The Deciders

From The New York Times:Summ190_1

“The powers of ordinary men are circumscribed by the everyday worlds in which they live, yet even in these rounds of job, family and neighborhood they often seem driven by forces they can neither understand nor govern.”

The opening sentence of “The Power Elite,” by C. Wright Mills, seems unremarkable, even bland. But when the book was first published 50 years ago last month, it exploded into a culture riddled with existential anxiety and political fear. Mills — a broad-shouldered, motorcycle-riding anarchist from Texas who taught sociology at Columbia — argued that the “sociological key” to American uneasiness could be found not in the mysteries of the unconscious or in the battle against Communism, but in the over-organization of society. At the pinnacle of the government, the military and the corporations, a small group of men made the decisions that reverberated “into each and every cranny” of American life. “Insofar as national events are decided,” Mills wrote, “the power elite are those who decide them.”

His argument met with criticism from all sides. “I look forward to the time when Mr. Mills hands back his prophet’s robes and settles down to being a sociologist again,” Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote in The New York Post.

More here.

How Do You “Jam” a Phone?

Keelin McDonell in Slate:

On Thursday, a federal judge in New Hampshire sentenced a former Republican National Committee official to 10 months in prison for his involvement in a 2002 phone-jamming scheme. Three other men have also been convicted of tying up the phone lines of a union headquarters and five New Hampshire Democratic offices on Election Day. What is phone jamming?

Making repeated phone calls to a single number with the intention to intimidate or harass. Phones can be jammed either automatically (with a computer dialing system) or manually. In the New Hampshire case, employees at a telemarketing firm called six separate phone numbers by hand for about two hours. The telemarketers repeatedly called and hung up, placing a total of around 1,000 calls.

More here.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Irma’s Injection

Slavoj Zizek in the London Review of Books:

Zizek_2A century ago, Freud included psychoanalysis as one of what he described as the three ‘narcissistic illnesses’. First, Copernicus demonstrated that the Earth moves around the Sun, thereby depriving humans of their central place in the universe. Then Darwin demonstrated that we are the product of evolution, thereby depriving us of our privileged place among living beings. Finally, by making clear the predominant role of the unconscious in psychic processes, Freud showed that the ego is not master even in its own house. Today, scientific breakthroughs seem to bring further humiliation: the mind is merely a machine for data-processing, our sense of freedom and autonomy merely a ‘user’s illusion’. In comparison, the conclusions of psychoanalysis seem rather conservative.

Is psychoanalysis outdated? It certainly appears to be. It is outdated scientifically, in that the cognitivist-neurobiologist model of the human mind has superseded the Freudian model; it is outdated in the psychiatric clinic, where psychoanalytic treatment is losing ground to drug treatment and behavioural therapy; and it is outdated in society more broadly, where the notion of social norms which repress the individual’s sexual drives doesn’t hold up in the face of today’s hedonism. But we should not be too hasty. Perhaps we should instead insist that the time of psychoanalysis has only just arrived.

More here.

Metaphysical Expectorations: Dim Bulb on Watch

A poem by Jim Culleny:

Dim Bulb on Watch —North Atlantic
At sea in a cork
on the back of a frothing bull
grey to infinite horizon,
smack in the middle of it,
stupid in adventure,
bullspit flying everywhere,
lurching twenty, thirty feet per leap
pitching, yawing, rolling, falling,
it never occurred to me
that I might drown.

And so, the dim bulb
of the boy I was
lit my way. And what
dim bulb still does?

The Storm over the Israel Lobby

Michael Massing in the New York Review of Books:

Image002_1Not since Foreign Affairs magazine published Samuel Huntington’s “The Clash of Civilizations?” in 1993 has an academic essay detonated with such force as “The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy,” by professors John J. Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen M. Walt of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Published in the March 23, 2006, issue of the London Review of Books and posted as a “working paper” on the Kennedy School’s Web site, the report has been debated in the coffeehouses of Cairo and in the editorial offices of Haaretz. It’s been called “smelly” (Christopher Hitchens), “nutty” (Max Boot), “conspiratorial” (the Anti-Defamation League), “oddly amateurish” (the Forward), and “brave” (Philip Weiss in The Nation). It’s prompted intense speculation over why The New York Times has given it so little attention and why The Atlantic Monthly, which originally commissioned the essay, rejected it.

