Muslim Zion: Pakistan as a Political Idea

Hassan Javid in Dawn:

51svY0qVmxL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_For Devji, Pakistan represents an example of Zionism, which he interprets as being a political form in which national identity is defined primarily by religion. In this respect, so the argument goes, Pakistan bears a close resemblance to Israel; both nations were created amidst the decline of the British Empire, they ostensibly represented homelands for minorities fleeing real and perceived persecution, and they came into being with the transfer of large populations into territories that had previously not been inhabited by them.

Viewed through this lens, nationalism in Israel and Pakistan was not rooted in claims about specific territorial boundaries or even ethnic and linguistic groupings; instead, it decoupled the idea of the nation from its traditional markers, basing itself instead on the existence of a religious community, bound together by common beliefs that transcended questions of territory, language and ethnicity. All Jews were, and are, welcome to settle in Israel regardless of their previous territorial affiliations and, in 1947, the same was true of Pakistan with respect to the subcontinent’s Muslim population. If, as Benedict Anderson argues, all nations are essentially “imagined communities” in which identity and solidarity are constructed by the propagation of shared cultural values through a common linguistic medium within a defined territory, the Israeli and Pakistani nations were imagined primarily as religious communities superimposed onto relatively arbitrary physical spaces.

Comparing Pakistan with Israel in this fashion is not new. Indeed, as Devji himself mentions near the start of the book, no less a personage than General Ziaul Haq noted the similarities between the two countries in 1981.

More here.

Print Less but Transfer More


Mark Blyth and Eric Lonergan in Foreign Affairs (registration required):

Rather than trying to spur private-sector spending through asset purchases or interest-rate changes, central banks, such as the Fed, should hand consumers cash directly. In practice, this policy could take the form of giving central banks the ability to hand their countries’ tax-paying households a certain amount of money. The government could distribute cash equally to all households or, even better, aim for the bottom 80 percent of households in terms of income. Targeting those who earn the least would have two primary benefits. For one thing, lower-income households are more prone to consume, so they would provide a greater boost to spending. For another, the policy would offset rising income inequality.

Such an approach would represent the first significant innovation in monetary policy since the inception of central banking, yet it would not be a radical departure from the status quo. Most citizens already trust their central banks to manipulate interest rates. And rate changes are just as redistributive as cash transfers. When interest rates go down, for example, those borrowing at adjustable rates end up benefiting, whereas those who save — and thus depend more on interest income — lose out.

Most economists agree that cash transfers from a central bank would stimulate demand. But policymakers nonetheless continue to resist the notion. In a 2012 speech, Mervyn King, then governor of the Bank of England, argued that transfers technically counted as fiscal policy, which falls outside the purview of central bankers, a view that his Japanese counterpart, Haruhiko Kuroda, echoed this past March. Such arguments, however, are merely semantic. Distinctions between monetary and fiscal policies are a function of what governments ask their central banks to do. In other words, cash transfers would become a tool of monetary policy as soon as the banks began using them.

Other critics warn that such helicopter drops could cause inflation. The transfers, however, would be a flexible tool. Central bankers could ramp them up whenever they saw fit and raise interest rates to offset any inflationary effects, although they probably wouldn’t have to do the latter: in recent years, low inflation rates have proved remarkably resilient, even following round after round of quantitative easing. Three trends explain why.

More here.

Conversation with Agnes Varda


Susan Kouguell in IndieWire, the discussion between Varda and Jean Michel Frodon:

Frodon: There was an important event in the history of world cinema — the New Wave. Just before the official opening of the Locarno Festival we screened “The 400 Blows,” but actually you started the New Wave with your film”La Point Courte,” which was quite original, stunning, and unlike all the others. You were no film buff, you were a woman, not a cinephile and being a woman with quite unique characteristics.

Varda: I’m troubled with the term “New Wave”. The New Wave included a number of young, new filmmakers but to me, there was the group the Cahiers du Cinema critics who loved American films, among them Truffaut. And like me, not knowing anything about filmmaking, were Jacques Demy, Chris Marker, and me. We were farther to the left than the others. These people were grouped in the same category as if we were a group. I felt different from the Cahiers du Cinema movement. I had no knowledge of French and American cinema, and I thought structure was more important than the way the films were shot.

