The Myths of Enlightenment

Marta Figlerowicz in the Boston Review:

Humans always defeat lions in paintings because there are no lion painters. With this lesson, the griot gets up to leave, as Dani Kouyaté’s Keïta! (1995) comes to an end. The film is set in late twentieth-century Burkina Faso. The aphorism culminates a series of lessons that a folk storyteller imparts to an urban youth, all cautioning that traditional knowledge must be preserved in order to survive the country’s rapid modernization. City dwellers should learn French, but also Mandinka; they should know the oral epic Sundjata as well as they know capitalism.

But the dichotomy is not so easy to draw. The griot delivers the moral in the local language, yet most viewers would recognize it as not unique to West Africa. Versions appear in Aesop and, more significantly in this context, in the fables of La Fontaine. The lesson of cultural difference becomes one of transcultural porosity. Imparting a lesson about otherness, the anecdote refuses to reveal its own nativity; instead it attests to its own capacity to inhabit multiple cultural worlds.

Few scholars devote their careers to following such stories, and those who do tend to be philologists rather than philosophers. Hans Blumenberg, who died in 1996—he might just have seen Keïta!—was the rare philosopher fascinated by such traveling anecdotes. One of his monographs discusses stories of absentminded philosophers who fall down wells; another volume studies depictions of shipwrecks and people watching them.

More here.

Justin Smith on Irrationality

From the Princeton University Press blog:

What led you to write a book about irrationality?

I had long supposed that human thought and behavior have been a relatively static thing for the past 200,000 years, that there is a fairly narrow range of species-specific responses to the world around us, and that these are not going to fundamentally change until or unless we become a different sort of animal. The past few years have tested this long-held assumption. I came to feel that the world was going mad, that many people, including many I know and love, were now speaking and reasoning as if they had passed through to the other side of a looking-glass, or had come back from the other side, and were now communicating in a frenetic glossolalia or in pretend robot-voices. And it terrified me. I began to wonder whether this is not a normal process of disillusionment one can expect to go through at a certain stage of life, when the scales fall from our eyes and we realize that human beings have been bonkers all along and that society is just a flimsy tarp that camouflages this madness, or whether, instead, there really is something important about the present moment that is bringing the irrationality out, like methane from below the ice of the melting tundra. It seemed to me the best way to answer this question would be to investigate it historically, with a maximally sweeping view, attempting so to speak a genealogy of irrationality, one which reaches back into the past, but always with an eye to understanding the present.

More here.

Nassim Taleb’s Case Against Nate Silver Is Bad Math

Aubrey Clayton in Nautilus:

Since the midterm elections, a feud has been raging on Twitter between Nate Silver, founder of FiveThirtyEight, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb, hedge-fund-manager-turned-mathematical-philosopher and author of The Black Swan. It began, late last year, with Silver boasting about the success of his election models and Taleb shooting back that Silver doesn’t “know how math works.” Silver said Taleb was “consumed by anger” and hadn’t had any new ideas since 2001. The argument has gotten personal, with Silver calling Taleb an “intellectual-yet-idiot” (an insult taken from Taleb’s own book) and Taleb calling Silver “klueless” and “butthurt.” Here is a recap of what they’re fighting about so you can know who’s right (Silver, mostly) and who’s wrong (Taleb).

The origin of Taleb’s ire can be found in Silver’s success since 2008—and his some-time failures. As I described in Nautilus last month, evaluating probabilistic election forecasts can be conceptually slippery, made especially difficult by the counterintuitive properties of mathematical probability. Historically, Silver has received considerable credit, probably too much, for “calling” elections correctly. As his most recent analysis (incorporating at least some of my suggestions!) shows, the more meaningful questions are: 1) How often does something that he gives an n percent chance to actually happen? and 2) How bold are his predictions, in the sense of probabilities being closer to 100 percent rather than long-run averages? In both respects, his models appear to be doing pretty well.

Yet Taleb maintains that Silver (whom he has taken to calling “Bullshit Nate”) is “ignorant of probability,” a “fraud,” and “a total impostor.” Why?

More here.