More here.

Jakob the Hobbit?

Carl Zimmer in his excellent blog, The Loom:

Homo_florensiensis_513_fsIt’s been a little over a year and a half now since scientists announced the disocvery of the most controversial fossil in the field of human origins: Homo floresiensis a k a the Hobbit. Scientists found bones of a dimunitive hominid on the Indonesian island of Flores, and estimated that it lived there as recently as 12,000 years ago. It stood about as high as a normal three year old human child and had a brain the size of a chimpanzee’s. But its bones were also found with stone tools. The scientists declared the bones were not human. Instead, they belonged to a species of their own–one that branched off from much older hominids. Later, the scientists offered brain scans and more bones to bolster their case.

I’ve been chronicling the adventures of Homo floresiensis, trying to keep an eye out for new developments. My hobbit posts can be found here. In recent months the scientific reports have tapered off. That may be in part because of the ugly spat between rival paleoanthropologists over access to the bones and the site where they were found. Critics have been putting together attacks against the creation of a new species (most think the bones are from human pygmies, perhaps with birth defects). But those critical papers are slow in coming out.

Today we have the latest development in the hobbit wars, a critical paper from a team of American and British scientists and a response from the original team of scientists.

More here.


Verena Huber-Dyson at

Huberdyson200The essence of Gödel’s incompleteness theorem is that you cannot have both completeness and consistency. A bold anthropomorphic conclusion is that there are three types of people; those that must have answers to everything; those that panic in the face of inconsistencies; and those that plod along taking the gaps of incompleteness as well as the clashes of inconsistencies in stride if they notice them at all, or else they succumb to the tragedy of the human condition.

More here.

Clifford Odets’s ‘Awake and Sing!’

Charles Isherwood in the New York Times:

Sing1450Life begins tomorrow for the anxious souls inhabiting an overstuffed Bronx apartment in Clifford Odets’s “Awake and Sing!” Or was it over long before yesterday?

Dreams and disappointments, hopes and fears, encouraging words and bitter put-downs clash by day and night in Odets’s turbulent comedy-drama about a Jewish family struggling to stay afloat in the 1930’s. Conflict suffuses the stale air with a tension that almost seems to have mottled the walls. Dinner becomes a simmering battle between factions, in which grievances and recriminations are passed around the table along with the salt and pepper.

In the stirring revival that opened last night at the Belasco Theater, where “Awake and Sing!” was first produced in 1935 during the brief but influential heyday of the Group Theater, the tension derives above all from the question marks on the faces of the younger characters onstage.

More here.  And here is an article about the play by John Lahr. [Thanks to Barbara and Peter Nicholson for taking my wife and me to the play.]

Leonardo Da Vinci vs. Athanasius Kircher

Scott McLemee in Inside Higher Ed:

Sure, Leonardo studied birds in order to design a flying machine. But if you built it and jumped off the side of a mountain, they’d be scrapping you off the bottom of the valley. Of course very few people could have painted “Mona Lisa.” But hell, anybody can come up with a device permitting you to plunge to your death while waving your arms.

180pxathanasius_kircherWhy should he get all the press, while Athanasius Kircher remains in relative obscurity? He has just as much claim to the title of universal genius. Born in Germany in 1602, he was the son of a gentleman-scholar with an impressive library (most of it destroyed during the Thirty Years’ War). By the time Kircher became a monk at the age of 16, he had already become as broadly informed as someone twice his age.