My references were not from film. For example: When people would put their hands on their knees, I called that an “Egyptian shot,” or I would say, “Face” rather than “close up.” I knew nothing about film jargon.

Frodon: You did photography and theatre so you were in an artistic circle.

Varda: The theatre-goers, do not necessarily go to movies and vice versa. Actually the disciplines are quite separate. I watched many theatre plays but I didn’t know about cinema. I went to a lot of museums. I read a lot. I had my diploma. I took a year off just to read. I got up at nine in the morning, and read all afternoon as if I was going to school. I would read great classics. You don’t have time to read at school. This helped me a lot to think.

More here.

Alex Gourevitch on Thomas Paine


Over at The Junto:

It’s important to be clear about what private property meant to Paine. It meant the right to keep the full fruits of one’s labor—which is one meaning it still has today. Inequality was justifiable for him if it made everybody better off with respect to their fundamental interests.[1] But he saw that the current defense of private property created poverty, a poverty that had never before existed.[2] So it is possible, given the enormous productivity of a modern society, based on private property, for everyone to live better lives, not just secure from absolute poverty but for even the worst off to enjoy relative prosperity.

Paine took the communist challenge to heart, but in a way that aimed to defend private property. The introduction of Agrarian Justice names Babeuf directly, and the pamphlet itself makes an important change from the public works scheme in Rights of Man to a ‘National Fund’ that pays every adult enough money to be able to buy some land and tools. Paine accepted Babeuf’s argument that, in the natural state, it’s not just that nobody was poor but that everyone enjoyed a natural independence—and they should have a right to that independence under modern conditions as well.

Even though Paine says he is defending the principle of private property, he is driven to say, in Agrarian Justice, that “personal property is the effect of society; and it is as impossible for an individual to acquire personal property without the aid of society, as it is for him to make land originally… All accumulation, therefore, of personal property, beyond what a man’s own hands produce, is derived to him by living in society; and he owes on every principle of justice, of gratitude, and of civilization, a part of that accumulation back again to society from whence the whole came.”

Why add gratitude to justice? I think it’s because Paine sees that private property is not just a matter of rights and legitimate coercion: it is a form of social relationship.

More here.

Courting Failure: On Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt’s Readings of the Schlemiel


Menachem Feuer in Berfrois:

As human beings we have to “court” failure. This term suggests two things: on the one hand, it suggests dating and becoming intimate with someone in a formal, old-fashioned way; on the other hand, it suggests that we just don’t experience something, we judge it. Taken together, we can say that in courting failure, one gets to know it in an intimate way and will have to, in the end, judge it. When we judge failure, when we court it, we ascribe meaning to it. But, to be sure, there is a kind of danger to such courting. Courting failure can impair judgment and could lead to problems. But, then again, courting failure could also lead to a teaching moment and help us to understand ourselves, the world, and, for some existential theologians, the meaning of faith.

Failure can be tragic, but it can also be comic. The difference between the two types of failure could be understood through tragedy and comedy. In the former, the tragic hero is blind to his tragic flaw; and because he or she does nothing to change it, this tragic character has a bad (“tragic”) end.

It contrast, the comic character has a flaw that he or she either corrects or lives with. The end of such characters, however, isn’t tragic; it is a happier (or a better) ending of sorts. But sometimes this ending, because it is deprived of what we honor most, is sad. However, comedy – and the failure it courts – can also give us hope.

Sometimes these two theatrical modes find a correlate in life. And sometimes scholars will use comedy to better understand their own lives and the world they live in. We find such a correlate in the work of Hannah Arendt and Walter Benjamin that pertains to the schlemiel. As Jews who were exiled from Germany, who experienced the failure of liberalism and humanism in Germany, and witnessed the rise of rabid anti-Semitism, they courted failure. Their lives were uncertain. But of the two, Benjamin’s life was more uncertain. And for the two of them, the Jewish comic character otherwise known as the schlemiel was of great interest. It spoke to Jewishness, failure, exile and hope.

