Of Small Nations: An Interlude

by David J. Lobina

Last time around I said I would bring this series on language and nationalism to an end by considering an actual example: the case of Catalan nationalism, a discussion likely to be testy. I still intend to do that, and to be a bit argumentative about it to boot; however, it has occurred to me in these last four weeks that the follow-up between the first three posts and the case study of Catalan nationalism is not as smooth as it should be. This is because of an issue I brought up in the last post, where I rather briefly mentioned that the Catalan case exemplified what is sometimes called a peripheral nationalist movement, in contrast to core nationalist movements. To this I should have added that in the case of peripheral nationalisms the historical process that turns a state or a country into a nation-state is slightly different to what is the case for core nationalisms – additional factors are involved – and this point deserves to be spelled out a little bit. I shall do just that this week, and I will come back to the Catalans, finally, in the next post.

As explained in the previous three posts, it is certainly noteworthy, though not at all surprising, that the word nation seems to have been initially used in history as a place name and only much later did the politically-laden term of nationalism actually appear. The feeling of belonging to a particular place, after all, has plausibly been a feature of human gatherings for centuries and it is not intrinsically tied to the concepts of “nation” or “nationalism” per se.

In medieval Europe at least, the village where a person was born was typically that person’s “country”, as the historian Henry Kamen has chronicled, and this sentiment was still present in many parts of the world well into the 20th century. For instance, the Belorussian-speaking people of Polesia, a historical region stretching from modern Poland to Russia, simply replied ‘from here’ when asked about their nationality in a 1919 census, and even as recently as the 1950s, we have the curious case of captured Egyptian soldiers during the second Arab-Israeli war who seemed to know very little about their own country, instead identifying more strongly with their local villages.[i] Read more »

The Monty Hall Problem and a Covid-19 Precaution

by John Allen Paulos

The well-known counterintuitive Monty Hall problem continues to baffle people if the emails I receive are any indication. A meta-problem is to understand why so many people are unconvinced by the various solutions. Sometimes people even cite the large number of the unconvinced as proof that the solution is a matter of real controversy, just as in politics an inconvenient fact, such as the ubiquity of Covid-19, is obscured by fake controversies.

This analogy is a bit deeper than it may seem. So, first the original problem, which arose because of a television show, “Let’s Make a Deal,” that was popular in the ’60s and ’70s and has been resurrected in one form or another since then. In the show a contestant is presented with three doors, behind one of which, he or she is told, is a new car. The other two doors have nothing behind them.

“The Let’s Make a Deal” host, the eponymous Monty Hall, asks the contestant to pick one of the three doors. Once the contestant has done so, Monty opens one of the two remaining unpicked doors to reveal what, if anything, is behind it, but is careful never to open the door hiding the promised new car. After Monty has opened one of the two unpicked doors, he offers the contestant the chance to switch his or her choice. The question is: Should the contestant stay with the original choice of door and hope the car is behind it or switch to the remaining unopened door? Read more »

Justification and the Value-Free Ideal in Science

by Fabio Tollon

One of the cornerstones good of science is that its results furnish us with an objective understanding of the world. That is, science, when done correctly, tells us how the world is, independently of how we might feel the world to be (based, for example, on our values or commitments). It is thus central to science, and its claims to objectivity, that values do not override facts. An important feature of this view of science is the distinction between epistemic and non-epistemic values. Simply, epistemic values are those which would seem to make for good science: external coherence, explanatory power, parsimony, etc. Non-epistemic values, on the other hand, concern things like our value judgements, biases, and preferences. In order for science to work well, so the story goes, it should only be epistemic values that come to matter when we assess the legitimacy of a given scientific theory (this is often termed the “value-free ideal”). Thus, a central presupposition underpinning this value-free ideal is that we can in fact mark a distinction between epistemic and non-epistemic values Unfortunately, as with most things in philosophy, things are not that simple.

The first thing to note are the various ways that the value-free ideal plays out in the context of discovery, justification, and application. With respect to the context of discovery, it doesn’t seem to matter if we find that non-epistemic values are operative. While decisions about funding lines, the significance we attach to various theories, and the choice of questions we might want to investigate are all important insofar as they influence where we might choose to look for evidence, they do not determine whether the theories we come up with are valid or not.

Similarly, in the context of application, we could invoke the age-old is-ought distinction: scientific theories cannot justify value-laden beliefs. For example, even if research shows that taller people are more intelligent, it would not follow that taller people are more valuable than shorter people. Such a claim would depend on the value that one ascribes to intelligence beforehand. Therefore, how we go about applying scientific theories is influenced by non-epistemic values, and this is not necessarily problematic.

