time is real


It is Smolin’s view that the best hope for a solution to the difficulties that face contemporary physics – for example, the difficulties in bringing gravity into line with the rest of the currently accepted picture of reality – lies in overturning this orthodoxy and reaffirming the view that most of us non-physicists have anyway, namely that “nothing we know or experience gets closer to the heart of nature than the reality of time”. In putting his case for it, Smolin says many things that are comprehensible and that, to me at least, seem both true and important. Among those things is the idea (that Smolin advances brilliantly and persuasively) that the reason physicists have come to reject the reality of time is that they have been bewitched by the beauty and success of the mathematical models they use into mistaking those models for reality. For timelessness, though not really a feature of our world, is a feature of mathematics. Two plus two equals four, but if we ask when or for how long the perplexing (though true) answer seems to be: “Well, always. It is an eternal truth. Time is irrelevant to it.” And thus we seem to be driven to accepting the thought that some truths, at least, are eternal. And, if we can have timeless truths in mathematics, why not in physics?

more from Ray Monk at The Guardian here.

bough down


“Bough Down,” the first book by artist Karen Green, arrives trailing a train of sorrow. Green was married to writer David Foster Wallace, who committed suicide in September 2008. He was 46. Green has surfaced intermittently since then, giving few interviews. In 2009, at an exhibit in South Pasadena, she showed a piece called “The Forgiveness Machine,” a 7-foot-long device into which one placed a piece of paper inscribed with what you wanted forgiven; the paper emerged, shredded, from the other end of the machine. The exhibition, one of her first public appearances since her husband’s death, was draining for Green, and she told an interviewer that she struggled to make it through. She never used the machine herself. “Bough Down” is a book of prose poems interspersed with collages the size of a few postage stamps. It’s not about forgiveness so much as the excruciating difficulty of living with someone terminally depressed and, after his death, the long, lonely aftermath.

more from Jacob Silverman at the LA Times here.


From Edge:

Thanks to Steven Pinker for initiating and facilitating this Edge Special Event with Napoleon Chagnon, the last of the great ethnographers.

INTRODUCTION By Richard Dawkins

Napoleon Chagnon is a Living World Treasure. Arguably our greatest anthropologist, he is brave on two fronts. As a field worker in the Amazon forest he has lived, intimately and under conditions of great privation, with The Fierce People at considerable physical danger to himself. But the wooden clubs and poison-tipped arrows of the Yanomamö were matched by the verbal clubs and toxic barbs of his anthropologist colleagues in the journal pages and conference halls of the United States. And it is not hard to guess which armamentarium was the more disagreeable to him.

Chagnon committed the unforgivable sin, cardinal heresy in the eyes of a certain kind of social scientist: he took Darwin seriously. Along with a few friends and colleagues, Chagnon studied the up-to-date literature on natural selection theory, and with brilliant success he applied the ideas of Fisher, Hamilton, Trivers and other heirs of Darwin to a human tribe which probably ran as close to the cutting edge of natural selection as any in the world. It is sobering to reflect on how unconventional a step this was: science bursting into the quasi-literary world of the anthropology in which the young Chagnon was trained. Still today, in many American departments of social science, for a young researcher to announce a serious interest in Darwin's dangerous idea—even an inclination towards scientific thinking at all—can come close to career suicide.

More here.

Faith in the Unseen: Curtis White’s ‘Science Delusion’

From The New York Times:

ExistIs there really a menace to the humanities in the breezy flourishes of a Richard Dawkins or a Stephen Hawking? White believes that the remarks of such thinkers matter immensely in an environment that glorifies science, one in which lectures by theorists like Krauss attract more than one million YouTube viewers and a TED presentation of the “connectome” speculations of Sebastian Seung is a hot ticket while attendance at symphony halls dwindles. The connection between the two, as if the lovers of the classical repertory might not significantly overlap with the viewership of lectures on neuroscience, is the kind of implicit dichotomy assumed throughout “The Science Delusion.”