More here.

the idea of a critical theory

UrlRaymond Geuss at The Point:

At the beginning of the nineteenth century Hegel wrote that every philosopher is a child of his time and none can jump over his own shadow: every philosophy, then, is “its time grasped in a concept.” In the twentieth century Adorno took up this idea again when he spoke of the irreducible “kernel of time” embedded in the center of any philosophical view, and of the “temporal index” of truth. Whatever these rather difficult doctrines mean, they clearly are not intended to imply that at any given time all opinions are equally true.

I started a small book in Heidelberg, Germany in 1973 and finally finished it in 1980 at the University of Chicago; The Idea of a Critical Theory was published by Cambridge University Press in late 1981. Looking back at the text from the present—from 2013 and my home on this small island off the northwest coast of Europe—I think I can begin to see rather more clearly than I could then some of the relevant features of the historical context within which it was conceived and executed. To return for a moment to Hegel, who is the major spiritual presence hovering over this book—and whose work is the more important for understanding what I was trying to do for not being mentioned at all in the main text—the reader will recall that he also holds that philosophy is essentially retrospective, a reflection of a historical moment or movement that when it finally takes philosophical form is essentially already over. This doctrine marks a distinction between what is “really” happening in the political, social and economic world and the subsequent reflection of this in philosophy (religion, art, law, etc.).

more here.

pay attention!

HumanMark Edmundsun at The Hedgehog Review:

Pay attention! The phrase bears some considering. In his essay “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense,” Friedrich Nietzsche posed the question of the nature of language and made an acute observation. Language, he wrote, is a mobile host of metaphors and metonyms that have become conventional over time. Words become like coins that have been worn plain from overuse. We no longer see the tropes that are embedded in our language, the figures of everyday speech. Well, here is one such trope: Attention is something that must be paid. Paying attention is not unrelated to discharging a debt, to offering tribute, to giving the entity that demands the attention something akin to cash. When you tell someone to pay attention, you are trying to take something from him, something that, one might assume, he does not wish to give: his focus, his presence of mind, his full being. Is it possible that paying attention is akin to paying tribute? When someone asks you to pay attention, he is imposing authority on you. Perhaps it is not that we can’t get ourselves to focus on this or that matter, but simply that offering attention is felt as a challenge, a burden. “I made myself pay attention, even though what he was saying was boring.” “It wasn’t easy to pay attention to him, but I did.” There’s a tribute involved. There’s a tax. There’s a debt. Do you understand? Are you paying attention to me? We can take satisfaction in paying a bill, or getting rid of a debt, but it is never exactly a joy.

more here.

edmund wilson on houdini

HarryHoudini1899Edmund Wilson from a 1925 piece at The New Republic:

Houdini is a short strong stocky man with small feet and a very large head. Seen from the stage, his figure, with its short legs and its pugilist's proportions, is less impressive than at close range, where the real dignity and force of his enormous head appear. Wide-browed and aquiline-nosed, with a cleanness and fitness almost military, he suggests one of those enlarged and idealized busts of Roman generals or consuls. So it is rather the man himself than the showman, the personality of the stage, who is interesting. Houdini is remarkable among magicians in having so little of the smart-aleck about him: he is a tremendous egoist, like many other very able persons, but he is not a cabotin. When he performs tricks, it is with the directness and simplicity of an expert giving a demonstration and he talks to his audience, not in his character of conjuror, but quite straightforwardly and without patter. His professional formulas—such as the “Will wonders never cease!” with which he signalizes the end of a trick—have a quaint conventional sound as if they had been deliberately acquired as a concession to the theatre. For preeminently Houdini is the honest earnest craftsman which his German accent and his plain speech suggest—enthusiastic, serious- minded, thoroughgoing and intelligent.

Houdini is in fact a German Jew (Houdini is not his real name)—born in Wisconsin.

more here.

