Steven Pinker on thought and metaphor

Peter Calamai in the Toronto Star:

Pinker_6“We have to do two things with language. We’ve got to convey a message and we’ve got to negotiate what kind of social relationship we have with someone,” Pinker says in a telephone interview from his home in Cambridge, Mass.

Even something as seemingly straightforward as asking for the salt involves thinking and communicating at two levels, which is why we utter such convoluted requests as, “If you think you could pass the salt, that would be great.”

Says Pinker: “It’s become so common that we don’t even notice that it is a philosophical rumination rather than a direct imperative. It’s a bit of a social dilemma. On the one hand, you do want the salt. On the other hand, you don’t want to boss people around lightly.

“So you split the difference by saying something that literally makes no sense while also conveying the message that you’re not treating them like some kind of flunky.”

The Harvard psychologist classes the salt request as an example of indirect speech, a category that also includes euphemisms and innuendo. Two other key themes for Wednesday’s talk are the ubiquity of metaphor in everyday language and swearing and what it says about human emotion.

More here.

how the left went berserk


The anti-war movement disgraced itself not because it was against the war in Iraq, but because it could not oppose the counter-revolution once the war was over. A principled left that still had life in it and a liberalism that meant what it said might have remained ferociously critical of the American and British governments while offering support to Iraqis who wanted the freedoms they enjoyed.

It is a generalisation to say that everyone refused to commit themselves. The best of the old left in the trade unions and parliamentary Labour party supported an anti-fascist struggle, regardless of whether they were for or against the war, and American Democrats went to fi ght in Iraq and returned to fi ght the Republicans. But again, no one who looked at the liberal left from the outside could pretend that such principled stands were commonplace. The British Liberal Democrats, the continental social democratic parties, the African National Congress and virtually every leftish newspaper and journal on the planet were unable to accept that the struggle of Arabs and Kurds had anything to do with them. Mainstream Muslim organisations were as indifferent to the murder of Muslims by other Muslims in Iraq as in Darfur. For the majority of world opinion, Blair’s hopes of ‘giving people oppressed, almost enslaved, the prospect of democracy and liberty’ counted for nothing.

more from The Observer here.

coetzee on mailer


The lesson that Adolf Eichmann teaches, wrote Hannah Arendt at the conclusion of Eichmann in Jerusalem, is of “the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil” (Arendt’s italics). Since 1963, when she penned it, the formula “the banality of evil” has acquired a life of its own; today it has the kind of clichéd currency that “great criminal” had in Dostoevsky’s day.

Mailer has repeatedly in the past voiced his suspicion of this formula. As a secular liberal, says Mailer, Arendt is blind to the power of evil in the universe. “To assume…that evil itself is banal strikes me as exhibiting a prodigious poverty of imagination.” “If Hannah Arendt is correct and evil is banal, then that is vastly worse than the opposed possibility that evil is satanic”—worse in the sense that there is no struggle between good and evil and therefore no meaning to existence.

It is not too much to say that Mailer’s quarrel with Arendt is a running subtext to The Castle in the Forest. But does he do justice to her? In 1946 Arendt had an exchange of letters with Karl Jaspers sparked by his use of the word “criminal” to characterize Nazi policies. Arendt disagreed. In comparison with mere criminal guilt, she wrote to him, the guilt of Hitler and his associates “oversteps and shatters any and all legal systems.”

more from the NY Review of books here.

We give you the fruit of the palm and the vine from which you derive intoxicants and wholesome food


