A trumpet with an uncertain (but compelling) sound

In Evolutionary Psychology, Michael Austin reviews Jonathan Gottschall's Literature, Science, and a New Humanities:

My first concern with Gottschall’s approach is that it does not draw a clear distinction between using a scientific methodology to interpret a literary text and using a literary text to support a scientific theory. Both are worthy goals, but only the first falls within the job description of a literary critic. I would argue that the primary failure of some of the critical schools that Gottschall attacks in his first section is that they have neglected their responsibility to interpret literary texts and instead see literature as evidence for their larger social, cultural, and ideological claims. But this is precisely what Gottschall does in his folklore studies. None of his analysis gives us tools for interpreting the stories themselves. Rather, the tales become pieces of evidence for larger claims about human nature and the biological basis for behavior, such as the concluding claim of his second study that his findings “challenge what has been the central dogma of the dominant brand of feminist scholarship in the humanities: that chromosomal sex and socially constructed gender are, at most, distantly related” (p. 125).

There are two problems with this line of reasoning. First, it does not really produce any new knowledge. The claim that gender conventions have a biological basis is a cornerstone of modern evolutionary psychology and has been supported time and again with much more impressive data than Gottschall marshals. If the objective of a “new humanities” is simply to demonstrate how literature supports the foundational claims of evolutionary psychology, then I fear that this new field of study will soon run out of useful work; there are only so many times that these claims need to be tested and proved. To remain vital for very long, quantitative literary theory will have to develop interesting ways to interpret literature.

Norms, Minorities, and Collective Choice Online

Henry Farrell and Melissa Schwartzberg in Ethics & International Affairs (via bookforum):

We believe that the case studies outlined above [Daily Kos and Wikipedia]—brief and preliminary though they surely are—support our basic claim that we can learn a lot about the consequences of collective projects on the Internet by looking at how the specific rules of these projects structure collective choice. In particular, we argue that it is revealing to look more closely at how these rules structure relations between majorities and minorities in both epistemic and political contexts.

First, it is clear not only that the rules of these communities structure relations between majorities and minorities, but that the problem of majority-minority relations is key to their internal governance. In contrast to many offline political communities, the most important problem in Wikipedia and the Daily Kos is often to prevent the tyranny of the minority from consistently overwhelming the majority. More generally, many forms of social activity on the Internet are much more open than their offline equivalents; it is extraordinarily easy to become a member of Wikipedia or the Daily Kos, to start commenting on a blog, and so on. This bias toward openness is part of what gives the Internet its “generative” character.22 However, it also means that collective online projects are vulnerable to disruption by outsiders who do not share the goals of the project, because they do not agree with them, because they enjoy being “trolls,” or because they have harmful economic incentives (for example, they can profit by publishing spam comments).

Second, we suggest that different collective projects, with different collective goals, may reasonably look to different balances of majority-minority relations. Here, Scott Page's account of the benefits and drawbacks of diversity is a useful starting point.23 Page suggests that heuristic diversity (differences, roughly, in points of view) is very valuable to knowledge generation. However, he also notes that diversity of final goals may make group coordination more difficult, and that heuristic diversity often tends to be correlated with diversity of goals. Thus, it is highly plausible that such collective projects as Wikipedia, which stress knowledge generation, ought to be more tolerant of minorities, even when those minorities have goals that are at odds with those of the majority, as long as those minorities bring different heuristics (and thus different forms of knowledge) to the collective project.

What do these enigmatic women want?

Neroanthro Greg Downey over at the blog neuroanthropology:

In this week’s The Times Magazine of The NY Times, Daniel Bergner has a piece on women’s sexuality and research that’s already in preprint causing a bit of controversy as well as a convulsion of 1950s era humor in the online response. The title, ‘What do women want?’, that nugget of Freudian wonder, no doubt will raise the readership, as will the pictures of models simulating states of arousal (Greg Mitchell is in a bit of snit about them in, Coming Attraction: Preview of ‘NYT Magazine’ With Semi-Shocking Sex Images on Sunday. ‘Semi-Shocking’? I can imagine how that goes… ‘Are you SHOCKED by these photos?’ ‘Well, I’m at least SEMI-shocked, yes!’)…

In particular, Bergner gives us thumbnail portraits of women engaged in sex research: Meredith Chivers of Queens University (Kingston, Ontario), Lisa Diamond of the University of Utah, and Marta Meana from UNLV, although there’s also commentary from Julia Heiman, the Director of the Kinsey Institute, and others. As with so much of contemporary science writing, we get researchers as characters, with quirky personal descriptions and accounts of meeting the author, each one standing in for a particular perspective in current scientific debates.

