Stars Above

by Samia Altaf

In the 1960s, in the sleepy little city of Sialkot, almost in no-man’s land between India and Pakistan and of little significance except for its large cantonment and its factories of surgical instruments and sports goods, there were two cinema houses, all within a mile of our house, No. 3 Kutchery Road. Well three to be exact, the third being an improvisation involving two tree trunks with a white sheet slung between them at the Services club and only on Saturday nights.

The one closest to us our house, just this side of the railway crossing, was Nishat, popularly known as Begum’s cinema with a risqué aura because it was owned and managed by the ‘Begum,’ a burqa-clad, not so young, but still beautiful woman. There was hushed talk about the Begum’s morals because she, a single woman, owned and managed a cinema house in a time when so-called ‘decent’ women rarely went to the cinema let alone own one.

The second, past the railway crossing on the other side of the ‘drumma wallah chowk,’ the main city square, was the Lalazar. Lalazar was considered to be in a class above the others partly for its sweeping marble staircase curving upwards to the gallery and partly for its owner Mr. Majeed’s newly acquired daughter-in-law Mussarat Nazir, the rustic Punjabi beauty and a leading lady of film industry. Mr. Majeed, a portly gentleman with a loud laugh, was among the city fathers, the ‘shurafa,’ of the city. Mussarat Nazeer, still in her teens, came to public attention in the movie Yakkey Wali. My father tells how he and his friends, all grown and married men, saw that movie about twenty times and every time M. Nazir appeared on screen, they along with the whole house threw coins at the screen in the age old tradition of showing one’s appreciation. M. Nazir’s untimely departure at the height of her career to lead a life of married bliss in Canada was mourned by all till she returned thirty years later, still the rustic beauty, and became a household name selling millions of audio cassettes of Punjabi wedding and folk songs. My older son, then three years old, heard her signature folk song ‘Laung gwacha,’ saw her face on the grimy cover of a much used audio cassette, fell immediately in love and vowed to marry her. His grandfather understood completely. Read more »

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Thinking of Language, Love and Loss with Nina Raine’s “Tribes”

by Abigail Akavia

Would I rather go deaf or blind? Every once in a while, I come back to this question in some version or another. Say I had to choose which sense I’d lose in my old age, which would it be? I always give myself, unequivocally, the same answer: I’d rather go blind. I’d rather my world go darker than quieter. I imagine it as a choice between seeing the world and communicating with it; in this hypothetical, communication with the world is all-encompassing, its loss more devastating than the loss of sight. It is perhaps clear from the mere fact that I pose this question that I do not live with a disability involving the senses. Individuals who are vision- or hearing-impaired would have an entirely different take on this question and on the issues I raise below, but hopefully what I write here will go beyond stating my own prejudices.
To prefer sound over sight is by no means an obvious choice. One could say that a preference for sound over sight goes against millennia of Platonic thought, which prioritizes sight as giving us access to what is stable, verifiable, graspable to the mind’s eye: the idea is literally that which is seen (from id-, one of the Greek roots for to see). Sound, on the other hand, changes in time, it is fleeting, untrustworthy, and hence inferior.

But poetry and myth have offered an alternative way of thought. Ancient myth is populated by sage blind men like the prophet Tiresias and Oedipus (after, of course, he learns the truth about his identity). Their lack of physical sight is not only a counterpart to their exceptional insight into the way of the world but, to an extent, the very source of their intellectual and spiritual advantage. In the case of both, what they lack in perception they make up for in a remarkable facility with language. Tiresias’ advantage over his seeing adversaries is perhaps the better-known example, as he delivers truthful but irritatingly cryptic prophetic messages to Oedipus (in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King) and Creon (in Antigone). Managing to confuse and manipulate them, Tiresias has the rhetorical upper hand, and the audience always already knows that he is in the right. In Oedipus at Colonus, the last play Sophocles wrote, the old Oedipus turns up as a similarly prophetic, wrathful speaker of harsh truths, with a sharp ability to pick out the dissimulators from the honest ones around him by virtue of what they say. Neither man’s ability to communicate is lessened by their blindness; in fact, it allows them to recognize and speak the truth more easily. Read more »

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Philosophy as music: On the death of Albrecht Wellmer

by Joseph Shieber

The German philosopher Albrecht Wellmer died earlier this month in Berlin, on September 13 at the age of 85.

