Remembering Michael Dummett

Stone-michael-dummett-blog427Simon Critchley, Hilary Putnam, Tim Crane, Timothy Williamson, Dorothy Edgington, Crispin Wright, and others remember Dummett in the NYT. Simon Critchley:

As is well known, professional philosophers are broadly and lamentably divided into two opposed camps: analytic and Continental. It is Dummett’s conviction that the only way to reestablish communication amongst philosophers is by going back to the historical and conceptual point where those traditions divided. This is Dummett’s strategy in his hugely influential 1993 book “Origins of Analytical Philosophy.” Dummett recounts the history of analytic philosophy from Frege onwards in the laudable hope that a clearer understanding of the philosophical past will be a precondition for some sort of mutual comprehension between contemporary philosophers. He wrote:

I do not mean to pretend that one should pretend that philosophy in the two traditions is basically the same; obviously that would be ridiculous. We can re-establish communication only by going back to the point of divergence. It’s no use now shouting across the gulf. It is obvious that philosophers will never reach agreement. It is a pity, however, if they can no longer talk to one another or understand one another. It is difficult to achieve such understanding, because if you think people are on the wrong track, you may have no great desire to talk with them or to take the trouble to criticize their views. But we have reached a point at which it is as if we’re working in different subjects.

Dummett was a wonderful example of how philosophers might behave towards each other and usefully engage with the public realm. His death is a massive loss.

The Reactionary Mind

Lilla_1-011212_jpg_230x420_q85Mark Lilla reviews Corey Robin's The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, in the NYRB:

Robin is a lumper, an über-lumper, which may please his beleaguered readers on the left, but makes his entire enterprise incoherent. He fails to see that it is based on a glaring fallacy of composition: he posits a class, isolates a characteristic of one of its members, and then ascribes that characteristic to every member of the class. Catholic reactionary Joseph de Maistre and George W. Bush are both on the right in Robin’s scheme; following his logic, since Maistre spoke flawless French, Bush must too. Which would be some national secret. Yet that’s exactly how Robin proceeds, until he has corralled everyone he doesn’t like into a pen and labeled them all conservatives and reactionaries and right-wingers, terms he fails to distinguish. (More on that in a moment.)

But if there’s anything we’ve learned over the past century, it is that la destra è mobile. The right used to be isolationist, then became internationalist, and to judge by recent Republican debates may be tiptoeing back to isolationism again. In the 1970s, if you thought that public schools were being used for social indoctrination, that power over them should be decentralized, and that children would be better off learning at home, that put you on the far left. Today those views put you on the right. Are we to think that these shifts were only about how best to keep power from the people?

Alex Gourevitch responds to Lilla, in Jacobin:

[T]he aim of Robin’s book is to connect an account of the essence of conservatism to the obvious fact of its historical variation. That is why the book is mostly composed of a series of chapters examining concrete, historical examples—Hobbes, Burke, Rand, neoconservatism. The organizing assumption of these chapters is that conservatism revolves around a political principle that is consistent yet adaptive, an idea that is sensitive to context and capable of producing a wide array of concrete, if conflicting, prescriptions. The common principle binding together strange bedfellows is the rejection of the quest for equal freedom: “Conservatism is the theoretical voice of this animus against the agency of the subordinate classes. It provides the most consistent and profound argument as to why the lower orders should not be allowed to exercise their independent will, why they should not be allowed to govern themselves or the polity.”

That conservatism is reaction makes it no less principled. Rather, reaction is inscribed in the political principle itself. But as reaction conservatism will assume a variety of forms depending on the particular struggle it is mobilizing against: “If conservatism is a specific reaction to a specific movement of emancipation, it stands to reason that each reaction will bear the traces of the movement it opposes….Not only has the right reacted against the left, but in the course of conducting its reaction, it also has consistently borrowed from the left. As the movements of the left change—from the French Revolution to abolition to the right to vote to the right to organize to the Bolshevik Revolution to the struggles for black freedom and women’s liberation—so do the reactions of the right.”