Chivers is portrayed as arguing that women are existentially divided ‘between two truly separate, if inscrutably overlapping, systems, the physiological and the subjective,’ Diamond is made to stand in for the ‘female desire may be dictated… by intimacy, by emotional connection,’ and Meana stands in for the argument that women are narcissists desiring to submit. Whether or not these are accurate portrayals—and they might be—the model is prevalent in science writing: get characters to represent lines of thinking, even though many of us are not so clearly signed on with a single theoretical team. Here, we know the score: Diamond arguing women want intimacy, Meana that they want a real man to take them, and Chivers that women want it all, even if they don’t realize it and contradict themselves…

Read more »

John Updike’s “Requiem”

Requiem A poem from John Updike’s forthcoming collection, “Endpoint and Other Poems,” in the NYT:

It came to me the other day:
Were I to die, no one would say,
“Oh, what a shame! So young, so full
Of promise — depths unplumbable!”

Instead, a shrug and tearless eyes
Will greet my overdue demise;
The wide response will be, I know,
“I thought he died a while ago.”

For life’s a shabby subterfuge,
And death is real, and dark, and huge.
The shock of it will register
Nowhere but where it will occur.

joyce carol oates on updike


JOHN UPDIKE’S GENIUS is best excited by the lyric possibilities of tragic events that, failing to justify themselves as tragedy, turn unaccountably into comedies. Perhaps it is out of a general sense of doom, of American expansion and decay, of American subreligions that spring up so effortlessly everywhere, that Updike works, or perhaps it is something more personal, which his extraordinarily professional art can disguise: the constant transformation of what would be “suffering” into works of art that are direct appeals to the her of the above quotation, not for salvation as such, but for the possibly higher experience of being “transparent,” that is, an artist. There has been from the first, in his fiction, an omniscience that works against the serious development of tragic experiences; what might be tragedy can be reexamined, reassessed, and dramatized as finally comic, with overtones of despair. Contending for one’s soul with Nature is, of course, the Calvinist God Whose judgments may be harsh but do not justify the term tragic.

more from Oates’ 1975 essay here.

Woolworth’s shrine to commerce


At 7.30 on the evening of April 24, 1913, President Woodrow Wilson pushed a button on his desk in Washington, DC, sending a telegraphic signal to New York where it set off an alarm bell in the engine room of a skyscraper and set in motion four mighty Corliss-type engines and dynamos. In an instant, some 80,000 incandescent bulbs flashed on, illuminating for the first time the world’s tallest skyscraper – the Woolworth Building. Thousands of spectators had gathered in City Hall Park and along lower Broadway to witness the dazzling electrical spectacle that marked the opening of this fifty-five-storey addition to New York’s skyline. On the New Jersey shore, people caught their breath as the tower appeared, shimmering against the night sky, a gleaming beacon of modernity visible from ships a hundred miles away. As the 792-foot tall skyscraper was bathed in electric light, the news was being transmitted from its pinnacle by Marconi wireless to a receiver on the Eiffel Tower. From there it was beamed around the world. This modern media event was, as one commentator said, “the premier publicity stunt of this or any other day”. It was a fitting opening for what would become the most famous office building in the world.

more from the TLS here.

Like a Guest That Won’t Leave, BPA Lingers in the Human Body

From Scientific American:

Bpa-lingers-in-human-body_1 A new study indicates that bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical used in plastic bottles and can linings that has been linked to heart disease, diabetes and liver failure, may linger in the body far longer than previously believed. Environmental health scientist Richard Stahlhut of the University of Rochester Medical Center and his colleagues discovered that even those who had been fasting for 24 hours still had high BPA levels in their urine, using a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) survey of 1,469 adults.