Thus, in both the context of validation and the context of discovery, we find non-epistemic values to be operative. This, however, is not seen as much of a problem, so long as these values do not “leak” into the context of justification, as it is here that science’s claims to objectivity are preserved. Is this really possible in practice though? Read more »

Monday Poem

Looking Up

the horizon circle,
past which I can see no further
in any direction other than up,
hems me in,
but looking up I can see forever
or as far as lightspeed allows
or until more time passes
or, more truly,
until now shifts again,
but by then I will have passed,
whatever that means,
since to pass is merely a term
proffering a hint of understanding
without understanding,
but there’s so much hint in being alive
the truth of our metaphysical deficiencies
has become second nature, acceptable,
we’ve become creatures of sacred
we live by them
never silent
looking up

Jim Culleny

Re-Wild Thing

by Deanna K. Kreisel (Doctor Waffle Blog)

It had been a long time since I thought about lawns. I don’t mean in a grand philosophical sense, or the stoned contemplation of a single blade of grass. I mean thought about them at all. Before moving to Mississippi we had lived in Vancouver for 13 years, where we felt lucky to have a place to store our toothbrushes and maybe an extra pair of slacks; we really hit the jackpot when we acquired a postage-stamp-sized balcony on which we could murder tomato plants. Actual yards were out of the question for anyone who hadn’t bought a house on the west end of town 30 years ago; by the time we moved to Vancouver in 2006 as a tenure-track assistant professor and a trailing-spouse adjunct, it was already clear that we would never own a lawn.

And yet here we are: the proud owners of nearly an acre of chemical-soaked herbage dotted here and there with scrubby flowering bushes native to an ecosystem half a planet away. Or at least that’s what came along with our new house in Mississippi, which was the main attraction: a 1962 bungalow with two fireplaces, built-in bookcases, arched doorways, and mellow hardwood floors. To be honest, I didn’t want the lawn—or the yard at all, really. If it had been possible to purchase a mid-century gem with a porch swing and seven ceiling fans that was floating on a gossamer cloud in mid-air—basically a house from The Jetsons—I would have done so.[1] I took one look at that expanse of greenery, factored in the whole located-in-the-Deep-South element, and saw nothing but a never-ending round of backbreaking chores. And boy, was I right. But not for the reasons you might think. Read more »

Ode To An Old Lump Of Coal

by Mike O’Brien

Some readers, having a particular taste in humour, will guess the subject of this piece from the title. “Just an old lump of coal” was a favoured expression of self-reference for the recently deceased comedian Norm Macdonald, who died on September 14th. It was typical of the archaic and self-deprecatory style that marked his career, a poetic and perfomatively (though not necessarily substantively) confessional body of work that seemed sparse in volume but rich in depth. I say that his confession was not necessarily substantive because I didn’t know him, and am not privy to the facts of his life and the contents of his heart. He may have been affecting an unaffected style for dramatic effect. Or he may have been baring his soul earnestly, while allowing his audience to laud him, mistakenly, for so artfully feigning candour. I don’t know which is the case. Nor, it seems, do many who did know him, if not intimately than at least closely and with ample time for exposure. A formidable trick, that, to keep secrets in a business where self-exposure is considered the primary means of production.

Much has been made of the fact that he had cancer for the last nine years, a fact he kept private for fear of polluting his audience’s reactions with sympathy, or worse, pity. Or maybe he just didn’t want to be bothered by well-wishers and news hounds. Or, more maybe still, he just didn’t think anyone needed or was owed any information about his life beyond what he chose to share or fabricate. Read more »

Then and Now: Reading Siri Hustvedt’s Memories of the Future with My Mother

by Nicola Sayers 

What is it to be twenty? Forty? Sixty? Eighty? These points that mark the four quarters of a life — fifths if you’re lucky, larger portions if you’re not. 


We read the book together, my mother and I. The book, a work of autofiction, is Siri Hustvedt’s Memories of the Future, and it tells the story of a twenty-three year old (S.H.) arriving in New York in 1978, and of the same woman in 2016, aged sixty-one, as she discovers her old journals from that earlier time. As we read, I am forty and my mother over seventy, although how much over I cannot say. I have learnt that there are those who treat you differently when they know your age, regardless of your health or vitality. That age is a signifier that in the end betrays you. 


‘Then’ and ‘now’. Hustvedt draws attention to these words, these perspectives, again and again as she sets her reader up. Her central concern is with how a person changes between then and now; her central question, what remains of that girl? 