The End of the Nuclear Renaissance

Solar_panelsJohn Quiggin in The National Interest:

In 2011, nuclear power ceased to be a serious option for meeting the world’s energy needs, and solar photovoltaics (PV) finally became an option worth noting.

The “solar vs. nuclear” dispute had been largely symbolic for several decades. After rapid growth in the 1960s and 1970s, new installations of nuclear power came to a grinding halt. This was partly a result of safety fears created by the accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Economic factors were even more significant. Far from being too cheap to meter, nuclear power turned out to be far more expensive than its main rival, coal, primarily because of unpredictable capital costs and generally high interest rates.

As a result, since 1977, when the River Bend plant in Louisiana commenced construction, not one new nuclear-power plant has been ordered and completed in the United States. The situation in most other developed countries was similar. Only where some combination of military funding and concern about national self-sufficiency allowed for substantial subsidies was there any new construction of nuclear-power plants.

Meanwhile, the case of PV was reminiscent of what used to be said about Brazil as a country of enormous but permanently unfulfilled promise—that is, it seemed PV was doomed always to be the energy source of an ever-receding future. Despite decades of promising press releases from research labs, the average price of PV cells at the beginning of the twenty-first century was more than $5 per installed watt, leading to a cost of more than 50c per kilowatt hour. The global installed base of PV totaled a mere 1.4 gigawatts (GW), about equal to one medium-sized coal or nuclear plant.

Daron Acemoglu on Inequality

In_0A FiveBooks interview, over at The Browser:

What do non-economists think, in your view?

My caricature of a layman’s view is that inequality is an indication of something that is failing in society. If a group of people used to earn twice as much as another group of people, and then, over 20 years, that ratio increases to four, that’s something that is concerning and might indicate a failure of social policy. My own view is a mixture of the two. If you’re looking at the average college graduate versus the average high school graduate, or the 90th versus the 10th percentile, then the things economists have emphasised – technology, globalisation, offshoring and outsourcing, changes in the supply of skills, et cetera – have played a major role and probably tell the bulk of the story. But if you want to understand the top inequality, why the top 0.1% – even more than what the 1% Occupy Wall Streeters are talking about – have been earning such huge amounts, then really you have to think about the social policy aspects of it and the politics of it. There is perhaps some sort of failure in how our system is working.

In terms of the actual figures, how bad is inequality in the US and, say, the UK?

Based on the work of Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, if you look from the 1950s up to the end of the 1970s, the share of total national income in the US earned by the richest 1% was about 10%. If you look at the 2000s, it’s well over 20%. It rose up to nearly 25% and then came down. In the UK it’s at about 15%, up from 7% or so. The trend towards inequality over the last 50 years has been very similar in the Anglo-Saxon economies, though it’s important to say that it’s not just an Anglo-Saxon phenomenon. There are similar trends in many economies, though there are a few that haven’t experienced it to any notable extent.

Such as?

Finland and Sweden. Even there, there’s been an increase in the top percentile share – which is not so surprising, given they have many multinational companies where the CEOs make a lot of money – but the increase is much less pronounced. The share of the national income that the top one percentile captures is significantly lower.

Not So Nasty, Brutish, and Short: Steven Pinker’s Good News

Claude S. Fischer in the Boston Review:

PinkerPinker makes three strategic moves in explaining the drop in violence. First, he considers every kind of violence—even metaphoric violence, such as racist attitudes—as a single entity. Thus, he needs all expressions of violence, from genocide to spanking, to decline, and all of these declines need to follow a common story line. A more timid author might have been satisfied with explaining just the decline of, say, war. And a more timid author might worry that a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan would destroy the whole analysis overnight.

Second, Pinker takes on the burden of explaining every fluctuation and nuance in violence trends. He doesn’t let a jitter in his graph line go as random noise. The notable exception seems to be those two quasi-random world wars. Yet, elsewhere, he cannot help but try to make sense of each with ad hoc accounts, for instance by digging into Hitler’s personality. Total explanation is a heavy task.