Stahlhut says that it appears that the amount of BPA in the body drops relatively rapidly from four to nine hours after exposure, but then levels out. “After the nine hours or so,” he says, “it stops doing what it's supposed to and the decline goes flat.” Previous research had suggested that levels of BPA, which mimics the female hormone estrogen in the human body, declined by 50 percent every five hours after it was ingested in foods or water it had leached into from plastic containers. But the new research indicates that the chemical declines initially but then sticks around, making it potentially more harmful.

More here.

Stock-Surfing the Tsunami

From The New York Times:

Trader090205_560 In recent months, as the stock market has virtually spun off its axis, most people—the reasonable ones—have fled for their economic lives. But like a big-wave rider or a tornado chaser, Peter Milman dives in and out of the market’s sickening maw, riding the explosions of panic and greed and trying to snatch victory—profits—from the jaws of worldwide financial defeat. As a day trader who follows every tick of the Dow, he has a visceral view of the most manic-depressive stock market in recent history.

It is precisely the terrifying volatility—the VIX, the ticker symbol for the Chicago Board Options Exchange Volatility Index, has reached its highest recorded levels in recent months—that has made day traders suddenly hot again after years in the wilderness following the dot-com bust of 2000. (In fact, they don’t call themselves “day traders” anymore, preferring the term “active,” or “professional,” traders.) Downswings of hundreds of points on the Dow followed by equally large reversals offer great opportunities for the short-term investor. One need only jump in and chase a stock or an index for a few points: Buy in, sell off, repeat. Traders try to make money on the upswings and the downswings, in the latter case by short-selling—temporarily covering a long position for another party on the bet that his stock will go down. But Milman prefers to hitch a ride on the rebounds, the style of trading he learned during the bull market.

More here. (Note: Thanks to Dr. S.T. Raza)

Thursday Poem

Only you may have this thought.
You think, perhaps, this thought is mine?
You, me, we? Silly boy, I think.

……………………………….-Elena Wisebrough


“To Opinion: An Assay”
Jane Hirshfield

Many capacities have been thought to define the human—
yet finches and wasps use tools; speech comes
into this world in many forms.
Perhaps it is you, Opinion.

Though I cannot know for certain,
I doubt the singing dolphins have opinions.

This thought of course, is you.

A mosquito's estimation of her meal, however subtle,
is not an opinion. That's my opinion, too.

To think about you is to step into
your arms? a thicket? pitfall?

When you come rising strongly in me, I feel myself grow separate
and more lonely.
Even when others share you, this is so.

Darwin said no fact or description that fails to support an argument can serve.

Myoe wrote: Bright, bright, bright, bright, the moon.

Last night there were whole minutes when you released me.
Ocean ocean ocean was the sound the sand made of the moonlit waves
breaking on it.

I felt no argument with any part of my life.

Not even with you, Opinion, who drifted in salt waters with the bullwhip kelp
and phosphorescent plankton,
nibbling my legs and ribcage to remind me where Others end and I begin.

Good joke, I agreed with you, companion Opinion.

Toasting Robert Burns

300px-Robert_burns January 25th was the 250th anniversary of the birth of the wonderful Robert Burns. I'm attending a Burns' Night this Saturday to commemorate. Alan Black in the San Francisco Chronicle:

He became Scotland's answer to Shakespeare. And that was a relief to the Scots. Those long incoherent English rambles confused many. And still do. And across the Atlantic Ocean in the colonies, American patriots were dumping tea in Boston's harbor, telling the Brits to pack their bags. Burns admired that. He had little time for British monarchy and its fine china. They had stolen Scotland's independence a generation before his time.

Burns was a modern rebel. Every Scot could recite his line, “Scots wha' ha'e wi' Wallace bled,” and everyone knew what it meant, including Mel Gibson in “Braveheart,” 200 years later.

Ironically, after his death, his poetic influence was spread by Scots taking their place at the vanguard of the British Empire. While the British were relieving countries of their art, taming the native chiefs with tea on the lawn and inflicting the odd massacre on their people, Burns was being read by revolutionaries everywhere. From Moscow to Havana, in China and beyond, anyone with a beef against a bully, or a cause worth fighting for, found Burns to be their poet of choice. His most eloquent call for equality came in his most famous poem of all – “A Man's a Man for a' That”:

“Then let us pray, that come it may, (As come it will for a' that,) That Sense and Worth o'er a' the earth, Shall bear the gree an' a' that, For a' that and a' that, It's coming yet for a' that, That Man to Man the world o'er, Shall brothers be for a' that.”

