Practical ethics

by Rishidev Chaudhuri

A recent study on the relationship between positive emotions, social connectedness and a measure of heart health has been getting a lot of attention in the popular media. 1 It's an interesting addition to the emerging scientific literature on the uses and effects of meditative practices and on the mechanism of the placebo effect (which seems to be shorthand for a wide variety of fascinating and under-studied phenomena)2. These are both compelling topics, and perhaps good subjects for a future blog post, but the study was also interesting because it's one of a growing minority of studies that look at compassion meditations rather than concentration or mindfulness meditations.

Compassion meditations, roughly, are a family of exercises where you try to practice compassion by cultivating love and good wishes towards other people3. One way of doing this is to picture a series of people and wish them well in turn (taking your time over each and, typically, moving from yourself to people you like, then to people you are indifferent to and then to people you dislike). Another practice is to look at people as you make your way in the world and, for each person, say to yourself, “Like me, this person wants to be happy and avoid suffering”. Yet another is, in the midst of encountering another person, to every so often ask yourself “What is preventing me from being present with this person?”

Over the last few years, there's been a gradual increase in the number of scientific studies looking at compassion meditations. This is promising, not because these practices should be entirely understood by their effects on physiology, nor because the scientific lens is necessarily the best way to see them, but because it points to greater visibility and more general interest.

It's easy to see why scientists would be reluctant to study these practices; despite their age, they can seem like fluffy New Age exhortations, akin to telling someone, “Now let's all love each other.” When I was first introduced to these techniques, about a decade ago, I remember thinking they were silly. Mindfulness meditation, where you attempt to become aware of your thoughts and feelings as they happen, seemed like an intriguing way of probing at the structure of subjective experience; it could be criticized methodologically for being unverifiable, ungeneralizable and so on, but it seemed to have intellectually sound goals. Similarly, concentration meditation, where you train one-pointed focus, seemed like a useful training regimen: everyone wishes they could concentrate better. But compassion meditations seemed like an exercise in unfounded benevolence for people who couldn't be bothered to think carefully about ethics.

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Monday Poem

Actions always planned are never completed.
……………………… —Democritus

Carpenter's Shoes

Yesterday I told myself I’d finish on Sunday
the project I started two years ago
but I can never trust myself to carry through
when it comes to carpentry, so
I swore an oath this time and pricked my thumb
and smeared a blood spot on my forehead like a tilak,
faced the four cardinal directions in turn bowing,
crossed myself, right fingers first to blood,
then chest, left shoulder first then right
like the kid I once was, almost devout
but not quite convinced hammer and nails
were enough to coax the angels out

Jim Culleny
April 2009

The state withers away in Pakistan

by Omar Ali

3 days ago the Pakistani Taliban raided an outpost of the levies, a paramilitary force recruited primarily from the Afridi tribesmen of the Khyber agency. Poorly equipped, poorly paid and left to stand on the frontlines of the war against the Taliban with little or no backup from the army, the levies lost 3 men and another 23 were captured. The next day the “local administration” spent a busy day contacting “tribal elders” to negotiate with the Taliban for the release of those poor men. But the talks failed and

the captives were executed and their bodies dumped a couple of miles outside the city. This is not the first time the local Taliban have captured levies or other paramilitary forces and it is not the first time they have executed them.

On the same day, a related anti-Shia militant group blew up three buses carrying Shia pilgrims to Iran.

20 or so people were killed. Dozens more injured. Again, this is not the first time such an act was commited. In fact scores of other pilgrims have lost their lives on that very road in the last few years and more will probably do so in the months and years to come.

Read more »

A Blueprint for a Quantum Propulsion Machine

From MIT Technology Review:

ScreenHunter_98 Dec. 30 16.34The quantum vacuum has fascinated physicists ever since Hendrik Casimir and Dirk Polder suggested in 1948 that it would exert a force on a pair of narrowly separated conducting plates. Their idea was eventually confirmed when the force was measured in 1997. Just how to exploit this force is still not clear, however.

In recent years, a new way of thinking about the quantum vacuum has emerged which has vastly more potential. And today, one physicist describes how it could be used to create propulsion.

Before we discuss that, let’s track back a little. According to quantum mechanics, any vacuum will be filled with electromagnetic waves leaping in and out of existence. It turns out that these waves can have various measurable effects, such as the Casimir-Polder force.

The new approach focuses on the momentum associated with these electromagnetic fields rather than the force they exert. The question is whether it is possible to modify this momentum because, if you can, you should receive an equal and opposite kick. That’s what rocket scientists call propulsion.