Third, Pinker tries to sweep together virtually every explanation for violence or peace that anyone has ever proposed—and more—including schooling, brain lesions, humanitarianism, secularism, feminization, codes of honor, commerce, book publishing, and even the Great Man Theory of history (Hitler, Stalin, Mao). Some explanations he dismisses—for example, that affluence reduced the motives for violence, that nuclear weapons ended large-scale war, and that Roe v. Wade lowered crime rates in America. But his remaining list of explanations is long and eclectic.

More here.

Remembering Salmaan Taseer

Pervez Hoodbhoy in the Express Tribune:

ScreenHunter_09 Jan. 04 14.09Governor Salmaan Taseer died at the hands of a religious fanatic on January 4 last year. Fearlessly championing a deeply unpopular cause, this brave man had sought to revisit the country’s blasphemy law which, as he saw it, was yet another means of intimidating Pakistan’s embattled religious minorities. This law — which is unique in having death as the minimum penalty — would have sent to the gallows an illiterate Christian peasant woman, Aasia Bibi, who stood accused by her Muslim neighbours after a noisy dispute. Taseer’s publicly-voiced concern for human life earned him 26 high-velocity bullets from one of his security guards, Malik Mumtaz Qadri. The other guards watched silently.

In this long, sad, year more has followed. Justice Pervez Ali Shah, the brave judge who ultimately sentenced Taseer’s murderer in spite of receiving death threats, has fled the country. Aasia Bibi is rotting away in jail, reportedly in solitary confinement and in acute psychological distress. Shahbaz Taseer, the governor’s son, was abducted in late August — presumably by Qadri’s sympathisers. He remains untraceable. Shahbaz Bhatti, another vocal voice against the blasphemy law, was assassinated weeks later on March 2.

Political assassinations occur everywhere. But the Pakistani public reaction to Taseer’s assassination horrified the world. As the news hit the national media, spontaneous celebrations erupted in places; a murderous unrepentant mutineer had been instantly transformed into a national hero.

More here.

Fixing Congress and Finding Peace: An Interview with Jack Abramoff

Matt Bieber in The Wheat and the Chaff:

ScreenHunter_08 Jan. 04 13.52I met Abramoff three weeks ago at an event at Harvard Law School. (He was there to discuss his experience in Washington with Lawrence Lessig in a cool new forum called “In the Dock.”). As he entered the room, a funny silence overcame the room. It was as if the entire audience was simultaneously answering the question we’d all been chewing over: how to demonstrate our distance and disapproval while maintaining the decorum appropriate to the setting? Sure, we’ve filled a large auditorium on a weeknight to hear what this guy has to say, but he’s not getting any damn applause.

But over the next hour and a half, the strangest thing happened – Abramoff won over the crowd. He didn’t try to defend himself at all. Instead, he was almost preternaturally humble, telling in-your-face stories about the naked corruption he’d been a part of. It was all very matter-of-fact: I was able to do these things because I wanted to win, and because everyone did it, and because I didn’t recognize some basic ethical rules. And then I went to prison and had some insights that all of you probably take for granted.

As the event went along, the handful of stone-throwers in the audience seemed more and more out of place. Someone would ask a barbed question – basically, How can you be such a giant asshole? – and you could feel the crowd sigh. He knows, buddy.

By the end, I liked him.

More here.

New year, new science

From Nature:

RobotRobots, brains or graphene?

Six visionary research proposals will vie for huge grants from the European Commission’s Future and Emerging Technologies Flagship scheme. The two winning projects, to be announced in the latter half of the year, will each receive €1 billion (US$1.3 billion) over the next decade. In the running are projects on graphene, the promising new form of carbon; robot companions for the lonely; planetary-scale modelling of human activities and their environmental impact; autonomous energy-scavenging sensors; ways to apply research data more efficiently in health care; and a supercomputer simulation of the brain.

A useful synthetic genome

Synthetic biologists can build entire genomes from scratch, working from natural models, and they can also rewire the genetic circuitry of living things. But so far, no one has united the two approaches: Craig Venter’s synthetic genome of 2010 was cribbed wholesale from a bacterium and contained no new genetic circuitry beyond a DNA watermark. Might 2012 see the first really useful artificial genome?

More here.

