Reading Einstein in Jerusalem

David Billet in The New Republic:

E Albert Einstein was not only a scientist and universal eminence, but also a proud Jew who had a longtime association with the Zionist movement. In the 1920s, he toured America with Chaim Weizmann to gather support for the creation of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. When Weizmann died in office in 1952 as Israel's first president, Einstein was proposed as his successor by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion.

Because of such incidents, observes Fred Jerome–the author of three books about Einstein's political/philosophical thought, including a new one, Einstein on Israel and Zionism: His Provocative Ideas About the Middle East–Zionist fgures and institutions have claimed Einstein as a “champion” of the state of Israel. The mainstream media in the U.S. has told and retold this “widely accepted story.” But the story, says Jerome, is a myth. In the present volume, he collects and comments upon various letters, speeches, and public statements of Einstein in order to demonstrate that the latter was never comfortable with the idea or reality of a Jewish state.

In letters translated from the German by Michael Schiffmann, we read that Einstein was deeply affected by the ugly treatment of Jews in Germany after World War I–including the dismissal by nationalist scientists of his theory of relativity as a “Jewish” perversion. He believed that it was inexcusable to flee one's Judaic heritage, as many assimilated German Jews of the middle class did, and he believed that a Jewish homeland in Palestine would lift the standing and confidence of Jews worldwide.

Still, Einstein was as wary of crude Jewish nationalism as of the German kind.

More here.

Thursday Poem


Maxine, back from a weekend with her boyfriend,
smiles like a big cat

and says
that she's a conjugated verb.
She's been doing the direct object
with a second person pronoun named Phil,
and when she walks into the room,
everybody turns:

some kind of light is coming from her head.
Even the geraniums look curious,
and the bees, if they were here, would buzz
suspiciously around her hair, looking
for the door in her corona.
We're all attracted to the perfume

of fermenting joy,

we've all tried to start a fire,
and one day maybe it will blaze up on its own.
In the meantime, she is the one today among us
most able to bear
the idea of her own beauty,
and when we see it, what we do is natural:
we take our burned hands
out of our pockets,
and clap.

by Tony Hoagland


From The New York Times:

Book With “Fordlandia,” Greg Grandin, a professor of history at New York University, tells a haunting story that falls squarely into this tradition: Henry Ford’s failed endeavor to export Main Street America to the jungles of Brazil. Fordlandia was a commercial enterprise, intended to extract raw material for the production of motor cars, but it was framed as a civilizing mission, an attempt to build the ideal American society within the Amazon. As described in this fascinating account, it was also the reflection of one man’s personality — arrogant, brilliant and very odd.

In 1927, Ford, the richest man in the world, needed rubber to make tires, hoses and other parts for his cars. Rubber does not grow in Michigan, and European producers enjoyed a virtual monopoly on the rubber trade because of their Asian colonies. So, typically, the car magnate decided to grow his own. The site chosen for Ford’s new rubber plantation was an area of some 2.5 million acres on the banks of the Tapajós River, a tributary of the Amazon about 600 miles from the Atlantic. It took Ford’s agents approximately 18 hours to reach the place by riverboat from the nearest town. Ford’s vision was a replica Midwestern town, with modern plumbing, hospitals, schools, sidewalks, tennis courts and even a golf course. There would be no drink or other forms of immorality, but gardening for all and chaste dances every week.

More here. (Note: Congratulations to Greg, a dear friend.)

Can’t Decide? Ask an Ant

From Science:

Ant Classical philosophers called humans “the rational animal.” Clearly, they never looked closely at ants. A new study suggests that ant colonies avoid irrational decisions that people and other animals often make.

Consider the following scenario: You want to buy a house with a big kitchen and a big yard, but there are only two homes on the market–one with a big kitchen and a small yard and the other with a small kitchen and a big yard. Studies show you'd be about 50% likely to choose either house–and either one would be a rational choice. But now, a new home comes on the market, this one with a large kitchen and no yard. This time, studies show, you'll make an irrational decision: Even though nothing has changed with the first two houses, you'll now favor the house with the big kitchen and small yard over the one with the small kitchen and big yard. Overall, scientists have found, people and other animals will often change their original preferences when presented with a third choice.