Writing What You Know

Simon Hammond in The White Review:

BS-JohnsonIn the summer of 1959, a headstrong but lovesick English graduate took a trip to the hometown of his favourite writers, to mark the end of his degree and to help him forget his sorrows. En route to Dublin via the Welsh Coast he hitched a lift with the owner of an upscale holiday resort, who offered him a job for the summer, an offer he took up after walking in the footsteps of Joyce, Beckett and O’Brien. Travelling People, which BS Johnson wrote in fits and starts over the next two years, is the story of a young man who takes a job at a Welsh holiday resort. It has the brisk outlines of a familiar English comedy, but presented with an incongruous trickery more in keeping with Johnson’s Irish heroes. Plenty of direct experience made it into the novel (Johnson even incorporated letters that he had written that summer) but names were changed and elements added to provide excitement, perhaps even as wish-fulfilment. Henry has a passionate affair and gets a first in his degree, while Johnson wasn’t so fortunate; the heart attack that afflicts the owner, with whom Johnson fell out, never happened. But the translation of experience is uneasy: rogue autobiographical elements – Johnson’s romantic hysteria, his odd superstitions – crop up without explanation.

Published after a string of rejections to muted applause, with some copies returned in the belief that the typographical experimentation was a printing error, Johnson was nevertheless pleased with what he saw as the novel’s ingenuity, even claiming that in some respects it had improved on Joyce’s Ulysses. But behind the bravado lay a nagging dissatisfaction. He began to feel embarrassed by the fictional additions, to believe that the novel would have been better if it had been more honest, if he hadn’t compromised the truth for the sake of a good story. Increasingly Johnson dismissed it as an apprentice work, and was later reluctant to have it republished. Never again would he be so blasé with the facts of his life. The six novels that followed would be the work of a writer at war with the imagination.

More here.

The Intelligent-Life Lottery

George Johnson in The New York Times:

DnaAlmost 20 years ago, in the pages of an obscure publication called Bioastronomy News, two giants in the world of science argued over whether SETI — the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence — had a chance of succeeding. Carl Sagan, as eloquent as ever, gave his standard answer. With billions of stars in our galaxy, there must be other civilizations capable of transmitting electromagnetic waves. By scouring the sky with radio telescopes, we just might intercept a signal.

But Sagan’s opponent, the great evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr, thought the chances were close to zero. Against Sagan’s stellar billions, he posed his own astronomical numbers: Of the billions of species that have lived and died since life began, only one — Homo sapiens — had developed a science, a technology, and the curiosity to explore the stars. And that took about 3.5 billion years of evolution. High intelligence, Mayr concluded, must be extremely rare, here or anywhere. Earth’s most abundant life form is unicellular slime. Since the debate with Sagan, more than 1,700 planets have been discovered beyond the solar system — 700 just this year. Astronomers recently estimated that one of every five sunlike stars in the Milky Way might be orbited by a world capable of supporting some kind of life. That is about 40 billion potential habitats. But Mayr, who died in 2005 at the age of 100, probably wouldn’t have been impressed. By his reckoning, the odds would still be very low for anything much beyond slime worlds. No evidence has yet emerged to prove him wrong.

More here.

Total police control over black bodies has echoes in American history

Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic:

LeadAmong the many relevant facts for any African-American negotiating their relationship with the police the following stands out: The police departments of America are endowed by the state with dominion over your body. I came home at the end of this summer to find that dominion had been. This summer in Ferguson and Staten Island we have seen that dominion employed to the maximum ends—destruction of the body. This is neither new nor extraordinary. It does not matter if the destruction of your body was an overreaction. It does not matter if the destruction of your body resulted from a misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction of your body springs from foolish policy. Sell cigarettes without proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Resent the people trying to entrap your body and it can be be destroyed. Protect the home of your mother and your body can be destroyed. Visit the home of your young daughter and your body will be destroyed. The destroyers of your body will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions.

It will not do to point out the rarity of the destruction of your body by the people whom you pay to protect it. As Gene Demby has noted, destruction is merely the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include friskings, detainings, beatings, and humiliations. All of this is common to black people. All of this is old for black people. No one is held accountable. The body of Michael Brown was left in the middle of the street for four hours. It can not be expected that anyone will be held accountable.

More here.

Kurdistan: Where Poets Are More Than Poets

Alana Marie Levinson-LaBrosse in Fair Observer:

Poetry-pic-1The poet, in a collared shirt beneath a sweater vest and elbow-patched blazer, takes his seat. The more audacious fans push to shake his hand; he rises to accept, to graze cheeks in the formal kiss. Each time he stands, the audience follows, breaking into fresh, ferocious applause. He takes the stage flanked by three bodyguards who clear a path through the grabbing attendees.

