the deep old under-layer of tribulation in Pakistan. I wasn’t prepared for the edgy energy of Pakistan either, the confidence of tough people, and much beauty, too. Among the contradictory truths that we Americans barely know about Pakistan are (1) that it’s a cultural powerhouse (in poetry, fiction, and especially music) in South Asia and beyond; (2) it’s been a resentful and prickly junior partner in our US-sponsored proxy wars for thirty-plus years — first (embracing terrorism) against the Soviets and later against the terrorist groups and ideologies we promoted; (3) the troubles of Pakistan can be (and in conversation often are) traced back before the Cold War and the Islamic revolution to the moment of birth in 1947, the Partition of British India that created two unequal sibling rivals in 1947; and (4) that thoughtful Pakistanis talk not only of the rising trend of estrangement from the US but also of a convergent trend toward inequality and the over-reach of elites in both countries.

Listen to the excellent programs here.

The Effect Effect

DKahnemanDaniel Engber in Slate:

In 1969, the psychologist Robert Zajonc published an article about a curious study. He'd posted a silly-sounding word—either kardirga, saricik, biwonjni, nansoma, or iktitaf—on the front page of some student newspapers in Michigan every day for several weeks. Then he sent questionnaires to the papers' readers, asking them to guess whether each word referred to “something 'good' ” or “something 'bad.’ ” Their answers were consistent, if a little strange: Nonsense words that showed up in print many times were judged to be more positive than those that appeared just once or twice. The fact of their repetition, said Zajonc, gave the words an aura of warmth and trustworthiness. He called this the mere exposure effect.

Maybe you've heard about this study before. Maybe you know a bit about Zajonc and his work. That's good. If you've already seen the phrase mere exposure effect in print, then you'll be more likely to believe that it's true. That's the whole point.

Psychologists have devised other ways to make a message more persuasive. “You should first maximize legibility,” says Daniel Kahneman, who describes the Zajonc experiment in Thinking, Fast and Slow, a compendium of his thought and work. Faced with two false statements, side-by-side, he explains, readers are more likely to believe the one that's typed out in boldface. More advice: “Do not use complex language where simpler language will do,” and “in addition to making your message simple, try to make it memorable.” These factors combine to produce a feeling of “cognitive ease” that lulls our vigilant, more rational selves into a stupor. It's an old story, and one that's been told many times before. It even has a name: Psychologists call it the illusion of truth.

See how it works? A simple or repeated phrase, printed in bold or italics, makes us feel good; it just seems right. For Kahneman, that's exactly what makes it so dangerous.

“Wife-sharing” haunts Indian villages as girls decline

Nita Bhalla at Reuters:

ScreenHunter_01 Oct. 27 19.35Social workers say decades of aborting female babies in a deeply patriarchal culture has led to a decline in the population of women in some parts of India, like Baghpat, and in turn has resulted in rising incidents of rape, human trafficking and the emergence of “wife-sharing” amongst brothers.

Aid workers say the practice of female foeticide has flourished among several communities across the country because of a traditional preference for sons, who are seen as old-age security.

“We are already seeing the terrible impacts of falling numbers of females in some communities,” says Bhagyashri Dengle, executive director of children's charity Plan India.

“We have to take this as a warning sign and we have to do something about it or we'll have a situation where women will constantly be at risk of kidnap, rape and much, much worse.”

More here.

Why are people so afraid of Ennahda?


Tunisia is a country with a strong secular identity, but it is equally true that, since the fall of Ben Ali and the annulment of the constitution, practicing Muslim Tunisians have acquired greater space and visibility. Ennahda is without a doubt the symbol for these pious Tunisians, even though Ennahda’s leading candidate in the Tunis 2 constituency (perhaps the most important one) does not wear a veil. Outside the party headquarters in the Montplaisir district, crowded with the national and international press, Souad Abderrahim offers interviews and smiles. With her blue suit, sunglasses and a smile for the TV and newspaper cameras, she even embodies a certain glamour. She seems at ease, obviously she has practiced during the last few days of the election campaign, talking to people, making media appearances and charging up the crowds at the last rally held at the Ben Arus stadium, a working-class district in Tunis where hundreds of veiled and non-veiled women turned up to applaud her. Souad briefly answers questions that are ultimately all addressed at the same issue. What role will women play if Ennahda wins the elections? Victory is now a certainty, and the only element unknown is by what margin. And the answer is always the same, “Our aim is the freedom of all women. The veil is a religious and a personal choice.”

more from Antonella Vicini at Reset here. (Also, please give a few bucks to our fundraising campaign so we can get this damn thing over. Thanks.)

