Socks and Self-knowledge


How well do you really know yourself?  Go beyond your latte preferences and your favorite movies. Knowing yourself means being familiar with your most intimate thoughts, desires and fears, your character traits and flaws, your values. for many this quest for self-knowledge is a life-long process. And, it may begin with knowing about your socks.

From NYT:

Most people wonder at some point in their lives how well they know themselves. Self-knowledge seems a good thing to have, but hard to attain. To know yourself would be to know such things as your deepest thoughts, desires and emotions, your character traits, your values, what makes you happy and why you think and do the things you think and do. These are all examples of what might be called “substantial” self-knowledge, and there was a time when it would have been safe to assume that philosophy had plenty to say about the sources, extent and importance of self-knowledge in this sense.

Not any more. With few exceptions, philosophers of self-knowledge nowadays have other concerns. Here’s an example of the sort of thing philosophers worry about: suppose you are wearing socks and believe you are wearing socks. How do you know that that’s what you believe? Notice that the question isn’t: “How do you know you are wearing socks?” but rather “How do you know you believe you are wearing socks?” Knowledge of such beliefs is seen as a form of self-knowledge. Other popular examples of self-knowledge in the philosophical literature include knowing that you are in pain and knowing that you are thinking that water is wet. For many philosophers the challenge is explain how these types of self-knowledge are possible.

This is usually news to non-philosophers. Most certainly imagine that philosophy tries to answer the Big Questions, and “How do you know you believe you are wearing socks?” doesn’t sound much like one of them. If knowing that you believe you are wearing socks qualifies as self-knowledge at all — and even that isn’t obvious — it is self-knowledge of the most trivial kind. Non-philosophers find it hard to figure out why philosophers would be more interested in trivial than in substantial self-knowledge.

One common reaction to the focus on trivial self-knowledge is to ask, “Why on earth would you be interested in that?” — or, more pointedly, “Why on earth would anyone pay you to think about that?” Philosophers of self-knowledge aren’t deterred. It isn’t unusual for them to start their learned articles and books on self-knowledge by declaring that they aren’t going to be discussing substantial self-knowledge because that isn’t where the philosophical action is.

How can that be? It all depends on your starting point. For example, to know that you are wearing socks requires effort, even if it’s only the minimal effort of looking down at your feet. When you look down and see the socks on your feet you have evidence — the evidence of your senses — that you are wearing socks, and this illustrates what seems a general point about knowledge: knowledge is based on evidence, and our beliefs about the world around us can be wrong. Evidence can be misleading and conclusions from evidence unwarranted. Trivial self-knowledge seems different. On the face of it, you don’t need evidence to know that you believe you are wearing socks, and there is a strong presumption that your beliefs about your own beliefs and other states of mind aren’t mistaken. Trivial self-knowledge is direct (not based on evidence) and privileged (normally immune to error). Given these two background assumptions, it looks like there is something here that needs explaining: How is trivial self-knowledge, with all its peculiarities, possible?

From this perspective, trivial self-knowledge is philosophically interesting because it is special. “Special” in this context means special from the standpoint of epistemology or the philosophy of knowledge. Substantial self-knowledge is much less interesting from this point of view because it is like any other knowledge. You need evidence to know your own character and values, and your beliefs about your own character and values can be mistaken. For example, you think you are generous but your friends know you better. You think you are committed to racial equality but your behaviour suggests otherwise. Once you think of substantial self-knowledge as neither direct nor privileged why would you still regard it as philosophically interesting?

What is missing from this picture is any real sense of the human importance of self-knowledge. Self-knowledge matters to us as human beings, and the self-knowledge which matters to us as human beings is substantial rather than trivial self-knowledge. We assume that on the whole our lives go better with substantial self-knowledge than without it, and what is puzzling is how hard it can be to know ourselves in this sense.

The assumption that self-knowledge matters is controversial and philosophy might be expected to have something to say about the importance of self-knowledge, as well as its scope and extent. The interesting questions in this context include “Why is substantial self-knowledge hard to attain?” and “To what extent is substantial self-knowledge possible?”

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of DuckDuckGo Search.


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Tormented… For Things Remote

Would that our troubled species could put aside its pettiness and look to the stars. We are meant to seek, to explore, to discover, to learn…

If you do nothing else today, watch this video and envision our future. It’s compelling, gorgeous and achievable.

Visit the filmmaker’s website here.

Video: Wanderers, a short film. Courtesy of Erik Wernquist. Words by the Carl Sagan.

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The Haves versus the Have-Mores


Poverty and wealth are relative terms here in the United States. Certainly those who have amassed millions will seem “poor” to the established and nouveaux-riche billionaires. Yet these is something rather surreal in the spectacle of watching Los Angeles’ lesser-millionaires fight the mega-rich for their excess. As Peter Haldeman says in the following article of Michael Ovitz, founder of Creative Arts Agency, mere millionaire and landlord of a 28,000 square foot mega mansion, “Mr. Ovitz calling out a neighbor for overbuilding is a little like Lady Gaga accusing someone of overdressing. Welcome to the giga-mansion — Roman emperor Caligula, would feel much at home in this Californian circus of excess.

From NYT:

At the end of a narrow, twisting side street not far from the Hotel Bel-Air rises a knoll that until recently was largely covered with scrub brush and Algerian ivy. Now the hilltop is sheared and graded, girded by caissons sprouting exposed rebar. “They took 50- or 60,000 cubic yards of dirt out of the place,” said Fred Rosen, a neighbor, glowering at the site from behind the wheel of his Cadillac Escalade on a sunny October afternoon.

Mr. Rosen, who used to run Ticketmaster, has lately devoted himself to the homeowners alliance he helped form shortly after this construction project was approved. When it is finished, a modern compound of glass and steel will rise two stories, encompass several structures and span — wait for it — some 90,000 square feet.

In an article titled “Here Comes L.A.’s Biggest Residence,” The Los Angeles Business Journal announced in June that the house, conceived by Nile Niami, a film producer turned developer, with an estimated sale price “in the $150 million range,” will feature a cantilevered tennis court and five swimming pools. “We’re talking 200 construction trucks a day,” fumed Mr. Rosen. “Then multiply that by all the other giant projects. More than a million cubic yards of this hillside have been taken out. What happens when the next earthquake comes? How nuts is all this?”

By “all this,” he means not just the house with five swimming pools but the ever-expanding number of houses the size of Hyatt resorts rising in the most expensive precincts of Los Angeles. Built for the most part on spec, bestowed with names as assuming as their dimensions, these behemoths are transforming once leafy and placid neighborhoods into dusty enclaves carved by retaining walls and overrun by dirt haulers and cement mixers. “Twenty-thousand-square-foot homes have become teardowns for people who want to build 70-, 80-, and 90,000-square-foot homes,” Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Koretz said. So long, megamansion. Say hello to the gigamansion.

In Mr. Rosen’s neighborhood, ground was recently broken on a 70,000- to 80,000-square-foot Mediterranean manse for a citizen of Qatar, while Chateau des Fleurs, a 60,000-square-foot pile with a 40-car underground garage, is nearing completion. Not long ago, Anthony Pritzker, an heir to the Hyatt hotel fortune, built a boxy contemporary residence for himself in Beverly Hills that covers just shy of 50,000 square feet. And Mohamed Hadid, a prolific and high-profile developer (he has appeared on “The Shahs of Sunset” and “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills”), is known for two palaces that measure 48,000 square feet each: Le Palais in Beverly Hills, which has a swan pond and a Jacuzzi that seats 20 people, and Le Belvédère in Bel Air, which features a Turkish hammam and a ballroom for 250.

Why are people building houses the size of shopping malls? Because they can. “Why do you see a yacht 500 feet long when you could easily have the same fun in one half the size?” asked Jeffrey Hyland, a partner in the Beverly Hills real estate firm Hilton & Hyland, who is developing five 50,000-square-foot properties on the site of the old Merv Griffin estate in Beverly Hills.

Le Belvédère was reportedly purchased by an Indonesian buyer, and Le Palais sold to a daughter of President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan. According to Mr. Hyland, the market for these Versailles knockoffs is “flight capital.” “It’s oligarchs, oilgarchs, people from Asia, people who came up with the next app for the iPhone,” he said. While global wealth is pouring into other American cities as well, Los Angeles is still a relative bargain, Mr. Hyland said, adding: “Here you can buy the best house for $3,000 a square foot. In Manhattan, you’re looking at $11,000 a square foot and you get a skybox.”

Speculators are tapping the demand, snapping up the best lots, bulldozing whatever is on them and building not only domiciles but also West Coast “lifestyles.” The particulars can seem a little puzzling to the uninitiated. The very busy Mr. Niami (he also built the Winklevoss twins’ perch above the Sunset Strip) constructed a 30,000-square-foot Mediterranean-style house in Holmby Hills that locals have called the Fendi Casa because it was filled with furniture and accessories from the Italian fashion house.

The residence also offered indoor and outdoor pools, commissioned artwork by the graffiti artist Retna, and an operating room in the basement. “It’s not like it’s set up to take out your gallbladder,” said Mark David, a real estate columnist for Variety, who has toured the house. “It’s for cosmetic procedures — fillers, dermabrasion, that kind of thing.” The house sold, with all its furnishings, to an unidentified Saudi buyer for $44 million.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Satellite view of the 70,000 square foot giga-mansion development in Bel Air. Los Angeles. Courtesy of Google Maps.

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Will the AIs Let Us Coexist?

At some point in the not too distant future artificial intelligences will far exceed humans in most capacities (except shopping and beer drinking). The scripts according to most Hollywood movies seem to suggest that we, humans, would be (mostly) wiped-out by AI machines, beings, robots or other non-human forms — we being the lesser-organisms, superfluous to AI needs.

Perhaps, we may find an alternate path, to a more benign coexistence, much like that posited in The Culture novels by dearly departed, Iain M. Banks. I’ll go with Mr.Banks’ version. Though, just perhaps, evolution is supposed to leave us behind, replacing our simplistic, selfish intelligence with much more advanced, non-human version.

From the Guardian:

From 2001: A Space Odyssey to Blade Runner and RoboCop to The Matrix, how humans deal with the artificial intelligence they have created has proved a fertile dystopian territory for film-makers. More recently Spike Jonze’s Her and Alex Garland’s forthcoming Ex Machina explore what it might be like to have AI creations living among us and, as Alan Turing’s famous test foregrounded, how tricky it might be to tell the flesh and blood from the chips and code.

These concerns are even troubling some of Silicon Valley’s biggest names: last month Telsa’s Elon Musk described AI as mankind’s “biggest existential threat… we need to be very careful”. What many of us don’t realise is that AI isn’t some far-off technology that only exists in film-maker’s imaginations and computer scientist’s labs. Many of our smartphones employ rudimentary AI techniques to translate languages or answer our queries, while video games employ AI to generate complex, ever-changing gaming scenarios. And so long as Silicon Valley companies such as Google and Facebook continue to acquire AI firms and hire AI experts, AI’s IQ will continue to rise…

Isn’t AI a Steven Spielberg movie?
No arguments there, but the term, which stands for “artificial intelligence”, has a more storied history than Spielberg and Kubrick’s 2001 film. The concept of artificial intelligence goes back to the birth of computing: in 1950, just 14 years after defining the concept of a general-purpose computer, Alan Turing asked “Can machines think?”

It’s something that is still at the front of our minds 64 years later, most recently becoming the core of Alex Garland’s new film, Ex Machina, which sees a young man asked to assess the humanity of a beautiful android. The concept is not a million miles removed from that set out in Turing’s 1950 paper, Computing Machinery and Intelligence, in which he laid out a proposal for the “imitation game” – what we now know as the Turing test. Hook a computer up to text terminal and let it have conversations with a human interrogator, while a real person does the same. The heart of the test is whether, when you ask the interrogator to guess which is the human, “the interrogator [will] decide wrongly as often when the game is played like this as he does when the game is played between a man and a woman”.

Turing said that asking whether machines could pass the imitation game is more useful than the vague and philosophically unclear question of whether or not they “think”. “The original question… I believe to be too meaningless to deserve discussion.” Nonetheless, he thought that by the year 2000, “the use of words and general educated opinion will have altered so much that one will be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted”.

In terms of natural language, he wasn’t far off. Today, it is not uncommon to hear people talking about their computers being “confused”, or taking a long time to do something because they’re “thinking about it”. But even if we are stricter about what counts as a thinking machine, it’s closer to reality than many people think.

So AI exists already?
It depends. We are still nowhere near to passing Turing’s imitation game, despite reports to the contrary. In June, a chatbot called Eugene Goostman successfully fooled a third of judges in a mock Turing test held in London into thinking it was human. But rather than being able to think, Eugene relied on a clever gimmick and a host of tricks. By pretending to be a 13-year-old boy who spoke English as a second language, the machine explained away its many incoherencies, and with a smattering of crude humour and offensive remarks, managed to redirect the conversation when unable to give a straight answer.

The most immediate use of AI tech is natural language processing: working out what we mean when we say or write a command in colloquial language. For something that babies begin to do before they can even walk, it’s an astonishingly hard task. Consider the phrase beloved of AI researchers – “time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana”. Breaking the sentence down into its constituent parts confuses even native English speakers, let alone an algorithm.

Read the entire article here.

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Philae: The Little Lander That Could


What audacity! A ten year journey, covering 4 billion miles.

On November 12, 2014 at 16:03 UTC, the Rosetta spacecraft delivered the Philae probe to land on a comet; a comet the size of New York’s Manhattan Island, speeding through our solar system at 34,000 miles per hour. What utter audacity!

