Monday, November 25, 2013
by Ben Schreckinger
At the end of the week, in the predawn hours that most of us will spend sleeping off turkey and pumpkin pie, millions of Americans will gather in the dark to kick off Black Friday, the annual day-long frenzy of bargain-hunting that marks the beginning of the holiday season. Many economists wish they wouldn't.
Not because Black Friday, in which shoppers literally climb over each other to get at plastic toys and electronic gadgets, is an affront to human dignity. Not because it perpetuates crass materialism. But because, according to an influential strain of economic thinking, the act of gift-giving creates a dead-weight loss.
The seminal paper in this vein is Joel Waldfogel's "The Deadweight Loss of Christmas," which goes so far as to estimate — based on interviews of Yale undergrads — that Christmas gifts represent a waste of many billions of dollars annually. Waldfogel's indictment of Christmas presents reads like a wonkier cousin of Jonathan Swift's modest proposal that the Irish eat their own babies — but it's totally sincere.
It was published just in time for Christmas in 1993. The Soviet Union had dissolved on Boxing Day only two years earlier. The market had kicked central planning's butt, which was great news for Americans, and especially great news for American economists. But it turned out to be bad news for Santa, because according to the logic of the market, Christmas is an obstacle to maximum efficiency.
That logic is straightforward: A person has a very good idea of her own needs, and given $100 to spend on herself, she'll spend that money on the things she wants most. But someone else spending $100 on a gift for that person probably has inferior knowledge of that person's preferences, and will buy them something they value less. The better option, then, is to give the recipient $100 and let her spend it for herself.
In 2001, The Economist reexamined the case against gifts and came up with a somewhat more nuanced conclusion. Their analysis elaborates on special cases where a giver might be able to make more efficient use of the money — by giving the recipient what he really wants but won't buy for himself, for example — a possibility that Waldfogel acknowledges. It also stumbles upon the insight that gift-giving itself can give an item sentimental value. In the way that it can sometimes read like The Alien's Guide to Being Human, the magazine advises readers to "Try hard to guess the preferences of each person on your list and then choose a gift that will have a high sentimental value."
On this line of thinking, indifference curves still offer a useful tool for understanding gift-giving: If we add sentimental value to our model and run the figures again, we might be able to save Christmas after all. But in reality, dead-weight loss and Christmas just don't belong in the same sentence. To understand why, it's helpful to look to the work of UCLA anthropologist Alan Fiske, who's observed that human relationships follow four basic models that correspond to four sets of values: communal sharing, authority ranking, equality matching, and market pricing.
Tomas Saraceno. On Space Time Foam. HangarBicocca in Milan, Italy, 2012.
"... is a multi-layered habitat of membranes suspended 24 meters above the ground that is inspired by cosmology and life sciences. Each level has a different climate and air pressure and will react to the movement of visitors through it. In a later iteration, the work will become a floating biosphere above the Maldives Islands that is made habitable with solar panels and desalinated water."
by Emrys Westacott
Just about every high school would like more money and harder working students. I have a modest proposal to address both problems. In every high school cafeteria let there be two groups—call them, say, "premier" and "regular." To be in the premier group, students must either pay an additional fifty percent on top of the normal price for a school lunch or be ranked academically in the top five percent of their class. Those in the premier group would enjoy a number of privileges: they queue in their own line, which gives them priority over "regulars" for receiving service; they sit in a separate section at special tables adorned with tablecloths and floral centerpieces; their chairs have padded seats; and they have more choice at the food counter. In addition to the options available to the regular group, they can avail themselves of a complimentary hors d'oeuvre, sparkling water instead of tap water, and an after-lunch coffee or cappuccino (with complimentary chocolate mint). Best of all, perhaps, they enjoy unfiltered internet access.
The benefits of the system should be obvious. The extra revenue generated by the premier group will (among other things) enable the school to offer better food to all while lowering prices for those in the standard group. And students will be inspired to work harder so that they can enjoy premier group privileges, or at least ensure that one day their own kids will do so.