During his short speech on political parties and their failings, the Kurdish language and its splintering, the audience keeps bursting into applause, like peals of thunder. I start a tally as he reads his poems. Audience members mouth the words along with him. After one poem, the clapping synchronizes and the audience takes up a chant, “Doo-bah-rah! Doo-bah-rah!” — “Again! Again!” and the poet relaunches, delivering the poem a second time. He leans over the lectern to deliver the lines. The tally: 48.

I remember the first time I’d seen such a response to live poetry — at an elocution contest sponsored by the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS). Some 20 contestants took the stage and at least 100 students crammed into the cafeteria just to watch try-outs. At the time, the school only had 400 students. When the student-translator took the stage to read the poem in its original language first, the audience interrupted him, cheering at the end of each line. All this while the university had trouble galvanizing students to come to soccer games.

More here.

Frans B. M. de Waal to Judge 5th Annual 3QD Science Prize

UPDATE 09/22/14: Winners accounced here.

UPDATE 09/05/14: Finalists accounced here.

UPDATE 09/03/14: Semifinalists accounced here.

UPDATE 08/26/14: Voting round is now open. Click here to see full list of nominees and vote.

Dear Readers, Writers, Bloggers,

FdW2009SWe are very honored and pleased to announce that Frans de Waal has agreed to be the final judge for our 5th annual prize for the best blog and online-only writing in the category of science. Details of the previous four science (and other) prizes can be seen on our prize page.

As you may know, Frans B. M. de Waal is a Dutch/American biologist and primatologist known for his work on the behavior and social intelligence of primates. His first book, Chimpanzee Politics (1982) compared the schmoozing and scheming of chimpanzees involved in power struggles with that of human politicians. Ever since, de Waal has drawn parallels between primate and human behavior, from peacemaking and morality to culture. His scientific work has been published in hundreds of technical articles in journals such as Science, Nature, Scientific American, and outlets specialized in animal behavior. His popular books – translated into twenty languages – have made him one of the world's most visible primatologists. His latest books are The Age of Empathy (2009), and The Bonobo and the Atheist (2013).

De Waal is currently C. H. Candler Professor in the Psychology Department of Emory University and Director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, in Atlanta, Georgia. He has been elected to the (US) National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences. In 2007, he was selected by Time as one of The Worlds’ 100 Most Influential People Today, and in 2011 by Discover as among 47 (all time) Great Minds of Science.

As usual, this is the way it will work: the nominating period is now open. There will then be a round of voting by our readers which will narrow down the entries to the top twenty semi-finalists. After this, we will take these top twenty voted-for nominees, and the editors of 3 Quarks Daily will select six finalists from these, plus they may also add up to three wildcard entries of their own choosing. The three winners will be chosen from these by Frans de Waal.

The first place award, called the “Top Quark,” will include a cash prize of 500 dollars; the second place prize, the “Strange Quark,” will include a cash prize of 200 dollars; and the third place winner will get the honor of winning the “Charm Quark,” along with a 100 dollar prize.

(Welcome to those coming here for the first time. Learn more about who we are and what we do here, and do check out the full site here. Bookmark us and come back regularly, or sign up for the RSS Feed.)

The schedule:

August 11, 2014:

  • The nominations are opened. Please nominate your favorite blog entry by placing the URL for the blog post (the permalink) in the comments section of this post. You may also add a brief comment describing the entry and saying why you think it should win. Do NOT nominate a whole blog, just one individual blog post.
  • Blog posts longer than 4,000 words are strongly discouraged, but we might make an exception if there is something truly extraordinary.
  • Each person can only nominate one blog post.
  • Entries must be in English.
  • The editors of 3QD reserve the right to reject entries that we feel are not appropriate.
  • The blog entry may not be more than a year old. In other words, it must have been first published after August 10, 2013.
  • You may also nominate your own entry from your own or a group blog (and we encourage you to).
  • Guest columnists at 3 Quarks Daily are also eligible to be nominated, and may also nominate themselves if they wish.
  • Nominations are limited to the first 200 entries.
  • Prize money must be claimed within a month of the announcement of winners.