Vacant, Limpid, Angelic


Willem de Kooning may or may not have been a bad painter, according to his persistent and vocal detractors, but he was surely a bad influence, giving rise to a “Tenth Street touch” that was a stereotype of spontaneity, anxiety reduced to a mannerism. This opinion has become a truism, one of the few that the likes of Hilton Kramer and Yve-Alain Bois can agree on. For Clement Greenberg, a chief detractor who had once been a supporter, more promising than de Kooning’s followers were color-field painters like Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis, whose stained canvases retained something of the abstract expressionist’s spontaneity without the physical trace of the touch. Others preferred the clean lines of hard-edge painting, of Pop art or Minimalist objects—anything that would eliminate the particularity of the artist’s hand. But a hand like de Kooning’s could never have been removed from sight so easily. Robert Rauschenberg proved it with his famous Erased de Kooning Drawing of 1953. The 27-year-old Rauschenberg spent months laboring to efface the traces of the elder artist’s ink and crayon. “I wore out a lot of erasers,” he later recalled. Yet traces of de Kooning remain, inexpugnable. It’s hard to tell from those faint inflections of the paper’s whiteness what the work it once was might have looked like (no photograph of it ever existed), but that something was once there remains evident. Given how much time and effort it took Rauschenberg to achieve this distinctly unvirginal, non-Mallarméan whiteness, whatever had been there must have been formidable.

more from Barry Schwabsky at The Nation here.

a master of the universe?


The consequences of the State Department cables were similarly complex and gradual. They are an archive of unimpeachable value to contemporary historians and probably had some influence in triggering the start of the Arab revolutions in Tunisia. Reverberations have been felt in Ireland, India and Ethiopia. Several American ambassadors have had humiliating apologies to make; one resigned. But the relation between information and governance stands where it did before. Assange needed allies and expertise. But his inexperience and autocratic impatience drove them away. If the WikiLeaks revelations had been directed by a cohesive group of skilled operators who cooperated to minimize the distractions of an information-saturated world and to make the very strongest moral impact with the powerful data at their disposal, it is likely the world would have taken a different kind of notice. The evidence, not the man, would have been the story.

more from George Brock at the TLS here.

Love and Anarchy: Emma Goldman’s passion for free expression burns on

Vivian Gornick in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

EmmaA handful of radicals throughout the centuries have intuited that a successful revolution includes a healthy passion for the inner life. One of them was the Russian-Jewish anarchist Emma Goldman, born in 1869. The right to stay alive in one's senses, and to live in a world that prizes that aliveness, was, for her, a key demand in any struggle she cared to wage against coercive government rule. The hatred she bore the centralized state was rooted in what she took to be government's brutish contempt for the feeling life of the individual. Fellow radicals who exhibited a similar contempt were to be held to the same standard. Comrades were those who, in the name of the revolution, were bent on honoring the complete human being.

Although Mikhail Bakunin, that fiercest of Russian anarchists, was one of her heroes, his famous definition of the revolutionary as a man who “has no interests of his own, no feelings, no habits, no longings, not even a name, only a single interest, a single thought, a single passion—the revolution” was as abhorrent to Goldman as corporate capitalism. If revolutionaries gave up sex and art while they were making the revolution, she said, they would become devoid of joy. Without joy, human beings cease being human. Should the men and women who subscribed to Bakunin's credo prevail, the world would be even more heartless after the revolution than it had been before.

More here. (Note: One of the best autobiographies I have ever read is Emma Goldman's Living My Life. It is beautifully written, full of wisdom and inspiring! My friends Seema and Vania named their daughter Emma after reading it.)

The Scariest Zombies in Nature

From Smithsonian:

AntOnce the fungus invades its victim’s body, it’s already too late. The invader spreads through the host in a matter of days. The victim, unaware of what is happening, becomes driven to climb to a high spot. Just before dying, the infected body—a zombie—grasps a perch as the mature fungal invader erupts from the back of the zombie’s head to rain down spores on unsuspecting victims below, starting the cycle again. This isn’t the latest gross-out moment from a George A. Romero horror film; it is part of a very real evolutionary arms race between a parasitic fungus and its victims, ants.

One zombie by itself is not necessarily very scary, but in B movies from, Night of the Living Dead to Zombieland, Hollywood’s animated corpses have a nasty habit of creating more of the walking dead. Controlled by some inexplicable force, perhaps an intensely virulent pathogen, the main preoccupation of a zombie is making other zombies. The story line is pure drive-in movie schlock, yet the popular mythology of zombies has lately been spattered with a coating of biological truth. There actually are organisms that have evolved to control the minds and bodies of other creatures, turning once normal individuals into dazed victims that fulfill the parasite’s need to reproduce itself.

More here.

