Monday, July 31, 2006
All this was amusingly and movingly portrayed in an offbeat dramatization about Chopin's life and music. We caught the final performance at a packed Sunday matinee. The one act play was written and performed by Hershey Felder. He is an accomplished pianist and a good enough actor to convince the audience throughout most of two hours of playing and talking to us that we have dropped in on Frederic Chopin at work as a teacher [which is how most musicians earned a living in those days, even the greats]. This Chopin is perhaps a lot more even tempered and forthcoming than the original but it would not do for him to act as depressed as Chopin was reported to have been. It would make the music incongruous. Felder has a greater passion in his play than playing the character of Chopin. He wants the music to do for us what it did for Chopin: lift our spirits. But I don't mean auditory uppers, I mean giving us that rare sip of both knowing and feeling something that is grand about our minds. In this he succeeded and the entire audiance was lifted from its seats for a standing ovation. I usually have to get comfortably away from all distraction, and play one of my special favorites from Brahms, Dvorak or Beethoven to get the goosebumps and I can't repeat a piece too frequently or the magic evaporates. But Chopin could express emotion with the best of them and Felder put it to the audience. I was most stirred when the piano did all the talking. This seems to fit with what is portrayed as Chopin's own understanding of his malady: he was most sane when he played.
It appears that not all the reviewers attended the same performance I did, or perhaps they didn't bring the same ghosts in with them as I do. The A.R.T. links to all the favorable reviews. The reviewer from a burb blurb spent more time backstage than in front of it. Mr. Kroll praises with faint condemnation: he wanted a graduate level lecture in composition and piano technique...a better reviewer would appreciate how well Felder matched his material to his audience. The work performed may be more of a teaching piece than an entertaining piece as far as critics are concerned. Fine by me. Film it so I can see it on PBS for years to come.
I count myself lucky because what lifted Mr. Chopin out of despair lifts me much higher.
Sunday, July 30, 2006
What I love and the way I love make me who I am.
Marriage is something people do for many reasons and among those reasons is drawing on the status of the institution to borrow an enlargement and improvement of their own standing in their community. The less significant people feel and the less secure they feel about who they are, the more important this assumable aspect of identity becomes.
But on reading, I see that his decades of continent hopping scholarship give him the world as the scope of his concern and the depth of his reasoning and sources is global. In the end, my conclusions are smaller and do not offer the hope which Amartya Sen holds out in this book.
As often happens lately, I was reminded of my purchase by good ol' 3 Quarks Daily. Abbas Raza was calling attention to an article about Sen in The Prospect. Multiple sources pointing me to the multiple valuable messages in a book already on my shelf: clearly I should quit bucking destiny and read the book! The subtitle of the book turns out to be my real soft spot: "The Illusion of Destiny".
Humor my attempt to squash so big a book of 186 pages into one sentence but don't you dare substitute my words for reading the book! Mr. Sen's central observation is that political interests seize upon and exacerbate our common cognitive misstep of ignoring the many identities and affiliations we naturally inherit and instead focus our attention on, insist upon, our being of a single one-dimensional identity. And that identity is too often religious. If "Against the Misuse of Civilization" would not be a fair candidate for an alternative title for Sen's book, it is at least an underpopulated category to which this book is a great contribution.
The author grew up amid the sectarian strife that produced the partition of Pakistan from India and the lessons thus rooted in his mind have blossomed. He could see that most of the thousands who died horrible deaths then had more in common through their shared poverty than separated them in their religious labeling. Why, he now asks, can so few see these many bonds? The answer is in the book.
In nine chapters of professorially muscular English, Sen pries off several of our straight jacket notions:
- "clash of civilizations"
- We can loose more of who we are in a melting pot than by reduction to exclusive membership in a sect or "ism".
- It is OK to identify a group by a single commonality, say their Buddhism, as long as that identity is associated with benign attributes, say their pacifism and such identification won't backfire by keeping the labels in place.
- Even if segmentation of humanity into religious identities is harmful, segmentation into haves and have-nots or developing nations and commercial superpowers is a fair and fruitful view.
- Reducing one's concept of self and of others to brutally narrow factions is "human nature" in adverse circumstances and not reversible.
- Politics must make use of this presumed natural inclination to be most effective.
This is another of those books full of quotable passages, whole and holographically laden with its theme. I may stretch the bounds of fair use but I want to whet your appetite to go and read the book.
"...a major source of potential conflict in the contemporary world is the presumption that people can be uniquely categorized based on religion or culture. The implicit belief in the overarching power of a singular classification can make the world thoroughly inflammable. A uniquely divisive view goes not only against the old-fashioned belief that all human beings are much the same but also against the less discussed but much more plausible understanding that we are diversely different. The world is frequently taken to be a collection of religions (or of "civilizations" or "cultures"), ignoring the other identities that people have and value, involving class, gender, profession, language, science, morals, politics. This unique divisiveness is much more confrontational than the universe of plural and diverse classifications that shape the world in which we actually live. The reductionism of high theory can make a major contribution, often inadvertently, to the violence of low politics."While strategy is too generous a word for what guides the Bush administration's foreign policy, their "approach" falls face first into the pit Sen describes in that paragraph from the preface. Bush, al-Sadr, or Bin Laden are unwittingly in league even though one chases the ghost of terrorists, one the Sunni Imperialist lackeys and the other the unbelievers who dirtied sacred soil.
The realization that each of us can and do have many different identities related to different significant groups to which we simultaneously belong appears to some as a rather complicated idea. But,...it is an extremely ordinary and elementary recognition.In that paragraph, Sen begins to uncover the hopeful: this disjoint subsetting of humanity is a mistake rather than an inevitability.