Today, Alex Feigel at the Soreq Nuclear Research Center, a government lab in Yavne Israel, suggests an entirely new way to modify the momentum of the quantum vacuum and how this can be exploited to generate propulsion.

More here.

The Criminal Trial and Punishment of Animals: A Case Study in Shame and Necessity

Justin E. H. Smith at

199801_10150128323694425_7944359_nThe fact that animals were for a long period of European history tried and punished ascriminals is, to the extent that this is known at all, generally bracketed or dismissed as amere curiosity, a cultural quirk. Yet as a few scholars have understood over the past twocenturies or so, this fact lies at the intersection of a number of fundamental questions of jurisprudence, moral philosophy, philosophical anthropology (particularly the study of ritual and sacrifice, and the relationship between humans and animals), the history of religion and of the emergence of a secular sphere. The idea that animals are suitable for trial and punishment strikes us today as so completely erroneous because our jurisprudence is based on the conviction that in order to be an appropriate target of blameand punishment, a being must be a rational, moral agent. This means in turn that in order for the trial and prosecution of animals to make sense within a given culture, that culturemust be operating either with a very different conception of where the boundaries of suchagency lie, or it must have a very different conception of what it is we are doing when we blame and punish. It is eminently worthwhile moreover to figure out where the differencelies, since in doing so we may hope to gain new insight into the philosophicalcommitments underlying our own conception of agency, or our own understanding of the purpose and justice of punishment, or both.

More here.

Our Brains Weren’t Hardwired To Catch Con Artists

Berit Brogaard in Psychology Today:

113528-111390It's the second night at the same restaurant. You order the Chilean cabernet. It's reasonably priced at $32. The waiter disappears and after what seems to be hours he comes back with a different Chilean wine—not one on the wine list. “We are out of the Chilean cabernet,” he says and decisively places the new bottle on the table. “But I can give you this exclusive Chilean blend for only $7 more. It’s an excellent bottle.” As if in a trance you quietly nod in agreement. The con artist opens and pours. Déjà vu! Except last time it was a French Syrah. This time you and your partner agreed you wouldn't spend more than around $30 on wine, yet once again you ended up with a bottle closer to $40. Sales trick or not, it’s plainly obvious that you bought right into it.

You walk into a computer store intending to purchase one of those teensy $300 notebooks for your teen daughter but walk out with a $2,300 MacBook Air. It didn't feel like a spur-of-the-moment buy. Somewhere along the way your intentions shifted, and at the time you actually thought it was a brilliant idea to reach into your pocket for an additional $2,000. You are not quite sure how it happened, and now it’s too late.

More here.

Men and Women Can’t Be “Just Friends”

From Scientific American:

Men-and-women-cant-be-just-friends_1Can heterosexual men and women ever be “just friends”? Few other questions have provoked debates as intense, family dinners as awkward, literature as lurid, or movies as memorable. Still, the question remains unanswered. Daily experience suggests that non-romantic friendships between males and females are not only possible, but common—men and women live, work, and play side-by-side, and generally seem to be able to avoid spontaneously sleeping together. However, the possibility remains that this apparently platonic coexistence is merely a façade, an elaborate dance covering up countless sexual impulses bubbling just beneath the surface.

New research suggests that there may be some truth to this possibility—that we may think we’re capable of being “just friends” with members of the opposite sex, but the opportunity (or perceived opportunity) for “romance” is often lurking just around the corner, waiting to pounce at the most inopportune moment. In order to investigate the viability of truly platonic opposite-sex friendships—a topic that has been explored more on the silver screen than in the science lab—researchers brought 88 pairs of undergraduate opposite-sex friends into…a science lab. Privacy was paramount—for example, imagine the fallout if two friends learned that one—and only one—had unspoken romantic feelings for the other throughout their relationship. In order to ensure honest responses, the researchers not only followed standard protocols regarding anonymity and confidentiality, but also required both friends to agree—verbally, and in front of each other—to refrain from discussing the study, even after they had left the testing facility. These friendship pairs were then separated, and each member of each pair was asked a series of questions related to his or her romantic feelings (or lack thereof) toward the friend with whom they were taking the study.

The results suggest large gender differences in how men and women experience opposite-sex friendships. Men were much more attracted to their female friends than vice versa.

More here.