The team of scientists, engineers, and theoreticians at the European Space Agency (ESA), and its partners, pulled off an awe-inspiring, remarkable and historic feat; a feat that ranks with the other pinnacles of human endeavor and exploration. It shows what our fledgling species can truly achieve.

Sadly, our species is flawed, capable of such terrible atrocities to ourselves and to our planet. And yet, triumphant stories like this one — the search for fundamental understanding through science —  must give us all some continued hope.

Exploration. Inspiration. Daring. Risk. Execution. Discovery. Audacity!

From the Guardian:

These could be the dying hours of Philae, the device the size of a washing machine which travelled 4bn miles to hitch a ride on a comet. Philae is the “lander” which on Wednesday sprung from the craft that had carried it into deep, dark space, bounced a couple of times on the comet’s surface, and eventually found itself lodged in the shadows, starved of the sunlight its solar batteries needed to live. Yesterday, the scientists who had been planning this voyage for the past quarter-century sat and waited for word from their little explorer, hoping against hope that it still had enough energy to reveal its discoveries.

If Philae expires on the hard, rocky surface of Comet 67P the sadness will be felt far beyond mission control in Darmstadt, Germany. Indeed, it may be felt there least of all: those who have dedicated their working lives to this project pronounced it a success, regardless of a landing that didn’t quite go to plan (Philae’s anchor harpoons didn’t fire, so with gravity feeble there was nothing to keep the machine anchored to the original, optimal landing site). They were delighted to have got there at all and thrilled at Philae’s early work. Up to 90% of the science they planned to carry out has been done. As one scientist put it, “We’ve already got fantastic data.”

Those who lacked their expertise couldn’t help feel a pang all the same. The human instinct to anthropomorphise does not confine itself to cute animals, as anyone who has seen the film Wall-E can testify. If Pixar could make us well up for a waste-disposing robot, it’s little wonder the European Space Agency has had us empathising with a lander ejected from its “mothership”, identifiable only by its “spindly leg”. In those nervous hours, many will have been rooting for Philae, imagining it on that cold, hard surface yearning for sunlight, its beeps of data slowly petering out as its strength faded.

 But that barely accounts for the fascination this adventure has stirred. Part of it is simple, a break from the torments down here on earth. You don’t have to go as far as Christopher Nolan film Interstellar, which fantasises about leaving our broken, ravaged planet and starting somewhere else – to enjoy a rare respite from our earthly woes. For a few merciful days, the news has featured a story remote from the bloodshed of Islamic State and Ukraine, from the pain of child abuse and poverty. Even those who don’t dream of escaping this planet can relish the escapism.

But the comet landing has provided more than a diversion: it’s been an antidote too. For this has been a story of human cooperation in a world of conflict. The narrow version of this point focuses on this as a European success story. When our daily news sees “Europe” only as the source of unwanted migrants or maddening regulation, Philae has offered an alternative vision; that Germany, Italy, France, Britain and others can achieve far more together than they could ever dream of alone. The geopolitical experts so often speak of the global pivot to Asia, the rise of the Bric nations and the like – but this extraordinary voyage has proved that Europe is not dead yet.

Even that, as I say, is to view it too narrowly. The US, through Nasa, is involved as well. And note the language attached to the hardware: the Rosetta satellite, the Ptolemy measuring instrument, the Osiris on-board camera, Philea itself – all imagery drawn from ancient Egypt. The spacecraft was named after the Rosetta stone, the discovery that unlocked hieroglyphics, as if to suggest a similar, if not greater, ambition: to decode the secrets of the universe. By evoking humankind’s ancient past, this is presented as a mission of the entire human race. There will be no flag planting on Comet 67P. As the Open University’s Jessica Hughes puts it, Philea, Rosetta and the rest “have become distant representatives of our shared, earthly heritage”.

That fits because this is how we experience such a moment: as a human triumph. When we marvel at the numbers – a probe has travelled for 10 years, crossed those 4bn miles, landed on a comet speeding at 34,000mph and done so within two minutes of its planned arrival – we marvel at what our species is capable of. I can barely get past the communication: that Darmstadt is able to contact an object 300 million miles away, sending instructions, receiving pictures. I can’t get phone reception in my kitchen, yet the ESA can be in touch with a robot that lies far beyond Mars. Like watching Usain Bolt run or hearing Maria Callas sing, we find joy and exhilaration in the outer limits of human excellence.

And of course we feel awe. What Interstellar prompts us to feel artificially – making us gasp at the confected scale and digitally assisted magnitude – Philae gives us for real. It is the stretch of time and place, glimpsing somewhere so far away it is as out of reach as ancient Egypt.

All that is before you reckon with the voyage’s scholarly purpose. “We are on the cutting edge of science,” they say, and of course they are. They are probing the deepest mysteries, including the riddle of how life began. (One theory suggests a comet brought water to a previously arid Earth.) What the authors of the Book of Genesis understood is that this question of origins is intimately bound up with the question of purpose. From the dawn of human time, to ask “How did we get here?” has been to ask “Why are we here?”

It’s why contemplation of the cosmic so soon reverts to the spiritual. Interstellar, like 2001: A Space Odyssey before it, is no different. It’s why one of the most powerful moments of Ronald Reagan’s presidency came when he paid tribute to the astronauts killed in the Challenger disaster. They had, he said, “slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God”.

Not that you have to believe in such things to share the romance. Secularists, especially on the left, used to have a faith of their own. They believed that humanity was proceeding along an inexorable path of progress, that the world was getting better and better with each generation. The slaughter of the past century robbed them – us – of that once-certain conviction. Yet every now and again comes an unambiguous advance, what one ESA scientist called “A big step for human civilisation”. Even if we never hear from Philae again, we can delight in that.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Philae lander, detached from the Rosetta spacecraft, on its solitary journey towards the surface of comet P67. Courtesy of ESA.

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Money Can Buy You… (Some) Happiness

Google-search-moneyNew results are in, and yes, money can buy you happiness. But the picture from some extensive new research shows that your happiness is much more dependent on how you spend it, than how much your earn. Generally, you are more likely to be happier if you give money away rather than fritter it on yourself. Also, you are more likely to be happier if you spend it on an experience rather than things.

From the WSJ:

It’s an age-old question: Can money buy happiness?

Over the past few years, new research has given us a much deeper understanding of the relationship between what we earn and how we feel. Economists have been scrutinizing the links between income and happiness across nations, and psychologists have probed individuals to find out what really makes us tick when it comes to cash.

The results, at first glance, may seem a bit obvious: Yes, people with higher incomes are, broadly speaking, happier than those who struggle to get by.

But dig a little deeper into the findings, and they get a lot more surprising—and a lot more useful.

In short, this latest research suggests, wealth alone doesn’t provide any guarantee of a good life. What matters a lot more than a big income is howpeople spend it. For instance, giving money away makes people a lot happier than lavishing it on themselves. And when they do spend money on themselves, people are a lot happier when they use it for experiences like travel than for material goods.

With that in mind, here’s what the latest research says about how people can make smarter use of their dollars and maximize their happiness.

Experiences Are Worth More Than You Think

Ryan Howell was bothered by a conundrum. Numerous studies conducted over the past 10 years have shown that life experiences give us more lasting pleasure than material things, and yet people still often deny themselves experiences and prioritize buying material goods.

So, Prof. Howell, associate professor of psychology at San Francisco State University, decided to look at what’s going on. In a study published earlier this year, he found that people think material purchases offer better value for the money because experiences are fleeting, and material goods last longer. So, although they’ll occasionally splurge on a big vacation or concert tickets, when they’re in more money-conscious mode, they stick to material goods.

But in fact, Prof. Howell found that when people looked back at their purchases, they realized that experiences actually provided better value.

“What we find is that there’s this huge misforecast,” he says. “People think that experiences are only going to provide temporary happiness, but they actually provide both more happiness and more lasting value.” And yet we still keep on buying material things, he says, because they’re tangible and we think we can keep on using them.

Cornell University psychology professor Thomas Gilovich has reached similar conclusions. “People often make a rational calculation: I have a limited amount of money, and I can either go there, or I can have this,” he says. “If I go there, it’ll be great, but it’ll be done in no time. If I buy this thing, at least I’ll always have it. That is factually true, but not psychologically true. We adapt to our material goods.”

It’s this process of “hedonic adaptation” that makes it so hard to buy happiness through material purchases. The new dress or the fancy car provides a brief thrill, but we soon come to take it for granted.

Experiences, on the other hand, tend to meet more of our underlying psychological needs, says Prof. Gilovich. They’re often shared with other people, giving us a greater sense of connection, and they form a bigger part of our sense of identity. If you’ve climbed in the Himalayas, that’s something you’ll always remember and talk about, long after all your favorite gadgets have gone to the landfill.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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Sartre: Forever Linked with Mrs Premise and Mrs Conclusion


One has to wonder how Jean-Paul Sartre would have been regarded today had he accepted the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1964, or had the characters of Monty Python not used him as a punching bag in one of their infamous, satyrical philosopher sketches:

Mrs Conclusion: What was Jean-Paul like? 

Mrs Premise: Well, you know, a bit moody. Yes, he didn’t join in the fun much. Just sat there thinking. Still, Mr Rotter caught him a few times with the whoopee cushion. (she demonstrates) Le Capitalisme et La Bourgeoisie ils sont la m~me chose… Oooh we did laugh…

From the Guardian:

In this age in which all shall have prizes, in which every winning author knows what’s necessary in the post-award trial-by-photoshoot (Book jacket pressed to chest? Check. Wall-to-wall media? Check. Backdrop of sponsor’s logo? Check) and in which scarcely anyone has the couilles, as they say in France, to politely tell judges where they can put their prize, how lovely to recall what happened on 22 October 1964, when Jean-Paul Sartre turned down the Nobel prize for literature.

“I have always declined official honours,” he explained at the time. “A writer should not allow himself to be turned into an institution. This attitude is based on my conception of the writer’s enterprise. A writer who adopts political, social or literary positions must act only within the means that are his own – that is, the written word.”

Throughout his life, Sartre agonised about the purpose of literature. In 1947’s What is Literature?, he jettisoned a sacred notion of literature as capable of replacing outmoded religious beliefs in favour of the view that it should have a committed social function. However, the last pages of his enduringly brilliant memoir Words, published the same year as the Nobel refusal, despair over that function: “For a long time I looked on my pen as a sword; now I know how powerless we are.” Poetry, wrote Auden, makes nothing happen; politically committed literature, Sartre was saying, was no better. In rejecting the honour, Sartre worried that the Nobel was reserved for “the writers of the west or the rebels of the east”. He didn’t damn the Nobel in quite the bracing terms that led Hari Kunzru to decline the 2003 John Llewellyn Rhys prize, sponsored by the Mail on Sunday (“As the child of an immigrant, I am only too aware of the poisonous effect of the Mail’s editorial line”), but gently pointed out its Eurocentric shortcomings. Plus, one might say 50 years on, ça change. Sartre said that he might have accepted the Nobel if it had been offered to him during France’s imperial war in Algeria, which he vehemently opposed, because then the award would have helped in the struggle, rather than making Sartre into a brand, an institution, a depoliticised commodity. Truly, it’s difficult not to respect his compunctions.

But the story is odder than that. Sartre read in Figaro Littéraire that he was in the frame for the award, so he wrote to the Swedish Academy saying he didn’t want the honour. He was offered it anyway. “I was not aware at the time that the Nobel prize is awarded without consulting the opinion of the recipient,” he said. “But I now understand that when the Swedish Academy has made a decision, it cannot subsequently revoke it.”

Regrets? Sartre had a few – at least about the money. His principled stand cost him 250,000 kronor (about £21,000), prize money that, he reflected in his refusal statement, he could have donated to the “apartheid committee in London” who badly needed support at the time. All of which makes one wonder what his compatriot, Patrick Modiano, the 15th Frenchman to win the Nobel for literature earlier this month, did with his 8m kronor (about £700,000).

The Swedish Academy had selected Sartre for having “exerted a far-reaching influence on our age”. Is this still the case? Though he was lionised by student radicals in Paris in May 1968, his reputation as a philosopher was on the wane even then. His brand of existentialism had been eclipsed by structuralists (such as Lévi-Strauss and Althusser) and post-structuralists (such as Derrida and Deleuze). Indeed, Derrida would spend a great deal of effort deriding Sartrean existentialism as a misconstrual of Heidegger. Anglo-Saxon analytic philosophy, with the notable exception of Iris Murdoch and Arthur Danto, has for the most part been sniffy about Sartre’s philosophical credentials.

Sartre’s later reputation probably hasn’t benefited from being championed by Paris’s philosophical lightweight, Bernard-Henri Lévy, who subtitled his biography of his hero The Philosopher of the Twentieth Century (Really? Not Heidegger, Russell, Wittgenstein or Adorno?); still less by his appearance in Monty Python’s least funny philosophy sketch, “Mrs Premise and Mrs Conclusion visit Jean-Paul Sartre at his Paris home”. Sartre has become more risible than lisible: unremittingly depicted as laughable philosopher toad – ugly, randy, incomprehensible, forever excitably over-caffeinated at Les Deux Magots with Simone de Beauvoir, encircled with pipe smoke and mired in philosophical jargon, not so much a man as a stock pantomime figure. He deserves better.

How then should we approach Sartre’s writings in 2014? So much of his lifelong intellectual struggle and his work still seems pertinent. When we read the “Bad Faith” section of Being and Nothingness, it is hard not to be struck by the image of the waiter who is too ingratiating and mannered in his gestures, and how that image pertains to the dismal drama of inauthentic self-performance that we find in our culture today. When we watch his play Huis Clos, we might well think of how disastrous our relations with other people are, since we now require them, more than anything else, to confirm our self-images, while they, no less vexingly, chiefly need us to confirm theirs. When we read his claim that humans can, through imagination and action, change our destiny, we feel something of the burden of responsibility of choice that makes us moral beings. True, when we read such sentences as “the being by which Nothingness comes to the world must be its own Nothingness”, we might want to retreat to a dark room for a good cry, but let’s not spoil the story.