Not so with ants. These insects also shop for homes but not quite in the way that humans do. Solitary worker ants spread out, looking for two main features: a small entrance and a dark cavity. If an ant finds an outstanding hole–such as the inside of an acorn or a rock crevice–it recruits another scout to check it out. As more scouts like the site, the number of workers in the new hole grows. Once the crowd reaches a critical mass, the ants race back to the old nest and start carrying the queen and larvae to move the entire colony.

More here.

A Firedoglake Book Salon on Scott Page’s The Difference

Scott-page-the-differenceHosted by Cosma Shalizi:

Scott Page is a professor of political science and economics at the University of Michigan, where he’s also the associate director of the Center for the Study of Complex Systems, and external faculty at the Santa Fe Institute. (Disclosure: I worked for Scott when I was a post-doctoral fellow at the Center, and I’m also external faculty at SFI, so take my enthusiasm with salt to taste.) Scott’s written lots of academic papers, and co-written a textbook, but The Difference is, well, different. It’s a serious, but also playful, look at the power and virtues of diversity when it comes to solving difficult problems. It draws together many insights from many different academic disciplines, without requiring any special knowledge of its readers, just willingness to stretch their minds a little.

All very well, you say, but it’s a lot more abstract than most books which show up here: why should you spend your time reading about heuristics and preference aggregation and so forth? For two reasons: to help us persuade others, and to acquire tools for us to use ourselves.

Most progressives have embraced diversity as a value, but there seem to be competing considerations. A common objection — my guess is it’s even often sincere — is that we shouldn’t care how diverse the people who do X are, but just how good they are at X. If those who have discovered and developed their abilities to do X happen to be mostly privileged, that’s just part of what “privilege” means, and the thing to worry about is unfair privilege, not lack of diversity. This is a general objection, and it calls for an equally general, that means abstract, rebuttal.

Implicitly, the objection assumes that there’s a best way to do X, that there’s One Right Answer, and that the best results, the closest approach to the optimum, will always come from the person who’s best at the job. Some advocates of diversity deny the first premise, the One Right Answer bit. This leads to tedious arguments about relativism and other reminders of the unfun parts of the 1990s. Page doesn’t go there; instead he shows that the other premise is wrong, because it ignores complexity.

Selecting Our Children

SingerPeter Singer in Project Syndicate:

In April, Germany’s parliament placed limits on the use of genetic diagnosis. Is the new German law a model for other countries to follow as we grapple with the ethical issues posed by our growing knowledge of human genetics?

Some provisions of the German law draw on the widely shared ethical principles of respect for individual autonomy and privacy. No one can be tested without his or her consent. Neither employers, nor insurance companies, may require genetic testing. Individuals are granted both the right to know – to be informed of the results of any genetic test about themselves – and the right to choose to live in ignorance of what a genetic test may predict about their future. To discriminate against or stigmatize anyone on account of their genetic characteristics is prohibited.

Desirable as these provisions seem, they could impose a heavy cost on German companies. If insurance companies outside Germany are permitted to require genetic tests while German companies are prohibited from doing so, then people who know they have life-shortening genetic diagnoses will get their life insurance from German insurance companies. These companies will then find themselves making more payments for premature deaths relative to their competitors. To cover the increased costs, they will have to raise premiums, making themselves uncompetitive.

In an attempt to mitigate this problem, the law specifies that anyone taking out an insurance policy valued at more than €300,000 may be required to disclose the results of prior genetic tests. But if people lie about whether they have previously been tested, that provision will be moot.

As genetic testing becomes increasingly able to predict not only health, but also some cognitive and personality traits, the prohibition on employer testing may also put German employers at a disadvantage in the international marketplace. They will invest resources in training employees whom their competitors will exclude from the initial pool of recruits.

This may be a humane thing to do, for it gives every individual a chance, irrespective of the genetic odds against their paying their way for the company. But, in the long term, if we are serious about prohibiting such tests, we need an international agreement – on both insurance and employment – to ensure a level playing field for all countries.