White says that high culture and science are battling over a shared ground, and that the gain of one means the retreat of the other. And he is adamant that the emergence of a new form of science story­telling, wedded to entertainment outlets like TED Talks, is creating a monster that substitutes flashy wonder for hard thinking and insulates the practice of science from a real-world political context of value decisions, large capital investment and dubious technological offshoots. He is unhappiest when it comes to popular science journalism, which he views mostly as a malodorous brew of gushing prose mixed with a dash of snake oil: “The thing that I find most inscrutable about all of the recent books and essays that have sought to give mechanistic explanations for consciousness, personality, emotions, creativity, the whole human sensorium, is how happy the authors seem about it. They’re nearly giddy with the excitement, and so, for some reason, are many of their readers.”

More here.

Saturday Poem

We Lived Happily During the War
And when they bombed other people’s houses, we

but not enough, we opposed them but not

enough. I was
in my bed, around my bed America

was falling: invisible house by invisible house by invisible house.

I took a chair outside and watched the sun.

In the sixth month
of a disastrous reign in the house of money

in the street of money in the city of money in the country of money,
our great country of money, we (forgive us)

lived happily during the war.

by Ilya Kaminsky
from Poetry International, 2013

Spoils Of Victory


Samanth Subramanian in Caravan:

DURING THE 1990S, the ethnic wars in the crumbling Balkans were often ascribed to what the media called “ancient hatreds”, a self-feeding cycle of fighting and vengeance with its roots deep in history: the Serbs were said to have detested the Croats since World War II and the Albanians since 1389. Deriding the theory, the journalist Stephen Schwartz joked that one might as well trace the animosity back 2,000 years, to a raid described by the Roman poet Ovid, in which the Sarmatians, notionally distant ancestors of today’s Slavs, brutally crushed the distant ancestors of today’s Albanians. So tenuous were the extrapolations that the Balkan wars could even be seen as a natural sequel to the millennia-old battle of which Ovid wrote:

Swift, on horseback, the barbarians ride to the attack;
an enemy with horses as numerous as their flying arrows;
and they leave the whole land depopulated.

The theory provided convenient historical ballast for the nightly news, Schwartz argued; even more dangerously, it suggested that the violence was inevitable. Soon after he won the presidency, Bill Clinton read Balkan Ghosts, a Robert Kaplan book that subscribed to the “ancient hatreds” model. From Balkan Ghosts, the Sarajevo journalist Kemal Kurspahic wrote in his 1997 book As Long As Sarajevo Exists, Clinton drew “the comforting thought that nothing much could be done in Bosnia ‘until those folks got tired of killing each other.’” Santayana’s maxim was turned on its head: the Slavs remembered their past too vividly and were thus condemned to repeat it.

Like a show pony, the “ancient hatreds” argument is trotted out of its stable and walked around the paddock during every ethnic conflict. The warring parties themselves are happy to shoehorn their stances into this model, buffing their credentials by claiming to be part of some grander historical purpose. So it was during the civil war in Sri Lanka. Sinhalese nationalists and Buddhist extremists—and these two groups overlapped more often than not—pointed accusing fingers to the past, when armies from Tamil kingdoms in India invaded this peaceful island, their haven of Buddhism. On the other side of the divide, Tamil nationalists contended that many of their ancestors had arrived as merchants and fishermen—perhaps even before Buddhism reached Sri Lanka—and that Sinhalese kings had repeatedly slaughtered Tamil communities and grabbed their land. Living in Sri Lanka, I frequently got the impression that the Sinhalese and the Tamils had fought two wars: the terrestrial one, which began nominally in 1983 and ended in 2009; and an abstract one, which began centuries ago and is not quite finished yet.

On Testimony


Richard Marshall interviews Jennifer Lackey in 3:AM Magazine:

3:AM: You’re a leading figure in social or collective epistemology. There are various positions one can take under that term, so there’s what’s called a summative and a non-summative approach isn’t there? What’s the difference between these two positions?

JL: The distinction between summative and non-summative approaches in the collective epistemology literature applies to a broad range of phenomena, including group belief, group justification, group knowledge, and group testimony. According to summativism, a group’s state can be understood in the sense that all or some members of the group are, or would be, in that state. So, for instance, on a summative account of group belief, a group’s believing a proposition amounts to all or some members of the group believing that proposition. On such a view of group testimony, a group’s testifying to a proposition means that all or some members of the group would testify to that proposition were the relevant opportunity to arise. For summativists, then, collective states can be understood entirely in terms of the states of individuals.