The ABCs of 2012

Randy Rieland in Smithsonian:

Electric-car-abcs-2012It’s customary this time of year to write paeans to the past 12 months and get all mushy about things you’d pretty much forgotten. But we don’t need that, right? We’re all forward-thinkers here, aren’t we? So I’ve created an alphabetical list of things you’ll likely hear about more often in the months ahead. At the very least, you’ll have some new words to drop into conversations at the New Year’s Eve party to show how much you’re already plugged into next year. Here you go, the ABC’s of 2012 (Part I):

Augmented reality: Sure, it’s been around awhile, dating back to when yellow ”first-down” lines were first overlaid on football fields for games on TV. But using apps to layer virtual information over a real-world environment—think reviews that pop up on your screen when you focus your phone on the restaurant–is about to go mainstream. Coming soon: Google Goggles, glasses which will give the person wearing them all kinds of info about what they’re looking at.

Biometrics: There are so many things besides your sparkling wit that make you who you are–your DNA, iris scans, voice patterns or facial features—and the science of using them to identify you is getting more and more James Bondian. Now IBM is predicting that within a few years, we won’t need passwords, even at the ATM.

Electric cars: The truth is, there’s been nowhere near an electric car boom. So far Nissan has sold only 20,000 of its all-electric Leafs worldwide and Chevy fell short of its goal of selling 10,000 of its hybrid plug-in Volts this year. But Ford, Honda and Toyota all plan to launch electric vehicles in 2012 and Nissan announced this fall that, along with scientists at Kansai University in Japan, it had developed the technology to fully charge an electric car in only 10 minutes.

More here.

Richard Dawkins’s Afterword in Lawrence Krauss’s A Universe From Nothing

51PmTWxG57L._SL500_AA300_From Dawkins's website (pdf here):

Nothing expands the mind like the expanding universe. The music of the spheres is a nursery rhyme, a jingle to set against the majestic chords of the Symphonie Galactica. Changing the metaphor and the dimension, the dusts of centuries, the mists of what we presume to call “ancient” history, are soon blown off by the steady, eroding winds of geological ages. Even the age of the universe, accurate—so Lawrence Krauss assures us—to the fourth signi!cant !gure at 13.72 billion years, is dwarfed by the trillennia that are to come.

But Krauss’s vision of the cosmology of the remote future is paradoxical and frightening. Scienti!c progress is likely to go into reverse. We naturally think that, if there are cosmologists in the year 2 trillion “#, their vision of the universe will be expanded over ours. Not so—and this is one of the many shattering conclusions I take away on closing this book. Give or take a few billion years, ours is a very propitious time to be a cosmologist. Two trillion years hence, the universe will have expanded so far that all galaxies but the cosmologist’s own (whichever one it happens to be) will have receded behind an Einsteinian horizon so absolute, so inviolable, that they are not only invisible but beyond all possibility of leaving a trace, however indirect. They might as well never have existed. Every trace of the Big Bang will most likely have gone, forever and beyond recovery. The cosmologists of the future will be cut off from their past, and from their situation, in a way that we are not.

India Fares Poorly in Global Learning Study

52a47824-2a78-11e1-a10a-000b5dabf613Prashant K. Nanda in Live Mint (via Marginal Revolution, where Tyler Cowen offers some thoughts on the results):

A global study of learning standards in 74 countries has ranked India all but at the bottom, sounding a wake-up call for the country’s education system. China came out on top.

It was the first time that India participated in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), coordinated by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). India’s participation was in a pilot project, confined to schools from Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh.

The findings are significant because they come at a time when India is making a big push in education and improving the skills of its workforce. If the results from the two states hold good for the rest of the country, India’s long-term competitiveness may be in question.

Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh traditionally rank high on human development parameters and are considered to be among India’s more progressive states. The India Human Development Report 2011, prepared by the Institute of Applied Manpower Research (IAMR), categorized them as “median” states, putting them significantly ahead of the national average. IAMR is an autonomous arm of the Planning Commission.

For literacy, Himachal Pradesh ranked 4 and Tamil Nadu 11 in the National Family Health Survey released in 2007.