Objections anyone? I can't think of any apart from the thought that the whole scheme is utterly pernicious, likely to breed arrogance on the one side, resentment on the other, and to foster social divisions that subtly fracture the community spirit that ideally would unite all members of the school.
My modest proposal occurred to me the other day when, for the first time, by some inexplicable fluke, I found myself assigned to a first class seat on a jumbo jet flying from Denver to Washington.
by Helane Levine-Keating
“When a foreign classic is retranslated, furthermore, we expect the translator to do something new to justify yet another version. And in raising the bar we might also expect the translator to be capable of describing this newness.” – Lawrence Venuti
As Umberto Eco has written in his essay “Borges and My Anxiety of Influence,” “books talk to each other.” And if indeed “books talk to each other,” there is also a conversation—often unspoken—that goes on between fiction writers critics, and translators.
The fiction writer who also translates listens very carefully to the words that are written on the page. They are familiar words—they have influenced her writing for years. Throughout the process, she discusses each choice with the long-deceased writer whom she’s translating.
After the words have been strung into sentences, perhaps she dreams of meeting him in his cork-lined bedroom in Paris late at night when he is often wide awake and longing to talk. In the dream she asks him if he likes her translation, if he thinks she’s captured his humor, his particular point of view, his tone of voice. She asks him if she’s nailed the words with the same nails he’s used, more or less, and then she eagerly awaits his answer. A small smile plays on his lips. He coughs for a while, long enough for her foot to fall asleep as she sits cross-legged on the chaise longue near his bed. Finally she asks him again, this time in French, “Est-ce que ma traduction vous plaît ou non?” But in the dream there is no equivalent for “Yes” or “No."
What does it mean, then, to be both a writer and a translator, who in each role is affected by the whims of the marketplace, the need to make a living, and, by extension, the critics who deem a text worthy or unworthy of being bought and read?
by Paul Braterman
I am browsing school science textbooks published and marketed by an influential and nationally accredited US university. Here is what I find. Satan wants people to believe in evolution. This is probably the main reason that evolution is so popular. Evolution relies on processes that cannot be observed, therefore it isn’t a scientific theory but depends on faith. The theory of biological evolution is not true because it contradicts the Bible. Many people believe in the evolutionary theory because they feel it eliminates God and lets them do what they want. Evolutionists are constantly finding evidence that runs counter to their claims, but discard it because of bias. The Flood is a better explanation of the fossil record than evolution. Missing links and common ancestors are absent from the fossil record because these organisms never existed. Radiometric dating involves so much guesswork that it is unreliable. Earth Day is the Festival of a false god; but a Christian must be confident that the God who made the world is able to maintain it. And much more in the same vein.
I came across all this rather indirectly. I recently saw a reference to someone, teaching at a non-accredited University in Albuquerque, who described himself as a Fellow of Oxford Graduate School. Having myself, many years ago, tried to become a Fellow of an Oxford college, and dismally failed, I was ready to be impressed. But then it occurred to me that Fellowships are not awarded by Oxford University, but by each of its component colleges. Moreover, despite six years at Oxford and two graduate degrees, I had never heard of the Graduate School as a separate entity. So I decided this was worth looking into. And so it proved. Oxford Graduate School may be of little importance in itself, but it pointed me to a world of absurdities, where a university can only win accreditation by denying scientific reality, where such accreditation is recognised by the US government, and where those at institutions accredited in this way have exerted influence out of all proportion to their numbers.
Oxford Graduate School (OGS), like that place in England where they have been teaching since 1096, has the name "Oxford" in its title, and according to its web site it also calls its doctorate degree D.Phil. rather than Ph.D. And there the resemblance ends.
by Brooks Riley
by Brooks Riley
At particularly difficult periods in my life, I study my cat. I'm not a biologist or an anthropomorphologist (okay, maybe I am), but I do occasionally like to read about animal behavior and its human interpreters and interpretations. Much research work examines the intelligence of animals based on tool-usage or communication skills: the New Caledonian crow fashioning hooks out of stiff leaves or twigs to dig up a tasty worm from a hole in a tree stump, chimpanzees doing math, gorillas like Koko using sign language, etc.