He joined the faculty of the Collegio Romano in 1634, his title was Professor of Mathematics. But by no means is that a good indicator of his range of scholarly accomplishments. He studied everything. Thanks to his access to the network of Jesuit scholars, Kircher kept in touch with the latest discoveries taking place in the most far-flung parts of the world. And a constant stream of learned visitors to Rome came to see his museum at the Vatican, where Kircher exhibited curious items such as fossils and stuffed wildlife alongside his own inventions.

More here.

A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers, and Bums in America

Matthew Price in the Los Angeles Times:

Slackers may avoid the humdrum demands of the working life, but they aren’t necessarily lazy. Far from it: They can spend hours blowing hot air about why they avoid the grind. Society says, “Get off your duff”; the slacker volubly retorts, “Why the heck should I?”

Given his subject, it’s perhaps fitting that Lutz rambles on at a slacker-like pace as he traces the rise of this lovable if exasperating cultural type. You might know him — a few women turn up in “Doing Nothing,” but slacking, it turns out, is largely a male phenomenon — from your local video store or coffeehouse. But who knew the slacker had such an illustrious lineage? Samuel Johnson, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde, Bertrand Russell and Jack Kerouac all issued spirited dissents to the conventions of work.

More here.

Baruch Spinoza inspired Rebecca Goldstein. So why is she out to betray him?

Stephen Vider interviews Rebecca Goldstein in Nextbook:

Who was Spinoza?

Rebecca_1He is the greatest philosopher the Jews produced. And he was excommunicated in the most vehement and irreconcilable terms possible, before writing the works for which he is now famous. The 17th-century Amsterdam community of Sephardic Jews—people returning to Judaism after being separated from it by the Spanish-Portuguese Inquisition—used excommunication, as many communities did at that time, as a means of control. People were often put in kherem for days, sometimes years. There were conditions for returning to the fold, and then they did. Spinoza’s excommunication was final, there’s nothing he can do. Every curse is called down on the head of this 23-year-old philosophically inclined young merchant. It really is part of the mystery: what had that boy done that made people so angry?

More here.

Apes Demonstrate Capacity to Think Ahead

From Scientific American:Chimp_3

Humans show remarkable foresight. From storing food to carrying tools, we can imagine, prepare for and, ultimately, steer the course of the future. Although many animals hoard food or build shelters, there is scant evidence that they ponder the long-term ramifications of their actions or the future more generally. But new research hints that our ape brethren may share our ability to think ahead.

Nicholas Mulcahy and Josep Call of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig tested whether our closest great ape relative–the bonobo–and our most distant–the orangutan–share our ability to plan for the future.

More here.

Brain-tumour cluster strikes university

From Nature:Brain_21

A Melbourne university has emptied the top floors of one of its buildings after a spate of brain-tumour cases were reported during the past month. Most affected staff worked on the top floor, raising fears that cell-phone masts on top of the building are responsible. But experts say it is far more likely to be an unfortunate coincidence. Since mid-April, five staff from the business school of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) University have reported developing brain tumours. Two other cases have been reported since 1999. Of the seven, two are malignant and five benign.

Five of the seven staff worked on the top floor, and all except one have worked in the building for a decade, mostly on the top level. Some staff are concerned that mobile-phone-transmitter towers on top of the building are to blame. But international studies have been unable to provide a convincing link between cancer and the use of mobile phones or the proximity of mobile-phone towers.

More here.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

A Look at Dershowitz’s Latest

Neal Ascherson reviews Dershowitz’s latest in openDemocracy:

Preemption: A Knife That Cuts Both Ways … is about doctrines of pre-emptive and preventive war – and of pre-emptive and preventive “targeted killing” (selective assassination). Four years ago, he appalled much of the world with a book (Why Terrorism Works) and a number of articles in which he suggested – in tune with cruder pronouncements from the Bush administration – that a legal framework could be devised to regulate the use of torture in “war on terror” situations.