European Summits in Ivory Towers

De_GrauweAs the Euro crisis worsens, Paul De Grauwe in Vox:

When it [the ECB] announced its programme of government bond buying it made it known to the financial markets (the enemy) that it thoroughly dislikes it and that it will discontinue it as soon as possible. Some members of the Governing Council of the ECB resigned in disgust at the prospect of having to buy bad bonds. Like the army, the ECB has overwhelming (in fact unlimited) firepower but it made it clear that it is not prepared to use the full strength of its money-creating capacity. What is the likely outcome of such a programme? You guessed it. Defeat by the financial markets.

Financial markets knew that the ECB was not fully committed and that it would stop the programme. As a result, they knew that the stabilisation of the price of government bonds would only be temporary and that after the programme is discontinued prices would probably go down again. Few investors wanted to keep these bonds in their portfolios. As a result, government bonds continued to be sold, and the ECB was forced to buy a lot of them.

There is no sillier way to implement a bond purchase programme than the ECB way. By making it clear from the beginning that it does not trust its own programme, the ECB guaranteed its failure. By signalling that it distrusted the bonds it was buying, it also signalled to investors that they should distrust these too.

Surely once the ECB decided to buy government bonds, there was a better way to run the programme. The ECB should have announced that it was fully committed to using all its firepower to buy government bonds and that it would not allow the bond prices to drop below a given level. In doing so, it would create confidence. Investors know that the ECB has superior firepower, and when they get convinced that the ECB will not hesitate to use it, they will be holding on to their bonds. The beauty of this result is that the ECB won’t have to buy many bonds.

Why has the ECB not been willing to use this obvious and cheaper strategy?

The Language of Global Protest

Dr2402c_thumb3Jan-Werner Mueller in Project Syndicate:

The protest movements that have flared up across the West, from Chile to Germany, have remained curiously undefined and under-analyzed. Some speak of them as the greatest global mobilization since 1968 – when enragés in very different countries coalesced around similar concerns. But others insist that there is nothing new here.

The Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev, for example, has claimed that what we are actually experiencing is 1968 “in reverse.” “Then students on the streets of Europe,” he says, “declared their desire to live in a world different from the world of their parents. Now students are on the streets to declare their desire to live in the world of their parents.”

No name and no clear interpretation have yet attached itself to the movements. But how they describe themselves – and how analysts describe them – will make an important difference in the direction they might take. Such self-understandings should also influence how citizens generally should respond to these movements.

Nineteen sixty-eight was famously over-theorized. Student leaders, or so most people remember, were constantly producing convoluted manifestos that combined Marxism, psychoanalysis, and theories about Third World liberation struggles. What is easily forgotten is that even the most theory-eager leaders of the time understood that ultimately, the protest movements that helped to define 1968 didn’t come out of seminar-room discussions.

The German leader Rudi Dutschke, for example, insisted that the movement was driven by “existential disgust” – and anger, provoked by the Vietnam War in particular. Many putative “theorists” themselves declared that the enragés should let go of revolutionary textbooks and, instead, “practically problematize” inherited radical strategies. Put more simply: they were supposed to make it up as they went along.

In that sense, 1968 and today’s protests are not as different as some observers claim.

Wednesday Poem

Arctic Starflower

Block Number 11

Anywhere in the forest, but often freely
around the underbush, along rich moor edges
or in the loose moss. When the arctic starflower stands beneath
leafy trees, it’s as if it, too, rustles
and the crown draws shine from the silver of the aspen leaf.

There was a block called number 11.
There was a prison innermost in the prison.
There was a window in there without sound.
There was a thing which was to wait.
There was a hunger punishment meant to make the hip-bone shine.

The arctic starflower spreads like silent shoots
under turf, with buds and wounds where a new
stalk is to grow. Each star opened on its own.
No neighbour. But at night the crown’s threads
step forth with blood veins in a little too white skin.

There was a block called number 11.
There was a punishment innermost in the punishment.
It was slow and like a kiss given by no one.
It was like a groom for Antigone locked inside the cave.
It was behind an electric fence that was to be transformed into a wide-open gate.

The name of the arctic starflower saves no one,
and the crown has just as often seven lobes as six.
So let’s call it “history’s cracked bandage”,
as stunted and tasteful as a white hair in the mouth.
The arctic starflower sparkles in the forest against rust-red ground.

by Øyvind Rimbereid
from Herbarium
Publisher: Gyldendal Forlag, Oslo, 2008

© Translation: 2011, May-Brit Akerholt
Publisher: First published on PIW, 2011

A Lovesong for India by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

From The Guardian:

A-Lovesong-For-India-Tales-fIn a long and distinguished writing career, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala has moved with apparent ease between novels, short stories and film scripts. She has also moved between continents: India, to which she went with her husband as a young woman, New York, London. She is now 84; this collection of short stories has all her trademark versatility, throwing up a diverse cast of characters, skipping from the mansion of a Bollywood star to professional life in New York. Eleven stories, sternly sorted into categories: India, Mostly Arts and Entertainment, The Last Decades.