He had written “Imagine,” two centuries before John Lennon.

Tonight, thousands around the world will be attending Burns Suppers, listening to bagpipes, wearing kilts, getting sloshed and eating the most unknowable culinary invention known to mankind, the Scottish haggis, or as Burns called it, “the Great Chieftain o' the Puddin' race.”

What’s Missing in the Stimulus Plan

28obama.480 In the NYT, James K. Galbraith, William Gale, Stuart M. Butler, Sudhir Venkatesh, Rudolph G. Penner, and Michael Oppenheimer discuss. James Galbraith:

The stimulus package is an impressive feat of fast drafting, progressive principle and good politics. It should pass and it will help. But given the depth of the crisis and the lock-up of the financial system, it is not an end-point, only a start.

If we are in a true financial crisis of the type in the 1930s — and there is many good reasons to think that we are — then the approach of a short-term stimulus combined with troubled-asset relief will not do the whole job. It will become necessary to think and act on a larger scale, to recognize that the private financial sector will not recover until after household balance sheets have been restored.

Another package will be needed, and here’s what it should include:

– Open-ended support for the current operations of state and local governments for the duration of the crisis, including open-ended support for public capital investment. All the resources being released from residential and commercial construction should be taken up in public building. At the federal level, strategic investments in mass transit and other long-term improvements — largely omitted from the current package — should be authorized via a permanent National Infrastructure Fund.

Chandan Kukathas on Genocide

Over at philosophy bites, an audio of an interview:

Genocide is, at first glance, a straightforward term. We think we know what it is and why it is such an evil. But, as Chandran Kukathas of the London School of Economics argues in this episode of the Philosophy Bites podcast, perhaps the received definition of this term that emerged following the Second World War needs refinement.

Charles Stross book event

Over at Crooked Timber; responses can be found here and here, thus far:

A New Year, a new Crooked Timber book event. But instead of one book, we’re covering a dozen or so, all written by Charlie Stross, exploring different forms of the SF genre from postcyberpunk to alternate history and beyond. For this we need an all star cast, and, in addition to several CT regulars (Henry, both Johns and Maria), we have contributions from Paul Krugman, Brad DeLong and Ken MacLeod. Between us, we’ve managed to cover nearly everything. Glaring exceptions include the Laundry series, which every fan of Len Deighton and HP Lovecraft should read, and Glasshouse. I’ve added an open thread at the end of the seminar, for those who want to discuss what we missed.

For those who haven’t read Stross, start off with Maria Farrell who shows why you should. As Maria says, “Charles Stross has more ideas than is probably healthy for one man”, and her essay shows some of this amazing range. With that to whet your appetite, it’s probably best to jump randomly to whatever sounds most interesting, but for those who prefer some order, I’ll give a summary of the seminar, mainly in chronological (reverse blog) order.

Starting off with a heavy hitter, we’ve got Paul Krugman writing on The Merchant Princes, considered as a thought experiment in development economics. Of course, as Paul points out, these books are first, and foremost, great fun. But, unlike others in the ‘between alternate timelines genre’ Stross focuses on the big question: how does an agrarian society respond to a sudden irruption of modern industrial technology?

Is Science the Mirror of Democracy?

27essa.1.650 Even though I appreciate its spirit, I don't quite fully buy the argument. Dennis Overbye in the NYT:

When the new president went on vowing to harness the sun, the wind and the soil, and to “wield technology’s wonders,” I felt the glow of a spring sunrise washing my cheeks, and I could almost imagine I heard the music of swords being hammered into plowshares.

Wow. My first reaction was to worry that scientists were now in the awkward position of being expected to save the world. As they say, be careful what you wish for.

My second reaction was to wonder what the “rightful place” of science in our society really is.

The answer, I would argue, is On a Pedestal — but not for the reasons you might think…

It is no coincidence that these [value that are found in science] are the same qualities that make for democracy and that they arose as a collective behavior about the same time that parliamentary democracies were appearing. If there is anything democracy requires and thrives on, it is the willingness to embrace debate and respect one another and the freedom to shun received wisdom. Science and democracy have always been twins.

