The Rio Linda Deep-Freeze

Justin E. H. Smith at his own blog:

ScreenHunter_575 Mar. 26 13.50We were of indeterminate class. We inhabited a defunct chicken farm, inherited from the Scandinavian grandparents of my mother's side. My father, born in Southern California to a renegade Utah Mormon and an Arkansas dustbowl migrant, was exposed to big ideas and the hope of some upward mobility thanks to a naturally curious mind and also in part to a stint in naval intelligence (involving the transcription of Chinese and Russian radio signals) followed by the GI Bill and graduate study. My mother, born in Sacramento to Minnesota Lutherans (softened by the pseudomystical fun of Shrinerdom), went to law school by night, with the dream of eventually helping the poor white women of the trailer parks of Rio Linda escape their abusive relationships. When the JD in family law was finally earned, and nailed to the wall of the strip-mall office, she would discover that the local economy still functioned mostly by barter, and she would receive, in remuneration for her services, a 1978 AMC Pacer, home grown tomatoes, a vicious goat named Snowy (of whom we have not heard the last), and many a hand-scrawled misspelled Post-It note of gratitude.

There were some lean times in the Valley, and though San Francisco was only a two-hour drive away, though Michel Foucault was just down the road at Berkeley, where my own mother had been an undergraduate at the end of the 1960s, speaking of technologies of the self and the liberatory potential of pleasure, I recall a Central Californian childhood in which the cycles of drought and flood still played a role, in which the desperation of James Agee's interbellum South had been translated Westward with little change. While my parents were not themselves peasants or 'harvest gypsies', to speak with John Steinbeck, the simple fact of their choice to settle in Rio Linda, California, was sufficient to pull us downward, classwise, and to ensure that in all of my subsequent motion through elite East Coast institutions and centers of metropolitan sophistication, I would never, for a second, be free of the singular thought: you are from Rio Linda. You are white trash.

More here.

Turkey Goes Out of Control

Christopher de Bellaigue in the New York Review of Books:

Two pilots who are flying an airplane together start punching each other in the cockpit. One ejects those members of the crew whom he believes to be close to his rival; the other screams that his copilot isn’t a pilot at all, but a thief. At that moment, the plane spins out of control and swiftly loses height, while the passengers look on in panic.

ScreenHunter_574 Mar. 26 13.45These are lines from a recent newspaper column by Can Dündar, a Turkish journalist, and I can think of no clearer aid to understanding the perverse, avoidable, almost cartoonish confrontation that has engulfed Turkey since last December, and that threatens to undo the political and economic gains of the past decade.

The parties to the confrontation are the prime minister, sixty-year-old Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and a Turkish divine, Fethullah Gülen, thirteen years his senior. Erdoğan leads the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), and works in the political hurly-burly of Ankara, the country’s capital. Gülen is Turkey’s best-known preacher and moral didact. He lives in seclusion in Pennsylvania, reportedly in poor health (he has heart trouble). Gülen presides loosely but unmistakably over an empire of schools, businesses, and networks of sympathizers.

It is this empire that Erdoğan now depicts as a “parallel state” to the one he was elected to run, and he has undertaken to eliminate it. The feud began in earnest last December and has had a remarkably destructive effect. Many of Gülen’s followers work within the government and have had much power. Now large parts of the civil service have been eviscerated, much of the media has been reduced to unthinking carriers of politically motivated revelation and innuendo, and the economy has slowed down after a decade of strong growth. The Turkish miracle is over.

More here.

Wednesday Poem

The Time of Our Lives

I am having the time of my life
digging up an old pine stump
with my daughter
in the bright fall sunshine.
Everything I need to know about life
And death is in this moment.