A member of the “second generation” of the Frankfurt School, Wellmer was a Ph.D. student of Adorno’s, a professorial assistant of Habermas’s, and a colleague of Arendt’s.

Although Wellmer wrote both of his dissertions (the Promotionsschrift and the Habilitationsschrift) on topics in the philosophy of science, he soon turned to ethics and critical theory, and later to the study of the philosophy of language and the philosophy of music. He held positions as a professor at the New School for Social Research, the Universität Konstanz, and the Freie Universität Berlin. In 2006, he was awarded the Theodor Adorno Prize by the city of Frankfurt.

Infinitely less significant is that Wellmer also gave me my first job in philosophy, as a wissenschaftlicher Hilfsassistent — basically a teaching assistant — in the Institute for Hermeneutics in the philosophy department at the Free University of Berlin. I worked under him from 1994 to 1997, including serving as a teaching assistant for the lectures that were published in 2004 as Sprachphilosophie: Eine Vorlesung. Read more »

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Can Corporations be ‘Good Citizens’?

by Thomas R. Wells

The idea of ‘good corporate citizenship’ has become popular recently among business ethicists and corporate leaders. You may have noticed its appearance on corporate websites and CEO speeches. But what does it mean and does it matter? Is it any more than a new species of public relations flimflam to set beside terms like ‘corporate social responsibility’ and the ‘triple bottom line’? Is it just a metaphor?

The history of the term does not promise much. It does indeed seem to have evolved out of corporate speak – how corporations represent themselves rather than how they view themselves – selected, perhaps, for sounding reassuring but vague. Its popularity has far preceded its definition; ‘corporate citizenship’ is still evolving, looking for a place to settle.

But what it is about is important. For it represents a political turn to the old question, Who are corporations for and how is their power to be managed? Are corporations bound to serve society’s interest, or are they free to follow their own? Are they public institutions, part of the governance of our society and publicly accountable to us for their actions, or are they private associations accountable only to their managers and owners?

For around a hundred years this question had an institutional answer in the form of ‘managed capitalism’, with governments playing a central role in corporate decision-making. They were outright owners of many businesses; they directed negotiations with labour – itself institutionally empowered by the state as a countervailing power to the large corporation; and they used the wide discretionary authority of the state to cajole and coerce company directors to serve what they saw as the public interest. Read more »

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The Unmeasurable Value of General Education

by Emrys Westacott

Learning Objectives. Measurable Outcomes. These are among the buzziest of buzz words in current debates about education. And that discordant groaning noise you can hear around many academic departments is the sound of recalcitrant faculty, following orders from on high, unenthusiastically inserting learning objectives (henceforth LOs) and measurable outcomes (hereafter MOs) into already bloated syllabi or program assessment instruments.

But why do they moan and groan? Administrators, accreditors, and politicians see no problem. Nor do many teachers in STEM subjects and other technical fields. And prima facie they have a good case. Isn’t it obviously a good idea to have LOs for any course you teach? And shouldn’t you know what they are, be able to articulate them, and let your students know what you want them to achieve? How could any reasonable person think otherwise?

Ditto for MOs. Don’t you want to know if your LOs have been achieved? Why on earth wouldn’t you want to know? This, surely, is how we improve on what we do. We set goals. We see how well we are meeting them. We then tinker, tweak, or revamp wholesale in light of our findings, in a never-ending process of improvement.

It all sounds so sensible.