As Batmanglij notes, Muslims who wished to drink alcohol gave a variety of excuses. Wine was being drunk as a medicine. It was alleged that the Koran only forbade over-indulgence in wine. Wine that was diluted or boiled was acceptable. The ban applied only to wine and not to arak, beer, or fermented mare’s milk. Dick Davis, the eminent translator of classic Persian texts, has contributed an excellent chapter on “Wine and Persian Poetry” in From Persia to Napa in which he points out that the heroes of Firdawsi’s great epic, the Shahnama, drank heroically. He also discusses the metaphorical employment of “wine” in Persian Sufi poetry to signify ecstasy. Though many Sufi poems have survived in which this is indeed the case, Davis is rightly doubtful about the automatic translation of wine as some figurative reference to a spiritual experience. “Sometimes, and perhaps usually, a cigar is just a cigar – and wine just wine” according to Davis, paraphrasing Freud. In particular, Davis is sceptical about the wholesale assimilation of the fourteenth-century poetry of Hafiz of Shiraz into the mystical canon: “My own feeling is that he is almost always writing about what he says he is writing about, wine and carnal love, and that his occasional hankerings for a more secure and spiritual world safe from the vicissitudes of earthly life, are just that – occasional hankerings”. Wine and feasting feature prominently in the Arabian Nights, though the most famous of all the stories’ meals, the Barmecide feast in “The Barber’s Tale of His Sixth Brother”, was a decidedly notional one. The barber’s impoverished brother goes to dine with a member of the wealthy Barmecide clan. However, the wine and food offered by his host are invisible and impalpable. As the barber’s brother rises to leave, he strikes his host on the neck, before apologizing and claiming that he is drunk from having imbibed so much excellent wine. The host, in turn apologetic and amused, now provides him with a real meal. Zirbajah was another dish immortalized by literature, as it features in “The Reeve’s Tale” in the Nights. In this story, which is told by the controller of the King of China’s kitchen, a man turns up at a feast, but when presented with a dish of zirbajah, he vehemently refuses to eat it. On being pressed to reveal why, he shows that his thumbs have been cut off. His story is that he was on the verge of marrying a beautiful handmaiden of the caliph Harun al-Rashid. But while waiting to be admitted to the bedroom, he ate some zirbajah and forgot to wash his hands afterwards. When his bride-to-be discovered this, she was so enraged that she had his thumbs cut off.

more from the TLS here.

Life in Death


From Lens Culture:

Photographs can have magical story-telling quality, especially when they are introduced in an inviting way, and then, when they flow, in conversation with one another, allowing us to fill in the gaps and build a whole personal narrative within our own imaginations. That is the kind of magic that captured me when I picked up “Life in Death”, a photobook by Eva Persson.

“Life in Death” transported me to a very small village (named Death) in Finland, and introduced me, in an intimate way, to the people who live there and have lived there all of their lives. Through the seasons of dark grey winters and bright flower-filled summers, I feel as if I know these people — and this bit of the world — personally.

More here.

Brain Damage Sheds Light on Urge to Smoke

From Science:Brain_28

Cigarette smokers who suffer damage to a particular brain region often lose the urge to smoke, according to a new study. Although brain damage is hardly a recommended treatment for smokers who want to quit, researchers say the findings provide important insight into the biological basis of addictive behaviors.

Previous research on addiction has implicated the insula, a brain region tucked into a deep fold in the cerebral cortex. In brain scans of cocaine addicts, for example, the insula lights up in response to images of drug paraphernalia. Those kinds of images also tend to give addicts an urge to take more drugs. Similarly, videos of people smoking stimulate the insula in smokers’ brains. Such work suggests that the insula helps generate addicts’ drug-related urges. So what would happen if the insula suddenly went offline?

Antoine Bechara, a neuroscientist at the University Southern California in Los Angeles, and colleagues investigated this question in 19 cigarette smokers who had suffered insula damage as a result of a stroke or other neurological problem. Twelve of these people stopped smoking immediately after their brain injury and reported feeling no urges to smoke and no relapses since they quit. “My body forgot the urge to smoke,” one man told the researchers. Before his stroke he was smoking 40 unfiltered cigarettes a day and had no intention of quitting.

More here.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Ryszard Kapuscinski (1932-2007)


A great writer and a great man… I had the honor of meeting him once and giving him a tour of Los Angeles. I very much hoped I would have the chance to keep his company again. To me, he was one of the heroes of the 20th century and he was one of those few, brave persons who helped to give Poland some of its soul back.

Ryszard Kapuscinski, a globe-trotting journalist from Poland whose writing, often tinged with magical realism, brought him critical acclaim and a wide international readership, died yesterday in Warsaw. He was 74.

His death, at a hospital, was reported by PAP, the Polish news agency for which he had worked. No cause was given, but he was known to have had cancer.