The spade is singing
Among the white-collared mushrooms:
Praise to the Fungi Imperfecti,
The Fusaria and the Cladospores.
The hatchet chops a tune
Into the wood's soft heart:
Praise to the wood lice, the earthworms,
millipedes, hister beetles, common black
ground beetles, the slugs like ushers
waving their antennae at the calamitous lightspill.
Please close the door. The show's in progress.
Praise to the unseen saints of Gaia,
the Bacilli, the Clostridia,
and the pearly Micrococci.

Praise to the myriad of unseen
crawlies, the forgotten ones,
the bond breakers, hewers of cellulose
who make possible this uprooting.

Read more »

Capital review – Rana Dasgupta’s perceptive exploration of modern Delhi

Jason Burke in The Guardian:

Capital-delhi-review-rana-011In the final pages of this intense, lyrical, erudite and powerful book, Rana Dasgupta makes the most important of many perceptive points: there is no certainty, indeed little probability, that the city will eventually find the relative calm, order and hygiene of its counterparts in the developed world. There is no obvious reason why the evolution of this crowded, traumatised, violent metropolis in India in the early decades of the 21st century should follow that of New York, London or Paris in another place and another time. Delhi will remain as it is. Judging by the content of the previous pages, this is a frightening prospect. Dasgupta has provided a welcome corrective to the reams of superficial travel writing describing the whimsical, the exotic, the booming or simply the poverty-stricken in India. His is a much more complex, darker story and it is no surprise that his book is peopled by the corrupt, the tragic and the terrified.

Dasgupta was born and raised in the UK and his work thus fits in a long tradition of nonfiction writing on India by outsiders who are also insiders. The idea to take Delhi, and more particularly its new “bourgeoisie”, as a subject is a very good one. Through an unflinching portrayal of the arrogant, aggressive, ultra-materialistic new wealthy in the Indian capital he makes broad points about India a generation after the major wave of economic reform which unleashed a savage capitalism in the country.

More here.

Why We Lie

Michael Shermer in Scientific American:

Abe“Could switching to Geico really save you 15 percent or more on car insurance? Was Abe Lincoln honest?” So intones the Geico commercial spokesperson, followed by faux vintage film footage of Mary Lincoln asking her husband, “Does this dress make my backside look big?” Honest Abe squirms and shifts, then hesitates and, while holding his thumb and forefinger an inch apart, finally mutters, “Perhaps a bit,” causing his wife to spin on her heels and exit in a huff.

The humor works because we recognize the question as a disguised request for a compliment or as a test of our love and loyalty. According to neuroscientist Sam Harris in his 2013 book Lying (Four Elephants Press), however, even in such a scenario we should always tell the truth: “By lying, we deny our friends access to reality—and their resulting ignorance often harms them in ways we did not anticipate. Our friends may act on our falsehoods, or fail to solve problems that could have been solved only on the basis of good information.” Maybe Mary's dressmaker is incompetent, or maybe Mary actually could stand to lose some weight, which would make her healthier and happier. Moreover, Harris says, little white lies often lead to big black lies: “Very soon, you may find yourself behaving as most people do quite effortlessly: shading the truth, or even lying outright, without thinking about it. The price is too high.” A practical solution is to think of a way to tell the truth with tact. As Harris notes, research shows that “all forms of lying—including white lies meant to spare the feelings of others—are associated with poorer-quality relationships.”

More here.

Roger Waters: Why I must speak out on Israel, Palestine and BDS

Roger Waters of Pink Floyd in Salon:

ScreenHunter_573 Mar. 25 16.04Seventy years ago, my father – 2nd Lt. Eric Fletcher Waters – died in Italy fighting the Nazis. He was a committed pacifist, and a conscientious objector at the start of the war, but as Hitler’s crimes spread across Europe, he swapped the ambulance he had driven through the London blitz for a tin hat and a commission in the Royal Fusiliers and he joined the fight against fascism. He was killed near Aprilia in the battle for the Anzio Bridgehead on Feb. 18, 1944. My mother – Mary Duncan Waters – spent the rest of her life politically active, striving always to ensure that her children, and everyone else’s children, had no Sword of Damocles in the form of the despised Nazi Creed or any other despicable creed hanging over their heads.