In contrast, non-summativists claim that a group’s state cannot be understood in this way. Instead, the group itself is the bearer of the state, where this is something over and above, or otherwise distinct from, the states of the individual members. Such views in general are supported by divergence arguments, which purport to establish that phenomena at the group level can diverge from what is happening at the individual level among the group’s members. For instance, the divergence arguments with respect to group belief hold that a group can be properly said to believe a proposition even if not a single one of its members believes it. This might happen, for example, when a department agrees to put forward a candidate as the best applicant for admission to its Ph.D. program, despite the fact that not a single one of its members actually believes this is correct; instead, they all think that this is the candidate who is most likely to be approved by the administration. In such a case, non-summative accounts of group belief take this to be a good reason to accept that the department itself, rather than any particular individual(s), believes this proposition. For non-summativists, then, a new, collective epistemology is needed to understand the states of collective entities.

3:AM: So where are you on this?

JL: There are important differences between my view of group belief and, say, my view of group testimony, but, broadly speaking, much of my work in collective epistemology aims to develop reductionist views of collective phenomena. The central idea is that collective states can be understood entirely in terms of the states of individuals and the relations between them. This does not mean, however, that the states of groups with a particular content are merely the summation of individual states with the same content.

Tocqueville in China


Rebecca Liao in Dissent:

One of the most vibrant intellectual discussions in China this year began with a tweet on Weibo, China’s premier micro-blogging service and anointed online town square. Economist Hua Sheng had just met with Politburo Standing Committee member Wang Qishan, China’s anti-corruption czar, charged with fixing the country’s most important political problem. As Sinologist Joseph Fewsmith reported, Hua breathlessly tweeted after the meeting:

I went to the sea [海, an apparent abbreviation for 中南海, the seat of Communist power] to see my old leader. He recommended I read Tocqueville’s The Old Regime and the French Revolution. He believes that a big country like China that is playing such an important role in the world, whether viewed from the perspective of history or the external environment facing it today, will not modernize all that smoothly. The price the Chinese people have paid is still not enough.

Hua’s self-congratulatory reporting on social media would spur the cheapest propaganda campaign the Chinese government has instituted in years—one that is part of a tradition of intellectual suggestion by senior Chinese leaders, usually through sharing current reading lists. Wen Jiabao, China’s previous premier, popularized Marcus Aurelius’s The Meditationsby revealing that he had read it over a hundred times. And since Wang plugged The Old Regime late last year, Tocqueville’s tome has been front and center at the bookstore of the Party School of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, where China’s future leaders are trained. The curious and ambitious in China are reading it, too, making it one of the country’s best-selling titles in the last few months.

The Formidable Friendship of Mary McCarthy and Hannah Arendt

From The New Yorker:

Hannah-arendt-table-290In the new film “Hannah Arendt,” the political theorist’s friendship with the novelist and critic Mary McCarthy gets its first cinematic treatment. The results are not good. McCarthy, played by Janet McTeer, is blowsily silly—and though she could be wicked and subversively funny, McCarthy was far from silly. Nearly every exchange between the two women is about men and love. It is symptomatic of a trend, I think. We are in a moment of unprecedented popular interest in the matter of female friendship, and this has been greeted as a triumph for feminism. But what we get, for all that, is rather flat portraiture: women giggling about crushes before finding real fulfillment in heterosexual romance and the grail of marriage. It’s a shame, because many women hunger for models of intellectual self-confidence, and female friendships can be rich soil for them. McCarthy and Arendt’s “love affair”—as their friends described it—was a union of ferocious minds, but it was hardly unusual. Women talk about ideas among themselves all the time. It would be nice if the culture could catch up.

To give just a sample of the subjects McCarthy and Arendt talked and wrote to each other about: George Eliot, Cartesianism, Eldridge Cleaver, Kant, G. Gordon Liddy, and Sartre. Both women were members of the Partisan Review crowd, who spent much of their time talking about Stalin and Trotsky. It was at a party at an editor’s house that the friendship hit a snag. McCarthy said she felt almost sorry for Hitler; that he seemed to want the citizens of occupied France to like him struck her as ridiculous. It took four years for Arendt, who’d only narrowly evaded Nazi clutches, to forgive the remark. To her, pity for Hitler was not just absurd but offensive. A truce was struck on the Astor Place subway platform, where Arendt approached McCarthy after a meeting and said, “Let’s end this nonsense. We think so much alike.”