Mr. Kapuscinski (pronounced ka-poos-CHIN-ski) spent some four decades observing and writing about conflict throughout the developing world. He witnessed 27 coups and revolutions. He spent his working days gathering information for the terse dispatches he sent to PAP, often from places like Ougadougou or Zanzibar.

At night, he worked on longer, descriptive essays with phantasmagoric touches that went far beyond the details of the day’s events, using allegory and metaphors to convey what was happening.

more from the NY Times here.

Steven Pinker on The Mystery of Consciousness

From Time Magazine:

Mbpinkerz_0129The young women had survived the car crash, after a fashion. In the five months since parts of her brain had been crushed, she could open her eyes but didn’t respond to sights, sounds or jabs. In the jargon of neurology, she was judged to be in a persistent vegetative state. In crueler everyday language, she was a vegetable.

So picture the astonishment of British and Belgian scientists as they scanned her brain using a kind of MRI that detects blood flow to active parts of the brain. When they recited sentences, the parts involved in language lit up. When they asked her to imagine visiting the rooms of her house, the parts involved in navigating space and recognizing places ramped up. And when they asked her to imagine playing tennis, the regions that trigger motion joined in. Indeed, her scans were barely different from those of healthy volunteers. The woman, it appears, had glimmerings of consciousness.

More here.

Barack to the Drawing Board

With Barack Obama’s presidential campaign underway, his advisors are working overtime to make sure their man appeals to the American public, and the first challenge is the name. Eric Feezell snags a secret memo proposing the Senator’s new monikers.

From The Morning News:

Obama_2Senator Brock O. Alabama

A decidedly more “American” first name, “Brock” could be your corn-fed, record-setting high school quarterback from Indiana. Middle initial may stand for “Opportunity.” As for “Alabama,” well, that sounds better than “Brock O. Bible Belt.”

Senator Barack “Blitzkrieging Barry” Obama

Nicknames: America loves them, and they’re crucial in helping people accept entities foreign and unknown. This strategy worked well for African-American baseball legend Henry “Hammerin’ Hank” Aaron, who was one-hundred-percent black; considering Obama’s evenly split black and white heritage, could be twice as effective.

Senator “Ba Rock”

With professional wrestling and action movies setting record popularity levels, this may be the easiest way to lock in the 18-to-25 demographic. Would need to hire personal trainer, however.

More here.

Margerye Kempe at MLA

Via Cosma Shalizi, Margerye Kempe channels Chaucer (or herself) in this account of this year’s MLA.

In the seson of Cristemasse, thys pore creatur and caytyf did fynd herself in a straunge launde. For sche had maad passage to Ba’alt-Ymoor, the which citee she thoghte was yn the launde of the Sarazines ner the citee of Jerusalem. And she had gret compuncion and wepynge for the synfulness of her ignorance of geographie, for Ba’alt-Ymoor was in no wyse close to tho placez wher ower Lorde dyed on cross, but was in sted across a gret see and ytself was a place of passinge foulness wher ffolke did etyn only of the crabbes that walked on the floor of the bay Chesupyk and did watch the filmes of Johannes des Eaux (Pink Flamingoes did frighten her gretly). And thys creatur was sore afreyd of the synneres of that place and so sche went forth northewardes on the heighway XCV. Yet the way was long and her feet ached swich that she threw off her manohlo blahnikes and sat by the syde of the heigh way wepynge. And this was on the feest of Seynt John. As thys creatur lay in contemplacyon, sor wepynge for the peyne of her feet sche prayid to ower lorde for deliverance from this launde. And ower lorde seyde to her, “A, dowter, why wepest thou for the peyne of thy feet for thou knowst how soore my owene feet were woundid on mount calvarie? And therfor to bringe the to spiritual helth and contemplacioun I shal sende thee on a desperaat tryal and a terribil oon amonges devils and hir ministeres and necromanceres. For thou shalt fynde a tan volvo that schal be ful of clerkes and thes clerkes shall taak thee to the moost terribil place on al the erthe.” And the creatur seyde, “A, Lord, what ys this place so terribil?” And the lord seyde to her, “It is callid MLA.” And ther cam gret thundirkrakkys – thogh cleer was the daye – in the maner of a film of James Cameron.