The conceptual weakness of the attempt to achieve a singular understanding of the people of the world through civilizational partitioning not only works against our shared humanity, but also undermines the diverse identities we all have which do not place us against each other along one uniquely rigid line of segregation. Misdescription and misconception can make the world a more fragile place than it need be.
As a Nobel laureate in economics, Sen deserves close attention when he looks at the misidentification of the parties involved in globalization:
...considerable evidence that global capitalism is typically much more concerned with markets than with, say establishing democracy or expanding public education, or enhancing social opportunities of the underdogs of society.Not that he didn't already have a lot of company among liberals in anticipating the flop that the war on terror has been but Sen knew from the start, knew from first principles, what the anatomy of the failure would be:
Increasing reliance on religion-based classification of people of the world also tends to make the Western response to global terrorism and conflict peculiarly ham-handed. Respect of "other people" is shown by praising their religious books, rather than by taking note of the many-sided involvements and achievements, in nonreligious as well as religious fields , of different people in a globally interactive world. In confronting what is called "Islamic terrorism", in the muddled vocabulary of contemporary global politics, the intellectual force of Western policy is aimed quite substantially at trying to define--or redefine--Islam.
...it also has the effect of generally magnifying the voice of religious authority. The Muslim clerics, for example, are then treated as the ex officio spokesmen for the so-called Islamic world...
As I said, my views on the subject of simplistic and brutal categoric thinking are different, more psychological and far less learned than Prof. Sen's. But I find nothing wrong in any of his analysis and not much left out of his catalog of what forms identity monopolizing has taken. I want to compliment him on a vital service to the efforts of peacemakers. I also hope to bring the debate home by adding my take on why we in America have echoed, or perhaps fomented the oversimplifications that the baser sort of leaders foist upon their constituents. In America, I trace the rise of manipulable single-issue voting blocks as a parallel or a part of our turning away from our old ideal of the melting pot. There were rumors of the demise of the melting pot decades ago but if you ask "who benefits" from its demise, you have only to consider what sort of voter emerged from that pot. For all his stumping as a "uniter", Bush has , and before him most of the post-Reagan conservative gains have, relied on engineering an ideological balkanization. Individuals stripped of their amorphous, multi-faceted American identity and given in its place a skinny "Christian American" or "pro life American" moniker are far more likely to be swayed by the veiled appeals to fear and insecurity that plump up most Bush speeches. In a recent post, I was trying to explain why marriage, as the premier vehicle for propagating identity, had become a political football to the point that it needed to be separated from the entitlements of children when and if children were born:
Let me explain why the time is ripening if not ripe for such change. The tendency I and others spy for our society's pluralism to fragment into ideological enclaves is but one symptom of the advent of melting pots and national harmony losing ground to the cultivation of disrespect and distortion. We in western cultures are reaching a point where we think we can afford to relax the discipline of living within larger communities. We have enough choices of community and news sources to live as if our favored ways were the only ways. Western societies, but especially the US, which strove for, or at least claimed, tolerance of mildly diverse ethnicities and creeds now change direction: we actually were faking it. We smothered the little cultural differences with the blanket of WASP flavored civility, shed languages at Ellis Island, bet heavily on public schooling as the path (and the price) of progress. But now the right rails and legislates against different views but doesn't leave its neighborhoods. Pluralism fades. It was always a compromise between getting things your way and getting along. In a society where the media and even some politicians find benefit in promoting ideological and inevitably cultural balkanization, marriage, as the institution of cultural propagation, must either undergo the same fragmentation or come loose from its role. I don't care what happens to the institution but I do care what happens to the kids.
The point I strain to make here is that the war of singular identities has also taken up marriage as one of its battle grounds. The view has been shifted from marriage as a private covenant with very individual nature as diverse as each couple to a view that it must preserve and enforce public, simple and common notions of union. Does anybody talk about a constitutional amendment to insure that Catholics will have Jewish weddings? Does that preposterous notion not differ more in degree than in kind from the amendments now marching through the state houses? Sen argues that public discourse has abandoned the individual for the oversimplified interest group and I argue that we have also abandoned the real families for symbolic ones in a fight between one dimensional interest groups. Thus I came by my own observations to a point where I see Professor Sen's book as much needed advice. If you are a real person instead of a cardboard cutout with one large label [of your choice] and you would like to be treated like a real person and understand that you can't get that treatment if you do not offer it to others...then you are as ready to appreciate that book as I was.
Marriage is my instance of how "you-must-be-this-or-you-must-be-that" thinking takes over the airwaves and editorials. Sen provides many more intances that have bloodier consequences. The message in all these observations is that as a process of political thought, the singular identity is seriously damaging to the prosperity and harmony we'd like to think is possible. While the malaise of insisting that it is right and/or effective to use narrowing of identities and causes for political ends is not exclusively afflicting the right wing politics, it is more nearly central to conservative political outlooks. Two examples will illustrate who finds benefit in forcing singular identities on real populations..
For the man-on-the street political "thought", talk show commentators are a ubiquitous and flagrant example of casting the variegated and untidy multitudes as "those liberals". The recognition of individuals as having composite identities and affiliations is not to be confused with the sham individualism seen in Rush Limbaugh's empty touting. Limbaugh's individualism claims the rights and spoils of will and self determination but shuns the responsibilities to humanity that each of our overlapped identities entails. The return of identity to the individual for which Sen pleads is an individuality that can shoulder those responsibilities.