Person of the Year 2012 Runner-Up: Malala Yousafzai, the Fighter

From Time Magazine:

MalalaAyesha Mir didn’t go to school on Tuesday, Nov. 27, the day after a security guard found a shrapnel-packed bomb under her family’s car. The 17-year-old Pakistani girl assumed, as did most people who learned about the bomb, that it was intended for her father, the television news presenter Hamid Mir, who often takes on the Taliban in his nightly news broadcasts. Traumatized by the near miss, Ayesha spent most of the day curled up in a corner of her couch, unsure whom to be angrier with: the would-be assassins or her father for putting himself in danger. She desperately wanted someone to help her make sense of things. At around 10:30 p.m., she got her wish. Ayesha’s father had just come home from work, and he handed her his BlackBerry. “She wants to speak to you,” he said. The voice on the phone was weak and cracked, but it still carried the confidence that Ayesha and millions of other Pakistanis had come to know through several high-profile speeches and TV appearances.

“This is Malala,” said the girl on the other end of the line. Malala Yousafzai, 15, was calling from the hospital in Birmingham, England, where under heavy guard she has been undergoing treatment since Oct. 16. “I understand that what happened was tragic, but you need to stay strong,” Malala told Ayesha. “You cannot give up.” It was one of the few times Malala had called anyone in Pakistan since she was flown to England for specialized medical treatment after a Taliban assassin climbed onto her school bus, called out for her by name and shot her in the head on Oct. 9. Her brain is protected by a titanium plate that replaced a section of her skull removed to allow for swelling. But she spoke rapidly to the older girl in Urdu, encouraging her to stand up for her father even if doing so brought risks. As an outspoken champion of girls’ right to an education, Malala knew all about risk — and fear and consequences — when it comes to taking on the Taliban. “The way she spoke was so inspirational,” Ayesha says. “She made me realize that my father was fighting our enemies and that it was something I should be proud of, not afraid.” The next day Ayesha returned to school. And with that call, Malala began to return to what she seems born to do — passing her courage on to others.

More here.

Debating ‘Django Unchained’


First, Hillary Crosley in The Root:

As all of the Django Unchained reviews hit the Internet, I'm sure plenty of African Americans will list why they hate Quentin Tarantino's new film about a slave's journey for revenge — but not me. A friend and I recently attended a screening for the film, which opens on Christmas Day, followed by an awkward question-and-answer session with the director. We were two of perhaps 10 black people in the theater — that's what makes what happened next so awkward.

In the film, Django (Jamie Foxx) is purchased by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German dentist-turned-bounty hunter, and the two pair up to collect the bodies and ransoms of outlaws across the South. Because Django is such a natural, Schultz asks him to work with him through the winter in exchange for his help finding the former slave's wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who was sold to a different plantation. The search for Hildy leads the duo to the plantation of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) — which he shares with his head house slave, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) — and bloody drama ensues.

Then, Ishmael Reed over at the WSJ's Speakeasy:

I had a pretty good idea of where “Django Unchained” was going from the first credit. It went to the Weinstein Company. The Weinstein Company once fought a legal battle (settled out of court) over the right to distribute “Precious,” which is, in my opinion, the worst film ever made about black life. The company’s name in the credits for “Django” also meant that the movie was aimed at a mainstream audience.

Though German, the bounty hunter character played by German-Austrian actor Christoph Waltz seemed to speak with a British accent, which is all the rage in the media, though I need subtitles to understand what Piers Morgan is saying half the time. The German dentist dazzles the screen with his eloquent talk and vocabulary and puts together constructions like “shan’t.” I would loved to have been present at the marketing meetings about this movie. The cynicism must have been as thick as cigar smoke.

Also at The Root, Henry Louis Gates has a 3 part interview with Quentin Tarantino.

Montana Monadology: Louis Riel in Exile

Justin E. H. Smith in his own blog:

6a00d83453bcda69e2017c3509bb0c970b-350wiIf you are half-learned in philosophy and prone to dissociative mental disorders, you might wish to reconsider your plan to retreat to a cabin in Montana. It's been tried before, probably more times than you know.

Ted Kaczynski tied for top, at 98.9 percent, in the logic course he took at Harvard with W. V. O. Quine, though he left no lasting impression on the professor. And anarcho-primitivism is in the end –is it not?– a sort of application of the law of the excluded middle: it's either the earth or us. It is somewhat more difficult to trace the Montana manifestos of the Canadian Métis resistance fighter Louis Riel back to his philosophical education at the Sulpician College of Montreal in the 1850s, but as with the Unabomber after him we can be certain that there were decades-old classroom lectures ringing in his head, in the silence of his cabin, as he set about putting his thoughts to paper.