And right so it befel in dede that a volvo did pulle up and a voys from it seyd, “You going to Philadelphia?” And thys creatur seyd, “I go to MLA,” and the voys seyde that MLA was part of Philadelphee and thus sche cam with hem. And in the volvo was a cumpany of thre yonge scolers, to wit I woman and II men. And thys creatur spak to them and seyd, “Tell me what maner ffolk ye aren.” And oon the men seyd, “My dissertation addresses the pressing question of the relation of the Owl and the Nightingale to the paradoxes of materiality and to changing ideas of spirituality at the same time that it questions what I would call outmoded models of allegoresis. Essentially, I propose that this heavily mediated text engages with debate poetry not as a generic exemplar but rather vis-a-vis an interstitial combination of truth claims and bestiary passages about cephalopods.” And thys creatur was soore confusid, and sche prayid to ower lord and wepid gret teares for the passioun of the child Jesu who had been born in a maunger to taak awey the synnes of all ffolke and also to deliver her from MLA. And alle the cumpany did wepe with her vntil the ladye who drof the van schouted at the oothirs and seyd, “Could you please be quiet? I’m trying to listen to the sparknotes for ‘Beloved.’” And thys creatur knewe litel of thes wyse clerkes wyth whom sche travilid and she askid what maner ffolk thei weren. Oon the men was named Genderstudyes and the othir man was named Medievaliste and the woman was named Americaniste-but-really-Faulknerstudyes. And thei were from Bigresearchuniversitee.

Can Cyclical Fluctuations in the Sun’s Core Explain Ice Ages?

In New Scientist:

Robert Ehrlich of George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, modelled the effect of temperature fluctuations in the sun’s interior. According to the standard view, the temperature of the sun’s core is held constant by the opposing pressures of gravity and nuclear fusion. However, Ehrlich believed that slight variations should be possible.

He took as his starting point the work of Attila Grandpierre of the Konkoly Observatory of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. In 2005, Grandpierre and a collaborator, Gábor Ágoston, calculated that magnetic fields in the sun’s core could produce small instabilities in the solar plasma. These instabilities would induce localised oscillations in temperature.

Ehrlich’s model shows that whilst most of these oscillations cancel each other out, some reinforce one another and become long-lived temperature variations. The favoured frequencies allow the sun’s core temperature to oscillate around its average temperature of 13.6 million kelvin in cycles lasting either 100,000 or 41,000 years. Ehrlich says that random interactions within the sun’s magnetic field could flip the fluctuations from one cycle length to the other.

These two timescales are instantly recognisable to anyone familiar with Earth’s ice ages: for the past million years, ice ages have occurred roughly every 100,000 years. Before that, they occurred roughly every 41,000 years.

The Politics of Identity in Post-Identity Europe and America

In Prospect, Francis Fukuyama on the challenges posed by immigrants with identities for societies that have ostensibly moved past identity and modernity:

In the west, identity politics began in earnest with the Reformation. Martin Luther argued that salvation could be achieved only through an inner state of faith, and attacked the Catholic emphasis on works—that is, exterior conformity to a set of social rules. The Reformation thus identified true religiosity as an individual’s subjective state, dissociating inner identity from outer practice.

The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has written helpfully about the subsequent historical development of identity politics. Rousseau, in the Second Discourse and the Promenades, argued that there was a big disjuncture between our outer selves, which were the accretion of social customs and habits, and our true inner natures. Happiness lay in the recovery of inner authenticity. This idea was developed by Johann Gottfried von Herder, who argued that inner authenticity lay not just in individuals but in peoples, in the recovery of what we today call folk culture. In Taylor’s words, “This is the powerful ideal that has come down to us. It accords moral importance to a kind of contact with myself, with my own inner nature, which it sees as in danger of being lost… through the pressures toward social conformity.”

The disjuncture between one’s inner and outer selves comes not merely out of the realm of ideas, but from the social reality of modern market democracies. After the American and French revolutions, the ideal of la carrière ouverte aux talents was increasingly put into practice as traditional barriers to social mobility were removed. One’s social status was now achieved rather than ascribed; it was the product of one’s talents, work and effort rather than an accident of birth. One’s life story was the search for fulfilment of an inner plan, rather than conformity to the expectations of one’s parents, kin, village or priest.

