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Human Theory

Science, Math, and Women

The president of Harvard University, Lawrence H. Summers, sparked an uproar at an academic conference Friday when he said that innate differences between men and women might be one reason fewer women succeed in science and math careers. [â??Summers' remarks on women draw fireâ? by Marcella Bombardieri, Boston Globe, January 17, 2005]

That was yesterday's article, and as late as this morning Wikipediaâ??s page on Lawrence Summers ended with a line about Summers using his own daughter as an example to demonstrate his misogynistic views (yes, it was worded very strongly), and the â??External Linksâ? section contained a link to an article about his â??sexistâ? remarks.

Since then, someone has edited Wikipediaâ??s page about Summers by deleting the sentence about misogyny along with the previously linked article, rewriting the last paragraph, and replacing the link with one of the articles that came out today stating the Harvard presidentâ??s regret that his comments were misunderstood.

"I'm sorry for any misunderstanding but believe that raising questions, discussing multiple factors that may explain a difficult problem, and seeking to understand how they interrelate is vitally important," Lawrence H. Summers said in an interview.

Who could disagree with those words? But that wasnâ??t the point of contention, now was it? Summers was asked to be provocative, not a difficult task for him apparently. He was sorry for any misunderstanding, but still stood by his comments according to the article.

Catherine Didion, a director of the International Network of Women Engineers and Scientists, said she was "surprised by the provocation in tone and manner" of Summers' remarks.

"Initially all of the questions were from women, and I think there was definitely a gender component to how people interpreted his remarks," Didion said. "Male colleagues didn't say much afterwards and later said they felt his comments were being blown out of context. Female colleagues were on the whole surprised by his comments."

Some participants were not offended, and I admire their tenacity to sift through some questionable comments in order to garner what Summers claimed to be a sincere attempt to encourage further research regarding women in science and math careers. After all, letâ??s forget that the interplay of nature and nurture, although a viable subject for consideration, already carries a lot of provocative baggage when it comes to comparing male vs. female intellectual proclivities.

So, bravo. Letâ??s promulgate the need for research. We might begin with Summers himself who could have checked some of his facts in the first place:

"Here was this economist lecturing pompously [to] this room full of the country's most accomplished scholars on women's issues in science and engineering, and he kept saying things we had refuted in the first half of the day," said Denton, the outgoing dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Washington. Next month, Denton will become the new head of UC Santa Cruz.

And then thereâ??s the little matter of Summersâ??s observation regarding the way his daughter played with her trucks. At least she was playing with them, and quite imaginatively, I might add. Fertile imaginations are vital to the scientific community. I happen to know of an eleven-year-old boy who still likes to play with dolls and stuffed animals, and he names them, too. But I wouldnâ??t presume to extrapolate his behavior to a larger eleven-year-old male population regarding some kind of innate predilection common to males.

If Summers is interested in case studies close to home, perhaps he could investigate why the percentage of tenured job offers made to women by Harvardâ??s Faculty of Arts and Sciences has dropped dramatically since he took office. Biological and/or sociological considerations? Undoubtedly.

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A Question of Belief

Edge.org have posed an interesting question [courtesy MeFi] to a collection of "scientists and science-minded thinkers": "WHAT DO YOU BELIEVE IS TRUE EVEN THOUGH YOU CANNOT PROVE IT?" (It's just the latest in a series of annual questions.) Many of the answers are thought-provoking, or instructive (even though most are simply restatements of that thinker's area of interest in the form of an "unprovable" "assertion"). The zeitgeist implicit in their answers is interesting, too. John Brockman writes:

This year there's a focus on consciousness, on knowing, on ideas of truth and proof. If pushed to generalize, I would say it is a commentary on how we are dealing with the idea of certainty.

We are in the age of "searchculture", in which Google and other search engines are leading us into a future rich with an abundance of correct answers along with an accompanying naïve sense of certainty. In the future, we will be able to answer the question, but will we be bright enough to ask it?

This is an alternative path. It may be that it's okay not to be certain, but to have a hunch, and to perceive on that basis.