For more intellectual treatment here is a paragraph from Roger Kimbal railing against "multiculturalism" in The New Criterion. This is as close as the conservatives can get to seeing that we have lost something of the civility we once claimed yet they still mush-mindedly speak as if it were impossible to have more than one identity:
Multiculturalism and “affirmative action” are allies in the assault on the institution of American identity. As such, they oppose the traditional understanding of what it means to be an American—an understanding hinted at in 1782 by the French-born American farmer J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur in his famous image of America as a country in which “individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men.” This crucible of American identity, this “melting pot,” has two aspects. The negative aspect involves disassociating oneself from the cultural imperatives of one’s country of origin. One sheds a previous identity before assuming a new one. One might preserve certain local habits and tastes, but they are essentially window-dressing. In essence one has left the past behind in order to become an American citizen.
In a contrasting example, Peter Salins writes in ReasonOnline from a fairly typical liberal perspective on the melting pot and multiculturalism and sees commonality rather than some creeping evil eroding our "American identity".
You know I hate complaints unaccompanied by suggestions of what is to be done. What is our part, our culpability if any, in this pernicious miscasting of all the players? If, as citizens and voters, we have demanded simplicity, we have tolerated over simplicity.
When the melting pot freezes over, we will have realized hell on earth...and it will be hot enough to consume us all.
It is an old intuition of mine that violence and identity are entangled. Poetry aside, if you can be convinced of a simple enough idea of "what you are" then your other selves are silenced and attacks on that purported essence will be felt as attack on your self. The poem might read "What I hate and what I will fight for make me who I am."
Update: reader etbnc points us to an interesting book by David Berreby that makes the argument that we could not function if we dispensed with the tribal loyalties we feel. Looks like I got another book report coming.
Saturday, July 29, 2006
[Shokai played the muse by accident and I alone am responsible for the pretentiousness.]
Friday, July 28, 2006
For instance, in a comment thread under his post examining approaches to the purpose of life [collective and individual]:
It is impossible to have a nation based on freedom of religion, and declare that the nation’s purpose is to please God.
Paid liars have been as much of a hindrance to getting our elected leaders to respond to the global warming crisis as their own stupidity so I am glad to see that at least one of the paid liars has shut up and maybe even shut down.
If nobody is engaged in the discussion, being right is nearly meaningless but being corrected is impossible.
Attachment to being right is unbecoming. Cultures with undue emphasis and reward for being right are unhealthy. The rewards one gives oneself for being right are a perpetual hazard for disconnecting from the people in ones life. This is one of the divides between the male and female flavors of many cultures. The wise person speaks their mind.
Thursday, July 27, 2006
Is it a retreat from imperialism? Is it an admission that we are no longer the world's technology sugardaddy? Its an appropriate development I suppose but I find it slightly sad. If Bush knew jack squat about the internets, he'd probably sic Bolton on anyone "giving away" US control. Foot dragging is expected.
Perhaps we will now get some new TLD names that don't reflect your government's view of the world...which up until now, has been:
- .com pays tax
- .org does not pay tax or get tax
- .edu does not pay tax, may get tax
- .gov spends tax with some accountability and with out killing
- .mil spends tax it does not have to explain completely, with license to kill
Seems backwards to conventional descriptions of the learning process as an accretion of "schema" or some other building up of knowledge but I have two reasons to argue with.
- We start off with too many neurons and spend the rest of our life losing them but enriching their connections.
- If ignorance were bliss, we should all wish to learn nothing. But that shallow truth is an old lie told in the absence of context. Ignorance is NOT bliss.
I got lucky. The hard work has just been done.
Yesterday, in PNAS, researchers at U of Minnesota, St Paul and St Olaf college reported the results of a comprehensive all-costs/all-impacts study on the potential for biofuels to offset the country's petroleum demand. The bottom line of their study is this: if we quit eating corn-fed animals and switched all corn production to biofuels, we could meet about 6% of our current diesel demand or something close to 12% of our gasoline [via ethanol]. Its a drop in the oil barrel. Any politician that won't tell you to trade your gas guzzler for a bike, or take public transportation is an idiot or a political coward and certainly not a leader. The other consequences of our oil addiction: our inadvertent subsidy to Al-Qaida via the Saudis, our hemorrhaging economy or that toasty brown haze that has replaced our atmosphere, would all similarly only get a small dent from biofuels. We have to all start thinking of ways to use substantially less petroleum because our leaders are completely incapable of such thought despite all their poses and pep talks. Government initiatives and incentives and maybe a renewables and infrastructure redesign on the scale of the Manhattan Project or the Three Gorges dam would be far more appropriate and economy-boosting response to oil need than spending our good will, our lives and 1/3 trillion [and counting] to secure an oil supply through imperialism. In the end, owning at gunpoint, say a quarter of the earth's remaining reserves is a false step anyway. That is the way to further degradation of the earth's climate and America's political climate. The sort of empire needed to take resources from the rest of an already armed, financed and oil-hungry world is not just hard on our opponents: it oppresses and corrupts us as well. The time is long past for drop-in-the-barrel solutions.
Wednesday, July 26, 2006
Tuesday, July 25, 2006
Oops! Sorry, thats visible via my subscription. Here's a snip.
Published online: 21 June 2006; | doi:10.1038/441912b
Doomsday food store takes pole positionRemote island hosts global seed bank.
There's something fitting about the decision to site a bastion against the end of the world in a place that looks as if it has already experienced the apocalypse. On 19 June, a construction crew started work on a doomsday seed bank from which the genetic riches of Earth's food crops could, if necessary, be reconstituted. The location: the island of Spitsbergen in the Svalbard archipelago, a desolate place where the winters are long and dark, and polar bears outnumber people.
The island's remoteness, say staff at the Global Crop Diversity Trust, a charitable organization based in Rome that has helped develop the bank, makes it the ideal location to store samples safely. Spitsbergen is free of tectonic activity, and its permafrost would preserve seeds at around -4 °C. Coal from a local mine will be used to power refrigeration units that will further cool the bank to the internationally recommended standard of -20 to -30 °C.
