Is Bush’s nightmare Venezuela’s salvation?

Greg Grandin in the Boston Review:

Chavez20and20bushThere is something quaint—flattering, even—about the way Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez insists on calling George W. Bush “Mr. Danger.” The taunt, which Chávez delivers in English with rolled-out vowels and pinched consonants, evokes an earlier era of cloak-and-dagger politics and lends Bush a certain mystery that he is generally denied in these shrill times of stateless terrorism. Mr. Danger, it turns out, is a minor character in Rómulo Gallegos’s 1929 novel Doña Barbara, a landmark in Venezuelan literature and before the fiction boom of the 1970s one of the most widely read Latin American novels in the world. A “great mass of muscles under red skin, with a pair of very blue eyes,” he is one of many unsympathetic misters who populate 20th-century Latin American social and magical realist prose, beginning in 1904 with the Chilean writer Baldomero Lillo’s abusive mine foreman Mr. Davis and continuing through Mr. Brown, the manager of a U.S. banana company in Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.

More here.

‘Big Brother’ eyes make us act more honestly

Debora MacKenzie in New Scientist:

We all know the scene: the departmental coffee room, with the price list for tea and coffee on the wall and the “honesty box” where you pay for your drinks – or not, because no one is watching.

In a finding that will have office managers everywhere scurrying for the photocopier, researchers have discovered that merely a picture of watching eyes nearly trebled the amount of money put in the box.


Melissa Bateson and colleagues at Newcastle University, UK, put up new price lists each week in their psychology department coffee room. Prices were unchanged, but each week there was a photocopied picture at the top of the list, measuring 15 by 3 centimetres, of either flowers or the eyes of real faces. The faces varied but the eyes always looked directly at the observer.

In weeks with eyes on the list, staff paid 2.76 times as much for their drinks as in weeks with flowers. “Frankly we were staggered by the size of the effect,” Gilbert Roberts, one of the researchers, told New Scientist.

More here.

Social Networking for Bookworms

Aaron Rutkoff in the Wall Street Journal:

Library_1…for Tim Spalding, a computer programmer and bibliophile, listing a few titles in an online profile isn’t enough. He sought a way to catalog his entire book collection — and to check out what was lining other people’s shelves.

To satisfy his curiosity, Mr. Spalding created a Web site where members can create library-quality catalogs of the books they own and display their collection to fellow online bookshelf browsers. “When I come into someone’s house, the first thing I do is look at their bookshelf,” Mr. Spalding admits. “This is totally that thing — it’s books as mental furniture.”

He launched in August as a way to bring the organizational joys of the librarian to a wider array of book nerds. Ten months later, his concept has blossomed into a vibrant community with 47,670 registered members — some paying — and a user-created catalog that includes more than 3.6 million volumes. In theory, that makes LibraryThing the 58th largest library in the U.S.

More here.

Debating Wal-Mart

In Slate, exchanges between Barbara Ehrenreich and Jason Furman on whether Wal-Mart is good for the working class and for Wal-Mart workers.

[Furman] Maybe you’re ready to grant my point that Wal-Mart’s low prices are great for the 298 million Americans who don’t work there. But what about the 1.3 million Americans who do work for Wal-Mart? Here the evidence is murkier, in part because Wal-Mart refuses to release the data on its wages and benefits that could clear up a number of questions. What we do know is that its wages and benefits are about average for the retail sector—which is to say, not so great. It is harder to quantify other aspects of the job, like the quality of the work, the number of breaks, the prospects for advancement. You should let me know how you think it compares.

Studies have reached conflicting conclusions about the impact of Wal-Mart on local labor markets, with some finding that it creates more jobs than it displaces and others finding that it reduces jobs and nominal wages. Personally, I don’t put a huge amount of stock in any of these findings because I believe that Ben Bernanke and the Federal Reserve decide the total number of jobs nationwide. If anything, the greater competition and productivity growth associated with the growth of Wal-Mart may have played a role in allowing the Federal Reserve to tolerate the high level of job creation in the 1990s.

Money Doesn’t Make You Happy, Well, Maybe A Little

In the current issue of Science (behind a subscription wall) there is a piece by Alan B. Krueger, Daniel Kahneman, David Schkade, Norbert Schwarz, and Arthur Stone that suggests the link between income and happiness is mostly an illusion.