Today that dynamic is most clearly and perhaps crucially tested in China. As I pondered Mr. Obama’s words, I thought of Xu Liangying, an elderly Chinese physicist and Einstein scholar I met a couple of years ago, who has spent most of his life under house arrest for upholding Einstein’s maxim that there is no science without freedom of speech.

The converse might also be true. The habit of questioning that you learn in physics is invaluable in the rest of society.

the last professor


Everyone is reading Stanley Fish’s essay, “The Last Professor,” in the New York Times (January 25), a column itself based on the title of a book by Frank Donoghue, one of Fish’s former pupils. It seems highly appropriate that a column entitled “Last Things” should be interested in one entitled “The Last Professor.” A professor who does not in his discipline also touch on its relation to the last things is merely a professor, not a wise man as a result of what he has learned about the whole of reality that he encounters in his studies, however narrow. The “last professor” must, as Cicero said in his essay on “Old Age,” finally take his stand before the last things if he is to live, what Aristotle called, a complete life. The phrase, “the last professor” means, in Fish’s context, that what a professor is said to do in his professorship no longer has any market. The lives of students have no place for the “impractical” enterprise of simply knowing. Everything is now practical, “down-to-earth,” job-oriented. No one, it is said, cares for things “for their own sakes,” to use Aristotle’s expression. As a letter to the editor said, the teachers are looking to the AFL-CIO for help. That is, everyone now recognizes that Fish is right.

more from First Principles here.

freeze them out!


In the early nineties the ungrateful European countries, including Czecho-Slovakia, expelled from their territories the Russian army which had been promoting peace and understanding among nations for twenty years. The Russian army’s presence ensured that Russian music and poetry was ceaselessly broadcast by the media, Russian films played in all the cinemas, publishers brought out Russian books and theatres staged Russian plays. Those times are over, never to return. In addition, much of the population regarded Russians as a completely alien element and were highly suspicious of them. The time has come for radical action. Theoreticians agree that nothing beats the personal experience of art, in the flesh, so to speak. That is why it has become necessary to apply the old but reliable strategy which has paid off on numerous occasions in history and which was started by the legendary general Kutuzov who used it in his war with Napoleon. Freeze them out!

more from Salon) here.

original nakedness


We all know, or think we know, about “Victorian prudishness,” but even as we smile we should remember to distinguish the link between sex and sin from the link between nudity and shame. The former was not created by Augustine, but he is our primary source for it, and he forged that link so strongly that for many centuries it has been hard to see the nude Adam and Eve without thinking Augustinian thoughts. It might never occur to us that the miserable pair could be ashamed not of their organs’ connection with sex but rather with the elimination of waste. (In some cultures this is a far more private matter than sex.) But if we could purge all such Augustinian assumptions from our minds, we would still be left, I think, with some discomfort—or, the story suggests, that’s what we should feel. How do we experience the nakedness of our First Parents? To take an oddly echoing episode from later in Genesis that clearly has no sexual context: Are we like Ham, the son of Noah, who not only looked upon his father’s nakedness as the old man lay drunk in his tent but also told his brothers about it? Do we, like Ham, experience no sense that Noah’s nakedness was shameful, no desire to cover him and restore him to decency? Or would we be like Ham’s brothers, who turned their heads away as they covered Noah and thereby saved him from further shame? The text says that when Noah awoke he “knew what his youngest son had done to him.” We think, done to him? What have we done to Adam and Eve by looking upon their nakedness? Yet for his impudence Ham was cursed.

more from Cabinet here.

Wednesday Poem

“Poem Ending With Three Lines
of 'Home on the Range'”

Frank Bidart

Barred from the pool twenty-three years ago, still I dove
straight in. You loved to swim, but saw no water.

Whenever Ray Charles sings “I Can't Stop Loving You”

I can't stop loving you. Whenever the unstained-by-guilt
cheerful chorus belts out the title, as his voice, sweet

and haggard reminder of what can never be remedied,

answers, correcting the children with “It's useless to say,”
the irreparable enters me again, again me it twists.

The red man was pressed from this part of the West—

'tis unlikely he'll ever return to the banks of Red River, where
seldom, if ever, their flickering campfires burn.