The young S.H. could be any young, reflective woman setting out to soak up what the world has to offer. I admit to feeling a particular affinity with Hustvedt: Scandinavian roots, Jewish husband, PhD in literature before focussing on her own writing. But her story is in truth an archetypal one. She could be Felicity from the eponymous 90s TV-drama, going to New York in search of her crush Ben and of herself; or Jo from Little Women, heading off with pen and persistence to discover, write and right the world. 

And so, I arrive in the city I have seen in films and have read about in books, which is New York City but also other cities, Paris and London and St. Petersburg, the city of the hero’s fortunes and misfortunes, a real city that is also an imaginary city.

I am reminded by Hustvedt’s prose of Joan Didion’s famous essay ‘Goodbye to all That’ about her experiences as a young person in New York, and about leaving it all behind. For both Hustvedt and Didion the defining experience of youth is of life as a field of possibility: Who will you meet? What will you do? Who will you love? What will you be? Read more »

43 Reasons To Go For A Walk

by Mary Hrovat

1. The public library is holding a book or DVD for me.

2. I’m going to see my older son and his family.

3. It’s dusk, and I love to walk in the twilight.

4. It’s late in the evening, a few days before Christmas 2019, and my younger son has just arrived from out of town. He’d like to drop off his rental car, and I decide to go with him to the rental lot so we can walk back to my house together. We stride through the chilly hush of a college town on Christmas break, past colorful lights and down dark familiar streets, talking and laughing.

5. The dew point is below 60°F, and it’s not too hot. I might as well make the most of this break from the heat and get out for a bit.

6. The university library is holding a book for me.

7. I want to see the ginkgo trees in the park in all their autumn glory.

8. It’s been raining heavily all day, and it’s still coming down pretty hard. But I’m out of lettuce, and these library books won’t return themselves. Also, I’m curious about whether the creek running through campus has overrun its banks. (It has.) Read more »

Go ahead and speak nonsense

by Charlie Huenemann

Edward Lear, A Book of Nonsense

In discussion with Moritz Schlick and Friedrich Waisman in 1929, Ludwig Wittgenstein said he knew what Heidegger was getting at in his murky assertions about Dasein and Angst. The only problem, Wittgenstein thought, was that humans just cannot speak intelligibly about the highest or deepest things. Not even Heidegger.

“Think, for instance, of the astonishment that anything exists. This astonishment cannot be expressed in the form of a question, and there is also no answer to it. All that we can say can only, a priori, be nonsense. Nevertheless we run up against the boundaries of language. Kierkegaard also saw this running-up and similarly pointed it out (as running up against the paradox). This running up against the boundaries of language is Ethics. I hold it certainly to be very important that one makes an end to all the chatter about ethics – whether there can be knowledge in ethics, whether there are values, whether the Good can be defined, etc. In ethics one always makes the attempt to say something which cannot concern and never concerns the essence of the matter. It is a priori certain: whatever one may give as a definition of the Good – it is always only a misunderstanding to suppose that the expression corresponds to what one actually means (Moore). But the tendency to run up against shows something. The holy Augustine already knew this when he said: ‘What, you scoundrel, you would speak no nonsense? Go ahead and speak nonsense – it doesn’t matter.’”

In this discussion, Wittgenstein was still operating mostly in his Tractatus mode —  the one in which he imperiously scolds anyone who fails to assert a meaningful proposition according to the Seven Canonical Assertions carved into his monolithic Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. But we can sense in these remarks that a shift is taking place, as Wittgenstein is no doubt growing up and realizing that the main business of life is filled with nonsense. The meanings of our assertions, as he claimed later in the Philosophical Investigations, are inextricably tangled up with getting things done and living with others. A group of philosophers bound solely to the dictates of the Tractatus would be a sorry, feckless lot — like the logical positivists. Read more »

Revisiting the Old West: The Corral is not OK

by Mark Harvey

Sergio Leone

It’s hard to know what the old west was really like as we’ve been so inundated with Hollywood films depicting the west as an eternal gunfight between good guys and bad guys, cowboys and Indians, and the unshaven versus the upstanding townsfolk. Westerns have had an outsized impact on our understanding of the times and just a few directors shaped our grasp of that history more than any books ever written. In fact, some of the most popular and influential western films were directed by an Italian named Sergio Leone who was born in Rome in 1929, about 6,000 miles from where the fight at the OK Corral took place. Leone directed A Fistful of Dollars (Per un pugno di dollari, in Italian), For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Leone’s films popularized “spaghetti westerns,” so named because so many were being produced in Italy where it was cheaper to make movies. By some sort of alignment of the stars, Leone happened to be a childhood classmate of the great composer Ennio Morricone, who wrote over 400 movie scores. Morricone wrote the scores for several of Leone’s films, including the Dollars trilogy, and his music with the haunting, menacing whistles and twangy guitar guided Clint Eastwood on his adventures of killing lots of bad guys with greasy faces and half-chewed cheroots. Read more »