Japan in the American Century

Edward Luttwak in the London Review of Books:

One can fly to Japan from anywhere, but from Japan one can only fly to the Third World, and it hardly matters whether one lands in Kinshasa, London, New York or Zurich: they are all places where one must be constantly watchful and distrustful, where one cannot leave a suitcase unattended even for ten minutes, where women strolling home through town at 3 a.m. are deemed imprudent, where the universal business model is not to underpromise and overdeliver but if anything the other way round, where city streets are clogged at rush hour because municipal authorities mysteriously fail to provide ubiquitous, fast and comfortable public transport, where shops need watchful staff or cameras against thieving customers, and where one cannot even get beer and liquor from vending machines that require no protection from vandalism. Japan was the world’s only really different country when I first visited forty years ago, and it remains so now, despite many misguided attempts to internationalise its ways to join the rest of the world.

More here.

Tuesday Poem


The dead are for morticians & butchers
to touch. Only a gloved hand. Even my son
will leave a grounded wren or bat alone
like a hot stove. When he spots a monarch
in the driveway he stares. It’s dead,
I say, you can touch it. The opposite rule:
butterflies are too fragile to hold
alive, just the brush of skin could rip
a wing. He skims the orange & black whorls
with only two fingers, the way he learned
to feel the backs of starfish & horseshoe crabs
at the zoo, the way he thinks we touch
all strangers. I was sad to be born, he tells me,
because it means I will die. I once loved someone
I never touched. We played records & drank
coffee from chipped bowls, but didn’t speak
of the days pierced by radiation. A friend
said: Let her pretend. She needs one person
who doesn’t know. If I held her, I would
have left bruises, if I undressed her, I would
have seen scars, so we never touched
& she never had to say she was dying.
We should hold each other more
while we are still alive, even if it hurts.
People really die of loneliness, skin hunger
the doctors call it. In a study on love,
baby monkeys were given a choice
between a wire mother with milk
& a wool mother with none. Like them,
I would choose to starve & hold the soft body.

by Robin Beth Shaer
from The Academy of American Poets


Eric Hobsbawm’s 20th century

David Marcus at The Nation:

In the last weeks of 1954, Eric Hobsbawm and a small group of British historians set out on a goodwill trip to Moscow. It was a strange time to be visiting the Soviet Union, even stranger for a communist eager to see the achievements of actually existing socialism. Stalin had died the year before, and his corpse lay embalmed in a glass box in Red Square. After a vicious power struggle, Khrushchev had gained control of the government, but intrigue abounded. Beria, the longtime head of the security services, had been tried and executed in secret. Molotov and Malenkov, stalwarts of the old regime, were on their way out. Tens of thousands of prisoners, released after Stalin’s death, were returning from the gulag with horror stories of starvation and torture.

At first, nothing seemed amiss to Hobsbawm and his traveling companions. On their arrival in Moscow, they surveyed the city’s elaborate subway system, before being whisked to Leningrad in the sleek overnight cars of the Red Arrow.

more here.

How To Do Nothing

Megan Marz at The Baffler:

In her first chapter, “The Case for Nothing,” Odell recounts the near-daily visits she began making in 2016 to the Morcom Amphitheatre of Roses (a.k.a. the Rose Garden) in Oakland, California. Seeking post-election consolation, she sat in the public park, whose fragrant bushes are meticulously tended by volunteers, whose branching paths invite meandering, and whose architecture “holds open a contemplative space against the pressures of habit, familiarity, and distraction that constantly threaten to close it.” The difficulty of holding open space in the mind is mirrored by the difficulty of holding open space in public. Built by the Works Progress Administration, the Rose Garden was almost turned into condos in the 1970s. Local residents had to work together to block construction. The parallel Odell draws between the two struggles—for private, mental space and public, communal space—is characteristic of her method. She routinely finds formal similarities among seemingly disparate phenomena, thereby bringing them onto the same plane. In this case, the individual’s time to think and the public good become two bright points in the same constellation. “’Doing nothing’—in the sense of refusing productivity” entails both enjoyment of roses and birds, and “an active process of listening that seeks out the effects of racial, environmental, and economic injustice and brings about real change.”

more here.

Remembering One of American Music’s Founding Fathers

Sudip Bose at The American Scholar:

By turns dreamy, rollicking, and dramatic, Rip van Winkle shows just how well Chadwick absorbed the lessons of his German teachers, in that it marries 19th-century European symphonic technique to a quintessentially American subject. In 1880, the year Chadwick returned to Boston, he was invited to conduct the work with the city’s prestigious Handel and Haydn Society. This early compositional period produced, among other pieces, a comic opera called Tabasco, which was so popular in its day that, in the words of the conductor Karl Krueger, “some of its tunes were whistled from one end of the country to the other.”