August 22, 2014

  • The nominating process will end at 11:59 PM (NYC time) of this date.
  • The public voting will be opened soon afterwards.

September 1, 2014

  • Public voting ends at 11:59 PM (NYC time).

September 5, 2014

  • The finalists are announced.

September 22, 2014

  • The winners are announced.

One Final and Important Request

If you have a blog or website, please help us spread the word about our prizes by linking to this post. Otherwise, post a link on your Facebook profile, Tweet it, or just email your friends and tell them about it! I really look forward to reading some very good material, and think this should be a lot of fun for all of us.

Best of luck and thanks for your attention!



Arguing to Win

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

MjAxMy1iMmRkOWFmOTdmNjRlZDFlIn the course of discussing the central themes of our recent book, Why We Argue (And How We Should), with audiences of various kinds, one kind of critical response has emerged as among the most popular. It deserves a more detailed reply than we are able to provide here; nonetheless, we want to sketch our response.

Why We Argue presents a conception of proper argumentation that emphasizes its essentially cooperative and dialectical dimension. Very roughly, our view runs as follows. The central aim of cognitive life is to believe what is true and reject what is false. We pursue this by appealing to our evidence and reasons when forming and maintaining our beliefs. Yet in pursuing this aim, we quickly encounter conflicting and inadequate evidence and reasons; furthermore, we discover that we each must rely upon other people as sources of evidence and reasons. Importantly, the others upon whom we must rely do not always speak univocally; they often provide conflicting reasons and evidence. Accordingly, in the pursuit of our central cognitive aim, we confront the inevitability of disagreement. Argumentation is the process by which we attempt to resolve disagreement rationally. Consequently, argumentation is inescapable for a rational creature like us; and the aspiration to argue properly is an indispensible corollary of our central cognitive aim.

The project of arguing well requires individuals to interact with each other in certain ways, and to avoid interacting in other ways. More specifically, in order to argue well, we must individually attempt to take the reasons, perspectives, arguments, criticisms, and objections of others seriously; we must see even those with whom we most vehemently disagree as fellow participants in the process of proper argumentation, and we must engage with them on those terms. This means, among other things, that when engaging in argument, one must seek to make the most of the reasons and considerations offered by one's opposition. Verbal tricks, insults, threats, and obfuscation are failures of argumentation, even when they prove effective at closing discussion or eliciting assent. A lot of Why We Argue (And How We Should) is devoted to cataloguing and dissecting common ways in which argumentation, especially political argumentation, fails.

So much for the nutshell version of our conception of argumentation. Let's turn now to the critical reaction it commonly invites. Critics say that our view is misguided because it cannot acknowledge the brute fact that most often we argue not to rationally resolve disagreement, but to end disagreement; and the favored way of ending disagreement is by winning an argument. Here a sports analogy is often introduced. Critics often claim that just as one plays baseball not (primarily) for the exercise, camaraderie, or the cooperative teamwork, but rather to win baseball games; so it is that when one argues, one argues to win.

Read more »

The Fields Medal

by Jonathan Kujawa

DownloadThe big news in math this week was the opening of the quadrennial International Congress of Mathematicians (ICM) in Seoul. A number of prestigious awards are given at the ICM. Most famously this includes the Fields medal and the Nevanlinna prize (aka the Fields medal for computer science). Up to four winners of the Fields medal are announced along with the winner of the Nevanlinna prize. All the winners must be no older than 40.

I had the pleasure to attend the 2006 ICM in Madrid. This is the ICM famous for Grigori Perelman refusing to accept the Fields medal for his work in finishing the proof of the Poincaré conjecture. Perelman (or at least the media version of him) comes across as the stereotypical eccentric mathematician uninterested in worldly things. Fortunately for the PR folks, this year's winners all appear to be the sort you'd enjoy having over for dinner and drinks.