He has now applied many of the same arguments to establishing what he calls “a jurisprudence” to regulate the resort to pre-emptive and preventive war and murder. And, like the ministers of Salem, he is in no doubt that we have entered new and Satanic times which render the old rules antique and obstructive…

Michael Ignatieff put his finger on the weak joint in the whole approach when he wrote of Dershowitz’s previous book: “Judicialisation of torture, in my view, would lead to its ‘banalisation’, to torture becoming routine rather than an emergency exception”… Much the same applies to “judicialising” the practice of pre-emptive or preventive attack. The knowledge that such attacks were in principle lawful, as long as certain conditions were met, would leave the exceptions helpless at the mercy of the rule. It would open the door to chaos and carnage.

Artists’ Paradise

From The Village Voice:Baker

Represented as a 19-inch-tall bronze, a well-fed Lenin, his face scrunched in consternation, stares at an emaciated Giacometti-style everyman—the workers’ savior confronting one of his miserable charges. Mikhail Gorbachev, sporting blue eyeliner and with his pudgy face on a gilded background, is a sorry sibling of Warhol’s iconic Marilyn. Formally wise and riddled with fatalistic humor, this show of more than 50 nonconformist artists from the Soviet Union spans the furtive underground networks of the early ’70s—when clandestine dissidents worked under threat of arrest and with little hope of their work being seen (the KGB once bulldozed an outdoor exhibition)—through ’90s perestroika, with the empire too busy collapsing to bother jailing artists. These rebels clearly loved the freedom of Western art, but it was their own sublime and stoic culture, which has outlasted despots of all stripes, that kept them working through the darkest days.

Artists Against the State: Perestroika Revisited
Ronald Feldman
31 Mercer Street
Through June 24

More here.

Human, Chimp Ancestors May Have Mated

From National Geographic:Humanschimps_170

The study suggests that the human and chimp lineages initially split off from a single ape species about ten million years ago. Later, early chimps and early human ancestors may have begun interbreeding, creating hybrids—and complicating and prolonging the evolutionary separation of the two lineages. The second and final split occurred some four million years after the first one, the report proposes.

“One thing that emerges [from the data] is a reestimate of the date when humans and chimps last exchanged genes,” said David Reich, a professor at Harvard Medical School’s Department of Genetics in Boston.

More here.

Got conflict? Mr. Ahtisaari is your man.

Peter Ford in the Christian Science Monitor:

MartiKeep an eye on his fingers. And if he starts testily tapping his pencil on the table, back off.

That piece of advice for Serbian and Kosovar negotiators, who meet here today for a new round of talks on Kosovo’s future, comes from belligerents in other conflicts who have settled their differences under the watchful – and sometimes exasperated – eye of Martti Ahtisaari.

The reputation of the self-deprecating former Finnish president as an impartial mediator has made him the world’s “go-to guy” for international crises.

When NATO needed its surrender terms delivered to Slobodan Milosevic at the end of the Kosovo war, Mr. Ahtisaari was their man. He shepherded Namibia to independence, inspected secret IRA arms dumps as part of the Northern Ireland peace process, and last year brokered a peace agreement between Indonesia and Aceh separatists.

Now, as the UN Special Envoy for Kosovo, Ahtisaari is seeking an answer to one of Europe’s thorniest questions: Can Serbs and ethnic Albanians agree on a status for the independence-minded Balkan province of Serbia-Montenegro?

Most diplomats would shy from that task, regarded by some as impossible. But as Ahtisaari said recently in a wide-ranging interview in his sparsely decorated office here, his track record gives him a head start. “I’ve been around and done so many things by now, it’s easier to tolerate me than many others,” he chuckled.

More here.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Holy Names?!?!?

On one episode of the comedy King of the Hill, Hank Hill says to a Christian rocker, “You’re not making Christianity any better; you’re just making rock and roll worse.” Apparently, not just rock and roll.

In 1999, there were only eight newborn American girls named Nevaeh. Last year, it was the 70th-most-popular name for baby girls, ahead of Sara, Vanessa and Amanda.