Last month, thanks to the good people of Aprilia and Anzio, I was able to pay tribute to the father I never knew by unveiling a memorial in the town where he died and laying a wreath to honor him, and all the other fallen. Losing my father before I ever knew him and being brought up by a single, working mother who fought tirelessly for equality and justice colored my life in far-reaching ways and has driven all my work. And, at this point in my journey, I like to think that I pay tribute to both my parents each time I speak out in support of any beleaguered people denied the freedom and justice that I believe all of us deserve.

After visiting Israel in 2005 and the West Bank the following year, I was deeply moved and concerned by what I saw, and determined to add my voice to those searching for an equitable and lawful solution to the problem – for both Palestinians and Jews.

Given my upbringing, I really had no choice.

More here.

When Nature Looks Unnatural

Sean Carroll in the New York Times:

ScreenHunter_572 Mar. 25 15.51Nothing makes scientists happier than an experimental result that completely contradicts a widely accepted theory. The scientists who first invented the theory might not be tickled, but their colleagues will be overjoyed. Science progresses when a good theory is superseded by an even better theory, and the most direct route to building a better theory is to be confronted by data that simply don’t fit the old one.

Nature is not always so kind, however. Fields like particle physics and cosmology sometimes include good theories that fit all the data but nevertheless seem unsatisfying to us. The Hot Big Bang model, for example, which posits that the early universe was hot, dense, and rapidly expanding, is an excellent fit to cosmological data. But it starts by assuming that the distribution of matter began in an incredibly smooth configuration, distributed nearly homogeneously through space. That state of affairs appears to be extremely unnatural. Of all the ways matter could have been distributed, the overwhelming majority are wildly lumpy, with dramatically different densities from place to place. The initial conditions of the universe seem uncanny, or “finely tuned,” not at all as if they were set at random.

Faced with theories that fit all the data but seem unnatural, one can certainly shrug and say, “Maybe that’s just the way it is.” But most physicists take the attitude that almost none of our current models are exactly correct; our best ideas are still approximations to the underlying reality. In that case, apparent fine-tunings can be taken as potential clues that might prod us into building better theories.

More here.

The Double Life of Paul De Man

DoubleLifeofPauldeManMichael Dirda at The Washington Post:

De Man? Paul de Man? Like the retired Pontius Pilate when asked about Jesus Christ in Anatole France’s story “The Procurator of Judaea,” many readers today would answer, “I cannot call him to mind.” But in his heyday, from the late 1960s through the early ’80s, de Man was — with the possible exception of his Yale colleague Harold Bloom — this country’s dominant figure in literary studies. His critical writing, which is all but impenetrable to the uninitiated, was then regarded as sacred writ, and de Man himself was the object of almost cult-worship, the messiah of “theory.”

But, as Evelyn Barish writes in the first sentence of this riveting, if melodramatic, biography, “Paul de Man no longer seems to exist.” Why? Four years after his death in 1983 at age 64, this ascetic, revered professor of comparative literature was discovered to have been a Nazi collaborator during his youth in World-War-II Belgium. In particular, he worked as — sigh — a book reviewer for an anti-Semitic newspaper.

The “revelations,” as they came to be called, sent shockwaves through the academy. Supporters argued that de Man had only written one truly offensive article — “The Jews in Present-Day Literature” — and was just 21 when it appeared on March 4, 1941. All who knew him in later life agreed that he wasn’t in the least anti-Semitic.

more here.

Alex Chilton, A Man Called Destruction

Article00Carl Wilson at Bookforum:

As you can learn from Holly George-Warren’s new biography of Chilton, A Man Called Destruction—as well as previous accounts such as Rob Jovanovic’s 2004 book Big Star, Robert Gordon’s 1995 It Came from Memphis, and Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori’s recent documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me—the bizarre part of all this worship is that, even in its own brief heyday, Big Star as a band hardly existed.