Yet, in the PISA study, Tamil Nadu ranked 72 and Himachal Pradesh 73, just ahead of Kyrgyzstan in mathematics and overall reading skills. The eastern Chinese metropolis of Shanghai topped the PISA rankings in all three categories—overall reading skills, mathematical and scientific literacy.

How Doctors Die

Docs_die_grave_picKen Murray in Zocalo Public Square (via Kottke):

It’s not a frequent topic of discussion, but doctors die, too. And they don’t die like the rest of us. What’s unusual about them is not how much treatment they get compared to most Americans, but how little. For all the time they spend fending off the deaths of others, they tend to be fairly serene when faced with death themselves. They know exactly what is going to happen, they know the choices, and they generally have access to any sort of medical care they could want. But they go gently.

Of course, doctors don’t want to die; they want to live. But they know enough about modern medicine to know its limits. And they know enough about death to know what all people fear most: dying in pain, and dying alone. They’ve talked about this with their families. They want to be sure, when the time comes, that no heroic measures will happen—that they will never experience, during their last moments on earth, someone breaking their ribs in an attempt to resuscitate them with CPR (that’s what happens if CPR is done right).

Almost all medical professionals have seen what we call “futile care” being performed on people. That’s when doctors bring the cutting edge of technology to bear on a grievously ill person near the end of life. The patient will get cut open, perforated with tubes, hooked up to machines, and assaulted with drugs. All of this occurs in the Intensive Care Unit at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars a day. What it buys is misery we would not inflict on a terrorist. I cannot count the number of times fellow physicians have told me, in words that vary only slightly, “Promise me if you find me like this that you’ll kill me.” They mean it. Some medical personnel wear medallions stamped “NO CODE” to tell physicians not to perform CPR on them. I have even seen it as a tattoo.

steve jobs and the joseph stalin charm school


It takes confidence to sit in front of an audience, armed with a few pages of notes and one glass of water, wearing clothes you may have slept in, using your rubbery face as your primary prop, to discuss warmly but ultimately damningly, for nearly two hours, a man you never met. A man thought of as a rare contemporary hero. A man who died five weeks earlier. What gives Mike Daisey, a veteran monologist, the confidence and endurance to perform The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs daily is, I suspect, justice. The jumpy, chilling, riotous monologue has the expected: scenes from the life of Steve Jobs and Apple; hilarious set pieces about Daisey’s technology geekishness. But its heart lies in Daisey’s disillusionment from his “religion” of Apple after years researching how Apple products are made, most upsettingly by interviewing workers outside the Shenzhen, China factory of Foxconn, a major manufacturer of Apple products. Daisey witnessed the company that produced his objects of identity be ruthlessly indifferent to the lives of the workers making them. His indictment is personal, directed at Jobs, but it leaves no one innocent. After the performance, I needed to run an errand, to buy a toaster. But the stores—buying and selling—sickened me. Toast would have to wait.

more from 3QD friend Gary Sernovitz at n+1 here.

the must-have boson


In the next few months, scientists at the Large Hadron Collider at Cern may detect one of the fundamental building blocks of the universe: the elusive Higgs boson. The collider, one of the most ambitious machines ever built—which sends two beams of subatomic particles around an underground circuit 27km in circumference, to crash into each other at close to the speed of light—may already have given them the crucial data. The Swiss government asks Cern, the joint European research institution, to shut down the circuit in winter, to spare it the demand on the electricity grid; these cold months are used for analysing the torrent of data from the summer’s experiments. If scientists find the Higgs boson, then it will be one of the greatest advances ever in physics. The world’s attention—including that of the Nobel committee, will turn to, among others, Peter Higgs, 82, emeritus professor at the school of physics and astronomy at the University of Edinburgh. But if they don’t find the particle, the consequences could be even more interesting—as Peter Higgs explains in this interview for Prospect. The particle that he has argued must exist “plays such a role” in the modern theory of the structure of the physical world “that if you tried to modify the theory to take it out, the whole thing becomes nonsense.”

more from James Elwes at Prospect Magazine here.