His lifelong commitments to socialism, anti-fascism and anti-imperialism still resonate. When we read, in his novel Nausea, of the protagonost Antoine Roquentin in Bouville’s art gallery, looking at pictures of self-satisfied local worthies, we can apply his fury at their subjects’ self-entitlement to today’s images of the powers that be (the suppressed photo, for example, of Cameron and his cronies in Bullingdon pomp), and share his disgust that such men know nothing of what the world is really like in all its absurd contingency.

In his short story Intimacy, we confront a character who, like all of us on occasion, is afraid of the burden of freedom and does everything possible to make others take her decisions for her. When we read his distinctions between being-in-itself (être-en-soi), being-for-itself (être-pour-soi) and being-for-others (être-pour-autrui), we are encouraged to think about the tragicomic nature of what it is to be human – a longing for full control over one’s destiny and for absolute identity, and at the same time, a realisation of the futility of that wish.

The existential plight of humanity, our absurd lot, our moral and political responsibilities that Sartre so brilliantly identified have not gone away; rather, we have chosen the easy path of ignoring them. That is not a surprise: for Sartre, such refusal to accept what it is to be human was overwhelmingly, paradoxically, what humans do.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Jean-Paul Sartre (c1950). Courtesy: Archivo del diario Clarín, Buenos Aires, Argentina


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Colorless Green Ideas Sleep Furiously

Linguist, philosopher, and more recently political activist, Noam Chomsky penned the title phrase in the late 1950s. The sentence is grammatically correct, but semantically nonsensical. Some now maintain that many of Chomsky’s early ideas on the innateness of human language are equally nonsensical. Chomsky popularized the idea that language is innate to humans; that somehow and somewhere the minds of human infants contain a mechanism that can make sense of language by applying rules encoded in and activated by our genes. Steven Pinker expanded on Chomsky’s theory by proposing that the mind contains an innate device that encodes a common, universal grammar, which is foundational to all languages across all human societies.

Recently however, this notion has come under increasing criticism. A  growing number of prominent linguistic scholars, including Professor Vyvyan Evans, maintain that Chomsky’s and Pinker’s linguistic models are outdated — that a universal grammar is nothing but a finely-tuned myth. Evans and others maintain that language arises from and is directly embodied in experience.

From the New Scientist:

The ideas of Noam Chomsky, popularised by Steven Pinker, come under fire in Vyvyan Evans’s book The Language Myth: Why language is not an instinct

IS THE way we think about language on the cusp of a revolution? After reading The Language Myth, it certainly looks as if a major shift is in progress, one that will open people’s minds to liberating new ways of thinking about language.

I came away excited. I found that words aren’t so much things that can be limited by a dictionary definition but are encyclopaedic, pointing to sets of concepts. There is the intriguing notion that language will always be less rich than our ideas and there will always be things we cannot quite express. And there is the growing evidence that words are rooted in concepts built out of our bodily experience of living in the world.

Its author, Vyvyan Evans, is a professor of linguistics at Bangor University, UK, and his primary purpose is not so much to map out the revolution (that comes in a sequel) but to prepare you for it by sweeping out old ideas. The book is sure to whip up a storm, because in his sights are key ideas from some of the world’s great thinkers, including philosophers Noam Chomsky and Jerry Fodor.

Ideas about language that have entered the public consciousness are more myth than reality, Evans argues. Bestsellers by Steven Pinker, the Harvard University professor who popularised Chomksy in The Language InstinctHow the Mind Works and The Stuff of Thought, come in for particular criticism. “Science has moved on,” Evans writes. “And to end it all, Pinker is largely wrong, about language and about a number of other things too…”

The commonplace view of “language as instinct” is the myth Evans wants to destroy and he attempts the operation with great verve. The myth comes from the way children effortlessly learn languages just by listening to adults around them, without being aware explicitly of the governing grammatical rules.

This “miracle” of spontaneous learning led Chomsky to argue that grammar is stored in a module of the mind, a “language acquisition device”, waiting to be activated, stage-by-stage, when an infant encounters the jumble of language. The rules behind language are built into our genes.

This innate grammar is not the grammar of a school textbook, but a universal grammar, capable of generating the rules of any of the 7000 or so languages that a child might be exposed to, however different they might appear. In The Language Instinct, Pinker puts it this way: “a Universal Grammar, not reducible to history or cognition, underlies the human language instinct”. The search for that universal grammar has kept linguists busy for half a century.

They may have been chasing a mirage. Evans marshals impressive empirical evidence to take apart different facets of the “language instinct myth”. A key criticism is that the more languages are studied, the more their diversity becomes apparent and an underlying universal grammar less probable.

In a whistle-stop tour, Evans tells stories of languages with a completely free word order, including Jiwarli and Thalanyji from Australia. Then there’s the Inuit language Inuktitut, which builds sentences out of prefixes and suffixes to create giant words like tawakiqutiqarpiit, roughly meaning: “Do you have any tobacco for sale?” And there is the native Canadian language, Straits Salish, which appears not to have nouns or verbs.

An innate language module also looks shaky, says Evans, now scholars have watched languages emerge among communities of deaf people. A sign language is as rich grammatically as a spoken one, but new ones don’t appear fully formed as we might expect if grammar is laid out in our genes. Instead, they gain grammatical richness over several generations.

Now, too, we have detailed studies of how children acquire language. Grammatical sentences don’t start to pop out of their mouths at certain developmental stages, but rather bits and pieces emerge as children learn. At first, they use chunks of particular expressions they hear often, only gradually learning patterns and generalising to a fully fledged grammar. So grammars emerge from use, and the view of “language-as-instinct”, argues Evans, should be replaced by “language-as-use”.

The “innate” view also encounters a deep philosophical problem. If the rules of language are built into our genes, how is it that sentences mean something? How do they connect to our thoughts, concepts and to the outside world?

A solution from the language-as-instinct camp is that there is an internal language of thought called “mentalese”. In The Language Instinct, Pinker explains: “Knowing a language, then, is knowing how to translate mentalese into strings of words.” But philosophers are left arguing over the same question once removed: how does mentalese come to have meaning?

Read the entire article here.


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The Italian Canary Sings

Coal_bituminousThose who decry benefits fraud in their own nations should look to the illustrious example of Italian “miner” Carlo Cani. His adventures in absconding from work over a period of 35 years (yes, years) would make a wonderful indie movie, and should be an inspiration to less ambitious slackers the world over.

From the Telegraph:

An Italian coal miner’s confession that he is drawing a pension despite hardly ever putting in a day’s work over a 35-year career has underlined the country’s problem with benefit fraud and its dysfunctional pension system.

Carlo Cani started work as a miner in 1980 but soon found that he suffered from claustrophobia and hated being underground.

He started doing everything he could to avoid hacking away at the coal face, inventing an imaginative range of excuses for not venturing down the mine in Sardinia where he was employed.

He pretended to be suffering from amnesia and haemorrhoids, rubbed coal dust into his eyes to feign an infection and on occasion staggered around pretending to be drunk.

The miner, now aged 60, managed to accumulate years of sick leave, apparently with the help of compliant doctors, and was able to stay at home to indulge his passion for jazz.

He also spent extended periods of time at home on reduced pay when demand for coal from the mine dipped, under an Italian system known as “cassazione integrazione” in which employees are kept on the pay roll during periods of economic difficulty for their companies.

Despite his long periods of absence, he was still officially an employee of the mining company, Carbosulcis, and therefore eventually entitled to a pension.

“I invented everything – amnesia, pains, haemorrhoids, I used to lurch around as if I was drunk. I bumped my thumb on a wall and obviously you can’t work with a swollen thumb,” Mr Cani told La Stampa daily on Tuesday.

“Other times I would rub coal dust into my eyes. I just didn’t like the work – being a miner was not the job for me.”

But rather than find a different occupation, he managed to milk the system for 35 years, until retiring on a pension in 2006 at the age of just 52.

“I reached the pensionable age without hardly ever working. I hated being underground. “Right from the start, I had no affinity for coal.”

He said he had “respect” for his fellow miners, who had earned their pensions after “years of sweat and back-breaking work”, while he had mostly rested at home.

The case only came to light this week but has caused such a furore in Italy that Mr Cani is now refusing to take telephone calls.

He could not be contacted but another Carlo Cani, who is no relation but lives in the same area of southern Sardinia and has his number listed in the phone book, said: “People round here are absolutely furious about this – to think that someone could skive off work for so long and still get his pension. He even seems to be proud of that fact.

“It’s shameful. This is a poor region and there is no work. All the young people are leaving and moving to England and Germany.”

The former miner’s work-shy ways have caused indignation in a country in which youth unemployment is more than 40 per cent.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Bituminous coal. The type of coal not mined by retired “miner” Carlo Cani. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Cross-Connection Requires a Certain Daring

A previously unpublished essay by Isaac Asimov on the creative process shows us his well reasoned thinking on the subject. While he believed that deriving new ideas could be done productively in a group, he seemed to gravitate more towards the notion of the lone creative genius. Both, however, require the innovator(s) to cross-connect thoughts, often from disparate sources.

From Technology Review:

How do people get new ideas?

Presumably, the process of creativity, whatever it is, is essentially the same in all its branches and varieties, so that the evolution of a new art form, a new gadget, a new scientific principle, all involve common factors. We are most interested in the “creation” of a new scientific principle or a new application of an old one, but we can be general here.

One way of investigating the problem is to consider the great ideas of the past and see just how they were generated. Unfortunately, the method of generation is never clear even to the “generators” themselves.

But what if the same earth-shaking idea occurred to two men, simultaneously and independently? Perhaps, the common factors involved would be illuminating. Consider the theory of evolution by natural selection, independently created by Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace.

There is a great deal in common there. Both traveled to far places, observing strange species of plants and animals and the manner in which they varied from place to place. Both were keenly interested in finding an explanation for this, and both failed until each happened to read Malthus’s “Essay on Population.”

Both then saw how the notion of overpopulation and weeding out (which Malthus had applied to human beings) would fit into the doctrine of evolution by natural selection (if applied to species generally).

Obviously, then, what is needed is not only people with a good background in a particular field, but also people capable of making a connection between item 1 and item 2 which might not ordinarily seem connected.

Undoubtedly in the first half of the 19th century, a great many naturalists had studied the manner in which species were differentiated among themselves. A great many people had read Malthus. Perhaps some both studied species and read Malthus. But what you needed was someone who studied species, read Malthus, and had the ability to make a cross-connection.

That is the crucial point that is the rare characteristic that must be found. Once the cross-connection is made, it becomes obvious. Thomas H. Huxley is supposed to have exclaimed after reading On the Origin of Species, “How stupid of me not to have thought of this.”

But why didn’t he think of it? The history of human thought would make it seem that there is difficulty in thinking of an idea even when all the facts are on the table. Making the cross-connection requires a certain daring. It must, for any cross-connection that does not require daring is performed at once by many and develops not as a “new idea,” but as a mere “corollary of an old idea.”

It is only afterward that a new idea seems reasonable. To begin with, it usually seems unreasonable. It seems the height of unreason to suppose the earth was round instead of flat, or that it moved instead of the sun, or that objects required a force to stop them when in motion, instead of a force to keep them moving, and so on.

A person willing to fly in the face of reason, authority, and common sense must be a person of considerable self-assurance. Since he occurs only rarely, he must seem eccentric (in at least that respect) to the rest of us. A person eccentric in one respect is often eccentric in others.

Consequently, the person who is most likely to get new ideas is a person of good background in the field of interest and one who is unconventional in his habits. (To be a crackpot is not, however, enough in itself.)

Once you have the people you want, the next question is: Do you want to bring them together so that they may discuss the problem mutually, or should you inform each of the problem and allow them to work in isolation?

My feeling is that as far as creativity is concerned, isolation is required. The creative person is, in any case, continually working at it. His mind is shuffling his information at all times, even when he is not conscious of it. (The famous example of Kekule working out the structure of benzene in his sleep is well-known.)

The presence of others can only inhibit this process, since creation is embarrassing. For every new good idea you have, there are a hundred, ten thousand foolish ones, which you naturally do not care to display.

Nevertheless, a meeting of such people may be desirable for reasons other than the act of creation itself.

Read the entire article here.

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Non-Adaptive Evolution of the Very Small

Is every feature that arises from evolution an adaptation?  Some evolutionary biologists think not. That is, some traits arising from the process of natural section may be due to random occurrences that natural selection failed to discard. And, it seems that smaller organisms show this quite well. To many adaptationists this is heretical — but too some researchers it opens a new, fruitful avenue of inquiry, and may lead to a fine tuning in our understanding of the evolutionary process.

From New Scientist:

I have spent my life working on slime moulds and they sent me a message that started me thinking. What puzzled me was that two different forms are found side-by-side in the soil everywhere from the tundra to the tropics. The obvious difference lies in the tiny stalks that disperse their spores. In one species this fruiting body is branched, in the other it is not.

I had assumed that the branched and the unbranched forms occupied separate ecological niches but I could not imagine what those niches might be. Perhaps there were none and neither shape had an advantage over the other, as far as natural selection was concerned.

I wrote this up and sent it to a wise and respected friend who responded with a furious letter saying that my conclusion was absurd: it was easy to imagine ways in which the two kinds of stalks might be separate adaptations and co-exist everywhere in the soil. This set me thinking again and I soon realised that both my position and his were guesses. They were hypotheses and neither could be proved.

