Village Atheists, Village Idiots

Thompson_AtheistB32.3_33rgb-838x1320Sam Kriss at The Baffler:

Something has gone badly wrong with our atheists. All these self-styled intellectual titans, scientists, and philosophers have fallen horribly ill. Evolutionist faith-flayer Richard Dawkins is a wheeling lunatic, dizzy in his private world of old-fashioned whimsy and bitter neofascism. Superstar astrophysicist and pop-science impresario Neil deGrasse Tyson is catatonic, mumbling in a packed cinema that the lasers wouldn’t make any sound in space, that a spider that big would collapse under its own weight, that everything you see is just images on a screen and none of it is real. Islam-baiting philosopher Sam Harris is paranoid, his flailing hands gesticulating murderously at the spectral Saracen hordes. Free-thinking biologist PZ Myers is psychotic, screeching death from a gently listing hot air balloon. And the late Christopher Hitchens, blinded by his fug of rhetoric, fell headlong into the Euphrates.

Critics have pointed out this clutch of appalling polemic and intellectual failings on a case-by-case basis, as if they all sprang from a randomized array of personal idiosyncrasies. But while one eccentric atheist might be explicable, for all of the world’s self-appointed smartest people to be so utterly deranged suggests some kind of pattern. We need, urgently, a complete theory of what it is about atheism that drives its most prominent high priests mad.

more here.

the struggle behind brexit

Guldi_inlineJo Guldi at Boston Review:

This account of Brexit, drawing on the framework of class-consciousness, turns on the rise of a reactionary electorate outside of London. The idea, in short, is that the United Kingdom has witnessed the lumpenproletariat exact uncertain revenge upon the nation’s ruling elite. This narrative more or less parallels Marx’s account of the December 1851 coup in France in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. Marx blamed the rise of the dictatorship on the greed and disappointment of the petite bourgeoisie, who revolted against the Second Republic and the interest of the workers. This betrayal, Marx argued, precipitated an era of rule by political moron, encapsulated in the premiership of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte (figured as a template for Boris Johnson by some and for Jeremy Corbyn by others), whom Marx memorably dubbed a “grotesque mediocrity.” Leaders such as these, several commentators have implied, are a parody of the great leadership demanded by the moment.

A closely related understanding of Brexit can be found in the accounts of political scientists who theorize a connection between class resentment and the cause of participatory democracy. Mark Blyth, for example, has argued that Brexit typifies a global moment of participatory rebellion against the structures of expert rule, and Richard Tuck avers that the Left must embrace Brexit if the EU elite is to be replaced by a participatory process.

more here.

the ruins of palmyra

Palmyra-valley-of-tombsIngrid D. Rowland at the NY Review of Books:

In September 2015, the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles acquired the first photographs ever taken of Palmyra, the great trading oasis in the heart of the Syrian desert. Louis Vignes was a young lieutenant in the French navy whose interest in photography earned him a place on a scientific expedition to the Dead Sea region in 1863. The twenty-nine photographs he made of Palmyra during his visit in 1864 (including two panoramic shots) were finally printed in Paris by the pioneering photographer Charles Nègre (who had taught Vignes) between 1865 and 1867.

With a history that extends back nearly four thousand years, Palmyra has risen and fallen many times. Its original name was Tadmor, which probably meant “palm tree,” an indication of the site’s renowned fertility. Both the Bible and local legend credit the city’s foundation to King Solomon in the tenth century BCE, but in fact it is already mentioned in Mesopotamian texts a millennium earlier. A spring and a wadi, or dry river bed, provided the settlement with water, making it a welcome stop for travelers and traders on the road between Central Asia and the Mediterranean Sea.

The population, almost from the outset, was a mixture of Semitic peoples from surrounding areas: Amorites, Aramaeans, Arabs, and Jews, who developed a distinctive Palmyrene language and a distinctive script expressive of their distinctive cosmopolitan culture, which drew from Persia, Greece, and Rome as well as local tradition.

more here.