Taylor points out that modern identity is inherently political, because it demands recognition. The idea that modern politics is based on the principle of universal recognition comes from Hegel. Increasingly, however, it appears that universal recognition based on a shared individual humanity is not enough, particularly on the part of groups that have been discriminated against in the past. Hence modern identity politics revolves around demands for recognition of group identities—that is, public affirmations of the equal dignity of formerly marginalised groups, from the Québécois to African-Americans to women to indigenous peoples to homosexuals.

Jimmy Carter on Palestine

In NPR, Jimmy Carter responds to criticism of his new book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.

Since the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty was signed in 1979, much blood has been shed unnecessarily and repeated efforts for a negotiated peace between Israel and her neighbors have failed. Despite its criticism from some Arab sources, this treaty stands as proof that diplomacy can bring lasting peace between ancient adversaries. Although disparities among them are often emphasized, the 1974 Israeli- Syrian withdrawal agreement, the 1978 Camp David Accords, the Reagan statement of 1982, the 1993 Oslo Agreement, the treaty between Israel and Jordan in 1994, the Arab peace proposal of 2002, the 2003 Geneva Initiative, and the International Quartet’s Roadmap all contain key common elements that can be consolidated if pursued in good faith. There are two interrelated obstacles to permanent peace in the Middle East:

1. Some Israelis believe they have the right to confiscate and colonize Palestinian land and try to justify the sustained subjugation and persecution of increasingly hopeless and aggravated Palestinians; and

2. Some Palestinians react by honoring suicide bombers as martyrs to be rewarded in heaven and consider the killing of Israelis as victories.

In turn, Israel responds with retribution and oppression, and militant Palestinians refuse to recognize the legitimacy of Israel and vow to destroy the nation. The cycle of distrust and violence is sustained, and efforts for peace are frustrated. Casualties have been high as the occupying forces impose ever tighter controls. From September 2000 until March 2006, 3,982 Palestinians and 1,084 Israelis were killed in the second intifada, and these numbers include many children: 708 Palestinians and 123 Israelis. As indicated earlier, there was an ever-rising toll of dead and wounded from the latest outbreak of violence in Gaza and Lebanon.

The only rational response to this continuing tragedy is to revitalize the peace process through negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, but the United States has, in effect, abandoned this effort.

East Timor Revisited

Also in the Boston Review:

Declassified government documents, many of them cited in the CAVR report [East Timor’s final report of the country’s Commission on Reception, Truth, and Reconciliation], reveal that Jakarta was sufficiently worried about how Western countries would react to its aggression that Suharto, Indonesia’s dictator, vetoed earlier plans to invade East Timor and launched the invasion only after consulting Australia, Britain, and the United States.

But the documents show that Washington—as well as London—had decided to effectively sacrifice East Timor well before the invasion. In March 1975, the U.S. ambassador in Jakarta recommended to his superiors a “general policy of silence” on the Suharto regime’s planned forceful takeover of what was then Portuguese Timor. He explained that Washington had “considerable interests” in Indonesia—what Richard Nixon once described as “by far the greatest prize in the Southeast Asian area”—but had “none” in East Timor.

President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, well aware of the pending invasion, met with Suharto in Jakarta on December 6, 1975. Ford assured his Indonesian counterpart that with regard to East Timor, “We . . . will not press you on the issue. We understand . . . the intentions you have,” while Kissinger worried that “the use of U.S.-made arms could create problems.” The United States had supplied about 90 percent of Indonesia’s military equipment on the condition that it not be used for offensive purposes. Kissinger promised Suharto that the United States would not regard the invasion as an aggression, while expressing understanding for Indonesia’s “need to move quickly” and advising “that it would be better if it were done after we [he and Ford] returned [to the United States].” Some 14 hours after their departure, Indonesian forces invaded.

Such understanding—and the associated material support—continued, with few interruptions, until September 1999. The reason was largely economic: as a State Department spokesman explained in 1976, “We regard Indonesia as a friendly, non-aligned nation—a nation we do a lot of business with.”