[Abstract] The belief that high income is associated with good mood is widespread but mostly illusory. People with above-average income are relatively satisfied with their lives but are barely happier than others in moment-to-moment experience, tend to be more tense, and do not spend more time in particularly enjoyable activities. Moreover, the effect of income on life satisfaction seems to be transient. We argue that people exaggerate the contribution of income to happiness because they focus, in part, on conventional achievements when evaluating their life or the lives of others.

On the research, from Eureka Alert:

For the new study, the researchers examined data from the 2004 survey to illustrate misperceptions that more money buys more happiness. Their experiment extended previous studies in which people have exhibited a “focusing illusion” when asked about certain factors contributing to their happiness — attributing a greater importance to that factor once it has been brought to mind. For example, when people were asked to describe their general happiness and then asked how many dates they had in the past month, their answers showed little correlation. But when the order of the questions was reversed for another group, the link between their love lives and general happiness became much greater.

To test whether this illusion applied to income, Krueger, Kahneman and their colleagues studied the responses given by the women in the 2004 DRM survey. After they were asked to report the percentage of time they spent in a bad mood the previous day, they were asked to predict how much time people with certain income levels spend in a bad mood.

Survey respondents expected women who earned less than $20,000 a year to spend 32 percent more of their time in a bad mood than they expected people who earned more than $100,000 a year to spend in a bad mood. In actuality, respondents who earned less than $20,000 a year reported spending only 12 percent more of their time in a bad mood than those who earned more than $100,000. So the effect of income on mood was vastly exaggerated.

Power on How to Recover US Influence in the World

Samatha Power offers some thoughts on fixing American foreign policy, in Harvard Magazine.

Can American foreign policy be fixed? Whether the alarms are caused by our plummeting global standing, our deadly war in Iraq, our democratization efforts (which have produced outcomes we don’t like), or our often seemingly self-defeating efforts to curb terrorism, most Americans are now prepared to acknowledge that the United States is in trouble abroad. Because of our current strategic, financial, and reputational predicament, much of what follows sounds directed at the Bush administration. But it is essential that we acknowledge the degree to which this administration has exposed and exacerbated structural fis sures that were evident long before it took office. If the United States is to turn things around, it must identify the flaws in the conception and conduct of its foreign policy and fix what is fix able. Rather than leaving foreign policy to the “experts,” the rest of us must insist that our government play a role in the world that is more attentive to the values and long-term interests of its citizens.

Jeffrey Goldberg and the War

Ken Silverstein in Harper’s magazine looks at Jeffrey Goldberg and the Iraq war.

Last week Jeffrey Goldberg, the Washington correspondent for the New Yorker, spoke at a panel session here that asked the burning question, “Can Liberals—and Only Liberals—Win the War on Terror?” Readers may recall that Goldberg was, in the year leading up to the war, a strong proponent of invading Iraq, and wrote a number of articles that echoed the administration’s arguments for toppling Saddam Hussein. That was no coincidence, since his reporting relied heavily on administration sources and war hawks (and in at least one crucial case, a fabricator).

Goldberg and his friends predicted that events would unfold smoothly in Iraq, and now that they haven’t, he wants to make sure that U.S. troops stay put and fight the war that he helped promote. The Democrats, he told the Washington panel, can regain power only by reaching out to their conservative wing (and to voters even further to the right who over the years have migrated from the party to the G.O.P.). He’s been interviewing members of this vital voting-bloc, he said, and he was able to report that they would “like to leave Iraq but they’d really like to win Iraq” and are looking for “a party and leadership” that can lead the way to victory.

Revisiting Psychoanalysis

Michael Wood in the London Review of Books.

In 1936 Freud wrote a letter to Romain Rolland, offering him a speculation about a particular memory as a 70th birthday gift. The memory concerned a trip Freud took to Athens with his brother, and his own ‘curious thought’ at the sight of the Acropolis: ‘So this all really does exist, just as we learned in school!’ Freud describes himself as two people, one making the comment and the other perceiving it:

and both were amazed, although not by the same thing. One of these persons behaved as though . . . he was obliged to believe in something the reality of which had until then seemed uncertain to him . . . But the other person was rightly surprised, because he had not known that the real existence of Athens, the Acropolis and this landscape had ever been a matter of doubt.