One word which suprisingly fails to appear in the scientific literature is ‘intent'. And it is exactly this word which ennables me to decipher the mysteries of my cat.
In the animal world intent can mean the carrying out of instinctive behavior. A squirrel intends to store a nut, a lion intends to attack an antelope, a robin intends to dig up a worm. All of these intentions are hardwired into the ongoing survival apparatus of that animal. In the more intelligent animals, intent consists of more than one level: The New Caledonian crow intends to get that worm, yes, but before he can do so, he has to intend to fashion a tool out of a leaf to facilitate his first intention. This latter intention is intrinsically linked to the first intention, but it is not part of the instinctive level of intent. It is a learned behavior whose origins lie in an exquisite act of deductive reasoning: Some ancestral New Caledonian crow actually thought about the problem of how to reach an out-of-reach worm. And to find a solution, he had to imagine something outside of his own corporeal construction that might facilitate his goal. He put 1 (twig) and 1 (hole) together and came up with 2 (the worm). Then he taught his kids. That his descendents were able to repeat his invention and possibly even incorporate it into their own instinctive behavior doesn't mitigate the fact that catching a worm in New Caledonia involves two intentions, both based on need, but only one based on original instinct.
But back to my cat. A domestic housebound cat doesn't use its instinct anymore to hunt for food. If it's hungry, it has to find another way to get food. And that other way also involves a bifurcation of intent: First it has to get your attention—by yowling, scratching the pristine upholstery, or jumping on you from a great height as you sleep. A different cat might utilize gentler means, such as butting it's head against your leg or laying a paw on your arm. Whatever the means, she intends to annoy you in order to carry out her first intention, which is to get fed. Her tool, like that of the crow, is a secondary intention meant to ennable the first intention. In Pavlovian terms, you are the dog, she is the bell. Instead of salivating, you rise up zombie-like from your bed and feed the cat.
by Thomas Wells
The robots are coming. Even if they don't actually think, they will behave enough like they do to take over most of the cognitive labour humans do, just as fossil-fuel powered machines displaced human muscle power in the 19th and 20th centuries. I've written elsewhere about the kind of changes this new industrial revolution implies for our political and moral economy if we are to master its utopian possibilities and head off its dystopian threats. But here I want to explore some more intimate consequences of robots moving into the household. Robots will not only be able to do our household chores, but care work, performing the labours of love without ever loving. I foresee two distinct tendencies. First, the attenuation of inter-human intimacy as we have less need of each other. Second, the attractiveness of robots as intimate companions.
Robots will allow us to economise on love
Robots are smartish machines that will soon be able to perform complicated but mundane tasks. They will be, relative to humans, low maintenance, reliable, and tireless. If they cost the same as cars, which doesn't seem implausible, most people will be able to afford at least one. That would effectively provide everyone with command over a full-time personal servant (actually more than full-time since they presumably won't need to sleep). Imagine how much easier life will be with someone else to do all the household chores (an incremental improvement on dishwashers and vacuum cleaners) and also the household care work like potty-training children (a revolutionary improvement). But also, imagine how this may disrupt the political-economy of the 'traditional' household and our dependency on love.
As feminist economists have long pointed out, households are factories in function and corporations in identity. They are factories because they apply human labour and tools to convert inputs like groceries, nappies, houses, etc. into things worth having, like meals, children, homes, etc. They are corporations because they are unified economic units, separated from the individualistic competitive market that operates outside its walls. The individuals who make up a household, like the employees of any firm, are supposed to work together as colleagues to advance the success and prosperity of the corporate 'family' as a whole, rather than to advance their own individual material interests as actors in a market would. Organising production outside of the market in this way makes economic sense in many circumstances, and for the same reasons we have business firms. Using the market comes with transaction costs associated with establishing trust and quality assurance between self-regarding strangers.
by Mara Naselli
Montaigne's essays are famously voluminous. He didn't cut text; he added it. The book is a monster. He said so himself: "What are these Essays if not monstrosities and grotesques, botched together from a variety of limbs having no defined shape, with an order, sequence, and proportion which are purely fortuitous."