Maybe it says that. Maybe it says that this is how science actually works: Having hunches, then trying to prove them, which is really what most of the answers are about. Some of them get more fundamental, as when Richard Dawkins answers:

I believe, but I cannot prove, that all life, all intelligence, all creativity and all 'design' anywhere in the universe, is the direct or indirect product of Darwinian natural selection. It follows that design comes late in the universe, after a period of Darwinian evolution. Design cannot precede evolution and therefore cannot underlie the universe.

... which is a remarkably blunt and honest thing for him to say, since it faces head-on the core weakness of his anti-ID positions. I personally think ID is a load of horse-hockey, but I don't think it can be countered with "proof" that it can't work any more than we can solve the first-mover conundrum. I'm glad Dawkins doesn't shy away from that. I'm not always crazy about the way he formulates ideas ("selfish gene" theory still seems too simplisticly reactionary to me, nearly 20 years after I first heard of it), but he is nevertheless one of the most able and vigorous opponents of ID, so it behooves me to pay attention to what he's saying out there.

In any case, while the Q&A is intriquing, in many cases (and as I've noted) it's largely a matter of researchers restating their research-focus as though it were a controversial idea. [bonehead @ MeFi observes, "... scratch post-docs or hungry assistant profs for real wild-eyed speculation. Of course, most of them will be wrong (entertainingly so), but that's where the future Nobels are too."] And I don't think Brockman is really giving credit to scientific process: Believing something you can't prove is usually how anything valuable and previously unknown gets to be learned. Call it a hunch, call it belief; the process whereby that belief is substantiated (though hardly evern "proved" in a strict logicalist sense) is what we know as science. And I'm not altogether sure that Brockman groks that.

Brockman also seems to think there's a new way of being an intellectual:

... There is also evidence here that the[se] scientists are thinking beyond their individual fields. Yes, they are engaged in the science of their own areas of research, but more importantly they are also thinking deeply about creating new understandings about the limits of science, of seeing science not just as a question of knowing things, but as a means of tuning into the deeper questions of who we are and how we know.

It may sound as if I am referring to a group of intellectuals, and not scientists. In fact, I refer to both. In 1991, I suggested the idea of a third culture, which "consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are. "

I believe that the scientists of the third culture are the pre-eminent intellectuals of our time. But I can't prove it.

This idea of "Third Culture" scientists is worth exploring, but it's a topic for another time. Suffice for now to say that I don't see anything sufficiently new that a new organizing principle is required; in fact, I think a concept like "third culture" has more potential to alienate thinkers from cross-pollination than it does to encourage them. A bit like "brights" in that regard.

But that's an issue I haven't got time to take on right now....

Prisons

Nancy Seaman once spent her days teaching fourth-graders the intricacies of the solar system and how to multiply fractions.

After work, she would meet with her colleagues for drinks.

On weekends, she went shopping with her daughter-in-law and puttered in her large Farmington Hills home, nestled in an exclusive gated community.

The gates Seaman will see from now on are topped with concertina wire. When she is sentenced to life in prison later this month for the hatchet murder of her husband, Robert, last Mother's Day, she will say good-bye to a seemingly enviable affluent life and a career, that by all accounts, she adored. [�Prison will be world apart for ex-teacher� by L. L. Brasier, Detroit Free Press, January 3, 2005]

There are all kinds of gates and prisons in our world.

At her trial, her fellow teachers testified that she was meticulous about her appearance, and even during the course of the trial, she was well-groomed, her makeup carefully applied, her nails manicured.

Iâ??m reminded of Mary Wollstonecraftâ??s words in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman from back in the eighteenth century:

Taught from their infancy that beauty is woman's sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and, roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adore its prison.

Women have come a long way since then, havenâ??t they? Thereâ??s certainly nothing wrong with caring about your grooming, is there, especially when body image is not your entire focus? Nancy Seaman is an educated woman, who demonstrates that women are educable, as touted by Wollstonecraft, and capable of rationality in addition to irrationality as much as men. Yet, we also see a woman capable of being demeaned and violated, if Nancyâ??s claims of an abusive husband are true. We see a woman capable of putting on a happy face to save face socially.