How cats conquered the world (and a few Viking ships)

Ewen Callaway in Nature:

CatResearchers know little about cat domestication, and there is active debate over whether the house cat (Felis silvestris) is truly a domestic animal — that is, its behaviour and anatomy are clearly distinct from those of wild relatives. “We don’t know the history of ancient cats. We do not know their origin, we don't know how their dispersal occurred,” says Eva-Maria Geigl, an evolutionary geneticist at the Institut Jacques Monod in Paris. She presented the study at the 7th International Symposium on Biomolecular Archaeology in Oxford, UK, along with colleagues Claudio Ottoni and Thierry Grange. A 9,500-year-old human burial from Cyprus also contained the remains of a cat1. This suggests that the affiliation between people and felines dates at least as far back as the dawn of agriculture, which occurred in the nearby Fertile Crescent beginning around 12,000 years ago. Ancient Egyptians may have tamed wild cats some 6,000 years ago2, and under later Egyptian dynasties, cats were mummified by the million. One of the few previous studies3 of ancient-cat genetics involved mitochondrial DNA (which, contrary to most nuclear DNA, is inherited through the maternal line only) for just three mummified Egyptian cats.

…Cat populations seem to have grown in two waves, the authors found. Middle Eastern wild cats with a particular mitochondrial lineage expanded with early farming communities to the eastern Mediterranean. Geigl suggests that grain stockpiles associated with these early farming communities attracted rodents, which in turn drew wild cats. After seeing the benefit of having cats around, humans might have begun to tame these cats. Thousands of years later, cats descended from those in Egypt spread rapidly around Eurasia and Africa.

More here.

Tuesday Poem

Settling for the Night

It’s a custom with my youngest
to sprinkle “sleeping dust”
over his eyes
before closing them,
combing the sleep down through his hair
and tenderly over his forehead

good night, Dad,
good night…

I listen to our children breathing the night,
their tiny heads under the covers
gone somewhere where we cannot follow
but at least they will return;
the stars of some eternal night
speckle their hair
and their faces are like clocks
in the bedroom twilight.

Their morning is afternoon to us;
their afternoon will see us settled for the night;
some quiet Sunday perhaps
the sun through the blinds will raise
its black ladder on my bedroom wall
and the child fists
will have become adult hands
that will sprinkle the sleeping dust
over my closed eyes
before combing it down
through my peppered grey hair…

Good night, Dad,
good night…

by Ifor ap Glyn
from Cerrdi Map yr Underground
publisher: Gwasg Carreg Gwalch, Llanrwst, 2001

The Princess and the Spy

by Michael Liss

“Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,' we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces' where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”
—John Ellison, Dean of Students, University of Chicago

4716712496_2b19a66aa5_b  Princess+ShahI was an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins University in the 1970s, a place and a time where the phrase “safe space” referred to the stocked civil-defense structures under the campus, and “trigger warnings” were letters you didn't want to be receiving from people in positions of authority.

I raise this not to launch into a “when men were men” rant, but rather because Dean Ellison's letter reminded me of two lectures I attended at JHU—the first given by Alger Hiss, the second, in connection with the receipt of an honorary LLM awarded by the University, by Princess Ashraf Pahlavi of Iran. Hiss, as people of a certain vintage would know, was a government and State Department official accused, in 1948, of being a spy for the Soviets. in 1950, he was tried and convicted for perjuring himself before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and jailed for three and a half years. He then spent the rest of his life protesting his innocence. Princess Ashraf was the once-exiled twin sister of the Shah.

Hiss Nixon ImageHiss's talk was fascinating. Tall, thin, balding, and wispy looking, his cultured voice a little grainy with age, he inhabited the stage—if I recall, he had a stool, but moved about a bit—with the ease of an actor. His memory was like an old library filled with leather-bound books. He would select an event, pull it out, find some passages to share, put it back, and move to the next volume.

He was playing before an easy crowd—liberal college kids and faculty who loathed both Richard Nixon and the McCarthy-Era mindset he sprang from. Watergate was burning up everything in sight, and the yin-yang of Hiss and Nixon seemed to illustrate the obvious innocence of Hiss. A profound injustice had been done—Hiss had been made to pay an enormous price (his career and his freedom) to satisfy the colossal ego, ambition, and paranoia of Nixon and a passel of self-appointed patriots who looked for Commies under every bush.

That is at least what we thought, when going into Shriver Hall. And yet, after hearing him speak, my friends and I left with more questions than we had when we arrived. There was something about Hiss, maybe his affect, maybe just a studied compartmentalization, a reserve that came from living a life too often in shadows and alleyways, that gave us a slightly clammy feeling. We didn't buy Nixon's accusations of Hiss endangering the fiber of American life, but there was the odd sense of not hearing the entire story, of things omitted, choices unrevealed.

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An Open Letter to Trump Supporters

Open letterby Akim Reinhardt

Let’s be honest. 3 Quarks Daily isn’t the type of website that attracts many Trump supporters.