Despite their prodigiousness, Montaigne's essays have enjoyed a popular reception in recent years. We love him for his genuineness, candor, and humility. We think of him as ahead of his time, the first blogger, just like us, trying to figure out how to live in the world. His introspection is a legitimation of our own. But what Montaigne was doing—writing about himself thinking about the world—was a radical rebellion that goes well beyond our own contemporary idiom of self and world. If we look at Montaigne within his historical context, his literary innovation is even more startling. His epistolary intimacy and authority isn't achieved through an elevation of what we now call the self. In fact, Montaigne's understanding of the self has a lot more in common with the Greek notion of the self than our own. For the Greeks the self was not an individual with unique qualities. Knowing oneself meant knowing one's place in the world, knowing how persons differ from gods. It meant knowing one's limits.
Montaigne lived on the cusp of epochal change. The limits that defined the European known world were dissolving in the age of discovery, and yet medieval ideas about how that world worked still dominated in Montaigne's lifetime. The sun, for example, moved around the earth. If you slept on a pile of gold, you would wake transformed into the body of a dragon. Storks lived only in free states. A balance of four basic fluids determined one's health. These beliefs organized a powerful and complicated environment into a divinely ordered whole. At the time, every creature, every detail of the natural world had symbolic meaning to be read as the Book of Nature, authored by God. To understand beasts and nature, to understand even one's own body was to understand God's will. Monsters and monstrosities, deformities of any kind were seen as punishments or omens.
by James McGirk
James McGirk works as a literary journalist and is a contributing analyst to an online think tank. The following is an imagined itinerary for a tourist vacation twenty years in the future.
Seven days in the PRINTERZONE
June 20, 2033-June 28, 2033
A quick suborbital hop to Iceland courtesy of Virgin Galactic and then it’s all aboard the ScholarShip, a luxurious three-mast schooner powered by that most ecologically palatable of sources: the wind.
Weather-permitting you and twenty of your fellow alumni will set sail for the Printerzone. (The North and Norwegian Seas can be temperamental: in the event of heavy weather we revert to backup biodiesel power.) Our destination has been recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site: it is both a glimpse at what our future might become should government regulation of printers come to an end, and a fantasy of life free from credit and ubiquitous surveillance. Together we’ll spend a week immersed in this unique community, on board an oilrig in international waters, using three-dimensional additive printing to meet our every need.
Joining us on this adventure will be Prof. Orianna Braum, an associate professor of Maker Culture at Stanford University; Alan Reasor, a forty-year veteran of the additive printing industry; and a young man who prefers to refer to himself by displaying a small silver plastic snowflake in his palm.
ITINERARY - DAY ONE
A colorful day spent traversing the Norwegian and North Seas… sublime marine grays and blues stirred by the bracing sea breeze. Keep your eyes peeled for pods of chirping Minke whales! Many are 100 percent natural.
Breakfast and lunch will be served onboard The ScholarShip by our chef Matthias Spork. Selections include: printed cereals and pastas, catch-of-the-day and a refreshing sorbet spatter-printed by his wife, renowned pastry chef Rebecca Spork.
Prof. Braum and Mr. Reasor will debate: Has Three-Dimensional Printing failed its Promise? Reasor will argue that in most instances economies of scale and the cost of raw materials make conventional manufacturing a more cost-effective solution than 3D printing. Prof. Braum will counter, describing industries that have been radically reshaped by printing—prosthetics and dentistry, bespoke suiting and fashion, at-home robotics and auto-repair—and suggest instead that government safety regulation and restrictive intellectual property licenses have done more to stifle innovation than costs. There will be time for questions afterwards. And then a brief demonstration of piezoelectric substrates: printed materials that respond to the human touch.