Evidence and Evolution: The Logic Behind the Science

Jessica Pfeifer reviews Elliott Sober’s Evidence and Evolution: The Logic Behind the Science in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews:

Elliott Sober’s excellent book, Evidence and Evolution, builds on views about evidence that Sober has been developing over the years and shows how these views bear on issues relevant to evolutionary biology. The book is divided into four main chapters, with a fifth chapter as a conclusion. The first chapter develops Sober’s views about evidence, while Chapters 2-4 apply this discussion to three issues of importance to evolutionary biology: the argument for intelligent design (Chapter 2), the evidence for natural selection (Chapter 3), and the evidence for common ancestry (Chapter 4). One advantage of this organization is that it is possible, without too much loss, to read Chapter 1 and then skip to whichever later chapters are of interest. While there are points made in the intervening chapters that might be relevant for later conclusions, Sober very helpfully makes note of where these topics have previously been discussed.

In Chapter 1, Sober not only forcefully defends his particular views about evidence, but in the process also provides an excellent introduction to many of the issues at stake between Bayesian, likelihood, and frequentist accounts. Sober argues that versions of each approach have their place. However, his view is not pluralistic. Which view one ought to adopt depends on the goals one has, the information at hand, and the hypotheses of interest. Bayesian methods can tell us what our degree of belief in a hypothesis ought to be, likelihoodism has the more modest aim of telling us whether and to what degree the evidence favors one hypothesis over another, and the version of frequentism Sober endorses (model-selection theory, and in particular the Akaike Information Criterion) estimates how accurate a model will be at predicting new data when fitted to old data.

Why cops should trust the wisdom of the crowds

CopscrowdsMichael Bond in New Scientist:

The “unruly mob” concept is usually taken as read and used as the basis for crowd control measures and evacuation procedures across the world. Yet it is almost entirely a myth. Research into how people behave at demonstrations, sports events, music festivals and other mass gatherings shows not only that crowds nearly always act in a highly rational way, but also that when facing an emergency, people in a crowd are more likely to cooperate than panic. Paradoxically, it is often actions such as kettling that lead to violence breaking out. Often, the best thing authorities can do is leave a crowd to its own devices.

“In many ways, crowds are the solution,” says psychologist Stephen Reicher, who studies group behaviour at the University of St Andrews, UK. Rather than being prone to irrational behaviour and violence, members of a crowd undergo a kind of identity shift that drives them to act in the best interests of themselves and everyone around them. This identity shift is often strongest in times of danger or threat. “The ‘mad mob’ is not an explanation, but a fantasy,” says Reicher.

All this has profound implications for policing and the management of public events. “The classic view of crowd psychology, which is still widespread, talks about the loss of selfhood, leaving people at best out of control and at worst generically violent,” says Reicher. “That is not only wrong, it’s also counterproductive. If you believe all crowds are irrational, and that even rational people are liable to be dangerous in them, then you’ll treat them accordingly, often harshly, and stop people doing things they have a right to do. And that can lead to violence.”

[H/t: Pablo Policzer]

situation hacker


IMAGINE SLASHER FILMS WITHOUT BLOOD; porn without nudity; the Sistine Chapel without God; the New York Stock Exchange without capital. Pretend that Hieronymus Bosch’s intermeshed figures could text. Ryan Trecartin’s videos depict a vertiginous world I’m barely stable enough to describe. Watching them, I face the identity-flux of Internet existence: surfing-as-dwelling. Images evaporate, bleed, spill, metamorphose, and explode. Through frenetic pacing, rapid cuts, and destabilizing overlaps between representational planes (3-D turns into 2-D and then into 5-D), Trecartin violently repositions our chakras. Digitally virtuoso, his work excites me but also causes stomach cramps. I’m somatizing. But I’m also trying to concentrate. Trecartin, born in Texas (a trace of drawl is a vocal leitmotif of his videos), broke into the art world with A Family Finds Entertainment in 2004, the year he graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design. (The art world: Does Trecartin need it?) Then, in 2006, came the seven-minute-long video (Tommy Chat Just E-mailed Me.) and the feature-length I-Be Area, both available on YouTube and UbuWeb. In the “Younger than Jesus” exhibition, at New York’s New Museum until July 5, Trecartin unveiled installments of his latest epic, composed of three interconnected, modular psychodramas: Sibling Topics (Section A), K-Corea INC. K (Section A), and Re’Search Wait’S (Edit 1: Missing Re’Search Corruption Budget), all 2009. (The videos are also on display this summer, with a larger installation, at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia.)