But that’s not just a 3QD thing. It turns out that online or off, most Clinton supporters have minimal contact with Trump supporters and visa versa. It’s a national phenomenon that speaks to the profound geographic and social segregation of partisan America.

Indeed, it’s probably a bit pointless for me to post an open letter to Trump supporters here. But honestly, I’m not sure where else to turn. After all, I don’t get to hoist monthly essays onto any Republican-leaning websites, and what follows is bound to be a bit too long for that modern day version of a Letter to the Editor, the beastly maelstrom known as a Comment Section.

So if you happen to be among that slim minority of Clintonistas who has real and meaningful interactions with Trumpatistas, feel free to share this with them, he said, like a pen pal in want of a postman.

Dear Trump Supporter:

I get it. Clinton supporters can be insufferable, condescending elitists.

I understand this on a personal level, just like you do. You see, even though I’m a kind of a lefty and kind of a liberal, I’m not actually a registered Democrat. So if they see you Republicans as the enemy, then they see people like me, who agree with them on many issues but don’t always vote Democrat, as apostates.

In their world view, it’s like we’re all living in that ghastly, disease-infested stink pot that was Medieval Europe. And in their super violent, smelly little fantasy land, they’re the Christians, you’re the Muslims, and I’m part of a tiny schismatic reform group. They’d love nothing more than to permanently take the entire Holy Land back from you and kill or convert every single Mohammadean. But it ain’t gonna happen. And they realize that no matter how much they hate you, and no matter how many murderous crusades they send to massacre your brethren, on some level they simply have to accept you and your ilk as the savage enemies they can never fully vanquish. So they’ll find a purpose for you. They’ll turn you into the permanent villains they can pour their hatred onto, the heathens they can use to define themselves as civilized.

It’s like you’re each other’s Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner.

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Romance of the Red Dictionaries

by Leanne Ogasawara

DictionaryWe were so young back then.

Maybe that's why the absence of a shared language never seemed to slow us down much.

Arriving in Tokyo on Easter Sunday 1991, I was a recent college graduate and spoke no Japanese at all.

And Tetsuya spoke not a word of English.

In those days before smart phones and the internet (and with neither of us having enough money to buy an electronic device to help), we were stuck with his old student dictionaries to facilitate communication. He said they were from his 10th grade English class in high school. With their red leatherette jackets, one was Japanese to English and the other English to Japanese. We took them everywhere! In the early years, we hauled them in our bags all around Tokyo, placing them right in front of us at the table in restaurants and cafes; almost as if marking off the two worlds: English here and Japanese there.

We were endlessly looking things up. Too hard to read the foreign words out loud; one pointed to a definition, and the other read the translation, smiling and nodding— understanding at last.

Our romance with the red dictionaries lasted for ten years into our marriage; despite the fact that within a few weeks, we came up with our own means of communicating to supplement the dictionary definitions. Speaking a kind of made-up language, we disregarded grammar and often dumped the verbs (preferring to act those out in mime); he avoiding all pronouns, in the style of spoken Japanese, and me (having Italian blood) doing a lot of arm gesturing and pantomiming. We made do communicating in this manner, and the two red dictionaries became colorful accessories to all of our outfits—from formal gear to pajamas. And, although communication between us involved some physical effort, it was rare that one of us would feel frustrated at the inability to communicate something. Onlookers would laugh and shake their heads—perhaps attributing our ability to communicate without a shared language to young love.

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Sound and glory: The rest is not just noise

by Brooks Riley

Sound 3We are born into a noisy world. For most of us, it starts right off with the cries and whimpers of our own Mum as she tries to help us tunnel our way out of the womb. What from inside may have sounded like the couple fighting next door, explodes into the full-blown cacophony of voices and diverse environmental clicks and clacks of the natal experience, once you’ve made it through the birth canal to the outside.

You can’t really see all that well yet, so what you hear is what you get: Voices, ‘Ooh, aah’, ‘it’s a girl,‘ the clatter of instruments the doctor is using, the slap on your bum to get you breathing, your own voice too, adding clarion outrage and high-decibel relief, and then the squeak of rubber-soled shoes as the nurse carries you to your mother’s arms or your first bed ever. I was spared much of the clatter, my mother opting for anesthesia, allowing me to emerge into a deceptively tranquil world.

In the realm of sound, music gets the most attention, deservedly so. Music is nothing short of a human triumph, the bending of sound into methodical systematic arrangements that manage both to please the ear and to give the listener’s brain a rush of emotion that it might otherwise never have experienced. It’s right up there with language as a supreme accomplishment of the species, but its greatest achievement may be its uselessness. Music is an evolutionary luxury, serving no known purpose in the survival of the species no matter how often you hum along to ‘I will survive’.