Following a hearty and delicious dinner prepared by the Sporks, we invite you for hot toddy and outdoor stargazing with our First Mate. The Arctic winds can be fierce at night, so you have the option of lighting the hearth in your cabin, and viewing a very special Skype broadcast—The Pink Printer’s Naughty Apprentice—which outlines in a most whimsical and titillating way some of the more adult uses of the three-dimensional printer.
(Please note that cabins containing occupants below the age of consent in their country of residence will not receive this broadcast.)
by Michael Lopresto
Philosophy is one of the great sciences of reality, as Galen Strawson has said. To this I would add that philosophy is one of the most general of sciences, with the remarkable ability to cross between domains and incorporate both logical and hermeneutical methods. Mathematics and physics have incredible generality, for example, but philosophers will investigate the philosophy of mathematics and the philosophy of physics. But what does it mean to say that something is a science?
Science is a distinctive strategy whose aim is to uncover truths about the world. This strategy can be distinguished from other human endeavours, such as sophistry, with the pernicious aim of deceiving and manipulating, and art and criticism, with the honourable aim of facilitating aesthetic experience and communication. We distinguish good art from bad art on the grounds that bad art is deceitful and manipulative, and good art that it is, say, honest and morally serious. Equally, we distinguish between good science and bad science. Good science tends to have good philosophical foundations; scientists strive to build theories that are naturalistic, falsifiable, parsimonious, and have continuity with other theories. Bad science tends to be driven by ulterior motives; to confirm or vindicate what is already believed in a particular culture.
Admittedly, this is a slightly unusual way of talking about science and philosophy. There are social and political reasons for supposing a sharp cleavage between science and philosophy, and especially between science and the humanities. It is often said that science is inherently empirical, employing its distinctive quantitative methods; whereas the humanities are inherently perspectival and hermeneutical, employing its distinctive qualitative methods. Of course, the humanities are the most important part of a university education, as Brian Leiter has said, we all leave university to be full human beings, and the humanities are indispensible for this. This is especially important to emphasise in our pernicious culture of economic rationalism, where depressingly, the worth of the humanities needs to be constantly defended. But from another perspective, however, there are very few principled distinctions between the sciences and the humanities. Many of the sciences use rigorous formal methods, but philosophical logic and formal linguistics, for example, are equally rigorous and formal. Applied mathematics engages in abstract reasoning about the world, but equally does analytic metaphysics. Biology and Psychology build theories in their respective domains, but so do the philosophy of biology and the philosophy of psychology.
Sunday, November 24, 2013
Jonathan Laurence in Dissent:
The first serious divergences between Muslims and the left in Europe began with the fatwa issued by Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini against Salman Rushdie in 1989 and religious demands to censor his novel, The Satanic Verses. The split widened later that year, when France began to restrict the wearing of girls’ headscarves in schools.
Until then, parties on the left had embraced the mostly working-class minority as a natural ally. Migrants from Muslim majority countries first began settling permanently in Western Europe in the 1970s and ’80s. The unexpected transformation of receiving countries into “immigration societies” provoked nationalist and racist reactions on the right, while parties on the left appeared the likely beneficiary of the influx of future voters. German trade unions were already enrolling Gastarbeiter (guest workers) in the 1960s, decades before the German state considered granting Turks easy access to citizenship. When the Socialist leader François Mitterrand was elected French president in 1981, he authorized foreigners to create cultural and political associations—mostly benefiting Algerians, Moroccans, and Tunisians—that party leaders hoped would federate under the Socialist banner.
Parties of the left began supporting civic integration efforts at the same moment that center-right parties began battling an ascendant extreme right. While Christian Democrats repeated the mantra that “Germany is not a country of immigration,” for example, German Greens and Social Democrats lobbied for dual nationality for Turks. Conservative coalitions at the time portrayed the immigrant population as a drain on resources and a threat to security and the national way of life. The Social Democratic defense of the second generation’s “right to be different” and to participate in politics allowed center-left parties to defend their ideals while making inroads into a budding electorate of millions.