The group seldom toured outside its Memphis home base and even there rarely played live. The blend of hubris and self-deprecation coded in its name (lifted from a local grocery-store chain) and in the title of its first album, #1 Record, extended to the conceit that it could function mainly as a studio band. Its members camped out all hours of day and night in the Ardent Records building in Memphis, precision tooling—and later precision demolishing—gems of rhythm and melody and attitude. Today we’d call its music “power pop,” but that phrase wasn’t in vogue at the time, when the band mainly seemed like an unfashionable throwback to the Beatles and Stones and Byrds, lacking the heaviosity of prog or Zeppelin or the chooglin’ bands popular in the South.

more here.

On Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s new novel, Seiobo There Below

Seiobo_there_belowGil Lawson at n+1:

This is hardly the first time Krasznahorkai has spent a novel grinding his readers up against the limits of reality. His earlier works explore the same themes as Seiobo, although to markedly different ends. Satantango (1985) and The Melancholy of Resistance (1989) are both set in post-communist Hungary, in modest towns beset by unexpected visitors. Both novels construct closed worlds in which entropy increases, all things tend downward, and any hope is shown to be futile. In Satantango, the characters are suckered out of their money; in Melancholy, the town erupts in disastrous rioting. Time plows onward, increasing rot, aging, rust, chaos, death. Here, Krasznahorkai’s long sentences feel like attempts at slowing down the steady encroachment of time, as though that might help prevent any further deterioration. Of course, there is no success. Everything crumbles eventually. There’s something admirable about Krasznahorkai’s willingness to write monstrous misery, and the relentless cataloguing of suffering in his earlier works makes for memorable stories. Nonetheless, it’s that same intransigence that ultimately limits his early novels: their ceaseless darkness proves anesthetizing when stretched across hundreds of pages. It’s a technique that is as likely to bore as to horrify.

more here.

Building BICEP2: A Conversation with Jamie Bock

From the CalTech website:

JBock_8996-NEWS-WEBCaltech Professor of Physics Jamie Bock and his collaborators announced on March 17, 2014 that they have successfully measured a B-mode polarization signal in the cosmic microwave background (CMB) using the BICEP2 telescope at the South Pole. This signal is an important confirmation of key aspects of the theory of cosmic inflation, about how the universe may have behaved in the first fractions of a second of its existence to create the universe we live in today. Inflation was first proposed in 1980 by Alan Guth, a theoretical physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), to explain some unusual features of our universe, especially its surprising homogeneity. For all the clumping of stars and galaxies we see in the night sky, the universe seen through the CMB is extremely uniform—so much so that it has been difficult for physicists to believe that the various pieces of the sky were not all in immediate contact with one another at an earlier point in the universe's development.

Since the theory of cosmic inflation was first advanced, most physicists have come to agree that inflation is the best explanation we have for the observable universe. Yet the hope of acquiring direct evidence of inflation was for a long time regarded as a vain one. In 1997, MIT physicist Alan Lightman wrote that since “the extremely rapid cosmic expansion . . . happened so long ago, we will probably never know with certainty whether that event in fact occurred.”

And yet now, thanks to a set of bold experiments undertaken with the BICEP telescopes, we seem to be closing in on direct confirmation of the theory of inflation. Bock recently discussed the design of the BICEP instrumentation and how it detected a signal from the dawn of time.

How did the BICEP program begin?

It all started with tennis. In 2001 I played tennis every week with Brian Keating, a Caltech postdoc who is now at UCSD. After a few sets, Brian and I would talk about science for a while. He kept bugging me about doing a CMB polarization experiment that would study structures on degree angular scales—portions of the sky larger than the full moon.

More here.