There is no concept that is more central to evolution than natural selection, so adding this extra dimension of randomness was heresy. Because of the overwhelming success of Darwin’s natural selection, biologists – certainly all evolutionary biologists – find it hard to believe that a feature of any organism can have arisen (with minor exceptions) in any other way. Natural selection favours random genetic mutations that offer an advantage, therefore many people believe that all properties of an organism are an adaptation. If one cannot find the adaptive reason for a feature of an organism, one should just assume that there was once one, or that there is one that will be revealed in the future.

This matter has created some heated arguments. For example, the renowned biologists Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin wrote an inflammatory paper in 1979 attacking adaptionists for being like Dr Pangloss, the incurable optimist in Voltaire’s 1759 satire Candide. While their point was well taken, its aggressive tone produced counterattacks. Adaptionists assume that every feature of an organism arises as an adaption, but I assume that some features are the results of random mutations that escape being culled by natural selection. This is what I was suggesting for the branched and unbranched fruiting bodies of the slime moulds.

How can these organisms escape the stranglehold of selection? One explanation grabbed me and I have clung to it ever since; in fact it is the backbone of my new book. The reason that these organisms might have shapes that are not governed by natural selection is because they are so small. It turns out there are good reasons why this might be the case.

Development is a long, slow process for large organisms. Humans spend nine months in utero and keep growing in different ways for a long time after birth. An elephant’s gestation is even longer (about two years) and a mouse’s much shorter, but they are all are vastly longer than a single-cell microorganism. Such small forms may divide every few hours; at most their development may span days, but whatever it is it will be a small fraction of that of a larger, more complex organism.

Large organisms develop in a series of steps usually beginning with the fertilisation of an egg that then goes through many cell divisions and an increase in size of the embryo, with many twists and turns as it progresses towards adulthood. These multitudinous steps involve the laying down of complex organs such as a heart or an eye.

Building a complex organism is an immense enterprise, and the steps are often interlocked in a sequence so that if an earlier step fails through a deleterious mutation, the result is very simple: the death of the embryo. I first came across this idea in a 1965 book by Lancelot Law Whyte called Internal Factors in Evolution and have been mystified ever since why the idea has been swallowed by oblivion. His thesis was straightforward. Not only is there selection of organisms in the environment – Darwinian natural selection, which is external – but there is also continuous internal selection during development. Maybe the idea was too simple and straightforward to have taken root.

This fits in neatly with my contention that the shape of microorganisms is more affected by randomness than for large, complex organisms. Being small means very few development steps, with little or no internal selection. The effect of a mutation is likely to be immediately evident in the external morphology, so adult variants are produced with large numbers of different shapes and there is an increased chance that some of these will be untouched by natural selection.

Compare this with what happens in a big, complex organism – a mammal, say. Only those mutations that occur at a late stage of development are likely to be viable – eye or hair colour in humans are obvious examples. Any unfavourable mutation that occurs earlier in development will likely be eliminated by internal selection.

Let us now examine the situation for microorganisms. What is the evidence that their shapes are less likely to be culled by natural selection? The best examples come from organisms that make mineral shells: Radiolaria (pictured) and diatoms with their silica skeletons and Foraminifera with their calciferous shells. About 50,000 species of radiolarians have been described, 100,000 species of diatoms and some 270,000 species among the Foraminifera – all with vastly different shapes. For example, radiolarian skeletons can be shaped like spiny balls, bells, crosses and octagonal pyramids, to name but a few.

If you are a strict adaptionist, you have to find a separate explanation for each shape. If you favour my suggestion that their shapes arose through random mutation and there is little or no selection, the problem vanishes. It turns out that this very problem concerned Darwin. In the third (and subsequent) editions of On the Origin of Species he has a passage that almost takes the wind out of my sails:

“If it were no advantage, these forms would be left by natural selection unimproved or but little improved; and might remain for indefinite ages in their present little advanced condition. And geology tells us that some of the lowest forms, as the infusoria and rhizopods, have remained for an enormous period in nearly their present state.”

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The Sandwich of Corporate Exploitation


If ever you needed a vivid example of corporate exploitation of the most vulnerable, this is it. So-called free-marketeers will sneer at any suggestion of corporate over-reach — they will chant that it’s just the free market at work. But, the rules of this market,
as are many others, are written and enforced by the patricians and well-stacked against the plebs.

From NYT:

If you are a chief executive of a large company, you very likely have a noncompete clause in your contract, preventing you from jumping ship to a competitor until some period has elapsed. Likewise if you are a top engineer or product designer, holding your company’s most valuable intellectual property between your ears.

And you also probably have a noncompete agreement if you assemble sandwiches at Jimmy John’s sub sandwich chain for a living.

But what’s most startling about that information, first reported by The Huffington Post, is that it really isn’t all that uncommon. As my colleague Steven Greenhouse reported this year, employers are now insisting that workers in a surprising variety of relatively low- and moderate-paid jobs sign noncompete agreements.

Indeed, while HuffPo has no evidence that Jimmy John’s, a 2,000-location sandwich chain, ever tried to enforce the agreement to prevent some $8-an-hour sandwich maker or delivery driver from taking a job at the Blimpie down the road, there are other cases where low-paid or entry-level workers have had an employer try to restrict their employability elsewhere. The Times article tells of a camp counselor and a hair stylist who faced such restrictions.

American businesses are paying out a historically low proportion of their income in the form of wages and salaries. But the Jimmy John’s employment agreement is one small piece of evidence that workers, especially those without advanced skills, are also facing various practices and procedures that leave them worse off, even apart from what their official hourly pay might be. Collectively they tilt the playing field toward the owners of businesses and away from the workers who staff them.

You see it in disputes like the one heading to the Supreme Court over whether workers at an Amazon warehouse in Nevada must be paid for the time they wait to be screened at the end of the workday to ensure they have no stolen goods on them.

It’s evident in continuing lawsuits against Federal Express claiming that its “independent contractors” who deliver packages are in fact employees who are entitled to benefits and reimbursements of costs they incur.

And it is shown in the way many retailers assign hourly workers inconvenient schedules that can change at the last minute, giving them little ability to plan their lives (my colleague Jodi Kantor wrote memorably about the human effects of those policies on a Starbucks coffee worker in August, and Starbucks rapidly said it would end many of them).

These stories all expose the subtle ways that employers extract more value from their entry-level workers, at the cost of their quality of life (or, in the case of the noncompete agreements, freedom to leave for a more lucrative offer).

What’s striking about some of these labor practices is the absence of reciprocity. When a top executive agrees to a noncompete clause in a contract, it is typically the product of a negotiation in which there is some symmetry: The executive isn’t allowed to quit for a competitor, but he or she is guaranteed to be paid for the length of the contract even if fired.

Read the entire story here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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Frenemies: The Religious Beheading and The Secular Guillotine

Secular ideologues in the West believe they are on the moral high-ground. The separation of church (and mosque or synagogue) from state is, they believe, the path to a more just, equal and less-violent culture. They will cite example after example in contemporary and recent culture of terrible violence in the name of religious extremism and fundamentalism.

And, yet, step back for a minute from the horrendous stories and images of atrocities wrought by religious fanatics in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Think of the recent histories of fledgling nations in Africa; the ethnic cleansings across much of Central and Eastern Europe — several times over; the egomaniacal tribal terrorists of Central Asia, the brutality of neo-fascists and their socialist bedfellows in Latin America. Delve deeper into these tragic histories — some still unfolding before our very eyes — and you will see a much more complex view of humanity.  Our tribal rivalries know no bounds and our violence towards others is certainly not limited only to the catalyst of religion. Yes, we fight for our religion, but we also fight for territory, politics, resources, nationalism, revenge, poverty, ego.  Soon the coming fights will be about water and food — these will make our wars over belief systems seem rather petty.

Scholar and author Karen Armstrong explores the complexities of religious and secular violence in the broader context of human struggle in her new book, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence.

From the Guardian:

As we watch the fighters of the Islamic State (Isis) rampaging through the Middle East, tearing apart the modern nation-states of Syria and Iraq created by departing European colonialists, it may be difficult to believe we are living in the 21st century. The sight of throngs of terrified refugees and the savage and indiscriminate violence is all too reminiscent of barbarian tribes sweeping away the Roman empire, or the Mongol hordes of Genghis Khan cutting a swath through China, Anatolia, Russia and eastern Europe, devastating entire cities and massacring their inhabitants. Only the wearily familiar pictures of bombs falling yet again on Middle Eastern cities and towns – this time dropped by the United States and a few Arab allies – and the gloomy predictions that this may become another Vietnam, remind us that this is indeed a very modern war.

The ferocious cruelty of these jihadist fighters, quoting the Qur’an as they behead their hapless victims, raises another distinctly modern concern: the connection between religion and violence. The atrocities of Isis would seem to prove that Sam Harris, one of the loudest voices of the “New Atheism”, was right to claim that “most Muslims are utterly deranged by their religious faith”, and to conclude that “religion itself produces a perverse solidarity that we must find some way to undercut”. Many will agree with Richard Dawkins, who wrote in The God Delusion that “only religious faith is a strong enough force to motivate such utter madness in otherwise sane and decent people”. Even those who find these statements too extreme may still believe, instinctively, that there is a violent essence inherent in religion, which inevitably radicalises any conflict – because once combatants are convinced that God is on their side, compromise becomes impossible and cruelty knows no bounds.

Despite the valiant attempts by Barack Obama and David Cameron to insist that the lawless violence of Isis has nothing to do with Islam, many will disagree. They may also feel exasperated. In the west, we learned from bitter experience that the fanatical bigotry which religion seems always to unleash can only be contained by the creation of a liberal state that separates politics and religion. Never again, we believed, would these intolerant passions be allowed to intrude on political life. But why, oh why, have Muslims found it impossible to arrive at this logicalsolution to their current problems? Why do they cling with perverse obstinacy to the obviously bad idea of theocracy? Why, in short, have they been unable to enter the modern world? The answer must surely lie in their primitive and atavistic religion.

But perhaps we should ask, instead, how it came about that we in the west developed our view of religion as a purely private pursuit, essentially separate from all other human activities, and especially distinct from politics. After all, warfare and violence have always been a feature of political life, and yet we alone drew the conclusion that separating the church from the state was a prerequisite for peace. Secularism has become so natural to us that we assume it emerged organically, as a necessary condition of any society’s progress into modernity. Yet it was in fact a distinct creation, which arose as a result of a peculiar concatenation of historical circumstances; we may be mistaken to assume that it would evolve in the same fashion in every culture in every part of the world.

We now take the secular state so much for granted that it is hard for us to appreciate its novelty, since before the modern period, there were no “secular” institutions and no “secular” states in our sense of the word. Their creation required the development of an entirely different understanding of religion, one that was unique to the modern west. No other culture has had anything remotely like it, and before the 18th century, it would have been incomprehensible even to European Catholics. The words in other languages that we translate as “religion” invariably refer to something vaguer, larger and more inclusive. The Arabic word dinsignifies an entire way of life, and the Sanskrit dharma covers law, politics, and social institutions as well as piety. The Hebrew Bible has no abstract concept of “religion”; and the Talmudic rabbis would have found it impossible to define faith in a single word or formula, because the Talmud was expressly designed to bring the whole of human life into the ambit of the sacred. The Oxford Classical Dictionary firmly states: “No word in either Greek or Latin corresponds to the English ‘religion’ or ‘religious’.” In fact, the only tradition that satisfies the modern western criterion of religion as a purely private pursuit is Protestant Christianity, which, like our western view of “religion”, was also a creation of the early modern period.

Traditional spirituality did not urge people to retreat from political activity. The prophets of Israel had harsh words for those who assiduously observed the temple rituals but neglected the plight of the poor and oppressed. Jesus’s famous maxim to “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” was not a plea for the separation of religion and politics. Nearly all the uprisings against Rome in first-century Palestine were inspired by the conviction that the Land of Israel and its produce belonged to God, so that there was, therefore, precious little to “give back” to Caesar. When Jesus overturned the money-changers’ tables in the temple, he was not demanding a more spiritualised religion. For 500 years, the temple had been an instrument of imperial control and the tribute for Rome was stored there. Hence for Jesus it was a “den of thieves”. The bedrock message of the Qur’an is that it is wrong to build a private fortune but good to share your wealth in order to create a just, egalitarian and decent society. Gandhi would have agreed that these were matters of sacred import: “Those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means.”

The myth of religious violence

Before the modern period, religion was not a separate activity, hermetically sealed off from all others; rather, it permeated all human undertakings, including economics, state-building, politics and warfare. Before 1700, it would have been impossible for people to say where, for example, “politics” ended and “religion” began. The Crusades were certainly inspired by religious passion but they were also deeply political: Pope Urban II let the knights of Christendom loose on the Muslim world to extend the power of the church eastwards and create a papal monarchy that would control Christian Europe. The Spanish inquisition was a deeply flawed attempt to secure the internal order of Spain after a divisive civil war, at a time when the nation feared an imminent attack by the Ottoman empire. Similarly, the European wars of religion and the thirty years war were certainly exacerbated by the sectarian quarrels of Protestants and Catholics, but their violence reflected the birth pangs of the modern nation-state.

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Past Experience is Good; Random Decision-Making is Better

We all know that making decisions from past experience is wise. We learn from the benefit of hindsight. We learn to make small improvements or radical shifts in our thinking and behaviors based on history and previous empirical evidence. Stock market gurus and investment mavens will tell you time after time that they have a proven method — based on empirical evidence and a lengthy, illustrious track record — for picking the next great stock or investing your hard-earned retirement funds.

Yet, empirical evidence shows that chimpanzees throwing darts at the WSJ stock pages are just as good at stock market tips as we humans (and the “masters of the universe”). So, it seems that random decision-making can be just as good, if not better, than wisdom and experience.