Richard Marshall interviews Brian O’Connor in 3:AM Magazine:
3:AM: How should we understand what Adorno meant when he discussed the social world as a ‘damaged life’? How far was this a reaction to the times he lived through and was it an overreaction that can’t make a distinction between Nazi society and totalitarianism, and contemporary liberal ones?
BO: We could say that Adorno endorses the notion, that we consider broadly Aristotelian, that a well-ordered society provides us with wholesome and indeed happy ways of living. But, obviously enough, Adorno believes that we have anything but such a society: forms of human interaction are shaped by the supposedly all-consuming experience of self-preservation within capitalism. This produces coldness in people’s dealings with each other. Because of the particularities of German culture, according to Adorno, National Socialism could pose as a substitute for the sense of belonging lost through the capitalism driven rationalization of society. But it is a freakish social world. The coldness is not overcome, and togetherness is achieved through exclusionary myths. If we take the broadly Aristotelian picture as some kind of baseline, the life that Adorno describes is about as damaged as life can be.
It’s important to point out that critical theory’s worry about liberalism actually precedes the catastrophe of the Nazi era. There are familiar interpretations of liberalism as a theory primarily of the freedom of the ‘bourgeois’ actor rather than of the experience of life without stress or of substantive values about human dignity. At no time, however, is it lumped in with totalitarianism. Post-war, liberalism, in the vague forms in which it was generally conceived, was not perceived as a candidate for the solution to the forms of behaviour into which Germany in particular seemed so easily to slide.
Crispin Sartwell in the NYT's The Stone:
Art and philosophy, it seemed to me then, had gone their separate ways, and were conceived as opposing and incompatible cultural zones. Danto developed an ingenious (if not unproblematic) reconnection that was also a revival and transformation of all the traditional questions of philosophical aesthetics. Indeed, in his view, the avant-garde art of the period and analytic philosophy were not just compatible, they were made for each other. In developments like pop art and conceptualism, he asserted, art had become a form of philosophy, which is one thing he meant when he said that art was over. Whether this was exactly true or not, it mirrored his own development in its synthesis of the sensual and the intellectual.
For Danto not only wrote about art; he wrote with art. This is what really impressed (I want to say “transfigured”) me as a graduate student. As it turned out, I didn’t particularly agree with his philosophy. But I loved his writing inordinately and have often tried to emulate it. Among my first publications was an attack, written in an admiring simulation of Danto’s own style, on what I took to be the basic argument of “The Transfiguration of the Commonplace”; he thrilled me by sending me a letter, administering gracious correction.
Nicholas Slayton in The Atlantic:
[P]art of that appeal, not just for viewers but also writers, is its limitlessness. Doctor Who can be anything. If you strip it down to its core concept, it's the platform for every genre and plot imaginable.
“It's a perfect story engine in many ways. The lead can change, you can go anywhere in space and time, the box itself is kind of weird, so we can have an excuse as to why it suddenly disappears at any moment,” said Rudy Jahchan, who along with Liz Shannon Miller hosts the time-travel and Doctor Who-themed podcast Timey Wimey TV. “They can always make it be whatever it needs to be for the years it's in.”
Early on, the show stepped away from its educational nature and started playing with more fantastic ideas, and also genres. There were seasons that played homage to the '60s spy craze, Hammer Horror, and the existential science-fiction stories that filled the '70s. And now the show has fully embraced its genre-busting nature. Recent seasons have mixed pirate adventures, government conspiracy thrillers, and ghost stories, sometimes back to back.
“The appeal of Doctor Who is that you can do anything, any when, you can have him meet anyone,” Handcock said. “That's irresistible as a writer. You're given a completely blank slate, but you're given one of the best characters ever devised in fiction to have an adventure there. You present someone with those two factors, and they're going to leap at it.”
And Doctor Who is uplifting. As dark as the show can get, and as high as the body count can rise (which is very high), there's always a sense of joy and discovery there.