Living life by the book

Leo Robson in New Statesman:

BookThere is a series of postcards by the Dutch cartoonist Joost Swarte that applies the alarmist tone usually reserved for smoking to scenes of people reading. A sunbathing woman is going purple and the caption, set in black on white with a black border, says: “Reading causes ageing of the skin.” In other scenarios a man ignores the naked woman lying beside him (“Reading may reduce the blood flow and cause impotence”) and a mother pours huge quantities of salt into a meal (“Reading seriously harms you and others around you”). What makes the cartoons so flat and pointless, apart from Swarte’s winsome draftsmanship, is their apparent belief that the benevolence of reading is a stable fact, ripe for comic inversion, rather than a social attitude that we are free to dispute. It is the same ostensive irony that underpins George Orwell’s exercise in amateur accountancy, “Books v Cigarettes”.

Still, you can see where Swarte’s confusion came from. Reading has the best PR team in the business. Or perhaps it’s just that devoted readers have better access to the language of advocacy and celebration than chain-smokers or, say, power-ballad enthusiasts. Either way, somewhere along the line, an orthodoxy hardened: cigarettes will kill you and Bon Jovi will give you a migraine, but reading – the ideal diet being Shakespeare and 19th-century novels, plus the odd modernist – will make you healthier, stronger, kinder. With the foundation of Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous in 1976, reading became the last thing you can never do too often. Even the much-made argument that works of literature – Northanger Abbey, Madame Bovary – insist on the dangers of literature redounds to literature’s benefit, and provides yet another reason for reading.

More here.

Ripples From the Big Bang

Dennis Overbye in The New York Times:

UniverseWhen scientists jubilantly announced last week that a telescope at the South Pole had detected ripples in space from the very beginning of time, the reverberations went far beyond the potential validation of astronomers’ most cherished model of the Big Bang. It was the second time in less than two years that ideas thought to be radical just decades ago had been confirmed (at least so the optimists think) by experiment. The first was the discovery of the Higgs boson, associated with an energy field that gives mass to other particles, announced in July 2012; physicists have said they will be studying the Higgs for the next 20 years at the Large Hadron Collider in Europe and perhaps at successor machines, hoping for a clue that will lead them beyond the Standard Model, which has ruled physics for the last half-century. Now the South Pole telescope team, led by John M. Kovac of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, has presented physicists with another clue from what the Russian cosmologist Yakov B. Zeldovich once called the poor man’s particle accelerator — the universe itself.

The ripples detected by the telescope, Bicep2, were faint spiral patterns from the polarization of microwave radiation left over from the Big Bang. They are relics from when energies were a trillion times greater than the Large Hadron Collider can produce. These gravitational waves are the long-sought markers for a theory called inflation, the force that put the bang in the Big Bang: an antigravitational swelling that began a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the cosmic clock started ticking. Scientists have long incorporated inflation into their standard model of the cosmos, but as with the existence of the Higgs, proving it had long been just a pipe dream. Astronomers say they expect to be studying the gravitational waves from mountaintops, balloons and perhaps satellites for the next 20 years, hoping to gain insight into mysteries like dark matter and dark energy.

More here.

Tuesday Poem

Shadowing the Medivac

He's already in the car, an hour's drive
he can't allow himself to think, just drive
in the helicopter's shadow peeling

silently over the hills, silently, like nothing
is happening inside, nothing going on,
can't think of anything newborn

zooming through the sky, an ounce of brain
racked by seizures, blue-skinned, underweight
and Swiss cheese for a heart.

What's in the rearview, eh? Anything coming?
Cars? Trucks? Glare and a crab-red face deformed
with thoughts of beats and breathing tubes,

and ahead, old magazines on tables, waiting rooms
where doctors lead men and women into offices to sob
oh my god oh god oh jesus no…

And some of the most beautiful scenery in this country
can be found along our many well-maintained highways.
Shield rock, tamarack swamp and pine groves

line the winding thoroughfares between our cities. He is still
driving, he can see the city coming up. The helicopter
must have arrived already, in Toronto, where they fiddle

inside her rib cage with the sanitary version of a bicycle tire
repair kit….and he's on his way to the hospital, he'll get there,
he's coming, he's keeping his eye on the road.

by Paul Vermeersch
from Burn
ECW Press, 2000.