"It's a resource that needs to last for ever," says Cary Fowler, the trust's director....
For a couple of days now, I have been turning words over in my head about happiness: it is purely internal and reltative, the most subjective sense and masked by our balance of neurotransmitters. In one word, I see it as nearly meaningless. Yet it is universally desired. I will have more to say later but first, here is an appetizer by Shiban Ganju that the coincidences of a small world brought to my screen this morning via good ol' 3 Quarks Daily.
Thursday, July 20, 2006
I thought everyone knew search engines can cause a "hit" to register on the pages for which the search results contain a listed match. The SE needs to make sure the page is still there or else note that it can only show you a cached version. The SE is going to leave your search string as its calling card. That trace is how I know there are some patheticly twisted morons, utter American peasants, sitting in front of keyboard and screen somewhere out there in the Ozarks or Nebraska or Georgia.
i heard that they can actually build a womb and it is used for gay males that want childrenThat search string doozy, hauled up in a recent scan of the logs, did not produce one second of page reading. I'd be surprised if it did, we use a lot of polysyllabic vocabulary here.
Quite contrary to my own pontificating, this gives the old saw about "no such thing as a dumb question" a severe test.
So, they "heard" this amazing fact! From whom, one wonders. Perhaps it was a joke? Otherwise, this person seems as dumb as their friend or their preacher or their Aryan nation news site or whatever drooling feeb repeats such quivering ignorance. It is for the likes of this simpleton and their sources of poisoned nonsense that we effete snobs with our diplomas and newspaper subscriptions generically refer to the villages and trailer parks where such "knowledge" spontaneously appears like mildew on a shower curtain as "Bumf__k, [insert benighted red state]". I don't want that particular increment on my hit counter. Cheese us crackers! No wonder this country goes for Bush and his wars. Not even extreme youth excuses a moment of entertaining such harmful drivel without damning the inattentive or hate-filled parent.
Art Linkletter would be jealous: Google could feed these clunkers, of which we assume they have an endless supply, into the scripts of an animated or synthetic speech reality/talk show: "Googlers ask the darndest things", laugh track optional. It would cost them zip to produce and it would out shine the content of any half dozen wingnut talk shows you could name. If I wanted to, I could pepper my pages with the vocabulary hot buttons of the ignorant and the fearful and have a field day fetching up all their misspelled perplexity from my hit counter. That would comprise a sort of high tech political stethoscope or polling mechanism, a kind of scheissgeist to balance google's zeitgeist, but I don't advise you to stick a stethoscope in that particular smelly orifice of the elephant.
There, that ought to have stepped on enough toes to keep me in the dog house for a long time. I think I have achieved catharsis. Can't we all have a "Rush" moment? Deep breath, sigh, deep breath...
As a self proclaimed liberal, I blush at my own intimation that there is a class distinction, hinging around intelligence or education, that separates me and the liberal fellowship from some unwashed and dangerous "them". On the other hand, don't we all have to ask "What is our problem in America?" How is it that our nation can be manipulated into electing [or believing we elected] a government that every day's papers report to be easily bought, shallow, idiotic, sectarian bigots; unrepresentative representatives and leaders who only mislead and squander our wealth? Neither poverty per se, nor lack of education make one ignorant. Nor do these, in and of themselves, cause a person to not see what it is that grinds them down amid a world of advertised plenty. There are averages, there are generalizations, there are stereotypes to tell us such things as the disaffected "angry white men" or "single issue voters" exist. There are theories that greed knows how to prey upon these hypothetical blocks of voters by owning the media which paints their world: pander to their fears while actually feeding those fears, problem and solution all in one unending broadcast.
All of these characterizations avoid the individual. The great hope of our era is that we have a communication tool which could allow any single person to converse with any single other person or allow each of us to seek a personally tailored source of information without abridgment or interference from any other power. Individual, meet world. World, meet individual. Now couldn't the internet be great? What if my blighted enquirer got an answer from google that put them straight? What would equip the asker to sort the 10,000 "answers" into the decent, the dumb, the dangerous and the mere digital detritus? What would make the internet live up to its promise of democratic individuality and completely informed citizenship? I got news for everyone who now toils to dispose of the first amendment: whatever it is, its not the internet. We can just leave the internet alone. Its the individual who comes to this media unready to see anything but agreement and confirmation that scuttles the hopeful premise.
Eradicating the digital divide is an issue of social justice and equal opportunity that the US actually could fulfill. But pulling everyone under the big electronic tent means EVERY IDEA and all nonsense will be there too. Teach the children well.
But today's NYTimes publishes a story on the Pew Internet & American Life Project survey that shores up a few things and blows a way a few things active bloggers [well, this one anyway] on politics tend to think of themselves. I just wonder how they define "A-list bloggers" on whom the MSM presumably lavish some rather anxious, if often dismissive attention. It was NOT the A-listers that were the subject of these findings.
Chris Anderson, the editor in chief of Wired, a magazine about technology and culture, said the Pew report was accurate. "The finding that jumped out at me was the recognition that people are talking about the subjects that matter in their personal lives," he said.Being the world's sloppiest writer, I simply have to mention that the article has a eyebrow-hiking typo you'd never expect to find in a paper of the NY Times reputation.
Mr. Anderson, the author of the book The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More (Hyperion), said that the Pew report shows how the blogosphere is unlike traditional media. "It's narrow, niche subjects, he said. It's a granularity of media that we in the commercial media could not scale down to."
"By contract, 74 percent of Internet users are white."should read "By contrast..." Or is the author thinking of Newt's "contract on America"???
"Do you realize how good your bones would look mounted in a museum display case?"
