Nudge, Nudge: Can Software Prod Us Into Being More Civil?

Evan Selinger in The Atlantic:

ScreenHunter_02 Jul. 31 17.29Nudging is a distinctive way to help people make good decisions. It differs from the typical ways of attempting to change behavior: rational persuasion (e.g, providing new information), coercion (e.g., using threats to ensure compliance), adjusting financial incentives (e.g., paying students to get good grades) and bans (e.g., prohibiting smoking in restaurants). And, it has a limited domain of application: contexts where decisions need to be made, but we lack adequate time, information, or emotional wherewithal to know how to act in ways that further our best interests. In these cases, nudges work by subtly tweaking the contexts within which we make choices so that, on average, we will tend to make good ones.

Take ToneCheck, the emotional analogue to a spell checking tool. It is a nudge for those of us who can't resist sending flaming emails. Applying connotative intelligence research to “automatically detect the tone” of your email,” it offers the author a warning (that can prompt revision) if a draft exceeds the threshold for negative emotions (e.g., anger or sadness). The author has been nudged.

More here.

In Memoriam: Chris Marker

Richard Brody in The New Yorker:

The very subject of Chris Marker’s work is memory; his death today, at the age of ninety-one (indeed, the day after his ninety-first birthday), elicits a simulacrum of memory, in tributes such as this one, where the contrast between the immediate significance (to the protagonist in the drama and to those who know and love him) and its public reflection is stretched to absurdity. For Marker, memory isn’t passive; it’s an act of resistance—the edge that cuts a path into the future—and the effective work of memory is the very definition of art. Marker was a master of film editing—the part of the filmmaking process that Jean-Luc Godard, another master editor and memory-artist, defined as holding past, present, and future in one’s own hands—and the very possibility of remembering Marker demands a little editing, a splicing-in of excerpts from a surprising and crucial document.

Marker gave few interviews and hardly ever allowed himself to be photographed; in one of the few interviews that he did grant—in 2003, to Samuel Douhaire and Annick Rivoire, for Libération—he explained his reticence, calling himself “publiphobic”:

At the beginning of the sixties, that was well-thought-of, now it has become literally inadmissible. I can’t help it. That way of putting the mechanism of calumny in the service of praise has always rubbed me the wrong way, although I recognize that this diabolical sponsorship sometimes offers the most beautiful images one can see on a small screen (have you seen David Lynch with blue lips?).

In this remarkable text, he provides several signal examples of what he considered abuses of the press: the silence surrounding the 2002 reissue of a 1945 book by the novelist François Vernet, a friend of his who died at Dachau; the lack of discussion of a recording of songs by Viktor Ullmann of poems by Hülderlin and Rilke (“one is seized by the truly vertiginous idea that, at that moment, nobody glorified true German culture more than this Jewish musician who would soon die at Auschwitz”).

College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be: Beyond the Ivy Islands

Steven Brint in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

1343512555It is odd to think that we live in a time when the college model may be in the process of breaking apart. So much suggests that college has never been more successful. Record numbers of students graduate every year. Every graduating class is more diverse than the one that preceded it. Foreign students flock to American quads. Harvard economists tell us that the college degree has never been worth more, relative to the high school degree, than it is today. Bill Gates and President Obama call for a doubling of the proportion of young adults with college degrees over the next decade. We seem to be heading for the day when we won’t have enough commencement speakers to go around.

And yet other indicators suggest that the college experience has never been more imperiled. Tuition has been increasing faster than inflation for more than 30 years. Some economists have begun to argue that college costs more than it is worth. Studies like Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift suggest that the bottom third of students are not developing their analytical skills or thought processes in college, largely because not much is required of them. The fastest-growing parts of college budgets have nothing directly to do with teaching, but instead go to administrators and student affairs staff. In their efforts to shift enrollments to two-year community colleges, politicians like Louisiana’s Governor Bobby Jindal have stated flatly that “most future jobs [in America] will require more training than a high school diploma but less than the traditional 4-year college degree.” More radical still are plans to break up degree programs into distinct, definable skills and to award badges for successful acquisition of each skill. Even institutions like Harvard and Stanford are hedging their bets on the future of site-specific four-year baccalaureates by sponsoring ambitious online projects.

More here.

How many Israelis ask themselves why they remain in a country that has become the most dangerous place for Jews?