Perhaps, Freud says, he was just registering the difference between knowing about something and seeing it with one’s own eyes, but he thinks ‘that would be a strange way of dressing up an uninteresting commonplace,’ and quickly moves on to develop an argument suggesting that his reaction was a disguised expression of a continuing disbelief not in the Acropolis, but in his own chances of getting there. But why didn’t he say just that? Why was his disbelief ‘doubly displaced’, as he puts it, shifted into the past and ‘away from my relation to the Acropolis to the Acropolis’ very existence’? He didn’t actually doubt the existence of the Acropolis in the past and he couldn’t doubt it in the present, since he was there; but his unmistakable feeling was that ‘there was something dubious and unreal about the situation.’

How To Treat the Help?

From The Atlantic Monthly:Nanny

Youll Never Nanny in This Town Again by Suzanne Hansen.

I grew up in Berkeley in the 1960s and 1970s, and every housewife I knew had a once-a-week “cleaning lady,” the title itself an oxymoron that revealed perfectly the ambivalence the employers had about hiring help. The cleaning ladies were black; most wore uniforms, and all were the tolerant beneficiaries of an exaggerated white liberal guilt that lent itself to diatribes about the importance of integrating the schools, but not to relaxed standards concerning the proper way to wax and buff a hardwood floor.

Beyond that, my experience with hired help came from books and the movies, until I spent several years of my early adult life under the sway of a woman who had always had servants and who had been raised in a house full of them in the Deep South. She taught me how to treat the weekly cleaning person who came to my New Orleans shotgun house once a week: I was always to pay her, even if I was out of town and didn’t need her services (“Just because you don’t need her doesn’t mean she doesn’t need her check”); I was to be unconcerned and gracious about broken dishes or chipped candlesticks (“Whoever does the cleaning is going to do the breaking”); and I was to understand that it was the way of domestic workers to fall short of money, and the obligation of householders to get them out of scrapes. I came to appreciate that the various trials of the employee’s life were very much my business, that ours was inherently an association of unequals, and that decency demanded that I keep that uppermost in my mind and behave accordingly.

More here.

Ants on Stilts Help Show Bugs Have “Pedometers”

From The National Geographic:Ant_2

Hunting for food, ants roam haphazardly. But when they find it, they use celestial cues, perhaps from the sun, to head back to their nests more or less in a straight line—rather than retracing the tortuous journeys they’d made on their outbound searches. Instead, a new study suggests that ants have internal “pedometers,” or step counters, that help them gauge how far they have traveled. Food was placed about 33 feet (10 meters) from an ant nest. When ants found the food the researchers collected the insects before they had time to carry it back to the nest.

Twenty-five of the ants were then put gently on their backs. Scientists glued stilts made of pig bristles to the insects’ legs—a delicate procedure that had to be done quickly so the ants wouldn’t forget what they were doing and fail to return home. Another 25 ants had their legs surgically shortened by chopping off part of the bottom segment. For the ants on stilts, each step now covered more distance than they were used to. They overshot the nest, running an average of more than 50 percent farther than they should have. Those with shortened legs undershot by nearly as much.

More here.

Summers Discusses Stormy Harvard Tenure

From the AP in the New York Times:

Larry_1 Lawrence Summers steps down Friday after five tumultuous years as president of Harvard University. The Associated Press asked him about his tenure there, and his responses are excerpted below.

AP: What do you expect will be the legacy of your presidency?

Summers: I think it’s been a very good five years for the university. We’ve expanded our commitment to equal opportunity by becoming the first university in the country to eliminate tuition for families earning under $60,000, laid a foundation for that threshold to increase in the future. We’ve substantially increased the university’s commitment to public service.

The university has launched the greatest period of scientific expansion in its history. Twenty football fields worth of laboratory space are now either under construction or in the planning stage, including space for the stem cell institute, which is filling a gap left when the federal government abdicated in this area.

More here.