more from Wayne Koestenbaum at artforum here.



Jack Vance, described by his peers as “a major genius” and “the greatest living writer of science fiction and fantasy,” has been hidden in plain sight for as long as he has been publishing — six decades and counting. Yes, he has won Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy awards and has been named a Grand Master by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and he received an Edgar from the Mystery Writers of America, but such honors only help to camouflage him as just another accomplished genre writer. So do the covers of his books, which feature the usual spacecraft, monsters and euphonious place names: Lyonesse, Alastor, Durdane. If you had never read Vance and were browsing a bookstore’s shelf, you might have no particular reason to choose one of his books instead of one next to it by A. E. van Vogt, say, or John Varley. And if you chose one of these alternatives, you would go on your way to the usual thrills with no idea that you had just missed out on encountering one of American literature’s most distinctive and undervalued voices.

more from Carlo Rotella at the NY Times Magazine here.

and he could dance, too


If you watch a video of the Jackson 5 performing “I Want You Back,” on the Ed Sullivan show, in 1969, you will see that the group’s lead vocalist—Michael, the youngest of the five brothers—was already an A-list dancer at the age of eleven. Here is this fat-cheeked boy, in a pink Super Fly hat that he is obviously proud of, doing tilts and dips and fanny rocks and finger snaps, and tucking in little extras—half steps, quarter steps—between them. Most amazing is his musicality, his ability to respond to the score faithfully and yet creatively, playing with the music, moving in before and after the beat. Musicality always comes off as spontaneity, and he was loved, early on, for that quality. Now turn to “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough” (1979). Ten years have passed. He has started recording his own songs. He does fancier steps. But at twenty-one, as at eleven, he is galvanizing above all because of his naturalness. He hops with joy; he wags his head; his shirt comes untucked.

more from Joan Acocella at The New Yorker here.

Wednesday Poem

Museum PieceDegas and el greco

The good grey guards of art
Patrol the halls on spongy shoes,
Impartially protective, though
Perhaps suspicious of Toulouse.

Here dozes one against the wall,
Disposed upon a funeral chair.
A Degas dancer pirouettes
Upon the parting of his hair.

See how she spins! The grace is there,
But strain as well is plain to see.
Degas loved the two together:
Beauty joined to energy.

Edgar Degas purchased once
A fine El Greco, which he kept
Against the wall beside his bed
To hang his pants on while he slept.

by Richard Wilbur

from Contemporary American Poetry;
Penguin Books, Baltimore, 1962

The good news about the Henry Louis Gates fiasco

From Salon:

Gates When I heard that prominent black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested for breaking into his own home in Cambridge, Mass., it made me proud of America. It may seem paradoxical to focus on the positive side of the preeminent scholar's public humiliation. This is, after all, a distinguished staff writer for the New Yorker, the man who helped Oprah find her roots. It may seem that there's no positive side at all. (His own neighbor, a Harvard magazine employee, didn't recognize him and called the cops. How pathetic is that?)

But last night I happened to be reading a book that put the whole incident into context, a volume that never fails to chill me: “We Charge Genocide,” a petition brought before the U.N. in 1951 that makes a very convincing case for defining the treatment of African-Americans in the U.S. as a genocide. This remarkable book consists, in part, of a litany of shocking bias crimes committed against black citizens across the country — and only documented ones occurring between 1945 to 1950. A typical entry reads: “February 13 — ISAAC WOODWARD, JR., discharged from the Army only a few hours, was on his way home when he had his eyes gouged out in Batesburg, South Carolina, by the town chief of police, Linwood Shull … [A]n all-white jury acquitted Shull after being out for 15 minutes.” And so on, for 50-odd hair-raising pages. Believe me, Toni Morrison couldn’t top it.