"As your investment advisor, I have to tell you that few people realize how important the Republicans are to our economy. What sense would it make for Viacom to buy the Onion if we only had Democrats or, god forbid, Greens in congress? It would put everyone to sleep! Put some of your money in shares of mattress companies...uh and put some of it under your mattress just in case."
"And they said it was impossible to make theocrats look any more out of step with the nation than they already do! Congratulations Mr. President, once again you have proven those cry baby scientists and 'liberal media' pundits wrong!"
Why do we have a man who can't distinguish between a baby and a stem cell,
or between a babe and a head of state,
or between a majority of his citizens and his personal religious interest group, as the leader of the world's first nuclear armed empire?
Wednesday, July 19, 2006
From the perspective of our brain, learning and doing are just two different verbs that refer to the same mental process.I like that. It's from Jonah Lehrer's article in Seed on how high school algebra should be taught. I really enjoyed reading it. The victims of math education as we know it [are you reading here Ms. Marcotte?] would want to see it implemented...but they are not the readers attracted to the article. As a nerd who always enjoyed math, I read it but would not have benefited much if it had been the way math was taught when I went to high school.
[Thanks to good 'ol 3 Quarks Daily, again]
Marriage is something people do for many reasons and among those reasons is to draw on the status of the institution to borrow an enlargement and improvement of their own standing in their community. The less significant people feel and the less secure they feel about who they are, the more important this assumable aspect of identity becomes. There is a not too abstract ideal of marriage with which they identify because it will come to identify them....and these people typically would not want to be in any way identified with gays.
Tuesday, July 18, 2006
Saturday, July 15, 2006
Web mechanic's note:There is a longer version of this post and there are three reasons you might want to read that one.
Lately, I amateurishly bumbled into, and became part of, a collection of posts and comments that could loosely be said to have a theme of ethical considerations of doing the scientific spade work in areas where popular opinions are hostile to, or inclined to misappropriate, facts and plausible working theories. Gender roles and biases regarding them, ever a cause over at Pandagon, was also in this mix. Dr. Freeride uses the term "cultural assumptions" in a post about how hopelessly mythical our claims of equality of the sexes in academia are.
For me, the outcome of all that discussion, greater than the lesson in manners that I constantly need, was to learn there is a more rigorous framework than comparison to myth for examining the origins of the conceptions and misconceptions that riddle or rule public debate. With the reservation that we could risk being cast off on a desert island of academics for indulging in the emperor's new detector for non-elite narishkeit, I recommend [as do Coturnix and Amanda] Chris's posts on essentialism. It is a fascinating tool for plumbing the sources of popular or man-on-the-street opinions. Until we cease to live in a democracy, we cannot ignore these opinions, the damp clay of politics and its cracked pottery, for they do much to determine legal and financial and religious treatment of the putative victims of bias in courts, legislatures and churches. You all know I tilt constantly at sundry forms of self delusion so a new tool that can scrub away the shared forms of self delusion is a treat. It is yet another reminder to me that I should not be surprised at sloppy thinking. As I once commented to Cul:
If you went to an insane asylum [you can call them mental hospitals nowadays: most of them have been emptied on to the streets. But lets pretend its 1951...] wouldn't you be very surprised if all the patients had the same fantasy?Important, or at least useful, as essentialist insights into popular notions about politically significant issues may be, it is still ironic that it is, in a way, an analysis of how we don't think or take shortcuts in our thinking. The study of how we avoid being deliberate in our thinking is not new. The subject of how humans often think in shallow if speedy ways, even for important decisions gets turned over every time a new tool or technique to measure and analyze thought is developed.. The first work I heard of that pointed to the biological/psychological, if amoral, advantages of stereotypical thinking is now behind a subscription paywall. In that paper with a title that will remind you of a Lakoff title, McRae and Bodenhausen reviewed studies of the nature of stereotypical thinking and particularly, thinking about other persons or groups:
"Given basic cognitive limitations and a challenging stimulus world, perceivers need some way to simplify and structure the person perception process. This they achieve through the activation and implementation of categorical thinking .... Rather than considering individuals in terms of their unique constellations of attributes and proclivities, perceivers prefer instead to construe them on the basis of the social categories (eg. race, gender, age) to which they belong, categories for which a wealth of related material is believed to reside in long-term memory."And they speculated on how our thought capacity came to function in that manner. The benefit, if I may summarize, was a way to rapidly reach decisions in the presence of information overload. Other studies on stereotypical thinking are not complimentary in their assessments of conservative and gender biases. But stereotypical thinking may be the dominant mode of decision making for most people...Gladwell wrote Blink to explain how we have always sized things up, to praise and finesse intuition, but not to offer a new kind of thinking.
Chris was explaining how essentialism is already being stretched into new areas:
An interesting [question] is whether we are psychological essentialists about concepts that might be considered as falling somewhere in between natural kinds and artifacts, like social concepts. Are we psychological essentialists about concepts such as gender, ethnicity, political orientation, or mental illness? Do we treat these concepts like natural kinds, or like artifacts, or as something in between? In this and subsequent posts, I'm going to discuss evidence indicating that we are, in fact, psychological essentialists about many social concepts,
Thus, it may be going too far on my sketchy acquaintance with the idea of kinds and essences to propose a more abstract kind but here goes : goodness or rightness is a natural kind or category into which we casually and reflexively sort many things which we perceive to have the following "essence": they promote, protect or affirm our self or things with which we identify. And there is an opposite "kind" for which the essence is that it competes with, injures or denies our self or interests with which we identify.
