Nintendogs puts existentialism in the palm of your hand

Joshuah Bearman in LA Weekly:

Computers were still huge assemblies of vacuum tubes and transistors when the German-Jewish émigré and computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum published a paper called “ELIZA — A Computer Program for the Study of Natural Language Communication between Man and Machine,” in Communications of the Association for Computing Machinery 9. It was 1966, and Weizenbaum programmed ELIZA to simulate the “active listening” psychoanalytical strategies of the Rogerian therapy in vogue at the time. It began:

>>Hello. How do you do.
Please state your problem.

Any typed response elicited a question in return from ELIZA, with key words and phrases substituted and organized in such a way as to sound meaningful and further probing. ELIZA’s mere 200 lines of code, running on the room-size IBM 7094, were effective enough to quickly draw the deepest secrets from many users, including several psychiatric practitioners, who asked if ELIZA could be adapted as a clinical tool; Weizenbaum’s own secretary, who had seen him build the program, knew her interlocutor was not real, and yet still found herself so engaged in personal conversation with the machine that she asked to be alone with it for privacy.

So unfolded a watershed moment in the long history of people and their machines.

More here.

Victory in Iraq Through the Eight Pillars of Wisdom

J. M. Tyree at Okracoke Post:

The new NSC document entitled National Strategy for VICTORY in Iraq is something special that every American should own, read, and cherish. (You can get the full document as a pdf here from the BBC.) Two things I’ll say about the whole matter, right from the outset: 1) VICTORY is much better than DEFEAT, and 2) VICTORY is never more certain than when the FONT GETS BIGGER. VICTORY IN IRAQ is much better than withdraw now, please.

This is a serious document which requires serious reading and serious thought. It’s just as the pundits say – we have to have a “serious” discussion about “what to do about Iraq.” Discussions about Iraq can never be trivial, they must always be serious. And no serious discussion can involve calls for a withdrawal, which is always “precipitous.” Therefore, a withdrawal cannot be a serious proposal. See how easy all this is?

The document starts off with a grand Lincolnian gesture, surely worthy of the Gettysburg Address: “all citizens [of Iraq] must have their rights protected.” Since that is not the current state of affairs in Iraq at present, we must continue to occupy that country until it happens. Are you with me or against me? Duh! That’s a total no-brainer! Anyone who wouldn’t want that is, like, evil.

More here.

Faisal Faisal’s bid to be 1st Iraqi Winter Olympic Athlete

John Kekis of the AP:

FaisalLAKE PLACID, N.Y. — Faisal Ghazi Faisal’s Olympic dream lives on, and it’s no pipe dream anymore. After less than three weeks of training in the sport of skeleton, Faisal slid a little bit closer to his quest to become the first Iraqi athlete to compete in the Winter Games, finishing 32nd out of 37 competitors Saturday in an America’s Cup race on the Olympic track at Mount Van Hoevenberg.

His beaming smile afterward seemed warm enough to melt the icy ground where he stood as several competitors took turns giving him hugs.

“I broke the minute!” Faisal shouted, jumping up and down, an Iraqi flag draped around his neck. “I only broke that once, and I wasn’t on the sled at the finish. I didn’t expect to do it. It’s a great accomplishment.”

More about Faisal Faisal at his rather cute website here.  [Thanks to Stefany Ann Golberg.]

The Other Side of Al-Jazeera

The two sides of al-Jazeera, in the Wilson Quarterly:

The Arab satellite television station al-Jazeera is the enemy, or so we are told: “jihad TV,” “killers with cameras,” “the most powerful ally of terror in the world.” Shortly after 9/11, Fouad Ajami, distinguished professor of Near Eastern studies at Johns Hopkins University, luridly described the station in an influential New York Times Magazine essay as a cesspool of anti-American hate that “deliberately fans the flames of Muslim outrage.” In June, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told attendees at an Asian defense conference that if they were to watch al-Jazeera day after day, “even if you were an American you would begin to believe that America was bad.” Even Newsweek International’s normally temperate Fareed Zakaria loses his composure when faced with al-Jazeera, which “fills its airwaves with crude appeals to Arab nationalism, anti-Americanism, anti-Semitism, and religious fundamentalism.” Denunciation of al-Jazeera is impressively bipartisan and a starting point for many of the post-9/11 debates over public diplomacy and the war of ideas in the Middle East.