The Orientalism Wars, Episode CXXVII

In the Boston Review, Lawrence Rosen revisits Orientalism and review Robert Irwins defense of Orientalists.

Irwin has a larger story to tell. Those who may fairly be called Orientalists certainly were, in his view, men (and, very rarely, women) of their times, but they were devoted to studying the languages of the region and establishing the relation of Islam and its history to Jewish and Christian sources. They were not overtly political, he says, nor, except in rare and more recent times, even involved in conversation with policymakers. Irwin’s characteristic way of dealing with the inveterate racists is simply to read them out of the category of Orientalists. Thus, Ernest Renan’s (1823–92) hostility to Semites suggests he was not a real scholar; and like-minded writers “did not need to have Orientalists invent racism for them.” He concludes that “racist attitudes in any period or region are the product of the natural tendency to think in generalities.” But this etiology of opinions avoids an essential point—not well expressed by Said—about consequences: whatever their origins and purposes, students of the region often set the terms of subsequent discussions. If Orientalists claimed that the East was a linguistically exceptional and theologically undeveloped culture with highly elaborate legal strictures, their framing had repercussions for political no less than common discourse. One does not have to be a policymaker to affect policy.

It is not enough, then, to complain—as Irwin does—about the banality of observing that scholars are not always objective. Irwin treats texts as if they had no political effects, as if (in earlier periods) salvation were the concern and attachments to royalists or mercantilism were incidental, and as if the explication of a text did not in itself imply unstated criteria. In thus evading Said’s larger and more difficult question about the political and intellectual effects of scholarly analysis——such as the constant references to the Prophet Muhammed as lascivious—Irwin retreats to the assumptions that continue to inform so much of Orientalist study.

While Said and his critics disagree about the existence of a hidden, malignant political agenda written into the entire course of Orientalist scholarship, both fail to analyze fully the foundations of Orientalist scholarship, assumptions that may or may not entail prejudice toward the peoples and cultures of the region. When Said says that “the core of Orientalist dogma persists”—that it “flourishes today in the forms I have tried to describe”—he fails to consider whether assumptions about language, textual analysis, and social dynamics may be capable of a substantial degree of autonomy or whether, as he uncritically assumes, they necessarily lead to adverse judgments of those studied.

How America Met the Mideast

From The Washington Post:

Camel_1 We often hear that Americans know little about other nations; a bigger problem is that we know too little about ourselves, our history and our national character. When it comes to U.S. foreign policy, in particular, we were all born yesterday, unaware of how present policies and attitudes fit into persistent historical patterns. So when a brilliant, lucid historian such as Michael B. Oren does bring the past back to life for us, revealing both what has changed and what has stayed the same, it is a shaft of light in a dark sky.

Today, the conventional view is that George W. Bush took the United States on a radical departure when he declared a policy to transform the Middle East and that, as soon as he leaves office, U.S. policy will return to an alleged tradition of realism, rooted in the hard-headed pursuit of tangible national interests. This is both bad history and bad prophecy, as Michael B. Oren shows in Power, Faith, and Fantasy, a series of fascinating and beautifully written stories about individual Americans over the past four centuries and their contact with Middle Eastern cultures.

More here.

Sperm Find Strength in Numbers

From Science:Sperm_3

You don’t have to be a complete organism to take part in Darwinian evolution: Even sperm engage in the survival of the fittest. A new study indicates that the sperm of certain rodent species have evolved hook-shaped heads, apparently to beat each other to the egg. Sperm with better hooks are able to attach to more of their brethren, allowing them to form fast-moving chains that leave their rivals behind.

For years, biologists have puzzled at the strange shape of rodent sperm. As opposed to the sperm of most other mammals, which have paddle-shaped heads, the sperm heads of many rat and mouse species are curved like scythes. About 10 years ago, scientists studying the European woodmouse discovered that these hooks allow groups of up to 100 sperm to attach to each other, and that these “sperm trains” moved faster than sperm swimming alone.

