Co-operation has brought the human race a long way in a staggeringly short time

From The Economist:

“Our everyday life is much stranger than we imagine, and rests on fragile foundations.” This is the intriguing first sentence of a very unusual new book about economics, and much else besides: “The Company of Strangers”, by Paul Seabright, a professor of economics at the University of Toulouse. (The book is published by Princeton University Press.) Why is everyday life so strange? Because, explains Mr Seabright, it is so much at odds with what would have seemed, as recently as 10,000 years ago, our evolutionary destiny. It was only then that “one of the most aggressive and elusive bandit species in the entire animal kingdom” decided to settle down. In no more than the blink of an eye, in evolutionary time, these suspicious and untrusting creatures, these “shy, murderous apes”, developed co-operative networks of staggering scope and complexity—networks that rely on trust among strangers. When you come to think about it, it was an extraordinarily improbable outcome.

More here.

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Two score and seventeen years ago…

“Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.”

Unless one is a block, a stone, a worse than senseless thing, it is impossible to remain unmoved by Jawaharlal Nehru’s stirring words on the occasion of India’s hard-won independence from British rule. Listen to a recording of the speech here, or read the text here.

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John Maynard Smith, (1920—2004)

JMSEarlier this year, one of the greatest evolutionary biologists of our time, John Maynard Smith, died. Lamentably, his name remains largely unknown outside his field. His prodigious oevre includes contributions to aeronautical engineering and game theory, in addition to biology. He was trained in biology by the legendary J.B.S. Haldane.

“He had the trained eye of a field biologist and an inspiring knowledge of natural history to draw on, and also made major contributions to our understanding of bacteria, genetics, and the evolution of animal signaling. The complete biologist, with expertise and bold hypotheses to offer on every topic from the origins of life to the evolution of human language and culture, he was also one of biology’s best explainers. He was, in fact, what every philosopher should try to be and few succeed in becoming: a connoisseur of beautiful ideas. To him, a puzzle about the twofold cost of sex, or hypercycles, or the evolution of honest signalling, or any other problem of evolutionary theory, was like a new species of butterfly to a lepidopterist–something to be examined with rigorous attention to detail, so it can be understood from the ground up, its life cycle and prospects and kin all framed and mapped with loving care and brilliant insight. Even his most technical articles can be grasped in their essentials (with effort!) by non-experts thanks to his lucid style and abhorrence of jargon, but he also lavished attention on more accessible versions of the best specimens for a wider reading public. I suspect that almost as many professors as students have gratefully clung to these beacons of authority and clarity in the storm-tossed seas of theoretical controversy.”

That is from an obituary by Daniel Dennett here; there is an obituary by Richard Dawkins here; one by David Harper here.

Here is an interview with JMS in The Evolutionist. More obituaries and other information can be found here.

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August 14, 2004

Reinventing Pakistan

QuaidOn this, the 57th anniversary of my homeland, Pakistan’s, birth, could we for a few moments not think about military government, nuclear proliferation, or terrorism, but about Pakistan’s beautiful and rich cultural variety?

“Pakistan is witnessing an explosion of music, part of a revolution in art and media with potentially far greater appeal to its young people than the sermons of religious conservatives urging them to abandon modernity and confront perceived threats to Islam. Over the past three years, a dozen independent television channels have sprung up, from general networks to specialized news, fashion and music stations. Combined with a boom in advertising, increasing economic growth and rapid cable and satellite penetration, these outlets are fueling not only a new industry, but also a new culture—one not limited to a narrow Westernized elite.”

pak_studentsThat quote is from novelist Mohsin Hamid’s lovingly written article in Smithsonian Magazine.

Our younger twin, India (which turns 57 tomorrow), has sent a message of congratulation.

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“Rising from the Rails”

“What have the poet Claude McKay, the filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, the explorer Matthew Henson, the musician “Big Bill” Broonzy and college president Benjamin Mays in common?

They all worked for the Pullman Company, which until 1969 ran the sleeper service on the U.S. railroads, and was at one time “the largest employer of Negroes in America and probably the world.” Blacks, preferably those with “jet-black skin,” supplied “the social separation… vital for porters to safely interact with white passengers in such close quarters.”

Former Boston Globe journalist Tye (The Father of Spin) interviewed as many surviving porters as he could find as well as their children, and immersed himself in autobiographies, oral histories, biographies, newspapers, company records-wherever the porter might be glimpsed, including fiction and film. Entertaining detail abounds: Bogart was a solid tipper; Seabiscuit traveled in a “specially modified eighty-foot car cushioned with the finest straw.” So does informing detail: the long hours, the dire working conditions, the low pay, the lively idiom, the burdensome rules.”

This from a Publisher’s Weekly write up of Larry Tye’s recent book “Rising from the Rails”, a fascinating account of Pullman porters, touching upon many related topics and personalities including the civil rights movement, A. Phillip Randolph, E.D. Nixon, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, etc.
More importantly, in putting together this book Larry Tye has brought surviving Pullman porters unexpected recognition and a celebration of their lives. He has included as many ex-porters in readings, interviews, and other book release functions across the country, as possible. One ex-porter died a mere four days after attending a Library of Congress function with Larry, and several others have died since Larry interviewed them.
More about “Rising from the Rails” and Larry Tye here.