Riel was in exile in the Montana Territory, having ducked across the border in the aftermath of the 1870 Red River rebellion in Manitoba. He was of Franco-Ojibwa ancestry, and a Métis: a label non-Canadians know better in its Spanish rendering, 'mestizo', yet one that has its own distinctive meaning in the Canadian context. During the rebellion he had ordered the execution of the Orangeman Thomas Scott, in order, it is speculated, to send Canada a little message about who was in charge out on the Prairie. Riel began to imagine himself the divinely chosen leader of all Métis, and took on the biblical name of ‘David’.

More here.

For Anonymous


Nilanjana Roy over at her website:

That girl, the one without the name. The one just like us. The one whose battered body stood for all the anonymous women in this country whose rapes and deaths are a footnote in the left-hand column of the newspaper.

Sometimes, when we talk about the history of women in India, we speak in shorthand. The Mathura rape case. The Vishaka guidelines. The Bhanwari Devi case, the Suryanelli affair, the Soni Sori allegations, the business at Kunan Pushpora. Each of these, the names of women and places, mapping a geography of pain; unspeakable damage inflicted on women’s bodies, on the map of India, where you can, if you want, create a constantly updating map of violence against women.

For some, amnesia becomes a way of self-defence: there is only so much darkness you can swallow. They turn away from all the places that have become shorthand for violence beyond measure, preferring not to know about Kashmir or the outrages in Chattisgarh, choosing to forget the Bombay New Year assault, trying not to remember the deaths of a Pallavi Purkayastha, a Thangjam Manorama, Surekha and Priyanka Bhotmange, the mass rapes that marked the riots in Gujarat. Even for those who stay in touch, it isn’t possible for your empathy to keep abreast with the scale of male violence against women in India: who can follow all of the one-paragraph, three-line cases? The three-year-old raped before she can speak, the teenager assaulted by an uncle, the 65-year-old raped as closure to a property dispute, the slum householder raped and violently assaulted on her way to the bathroom. After a while, even memory hardens.

Stig Sæterbakken


In another essay, Sæterbakken writes, “We are never fully and completely ourselves because our lacks, our weaknesses, and our fears make up an essential dimension within us.”[2] As evidenced in Andreas Feldt, Sæterbakken believes that our wounds are essential to who we are, as individuals and as a collective, and should not be avoided, or even healed; in fact, they are often meant to stay open so we can remain sensitive to our surroundings. “Melancholia satisfies us by preventing us from reaching satisfaction,” he writes, “it calms us by keeping our anxiety alive, it gives us peace by prolonging the state of emergency that answers to the name Humankind.” For Sæterbakken, even art cannot offer salvation or fulfillment. On the contrary, it reminds us “of the nothingness we know awaits us,” but in this reminder of absolute denial of life we find confirmation of our existence. If we cannot experience the silence of death, which is without music, literature, or sensation, in life, then we must seek out and experience art which draws attention to the paradox of existing as a being incapable of becoming fully aware of itself and its potential. This is the art Sæterbakken offers us.

more from at The Quarterly Conversation here.

the joy of comfort


Comfort once contended that bloody-mindedness was the greatest human virtue. It was certainly the virtue by which he lived, and the reason he was able to pursue his parallel careers in literature and medicine. In 1935 he blew the fingers off his left hand while making fireworks to celebrate the Silver Jubilee of George V. His aunt, assuming that he would remain a lifelong invalid, wrote him a cheque for £50. His response was to go to South America and compose a travelogue called The Silver River. In the preface he wrote: “I do not believe the fable that men read travel books to escape from reality: they read to escape into it, from a crazy wonderland of armaments, cant, political speeches at once insincere and illiterate, propaganda, and social injustice which the lunacy of humanity has constructed over a period of years.” When it was published, Alex Comfort was 18.

more from Matthew Sweet at The Guardian here.

the romantic scientist


Although Sacks tells the reader he will concentrate on “ ‘organic’ psychoses — the transient psychoses sometimes associated with delirium, epilepsy, drug use and certain medical conditions,” he includes a chapter, “On the Threshold of Sleep,” that treats hypnagogic hallucinations, the vivid imagery many people see before they fall asleep, and another, “The Haunted Mind,” which describes bereavement and traumatic hallucinations that would be classified as psychiatric not neurological phenomena. As Sacks knows, separating the physiological from the psychological is a philosophical conundrum that continues to plague both science and philosophy. But one of the pleasures of reading “Hallucinations” is understanding how complex human reality often trumps attempts to categorize it. As the 19th-century neurologist Jean Martin Charcot once remarked (and Freud recorded): “Theory is good, but it doesn’t prevent things from existing.”

more from Siri Hustvedt at the NY Times here.