But what is sound practice in some contexts makes much less sense in others. Even those who have drunk the LO-MO Kool-Aid might balk at the idea of couples specifying in their pre-nuptial agreements a well-defined set of marital objectives linked to measurable outcomes. When it comes to college courses, the emphasis on LOs and MOs may sometimes be reasonable, particularly in courses that form an integrated and progressive program of study in technical subjects that lend themselves to exact modes of assessment. But I suspect they are of dubious value in at least one common and important kind of course–namely, the general education course where most of the students are receiving their only college-level exposure to an academic field. Read more »

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Choose the Axiom III

by Carl Pierer

In the first part of this essay, the axiom of choice was introduced and a rather counterintuitive consequence was shown: the Banach-Tarski Paradox. To recapitulate: the axiom of choice states that, given any collection of non-empty sets, it is possible to choose exactly one element from each of them. This is uncontroversial in the case where the collection is finite. Simply list all the sets and then pick an element from each. Yet, as soon as we consider infinite collections, matters get more complicated. We cannot explicitly write down which element to pick, so we need to give a principled method of choosing. In some cases, this might be straightforward. For example, take an infinite collection of non-empty subsets of the natural numbers. Any such set will contain a least element. Thus, if we pick the least element from each of these sets, we have given a principled method. However, with an infinite collection of non-empty subsets of the real numbers, this particular method does not work. Moreover, there is no obvious alternative principled method. The axiom of choice then states that nonetheless such a method exists, although we do not know it. The axiom of choice entails the Banach-Tarski Paradox, which states that we can break up a ball into 8 pieces, take 4 of them, rotate them around and put them back together to get back the original ball. We can do the same thing with the remaining 4 pieces and get another ball of exactly the same size. This allows us to duplicate the ball.

The second part of this essay demonstrated a useful consequence (or indeed, an equivalent) of the axiom of choice, known as Zorn’s Lemma and looked at a few applications of this Lemma. Two positions have been mapped out in the course of this essay. On the one hand, the axiom has very counterintuitive consequences, so much so that they’ve received the name of a paradox. On the other hand, the axiom proves to be very useful in deducing mathematical propositions. These considerations lead back to the question that had already been raised at the end of the first part: how are we to decide on the status of an axiom, on whether to accept it or reject it?

In this third and final part of the essay, we will take a more philosophical approach to this problem. In particular, we will look at a possible resolution offered by Penelope Maddy in her Defending the Axioms. The solution offered would lead onto further questions about the nature of mathematics: what is mathematics actually about? At the same time, Maddy’s view is based on a certain conception of proof that does not really reflect mathematical practice. The essay, due to limitations, only hints at a different perspective offered by looking at what mathematicians actually do and what role proofs play for them. Read more »

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Clatsop County, Part Two: Kevin

by Tamuira Reid

It’s nearing lunchtime when I make it over to Kevin’s, and beautiful out, but his window shades are still drawn closed, outside light on. I notice the porch slopes ever so slightly to the right, where a few forgotten footballs and beer bottles have now collected. I knock. Wait. Hear some movement and bustling. Then silence. I knock again. Silver masking tape covers large rips in the screen door, big enough for a head to push through. More movement. Finally Kevin emerges, a cigarette hanging from his lips.

He doesn’t say hi, but rather ushers me in, a quick gesture of his skinny body, a bony hand-to-back motion that says hurry.

I am used to this with Kevin. The hurry up and go of it all. When you’ve made the conscious decision to hangout with crystal meth addicts, life becomes a constant hurry-up-and- go, even if you’re only going to the bathroom.