From the Guardian:

No matter how much time you spend reading the recent crop of books on How To Decide or How To Think Clearly, you’re unlikely to encounter glowing references to a decision-making system formerly used by the Azande of central Africa. Faced with a dilemma, tribespeople would force poison down the neck of a chicken while asking questions of the “poison oracle”; the chicken answered by surviving (“yes”) or expiring (“no”). Clearly, this was cruel to chickens. That aside, was it such a terrible way to choose among options? The anthropologist EE Evans-Pritchard, who lived with the Azande in the 1920s, didn’t think so. “I always kept a supply of poison [and] we regulated our affairs in accordance with the oracle’s decisions,” he wrote, adding drily: “I found this as satisfactory a way of running my home and affairs as any other I know of.” You could dismiss that as a joke. After all, chicken-poisoning is plainly superstition, delivering random results. But what if random results are sometimes exactly what you need?

The other day, US neuroscientists published details of experiments on rats, showing that in certain unpredictable situations, they stop trying to make decisions based on past experience. Instead, a circuit in their brains switches to “random mode”. The researchers’ hunch is that this serves a purpose: past experience is usually helpful, but when uncertainty levels are high, it can mislead, so randomness is in the rats’ best interests. When we’re faced with the unfamiliar, experience can mislead humans, too, partly because we filter it through various irrational biases. According to those books on thinking clearly, we should strive to overcome these biases, thus making more rational calculations. But there’s another way to bypass our biased brains: copy the rats, and choose randomly.

In certain walks of life, the usefulness of randomness is old news: the stock market, say, is so unpredictable that, to quote the economist Burton Malkiel, “a blindfolded monkey throwing darts at a newspaper’s financial pages could select a portfolio that would do as well as one carefully selected by experts”. (This has been tried, with simulated monkeys, andthey beat the market.) But, generally, as Michael Schulson put it recentlyin an Aeon magazine essay, “We take it for granted that the best decisions stem from empirical analysis and informed choice.” Yet consider, he suggests, the ancient Greek tradition of filling some government positions by lottery. Randomness disinfects a process that might be dirtied by corruption.

Randomness can be similarly useful in everyday life. For tiny choices, it’s a time-saver: pick randomly from a menu, and you can get back to chatting with friends. For bigger ones, it’s an acknowledgment of how little one can ever know about the complex implications of a decision. Let’s be realistic: for the biggest decisions, such as whom to marry, trusting to randomness feels absurd. But if you can up the randomness quotient for marginally less weighty choices, especially when uncertainty prevails, you may find it pays off. Though kindly refrain from poisoning any chickens.

Read the entire article here.

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The future of good design may actually lie in intentionally doing the wrong thing. While we are drawn to the beauty of symmetry — in faces, in objects — we are also drawn by the promise of imperfection.

From Wired:

In the late 1870s, Edgar Degas began work on what would become one of his most radical paintings, Jockeys Before the Race. Degas had been schooled in techniques of the neoclassicist and romanticist masters but had begun exploring subject matter beyond the portraits and historical events that were traditionally considered suitable for fine art, training his eye on café culture, common laborers, and—most famously—ballet dancers. But with Jockeys, Degas pushed past mild provocation. He broke some of the most established formulas of composition. The painting is technically exquisite, the horses vividly sculpted with confident brushstrokes, their musculature perfectly rendered. But while composing this beautifully balanced, impressionistically rendered image, Degas added a crucial, jarring element: a pole running vertically—and asymmetrically—in the immediate foreground, right through the head of one of the horses.

Degas wasn’t just “thinking outside of the box,” as the innovation cliché would have it. He wasn’t trying to overturn convention to find a more perfect solution. He was purposely creating something that wasn’t pleasing, intentionally doing the wrong thing. Naturally viewers were horrified. Jockeys was lampooned in the magazine Punch, derided as a “mistaken impression.” But over time, Degas’ transgression provided inspiration for other artists eager to find new ways to inject vitality and dramatic tension into work mired in convention. You can see its influence across art history, from Frederic Remington’s flouting of traditional compositional technique to the crackling photojournalism of Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Degas was engaged in a strategy that has shown up periodically for centuries across every artistic and creative field. Think of it as one step in a cycle: In the early stages, practitioners dedicate themselves to inventing and improving the rules—how to craft the most pleasing chord progression, the perfectly proportioned building, the most precisely rendered amalgamation of rhyme and meter. Over time, those rules become laws, and artists and designers dedicate themselves to excelling within these agreed-upon parameters, creating work of unparalleled refinement and sophistication—the Pantheon, the Sistine Chapel, the Goldberg Variations. But once a certain maturity has been reached, someone comes along who decides to take a different route. Instead of trying to create an ever more polished and perfect artifact, this rebel actively seeks out imperfection—sticking a pole in the middle of his painting, intentionally adding grungy feedback to a guitar solo, deliberately photographing unpleasant subjects. Eventually some of these creative breakthroughs end up becoming the foundation of a new set of aesthetic rules, and the cycle begins again.


For the past 30 years, the field of technology design has been working its way through the first two stages of this cycle, an industry-wide march toward more seamless experiences, more delightful products, more leverage over the world around us. Look at our computers: beige and boxy desktop machines gave way to bright and colorful iMacs, which gave way to sleek and sexy laptops, which gave way to addictively touchable smartphones. It’s hard not to look back at this timeline and see it as a great story of human progress, a joint effort to experiment and learn and figure out the path toward a more refined and universally pleasing design.

All of this has resulted in a world where beautifully constructed tech is more powerful and more accessible than ever before. It is also more consistent. That’s why all smartphones now look basically the same—gleaming black glass with handsomely cambered edges. Google, Apple, and Microsoft all use clean, sans-serif typefaces in their respective software. After years of experimentation, we have figured out what people like and settled on some rules.

But there’s a downside to all this consensus—it can get boring. From smartphones to operating systems to web page design, it can start to feel like the truly transformational moments have come and gone, replaced by incremental updates that make our devices and interactions faster and better.

This brings us to an important and exciting moment in the design of our technologies. We have figured out the rules of creating sleek sophistication. We know, more or less, how to get it right. Now, we need a shift in perspective that allows us to move forward. We need a pole right through a horse’s head. We need to enter the third stage of this cycle. It’s time to stop figuring out how to do things the right way, and start getting it wrong.

In late 2006, when I was creative director here at WIRED, I was working on the design of a cover featuring John Hodgman. We were far along in the process—Hodgman was styled and photographed, the cover lines written, our fonts selected, the layout firmed up. I had been aiming for a timeless design with a handsome monochromatic color palette, a cover that evoked a 1960s jet-set vibe. When I presented my finished design, WIRED’s editor at the time, Chris Anderson, complained that the cover was too drab. He uttered the prescriptive phrase all graphic designers hate hearing: “Can’t you just add more colors?”

I demurred. I felt the cover was absolutely perfect. But Chris did not, and so, in a spasm of designerly “fuck you,” I drew a small rectangle into my design, a little stripe coming off from the left side of the page, rudely breaking my pristine geometries. As if that weren’t enough, I filled it with the ugliest hue I could find: neon orange— Pantone 811, to be precise. My perfect cover was now ruined!

By the time I came to my senses a couple of weeks later, it was too late. The cover had already been sent to the printer. My anger morphed into regret. To the untrained eye, that little box might not seem so offensive, but I felt that I had betrayed one of the most crucial lessons I learned in design school—that every graphic element should serve a recognizable function. This stray dash of color was careless at best, a postmodernist deviation with no real purpose or value. It confused my colleagues and detracted from the cover’s clarity, unnecessarily making the reader more conscious of the design.

But you know what? I actually came to like that crass little neon orange bar. I ended up including a version of it on the next month’s cover, and again the month after that. It added something, even though I couldn’t explain what it was. I began referring to this idea—intentionally making “bad” design choices—as Wrong Theory, and I started applying it in little ways to all of WIRED’s pages. Pictures that were supposed to run large, I made small. Where type was supposed to run around graphics, I overlapped the two. Headlines are supposed to come at the beginning of stories? I put them at the end. I would even force our designers to ruin each other’s “perfect” layouts.

At the time, this represented a major creative breakthrough for me—the idea that intentional wrongness could yield strangely pleasing results. Of course I was familiar with the idea of rule-breaking innovation—that each generation reacts against the one that came before it, starting revolutions, turning its back on tired conventions. But this was different. I wasn’t just throwing out the rulebook and starting from scratch. I was following the rules, then selectively breaking one or two for maximum impact.

Read the entire article here.

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MondayMap: Music


If you decide to do only one thing today, do this: visit everynoise, discover new music and have some expansive auditory fun.

Every Noise At Once is the brainchild of Glenn McDonald, a self-described data alchemist. He has sampled and categorized popular music into an astounding 1,264 genres — at current estimates.

You’re probably familiar with glam rock, emo punk, motown, ambient, garage, house, dub step, rap, metal and so on. But are you up on: neo-synthpop, fallen angel, deep orgcore, neurostep, death metal, skweee and cow punk? Well, here’s your chance to find out and expand your senses and your mind.

From the Guardian:

Music used to be easy. Some people liked rock. Some people liked pop. Some people liked jazz, blues or classical. And, basically, that was sort of it. However, musicians are a restless bunch and you can only play Smoke on the Water, Always Crashing in the Same Car or Roast Fish and Cornbread so many times before someone is bound to say: “Hang on a minute, what would happen if we played them all at the same time?” And so it is that new genres are born. Now imagine that happening for at least half a century or so – all over the world – and you reach a point at which, according to the engineer and “data alchemist” Glenn McDonald, there are now 1,264 genres of popular music; all you need to do is go directly to his startlingly website and look – well, listen – for yourself.

Every Noise at Once is an ongoing attempt to build an algorithmically generated map of the entire musical genre-space, based on data tracked and analysed by Spotify’s music-intelligence division, The Echo Nest. It is also – in truth – one of the greatest time-eating devices ever created. You thought you had some kind of idea of just how much music is out there? You don’t. I don’t. But McDonald does. So he’s covered those genres – such as death metal, techno or hip-hop, which you’ll have heard of. Others, such as electro trash, indietronica or hard glam you may only have the most passing acquaintance with. Then, rather wonderfully, there are the outliers, those genres that you almost certainly didn’t even know existed – much less ever explored – suomi rock, shimmer psych,fourth world – right there at your fingertips any time you please. But the question is: what lives even further out than the outliers? How odd can it all get? Well, here are 10 genres (we could have nominated about 50) that even mouth-breathing indie record-shop blowhards (full disclosure: I used to be a mouth-breathing indie-record shop blowhard) would be hardpressed to help you find …

Read the entire story and sample some bands here.

Image: Every Noise at Once, screenshot. Courtesy of Glenn McDonald, Every Noise at Once.

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Slow Reading is Catching on Fast (Again)

Pursuing a cherished activity, uninterrupted, with no distraction is one of life’s pleasures. Many who multi-task and brag about it have long forgotten the benefits of deep focus and immersion in one single, prolonged task. Reading can be such a process — and over the last several years researchers have found that distraction-free, thoughtful reading — slow reading — is beneficial.

So, please put down your tablet, laptop, smartphone and TV remote after you read this post, go find an unread book, shut out your daily distractions — kids, news, Facebook, boss, grocery lists, plumber — and immerse yourself in the words on a page, and nothing else. It will relieve you of stress and benefit your brain.

From WSJ:

Once a week, members of a Wellington, New Zealand, book club arrive at a cafe, grab a drink and shut off their cellphones. Then they sink into cozy chairs and read in silence for an hour.

The point of the club isn’t to talk about literature, but to get away from pinging electronic devices and read, uninterrupted. The group calls itself the Slow Reading Club, and it is at the forefront of a movement populated by frazzled book lovers who miss old-school reading.

Slow reading advocates seek a return to the focused reading habits of years gone by, before Google, smartphones and social media started fracturing our time and attention spans. Many of its advocates say they embraced the concept after realizing they couldn’t make it through a book anymore.

“I wasn’t reading fiction the way I used to,” said Meg Williams, a 31-year-old marketing manager for an annual arts festival who started the club. “I was really sad I’d lost the thing I used to really, really enjoy.”

Slow readers list numerous benefits to a regular reading habit, saying it improves their ability to concentrate, reduces stress levels and deepens their ability to think, listen and empathize. The movement echoes a resurgence in other old-fashioned, time-consuming pursuits that offset the ever-faster pace of life, such as cooking the “slow-food” way or knitting by hand.

The benefits of reading from an early age through late adulthood have been documented by researchers. A study of 300 elderly people published by the journal Neurology last year showed that regular engagement in mentally challenging activities, including reading, slowed rates of memory loss in participants’ later years.

A study published last year in Science showed that reading literary fiction helps people understand others’ mental states and beliefs, a crucial skill in building relationships. A piece of research published in Developmental Psychology in 1997 showed first-grade reading ability was closely linked to 11th grade academic achievements.

Yet reading habits have declined in recent years. In a survey this year, about 76% of Americans 18 and older said they read at least one book in the past year, down from 79% in 2011, according to the Pew Research Center.

Attempts to revive reading are cropping up in many places. Groups in Seattle, Brooklyn, Boston and Minneapolis have hosted so-called silent reading parties, with comfortable chairs, wine and classical music.

Diana La Counte of Orange County, Calif., set up what she called a virtual slow-reading group a few years ago, with members discussing the group’s book selection online, mostly on Facebook. “When I realized I read Twitter more than a book, I knew it was time for action,” she says.

Read the entire story here.