Benjamin Disraeli and the politics of performance

Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker:

Tempx_disraeli2When Lytton Strachey’s “Eminent Victorians” was published, in 1918, it included, in addition to the portraits of his leading characters, cameos of almost all the other famous Victorians: Cardinal Newman is alongside Cardinal Manning in Manning’s chapter; Gladstone is glimpsed in the chapter on General Gordon; and Lord Palmerston is visible, grimacing, behind Florence Nightingale. The only Victorian of eminence missing in the ironic gallery is the most ironic of them all, Benjamin Disraeli: man of fashion, satiric novelist, twice Prime Minister, and the dominant figure of the Conservative Party in Britain from 1846 until his death, in 1881.

The reason for leaving him out is plain: Strachey’s figures, large and small, are invariably studies in that sanctimonious hypocrisy which Strachey imagined to be the keynote of the period. And of all the things that Disraeli was—mocker and opportunist, hired gun and flatterer, gadfly and courtier—the one thing that no one could ever call him was sanctimonious and hypocritical.

More here.

Chinese, English speakers vary at math

Randolph E. Schmid of the AP, in Wired News:

EquationThings add up differently for native English speakers compared with people who learned Chinese as a first language.

Simple arithmetic was easily done by both groups, but they used different parts of the brain, a new study shows.

Researchers used brain imaging to see which parts of the brain were active while people did simple addition problems, such as 3 plus 4 equals 7. All participants were working with Arabic numerals which are used in both cultures.

Both groups engaged a portion of the brain called the inferior parietal cortex, which is involved in quantity representation and reading.

But native English speakers also showed activity in a language processing area of the brain, while native Chinese speakers used a brain region involved in the processing of visual information, according to the report in Tuesday’s issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

More here.

The West and the spirit of giving

Mohammed A. R. Galadari in the Khaleej Times:

Dear readers, some people in the Third world countries have these peculiar notions about the people in the West that they are atheists and infidels who do not follow or practice any religion. There are also common misconceptions about the Western lifestyle; that they constantly run after money and material wealth and there is no place for spirituality or beliefs in their lives.

But it is there in the West that people are donating their hard earned money and wealth to the poor and needy and for research on killer diseases like cancer and Aids. And we are not talking about peanuts; it’s huge, really big money, running into hundreds of billions. The combined wealth given in charity by Bill Gates and Warren Buffet is larger than the GDP of Kuwait.

More here.

Bill Moyers Interviews Salman Rushdie

From the Faith and Reason series on PBS:

Salman_8Salman Rushdie is a celebrated novelist, short-story writer, and essayist who gained international notoriety in 1989 when Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini demanded his execution for his portrayal of the prophet Mohammed in the novel THE SATANIC VERSES.

Born into a Muslim family in Bombay, India, in 1947, Rushdie began his writing career in the mid-1970s, after settling in England. His second novel, MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN, an allegory of post-independence Indian society, catapulted him to fame in 1981 and was awarded Britain’s Booker Prize for best novel. In 1993, the novel was named the “Booker of Bookers,” as the best novel to receive the award in the prize’s 25-year history.

Rushdie followed MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN with a string of seven highly acclaimed novels, among them THE SATANIC VERSES (1988), THE MOOR’S LAST SIGH (1995) and THE GROUND BENEATH HER FEET (1999). Most of the author’s novels are set on the Indian subcontinent and focus on actual political and historical events interwoven with myth, fantasy, and folklore – a technique that has drawn comparisons to the “magic realism” of South American writers like Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Read more and watch the video here.  [Thanks to Zaneb Beams.]

Love, loss and all points in between

From The Guardian:Hishammatar982734_1

Why isn’t Hisham Matar angrier? In 1990, when he was a student in London, his father – a Libyan dissident living in Cairo – was kidnapped, taken back to Tripoli, imprisoned, tortured. He smuggled several letters out from Abu Saleem jail detailing his treatment, but there has been no word since 1995. The not-knowing must be hideous – so how to square that with this charming, engaging, patient young man?

Matar, whose first novel is being touted as the literary event of the summer, suggests meeting in Holland Park, on the western fringe of central London. No doubt this is a way of keeping me out of the rented flat he shares with his American-born photographer wife, but it’s appropriate, too. He often walks here in the morning before writing. “I find it calming,” he explains. “There’s always a problem when you write, something you’re trying to resolve, and sometimes a view can be inspiring.”