Like Math? Thank Your Motivation, Not IQ

From Scientific American:

MathLooks like Tiger Mom had it half-right: Motivation to work hard and good study techniques, not IQ, lead to better math skills, a new study shows. But there's a catch: The findings, published this month in the journal Child Development, show that keeping children's heads in the math books by force probably won't help. The analysis of more than 3,500 German children found those who started out solidly in the middle of the pack in 5th grade could jump to the 63rd percentile by 8th grade if they were very motivated and used effective learning strategies, said lead author Kou Murayama, a psychology researcher at the University of California Los Angeles. “The growth in math achievement was predicted by motivation and learning strategies,” Murayama told LiveScience. “Given that IQ did not show this kind of effect, we think this is impressive.”

More here.

Suburban Sprawl

From The New York Times:

There’s a touching paradox in the first chapter of Jami Attenberg’s caustic, entertaining and bighearted new novel, “The Middlesteins.” Edie, 5 years old and 62 pounds, is already too solid, in her mother’s estimation, too big for her age. But how can her mother not feed her, when she and her husband feel that food is “made of love, and love . . . made of food”? How can these parents deny Edie life-giving nourishment when Edie’s father, a Jewish immigrant from Ukraine, nearly starved on his journey to Chicago and has never been able to get enough to eat since? Even though it’s clear that young Edie suffers under her own weight — she huffs and puffs up the stairs “like someone’s gassy old uncle after a meal” — her mother can’t refuse her the liverwurst and rye bread she loves. This is a Jewish mother after all, and those of us who’ve had one know that the message, when it comes to food, is always have a little more. It’s an attitude that comes not just from love, but also from fear; a history fraught with disaster and hunger gives rise to the feeling that one must always be prepared. Therefore, bubbeleh, have another matzo ball.

Food keeps us alive, yes. But it can also kill us. That subject has become a cultural obsession, inciting cautionary documentaries (HBO’s “Weight of the Nation” series), reality TV shows (“The Biggest Loser” and “Dance Your Ass Off”), large-scale civic regulations (New York’s banning of trans fats and oversize sugary drinks), and, at the White House, an enormous kitchen garden carved from the first lawn, along with a book (Michelle Obama’s “American Grown”) and a presidential call for action to improve America’s eating habits. This novel takes the issue personally: Edie Middlestein, the novel’s larger-than-life protagonist, is killing herself by overeating, and her family can’t bear to watch.

At 60 years old or so, Edie weighs in at more than 300 pounds and suffers from diabetes so severe she requires stents in both legs.

More here.

Saturday Poem

—Three poems by Manash Bhattacharjee in rememberance
of Ghalib's 215th birthday (December 27th)

At Ghalib’s Tomb -1

Look how death forges
New ties and
Throws old ones asunder.

Asadullah lies a few yards
From Khusrau
While Bahadur Shah sleeps
In another country.

At Ghalib’s Tomb -2

Your pleas for a poet’s dues went unrequited
Now admirers bribe to enter your tomb.

You drank endless clouds and moonlights
But no one is allowed to toast where you lie.

Your kafir heart swayed between Kaaba and Kaleesa
A disinterested butcher now overlooks your grave.

Children feed liver to the hawks who visit you
Together they pay oblivious tributes to your guts.

You longed to purify existence contemplating the Ganga
Beggars about your tomb sleep careless of flies.

You lit the empire’s dying lamp before a new darkness fell
It hurt you when old virtues were sold to shopkeepers.

Your couplet suddenly wafts like incense through the bazaar
Your heart was always heavier than your eloquence

Your grave is the final irony of your ironies
Your bones erode time and your words breathe the world.

Ghalib & Others

Tagore bled sorrows and named it heart
Your heart spilled into tears you called blood

Mir felt blood from the eyes isn’t tears
You said blood spoke inmost as tears

Mir lost himself upon her and waited to return
You never found the place where you lost her

Dehlvi risked the ruses of hope and named it waiting
You knew waiting was a trick to forget death

Darwish was a peeler awaiting a caress in clouds
You were flames waiting to be extinguished by dawn

Rilke lost her even before he could draw her near
You hid her behind curtains and gave yourself no peace

Khusrau hugged love’s fire by drowning in its waters
You hid the fire in your eyes and trembled like dews

Rumi was liquid glass broken by the beloved’s touch
You were the wine haunted by her infidel ripples