Akiva Eldar in Haaretz:

Akiva Eldar El MatanRecently I had a heart-to-heart talk with a beloved relative who was born in this country, in an effort to persuade her to return and bring up her children in Israel. I was reminded of this conversation when I read the speeches made last week by the two leaders of the nation, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, at the graduation ceremony of the National Security College.

In his speech Netanyahu presented the five leading challenges that threaten the country: the Iranian nuclear program, the missile threat, cyber warfare, problems near the borders and the stockpiling of weapons in the region. He promised Israel would do its utmost to stop the Iranian nuclear program. He vowed that, to the extent that it is necessary, Israel would surround additional parts of the country with security fences, alter the composition of its forces and increase the defense budget.

Barak went even further in enumerating the disasters that confront us and could destroy us. The challenges we face, he said, are among the most complex and complicated that the state has faced in its entire existence. He warned that the Iranian nuclear plan could turn into an existential threat against the state, prophesized that neither diplomacy nor sanctions would be able to stop it, and promised not to remove any option from the agenda to thwart it. For dessert, the minister promised that Israel would not stand by idly watching while sophisticated weapons systems are transferred from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

More here.

Tuesday Poem

Next Morning Letter

Savoring each summer moment Beauty Writing a Letter
lush and brief
I close my
eyes to see

your white robe, falling open

as you call for your scroll
and ink stone, a brush

As your brush passes over the paper

my body shivers

How closely now you watch
at the open lattice
as your
servant hurries away

the next morning letter

tethered to
a spray of clematis
whose blossoms will
not open

until they reach me

In the washbasin
your face is
the bridge that
spans

the floating world of dreams

Now you are yawning
Now you are reciting
sutras
bowing to the wind

When the letter arrives

all the leaves of the maple
outside my window
are
stirred

I read your words

just once, then once again
bringing my fingers
to my
lips, my hair

tucked back behind one ear

On the dawn's trellis
the scent of clematis
Now
smell your fingers
The petals of my body
gather in your empty arms

How shall I respond?
The cry of the stag
is so
loud

the echo answers

from the empty mountains
as if it were a doe
I tell
you only what you know

Clematis—the scent
of your teaching surrounds me
My
empty arms fill
Come night, the fragrant petals
fall in a heap at my feet
.

by Margaret Gibson
from Blackbird
Spring 2002, Vol. 1 No. 1

Slinky Magic

Dan Lewis in Now I know:

What’s going on here? The Slinky comes with a small, barely visible jet pack which allows– no, wait. It’s just physics, even if counterintuitively so.

Let’s start with gravity. Drop something — a ball, your cell phone (which certainly happens all too often), a Slinky, or anything, and gravity will start to pull it down. That’s pretty straightforward. It’s why the top of the Slinky immediately falls once released, and it’s why we expect the rest of the Slinky to fall as well. But that’s not the only force acting on the Slinky. There’s also the tension in the spring.

From the perspective of the Slinky’s bottom, the tension is an upward force. Literally, the tension is pulling the bottom of the Slinky back up toward the top. When you are holding the top end of the Slinky, tension is what keeps it from unraveling entirely and falling to the ground as it stretches and dangles. When you drop it, the spring’s tension doesn’t just disappear, It’s still there and, in this case, pulling up at the same rate that gravity is pulling it downward. So the bottom stays in place as the Slinky compresses.

But in the end, gravity wins. When the top and bottom meet, the tension goes to zero, and the bottom of the Slinky joins the top in its descent back to the ground.

More here. And a bonus video:

Nine Scientists Receive a New Physics Prize of $3,000,000. Each.

Kenneth Chang in the New York Times:

ScreenHunter_01 Jul. 31 12.30The nine are recipients of the Fundamental Physics Prize, established by Yuri Milner, a Russian physics student who dropped out of graduate school in 1989 and later earned billions investing in Internet companies like Facebook and Groupon.

“It knocked me off my feet,” said Alan H. Guth, a professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who was among the winners. He came up with the idea of cosmic inflation, that there was a period of extremely rapid expansion in the first instant of the universe.

When he was told of the $3 million prize, he assumed that the money would be shared among the winners. Not so: Instead, each of this year’s nine recipients will receive $3 million, the most lucrative academic prize in the world. TheNobel Prize currently comes with an award of $1.5 million, usually split by two or three people. The Templeton Prize, which honors contributions to understanding spiritual dimensions of life, has been the largest monetary given to an individual, $1.7 million this year.

More here.