Noise, belonging to sensual imput without intent, is etymologically compromised, left well behind in the rush to music. As distinct from the word ‘sound, the word ‘noise’ means that what is being heard is unpleasant or annoying (the word stems from ‘argument ‘and ‘nausea’). As a single word with an article, however, as in ‘a noise’, it is neutral, a sound that may very well be satisfying to the ear after all.

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Hillary Is Wrong: ALL Republicans Are In A Basket Of Deplorables (Not Just Half Of Trump’s Supporters)

by Evert Cilliers aka Adam Ash

Image1Just to know where I'm coming from, I think Trump is a fat lump of pustulent crap oozing the blood of everyone he's ripped off in his career of an uber-lying, short-fingered, papaya-topped conman.

With that out of the way, here is what Hillary said (read beyond the “deplorable” stuff to where she gets to her actual point):

“You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump's supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people — now 11 million. He tweets and retweets their offensive hateful mean-spirited rhetoric. Now, some of those folks — they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America.

“But the other basket — and I know this because I see friends from all over America here — I see friends from Florida and Georgia and South Carolina and Texas — as well as, you know, New York and California — but that other basket of people are people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they're just desperate for change. It doesn't really even matter where it comes from. They don't buy everything he says, but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won't wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they're in a dead-end. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.”

For that, Hillary got hammered by the media (who conveniently left out the context of the “other basket of people who feel that government has let them down,” etc.).

Well, the media were wrong to hammer her. And she herself was wrong, too. Because ALL Republicans are in a basket of deplorables (a felicitious coinage, BTW: Hillary is one nifty language slinger).

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by Evan Edwards

AmbAnimationNorThe following is part of a project I'm working on that traces out the history of various words for human locomotion. My hope is that by understanding the uniqueness of each of these words, I can gain a deeper appreciation for walking. The entry (and following entries as well) begins with passages from literature that use some synonym for walking, then gives basic etymological information, as well as a preliminary definition of the word. The last and largest part of the post is an essay that goes deeper into both the history and semantics of the word to make a case for its beauty and power in describing the ways that humans move.


And that's why I have to go back

to so many places in the future,

there to find myself

and constantly imagine myself

with no witness but the moon

and then whistle with joy,

ambling over rocks and clods of earth,

with no task but to live,

with no family but the road.

– Pablo Neruda, El Viento

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How to teach a blind extraterrestrial to see

by Dave Maier

Dark OrbitCarolyn Ives Gilman’s 2015 novel Dark Orbit is intensely concerned with the extent to which reality outstrips or transcends our knowledge and/or sense perception. Indeed, the jacket copy tells us that one character’s “most difficult task may lie in persuading the crew that some powers lay [s/b “lie”?] beyond the boundaries of science.” I generally don’t like this sort of talk, which smacks of obscurantism. Naturally if you construe “science” narrowly enough – identifying it with this or that set of procedural or substantive commitments – some aspect of reality will probably remain opaque to “science” so construed; but that doesn’t tell us much.

While some of its characters haven’t quite thought all this through, Dark Orbit itself is quite thought-provoking and well worth reading for this and other more conventional sci-fi reasons (like that it’s a cracking read). I found particularly interesting the conceptual difficulties the characters run into when dealing with the nature of the senses and their relation to the reality beyond our heads. Naturally this discussion may involve some **SPOILERS**, but not, I claim, anything particularly serious.

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The Price of Freedom

by Humera Afridi

Img_2250 (1)I have just finished reading The Morning They Came for Us by Janine Di Giovanni and, in its wake, Dreaming of Baghdad by Haifa Zangana. I can't recall the last time I had such a powerful and visceral reading experience—needing to physically move my body into air and sunlight, taking myself from the quiet of my living room to a bench at a pier in Manhattan where I gained solace in uninterrupted views of the boundless sky and and the oddly comforting presence of insouciant yachts docked in the marina. I looked up from the harrowing accounts on the page to the bustle of the Farmer's Market and the fountain where Uversa, the self-professed Oracle of Union Square, unveils the future in artful tarot cards. I felt dizzy, disoriented, and, at the same time, reassured.