I like Kevin. He’s thoughtful and smart and ridiculously resourceful. He’s also one of the worst addicts I’ve come across during my time in Clatsop County – or in my personal life – which is saying a lot. He will likely never get clean. He might commit more than a few crimes. And he will probably die too young. His life is already pedal to the metal, as he’d tell you. Pedal to the fucking metal. Read more »

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How Wine Expresses Vitality

by Dwight Furrow

Although frequently lampooned as over-the-top, there is a history of describing wines as if they expressed personality traits or emotions, despite the fact that wine is not a psychological agent and could not literally have these characteristics—wines are described as aggressive, sensual, fierce, languorous, angry, dignified, brooding, joyful, bombastic, tense or calm, etc. Is there a foundation to these descriptions or are they just arbitrary flights of fancy?

Last month on this blog I argued that recent work in psychology that employs “vitality forms” helps us understand how music expresses emotion. Will vitality forms help us understand how wine could express feeling states or personality characteristics?

Vitality forms are “the flow pattern” of human experience, “the subjectively experienced shifts in the internal states” that characterize sensations, thoughts, actions, emotions, and other feeling states. Discovered by Daniel Stern and described in his 2010 book Forms of Vitality: Exploring Dynamic Experience in Psychology, the Arts, Psychotherapy, and Development, vitality forms constitute the temporal structure of experience, the duration, acceleration and intensity of an experience. Importantly, vitality forms are not tied to a specific sense modality. All five senses as well as thoughts and feelings exhibit vitality forms. “A thought can rush onto the mental stage and swell, or it can quietly just appear and then fade”, as Stern notes.  So can sounds, visual experiences, tactile impressions or emotions—anger can explode or emerge as a slow burn. In short, a vitality form is how any conscious experience emerges and changes over time. Read more »

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September 23, 2018

A censorship less visible

Kenan Malik in Pandaemonium:

One of the problems in discussing censorship is that we often don’t recognize censorship for what it is. There is no longer the Lord Chamberlain marking scripts and cutting out the unacceptable. Instead, we, in effect, ourselves mark them. And that, ironically, makes censorship not more, but less, visible.

In all my years campaigning for free speech, I’ve rarely heard anyone say ‘I’m for censorship’. Rather what many say is ‘I’m for free speech. But…’ I’m for free speech… but speech must be used responsibly. I’m for free speech… but speech should not offend. I’m for free speech… but don’t appropriate from other cultures. And so on. What was once recognized as straightforward censorship has now become a combination of moral obligation and social etiquette.

Even those who openly call for censorship often dress it up in moral terms. Thirty years ago, back in the midst of the Rushdie affair, Shabbir Akhtar, spokesman for the Bradford Council of Mosques, insisted that the real debate was not about ‘freedom of speech versus censorship’ but about ‘legitimate criticism versus obscenity and slander’. Exactly the same point has been made by every opponent of offnsove talk, from those who shut down Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s Behzti to those who would have shut down Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children.

But who makes that judgment call? Who decides what is legitimate criticism and what is obscenity and slander? Half a century ago, the answer was: the Lord Chamberlain. Today, the answer is each of us.

More here.

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A 558-Million-Year-Old Mystery Has Been Solved

Ed Yong in The Atlantic:

Around 558 million years ago, a strange … something dies on the floor of an ancient ocean. Its body, if you could call it that, is a two-inch-long oval with symmetric ribs running from its midline to its fringes. It is quickly buried in sediment, and gradually turns into a fossil.

While it sits in place, petrifying, waiting, the world around it changes. The Earth’s landmasses merge into a single supercontinent before going their separate ways. In the ocean, animal life explodes; for the first time, the world is home to eyes, shells, and mouths. Living things invade the land, coating it first in thin films of moss and lichens, and then covering it in huge forests. Insects rise, into existence, and then into the skies. A dinosaur empire rises and falls. Mammals finally take over, and one of them—a human by the name of Ilya Bobrovskiy—finally unearths the fossilized ribbed oval from its resting place.

All of which is to say: Five hundred fifty-eight million years is an incredibly long time.