This consensus is all the more remarkable given how few of the critics speak Arabic or have ever actually watched al-Jazeera. If they had, they might well arrive at a more nuanced judgment. They would certainly find some support for their disgust. Al-Jazeera may have never broadcast a beheading video, but it has shown many clips of terrified hostages begging for their lives. It airs lengthy statements by Osama bin Laden and invites extremists on its talk shows. Watching the Egyptian radical Tala’at Ramih rhapsodize over the beheading of Western hostages on one popular talk show, or Americans and Iraqi civilians die bloody deaths, as shown on raw video footage, or ex-Nazi David Duke discuss American politics at the station’s invitation, it’s easy to see why al-Jazeera is such a tempting target.

But these incendiary segments tell only half the story. Al-Jazeera is at the forefront of a revolution in Arab political culture, one whose effects have barely begun to be appreciated. Even as the station complicates the postwar reconstruction of Iraq and offers a platform for anti-American voices, it is providing an unprecedented forum for debate in the Arab world that is eviscerating the legitimacy of the Arab status quo and helping to build a radically new pluralist political culture.

Can we engineer social trust?

In the Harvard International Review, Jordan Boslego looks at if we can engineer social trust.

Why does anyone trust anyone else? Excessive risk avoidance closes off the potential benefits of cooperation, knowledge-sharing, and reputation (knowledge that the “game” of trust will have future moves) discourages betrayal. Trust enforces agreements that are either impossible or impractical to reliably enforce by state agencies, such as verbal promises. You may trust your relatives, co-workers, classmates, friends, and even your friends’ friends, but the puzzle of social trust is the idea of trusting strangers. Your only basis for whether to trust or distrust a complete stranger is your social conditioning, which may be influenced by your ethnic or cultural group, the characteristics and values of the society in which you live or grew up, your past experiences, and—more broadly—the historical tradition of your country.

The question is whether some countries do better than others at fostering identities strong enough to promote social trust among all citizens. It is hypothesized that these states will tend to be more democratic than ones with less social trust. It can be reasoned that social trust is important in consolidating democratic regimes, since for a democracy to function, citizens must trust that the elections have been fair, the officials are not corrupt, and that the government is representing their interests. By accepting the results of an election, a citizen is implicitly trusting every other citizen to choose the right candidate. At the same time, a certain level of political distrust keeps government in check, since citizens demand transparency and accountability from elected leaders. Distrust, wrote German sociologist Claus Offe, is not the opposite of trust: practices such as investigative journalism in fact make institutions more trustworthy by serving as a credible outside audit.

Getting Out of Iraq

In the Boston Review, Barry Posen offers an plan to disengage from Iraq in 18 months. (with responses from Sen. Joseph Biden, Barbara Bodine, Vivek Chibber, Helena Cobban, Juan Cole, Sen. Russell Feingold, Randall Forsberg, Chris Preble, Nir Rosen, and Eliot Weinberger to come next month)

The United States needs a new strategy in Iraq and the Persian Gulf. The war is at best a stalemate; the large American presence now causes more trouble than it prevents. We must disengage from Iraq—and we must do it by removing most American and allied military units within 18 months. Though disengagement has risks and costs, they can be managed. The consequences would not be worse for the United States than the present situation, and capabilities for dealing with them are impressive, if properly employed.

Some people argue that the United States should disengage because the war was a mistake in the first place, or because it is morally wrong. I do not propose to pass judgment on these questions one way or the other. My case for disengagement is different: it is forward-looking and based on American national interests. The war as it has evolved (and is likely to evolve) badly serves those interests. A well-planned disengagement will serve them much better by reducing military, economic, and political costs.

Libertarian thoughts on School Choice

In Reason Online, libertarians, er, debate, school choice.

Marshall Fritz

Fritz is president of the Alliance for the Separation of School & State.

Most necessary reform: None. “Reform” implies the government is still involved. We need to transform America’s collectivist approach to education into free-market education. This means ending not only compulsory funding but compulsory attendance and content. We must separate schools from the state.