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Cellphone Only Lanes


You’ve seen the high occupancy vehicle lane on select highways. You’ve seen pedestrian only zones. You’ve seen cycle friendly zones. Now, it’s time for the slow walking lane — for pedestrians using smartphones! Perhaps we’ll eventually see separate lanes for tourists with tablets, smartwatch users and, of course, a completely separate zone for texting t(w)eens.

From the Independent:

The Chinese city of Chongqing claims to have introduced the world’s first ‘slow-walking lane’ for smartphone users.

No more will the most efficient of pedestrians be forced to stare frustratedly at the occiput of their meandering counterparts.

Two 100-ft lanes have been painted on to a pavement in the city, with one side reserved for those wanting to stare into their handheld device and the other exclusively for those who can presumably spare five minutes without checking their latest Weibo update.

However, according to the Telegraph, officials in Chongqing only introduced the signage to make the point that “it is best not to play with your phone while walking”.

Read the entire story here.

Image: City of Chongqing. Courtesy of the Independent.


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Texas and Its Textbooks: The Farce Continues

Just over a year ago I highlighted the plight of accepted scholarly fact in Texas. The state, through its infamous School Board of Education (SBOE), had just completed a lengthy effort to revise many textbooks for middle- and high-school curricula. The SBOE and its ideological supporters throughout the Texas political machine managed to insert numerous dubious claims, fictitious statements in place of agreed upon facts and handfuls of slanted opinion in all manner of historical and social science texts. Many academics and experts in their respective fields raised alarms over the process. But the SBOE derided these “liberal elitists”, and openly flaunted its distaste for fact, preferring to distort historical record with undertones of conservative Christianity.

Many non-Texan progressives and believers-in-fact laughingly shook their heads knowing that Texas could and should be left its own devices. Unfortunately, for the rest of the country, Texas has so much buying power that textbook publishers will often publish with Texas in mind, but distribute their books throughout the entire nation.

So now it comes as no surprise to find that many newly, or soon to be, published Texas textbooks for grades 6-12 are riddled with errors. An academic review of 43 textbooks highlights the disaster waiting to happen to young minds in Texas, and across many other states. The Texas SBOE will take a vote on which books to approve in November.

Some choice examples of the errors and half-truths below.

All of the world geography textbooks inaccurately downplay the role that conquest played in the spread of Christianity.

Discovery Education — Social Studies Techbook World Geography and Cultures

The text states: “When Europeans arrived, they brought Christianity with them and spread it among the indigenous people. Over time, Christianity became the main religion in Latin America.”

Pearson Education – Contemporary World Cultures

The text states: “Priests came to Mexico to convert Native Americans to the Roman Catholic religion. The Church became an important part of life in the new colony. Churches were built in the centers of towns and cities, and church officials became leaders in the colony.”

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt – World Geography

The text states: “The Spanish brought their language and Catholic religion, both of which dominate modern Mexico.”


All but two of the world geography textbooks fail to mention the Spaniards’ forced conversions of the indigenous peoples to Christianity (e.g., the Spanish Requerimiento of 1513) and their often-systematic destruction of indigenous religious institutions. The two exceptions (Cengage Learning, Inc. – World Cultures and Geography and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt – World Geography) delay this grim news until a chapter on South America, and even there do not give it the prominence it deserves.

What’s Wrong?

The Christianization of the indigenous peoples of the Americas was most decidedly not benign. These descriptions provide a distorted picture of the spread of Christianity. An accurate account must include information about the forced conversion of native peoples and the often-systematic destruction of indigenous religious institutions and practices. (This error of omission is especially problematic when contrasted with the emphasis on conquest – often violent – to describe the spread of Islam in some textbooks.)

One world history textbook (by Worldview Software, Inc.) includes outdated – and possibly offensive – anthropological categories and racial terminology in describing African civilization.

WorldView Software – World History A: Early Civilizations to the Mid-1800s

The text states: “South of the Sahara Desert most of the people before the Age of Explorations were black Africans of the Negro race.”

 Elsewhere, the text states: “The first known inhabitants of Africa north of the Sahara in prehistory were Caucasoid Hamitic people of uncertain origin.”

What’s Wrong?

First, the term “Negro” is archaic and fraught with ulterior meaning. It should categorically not be used in a modern textbook. Further, the first passage is unforgivably misleading because it suggests that all black native Africans belong to a single “racial” group. This is typological thinking, which disappeared largely from texts after the 1940s. It harkens back to the racialization theory that all people could be classified as one of three “races”: Caucasoid, Mongoloid, or Negroid. Better to say: “…were natives of African origin.” Similarly, in the second passage, it is more accurate to simply omit reference to “Caucasoid.”

From the Washington Post:

When it comes to controversies about curriculum, textbook content and academic standards, Texas is the state that keeps on giving.

Back in 2010, we had an uproar over proposed changes to social studies standards by religious conservatives on the State Board of Education, which included a bid to calling the United States’ hideous slave trade history as the “Atlantic triangular trade.” There were other doozies, too, such as one proposal to remove Thomas Jefferson from the Enlightenment curriculum and replace him with John Calvin. Some were changed but the board’s approved standards were roundly criticized as distorted history.

There’s a new fuss about proposed social studies textbooks for Texas public schools that are based on what are called the Texas Essential  Knowledge  and  Skills.  Scholarly reviews of 43 proposed history, geography and government textbooks for Grades 6-12 — undertaken by the Education Fund of the Texas Freedom Network, a watchdog and activist group that monitors far-right issues and organizations — found extensive problems in American Government textbooks, U.S. and World History textbooks,Religion in World History textbooks, and Religion in World Geography textbooks.  The state board will vote on which books to approve in November.

Ideas promoted in various proposed textbooks include the notion that Moses and Solomon inspired American democracy, that in the era of segregation only “sometimes” were schools for black children “lower in quality” and that Jews view Jesus Christ as an important prophet.

Here are the broad findings of 10 scholars, who wrote four separate reports, taken from an executive summary, followed by the names of the scholars and a list of publishers who submitted textbooks.

The findings:

  • A number of government and world history textbooks exaggerate Judeo-Christian influence on the nation’s founding and Western political tradition.
  • Two government textbooks include misleading information that undermines the Constitutional concept of the separation of church and state.
  • Several world history and world geography textbooks include biased statements that inappropriately portray Islam and Muslims negatively.
  • All of the world geography textbooks inaccurately downplay the role that conquest played in the spread of Christianity.
  • Several world geography and history textbooks suffer from an incomplete – and often inaccurate – account of religions other than Christianity.
  • Coverage of key Christian concepts and historical events are lacking in a few textbooks, often due to the assumption that all students are Christians and already familiar with Christian events and doctrine.
  • A few government and U.S. history textbooks suffer from an uncritical celebration of the free enterprise system, both by ignoring legitimate problems that exist in capitalism and failing to include coverage of government’s role in the U.S. economic system.
  • One government textbook flirts with contemporary Tea Party ideology, particularly regarding the inclusion of anti-taxation and anti-regulation arguments.
  • One world history textbook includes outdated – and possibly offensive – anthropological categories and racial terminology in describing African civilization.

Read the entire article here and check out the academic report here.


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MondayMap: Our New Address — Laniakea


Once upon a time we humans sat smugly at the center of the universe. Now, many of us (though, not yet all) know better. Over the the last several centuries we learned and accepted that the Earth spun around the nearest Star, and not the converse. We then learned that the Sun formed part of an immense galaxy, the Milky Way, itself spinning in a vast cosmological dance. More recently, we learned that the Milky Way formed part of a larger cluster of galaxies, known as the Local Group.

Now we find that our Local Group is a mere speck within an immense supercluster containing around 100,000 galaxies spanning half a billion light years. Researchers have dubbed this galactic supercluster, rather aptly, Laniakea, Hawaiian for “immense heaven”. Laniakea is your new address. And, fascinatingly, Laniakea is moving towards an even larger grouping of galaxies named the Shapely supercluster.

From the Guardian:

In what amounts to a back-to-school gift for pupils with nerdier leanings, researchers have added a fresh line to the cosmic address of humanity. No longer will a standard home address followed by “the Earth, the solar system, the Milky Way, the universe” suffice for aficionados of the extended astronomical location system.

The extra line places the Milky Way in a vast network of neighbouring galaxies or “supercluster” that forms a spectacular web of stars and planets stretching across 520m light years of our local patch of universe. Named Laniakea, meaning “immeasurable heaven” in Hawaiian, the supercluster contains 100,000 large galaxies that together have the mass of 100 million billion suns.

Our home galaxy, the Milky Way, lies on the far outskirts of Laniakea near the border with another supercluster of galaxies named Perseus-Pisces. “When you look at it in three dimensions, is looks like a sphere that’s been badly beaten up and we are over near the edge, being pulled towards the centre,” said Brent Tully, an astronomer at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu.

Astronomers have long known that just as the solar system is part of the Milky Way, so the Milky Way belongs to a cosmic structure that is much larger still. But their attempts to define the larger structure had been thwarted because it was impossible to work out where one cluster of galaxies ended and another began.

Tully’s team gathered measurements on the positions and movement of more than 8,000 galaxies and, after discounting the expansion of the universe, worked out which were being pulled towards us and which were being pulled away. This allowed the scientists to define superclusters of galaxies that all moved in the same direction (if you’re reading this story on a mobile device, click here to watch a video explaining the research).

The work published in Nature gives astronomers their first look at the vast group of galaxies to which the Milky Way belongs. A narrow arch of galaxies connects Laniakea to the neighbouring Perseus-Pisces supercluster, while two other superclusters called Shapley and Coma lie on the far side of our own.

Tully said the research will help scientists understand why the Milky Way is hurtling through space at 600km a second towards the constellation of Centaurus. Part of the reason is the gravitational pull of other galaxies in our supercluster.

“But our whole supercluster is being pulled in the direction of this other supercluster, Shapley, though it remains to be seen if that’s all that’s going on,” said Tully.

Read the entire article here or the nerdier paper here.

Image: Laniakea: Our Home Supercluster of Galaxies. The blue dot represents the location of the Milky Way. Courtesy: R. Brent Tully (U. Hawaii) et al., SDvision, DP, CEA/Saclay.

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Theism Versus Spirituality

Prominent neo-atheist Sam Harris continues to reject theism, and does so thoughtfully and eloquently. In his latest book, Waking Up, he continues to argue the case against religion, but makes a powerful case for spirituality. Harris defines spirituality as an inner sense of a good and powerful reality, based on sound self-awarenesses and insightful questioning of one’s own consciousness. This type of spirituality, quite rightly, is devoid of theistic angels and demons. Harris reveals more in his interview with Gary Gutting, professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame.

From the NYT:

Sam Harris is a neuroscientist and prominent “new atheist,” who along with others like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens helped put criticism of religion at the forefront of public debate in recent years. In two previous books, “The End of Faith” and “Letter to a Christian Nation,” Harris argued that theistic religion has no place in a world of science. In his latest book, “Waking Up,” his thought takes a new direction. While still rejecting theism, Harris nonetheless makes a case for the value of “spirituality,” which he bases on his experiences in meditation. I interviewed him recently about the book and some of the arguments he makes in it.

Gary Gutting: A common basis for atheism is naturalism — the view that only science can give a reliable account of what’s in the world. But in “Waking Up” you say that consciousness resists scientific description, which seems to imply that it’s a reality beyond the grasp of science. Have you moved away from an atheistic view?

Sam Harris: I don’t actually argue that consciousness is “a reality” beyond the grasp of science. I just think that it is conceptually irreducible — that is, I don’t think we can fully understand it in terms of unconscious information processing. Consciousness is “subjective”— not in the pejorative sense of being unscientific, biased or merely personal, but in the sense that it is intrinsically first-person, experiential and qualitative.

The only thing in this universe that suggests the reality of consciousness is consciousness itself. Many philosophers have made this argument in one way or another — Thomas Nagel, John Searle, David Chalmers. And while I don’t agree with everything they say about consciousness, I agree with them on this point.

The primary approach to understanding consciousness in neuroscience entails correlating changes in its contents with changes in the brain. But no matter how reliable these correlations become, they won’t allow us to drop the first-person side of the equation. The experiential character of consciousness is part of the very reality we are studying. Consequently, I think science needs to be extended to include a disciplined approach to introspection.

G.G.: But science aims at objective truth, which has to be verifiable: open to confirmation by other people. In what sense do you think first-person descriptions of subjective experience can be scientific?

S.H.: In a very strong sense. The only difference between claims about first-person experience and claims about the physical world is that the latter are easier for others to verify. That is an important distinction in practical terms — it’s easier to study rocks than to study moods — but it isn’t a difference that marks a boundary between science and non-science. Nothing, in principle, prevents a solitary genius on a desert island from doing groundbreaking science. Confirmation by others is not what puts the “truth” in a truth claim. And nothing prevents us from making objective claims about subjective experience.

Are you thinking about Margaret Thatcher right now? Well, now you are. Were you thinking about her exactly six minutes ago? Probably not. There are answers to questions of this kind, whether or not anyone is in a position to verify them.

And certain truths about the nature of our minds are well worth knowing. For instance, the anger you felt yesterday, or a year ago, isn’t here anymore, and if it arises in the next moment, based on your thinking about the past, it will quickly pass away when you are no longer thinking about it. This is a profoundly important truth about the mind — and it can be absolutely liberating to understand it deeply. If you do understand it deeply — that is, if you are able to pay clear attention to the arising and passing away of anger, rather than merely think about why you have every right to be angry — it becomes impossible to stay angry for more than a few moments at a time. Again, this is an objective claim about the character of subjective experience. And I invite our readers to test it in the laboratory of their own minds.