More here.

Getting Lucky

From Science:

Dice_160_jpg Chance favors the prepared mind” –-Louis Pasteur

Isn’t blackjack just another game of chance? Isn’t the player relying solely on the random turn of the cards? Not according to former Massachusetts Institute of Technology mathematics professor Edward O. Thorpe, who has shown that by combining several different strategies, the player can shift the advantage, ever so slightly, in his (or her) favor. Surely, the casinos will catch wind of this new gambling system and shut down all of their blackjack tables. Apparently, there’s no need. Thorpe published his findings, replete with mathematical evidence, in 1955, but hardly anybody takes the time to learn the system. It is possible to use skill to turn luck to your advantage, but not enough people bother to make it a problem for the casinos. The job market is like that, too. Then one day, I found myself at a daylong “Careers in Science” seminar.

And speaker after speaker gave variations on the same answer: It was luck. For those of us who hadn’t gotten lucky yet, it wasn’t a very satisfying answer.

So I started to look for other things these speakers had in common. I didn’t have to look far. These speakers had put as much effort into the presentation as they had into gathering the information that went into them. Even if they felt lucky, these people weren’t the type to wait for the phone to ring. Maybe they were lucky, but they also worked hard, made good decisions, and took pains to present themselves well.

More here.

Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly

In Slate, a look at Richard Linklater’s film adaptation of P. K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly.


Who is Richard Linklater, really? In the last 15 years he’s written and directed great, meandering films about disaffected types who don’t do a whole lot of anything besides kicking back and philosophizing (Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Waking Life), but he’s also made tightly plotted movies about equally disaffected types who band together to combat a repressive social order (The Newton Boys, Fast Food Nation, even The School of Rock, and Bad News Bears). It’s as though the left and right hemispheres of Linklater’s brain have been competing! Which is, of course, precisely the problem faced by narcotics agent Bob Arctor, the protagonist of Philip K. Dick’s brilliant 1977 science-fiction novel A Scanner Darkly.

So, will Linklater’s new, rotoscoped adaptation of A Scanner Darkly, starring Keanu Reeves as Arctor, reveal once and for all which side of Linklater’s brain is the dominant one? That is, will Keanu and his drug buddies, played by Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder, and Rory Cochrane (reprising his role in Dazed and Confused), get politicized and take action against their not-too-distant-future surveillance society? Or will these slackers stay glued to their couches, enteg themselves with interminable Linklater-esque bull sessions?

The answer is: both. After all, in what sci-fi fans describe as the “phildickian” worldview, binapposites—good/evil, real/unreal—are impossible ever to untangle.

3QD’s World Cup Analyst Alex Cooley, In Withdrawal, On The Last Rounds

[Alex writes] The last few days that have comprised the second round of the World Cup might just be my favorite time in all of sports. In just four days the World Cup goes from the active involvement and global football fiesta of 32 teams to the final hardcore 8 teams that will actually challenge for the cup. It also means that in between the 2nd round and Q-finals, the first two days of football withdrawal and the unsettling prospect of actually being sober in the afternoon. I’ve taken some of the extra time to see the highly entertaining “Berlin-Tokyo, Tokyo-Berlin” exhibit at the New National Gallery (recommended if you’re in Berlin before the end of October or maybe it was just novel to visually experience something other than 22 guys running after a ball). To continue to bring the tone of 3QD down a few notches through my endless drivel, here are some further thoughts about the last few days.

So the games are for real this time which means that one moment of madness or misjudgment really does mean “its over.” I definitely sensed this nervousness among the German supporters before their 2nd round clash with Sweden, although all fears were soon dispatched after their young striker Lucas Podolski bagged a couple of goals in the first 10 minutes to send the over-hyped Swedes on their way and get the German World Cup party going again. Later that evening, the Mexicans played Argentina tough and did a much better job of tracking Argentina’s off the ball runs than any of the Euro teams. But they too fell to a moment of brilliance and a wonder goal from Maxi Rodriguez (MaxiGoooooooooool) in extra time.