Ensconced in the knowing that the world familiar to me still reliably exists, I wondered, but, for how long? I read first one book and then the other, compulsively. I am acutely aware that my position as a reader of these books is privileged, precarious—vicariously experiencing the trauma of ongoing wars, through the written word, and at a safe distance, on the shores of a country that has its own dubious hand in the strife-riven lands of these magnificent narratives. Here I am, a person in command of her body, with the freedom to move, in safety, to places of her own choosing, needing the assistance of the sky and deep inhalations of fresh air to get through descriptions of unspeakable torture and imprisonment.

I looked at my surroundings with new eyes. Every person bumping past me in the crowded public spaces in which I chose to read these intimate portraits of war—amid chatter and laughter, and freshly harvested bunches of tender dandelion greens—carries within them a hidden world. How many of these hands, these feet, passing me have touched the skein of war? How many harbor memories of trauma, of elsewheres that shadow them here, in the present of this life, in this city, in this square?

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Making the world a nicer place, one Virtual Reality at a time

by Sarah Firisen

HoloPeople are awful. You only need read the daily headlines to realize how awful so many of us are to each other. Intolerance, prejudice, ignorance, sit behind so many of the evils that men (and women) do to each other. But as bad as things are, they are mostly so much better than they ever have been. You don’t need to go back far in history to realize how much more tolerant and open minded we have tended to become as a species. The further back you go, the worse it is. What has made things, relatively speaking better? Well, not surprisingly, exposure and engagement tend to breed tolerance. We fear and suspect the unknown.

The more one knows and thinks about other living things, the harder it is to privilege one's own interests over theirs. The empathy escalator may also be powered by cosmopolitanism, in which journalism, memoir, and realistic fiction make the inner lives of other people, and the precariousness of one's own lot in life, more palpable—the feeling that “there but for fortune go I.” —Michael Tomasky

And for the most part, what has brought us increasing exposure and engagement with each other has been advances in technology; from better boats, to planes, to computers and the Internet, it seems that while exposure to “the other” often aggravates fears, eventually, the ever adaptable human being learns that other people are far more similar to us than they are different. As we become exposed to people of different religions, cultures, beliefs, sexual orientation, it becomes harder and hard to see them as “the other”. There’s nothing radical or surprising about this. While there were clearly many complex issues at play, there seems to be real evidence that one of the major factors in the radical change in attitudes towards homosexuality in the US can be put down to the TV show Will and Grace, which, if nothing else, exposed gays to be much like the rest of us: self-absorbed, looking for love and acceptance and really in need of best friends who get us no matter how self-absorbed we become.

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Martha Mills: Lawyer, Activist, Judge

by Bill Benzon

Martha Mills came to Mississippi as a young civil rights lawyer, looked racists judges, lawyers, and Ku Kluxers in the eye, and never backed down–in court or out. Small in stature, huge in guts, as far as I was concerned she was the smartest, bravest, and just plain toughest of that corporal’s guard of dedicated lawyers committed to giving life to the law.

—W. Hodding Carter III

LawyerActivistJudgeThe 1960s were tumultuous years in American politics. The nation blundered into a disastrous war in Vietnam that sparked years of protest and deprived Lyndon Johnson of a second full term as president. His boss, John F. Kennedy, and been assassinated in November of 1963, leaving Johnson to pursue that terrible war, but also to work with Kennedy’s brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy. They brought the civil rights movement to fruition with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, when Robert was a U.S. Senator. Robert Kennedy was assassinated in June, 1968, only two months after Martin Luther King was assassinated. King’s assassination fulminated race riots across the nation.

On February 7, 1969, The New York Times ran a story on page 20:

Woman Lawyer, 27, Jailed on Contempt In Grenada, Miss.

Special to the New York Times

GRENADA, Miss., Feb. 6–A 27-year-old woman lawyer was jailed for three hours here today after being held in contempt of court by Circuit Judge Marshall Perry when she attempted to file a bill of exceptions to a case involving a Negro civil rights worker.

Miss Martha M. Wood, an attorney for the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, based in Jackson, was released under $300 bail.

An offense that merits release after only three hours in jail and with bail at $300 can’t have been much of an offense. And it wasn’t. But it involves a kind of
intricate legal obfuscation that defies easy summary and that is characteristic of race relations in the United States, then and alas now. If the prospect of summarizing it brings me to the edge of extreme annoyance you can imagine what it did to those who suffered through and by it, day after day.