I want you to consider the barriers that impede ethical thinking if we are not mindful at the moment of decision. Ignore for a moment that mindful and deliberate are not the same concept and that necessity does not often afford the luxury of long reflection on a decision. Just weigh against your own experience the quality and utility of your own decisions made in any of these modes: stereotypical thinking, essentialist thinking, first impressions, hunches and intuitions. We use the term "common sense" in a generally positive connotation of "what everybody should know and how everybody should think" about commonly experienced issues and events. If you stop to think about it you'll probably agree with the Horace Greeley quip. Only a very technical investigation of common sense starts with the observation of how damn hard it is to derive, compute or instill. Do you have "common sense"? If what you consider to be your common sense appraisal of a situation is different from your peers, or some norm, how is it "common" sense? When you exercise it, do you ever revisit initial impressions and decisions [and impression IS decision: you get a feeling, you have taken a stand] or do you tend to later find more conscious reasonings that support the snap judgment? The research says the average "you" does this backfilling of hunches. What commonly passes for thought is not only NOT common sense, it is more like autopilot.
If it gets any attention at all, my suggestion that "good and right" is a kind from the psychological essentialist viewpoint will probably be shredded or at least get marked down for sloppiness. What I find most appealing about it as a model of mental processing is that it fits with the way we either deemphasize the negatives or the positives about many things that require our judgment, particularly as the those negatives and positives impact us personally. Nobody, well, nobody I know, intentionally works to do wrong but lots of us have to deal with gray areas. The ease with which we binarize to black or white ought to give us pause. To avoid coming into the grip of harmful or selfish decision making, if indeed we operate on the basis of some self-interest essence, is to teach ourselves to draw the largest possible circle of beings and cultures with which we can identify.
That essentialist way of saying we think categorically about what/who is good and bad popped into my head as I was reading the front page, above-the-fold story in Saturday's Boston Globe about a fierce old alpha male in the tribe of science, Nobel laureate Susumu Tonagawa who is accused by 11 colleagues at MIT of driving off a supremely qualified job applicant. This applicant just happens to be female and just happens to have areas of interest in neuroscience that heavily overlap his own. This is a rather different face of ethics in science than the questions of what is good to study and what is safe to report. Ethics among scientists has its own scale of sinfulness. I won't sort them for you but you might, as an exercise, consider ordering these examples.
- faking data or experimental results
- sabotaging someone else's experiments
- withholding knowledge that would probably help a competing line of research
- suppressing another's work by negative reviewing of a submitted paper.
- Not reporting something fraudulent you detect in a colleague's work
- concealing a conflict of interest or simple professional jealousy that affects cooperation with investigators whose work is related to yours
It seems that intra-scientist matters operate according to much the same human nature as we observe and complain about it in other walks of life, office politics as usual. Its not that MIT does not have a few women who did or currently do rock their world with renown and budget power but the culture of the institution, as the article hints has had to redress a spotty record regarding equal recognition of women as researchers and non harassment of women as students.
Women who are personal acquaintances of mine have filed grievances or written about the glass ceilings at their department at MIT and that colors my perception of this news. The Globe article is, and speaks carefully because it knows it is, an incomplete picture of what Tonagawa said to dissuade Karpova from working at MIT. The Globe article hints no awareness that the Stanford researcher who wrote to MIT on behalf of Dr. Karpova, the transgendered Ben Barres, has an unusual perspective on the effect of gender on the interactions of academic peers. Read Dr. Freeride's post and see. Departments more injured by Karpova's rejection and researchers more closely associated with Tonagawa come down on different sides of the controversy in their memos to the institute. Karpova's published thoughts are the elegant minimum: "No thank you MIT". What I am trying to illustrate here is that there are many perspectives on this affair and none of them except possibly Dr. Tonagawa's has even a chance of being inclusive of all the facts. From my own limited perspective, I can not imagine any benefit to MIT, to the program Dr. Tonagawa heads or to his own reputation that might result from discouraging a promising researcher from working there. And though it is remote, there is a slight diminution of my own interests. And, to be honest, I came to my conclusions about Tonagawa's problems two paragraphs into the Globe article Saturday morning and have struggled since to re-suspend judgment.
The work on essentialism, the studies of stereotypical thinking and "Blink" each counsel in their own way that we always have a ready-made perspective but seldom are aware of it or of how limited it is. What was the thought that passed through Dr. Tonagawa's mind in the minutes after Karpova's application first came to his attention? Even he might not remember. From dusty decades my own reactions I now recall and wonder what man still has these thoughts upon a first meeting with a female boss or co-worker who seems largely interested in her own ideas and not his own or who speaks with a tone of undue confidence:
"If she were another guy, I'd know how deal with this but what if she plays one of her 'woman' cards? Would I come off as intimidating? Am I already guilty of bias and liable to blackmail on that account? I am caught perpetually off balance."
Trust me gals, to some men an intimidating woman is that much more intimidating than an intimidating man.
The critical question, since our habits of thought are so firmly set and we don't always have time to expand our thinking before narrowing it back to a decision, is this: Can we revisit and if not, what exercises of thought beforehand might broaden the set of factors that will come into play reflexively in the moment of decision?
The most ethical thought you can have is the one made with the fullest context consciously born in mind. But omniscience is not available and we simply don't know how to fully subtract our own wishes from the processing.
Deliberation will do if you can summon it. Research psychology finds scant evidence that we do this summoning. Mindfulness improves upon deliberation by greatly and gracefully speeding it up through an ironic freedom from the burdens of self. That freedom falls out of detecting the interferences of self so they can be disarmed. But if not by seeing through your self then by whatever means are available to you, you should explore what positive connections and win-win dynamics may exist between you and all the fellow creatures who are not now the members of "your" crowd of good guys. Deliberation may be ideal, but intuition is fast and self interest is the fastest part of it. I am suggesting a liberalization of what an individual senses as his or her self interest is the most effective way to move more of the "others" of the world into the beneficial categories when categorical thinking can not be avoided.