G. G.: Of course, we all have some access to what other people are thinking or feeling. But that access is through probable inference and so lacks the special authority of first-person descriptions. Suppose I told you that in fact I didn’t think of Margaret Thatcher when I read your comment, because I misread your text as referring to Becky Thatcher in “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”? If that’s true, I have evidence for it that you can’t have. There are some features of consciousness that we will agree on. But when our first-person accounts differ, then there’s no way to resolve the disagreement by looking at one another’s evidence. That’s very different from the way things are in science.

S.H.: This difference doesn’t run very deep. People can be mistaken about the world and about the experiences of others — and they can even be mistaken about the character of their own experience. But these forms of confusion aren’t fundamentally different. Whatever we study, we are obliged to take subjective reports seriously, all the while knowing that they are sometimes false or incomplete.

For instance, consider an emotion like fear. We now have many physiological markers for fear that we consider quite reliable, from increased activity in the amygdala and spikes in blood cortisol to peripheral physiological changes like sweating palms. However, just imagine what would happen if people started showing up in the lab complaining of feeling intense fear without showing any of these signs — and they claimed to feel suddenly quite calm when their amygdalae lit up on fMRI, their cortisol spiked, and their skin conductance increased. We would no longer consider these objective measures of fear to be valid. So everything still depends on people telling us how they feel and our (usually) believing them.

However, it is true that people can be very poor judges of their inner experience. That is why I think disciplined training in a technique like “mindfulness,” apart from its personal benefits, can be scientifically important.

Read the entire story here.

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An Ode to the Monopolist

Peter Thiel on why entrepreneurs should strive for monopoly and avoid competition. If only it were that simple for esoteric restaurants, innovative technology companies and all startup businesses in between.

From WSJ:

What valuable company is nobody building? This question is harder than it looks, because your company could create a lot of value without becoming very valuable itself. Creating value isn’t enough—you also need to capture some of the value you create.

This means that even very big businesses can be bad businesses. For example, U.S. airline companies serve millions of passengers and create hundreds of billions of dollars of value each year. But in 2012, when the average airfare each way was $178, the airlines made only 37 cents per passenger trip. Compare them to Google which creates less value but captures far more. Google brought in $50 billion in 2012 (versus $160 billion for the airlines), but it kept 21% of those revenues as profits—more than 100 times the airline industry’s profit margin that year. Google makes so much money that it is now worth three times more than every U.S. airline combined.

The airlines compete with each other, but Google stands alone. Economists use two simplified models to explain the difference: perfect competition and monopoly.

“Perfect competition” is considered both the ideal and the default state in Economics 101. So-called perfectly competitive markets achieve equilibrium when producer supply meets consumer demand. Every firm in a competitive market is undifferentiated and sells the same homogeneous products. Since no firm has any market power, they must all sell at whatever price the market determines. If there is money to be made, new firms will enter the market, increase supply, drive prices down and thereby eliminate the profits that attracted them in the first place. If too many firms enter the market, they’ll suffer losses, some will fold, and prices will rise back to sustainable levels. Under perfect competition, in the long run no company makes an economic profit.

The opposite of perfect competition is monopoly. Whereas a competitive firm must sell at the market price, a monopoly owns its market, so it can set its own prices. Since it has no competition, it produces at the quantity and price combination that maximizes its profits.

To an economist, every monopoly looks the same, whether it deviously eliminates rivals, secures a license from the state or innovates its way to the top. I’m not interested in illegal bullies or government favorites: By “monopoly,” I mean the kind of company that is so good at what it does that no other firm can offer a close substitute. Google is a good example of a company that went from 0 to 1: It hasn’t competed in search since the early 2000s, when it definitively distanced itself from Microsoft and Yahoo!

Americans mythologize competition and credit it with saving us from socialist bread lines. Actually, capitalism and competition are opposites. Capitalism is premised on the accumulation of capital, but under perfect competition, all profits get competed away. The lesson for entrepreneurs is clear: If you want to create and capture lasting value, don’t build an undifferentiated commodity business.

How much of the world is actually monopolistic? How much is truly competitive? It is hard to say because our common conversation about these matters is so confused. To the outside observer, all businesses can seem reasonably alike, so it is easy to perceive only small differences between them. But the reality is much more binary than that. There is an enormous difference between perfect competition and monopoly, and most businesses are much closer to one extreme than we commonly realize.

The confusion comes from a universal bias for describing market conditions in self-serving ways: Both monopolists and competitors are incentivized to bend the truth.

Monopolists lie to protect themselves. They know that bragging about their great monopoly invites being audited, scrutinized and attacked. Since they very much want their monopoly profits to continue unmolested, they tend to do whatever they can to conceal their monopoly—usually by exaggerating the power of their (nonexistent) competition.

Think about how Google talks about its business. It certainly doesn’t claim to be a monopoly. But is it one? Well, it depends: a monopoly in what? Let’s say that Google is primarily a search engine. As of May 2014, it owns about 68% of the search market. (Its closest competitors, Microsoft and Yahoo! have about 19% and 10%, respectively.) If that doesn’t seem dominant enough, consider the fact that the word “google” is now an official entry in the Oxford English Dictionary—as a verb. Don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen to Bing.

But suppose we say that Google is primarily an advertising company. That changes things. The U.S. search-engine advertising market is $17 billion annually. Online advertising is $37 billion annually. The entire U.S. advertising market is $150 billion. And global advertising is a $495 billion market. So even if Google completely monopolized U.S. search-engine advertising, it would own just 3.4% of the global advertising market. From this angle, Google looks like a small player in a competitive world.

What if we frame Google as a multifaceted technology company instead? This seems reasonable enough; in addition to its search engine, Google makes dozens of other software products, not to mention robotic cars, Android phones and wearable computers. But 95% of Google’s revenue comes from search advertising; its other products generated just $2.35 billion in 2012 and its consumer-tech products a mere fraction of that. Since consumer tech is a $964 billion market globally, Google owns less than 0.24% of it—a far cry from relevance, let alone monopoly. Framing itself as just another tech company allows Google to escape all sorts of unwanted attention.

Non-monopolists tell the opposite lie: “We’re in a league of our own.” Entrepreneurs are always biased to understate the scale of competition, but that is the biggest mistake a startup can make. The fatal temptation is to describe your market extremely narrowly so that you dominate it by definition.

Read the entire article here.

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The Next (and Final) Doomsday Scenario

Personally, I love dystopian visions and apocalyptic nightmares. So, news that the famed Higgs boson may ultimately cause our demise, and incidentally the end of the entire cosmos, caught my attention.

Apparently theoreticians have calculated that the Higgs potential of which the Higgs boson is a manifestation has characteristics that make the universe unstable. (The Higgs was discovered in 2012 by teams at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.) Luckily for those wishing to avoid the final catastrophe this instability may keep the universe intact for several more billions of years, and if suddenly the Higgs were to trigger the final apocalypse it would be at the speed of light.

From Popular Mechanics:

In July 2012, when scientists at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider culminated decades of work with their discovery of the Higgs boson, most physicists celebrated. Stephen Hawking did not. The famed theorist expressed his disappointmentthat nothing more unusual was found, calling the discovery “a pity in a way.” But did he ever say the Higgs could destroy the universe?

That’s what many reports in the media said earlier this week, quoting a preface Hawking wrote to a book called Starmus. According to The Australian, the preface reads in part: “The Higgs potential has the worrisome feature that it might become metastable at energies above 100 [billion] gigaelectronvolts (GeV). This could mean that the universe could undergo catastrophic vacuum decay, with a bubble of the true vacuum expanding at the speed of light. This could happen at any time and we wouldn’t see it coming.”

What Hawking is talking about here is not the Higgs boson but what’s called the Higgs potential, which are “totally different concepts,” says Katie Mack, a theoretical astrophysicist at Melbourne University. The Higgs field permeates the entire universe, and the Higgs boson is an excitation of that field, just like an electron is an excitation of an electric field. In this analogy, the Higgs potential is like the voltage, determining the value of the field.

Once physicists began to close in on the mass of the Higgs boson, they were able to work out the Higgs potential. That value seemed to reveal that the universe exists in what’s known as a meta-stable vacuum state, or false vacuum, a state that’s stable for now but could slip into the “true” vacuum at any time. This is the catastrophic vacuum decay in Hawking’s warning, though he is not the first to posit the idea.

Is he right?

“There are a couple of really good reasons to think that’s not the end of the story,” Mack says. There are two ways for a meta-stable state to fall off into the true vacuum—one classical way, and one quantum way. The first would occur via a huge energy boost, the 100 billion GeVs Hawking mentions. But, Mack says, the universe already experienced such high energies during the period of inflation just after the big bang. Particles in cosmic rays from space also regularly collide with these kinds of high energies, and yet the vacuum hasn’t collapsed (otherwise, we wouldn’t be here).

“Imagine that somebody hands you a piece of paper and says, ‘This piece of paper has the potential to spontaneously combust,’ and so you might be worried,” Mack says. “But then they tell you 20 years ago it was in a furnace.” If it didn’t combust in the furnace, it’s not likely to combust sitting in your hand.

Of course, there’s always the quantum world to consider, and that’s where things always get weirder. In the quantum world, where the smallest of particles interact, it’s possible for a particle on one side of a barrier to suddenly appear on the other side of the barrier without actually going through it, a phenomenon known as quantum tunneling. If our universe was in fact in a meta-stable state, it could quantum tunnel through the barrier to the vacuum on the other side with no warning, destroying everything in an instant. And while that is theoretically possible, predictions show that if it were to happen, it’s not likely for billions of billions of years. By then, the sun and Earth and you and I and Stephen Hawking will be a distant memory, so it’s probably not worth losing sleep over it.

What’s more likely, Mack says, is that there is some new physics not yet understood that makes our vacuum stable. Physicists know there are parts of the model missing; mysteries like quantum gravity and dark matter that still defy explanation. When two physicists published a paper documenting the Higgs potential conundrum in March, their conclusion was that an explanation lies beyond the Standard Model, not that the universe may collapse at any time.

Read the article here.

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The Original Rolling Stones


Who or what has been moving these Death Valley boulders? Theories have persisted for quite some time: unknown inhabitants of the desert straddling California and Nevada; mischievous troglodytes from Middle Earth; aliens sending us cryptic, geologic messages; invisible demons; telepathic teenagers.

But now we know, and the mysterious forces at work are, unfortunately, rather mundane — the rocks are moved through a combination of rain, ice and wind. Oh well — time to focus on crop circles again!

From ars technica:

Mario is just a video game, and rocks don’t have legs. Both of these things are true. Yet, like the Mario ghosts that advance only when your back is turned, there are rocks that we know have been moving—even though no one has ever seen them do it.

The rocks in question occupy a spot called Racetrack Playa in Death Valley. Playas are desert mudflats that sometimes host shallow lakes when enough water is around. Racetrack Playa gets its name from long furrows extending from large rocks sitting on the playa bed—tracks that make it look as if the rocks had been dragged through the mud. The tracks of the various rocks run parallel to each other, sometimes suggesting that the rocks had made sharp turns in unison, like dehydrated synchronize swimmers.

Many potential explanations have been offered up (some going back to the 1940s) for this bizarre situation, as the rocks seem to only move occasionally and had never been caught in the act. One thing everyone could agree on was that it must occur when the playa is wet and the muddy bottom is slick. At first, suggestions revolved around especially strong winds. One geologist went as far as to bring out a propeller airplane to see how much wind it would take.

The other idea was that ice, which does occasionally form there, could be responsible. If the rocks were frozen into a sheet of ice, a little buoyancy might reduce the friction beneath them. And again, strong winds over the surface of the ice could drag the whole mess around, accounting for the synchronized nature of the tracks.

Over the years, a number of clever studies have attempted to test these possibilities. But to truly put the question to rest, the rocks were going to have to be observed while moving. A team led by Richard Norris and his engineer cousin James Norris set out to do just that. They set out 15 rocks with GPS loggers, a weather station, and some time-lapse cameras in 2011. Magnetic triggers were buried beneath the rocks so that the loggers would start recording when they began to move. And the Norrises waited.

They got what they were after last winter. A little rain and snow provided enough water to fill the lake to a depth of a few centimeters. At night, temperatures were low enough for ice to form. On a few sunny days, the rocks stirred.

By noon, the thin sheet of ice—just a few millimeters thick—would start breaking up. Light wind pushed the ice, and the water in the lake, to the northeast. The rocks, which weren’t frozen into the thin ice, went along for the ride. On one occasion, two rocks were recorded traveling 65 meters over 16 minutes, with a peak rate of 5 to 6 meters per minute.

These movements were detectable in the time-lapse images, but you might not actually notice it if you were standing there. The researchers note that the tracks carved in the mud aren’t immediately apparent due to the muddy water.

The total distances traveled by the instrumented rocks between November and February ranged from 15 to 225 meters. While all moving rocks travel in the direction of the prevailing wind, they didn’t all move together—motion depended on the way the ice broke up and the depth of the water around each rock.

While the proposed explanations weren’t far off, the thinness of the ice and the minimal wind speed that were needed were both surprises. There was no ice buoyancy lifting the rocks. They were just being pushed by loose sheets of thin ice that were themselves being pushed by wind and water.

In the end, there’s nothing extraordinary about the motion of these rocks, but the necessary conditions are rare enough that the results still shock us. Similar tracks have been found in a few playas elsewhere around the world, though, and ice-pushed rocks also leave marks in the shallows of Canada’s Great Slave Lake. There’s no need to worry about the rocks at Racetrack Playa coming to life and opening secretly ferocious jaws when you look away.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Rocks at Racetrack Playa, Death Valley. Courtesy of Arno Gourdol. Some Rights Reserved.

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The Future of History

Take and impassioned history professor, a mediocre U.S. high school history curriculum and add Bill Gates, and you get an opportunity to inject fresh perspectives and new ideas into young minds.