After a period of giving private music lessons, Chadwick accepted a position at the New England Conservatory, eventually becoming its director—he would not relinquish the post until just before his death.

more here.

The science of tea’s mood-altering magic

Natasha Gilbert in Nature:

For centuries, people across the globe have testified to the relaxing and invigorating qualities of tea. The traditional calming effects of the plant Camellia sinensis have elevated the drink, which is produced from its leaves, to a role beyond quenching thirst — it is drunk as an aid for meditation, to help soothe the nerves or simply to unwind. But although the mental-health benefits of C. sinensis are common knowledge among tea drinkers, scientists are only now beginning to examine how tea exerts its effects on mood and cognition.

Researchers have found, for instance, that drinking tea lowers levels of the stress hormone cortisol. And evidence of long-term health benefits is emerging, too: drinking at least 100 millilitres (about half a cup) of green tea a day seems to lower the risk of developing depression and dementia. Scientists are also trying to identify the major active compounds that give tea its mental-health benefits, and whether they work alone or in combination with other compounds present in the drink. Tea catechins — antioxidants such as epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) — account for up to 42% of the dry weight of brewed green tea, and the amino acid L-theanine makes up around 3%. EGCG is thought to make people feel calmer and improve memory and attention when consumed on its own. L-theanine is found to have a similar effect when consumed in combination with caffeine. Up to 5% of the dry weight of green tea is caffeine, which is known to improve mood, alertness and cognition.

The effect of tea on behaviour is slightly paradoxical, says Andrew Scholey, a psychopharmacologist at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia. “Tea is calming, but alerting at the same time,” he says, while sipping a cup of Earl Grey tea.

More here.

Justifiably Believing That Something Is True Doesn’t Mean You Know It

by John Allen Paulos

I’ve always liked stories that depended on mistaken identity, a very old theme in general. Having a degree in mathematical logic, I was also drawn to the subject on a more theoretical level, on which lies Gettier’s Paradox.

Since Plato and the ancient Greeks, knowledge has been taken by many philosophers of science to be justified true belief. A subject S is said to know a proposition P if P is true, S believes that P is true, and S is justified in believing that P is true. The philosopher Edmund L. Gettier showed in 1963 that these three ancient conditions are not sufficient to ensure knowledge of P. His counterexamples to a straightforward understanding of knowledge are paradoxical and seem particularly prevalent in politics. For me, this is part of their appeal since politics and mathematical logic occupy such different realms of cognitive space.

To provide a topical one consider the 2016 election. Trump and Clinton in October before the 2016 election were certainly evaluating their chances to win the election. Trump had strong evidence for the following compound proposition:

Proposition (1): Clinton is the person who will be elected, and there was a little clock that might help her out mounted in her lectern during the final debate. Trump’s evidence for (1) might be that the polls were showing Clinton was going to win the election and President Obama and the Democratic establishment were strongly supporting her. He also noticed the clock as he hovered around Clinton’s lectern during the debate.

If (1) is true, it implies

Proposition (2): the person who will get elected had a lectern with a little clock mounted in it. Trump saw that (1) implied (2) and thus accepted (2) on the basis of (1), for which he had strong evidence. Clearly Trump was justified in believing that (2) was true.

So far, so good. But unknown to Trump at that time, was that he, not Clinton, would be elected. Read more »

Call me a fascist: from Melania Trump to Ayelet Shaked

by Abigail Akavia

A parade of the Giovani Italiene, a fascist organization for young women. Italy, ca. 1935. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Israel’s minister of justice stars in an ad for the perfume Fascism—if you follow Israeli politics even superficially, you probably have heard about this election campaign video for the New Right party, which sparked controversy in Israeli as well as international media. If you’ve actually watched it, you may have realized it is (or purports to be) ironic, though you would need the subtitled version to make the irony clear. To a non-Hebrew speaker watching the non-subtitled version, Ayelet Shaked seems to seductively model the perfume Fascism. Shot in black-and-white, she has the affectations of a sultry film star, complete with hair flip, donning of blazer (at least, thankfully, she is not filmed taking the blazer off), and caressing of a stair railing. A sexy female voice-over croons Shaked’s proposed measures for the restraining of judicial powers, a “judicial revolution” which has been her main goal as justice minister, and which she hopes to further in the next administration, to be assembled following the upcoming elections for parliament tomorrow (April 9th). Shaked has been vocal and active against what right-wingers have long considered the ultra-liberal tendencies of Israel’s Supreme Court—namely, its concern for the liberties and human rights of Palestinians.