Curious if there were any evolutionary forces at play, evolutionary biologist Simone Immler of the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom and colleagues studied the sperm of 37 rodent species, including the Norway rat and the house mouse. As in the European woodmouse, the team found that–in most of the species studied–sperm hooked into an entourage moved faster than loners did. What’s more, species with larger testes–and thus greater quantities of sperm per ejaculate–tended to have sperm with sharper hooks. That may be because more sperm equals more competition between sperm to reach the egg.

More here.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Mending Broken Hearts

As heart disease reaches epidemic proportions worldwide, researchers are moving away from the old “clogged-pipes” model to search for triggers lurking in our genes.

Jennifer Kahn in National Geographic:

Screenhunter_01_jan_24_1316At this moment, her doctor is threading a thin catheter up through her femoral artery from an incision in her groin, on into the aorta, and from there into one of the arteries encircling Gloria’s heart. At the tip of the catheter is a small balloon. The doctor gently navigates the tip to a spot where plaque has narrowed the artery’s channel by 90 percent. With a quick, practiced movement he inflates the balloon to push back the artery wall, deflates the balloon, then inserts an expandable stent—it looks like a tiny tube of chicken wire—that will keep the passage open. As Gloria watches on the monitor, the crimp in her artery disappears, and a wide laminar flow gushes through the vessel, like a river in flood.

The procedure is over. It has lasted only half an hour. In all likelihood, Gloria will be able to go home the next day. So will a few thousand other patients in the United States undergoing such routine angioplasty—more than a million of them a year. Pipe fixed, patient cured, right?


More here.  And see a great gallery of photos here.  [Thanks to Beajerry.]

Cognitive Biases and Financial Investing

Via Delong, Barry Ritholtz on the problems investors face, in

In order to understand how humans invest requires more than the study of economics; one also needs to comprehend behavioral psychology. Combining both cognitive science and behavioral economics can yield powerful insights into the conduct of investors.

I recommend Cornell professor Thomas Gilovich’s book How We Know What Isn’t So to investors all the time. The professor’s contribution to the investment community is his study of human reasoning errors. More specifically, Gilovich studies the inherent biases and faulty thinking endemic to all us humans. These faulty analyses are pretty much hard-wired into our species.

How do these defects manifest themselves? In all too many ways: Humans have a tendency to see order in randomness. We find patterns where none exist. While that trait might have helped a baby recognize its parents (thereby improving the odds for its survival), seeing patterns where none exist is counter-productive when it comes to investing.

We also selectively perceive data, hoping to find something that confirms our prior views. We ignore data that contradicts those prior views. We even reinterpret old evidence so it is more in sync with our perspective. Then, we only selectively remember those things that support our case. Last, we overuse Heuristics, which is defined as simple, efficient rules of thumb that have been proposed to explain how people make decisions, come to judgments and solve problems, typically when facing complex problems or incomplete information (call them mental short cuts). These short cuts often generate “systematic errors” or blind spots in our analytical reasoning.

And that’s only a partial list of analytical imperfections you have inherited.

Designer Toilet Paper

In Radar Magazine:


Luxury toilet paper. At first it sounds like an insultingly obvious joke. Who would want such a thing? But then visions of those notorious $900 Gucci dog bowls flit through your mind, and you’re haunted by the possibility that your cynicism isn’t polished enough to second-guess the world’s hunger for tiny, absurd self-indulgences.

You’d be right. Consider Renova Negro: This all-black toilet paper from Spain is brand new, real, and mercilessly chic. Very Pedro Almodóvar. And, as it turns out, 10 times more costly than the average Euro-wipe. Renova Negro is the brainchild of an established, successful company already famous for an ad campaign in which barely clad models dry-hump near a commode while rolls of toilet paper look on, unmoved, as though they’ve seen it all.

In Japan, meanwhile, luxury toilet paper is de rigueur. Japanese rolls are routinely scented, extra-thick, aloe-moistened, strictly “virgin” (unrecycled), patterned, or—the latest trick—infused with pineapple enzymes to counteract odor. And in Germany the American brand Charmin Ultra is known as Charmin Deluxe; it comes in urbane black-and-charcoal-gray packaging “designed with the consumer in mind,” according to Procter and Gamble’s European division, “with a Gucci look and feel.”