life as a dark fairy tale


“He wrote on everything,” says archivist Joy Kingsolver. She has pulled a flat box labeled “Work in Progress” down from a shelf, set it on a table, and—pushing her gold-rimmed glasses up the ridge of her nose—opened it to reveal a heap of scrap paper covered with narrow, urgent handwriting. “He wrote on menus, napkins, restaurant placemats, paperbacks. Anything that was available.” She leafs through the box and picks up a bank deposit slip. In the upper left-hand corner, it reads SHEL SILVERSTEIN in blocky type. A few lines of lyrics are scrawled across it: a quick sketch for a song—or maybe a poem—about a bank robbery. This little piece of paper is one of Joy’s favorite artifacts in the whole Silverstein Archive, a collection of the author’s manuscripts, sketches, demo recordings, and ephemera that she helps to oversee. “I imagine him standing in line at the bank, bored, and composing it,” she says. “He just continuously wrote and wrote and wrote. There’s a constant creative flow. It never seemed to stop.”

more from Delaney Hall at Poetry here.

Mohamed Hashem belongs in the same company as Havel and Hitchens

Boyd Tonekin in The Independent:

Arab-spring-frankfurt-book-fair-afp-543I first met Mohamed Hashem as, wreathed in smoke from his endless cigarettes, and holding a glass of red wine, he talked and joked among Cairo's writers and publishers at a party at the Nile Hilton – not much more than a stone's throw from Tahrir Square. Although only a few years back, it felt then as if Hashem – journalist and author turned fearless, pioneering publisher – still had a mountain to climb in his campaigns for freedom of thought and expression against Egypt's entwined establishments, religious and political alike.

Then came the revolution. The books and writers he championed through his independent house Dar Merit – the boldest in Egypt, committed to quality as much as liberty, and the imprint that launched the career of global bestseller Alaa Al-Aswany – did much more to prepare the ground for rapid change than any Facebook page or Twitter feed. But with this spring's triumph came new dangers. General Adel Emara of the ruling military council recently denounced Hashem as a “saboteur”. According to the general, he has used the Merit offices near Tahrir Square to “incite violence” – by distributing free food, head protection and gas masks to protesters! According to Hashem, an arrest warrant against him has been drawn up, though as I write the authorities have made no attempt to seize him.

More here.

The Grid at 200: Lines That Shaped Manhattan

From The New York Times:

NyIn the old photograph, a lonely farmhouse sits on a rocky hill, shaded by tall trees. The scene looks like rural Maine. On the modern street, apartment buildings tower above trucks and cars passing a busy corner where an AMC Loews multiplex faces an overpriced hamburger joint and a Coach store. They are both the same spot. Not so long ago, all things considered, the intersection of Broadway and 84th Street didn’t exist; the area was farmland. “The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811-2011,” now at the Museum of the City of New York, unearths that 1879 picture of the Brennan Farm among other historic gems. The show celebrates the anniversary of what remains not just a landmark in urban history but in many ways the defining feature of the city. After all, before it could rise into the sky, Manhattan had to create the streets, avenues and blocks that support the skyscrapers. The grid was big government in action, a commercially minded boon to private development and, almost despite itself, a creative template. With 21st-century problems — environmental, technological, economic and social — now demanding aggressive and socially responsible leadership, the exhibition is a kind of object lesson.

Simeon De Witt, Gouverneur Morris and John Rutherfurd were entrusted with planning the city back in 1811. New York huddled mostly south of Canal Street, but it was booming, its population having tripled to 96,373 since 1790 thanks to the growing port. Civic boosters predicted that 400,000 people would live in the city by 1860. They turned out to be half-right. New York topped 800,000 before the Civil War. The planners proposed a grid for this future city stretching northward from roughly Houston Street to 155th Street in the faraway heights of Harlem. It was in many respects a heartless plan. There were virtually no parks or plazas. The presumption was that people would gravitate east and west along the numbered streets to the rivers when they wanted open space and fresh air, and not spend lots of time moving north or south. That partly explains why there were only a dozen avenues. In the abstract, the idea was really nothing revolutionary; grid plans went back to ancient Greece and Rome. But installing one in Manhattan was deeply subversive because, while still undeveloped, the island was already parceled into irregularly shaped, privately owned properties.

More here.