The Winners of the 3QD Politics & Social Science Prize 2014

Winner 2014 science Top Quark 2014PolStrangeWin Winner 2014 science charme

Mark Blyth has picked the three winners from the nine finalists:

  1. Top Quark, $500: Kenan Malik, In Defense of Diversity
  2. Strange Quark, $200: Filipe Gracio, Democratic Austerity: Semi-sovereign states, semi-sovereign peoples
  3. Charm Quark, $100: Philip Cohen, State of Utah falsely claims same-sex marriage ban makes married, man-woman parenting more likely

Here is what Professor Blyth had to say about them:

As is both necessary and customary, I would like to begin by thanking Abbas, Robin and the whole 3QD crew for asking me to do this.

Like most 40-somethings (uuugh!) while I could always do with more money, what I really would love is more time, which is of course harder to procure and cannot be printed, sadly. Consequently, I fail to read 3QD with the regularity it deserves. Yet being asked to do this allows me to use the hive-mind to filter out the best bits and enjoy them all in one morning of reading – so ‘yum' and thank you.

After reading I started to write, and I was immediately struck by the title of the prize – politics and social science – as if the latter can exist without the former? Thankfully, the finalists each in their own way show this separation to be fallacious at best and folly at worst.

I was also acutely aware of my own prejudices and interests in all of this as I pondered ‘what do I like here and why?'

I then remembered that trying to put that (self) aside and be ‘neutral' is its own form of politics and exclusion (like Connolly on secularism, social science ‘objectivism' – pick your poison) so I decided to embrace my flawed self as the frame for selection. That frame became three pots into which I put all nine pieces.

Pot A: The Bullshit Police

The first pot contains pieces that serve as great examples of social science writing that I call “charges from the bullshit police.” If social science has a public function this is it. Theory generation and hypothesis testing and all that grad school stuff is all fine and well, but at the end of the day the job is to take the claims of those that want us to think X is Y and sniff it to see if its bullshit.

Bullshit Police Contenders

Pot B: The Good Jeremiad

The second pot contains pieces that do more than complain about something, they tell us why it's worth complaining about and insist that we take it on board. They are at their best when they take what we think we know about something and then flip it around to show us that really, we don't know crap, because what we accept as being the truth is so far from reality we should be ashamed to have gone along with the status quo. This end up being the largest pot – what after all is the point of blogging if not to have a good Jeremiad?

The Good Jeremiad Contenders

Pot C: Elpis' Helpers:

The third pot contains those pieces that give us cause for hope. For without hope there is only critique, which on its own becomes a thin gruel. This is the toughest pot to pick from since getting here requires not just mastery of the skills of spotting bullshit and doing a good Jeremiad, but also reminding us that change, and good change at that, is possible.

Elpis' Helpers Contenders

And so to the winners from each pot (without a ranking, so far…)

The Bullshit Police

Robert Paul Wolff's distinction between historians that have too much data and those that have too little, and the ideological choices that go with either position, reminded me of the old quip about historians and economists on the same campus. Each group thinks anyone who is not one of them is an idiot, but they are willing to tolerate each other since they both at least know this essential truth.

But the winner in this pot is Philip Cohen for his family inequality piece on the state of Utah and same sex parenting. Take a causal argument. Test it. Test it again. Pronounce it bullshit. Move along. Move along. Fantastic stuff and first class ‘bullshit police' work.

The Best Jeremiad

Again, although I enjoyed all the contributions, from Melik Kaylan's debunking of Putin as in any way either normal or acceptable, to Omar Waraich's conclusion that the only reason for Musharraf returning to Pakistan is that he is still thinks, against any and all evidence, that he is the country's savior, to Andrew Hartman's take down of the racist double standards at play in the demonization of sexually explicit music, it was all good.