But despite that almost unimaginable time span, and everything that happened within it, many of the simple molecules that once existed in the oval creature’s cells still persist. Bobrovskiy, a geochemist at Australian National University, has isolated, identified, and measured them. And they provide conclusive evidence that the creature, despite all appearances, is an animal. More specifically, it is the oldest animal ever discovered. It’s called Dickinsonia.

More here.

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Why Growth Can’t Be Green

Jason Hickel in Foreign Policy:

Warnings about ecological breakdown have become ubiquitous. Over the past few years, major newspapers, including the Guardian and the New York Times, have carried alarming stories on soil depletion, deforestation, and the collapse of fish stocks and insect populations. These crises are being driven by global economic growth, and its accompanying consumption, which is destroying the Earth’s biosphere and blowing past key planetary boundaries that scientists say must be respected to avoid triggering collapse.

Many policymakers have responded by pushing for what has come to be called “green growth.” All we need to do, they argue, is invest in more efficient technology and introduce the right incentives, and we’ll be able to keep growing while simultaneously reducing our impact on the natural world, which is already at an unsustainable level. In technical terms, the goal is to achieve “absolute decoupling” of GDP from the total use of natural resources, according to the U.N. definition.

It sounds like an elegant solution to an otherwise catastrophic problem. There’s just one hitch: New evidence suggests that green growth isn’t the panacea everyone has been hoping for. In fact, it isn’t even possible.

More here.

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America, Land of Brutal Binaries

Andrew Sullivan in New York Magazine:

It was entirely a coincidence that I found myself reading Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff’s The Coddling of the American Mind in the same week that Brett Kavanaugh was credibly accused of sexual assault in his teens, and Ian Buruma lost his job as editor of The New York Review of Books, after publishing an essay by a man credibly accused of 23 separate instances of sexual abuse, but cleared of all criminal charges. And the book does not, of course, address the specifics of either case. But it’s a sharp analysis of the toxic atmosphere in which our current debates take place, a reminder that it is close to impossible, in this polarized climate, to deal with the specifics and complexities of each scandal from a non-tribal perspective.

And so it seems that Kavanaugh is either a perfect exemplar of judicial expertise and impeccable moral conduct, or he is a lying rapist determined to destroy and control the lives of all women. Ghomeshi is evil, and granting any space for such a monster to defend or account for himself is itself an act of oppression, which must be shamed and punished. Those appear to be our choices, ladies and gentlemen, in this particular polarization cycle. There is little nuance in these battles and absolutely no mercy for anyone unlucky enough to get caught up in their swirling vortex.

More here.

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Why we should be wary of using animal behaviour in trying to explain our own

Adam Rutherford in New Statesman:

I have spent much of the last few days  destroying my own work. It turns out that obliterating it neatly is almost as difficult as making it. It’s publication week of my latest, The Book of Humans, and we’ve been running various competitions to draw people’s eyes in. I have great fondness for hiding secrets in my books. In one, I encoded a message in the letters of the genetic code – an email address that revealed the instructions for a treasure hunt. For The Book of Humans – surely conceived by me as an epic act of procrastination – I have dug out a hole in the middle of one copy, as if to hide a wad of cash, and inside this book-box I’ve stashed a small treasure, something mentioned in the book and of relevance to the story. So far, I’ve destroyed two practice copies with a multi-tool trying to carve and glue a neat rectangular box inside 250 pages of human evolution. I’ll push the button for this hunt to begin on Twitter this week. Let’s see how long it takes people to work out what’s in the box.

Schrödinger’s chat

I’m writing these words on a plane to London from Dublin, where a bunch of scientists were celebrating the 75th anniversary of one of the most influential series of lectures of the 20th century. You may have heard of the Nobel-winning physicist Erwin Schrödinger from his thought experiment – no real animals were harmed – in which a cat in a sealed box was simultaneously dead and alive until observed, whereon it chose one of those quantum states. I forget why this is important, because as a mere biologist, I am primarily concerned with organisms that are either alive or dead, but never both.

More here.

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