John Naughton in The Guardian:
Huxley was a child of England's intellectual aristocracy. His grandfather was Thomas Henry Huxley, the Victorian biologist who was the most effective evangelist for Darwin's theory of evolution. (He was colloquially known as "Darwin's Bulldog".) His mother was Matthew Arnold's niece. His brother, Julian and half-brother Andrew both became distinguished biologists. In the circumstances it's not surprising that Aldous turned out to be a writer who ranged far beyond the usual preoccupations of literary folk – into history, philosophy, science, politics, mysticism and psychic exploration. His biographer wrote: "He offered as his personal motto the legend hung around the neck of a ragged scarecrow of a man in a painting by Goya: Aún aprendo. I am still learning." He was, in that sense, a modern Voltaire.
Brave New World was published in 1932. The title comes from Miranda's speech in Shakespeare's The Tempest: "Oh, wonder! / How many goodly creatures are there here! / How beauteous mankind is! Oh brave new world, / That has such people in't." It is set in the London of the distant future – AD 2540 – and describes a fictional society inspired by two things: Huxley's imaginative extrapolation of scientific and social trends; and his first visit to the US, in which he was struck by how a population could apparently be rendered docile by advertising and retail therapy. As an intellectual who was fascinated by science, he guessed (correctly, as it turned out) that scientific advances would eventually give humans powers that had hitherto been regarded as the exclusive preserve of the gods. And his encounters with industrialists like Alfred Mond led him to think that societies would eventually be run on lines inspired by the managerial rationalism of mass production ("Fordism") – which is why the year 2540 AD in the novel is "the Year of Our Ford 632".
Toni Rodriguez in Scientific American:
A client sits before me, seeking help untangling his relationship problems. As a psychotherapist, I strive to be warm, nonjudgmental and encouraging. I am a bit unsettled, then, when in the midst of describing his painful experiences, he says, “I'm sorry for being so negative.” A crucial goal of therapy is to learn to acknowledge and express a full range of emotions, and here was a client apologizing for doing just that. In my psychotherapy practice, many of my clients struggle with highly distressing emotions, such as extreme anger, or with suicidal thoughts. In recent years I have noticed an increase in the number of people who also feel guilty or ashamed about what they perceive to be negativity. Such reactions undoubtedly stem from our culture's overriding bias toward positive thinking. Although positive emotions are worth cultivating, problems arise when people start believing they must be upbeat all the time. In fact, anger and sadness are an important part of life, and new research shows that experiencing and accepting such emotions are vital to our mental health. Attempting to suppress thoughts can backfire and even diminish our sense of contentment. “Acknowledging the complexity of life may be an especially fruitful path to psychological well-being,” says psychologist Jonathan M. Adler of the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering.
Positive thoughts and emotions can, of course, benefit mental health. Hedonic theories define well-being as the presence of positive emotion, the relative absence of negative emotion and a sense of life satisfaction. Taken to an extreme, however, that definition is not congruent with the messiness of real life. In addition, people's outlook can become so rosy that they ignore dangers or become complacent [see “Can Positive Thinking Be Negative?” by Scott O. Lilienfeld and Hal Arkowitz; Scientific American Mind, May/June 2011]. Eudaemonic approaches, on the other hand, emphasize a sense of meaning, personal growth and understanding of the self—goals that require confronting life's adversities. Unpleasant feelings are just as crucial as the enjoyable ones in helping you make sense of life's ups and downs. “Remember, one of the primary reasons we have emotions in the first place is to help us evaluate our experiences,” Adler says.
love song for light
.......... -for Lucille
In the long
a wood duck
she has no
With a flick
of your tail
i offer you
my scrawny love
World of a woman
by Stephen Perry
from Questions about God
Humanist Press, 2013
Saturday, November 23, 2013
Erica Klarreich in Wired:
On May 13, an obscure mathematician — one whose talents had gone so unrecognized that he had worked at a Subway restaurant to make ends meet — garnered worldwide attention and accolades from the mathematics community for settling a long-standing open question about prime numbers, those numbers divisible by only one and themselves. Yitang Zhang, a lecturer at the University of New Hampshire, showed that even though primes get increasingly rare as you go further out along the number line, you will never stop finding pairs of primes separated by at most 70 million. His finding was the first time anyone had managed to put a finite bound on the gaps between prime numbers, representing a major leap toward proving the centuries-old twin primes conjecture, which posits that there are infinitely many pairs of primes separated by only two (such as 11 and 13).