Friday, July 14, 2006
Today they fail me. I have no news to add but I don't think silence is the proper response. I cannot express the degree of disgust and anxiety with which I recieve news about Israel, Palestine and Lebannon these past two days. All parties there must be certain by now that nearly every rocket or bomb not aimed strictly at combatants will wash blood over bystanders and start fires in their enemy's hearts that will burn for years unforgotten. Yet they all and each tell the reporters how legitmate their actions are.
Dismay and protest pile on from many quarters. I find TruthOut and The Agonist the most interesting readings of the dismal story. There is hardly a place to turn for calmer news. I listlessly flip pages in a copy of Audubon Society's Sanctuary or my gardening magazine. I want calm but I am distracted and cannot attend to calm things.
Calm is not as addictive as worry.
The Bush administration, having shot all its ammo at Iraq, has niether troops nor credibility with the combatants and finally realizing this, sits quietly by. Overreaching neoconservatism that took 50 thousand Iraqi lives as an acceptable cost of empire has dissolved into a vacant foreign policy unable to save lives.
This all gives me a feeling like I am a ghost watching the decay of the world and powerless to act or be heard. My words fail me.
Wednesday, July 12, 2006
The worry expressed in these quotes is definitely legitimate.
Saying we ought to be careful as scientists because Republicans and fundamentalists can misuse our discoveries is wrong. Talking about "essences" and framing is interesting but its just shortcuts for people who won't take the time to soak up the vast set of facts we already have let alone ask for more.
- If anything is worse than sensationalizing an uncontroversial scientific publication it is uncritically picking up the alarm and spreading it. The concern was more about saying too much in public than in knowing too much. [my mistake, but shame on BBC too.]
- Whenever science arrives at an understanding that challenges conventional beliefs, it will be subjected to misinterpretation. The most constructive attitude the scientific community can have in the face of this inevitability is, short of jeopardizing research funds, to consider patient and persistent educating as every scientist's job even if the only reason they went into science was a personal curiosity. Senationalism and instant dissemination are here to stay so we just have to keep learning and calmly explaining what we have learned…and calmly refuting from our facts the distortions others reach from their assumptions and fears. [my opinion]
- Natural is not the same as “typical” or “normal” and it is the idea of being “normal” that carries the heavy load of socially constructed stigma. I use “natural” as the opposite of “unnatural”, ie natural means NOT behaviors learned or otherwise imposed contrary to the inclinations of the organism. Humans as a subject of study make that distinction hard to elucidate because they are so darned reprogramable.
Tuesday, July 11, 2006
Monday, July 10, 2006
I agree with most of the observations in Bora's post, Coontz's particularly, that culture and history have ebbed and flowed their load of economic, social status, religious and symbolic identification [that's what love has to do with it] attributes through marriage as an institution. I see quite clearly that marriage as a publicly sanctioned institution is about power and the preservation of privilege and parochialism more than anything else. Most liberals bristle at the statement that "marriage is for having kids" and that objection is OK but incomplete unless you have SOMETHING that is for having kids. The 7 criteria Bora suggests as the past standards are not quite adequate to the challenges of founding a safe and just society because stipulating fertility creates a commitment the other criteria don't completely support. Someone has to RAISE those kids and lovingly but history and the rot at the margins of our own society show that some "couples" and the society as a whole don't always want that job. [No one should read me as saying we are all supposed to want or try for kids. I consider having no interest in bearing children as perhaps less common but just as natural as wanting kids: both are organic behaviors]. My own suggestions were too poorly written up to draw any attention but basically, I say we should free up marriage to be whatever society wants it to be by separating the procreation issues under a procreation contract. All the other issues are matters of culture and fashion with marginal impacts on the mental health of the next generation. How you will make strong those who come here weak and without any choices is how you really prevent that collapse of societies that the conservatives fret about so much when all the other alterations to the tradition [which was constantly altering anyway] are up for debate.
Marriage is now commonly said by conservatives to be "about the family". It was. It was in spite of the notion of family morphing from time to time. It was also about the dynasty. And back when 2 kids out of 7 or 8 survived, maybe that made some sense to focus less on the individual and more on the clan. The slight change of words to "about the children" is a much bigger deal than it looks. The conservative ideals about marriage that are being pushed these days only accidentally produce healthy productive citizens. Their results are nothing like their rhetoric.The great natural disaster that is my writing ability made my 2% on this topic an uninteresting ramble back when I wrote it but I am serious: consider my proposal to divorce the institution of marriage from the complex and lengthy commitments of procreation.
Let me explain why the time is ripening if not ripe for such change. The tendency I and others spy for our society's pluralism to fragment into ideological enclaves is but one symptom of the advent of melting pots and national harmony losing ground to the cultivation of disrespect and distortion. We in western cultures are reaching a point where we think we can afford to relax the discipline of living within larger communities. We have enough choices of community and news sources to live as if our favored ways were the only ways. Western societies, but especially the US, which strove for, or at least claimed, tolerance of mildly diverse ethnicities and creeds now change direction: we actually were faking it. We smothered the little cultural differences with the blanket of WASP flavored civility, shed languages at Ellis Island, bet heavily on public schooling as the path (and the price) of progress. But now the right rails and legislates against different views but doesn't leave its neighborhoods. Pluralism fades. It was always a compromise between getting things your way and getting along. In a society where the media and even some politicians find benefit in fomenting ideological and inevitably cultural balkanization, marriage, as the institution of cultural propagation, must either undergo the same fragmentation or come loose from its role. I don't care what happens to the institution but I do care what happens to the kids.
Children may be the present's hope but they are not, in spite of conservatism's bent, its property. Kids will, if we nourish them properly, grow up to do better things than we have done and "better" often means different.