The spectacular rise of Nevaeh (commonly pronounced nah-VAY-uh) has little precedent, name experts say. They watched it break into the top 1,000 of girls’ names in 2001 at No. 266, the third-highest debut ever…Nevaeh is not in the Bible or any religious text. It is not from a foreign language. It is not the name of a celebrity, real or fictional…Nevaeh is Heaven spelled backward…

The surge of Nevaeh can be traced to a single event: the appearance of a Christian rock star, Sonny Sandoval of P.O.D., on MTV in 2000 with his baby daughter, Nevaeh. “Heaven spelled backwards,” he said.

From the “Equality and the New Global Order” Conference

Jon Mandle over at Crooked Timber posts some notes from the Kennedy School’s conference on “Equality and the New Global Order”. (The conference web site has downloadable papers, including those by Allen Buchanan, Dani Rodrik, Kaushik Basu, Branco Milanovic, Mathias Risse, my old teacher Thomas Pogge, Ruth Macklin, Norman Daniels and Angus Deaton.) Philippe van Parijs–one of my favorites, a founder of a project I’ve long supported, but who unfortunatley did not provide a downloadable paper–appears to have unsurprisingly given quite an interesting talk as well.

I. “Linguistic Justice and Global Justice” by Philippe Van Parijs.

Let me [Mandle] say right off that I don’t know much of the literature on this topic, but it seemed that Parijs was taking a rather unorthodox position. He began with a fundamental premise some kind of equal opportunity for welfare holds at a global level. A shared language is a kind of public good, so it raises the issue of distributive justice because of the possibility of free-riders – in this case, those who benefit from the existence of a shared language without paying any of the cost of creating such a lingua franca – namely, the native speakers of that language. Sometimes the benefits of being able to be understood are very large – when you are traveling in a foreign country and say, “I believe I swallowed my spoon,” you very much want to be understood. So, he gave a specific account of how to calculate the amount that the native speakers of the lingua franca must be taxed to subsidize the learning of that language by non-native speakers – there should be an equal cost/benefit ratio, taking into account the number of speakers involved on each side. An actual global tax regime is not likely to be on the table any time soon, so he advocated “reciprocal free riding” – for example, “plundering the intellectual property on the web” (much of which is in English).

He then responded to a number of criticisms, many of which were directed against those who would say that acceptance of English as the lingua franca was itself an insult to the dignity of native non-English speakers, and to subsidize their becoming bilingual would be no consolation. One version of this criticism says that languages are associated with certain perspectives or ideologies. His reply was that English has the word “not” available…. A more serious version of this criticism says that this contributes not only to the arrogance of the native speakers of the lingua franca but to its completely taking over. The only real reply, he suggested, was to have territorially based languages that involve coercive rules that impose education and the public use of the native language in that territory (in addition to learning the lingua franca). This is to extend the Quebec solution worldwide. Finally, he emphasized that the existence of a lingua franca is necessary as a mechanism for collective reasoning and justification – for a global civil society – which is itself necessary to underwrite – both motivationally and normatively – global justice.

cyborgs and stuff


Every so often, when some new scientific paper is published or new experiment revealed, the press pronounces the creation of the first bionic man—part human, part machine. Science fiction, they say, has become scientific reality; the age of cyborgs is finally here.

Many of these stories are gross exaggerations. But something more is also afoot: There is legitimate scientific interest in the possibility of connecting brains and computers—from producing robotic limbs controlled directly by brain activity to altering memory and mood with implanted electrodes to the far-out prospect of becoming immortal by “uploading” our minds into machines. This area of inquiry has seen remarkable advances in recent years, many of them aimed at helping the severely disabled to replace lost functions. Yet public understanding of this research is shaped by sensationalistic and misleading coverage in the press; it is colored by decades of fantastical science fiction portrayals; and it is distorted by the utopian hopes of a small but vocal band of enthusiasts who desire to eliminate the boundaries between brains and machines as part of a larger “transhumanist” project. It is also an area of inquiry with a scientific past that reaches further back in history than we usually remember. To see the future of neuroelectronics, it makes sense to reconsider how the modern scientific understanding of the mind emerged.

more from the New Atlantis here.