Blithely Sailing On Alien Seas

by Thomas O’Dwyer

Stanisław Lem. Photo: PAP/Jacek Bednarczyk

In the new Apple TV series, The Foundation, based on the novels of Isaac Asimov, two mathematicians, an old man and a young woman, wrestle with the concept of psychohistory and what it means for the future of the Imperial Galaxy. Psychohistory combines history, sociology, and mathematical models to predict the future behaviour of very large groups of people. The girl, Gaal Dornick, generates a holographic model designed by her mentor Hari Seldon. She sees a swarm of particles representing trillions of people forming patterns of growth and decay across thousands of millennia, predicting the looming collapse of civilisation. It seems the grand ideas of the classic science fiction writers are back among us after decades of wandering lost in the intellectual deserts of Hollywood, where the clash of alien cultures often became thin remakes of American cowboy and Injun battles of yore. The intelligent swarm of equations in Foundation immediately brought to mind the restless, mysterious, sentient ocean of the planet Solaris in the novel by the Polish author, Stanislaw Lem. The Polish parliament has officially declared 2021 to be Stanislaw Lem Year in honour of its native genius, 100 years after his birth. Read more »

Monday Photo: Hot Sauce Test Drive

I’ve been buying and trying out some new hot sauces recently, in this case with my lunch of khichri (red lentils and rice cooked together) and a chicken seekh kabab. Here are my brief ratings of these fiery condiments (from the left) on a scale of 1 to 5 stars:

  • El Yucateco Habanero Black Reserve: ★★★, not much flavor, lot of heat.
  • La Meridana Mango Habanero: ★★★★, nice combo of sweet mango flavor and heat.
  • El Yucateco Chipotle: ★★★★★, tastes like a hot tamarind chutney, v. good.
  • Cholula Chipotle: ★★, too watery, not enough flavor or heat.
  • Clemente Jacques Chipotles Molidos: ★★★★, excellent and second only to freshly blended chipotle peppers in adobe sauce.

Halloween Film Recommendation – The Maus : The Terror of Memory

by Mindy Clegg

It’s the beginning of fall and the Halloween season! As we’re still somewhat locked down (though we should be MORE locked down, if you ask me), why not a recommendation for a horror film that addresses some aspect of modern history? In this case, the Bosnian War. Humans have long loved to be scared. Mythologies from around the world include elements of horror, showing how it seems to be a universal aspect of storytelling as scholars who study folklore and mythology have shown, such as Emily Zarka of the PBS show Monstrum.

But why do we still embrace being scared for an hour and a half despite being fully modern subjects in a more “enlightened” era? Kath Bates argued that humans seek out these thrills because they are scares that we can control. Writer and artist Merrie Destefano gave a more comprehensive set of reasons for our modern embrace of the macabre including proving to ourselves that we can overcome our fears. I would add that horror stories can help us to come to terms with horrific events in the the past that seem to defy our understanding of civilization. Put differently, horror as a film genre can help make the horrific in human history accessible for those outside of particular experiences. One example is The Maus, a horror film set in the woods near Srebrenica. Read more »

Dr Strangelove Meets Dr Kissangel

by Rafiq Kathwari

After the Twin Towers fell, the media flagged the attack, 9/11, a forever label that is historically significant for yet another attack, an inside job premeditated by Dr Kissangel and his oxymorons to depose Senor Yen Day, a dreamer, who wished for his people, at the very least, a ruka to sleep in, a lunch of cazuela and pan amasado, a good education, plus vision hearing and dental.

“I’m a socialist, not a utopian,” Senor Yen Day said in his homeland shaped like an extra-long red chili hugging the Pacific. He sincerely believed his dream had a hot chance.

Dr Kissangel didn’t want the wasps buzzing in their manicured lawns from sea to sullied sea to learn that the dream dreamed by Senor Yen Day would work much better in the long run than the grind the wasps had been told was the most productive of all grinds in the world’s most powerful demoncrazy.

Dr. Kissangel gathered his most trusted oxzines, nine men and two women, in a dimly lit war room at a building shaped like a pentagon near the Potomac River. He stood on a pulpit in front of a backlit bright map of the world. Many oxzines lit their cigars, swiveling behind a serpentine-shaped veneered countertop that snaked from one end of the room to the other. Read more »

Charaiveti: Journey From India To The Two Cambridges And Berkeley And Beyond, Part 11

by Pranab Bardhan

All of the articles in this series can be found here.