This year the Fields medal went to Artur Avila, Manjul Bhargava, Martin Hairer, and Maryam Mirzakhani. The Nevanlinna prize went to Subhash Khot. An excellent profile of each of the winners, including very nicely done videos, can be found on the Quanta website. The profiles are a bit short on the actual math of the winners. If you'd like a more meaty discussion of their work, former Fields medalist Terry Tao wrote blog posts here and here giving a more technical overview. Even better, former Fields medalist Timothy Gowers is blogging from the ICM itself! He's giving summaries of the main talks as well as his more general impressions while at the event. I can also recommend that you check out the excellent overviews of some of the winners' work on John Baez's Google+ page.

Rather than talk about the details of the winners' work [1], I wanted to point out a meta-mathematical common feature of their research. This is the idea of studying a collection of objects as a whole, rather than one by one.

Read more »

Monday Poem


the way it
comes, goes,
surges, disappears,
a perfect metaphor
for shapes of time,
overused as moon
for that which vanishes
and reappears.

quiet now, the wedding past
too much so—
a house that buzzed
now hushed, silence loud
sharp, slimmer
than a midnight crescent

silence also
comes, goes
empties, spills, ebbs and fills,
evaporates and billows like a cloud
above a sugarbush still
boiling down sweet water
for its essence

by Jim Culleny

Socrates, evolution, and the word “theory”

by Paul Braterman

UWASocrates_gobeirne_croppedWhat's wrong with this argument? More than you think!

All men are mortal.
Socrates is a man.
Therefore Socrates is mortal.

It's perfectly valid, meaning that if the premises are true, the conclusion must also be true. Despite this, as Bertrand Russell explained very clearly many years ago,[1] the argument is almost totally worthless.

There is no real doubt that Socrates is mortal. Just look at the poor chap, clearly showing his 70 years. Bent, scarred from the Peloponnesian War, his brow furrowed by decades of unhappy marriage, and even more unhappy attempts[2] to persuade his fellow citizens that the best form of government is a fascist oligarchy. Besides, he is on trial for doubting the existence of the gods, and the news from the Agora is not good. Take my advice, and do not offer him life insurance.

Even if we didn't know about his circumstances, we would readily agree that he is mortal. We see decrepitude and death around us all the time, few people have been known to live beyond a hundred years, none beyond 150, and we have no reason to believe that Socrates is any different. In fact, from our experience, we are a lot more certain that Socrates is mortal than we are that all men are mortal. Ganymede, Elijah, and the Virgin Mary were all, according to various traditions, taken directly up into heaven without having to go through the tedious process of dying. However, no Zeus-worshipper or biblical literalist or devout Catholic would for such reasons doubt the mortality of Socrates. So the premise, that all men are mortal, is actually less certain than the conclusion, and if we seriously doubted Socrates's mortality, we would simply deny that premise. In other words, this classic example of deductive logic tells us nothing that we didn't already know.

Read more »

The Psychology of Procrastination: How We Create Categories of the Future

by Jalees Rehman

“Do not put your work off till tomorrow and the day after; for a sluggish worker does not fill his barn, nor one who puts off his work: industry makes work go well, but a man who puts off work is always at hand-grips with ruin.” Hesiod in “The Works and Days


Paying bills, filling out forms, completing class assignments or submitting grant proposals – we all have the tendency to procrastinate. We may engage in trivial activities such as watching TV shows, playing video games or chatting for an hour and risk missing important deadlines by putting off tasks that are essential for our financial and professional security. Not all humans are equally prone to procrastination, and a recent study suggests that this may in part be due to the fact thatthe tendency to procrastinate has a genetic underpinning. Yet even an individual with a given genetic make-up can exhibit a significant variability in the extent of procrastination. A person may sometimes delay initiating and completing tasks, whereas at other times that same person will immediately tackle the same type of tasks even under the same constraints of time and resources.

A fully rational approach to task completion would involve creating a priority list of tasks based on a composite score of task importance and the remaining time until the deadline. The most important task with the most proximate deadline would have to be tackled first, and the lowest priority task with the furthest deadline last. This sounds great in theory, but it is quite difficult to implement. A substantial amount of research has been conducted to understand how our moods, distractability and impulsivity can undermine the best laid plans for timely task initiation and completion. The recent research article “The Categorization of Time and Its Impact on Task Initiation” by the researchers Yanping Tu (University of Chicago) and Dilip Soman (University of Toronto) investigates a rather different and novel angle in the psychology of procrastination: our perception of the future.

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