What did you think school prayer, verses from Exodus on the courthouse walls and a narrowing legal formalization of the meaning of love are all about? Throughout history, marriage has been about power. Control of who married whom and what goods and rights that cost and gained them have been at the center of the institution's many passing variations...and sometimes only vaguely related to sex or procreation. Since power is being sucked out of the shared secular culture and pulled back into the halls and enclaves of sectarian interests , why should one group have the power to establish its standards, shallow as they are in practice, as the only choice for the rest of us? All the more reason for the divorce of the institution from the inherent obligations toward children. I will not stand in the way if the fundamentalists wish to secede from the future but if they want to stand in the way of everyone else's future, expect a fight.
History has been such a dismal tale in part because most cultures have focused on securing familial or dynastic or clannish power and privilege, marriage being one key vehicle, when it could have been a much happier story if the focus had been on the next generation, on the children.
The FBI has drafted sweeping legislation that would require Internet service providers to create wiretapping hubs for police surveillance and force makers of networking gear to build in back doors for eavesdropping, CNET News.com has learned.I guess that means there is yet some equipment out there that the feds can't already tap? Actually, if you read the article, it looks like ports in PHONE switches are standard but the FBI wants the same universal ease of eavesdropping for VOIP communications. I can hardly wait for the administration and its apologists to tell us there is nothing new here to get alarmed about. Nope, nothing to see here, just move along.
So, along with all the other unnecessary fights and wasters of resources, we have a new skirmish to add to the list of upcoming but interminable squabbles between the power of fear and the fear of power: I'll make a guess that the tussle will take such forms as Phil Zimmerman and his Open Source VOIP encryption scheme getting threats from the bushified intelligence agencies while friends and users of NARUS get less coverage than they should. We should give out points good toward your Koufax standings for any blogger who gets a right wing reprimand for compromising our fatherland security by exposing wholesale spying on citizens.
Friday, July 07, 2006
Think of Jimmy Carter. This man came through his presidency with a voice we still trust, and the world still trusts. Think of the difference between the way Jimmy Carter holds his faith and the way George Bush holds his. In Carter, as Madelaine Albright has written, faith was a bridge he could he could use to use to meet Jews and Muslims half way. For Bush it has been a barrier to conceiving any kind of Israeli roles and boundries that aren't biblical. Both men could pray at the same church, so what separates them?
I am reading William James' The Varieties of Religious Experience. Its dated in some ways yet still as good and honest an attempt to achieve perspective if not understanding on the assumed universality of personally longing for deity and relationship to deity. He is careful to confine his considerations to the human and interior experiences and avoids actual theology and explicitly eschews the institutional. Enduring what I consider his assumptions for the sake of the rest of his interesting deliberations, I begin to get a hunch that the religious urge wells up from the incompleteness of consciousness , a raw edge of the mind, a hunger that turns some toward god. I guess for some folks, the gap between wholeness we can imagine and the uneven patchwork of our experience, i.e. the limits of what we can know, is just unbearable. It helps but I don't know that you necessarily need a god to tell you that YOU aren't god...especially since some people aren't really listening even though they claim they hear voices. Leadership is not the exercise of command by way of facing fewer limits...that is power, naked and ugly. The great leaders lead in spite of and through limits. They share their own limitations and the limitations of those they lead by knowing their limits and facing them squarely.
Thursday, July 06, 2006
We spent four days at the Shaw festival in Niagara on the Lake, Ontario. We have gone there every year or two for nearly ten years. We took in six of the eight or so plays in production at the time. That cost us about $100 more in tickets than it did two years ago. Ask Dubya why he is letting our currency go to hell. We once visited Canada with a 4:5 dollar advantage, now its 11:12.
This graph kinda tells a story.
Past Trend, Present Value & Future Projection
Its a nice place to visit. To a person, the natives were quite hospitable. The shops seemed crowded but the Canada Day/Independence Day holidays and the great weather made for the very busiest weekend. The shopkeepers said business is off about a third from pre-9/11 levels for the season. Asian and Iranian [my wife speaks Farsi and heard quite a bit of it] tourists seem to be taking up some of the slack for the missing Iowans and Kansans. The shopkeepers said the dropoff was sharpest when it stopped being a matter of flashing a driver's license to re-enter the US...less than a third of US citizens even possess a passport. I am guessing, but I would bet Iranians and many other nationalities who have the money and the interest to visit the US are quiet put off by the nasty scrutiny they expect if they wish to visit our formerly open shores. For the acts of 20 madmen we will punish whole nations. Who suffers when this punishment is dished out? Gas prices doubtless further deter Americans from driving north in their accustomed numbers.
But the plays are the thing [the wine ain't bad either]. The second largest repertory theatre company in Canada [and, therefore, the world], the Shaw Festival puts on at least two shows a day in three different theaters. If you are into GBS, Noel Coward and all their contemporaries, it is a delight. Stagecraft is world class. Excellent actors, great sets, good performances and appreciative audiances for mostly sedate fare since the Shaw Festival mandate is for Shaw and contemporaries. Only one of the performances was disturbing, riveting actually, and it got and deserved the only standing ovation we observed at the festival: Arthur Miller's "The Crucible". The audiance was buzzing afterward. A grey haired audiance that knew what McCartyism was...shaking their heads sadly.
Were we a nation that learned from its first mistakes, this play would never have been written. But, Kazan turning on his own co-workers fired Miller to finish the play. Were we a nation that learned from a repeated mistake, this play would have been an anachronism. But anger at forced confesssions, anger at a government mouthing doctrines of a particular religious minority and anger at the manipulation of fears that can be clung to without solid proof by those wanting power ...all these still rouse audiences.
Damn the hicks and hacks that cast these tired old shadows on my country.