The 10 best closing lines of books – in pictures

From The Guardian:

F-Scott-Fitzgerald-001The Great Gatsby
by F Scott Fitzgerald
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Nick Carraway’s signing off after the death of Gatsby is my favourite last line in the Anglo-American tradition – resonant, memorable and profound. It is the magnificent chord, in a minor key, which brings this 20th-century masterpiece to a close. Somehow, it sums up the novel completely, while giving the reader a way out into the drabber, duller world of everyday reality.

Middlemarch
by George Eliot
“But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” This passage is almost a credo – a lovely, valedictory celebration of Dorothea’s quiet life, after she has renounced Casaubon’s fortune and confessed her love for Ladislaw.

More here.

Humans might be hard-wired to ‘love thy neighbor’

From PhysOrg:

HumansmightbBritish from the University of Lincoln argue that people may actually be hard-wired to “love thy neighbor.” In conducting the study, the researchers analyzed the behavior of contestants in first-round episodes of the BBC quiz show, “The Weakest Link.” “In the show contestants must make a choice about who is the worst player based on two very different sources of information,” study leader Paul Goddard, senior lecturer in the School of Psychology, explained in a Lincoln news release. “The primary and most reliable source comes from the game itself. If one player gets all their questions wrong, it's a fairly straightforward decision to vote them off. The quandary for contestants arises when there is no clear consensus about who is the worst player, such as in rounds where several players get just one question wrong. In these circumstances, contestants have to rely on a secondary source of information — their own judgment. This is where can really come to the fore.”

The researchers calculated the probability of votes and compared these projections to what actually happened. The study found contestants showed a strong reluctance to vote for the person standing next to them. The researchers dubbed this pattern, 'the neighbor avoidance effect.' They noted this bias was stronger when the group of contestants didn't agree on which players was the weakest. When forced to make decisions, the study revealed people were less likely to vote off the people next to them and target other contestants who were standing farther away. The researchers said their observations drew parallels from a controversial experiment conducted in the 1960s. In this experiment, Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram found people were more likely to punish people with an if they were in another room. If people were located in the same room however, they were more reluctant to administer this punishment.

More here.

pinker: the left critique

Tumblr_lv8inhsrMQ1qfugqmo1_250

Pinker’s remarkable inversion of reality in portraying the post-World War II period as a “Long Peace,” with residual violence stemming from communist ideology and actions, points up the relevance of Chalmers Johnson’s comment that “When imperialist activities produce unmentionable outcomes,…then ideological thinking kicks in.”[34] It kicks in for Pinker with communist expansionism and U.S. “containment.” It also kicks in with his notion that communism, but not capitalism, was both “utopian” and “essentialist,” “submerge[ing] individuals into moralized categories,” and causing some of the worst atrocities of the modern period. (328-329) But weren’t the racism and anticommunism of the Western powers and in particular the United States “essentialist” ideologies in the Pinkerian sense, and wedded to the “full destructive might” of these powers? And didn’t these ideologies justify exterminations and massive ethnic cleansings of inferior and threatening peoples, replacing them with advanced peoples and cultures who put resources to a higher use? Weren’t Friedrich von Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Milton Friedman, and many other members of the Chicago School of Economics “free-market” ideologues?

more from Edward S Herman and David Peterson at ZNET here. (h/t Gary L. Olson).

The Humanists: Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil

Chris Marker (1921-2012), one of France's most influential filmmakers, one of my favorite filmmakers, died yesterday. In memory, we repost a Monday piece by Colin Marshall from a few years ago on Marker's Sans Soleil:

by Colin Marshall

His name is Sandor Krasna, and that's most of the information we have about him. All other qualities of Sans Soleil's verbose, peripatetic protagonist must be inferred from the wrong side of several layers of intermediation. Practically all the footage shown resides on film attributable to Krasna's camera, and practically all the words spoken reside on letters attributable to Krasna's pen. Krasna's shots are linked into a 100-minute collage atop which a nameless female voice, presumably that of Krasna's pen pal, reads the traveling cameraman's meandering, observational missives. The result is one of the most remarkable essay films ever assembled.

