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.”

Read the entire article here.

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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.

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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.

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