Biggest obstacle: Tax-funded school vouchers are the biggest obstacle to improving education. They will again trick parents into believing school improvement is just around the corner. They could delay return to a genuine free market by a generation or more. Vouchers replace today’s monopoly with a “monopsony” (single buyer). Schools will have only one customer to serve—and it’s not you. Follow the money.

skin job


In 2003, the author Shelley Jackson announced that she would publish a 2,095-word short story called “Skin” on participants who agree to be tattooed with randomly assigned words from her text. The tattooees alone will read the story, which will be complete when the last commissioned word is inscribed on its bearer, sometime in the next few years. It will not be published on paper. Jackson asks applicants (she has many more than she can use) to read her novel, The Melancholy of Anatomy, to ensure that they like her writing before committing to a word, because “Skin” is what she calls a “hidden track” (in the pop-music sense) of the book; both explore the relationship between words and the body.

more from The Believer here.

year’s best in art


Top curators and critics make their picks in the December issue of Artforum.

Robert Storr
“ACCUMULATED VISION, BARRY LE VA” (INSTITUTE OF CONTEMPORARY ART, PHILADELPHIA) For me, the past year’s most awaited, most revealing, and most beautifully executed exhibition was this miniretrospective organized by Ingrid Schaffner (who deserves her own high ranking on some roster for the string of exhibitions she has curated over the years). . . .

Alison M. Gingeras
PAUL MCCARTHY, “LALA LAND PARODY PARADISE” (HAUS DER KUNST, MUNICH) After years of intensive toil in his Pasadena studio, McCarthy delivered an epoch-making exhibition based on his two pet obsessions: pirates and cowboys. . . .

Matthew Higgs
“ROBERT RAUSHCENBERG: HOARFROSTS” (GUILD HALL, EAST HAMPTON, NY) The saddest summer show ever? Given that institutions tend to roll out holiday favorites or crowd pleasers for the summer season, the Guild Hall’s decision to exhibit Rauschenberg’s little known, rarely seen, and profoundly melancholic “Hoarfrost” series was a bold gesture. . . .

Thelma Golden
THE AUDIENCE AT “BASQUIAT” (BROOKLYN MUSEUM) I had an irrepressible desire to channel the enthusiasm of a Borscht Belt emcee as I walked through the Jean-Michel Basquiat retrospective. The audience embodied all of the clichés inherent to any conversation about “attracting a wider cross section of the public.” . . .

more here.

All mapped out

From The Guardian:

Globe1_1 I once ordered a copy of Charles Booth’s 1889 Descriptive Map of London Poverty from the London Topographical Society. Weeks, then months, passed, and I heard nothing. I may even have forgotten that I had ordered it. Then, early one Sunday morning, I was woken up by the sound of the doorbell. An elderly gentleman in a deerstalker hat with a tube under his arm asked my name, confirmed that I was the intended recipient of Booth’s map, handed it to me, and was off. If only all purchases were made like that.

As any good geographer will tell you, all of life lies in maps and atlases, whether it be Booth’s analysis of London, or something more monumental, like Joan Blaeu’s magisterial Atlas Maior of 1665, recently reprinted by Taschen. If Booth’s map offers you a tour of London’s streets, Blaeu’s mammoth atlas is a round-the-world trip from the safety of your armchair. As Blaeu wrote, “we may set eyes on far-off places without so much as leaving home: we traverse impassable ranges, cross rivers and seas on safety … by the power of the imagination we swiftly journey East-West and North-South at a single glance”.

More here.

The 10 Best Books of 2005


From The New York Times:

By Zadie Smith.
Penguin Press, $25.95.
In her vibrant new book, a cultural-politics novel set in a place like Harvard, the author of ”White Teeth” brings everything to the table: a crisp intellect, a lovely wit and enormous sympathy for the men, women and children who populate her story.

author PREP
By Curtis Sittenfeld.
Random House, $21.95. Paper, $13.95.
This calm and memorably incisive first novel, about a scholarship girl who heads east to attend an elite prep school, casts an unshakable spell and has plenty to say about class, sex and character.