The trouble with whipping out the phrase “essay film” is, of course, the need to define the phrase “essay film”. Why not just call Sans Soleil a documentary? The most basic objection is that, well, Sandor Krasna isn't real. He's a fictional character, just like his electronic composer brother Michel Krasna (credited with the score); just like his unidentified female friend, the recipient of so much correspondence. The movie has a whole, if small, cast of players that go unseen, existing only as text, voice, music and an eye through a lens. Marker's choices about how to convey these characters, like many of the choices that make up Sans Soleil, allow — and in fact, force — so much to be generated solely in the viewer's imagination. One might loosely describe the film as a travelogue through time and geography, from mid-1960s Iceland to early-1980s Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde and Japan, but only because those places are where most of Krasna's footage is shot and provide the raw subject matter for his ruminations. It's up to the mind, conscious or unconscious, of each individual audience member to construct the connective tissue between the shots, the words and the observations. It's not a non-narrative film, exactly; it's simply a film with an emergent narrative, one that differs from mind to mind.

The Immutable, Dusty Path

by Gautam Pemmaraju

He felt closer to dust, he said, than to light, air or water. There was nothing he found so unbearable as a well-dusted house, and he never felt more at home than in places where things remained undisturbed, muted under the grey, velvety sinter left when matter dissolved, little by little, into nothingness.

6a00d83451bcff69e2012875a9ed93970c-300wiThe narrator of WG Sebald’s The Emigrants informs us that the lonesome painter Max Ferber, worked in a studio in a block of ‘seemingly deserted buildings’ located near the docks of Manchester. His easel, placed in the centre of the room, was illuminated by “the grey light that entered through a high north-facing window layered with the dust of decades”. The floor, the narrator observes, was thickly encrusted by deposits of dried up paint that fell from his canvas as he worked, which in turn mixed up with coal dust, and came to resemble lava in some places. Thinking inwardly that “his prime concern was to increase the dust”, the narrator watches Ferber over the weeks working on a portrait, ‘excavating’ the features of the posing model. The melancholic painter’s tenebrous kinship with the accumulative debris of his days strikes him as profoundly central to the artist’s very existence, for as Ferber says to him, the dust itself “was the true product of his continuing endeavours and the most palpable proof of his failure”. Ferber had come to love the dust ‘more than anything else in the world’, and wished everything to remain unchanged, as it was. In the neon light of the transport café bearing the unlikely name of Wadi Halfa, Ferber’s haunt, and where the two often met after the day’s gloomy exertions in the ‘curious light’ of the studio that made everything seem ‘impenetrable to the gaze’, the narrator observes the dark metallic sheen of Ferber’s skin, particularly due to the fine powdery dust of charcoal. Commenting on his darkened skin, Ferber informs his companion that silver poisoning was not uncommon amongst professional photographers and that there was even an extreme case recorded in the British Medical Association’s archives:

In the 1930s there was a photographic lab assistant in Manchester whose body had absorbed so much silver in the course of a lengthy professional life that he had become a kind of photographic plate, which was apparent in the fact (as Ferber solemnly informed me) that the man’s face and hands turned blue in strong light, or, as one might say, developed.

Atmazagaon1In Carloyn Steedman’s Dust (2001), an intriguing collection of essays on a most curious set of concerns, she writes that in the early 19th century “a range of occupational hazards was understood to be attendant on the activity of scholarship”. She makes clear the distinctions between Derrida’s seminal meditations on Archive Fever (see some interesting entries here, here & here), the febrile “desire to recover moments of inception; to find and possess all sorts of beginnings”, from Archive Fever Proper. There was a specific attention to dust and the ill effects it had on artisans and factory workers, during the 19th century and the early 20th century. She points to Charles Thackrah’s investigations into the occupational diseases arising from various trades, particularly in the textile industry, wherein the employments produced ‘a dust or vapour decidedly injurious’. In John Forbes’ Cyclopeadia of Practical Medicine of 1833, Steedman writes, there was also an entry on ‘the diseases of literary men’, a subject of interest among investigators, albeit, for a short thirty year period between 1820 to 1850. In Forbes’ view, the ‘brain fever’, no mere figure of speech as Steedman points out, was a malaise of scholars caused predominantly “‘from want of exercise, very frequently from breathing the same atmosphere too long, from the curved position of the body, and from too ardent exercise of the brain.’”