For example, the ministry under her lead has transferred the jurisdiction of the occupied territories from the Supreme Court to the Jerusalem court of administrative affairs, especially in matters pertaining to building and construction, and entry and exit. She has also pushed for a law that would allow the parliament to override the Supreme Court’s authority to disqualify any law contradicting The Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, which enjoys super-legal status (Israel does not have a constitution, but a set of Basic or Constitutional Laws that can only be changed by a supermajority in parliament). That the Supreme Court should uphold the Human Dignity and Liberty of individuals and groups that are not part of the hegemonic majority (i.e. non-Jewish) is anathema to Shaked and her far-right party members. In an Israel which is clearly more right-leaning than ever, the sentiment that Palestinians in the occupied territories (in itself a term that is falling out of the norm and into the purview of the “delusional left”) are undeserving of basic human rights or simple human dignity, is becoming alarmingly common.

But back to the perfume ad: is Shaked simply saying, “I am a proud fascist”? The controversy, no doubt deliberate, revolved partly around this issue: that the subtle irony of the video, not to mention its actual punch-line, might be lost on anyone who mistakenly takes the ad at face value. I’ll suggest below how we might unpack this irony, both in its local context and by comparing it to Melania Trump’s infamous “I really don’t care” jacket, another instance of a plausible fascist performance with multi-layered significance. Read more »

Should love be rational?

by Thomas R. Wells

Why do you love me? Tell me the reasons.

I love you because you are you. If I loved you for reasons then I wouldn’t love you, but the reasons. I would have to leave you if someone better came along.

Movies, music and novels portray a particular ideal of romantic love almost relentlessly. Love is something that happens to you, something you fall into even against your will or better judgement. It is something to be experienced as good in itself and joyfully submitted to, not something that should be questioned.

Is this person good for me? Would I be good for them? To ask such questions would betray a spirit of rational calculation that has no place in matters of the heart. The only question you should be asking is whether it is the real thing, which can be assessed by the strength of your feelings for the other. For authentic love, no price is too great.

It should be pretty clear that this is a pathological idea of love that — thanks to its immense popularity — has trained generations of people into attitudes and expectations that cause them and others great unhappiness. How many stalkers are simply following what the movies have taught them and risking all for love? How many people find that love has attached them to a person who isn’t worthy of their commitment, or who even exploits it and causes them harm? Love as authenticity may be a delicious fantasy, but it is a terrible way to try to live. Read more »

How I Learned to Stop Worrying About The Existence of An External World

by Joseph Shieber

If you’re like me, when you read something on 3QD you often have a cup of coffee ready to hand. Perhaps you’re at your desk at work on your computer, with a mug near your mousepad. Or you’re in a coffee shop reading on your cell phone. Or at home reading on a tablet in your armchair with a cup perched on a side table conveniently within reach.

Without looking away from the screen, you’ll sometimes reach over for the cup, grab it, and bring it to your mouth to drink. This virtually automatic, quotidian activity is actually extremely complex. In order for you automatically to grab your coffee cup and take a sip, your brain has to keep track of where your hand is, where the coffee cup is, how to move your hand to the coffee cup, how to grasp the handle of the coffee cup, and then how to move your hand — now grasping the cup — to your lips. Yet we perform these simple actions virtually without thinking!

What I’d like to focus in on is the first step of that sequence of simple actions — knowing where your hand is. That’s because a recent paper by Kazumichi Matsuyima in Scientific Reports sheds new light on what it is that our brains do in order for us to know where the parts of our body are.