Such is the texture of the story that Martha Mills recounts in a memoir of her years as a civil rights attorney, Lawyer, Activist, Judge: Fighting for Civil and Voting Rights in Mississippi and Illinois (2015). In this particular case the obfuscation was also the occasion of a little theatrical detail in the manner of arrest: “The deputy grabbed my arm roughly and hauled me out of the courtroom. As soon as we were out of the courtroom, however, he dropped my arm, apologized, and said he had to do that for the judge” (p. 277). You gotta’ love it, the delicate egos of those racist judges. The Lord does indeed move in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform.

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Strained Analogies Between Recently Released Films and Current Events: Sully and the iPhone 7

by Matt McKenna

ScreenHunter_2228 Sep. 19 09.42Sully isn't a movie about a pilot’s heroic skill to land a plane on the Hudson river and save the lives of the hundred-fifty-five people onboard. Instead, it is a movie about the decision by a pilot to land the plane on the Hudson River and what it must feel like to be both praised and second guessed for that decision. The movie is therefore an analogy for living in the aftermath of any tough choice made in public, and has there ever been a choice made in public tougher than Apple CEO Tim Cook’s choice to remove the headphone jack from the new iPhone?

Sully is based on the real life story of Captain Chesley Sullenberger who, after having a bunch of birds slam into both engines of the airliner he was flying, lands the aircraft on the Hudson River. Miraculously, everyone on the flight survived. Understandably though tiresomely, the movie repeatedly revisits the moment the birds hit the engines, probably because it's one of the few dramatic events in an otherwise pretty thin story. Not that I mind a short movie, but even after showing a dozen views of the plane splashing into the river, Sully still clocks in at only ninety-six minutes. And outside the water landing, the story that does exist is mostly fictional including the comically evil antagonists of the film, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigating the incident. For unexplained reasons, the NTSB desperately wants to prove that Captain Sullenberger should have turned the plane around to land back at LaGuardia Airport instead of dropping it into the Hudson. In reality, the NTSB didn’t try to prove that at all, but it’s hard to blame screenwriter Todd Komarnicki for adding this twist since it is the film’s only source of drama after the landing itself.

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When Analogies Fail

Alexander Stern in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Photo_78335_landscape_650x433An analogy is, according to Webster’s, “a comparison of two things based on their being alike in some way.” The definition seems to capture exactly what Simmons, a sports commentator, and Dowd, a New York Times columnist, are doing in the sentences above: comparing two things and explaining how they’re alike. Being a dictionary, however, Webster’s has little to say about why we use analogies, where they come from, or what role they really play in human life.

Analogies need not, of course, all have the same aim. They’re used in different contexts to varying effect. Still, it is evident that we use analogies for mainly rhetorical reasons: to shed light, to explain, to reveal a new aspect of something, to draw out an unseen affinity, to drive home a point. As Wittgenstein wrote, “A good simile refreshes the mind.”

This Simmons’s and Dowd’s analogies demonstrably fail to do. Our understanding of Trump is unlikely to benefit from an attentive viewing of Species. The careers of the basketball player Robert Horry and the actor Philip Baker Hall, admirable though they may be, leave Australia similarly unilluminated. This kind of analogy — which often consists of an ostensibly funny pop-culture reference or of objects between which certain equivalences can be drawn (x is the y of z’s) — has become increasingly common.

You also find it in academic writing. For example, from the journal Cultural Critique: “Attempting to define multiculturalism is like trying to pick up a jellyfish — you can do it, but the translucent, free-floating entity turns almost instantly into an unwieldy blob of amorphous abstraction.” The analogy aims not to enlighten, but to enliven, adorn, divert.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with this, as far as it goes, but its increasing prominence reflects more general changes in the way we relate to the world around us.

More here.

Every cognitive bias exists for a reason—primarily to save our brains time or energy

Buster Benson in Quartz:

ScreenHunter_2227 Sep. 18 20.14I’ve spent many years referencing Wikipedia’s list of cognitive biaseswhenever I have a hunch that a certain type of thinking is an official bias but I can’t recall the name or details. But despite trying to absorb the information of this page many times over the years, very little of it seems to stick.

I decided to try to more deeply absorb and understand this list by coming up with a simpler, clearer organizing structure. If you look at these biases according to the problem they’re trying to solve, it becomes a lot easier to understand why they exist, how they’re useful, and the trade-offs (and resulting mental errors) that they introduce.

Four problems that biases help us address: Information overload, lack of meaning, the need to act fast, and how to know what needs to be remembered for later.

Problem 1: Too much information

There is just too much information in the world; we have no choice but to filter almost all of it out. Our brain uses a few simple tricks to pick out the bits of information that are most likely going to be useful in some way.

More here.