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Monday Poem

There is no defense for a man who, in the excess of his wealth,
has kicked the great altar of Justice out of sight. —
Aeschylus


Drought

3974135479_9fbc4386efHaving done their green work
the grasses say to the sky,
We thirst

The sky is blue and silent,
clouds tease. They slide
silently under a brilliant sun
hoarding their wealth

they are the Himalayas of heaven
cold and distant,
imperious,
proud of their majesty,
their volume,
joining and unjoining their vapors
among their kind alone
holding it to themselves

they are vacant
as an empty page
void
while the grasses
need psalms of moisture

they billow above dry prairies
counting their vaulted droplets
saving whole seas for their own
rainy day

by Jim Culleny
7/29/12

America Must Lead

by Akim Reinhardt

Hillary ClintonI had come to suspect that Hillary Clinton was betraying us. That she was in fact a foreign agent, in service of a rival power.

And those poor fools who think Barack Obama was born in Kenya? It’s a red herring! Why couldn’t they see that? Clinton herself was probably behind it, a brilliant ploy to throw us off her tracks. It was all part of her master plan.

No doubt she sandbagged the 2008 primary, which was obviously hers for the taking. Come on now. Do you really think some skinny, inexperienced black kid could beat her if she didn’t let him?

But why did she do it? Wouldn’t a foreign agent like Hillary Clinton be in a position to destroy America after achieving the presidency? Maybe.

Maybe.

But she’s smarter than that.

By deftly placing her stooge Obama in the White House, the controversy of his foreign birth, which she herself had manufactured, would soak up the spotlight while she went about her nefarious business of taking down America by trotting the globe and hatching her evil scheme with various world leaders.

It was diabolical. It was brilliant. And the evidence seemed so convincing. After all, “Barack Obama” just isn’t an American sounding name. And, you know, there’s that whole thing about him not being white.

Well, his mother was white, and he largely was raised by white people, but they were just a sleeper cell. That’s all you need to know, really. The best conspiracies are the simplest ones, and the rest of that story just kind of writes itself.

And we all bought it, fools that we were. God-fearing, hard-working, America-loving fools. But damn us all to hell, I thought. Clinton was the rogue all along. And I had stumbled upon the evidence by chance, while doing something that rarely yields any new information: reading.

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The Gaffe that roused Blighty

by Sarah Firisen

With the Olympics coming to town London-Olympic-Logo
The British started to frown
The construction, the cost
The traffic lane lost
Our economy's already so down

You know it'll just get rained out
They've done what with the cycling route?
And the summer looks glum
Because tourists won't come
It's a fiasco without a doubt

Just as the grumbling built to its peak
And national spirits seemed bleak
The Olympics were given a lift
A real PR gift
An external, unwelcome critique

Yes, Mitt landed on Blighty's shore
With concerns and questions galore
“Is Britain prepared?”
The Romney declared
“How dare he!” the populace swore

And suddenly the people united
Everyone of them thrilled and excited
And they made clear to Mitt
We're all proud to be Brits
And the whole nation feels we've been slighted

As the sounds of Jerusalem swell
We're so proud of the land where we dwell
Just look at our Queen
And we love Mr Bean
Such a great show should all doubt dispel

Yes the Olympics have now come to town
And nothing will get the Brits down
It may rain, it may pour
But we know shore to shore
British pride never will drown

Cosmopolitanism and the Colonial Imagination

by Leanne Ogasawara

6a00d834535cc569e2016768d6e2fb970b-320wiThe other day on Facebook, I posted an article from the Atlantic, A Land Without Guns: How Japan Has Virtually Eliminated Shooting Deaths.

In the wake of Aurora, I thought there was a lot that was of interest in the article. But almost immediately the first comment I got was the old “same-old” about how “different” the Japanese are and that, “Holding up Japan as an example of how the US should handle guns is quixotic in the extreme, as nice as it may sound.” He explained, “Japanese are raised to be docile subjects of their government while America is based on the idea that the citizens can rise up against a tyrannical government and overthrow it. Distrust of the government is as American as apple pie. To do that, you need weapons.”

Setting aside what I think is a really unfair characterization of Japan, I wondered why people are always so quick to think that there is nothing that could be learned from other countries. I am not speaking about my friend on Facebook but rather about a pattern that I have seen again and again after returning from two decades overseas. Granting that there are indeed different cultural approaches to issues of authority that would make passing gun laws more difficult here than say in Japan; but let’s face it; the right to bear arms doesn’t include the right to bear grenades, military drones or anti-aircraft, so why couldn’t assault weapons also be regulated? Of course, they can and to wit, they already have been regulated in the past by law. But perhaps more to the point, I think the Japanese case does have much to offer in terms of gun license procedures and accountability that we could learn from—different culture and history notwithstanding.

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