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August 13, 2004

‘Snow’: Headscarves to Die For

“This seventh novel from the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk is not only an engrossing feat of tale-spinning, but essential reading for our times. In Turkey, Pamuk is the equivalent of rock star, guru, diagnostic specialist and political pundit: the Turkish public reads his novels as if taking its own pulse. He is also highly esteemed in Europe: his sixth novel, the lush and intriguing ‘My Name Is Red,’ carried off the 2003 Impac Dublin Literary Award, adding to his long list of prizes. He deserves to be better known in North America, and no doubt he will be, as his fictions turn on the conflict between the forces of ‘Westernization’ and those of the Islamists.” Review here by Margaret Atwood, and Alexander Star interviews Pamuk here, both from the New York Times Book Review.

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Rama and the Brain

Other than molecular biology/genetic engineering, the field which currently promises the most revolutionary changes, not just in the world around us but also in how we think about that world and about ourselves, is cognitive science. Not very many people realize that over the last couple of decades, cognitive scientists have quietly been mapping the brain, figuring out how we think and perform the mental miracles that we do even in routine mentation. One of the most interesting figures in this effort has been V.S. Ramachandran, a man who has designed and performed ingenious experiments to show how the mind actually works. This is no mere theorizing, à la Freud; this is hard science, and the brain is shown to be a thing of extreme beauty. Rama, as he is affectionately known, delivered the 2003 Reith Lectures for the BBC, which have been collected into book form as A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness: From Impostor Poodles to Purple Numbers. I have not had such immense pleasure reading a presentation of scientific theory since I first read The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins more than twenty years ago. Rama is a writer of sharp wit, and his delightfully wry sense of humor shows frequently in his lively prose. Not only this, Rama’s earlier book for the general reader, Phantoms in the Brain, is also a tour de force in expository writing, and I recommend that highly as well.

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Disgust is an adaptation for survival but what is the point of it now?

“What, precisely, is so bad about sex between adult siblings, bestiality, and the eating of corpses? Most people insist such acts are morally wrong, but when psychologists ask why, the answers make little sense. For instance, people often say incestuous sex is immoral because it runs the risk of begetting a deformed child, but if this was their real reason, they should be happy if the siblings were to use birth control – and most people are not. One finds what the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt called ‘moral dumbfounding’, a gut feeling that something is wrong combined with an inability to explain why.” Rest of the article by Paul Bloom here in The Guardian.

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Nebraska Strikes Again

Today’s announcement of our new U.S. poet laureate, Ted Kooser, filled me with a state pride I haven’t felt…well, ever. Although he’s not a native Nebraskan in the strictest of senses (he was born in the lesser-known Iowa), he lives there now, and I have no doubt that he will represent the great Cornhusker state with the same panache that has characterized the already existing pantheon of Nebraskan cultural deities, which includes Marlon Brando, Fred Astaire, Johnny Carson, Henry Fonda, Willa Cather, Darryl Zanuck, Malcolm X, and, of course, Dick Cavett (yes, Cornhuskers all…even if, come to think of it, they all did display an odd refusal to come back after they made it big…). Anyway, here are a few choice, bite-sized bits of Kooser’s work that even a non-indigene can appreciate: After Years, and Selecting a Reader. If, for some peculiar reason, you’re still feeling poetry-ish, here are two poems by a fella whose work kind of reminds me of Kooser’s, Stephen Dunn (a New Yorker, but there’s still a midwestern odor) “Biography in the First Person” and “I Come Home Wanting to Touch Everyone”. And perhaps just one more, a great poem about the midnight flaneur by the poet best known for his unfortunate appearances in commencement day speeches, Bobby Frost.

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August 12, 2004

Last Glimpses

If you are an admirer or avid reader of Edward W. Said, whom Abbas quotes in his post titled Insight and Foresight, you may want to check out a newly released documentary featuring him, called “Selves and Others”. This film, playing at the Two Boots Pioneer Theater in the East Village, may contain some of the last footage of EWS, before his tragic death last year.
A New York Times write up about the film says:
“‘Selves and Others’ allows the highly articulate Said, a professor at Columbia University and an outspoken advocate of a Palestinian homeland, to lay out his views without the help of an on-screen interlocutor. Sitting at his desk at Columbia or in his study at home, Said offers a concise summary of his thought, with an emphasis on his most influential book, ‘Orientalism’ (1978).”

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Honesty in Inference

“Theoretical physicist Edwin T. Jaynes, who died in 1998, is best known as pioneer and champion of the principle of maximum entropy, which states that of all possible probability distributions that agree with what you know about a problem, the one that leaves you with the most uncertainty is best—precisely because it does not imply more than you know. As important as the principle is in practice, surprisingly little space is devoted to it in Jaynes’s magnum opus, Probability Theory: The Logic of Science.” Book review by Tommaso Toffoli here in American Scientist Online.

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The Induce Act could stifle tech innovation

“The Induce Act, also known as the IICA, says that anyone who ‘intentionally aids, abets, induces, or procures’ a copyright violation can be sued for copyright infringement. That surely applies to the file trading networks, which make it easy to find and download a free copy of any song you desire. Apple’s iPod could also come under fire for its huge hard drive, which would cost about $10,000 to fill with legally downloaded music. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has prepared a sample complaint against the iPod, pointing out the dangers of the Induce Act against established, respectable companies and technologies.” More here from ReasonOnline.

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