Spare a thought for the Aussies, perhaps the most hard done of the unlucky 8 that were just eliminated. They played a tight and contained match against much fancied Italy and although they never looked like scoring they were comfortably looking forward to 30 minutes of extra time with a man advantage when calamity struck in the very last minute. Even more sadly, the Aussie exit means no more trips to the Uluru resort pub, our local Aussie joint in Berlin. According to one local observer, Uluru’s pre-World Cup clientele usually consisted of 3 unemployed blokes playing darts…so when a hoard of Aussies Googled the “Ozzie pub” and descended before the all important Aussie-Croatia clash the stunned owner ran out of Aussie beer 15 minutes before kickoff and had to send his mates out to buy more drink and plastic cups. He was more prepared beer-wise for the Italy game, but, alas, the loving Aussie fans had to learn the hard way: whiny Italian diving in the penalty area in additional time against minor team in knockout stages of World Cup = penalty = see you in 2010!

Of course that sorry piece of officiating looked absolutely Pierluigi Colina-like compared with the previous day’s parade of cards shown by Russian ref Ivanov in the Kung-fu movie that was Holland-Portugal. The hapless ref showed a World Cup finals record four red cards and 16 yellows but let the game slip away, providing some terrific entertainment and fine melodrama for the neutrals. Although the Portugal came out of the wrestling ring to claim the win, the real winners are the English who will now get to play the Portuguese without their first choice creative and defensive midfielders, Deco and Costinha.

Now admittedly, most of Cooley’s previous group picks were as rubbish as a Swiss penalty, but 3 of my final 4 are still alive, with only the underachieving Spanish going home early. Looking forward to the Q-finals we’ll see what Argentina and Portugal bring to the table this weekend, but there is a creeping sense of inevitability about a Germany-England final on July 9. This doesn’t necessarily mean that these are the 2 best teams (although the Germans may well be), just that by some strange atmospheric conditions the teams have completely morphed into stereotypes of each other. The Germans have been playing attacking, fearless, attractive football, making full use of their excellent wide players and dangerous overlapping runs by their fullbacks. On the other hand, this year’s England team, as a German friend noted when watching their toothless win against Ecuador, is eerily reminiscent of the German teams of the 1980s – a dysfunctional midfield with bouts of comical defending, but getting lucky with the draw and doing just enough to win each match from a set piece (all hail the right foot of Beckham!). Sorry, folks, Sven’s men have “Finalist” written all over them.

No blushes about my Ukraine pick. After getting absolutely hammered by Spain and beating Tunisia on a dodgy penalty of their own, the “Ukrainian train” is about to dispatch these Italian whiners and make Cooley look like a genius for including them in my final four.

Finally, let’s just quickly glance over my prediction that the Team NikeFIFASamba would be upset in the second round. So the Cats from Ghana couldn’t quite do it – no biggie, the moment of joy merely has been temporarily delayed. I have no doubts that the recently rejuvenated French team (or Ribery and some of his hard Parisian pals who hang around the Gare du Nord) will heroically send our Brazil packing and Ronaldo in search of more potato salad. Mark’s just got back, se we’re off for a couple of Kir Royales and in search of French jerseys.

Now, everyone, sing with me, “Allons enfants de la Patrie/Le jour de gloire est arrivé! “

Cerebroscopes and Explanations

In Seed, Paul Bloom on the dubious merit of fMRI based explanations. (Via Language Log.)

A couple of years ago, a friend asked me to be a pilot subject for one of her fMRI studies. I immediately said yes, in large part because most of the psychologists I knew had their brains scanned at one time or another, and I was feeling left out. It was a tedious experience, involving the memorization of long strings of numbers—and being inside a magnet is like being buried alive, only louder. So when I emerged from the machine an hour later, I was grouchy.

But then she took me to a screen and showed me a record of my brain at work. It made up for the hour of torment. I was entranced.

Newspapers, magazines, TV and blogs very often discuss psychology these days as a series of studies that involve some measure of neural activity, usually fMRI. The most compelling studies are those which probe the brain while the subject is made to think about something controversial, such as politics, sports teams, race, sex, corporate brands or morality. It makes for great press releases. But fMRI imagery has attained an undue influence, and we shouldn’t be seduced.