I think I would rather have had them shuffled. Variety is one of her strengths – the shape-shifting quality of her imagination, the flourish of some new and entirely different setting, occupation, personality. Her own life would seem to be without compartments, and it is impossible not to see the life reflected in the work, the chameleon quality of a person moving at ease through Delhi or SoHo, but perhaps always the outsider looking on, taking note. The powerful title story seems to be an indictment of some parts of contemporary India. The outsider in this case is an Englishwoman, herself with British Indian Civil Service ancestry, long married to an Indian administrator of probity and integrity, who is chagrined by their son's involvement with a new power structure of corruption and manipulation; perhaps both he and his wife are now the outsiders. The theme of the European absorbed by – besotted with – India surfaces again in the story of Maria, a professor of oriental studies, who becomes the acolyte to a flamboyant and possessive Indian poetess, thus losing, eventually, all control over events.

More here.

Researchers find a country’s wealth correlates with its collective knowledge

From PhysOrg:

EconomiccompWhat causes the large gap between rich and poor countries has been a long-debated question. Previous research has found some correlation between a nation’s economic prosperity and factors such as how the country is governed, the average amount of formal education each individual receives, and the country's overall competiveness. But now a team of researchers from Harvard and MIT has discovered that a new measure based on a country's collective knowledge can account for the enormous income differences between the nations of the world better than any other factor.

The researchers, led by Ricardo Hausmann, director of Harvard’s Center for International Development and former Minister of Planning for Venezuela, and Cesar A. Hidalgo, assistant professor at MIT’s Media Laboratory and faculty associate at Harvard’s Center for International Development, have published a book called The Atlas of Economic Complexity. Starting today, the book is free to download at The authors plan to launch the book during an exclusive event at Harvard's Center for International Development on October 27th. Attendees will include chief economists of the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, among other guests. In the book, the authors show how the total amount of embedded in a country’s economy can be measured by a factor they call “economic complexity.” From this perspective, the more diverse and specialized jobs a country’s citizens have, the greater the country’s ability to produce complex products that few other countries can produce, making the country more prosperous.

More here.

How Revolutionary Tools Cracked a 1700s Code

John Markoff in the New York Times:

25code_graphic-thumbWideIt has been more than six decades since Warren Weaver, a pioneer in automated language translation, suggested applying code-breaking techniques to the challenge of interpreting a foreign language.

In an oft-cited letter in 1947 to the mathematician Norbert Weiner, he wrote: “One naturally wonders if the problem of translation could conceivably be treated as a problem in cryptography. When I look at an article in Russian, I say: ‘This is really written in English, but it has been coded in some strange symbols. I will now proceed to decode.’ ”

That insight led to a generation of statistics-based language programs like Google Translate — and, not so incidentally, to new tools for breaking codes that go back to the Middle Ages.

Now a team of Swedish and American linguists has applied statistics-based translation techniques to crack one of the most stubborn of codes: the Copiale Cipher, a hand-lettered 105-page manuscript that appears to date from the late 18th century. They described their work at a meeting of the Association for Computational Linguistics in Portland, Ore.

Discovered in an academic archive in the former East Germany, the elaborately bound volume of gold and green brocade paper holds 75,000 characters, a perplexing mix of mysterious symbols and Roman letters. The name comes from one of only two non-coded inscriptions in the document.

More here.

Johnny Depp on Hunter S. Thompson

Johnny Depp in The Daily Beast:

1319382410987You’d get a phone call at 3 a.m., and he used to call me “Colonel Depp,” because he made me a Kentucky colonel, and he’d say, “Colonel, what do you know of black-hairy-tongue disease?” And I was like, “What? I don’t know!” He’d say, “Well, I’m going to send you all the information about this, man. We must be aware of this thing.” He was deeply concerned that the disease would infiltrate our ranks.

Or you’d get a call in the middle of the night saying, “When can you meet me in Cuba? I need you in Havana, man, I’m going to do a piece down there and we’re going to go as Rolling Stone correspondents.” When Hunter made a request like that, you made it happen. Hunter wanted to interview Castro, but we never got through to him, so the story turned into our adventures down there. He referred to me as “Ray, my bodyguard.” It was wonderful—just me and Hunter prowling around Havana, going to these various restaurants or homes that you’re not supposed to go and eat at, but you’re invited. It was totally ludicrous and surreal.

If I have a favorite period with Hunter, it would most definitely be when I was living with him in his basement in the spring of ’97 in this one room across from the “war room” that he called “Johnny’s room.” We were like a couple of roommates. I went onto Hunter’s hours. We’d go to sleep about 9 or 10 in the morning and be up for breakfast at about 7 p.m.

More here.