More here.

Wikipedia Teaches NIH Scientists Wiki Culture

From Wired:

Wiki The next time you read a health-related article on Wikipedia, it might have been improved through a new collaboration between the National Institutes of Health and the Wikimedia Foundation. Ten experienced Wikipedia volunteers visited the NIH headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland, last week to train the scientists there on how to use and contribute to the world’s de facto outboard brain. It was the first “Wikipedia Academy” to take place in the United States.

“One of our goals is to increase the scientists’ understanding of Wikipedia and the established practices and procedures that have evolved over the years,” said Frank Shulenberg, who organized the academy as head of public outreach for the Wikimedia Foundation. “They need some instructions about what’s going on and why Wikipedia culture is like it is.” While the subject experts have epigenetics and infectious-disease outbreaks down cold, they don’t really know the complex social dynamics of the site’s thousands of contributors.

More here.

hitch on Kolakowski


It was distinctly eerie to learn of the death of professor Leszek Kolakowski just 15 minutes before entering a room in which I was to give a short lecture on his influence. But it was also rather inspiring to be in a country that made the passing of a public intellectual into the front-page headline of every national daily paper the following day. The photographs of Kolakowski almost invariably portray a man with a forbiddingly craggy visage, austere to the point of asceticism. Yet he was one of the most engagingly witty people it was possible to meet. And his wit was deployed to puncture every kind of intellectual fraud or imposture. I remember his comment when he heard that Hungarian philosopher Georg Lukacs had said that even the worst socialism was preferable to the best capitalism: “Ah yes, the advantages of Albania over Sweden are self-evident.” He had earned the right to make such pronouncements. An ardent Communist in prewar and wartime Poland (and a sworn foe of the clerical, chauvinist, and anti-Semitic Polish right wing to the end of his days), Kolakowski was shorn of his Stalinism by exposure to its Moscow form on a visit to Russia, and he emerged as the leading “revisionist” Marxist philosopher of the Polish spring of 1956. At that stage, he advocated a form of democratic socialism approximately based on a reading of young—as opposed to late—Karl Marx. But repeated encounters with the obdurate and repressive Communist regime convinced him that the system was essentially beyond reform.

more from Slate here.

hope’s coffin


Israel did its best to keep me out of the Gaza Strip. Not just me—all international media. For two weeks, we watched from the Egyptian side of Gaza’s southern border as plumes of smoke erupted from around Rafah, and the wounded trickled out, one by one, in battered Palestinian ambulances on their way to intensive care units in Cairo. Finally, in the last week of Operation Cast Lead, something gave, and the Egyptian government unexpectedly opened the gates. I entered Gaza with a few dozen journalists and aid workers on January 16—the day after my twenty-eighth birthday. An armed drone tracked my taxi, plastered with press insignia, through the wasted streets of Rafah, and the ear-splitting sonic booms of strike fighters rattled the windows. The war was no longer a spectacle on the horizon; I was in the kill zone. As I moved north from the heavily bombed neighborhoods near the Egyptian border, targeted for their proximity to Gaza’s illegal tunnel network, toward the epicenter of the Israeli offensive in Gaza City, I was haunted by images of Stalingrad, Dresden, Hué City. Weeks of shelling had left the tiny, teeming enclave a moonscape of flattened homes and ravaged fields.

more from Elliott D. Woods at VQR here.

the great, the wonderful, Thomas Bernhard


Your characters and you yourself often say they don't care about anything, which sounds like total entropy, universal indifference of everyone towards everything.