But, and this is of course due to my bias and I fully admit that, the winner in this pot is Filipe Gracio's Democratic Austerity.

That the ongoing economic slaughter of the lower classes of Europe's periphery continues to be both told and treated as a case of excessive spending, when it is in fact a slow motion banking crisis where the top 30 percent of the income distribution got their assets bailed out and stuck the bill on the 70 percent below them in the form of spending cuts is now known, but is still contested by the powers that be.

What this piece gives us is the political consequences of all this. Namely, that as “countries in the eurozone abdicated from having traditionally sovereign institutions,” which was fine until the crisis came, the political classes that did this passed the remit to fix the resulting mess to the bankers that caused the problem in the first place since those democratically elected had neither the necessary tools (nor the necessary ideas) about how to fix it. We need to remember that the bankruptcy of the European political elite is almost as bad as that of its banks, and it takes a great Jeremiad to remind us of that.

Elpis' Helpers

Finally, three pieces made it to the pot marked Elpis' Helpers. This was the toughest call of all. The simplicity of Corey Robin's observations belies the insight. That when a people no longer cares the way they used to, it opens up the possibility of positive transformation as much as it ignites fear for the old certainties that none can take for granted any longer.

Similarly, Shehryar Fazli's essay on Malala is so much more than an essay on Malala. It's a reaction to a life so nearly ended and an indictment of an entire system of politics that nearly ended it. And yet, it ends with hope in Malala's defiance, and her smile, despite the portrait of a society so badly governed and so badly defended.

And yet despite all that, the winner in this pot is Kenan Malik's wonderful essay in defense of diversity.

In this piece he not only does an excellent bullshit police take down of Goodhart, Collier, Caldwell and other immigration panic mongers, he also reminds us that such panics are historical commonplaces and all that is said now has been said before by the same forces of reaction. He also stresses, like Gracio, that what is causing the marginalization and immiserization of the British (and increasingly – by the argumentative extension of politicians everywhere) and the European working classes, are changes in the structure of labor, product and capital markets that have been 30 years in the making and have little to do with influxes of ‘foreignness' anywhere. But they are, like the Eurocrisis, portrayed as what they are not for political ends. And yet, although it is implicit, his essay carries hope at its end – that we have been through this before, and that both growth and democracy can triumph in such dark moments.

And now for the ranking:

  1. Top Quark: Kenan Malik
  2. Strange Quark: Filipe Gracio
  3. Charm Quark: Philip Cohen

I know this is probably exactly what you would expect someone like me with interests like me and passions like me to pick, and so you are right. But it's the best call I can make, at least as me. All three posts are things I would want everyone to read. I write for a living and few of my utterances would ever reach their level. So I applaud the winners and ask you all to try and make that happen. Let's make sure everyone reads them.

Best to all,


Congratulations also from 3QD to the winners (remember, you must claim the money within one month from today–just send me an email). And feel free, in fact we encourage you, to leave your acceptance speech as a comment here! And thanks to everyone who participated. Many thanks also, of course, to Mark Blyth for doing the final judging and for the charming taxonomy of his judging essay.

The three prize logos at the top of this post were designed by Carla Goller (top and charm) and me (strange). I hope the winners will display them with pride on their own blogs!

Details about the prize here.