More here.

irving howe on arendt


The Eichmann about whom Arendt wrote was the Eichmann on display at the Jerusalem trial. There he seemed—as Simone de Beauvoir had said of the French collaborator Pierre Laval at his trial—commonplace and inconsequential, an unimaginative and feeble little fellow. (Hence the well-remembered phrase about “the banality of evil”—the killers, it seems, looked pretty much like you and me.) But even this Eichmann showed astonishing qualities, never breaking under pressure, never begging forgiveness for his crimes. Eichmann had once said, “I would jump into my grave laughing because the fact that I have the death of five million Jews on my conscience gives me extraordinary satisfaction”; Hannah Arendt dismissed this remark as mere “boasting,” the big talk of a small man. But, asked Lionel Abel in a powerful reply to Arendt, “How many people have ever boasted of having killed five million people?” That kind of boast was hardly the talk of a featureless cog in a bureaucratic machine! As for the single-mindedness with which Eichmann had pursued the goal of mass extermination, surely some profound depravity of intention or monstrousness of thought had to be at its root. No merely banal creature could have conceived or executed so horrible a crime; some version of “radical evil,” far from commonplace, had to be invoked here, and once invoked, it shattered Arendt’s view of Eichmann. Far more persuasive was a remark by Saul Bellow that “banality is the adopted disguise of a very powerful will to abolish conscience.”

more from Irving Howe at Dissent here.

return to frost


A nagging question in Frost criticism in the half-century since the author’s death has been where to place him in the larger narrative of American poetry. There has been no question about the magnitude of his achievement. Realizing “the utmost of ambition,” he lodged more than a few poems “where they will be hard to get rid of.” He ranks high on the short list of great American writers. Moreover, he remains one of the few modern poets in English still read, esteemed, and quoted by all types of people from elementary school kids and chaired professors to journalists and politicians. But after Modernism, popularity itself seems suspicious—an attribute associated with Longfellow and Whittier not Pound and Stevens. Frost’s defenders—from Randall Jarrell, Lionel Trilling, and Louise Bogan in mid-century to such later champions as William Pritchard, Jay Parini, and Mark Richardson—have instinctively supported Frost’s major stature by finding ways to link his work to Modernism. In his controversial speech at Frost’s eighty-fifth birthday, Trilling praised the poet’s “ultimate radicalism” and “terrifying” view of cosmic emptiness. Viewed by some guests at the Waldorf Astoria banquet as an affront, these judgments were pure praise from the Partisan Review contributor, making the elderly poet sound like Franz Kafka or Albert Camus.

more from Dana Gioia at VQR here.

Compulsive behaviour triggered and treated

From Nature:

MiceResearchers have both created and relieved symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) in genetically modified mice using a technique that turns brain cells on and off with light, known as optogenetics. The work, by two separate teams, confirms the neural circuits that contribute to the condition and points to treatment targets. It also provides insight into how quickly compulsive behaviours can develop — and how quickly they might be soothed. The results of the studies are published in Science1, 2.

Brain scanning in humans with OCD has pointed to two areas — the orbitofrontal cortex, just behind the eyes, and the striatum, a hub in the middle of the brain — as being involved in the condition's characteristic repetitive and compulsive behaviours. But “in people we have no way of testing cause and effect”, says Susanne Ahmari, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist at Columbia University in New York who led one of the studies. It is not clear, for example, whether abnormal brain activity causes the compulsions, or whether the behaviour simply results from the brain trying to hold symptoms at bay by compensating. “There’s been a big debate in the field,” says Satinder Kaur Singh of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, who studies molecules involved in OCD-like disorders but was not involved in the new studies. “What the Ahmari paper shows is that it is causative.”

More here.

The future of liberal education

Donald Kagan in The New Criterion:

Editors’ Note: Donald Kagan, Sterling Professor of Classics and History at Yale University and recipient of the National Humanities Medal (2002), retired in May.