By Ian McEwan.
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $26.
As bracing and as carefully constructed as anything McEwan has written, this astringent novel traces a day in the life of an English neurosurgeon who comes face to face with senseless violence.

More here.

Crooked Timber Seminar on Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

For those of you that missed it, Crooked Timber has a seminar on Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.

Susanna Clarke’s novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell has been extraordinarily successful, and for good reason. It’s won both the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards, but has also won a vast readership among people who don’t usually care for fantasy. On the one hand, Neil Gaiman describes it as ” unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years” (with the emphasis on the adjective ‘English’; see more below), on the other, Charles Palliser, author of the wonderful historical novel, The Quincunx, describes it as “absolutely compelling” and “an astonishing achievement.” We’ve been fans at Crooked Timber since the book came out – not least because it has funny, voluminous and digressive footnotes which seem near-perfectly calculated to appeal to a certain kind of academic.



In Japan Kenta Kobashi is legendary at what he does: con onlookers into believing he’s in a ball-crunchingly real fight. The stolid Kobashi stands 6-foot-2 and weighs 265 pounds, with a wide chest and a variety of facial expressions that put Jim Carrey to shame. If he embodies a Japanese archetype it’s that of the fearless warrior, though the wrestling ring is too expressive a place to allow for a warrior’s perpetually staid demeanor. On this uncommonly hot October evening, he enters the New Yorker Hotel Ballroom on Eighth Avenue wearing a black robe and red underwear. The crowd chants his name as he climbs into the ring. Standing across from his opponent, tri-state independent wrestler Joe Seannoa, he takes his palm and slaps it against “Samoa” Joe’s sumo-like chest. The crowd explodes.

more from n+1 here.



The American painter Charles Burchfield (1893-1967), whose work is the subject of a splendid exhibition at the DC Moore Gallery, was one of the most accomplished artists of his generation. He was also one of the most popular. He had the distinction, moreover, of creating a vision of the American landscape that established itself as one of the classic styles in modern American painting—a style in which the pastoral sentiments of his native Ohio are stripped of their innocence and charm and transformed into something far more sinister, a landscape of anxiety and dread.

more from Kramer at the NY Observer here.

Mental illness link to art and sex

From The Guardian:

Pablopicasso_1 From Lord Byron to Dylan Thomas and beyond, the famous philanderers of the art world may have had a touch of mental illness to thank for their behaviour, psychologists report today. A survey comparing mental health and the number of sexual partners among the general population, artists and schizophrenics found that artists are more likely to share key behavioural traits with schizophrenics, and that they have on average twice as many sexual partners as the rest of the population.

Schizophrenia is so debilitating that those with the condition are often socially isolated, have trouble maintaining relationships and so reproduce at a much lower rate than the general population. But cases of schizophrenia remain high, at around 1% of the population. “On the face of it, Darwinism would suggest that the genes predisposing to schizophrenia would eventually disappear from the gene pool,” said Dr Nettle.

More here.

Einstein-a-thon on the Web

From MSNBC:Einstein_3

The World Year of Physics goes into its final month with a Big Bang — a 12-hour marathon Webcast on Thursday that hops from Geneva to Egypt, from Jerusalem to Venice, from London to the South Pole. From 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. ET, physicists and educators will hold forth on time travel and neutrinos, the legacy of Albert Einstein’s theories and the puzzles yet to be solved. And along the way, even will come in for a little of relativity’s reflected glory. Our interactive presentation on “Putting Einstein to the Test” is one of the winners in the Pirelli Relativity Challenge for the best multimedia presentations explaining special relativity. The contest, which is presenting its awards at the Telecom Future Center in Venice on Thursday, drew about 250 entries from 40 countries.

More here.

Cell & Membrane Biology

From Nature:Cellmembrane

Sealed membrane systems are a defining feature of cellular life. They provide a barrier between the cell and its external environment and, in eukaryotes, divide the interior of the cell into functionally distinct compartments. Membrane proteins comprise around a third of gene products in most organisms and research is being revolutionised by the structural analysis of increasingly complex macromolecular systems.

A flavour of the current excitement in cell and membrane biology can be obtained in the research articles and reviews presented in this Nature web focus.

More here.