Thinking about this will also allow me to review one of the most famous proofs in twentieth century analytic philosophy. And it will allow me to talk a little about one of the most discussed results in recent cognitive science. All of which will give me a chance to talk about some cool stuff that I wasn’t able to fit into my lectures for The Great Courses that were released last month — Theories of Knowledge: How to Think About What You Know. Read more »

On Visiting Britain

by Emrys Westacott

Just as Anteus in Greek mythology renewed his strength by touching the earth, so emigrés who live abroad often draw some sort of cultural or spiritual nourishment from returning to their roots. In my case this means returning to Britain, and specifically to the countryside that remains, for the most part, green and pleasant. Usually I do this in the summer, so it made a nice change this year to be in Britain at the beginning of Spring. The trees not yet being in leaf left more of the landscape open and visible. There were fewer flowers, of course, but there were also fewer holiday makers clogging up the roads and the honey pot tourist sites.

The British countryside, especially the Derbyshire Peak District (full disclosure–it’s where I grew up, and I’m biased), is simply fabulous for its combination of natural beauty, historical interest, scientific significance, variety and accessibility. When out walking, the superb large-scale ordinance survey maps–now available as a phone-app– are indispensable aids and do much to enhance the experience. I never fail to be amazed at how, in spite of there being over sixty-five million people crammed onto a small island, one can so easily enjoy in virtual solitude fields and hillsides, rivers and streams, woods and moorlands. One sunny afternoon I walked out onto a moor just a few miles East of greater Manchester, and in three hours met no-one. Read more »

Stay Hungry

by Shawn Crawford

Kafka monument, Prague

Like most Kafka stories, “A Hunger Artist” inserts you into a bewildering situation, appears to offer you some solace and meaning, and then bewilders you all over again.

The Hunger Artist is just that: a man that starves himself for a living. But unlike Gregor Samsa awaking to find himself an enormous insect, this story echoes Kafka’s actual time and place (Europe from 1883-1924). Hunger artists traveled the continent, creating a craze like flagpole sitting or MMA fighting. Generally confined, guards watched over the artist to ensure he did not eat. Crowds would gather to take stock of an artist’s slow emaciation; postcards were sold with photos of the artist at his most gaunt state.

The hero of our story resides in a cage filled with straw. Children gather, clinging to each other in terror and wonder. The Artist’s handler, the Impresario, determines that forty days of fasting produces the largest crowds and peak interest before attention begins to wane. On the final day, the Artist emerges from his cage to great acclaim, angry that he cannot pursue his craft for even longer. Simply the delirium of hunger, the Impresario assures the crowd.

As the fad begins to decline, the Artist finds himself relegated to a circus, living in a cage surrounded by the show’s menagerie. But while he laments the lack of attention, he can now fast for as long as likes. He can take his art to the ultimate extreme. Spoiler alert: the artist starves himself to death. It’s Kafka after all. Read more »

Homogeneity and Difference in the Wine World

by Dwight Furrow

The wine world thrives on variation. Wine grapes are notoriously sensitive to differences in climate, weather and soil. If care is taken to plant grapes in the right locations and preserve those differences, each region, each vintage, and indeed each vineyard can produce differences that wine lovers crave. If the thousands of bottles on wine shop shelves all taste the same, there is no justification for the vast number of brands and their price differentials. Yet the modern wine world is built on processes that can dampen variation and increase homogeneity. If these processes were to gain power and prominence the culture of wine would be under threat. The wine world is a battleground in which forces that promote homogeneity compete with forces that encourage variation with the aesthetics of wine as the stakes. In order to understand the nature of the threat homogeneity poses to the wine world and the reasons why thus far we’ve avoided the worst consequences of that threat we need to understand these forces. I will be telling this story from the perspective of the U.S. although the themes will resonate within wine regions throughout much of the world.

The modern wine world in the U.S. that began to emerge and solidify in the 1950’s was built on five pillars, all of which contributed to the remarkable quality revolution that transformed wine into a readily accessible symbol of refinement that graces even middle class dinner tables throughout the world. Those pillars include: the adoption of the French image of wine as a dry (i.e. not sweet), food friendly, nuanced aesthetic object; advances in wine technology that enabled clean, consistent wines and extracted more flavor; an increase in ripeness levels encouraged by that improved technology as well as the emergence of warm climate wine regions; and the adoption of independent standards of wine criticism that put pressure on complacent traditions to increase quality. All of this took place in a context of expanding demand and the resulting need to ramp up supply and develop more consumer friendly marketing. Read more »