My subject is liberal education, and today more than ever the term requires definition, especially as to the questions: What is a liberal education and what it is for? From Cicero’s artes liberales, to the attempts at common curricula in more recent times, to the chaotic cafeteria that passes for a curriculum in most American universities today, the concept has suffered from vagueness, confusion, and contradiction. From the beginning, the champions of a liberal education have thought of it as seeking at least four kinds of goals. One was as an end in itself, or at least as a way of achieving that contemplative life that Aristotle thought was the greatest happiness. Knowledge and the acts of acquiring and considering it were the ends of this education and good in themselves. A second was as a means of shaping the character, the style, the taste of a person—to make him good and better able to fit in well with and take his place in the society of others like him. A third was to prepare him for a useful career in the world, one appropriate to his status as a free man. For Cicero and Quintilian, this meant a career as an orator that would allow a man to protect the private interests of himself and his friends in the law courts and to advance the public interest in the assemblies, senate, and magistracies. The fourth was to contribute to the individual citizen’s freedom in ancient society. Servants were ignorant and parochial, so free men must be learned and cosmopolitan; servants were ruled by others, so free men must take part in their own government; servants specialized to become competent at some specific and limited task, so free men must know something of everything and understand general principles without yielding to the narrowness of expertise. The Romans’ recommended course of study was literature, history, philosophy, and rhetoric.

More here.

Kristin Beck, Transgender Navy SEAL, Comes Out In New Book

Cavan Sieczkowski in the Huffington Post:

S-TRANSGENDER-NAVY-SEAL-large (1)The United States military's ban on transgender service members faces a challenge, and her name is Kristin Beck.

Beck is an author and activist who served 20 years as a Navy SEAL on 13 deployments and was once a member of the elite SEAL Team 6. She is also transgender.

Beck comes out publicly as transgender in her new memoir, Warrior Princess: A U.S. Navy SEAL's Journey to Coming out Transgender, which hit stores June 1. The book describes Beck's life as Chris, a Christian boy who grew up on a farm in the middle of nowhere and became a Navy SEAL. It describes someone who everyone viewed as “a hero, a warrior, a man” but who knew deep down she was transgender.

“Chris really wanted to be a girl and felt that she was a girl and consolidated that identity very early on in childhood,” Anne Speckhard, a research psychologist who co-authored the biography with Beck, told ABC News. Beck suppressed her transgender identity for decades while training as a SEAL and fighting in Afghanistan, “turning off” her sexuality and consuming herself with battle.

Beck chose to stay silent in respect of the “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” guidelines.

More here.

Shadab Zeest Hashmi navigates the journey from Pakistan to California

Bill Donahue in Reed Magazine:

ScreenHunter_218 Jun. 07 10.31Shadab Zeest Hashmi grew up in Peshawar, Pakistan, in the shadow of the snowcapped Safed Koh mountains marking the border with Afghanistan. In the streets near her home, vendors sold plums and corn with salt and lime. She came to love the bakery that served pink coconut rolls and the clothes dyer who sat before boiling pots of dye listening to cricket games on the radio. Then at age 18, she left Pakistan to land at Reed.

It was 1991. That September, Nirvana would release its second album, Nevermind,replete with the smash hit “Smells Like Teen Spirit”; nose rings would become de rigueur among the more stylish habitués of the Paradox Café. And Shadab would never live in Pakistan again. You’d expect her poetry to be steeped in a longing for home, and in many ways it is. In her second book, Kohl & Chalk, published in early 2013, Shadab visits Peshawar with her three children and remembers:

afternoon shadows on slate verandahs,
the squeaking of a rusted seesaw,
the breaking open of a walnut in a door hinge;
its embossed shell a secret cracking.
The longing aches. Still, even though

Kohl & Chalk is a medley of piquant tableaux largely set in Shadab’s native land, it would be wrong to sum up the book as a sepia-tinted paean to the Pakistan of yore. The volume’s title hints at an outlook that is both cosmopolitan and gracefully political. Kohl is the black lead-based eyeliner that women in Africa and the Middle East have been wearing to dramatic effect since about 3000 BC. Shadab included it in the title because, she says, “My book is the story of a writing woman faced with the challenge of producing poetry while being responsible for raising a family.” “Chalk” is a subtle plea for education which, Shadab says, could prove a “great equalizer” in Pakistan’s viciously stratified society.

More here.