At age twenty-three, after a brief stint of teaching at Calcutta University, I, accompanied by Kalpana, proceeded to Britain on a Commonwealth Scholarship. The Scholars from different parts of India were asked to assemble in Delhi, from where we were to take the international flight. The only experience I had of an air flight before was when I flew from Kolkata to Guwahati, representing Calcutta University in an inter-University debating competition. That flight experience had not been good, as our propeller-driven Dakota plane had hit a supposed ‘air pocket’. So I had some unnecessary trepidation for the long Delhi-London flight.

A few months before I went to Delhi Jagdish Bhagwati, already a star economist, had written an article in EW advocating the case for devaluation of the Indian rupee, to which I wrote a kind of counter, arguing for a more general policy. When Jagdish read it in EW, he enquired with Sachin Chaudhuri who I was. I got a message from Chaudhuri that as I was soon to be in Delhi, Jagdish wanted to see me there. In Delhi he (and his colleague and partner, Padma Desai) took me to Delhi School of Economics. This was a good opportunity for me to know Jagdish particularly as his expertise was in International Trade Theory, an area I was planning to specialize in, and Jagdish gave me appropriate encouragement. I also met there K.N.Raj (more on him later), the doyen of Indian economists at that time—many years later when Samuelson at MIT challenged me if I knew any low-caste Indian economist, after a frantic mental search Raj’s name came handy. Read more »

Sunday, September 26, 2021

The Mistake No Dialogue Writer Should Ever Make

Dan O’Brien in Literary Hub:

Almost every first draft (and third, and fifth) is overwritten. Maybe too much is happening, but usually it’s all the talk that bloats and clogs. Too much of anything at the outset can be helpful, though; every tailor knows it’s easier to cut cloth than to adhere it. But there is an art to cutting.

I spend many of my days at my desk deleting dialogue. Because I am inveterately cautious I like to bracket first by hand, then strikethrough, then remove words when I am sure; and by decluttering my speech of the words that don’t need to be spoken—that cannot be spoken—I find I am loosing, if you will, a more living speech. Actors in rehearsal may help a new play along with, “Can I cut this line and instead be it or do it? If I step from Line A to Line C, or leap to D or F, without these intermediate and preparatory words and phrases, will the speech still make sense? Will it make more sense? Will the speech—will I, the actor—come alive?”

More here.

We’re Fighting Hard Against Cancer, but Are We Fighting Right?

M.R. Narayan Swamy in The Wire:

US-based Azra Raza, a respected oncologist of Pakistani origin, has been treating cancer patients for around two decades. Her grouse, articulated in her book, The First Cell, is that most new drugs add mere months to one’s life, that too at great physical, financial and emotional cost. In her telling, the reason the war on cancer has reached an impasse is because doctors are essentially trying to protect the last cell, instead of checking the disease at birth. This has to change, and now, Raza writes with an evangelist’s passion.

Raza is a specialist in a bone marrow preleukemic condition called myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), and acute myeloid leukemia (AML), which develops in a third of MDS patients. The treatment landscape for AML has not evolved much in the last half century, nor in fact has it vis-à-vis most common types of cancers. With minor variations, the slash-poison-burn approach to treating cancer remains the staple: surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. No one, she says, is winning the war on cancer. Claims to the contrary are mostly hype.

More here.

Amia Srinivasan On Sex, Consent, And Feminism

Gili Kliger in Public Books:

When the philosopher Amia Srinivasan’s essay “The Right to Sex” appeared in the London Review of Books, in 2018, it garnered a level of attention not usually paid to writing by academics. From the provocative title to the bracing clarity of the content (“Sex is not a sandwich,” Srinivasan wrote), the essay’s stylistic appeal was matched by a willingness to entertain positions that had long been off the table in both feminist and mainstream discussions of sex. The piece responded to the commentary surrounding Elliot Rodger, perhaps the most famous of the so-called incels, or involuntary celibates, who in 2014 killed six people after penning a 107,000-word manifesto that railed against the women who had deprived him of sex. Many feminists were quick to read Rodger as a case study in male sexual entitlement. Fewer wanted to broach one of the manifesto’s thornier claims: that Rodger, who was half white and half Malaysian Chinese, had been denied sex because of his race. Srinivasan took Rodger’s undesirability head-on: of course, no one has a right to be desired, she wrote. But we ought to acknowledge, as second-wave feminists more readily did, that who or what is desired is a political question, subject to scrutiny.

In her debut collection of essays, The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century, out this month, Srinivasan extends on the LRB piece by bringing analytic precision to a range of related subjects: Title IX and consent, the ethics of professor-student relationships, the role of pornography in shaping sexual expectations and desires, and the criminalization of sex work.

More here.