In the months that followed, Zhang found himself caught up in a whirlwind of activity and excitement: He has lectured on his work at many of the nation’s preeminent universities, has received offers of jobs from top institutions in China and Taiwan and a visiting position at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., and has been told that he will be promoted to full professor at the University of New Hampshire.
Meanwhile, Zhang’s work raised a question: Why 70 million? There is nothing magical about that number — it served Zhang’s purposes and simplified his proof. Other mathematicians quickly realized that it should be possible to push this separation bound quite a bit lower, although not all the way down to two.
Mark Gongloff in the Huffington Post:
Hello, did you know the American health-care system is terrible? It is. Don't let John Boehner tell you otherwise.
If you're unconvinced, here is a chart that demonstrates its terribleness. It shows, using OECD data, how much money different countries spend on health care per person, charted against life expectancy in each of those countries. As you can see, there is a pretty close relationship between health-care spending and life expectancy. Except for one very, very terrible country. Can you spot it?
Yes, among this group of big countries, the U.S. spends far and away more on health care than any other. And yet it has among the lowest life expectancies of any developed country. People live longer in pretty much every country in Europe, including Greece, where the economy has been wracked by austerity for years.
William J. Sutherland, David Spiegelhalter& Mark Burgman in Nature:
We are fully aware that scientific judgement itself is value-laden, and that bias and context are integral to how data are collected and interpreted. What we offer is a simple list of ideas that could help decision-makers to parse how evidence can contribute to a decision, and potentially to avoid undue influence by those with vested interests. The harder part — the social acceptability of different policies — remains in the hands of politicians and the broader political process.
Of course, others will have slightly different lists. Our point is that a wider understanding of these 20 concepts by society would be a marked step forward.
Differences and chance cause variation. The real world varies unpredictably. Science is mostly about discovering what causes the patterns we see. Why is it hotter this decade than last? Why are there more birds in some areas than others? There are many explanations for such trends, so the main challenge of research is teasing apart the importance of the process of interest (for example, the effect of climate change on bird populations) from the innumerable other sources of variation (from widespread changes, such as agricultural intensification and spread of invasive species, to local-scale processes, such as the chance events that determine births and deaths).
No measurement is exact. Practically all measurements have some error. If the measurement process were repeated, one might record a different result. In some cases, the measurement error might be large compared with real differences. Thus, if you are told that the economy grew by 0.13% last month, there is a moderate chance that it may actually have shrunk. Results should be presented with a precision that is appropriate for the associated error, to avoid implying an unjustified degree of accuracy.
The stories in this collection by the early Soviet writer Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky are nearly as fantastic as the crashing combination of consonants at the beginning of his surname. In one, the reflection of a man in his girlfriend’s eye vanishes down the dark corridors of her pupil and falls into a deep well, where it joins the lonely, miserable reflections of her previous lovers. There the reflections debate their mistress’s charms and caprices, as well as their own deficiencies of character. And they plot their escape. The hero of another story, a writer, composes a tale about a hermit whose prayers temporarily close all the cracks in the world — potholes, mountain gorges, facial wrinkles, even “the cranial seams hidden under the skin on people’s heads.” After reading the yarn to some indifferent friends, the writer is visited by an enthusiastic scientist, a reincarnation of the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who claims that reality itself, the entire space-time continuum, is no less cracked than our everyday world, riddled with gaps and intermittencies.
Krzhizhanovsky (1887-1950) was from the generation of Soviet writers who came to Moscow in the 1920s, a time of explosive literary ferment. Mikhail Bulgakov, Yuri Olesha, Andrei Platonov and others, while working on revolutionary newspapers and in avant-garde theaters, were often appalled by the headlong modernization, mechanization and collectivization of the society they saw around them. Their best work, much of it satirically fabulous, expressed their disquiet without putting themselves in opposition.