Not at all, you want to do something good, you take pleasure in what you do, like a pianist, he has to start somewhere too, he tries three notes, then he masters twenty, and eventually he knows them all, and then he spends the rest of his life perfecting them. And that's his great pleasure, that's what he lives for. And what some do with notes, I do with words. Simple as that. I'm not really interested in anything else. Because getting to know the world happens anyway, by living in it, as soon as you walk out the door you're confronted with the world directly. With the whole world. With up and down, back and front, ugliness and beauty, perfectly normal. There's no need to want this. It happens of its own accord. And if you never leave the house, the process is the same.

There is nothing but striving for perfection. You want to get better and better.

There is no need to strive for anything in the world, because you get pushed towards it in any case. Striving has always been nonsense. The German word “Streber” (striver – meaning swot or brown-noser) means something awful. And striving is just as awful. The world has a pull that drags you whether you like it or not, there's no need to strive. When you strive, you become a “Streber”. You know what that means. It's hard to translate into another region.

more from Sign and Sight here.

fun at the bottom


Mirth at the physical humiliation of another, I was brought up to believe, is unsporting. To see a fellow fall over, to see him take a spill, and then to laugh at him, coarsely and without sympathy – it bespoke, I was always told, a rather bestial level of humor. One did it, of course. One still does it. And one does it with particular energy and application on Wednesday nights, at 8 o’clock, when one watches ABC’s “Wipeout.” Here, it would seem, glowing in the twilight of network television, is your authentic ignoble audience-grabber, your race-to-the-bottom production. “Fear-Factor”-meets-a-Japanese-game-show is the format: 24 contestants in padded vests and helmets taking on “the world’s biggest obstacle course” for a prize of $50,000. Saps. Headcases. “Ordinary men and women.” Hooting and floundering they launch themselves onto huge articles of cushioned, vibrating machinery – the Spiked Fenders, the Trampoline Hurdles – and cling there for ludicrous instants before being tossed into a bath of foam, water, mud, or paint.

more from James Parker at The Boston Globe here.

An Undogmatic Daniel Dennett

Robert Wright at The Daily Dish:

My week of guest-blogging at the Dish finds me walking into an animated conversation about Daniel Dennett and the “new atheism”. I’m looking forward to getting into more God talk in the next few days, but for now let me say briefly that: (a) I like this Dish reader’s terminology–‘atheism’ vs. ‘anti-theism’–very much; (b) Last week at the Huffington Post I published an assault on the anti-theist part of the “new atheism”; (c) This assault was so poorly worded, and got so much atheist blowback, that I half-apologized for it here; (d) Dan Dennett can indeed sound intolerant at times, but I think he comes off as pretty open-minded in this several-year-old video exchange between me and him. In the exchange, I’m arguing that maybe natural selection is subordinate to some larger purpose—a purpose imbued by a Deistic God, or maybe by extraterrestrials who seeded our planet a few billion years ago after inventing or refining the algorithm of natural selection, or whatever. Dan starts off very resistant to the idea, but he rolls with the punches and is never dogmatic. Check it out.

Why it’s blasphemous to alter Shakespeare’s words for a modern audience

Antoni Cimolino in The New Republic:

Willy_shakespeare In “Will Shakespeare's Come and Gone,” John McWhorter recommends that Shakespeare be rewritten for the sake of clarity. He asks, “At what point do we concede that substantial comprehension across the centuries has become too much of a challenge to expect of anyone but specialists?”

Or as Shakespeare more simply put it when one of his characters had trouble understanding a speaker, “Those that understood him smil'd at one another and shook their heads; but for mine own part, it was Greek to me.” As this example shows, Shakespeare can be perfectly clear–in part because he so largely shaped the language we speak today. Countless expressions that he coined have become our “household words.”

There are indeed archaisms in Shakespeare's lexicon (we no longer say “mine own part”), but most of the difficulty we face in comprehending his dialogue has less to do with the passage of time than with the fact that these plays are not exercises in conversational English but dense, complex, and profoundly non-naturalistic dramatic poems.

Imagery, allusion, metaphor, and ambiguity are the poet's stock-in-trade, so it shouldn't surprise us to find that Shakespeare often seems to say more than one thing at a time. Our challenge today is not that we don't receive meaning from his words, but that we receive several meanings, some of them intentionally contradictory.

More here.