Not too long ago Professor David Christian’s collection of Big History DVDs caught Gates’ attention, leading to a broad mission to overhaul the boring history lesson — one school at a time. Professor Christian’s approach takes a thoroughly holistic approach to the subject, spanning broad and interconnected topics such as culture, biochemistry, astronomy, agriculture and physics. The sweeping narrative fundamental to Christian’s delivery reminds me somewhat of Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation and Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man, two landmark U.K. television series.

From the New York Times:

In 2008, shortly after Bill Gates stepped down from his executive role at Microsoft, he often awoke in his 66,000-square-foot home on the eastern bank of Lake Washington and walked downstairs to his private gym in a baggy T-shirt, shorts, sneakers and black socks yanked up to the midcalf. Then, during an hour on the treadmill, Gates, a self-described nerd, would pass the time by watching DVDs from the Teaching Company’s “Great Courses” series. On some mornings, he would learn about geology or meteorology; on others, it would be oceanography or U.S. history.

As Gates was working his way through the series, he stumbled upon a set of DVDs titled “Big History” — an unusual college course taught by a jovial, gesticulating professor from Australia named David Christian. Unlike the previous DVDs, “Big History” did not confine itself to any particular topic, or even to a single academic discipline. Instead, it put forward a synthesis of history, biology, chemistry, astronomy and other disparate fields, which Christian wove together into nothing less than a unifying narrative of life on earth. Standing inside a small “Mr. Rogers”-style set, flanked by an imitation ivy-covered brick wall, Christian explained to the camera that he was influenced by the Annales School, a group of early-20th-century French historians who insisted that history be explored on multiple scales of time and space. Christian had subsequently divided the history of the world into eight separate “thresholds,” beginning with the Big Bang, 13 billion years ago (Threshold 1), moving through to the origin of Homo sapiens (Threshold 6), the appearance of agriculture (Threshold 7) and, finally, the forces that gave birth to our modern world (Threshold 8).

Christian’s aim was not to offer discrete accounts of each period so much as to integrate them all into vertiginous conceptual narratives, sweeping through billions of years in the span of a single semester. A lecture on the Big Bang, for instance, offered a complete history of cosmology, starting with the ancient God-centered view of the universe and proceeding through Ptolemy’s Earth-based model, through the heliocentric versions advanced by thinkers from Copernicus to Galileo and eventually arriving at Hubble’s idea of an expanding universe. In the worldview of “Big History,” a discussion about the formation of stars cannot help including Einstein and the hydrogen bomb; a lesson on the rise of life will find its way to Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey. “I hope by the end of this course, you will also have a much better sense of the underlying unity of modern knowledge,” Christian said at the close of the first lecture. “There is a unified account.”

As Gates sweated away on his treadmill, he found himself marveling at the class’s ability to connect complex concepts. “I just loved it,” he said. “It was very clarifying for me. I thought, God, everybody should watch this thing!” At the time, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation had donated hundreds of millions of dollars to educational initiatives, but many of these were high-level policy projects, like the Common Core Standards Initiative, which the foundation was instrumental in pushing through. And Gates, who had recently decided to become a full-time philanthropist, seemed to pine for a project that was a little more tangible. He was frustrated with the state of interactive coursework and classroom technology since before he dropped out of Harvard in the mid-1970s; he yearned to experiment with entirely new approaches. “I wanted to explore how you did digital things,” he told me. “That was a big issue for me in terms of where education was going — taking my previous skills and applying them to education.” Soon after getting off the treadmill, he asked an assistant to set a meeting with Christian.

A few days later, the professor, who was lecturing at San Diego State University, found himself in the lobby of a hotel, waiting to meet with the billionaire. “I was scared,” Christian recalled. “Someone took me along the corridor, knocks on a door, Bill opens it, invites me in. All I remember is that within five minutes, he had so put me at my ease. I thought, I’m a nerd, he’s a nerd and this is fun!” After a bit of small talk, Gates got down to business. He told Christian that he wanted to introduce “Big History” as a course in high schools all across America. He was prepared to fund the project personally, outside his foundation, and he wanted to be personally involved. “He actually gave me his email address and said, ‘Just think about it,’ ” Christian continued. ” ‘Email me if you think this is a good idea.’ ”

Christian emailed to say that he thought it was a pretty good idea. The two men began tinkering, adapting Christian’s college course into a high-school curriculum, with modules flexible enough to teach to freshmen and seniors alike. Gates, who insisted that the course include a strong digital component, hired a team of engineers and designers to develop a website that would serve as an electronic textbook, brimming with interactive graphics and videos. Gates was particularly insistent on the idea of digital timelines, which may have been vestige of an earlier passion project, Microsoft Encarta, the electronic encyclopedia that was eventually overtaken by the growth of Wikipedia. Now he wanted to offer a multifaceted historical account of any given subject through a friendly user interface. The site, which is open to the public, would also feature a password-protected forum for teachers to trade notes and update and, in some cases, rewrite lesson plans based on their experiences in the classroom.

Read the entire article here.

Video: Clip from Threshold 1, The Big Bang. Courtesy of Big History Project, David Christian.

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Measuring the Quantum Jitter

Some physicists are determined to find out if we are mere holograms. Perhaps not quite like the dystopian but romanticized version fictionalized in The Matrix, but still a fascinating idea nonetheless. Armed with a very precise measuring tool, known as a Holometer or more precisely twin correlated Michelson holographic interferometers, researchers aim to find the scale at which the universe becomes jittery. In turn this will give a better picture of the fundamental units of space-time, well beyond the the elementary particles themselves, and somewhat closer to the Planck Length.

From the New Scientist:

The search for the fundamental units of space and time has officially begun. Physicists at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory near Chicago, Illinois, announced this week that the Holometer, a device designed to test whether we live in a giant hologram, has started taking data.

The experiment is testing the idea that the universe is actually made up of tiny “bits”, in a similar way to how a newspaper photo is actually made up of dots. These fundamental units of space and time would be unbelievably tiny: a hundred billion billion times smaller than a proton. And like the well-knownquantum behaviour of matter and energy, these bits of space-time would behave more like waves than particles.

“The theory is that space is made of waves instead of points, that everything is a little jittery, and never sits still,” says Craig Hogan at the University of Chicago, who dreamed up the experiment.

The Holometer is designed to measure this “jitter”. The surprisingly simple device is operated from a shed in a field near Chicago, and consists of two powerful laser beams that are directed through tubes 40 metres long. The lasers precisely measure the positions of mirrors along their paths at two points in time.

If space-time is smooth and shows no quantum behaviour, then the mirrors should remain perfectly still. But if both lasers measure an identical, small difference in the mirrors’ position over time, that could mean the mirrors are being jiggled about by fluctuations in the fabric of space itself.

 So what of the idea that the universe is a hologram? This stems from the notion that information cannot be destroyed, so for example the 2D event horizon of a black hole “records” everything that falls into it. If this is the case, then the boundary of the universe could also form a 2D representation of everything contained within the universe, like a hologram storing a 3D image in 2D .

Hogan cautions that the idea that the universe is a hologram is somewhat misleading because it suggests that our experience is some kind of illusion, a projection like a television screen. If the Holometer finds a fundamental unit of space, it won’t mean that our 3D world doesn’t exist. Rather it will change the way we understand its basic makeup. And so far, the machine appears to be working.

In a presentation given in Chicago on Monday at the International Conference on Particle Physics and Cosmology, Hogan said that the initial results show the Holometer is capable of measuring quantum fluctuations in space-time, if they are there.

“This was kind of an amazing moment,” says Hogan. “It’s just noise right now – we don’t know whether it’s space-time noise – but the machine is operating at that specification.”

Hogan expects that the Holometer will have gathered enough data to put together an answer to the quantum question within a year. If the space-time jitter is there, Hogan says it could underpin entirely new explanations for why the expansion of our universe is accelerating, something traditionally attributed to the little understood phenomenon of dark energy.

Read the entire article here.

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Burning Man Bucket List


As this year’s Burning Man comes to an end in the eerily beautiful Black Rock Desert in Nevada I am reminded that attending this life event should be on everyone’s bucket list, before they actually kick it.

That said, applying one or more of the Ten Principle’s that guide Burners, should be a year-round quest — not a once in a lifetime transient goal.

Read more about this year’s BM here.

See more BM visuals here.

Image: Super Pool art installation, Burning Man 2014. Courtesy of Jim Urquhart / Reuters.


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How to Get Blazingly Fast Internet

Chattanooga,_TennesseeIt’s rather simple in theory, and only requires two steps. Step 1: Follow the lead of a city like Chattanooga, Tennessee. Step 2: Tell you monopolistic cable company what to do with its cables. Done. Now you have a 1 Gigabit Internet connection — around 50-100 times faster than your mother’s Wifi.

This experiment is fueling a renaissance of sorts in the Southern U.S. city and other metropolitan areas can only look on in awe. It comes as no surprise that the cable oligarchs at Comcast, Time Warner and AT&T are looking for any way to halt the city’s progress into the 21st Century.

The Guardian:

Loveman’s department store on Market Street in Chattanooga closed its doors in 1993 after almost a century in business, another victim of a nationwide decline in downtowns that hollowed out so many US towns. Now the opulent building is buzzing again, this time with tech entrepreneurs taking advantage of the fastest internet in the western hemisphere.

Financed by the cash raised from the sale of logistics group Access America, a group of thirty-something local entrepreneurs have set up Lamp Post, an incubator for a new generation of tech companies, in the building. A dozen startups are currently working out of the glitzy downtown office.

“We’re not Silicon Valley. No one will ever replicate that,” says Allan Davis, one of Lamp Post’s partners. “But we don’t need to be and not everyone wants that. The expense, the hassle. You don’t need to be there to create great technology. You can do it here.”

He’s not alone in thinking so. Lamp Post is one of several tech incubators in this mid-sized Tennessee city. Money is flowing in. Chattanooga has gone from close to zero venture capital in 2009 to more than five organized funds with investable capital over $50m in 2014 – not bad for a city of 171,000 people.

The city’s go-getting mayor Andy Berke, a Democrat tipped for higher office, is currently reviewing plans for a city center tech zone specifically designed to meet the needs of its new workforce.

In large part the success is being driven by The Gig. Thanks to an ambitious roll-out by the city’s municipally owned electricity company, EPB, Chattanooga is one of the only places on Earth with internet at speeds as fast as 1 gigabit per second – about 50 times faster than the US average.

The tech buildup comes after more than a decade of reconstruction in Chattanooga that has regenerated the city with a world-class aquarium, 12 miles of river walks along the Tennessee River, an arts district built around the Hunter Museum of American Arts, high-end restaurants and outdoor activities.

But it’s the city’s tech boom has sparked interest from other municipalities across the world. It also comes as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) prepares to address some of the biggest questions the internet has faced when it returns from the summer break. And while the FCC discusses whether Comcast, the world’s biggest cable company, should take over Time Warner, the US’s second largest cable operator, and whether to allow those companies to set up fast lanes (and therefore slow lanes) for internet traffic, Chattanooga is proof that another path is possible.

It’s a story that is being watched very closely by Big Cable’s critics. “In DC there is often an attitude that the only way to solve our problems is to hand them over to big business. Chattanooga is a reminder that the best solutions are often local and work out better than handing over control to Comcast or AT&T to do whatever they want with us,” said Chris Mitchell, director of community broadband networks at advocacy group the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

On Friday, the US cable industry called on the FCC to block Chattanooga’s plan to expand, as well as a similar plan for Wilson, North Carolina.

“The success of public broadband is a mixed record, with numerous examples of failures,” USTelecom said in a blog post. “With state taxpayers on the financial hook when a municipal broadband network goes under, it is entirely reasonable for state legislatures to be cautious in limiting or even prohibiting that activity.”

Mayor Berke has dealt with requests for visits from everyone from tiny rural communities to “humungous international cities”. “You don’t see many mid-sized cities that have the kind of activity that we have right now in Chattanooga,” he said. “What the Gig did was change the idea of what our city could be. Mid-sized southern cities are not generally seen as being ahead of the technological curve, the Gig changed that. We now have people coming in looking to us as a leader.”

It’s still early days but there have already been notable successes. In addition to Access America’s sale for an undisclosed sum, last year restaurant booking site OpenTable bought a local company, QuickCue, for $11.5m. “That’s a great example of a story that just doesn’t happen in other mid-sized southern cities,” said Berke.

But it’s what Chattanooga can do next that has the local tech community buzzed.

EPB’s high-speed network came about after it decided to set up a smart electric grid in order to cut power outages. EPB estimated it would take 10 years to build the system and raised a $170m through a municipal bond to pay for it. In 2009 president Barack Obama launched the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a stimulus programme aimed at getting the US economy back on track amid the devastation of the recession. EPB was awarded $111m to get its smart grid up and running. Less than three years later the whole service territory was built.

The fibre-optic network uses IntelliRupter PulseClosers, made by S&C Electric, that can reroute power during outages. The University of California at Berkeley estimates that power outages cost the US economy $80bn a year through business disruption with manufacturers stopping their lines and restaurants closing. Chattanooga’s share of that loss was about $100m, EPB estimates. The smart grid can detect a fault in milliseconds and route power around problems. Since the system was installed the duration of power outages has been cut in half.

But it was the other uses of that fiber that fired up enthusiasm in Chattanooga. “When we first started talking about this and the uses of the smart grid we would say to customers and community groups ‘Oh and it can also offer very high-speed internet, TV and phone.’ The electric power stuff was no longer of interest. This is what what people got excited about and it’s the same today,” said EPB vice president Danna Bailey.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Chattanooga, TN skyline. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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