Boundaries and Subtleties: the Mysterious Power of Naming in Human Cognition

by Yohan J. John


“Little does my lady dream / Rumpelstiltskin is my name!” Rumplestiltskin, by Anne Anderson. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Of all the strange and wonderful fairy tales I encountered as a child, Rumpelstiltskin always struck me as the most peculiar. The story revolves around a girl who must spin straw into gold or face death at the hands of the king. A dwarf appears out of nowhere, and spins the straw into gold — for a price. On the first night he takes a necklace, and on the second a ring. On the third night the girl has nothing left to pay him with, and so the dwarf makes her promise to give him her firstborn child. The king's greed is sated after three days of gold-spinning, and he marries the girl. In due time the new queen gives birth to a child, and sure enough, the dwarf returns to receive his pounds of flesh. But the queen refuses, and tries to offer him some of her newly acquired riches instead. The dwarf agrees to give up his claim on the child, but only if the queen can guess his name within three days. Her guesses on the first two days fail. But then one of her spies returns with a strange tale. He came across a little cottage in the woods, in from of which he saw a dwarf prancing around a fire, singing a song that ended “Little does my lady dream / Rumpelstiltskin is my name!” On the third day the queen initially pretends not to know the dwarf's name. Finally she says, “Could your name be Rumpelstiltskin?” At this the dwarf flies into a rage, and stomps his foot on the ground so hard that a chasm opens up in the ground, swallowing the dwarf, who was never seen again.

As a child I found the dwarf's plunge into the subterranean void the most eerie element in the story, but in recent years I've been pondering another, perhaps deeper mystery. Why did Rumpelstiltskin's name have so much power?

Fairy tales notwithstanding, by the time I got to college I had come to think that names were mere conventions that had no intrinsic meaning or value. For all practical purposes, surely one label was as good as any other? Dismissing a debate on what to call something as “mere semantics” seemed to be an act of hard-nosed skepticism and realism.

But as I came to discover, naming involves much more than simply assigning a label to something that has already been identified. The act of naming is one of the central mysteries of human cognition — it is the visible tip of an iceberg whose depth below the surface of conscious thought we have only just begun to plumb. I cannot claim to have solved this mystery, but I'd like to present what I have cobbled together so far: a handful of puzzle pieces which I hope will entice the reader to join in the investigation. (Perhaps more puzzle pieces will turn up in future columns.) I've divided up the essay into four parts. Here's the plan:

  1. We'll introduce two key motifs — the named and the nameless — with a little help from the Tao Te Ching.
  2. We'll examine a research problem that crops up in cognitive psychology, neuroscience and artificial intelligence, and link it with more Taoist motifs.
  3. We'll look at how naming might give us power over animals, other people, and even mathematical objects.
  4. We'll explore the power of names in computer science, which will facilitate some wild cosmic speculation.

Read more »

Antifragility and Anomaly: Why Science Works

by Paul Braterman

AntifragileScientific theories are antifragile; they thrive on anomalies.

Some things are fragile – they break. Some are robust – they can withstand harsh treatment. But the most interesting kind are antifragile, emerging strengthened and enriched from challenges. Whatever does not kill them makes them stronger. Science is as successful as it is, because science as a whole, and even individual scientific theories, are antifragile.

We owe the term “antifragile” to the financier and thinker Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of Fooled by Randomness and Black Swan. Taleb describes his latest book, Antifragile; Things that Gain from Disorder, as the intellectual underpinning of those earlier works, since it formalises his earlier reflections. Antifragility is the true opposite of fragility. Unlike mere robustness, it is the ability to actually profit from misadventure. A porcelain cup is fragile, and shatters if dropped. A plastic cup, being robust, will not be any the worse for such an experience, but it will not be any the better for it either. Contrast the human immune system. Being antifragile, it is improved by stresses. Having been challenged by an infection, it will be primed to respond more effectively to similar challenges in the future, because it has learned to recognise the infection as an invader. There are deep connections between randomness, uncertainty, novelty, information, and learning, and natural selection in an uncertain world favours antifragile systems because they learn from experience.

Good safety systems are antifragile. Accidents will happen, and of their nature cannot always be foreseen, but each accident can be analysed retrospectively and procedures adjusted to anticipate similar challenges in the future. Moreover, experience shows that experience is more persuasive than foresight, even when the mishap itself has actually been foreseen.

Read more »