I donâ??t pretend to know how much schizophrenic socialization of conflicting values and purported abuse vs. Nancy Seamanâ??s intrinsic nature influenced her desperate act of murder, but I would hope that the required medical and psychological testing would help her sift through events.

If nothing else, she will divest herself of some past prisons while inside a new prison. She has already relinquished her purported role as abused wife. She will be stripped naked of societyâ??s expectations of aging youthfully through physical appearance. Botox and plastic surgery wonâ??t be options. Her hair will turn gray; her nails will be unpainted. Nancy Seaman either will choose to reach inside herself to find her inner beauty or she will linger as the type of devastated, servile creature so pitied by Mary Wollstonecraft.

Seaman, with her love of teaching, may someday find comfort in helping the women who will share her prison to become literate.

"She is an educator," Loper said. "And that is going to be a valuable kind of thing to offer the prison community. What is so important for women who are lifers, once they get past the initial trauma, is that they need to figure out how to construct their lives in a meaningful way."

Educating Nancy Seamanâ??s mind was a first step. Shaping her mind to her spirit will help her unshackle her physical â??gilt cage.â?

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Ecology of Traffic

The latest leading-edge thinking in traffic-calming is that we should remove traffic controls, not add them. Passive controls, that is, like signage; active controls, hard controls, like traffic circles (rotaries, roundabouts), merge lanes -- those can stay. But Yield signs at the traffic circle entrance, "lane ending" indicators, even curbs, stop signs and traffic lights: Those should go.

The thinking is that without them, we think more. With them, we give over our control over our fates to the signage. At the same time, we can do things that, superficially, make a road more dangerous: We allow parking where we'd previously barred it; we make the road-beds narrower instead of wider; we remove turn lanes and traffic lights; we remove explicit barriers between people and traffic. (Note that this doesn't mean eliminating sidewalks altogether: "Instead of a raised curb, sidewalks are denoted by texture and color.")

Results are counter-intuitive: Traffic moves more slowly, and yet trip times are reduced. It's the kind of result that a simplistic understanding of systems can't predict, but that an ecological understanding can.

I have to admit that I was resistent to the idea when I first read it. It reminded me of a trip to Seattle in February of 2000, when I noted the conspicuous absence of stop signs at intersections in many residential neighborhoods. But as I reflect on it, it strikes me that, at the least, bad signage really is worse than no signage. Signage, after all, plays to our conscious, rational mind, which is easily stymied by contradiction and inconsistency in ways that our sub-conscious, a-rational mind is not. And I recall that, when I approached those intersections, I stopped and looked very carefully. I paid attention to what I was doing (driving) instead of to other things.

As I think through it further, I find myself thinking of least three other ideas: The human factors design concept of affordance; Jane Jacobs's "eyes on the street"; and the zen/taoist/buddhist tightrope of mindfulness:mindlessness. The common thread is that they all tap into aspects of humanity that are essentially sub-conscious, in the sense of being as tied to our animal nature as to our human nature. They are rational in the sense that sense can be made of them; they are also a-rational, in the sense that we seldom bother to try. (And also in the sense that when we do bother to try, we often screw it up.) Most imporatantly, they are ecological, not based on a simplistic, modernist understanding of systems theory.

We still need to be able to inculcate awareness of self-interest at a low level of consciousness. We can only rely on our natural accident-avoidance to carry us so far, especially with as many distractions as the world affords.

Momentary Mindfulness

Mindfulness may be our least zen state. Or it may be our most.

We are not mindful, most of us. And when we try to be, we tend to mess it up. That's what zen teaches us, as I see it: Not mindfulness, as such, but how to do it right. How to be aware of what we're doing, without letting our awareness get in the way. How to be here, now, without forgetting that we were here (or there) yesterday, and will be there (or here) tomorrow.

How to choose, without letting the choice own us.

How to be mindful of our circumstances in the moment, without becoming creatures of the moment.

How to be animal and human at the same time.

Carrie Bradshaw, Culture-Jammer

"And if I don't ever get married or have a baby, what -- I get bupkes? Think about it: If you are single, after graduation, there isn't one occasion where people celebrate you. I am talking about the single gal. I mean, Hallmark doesn't make a 'Congratulations, you didn't marry the wrong guy' card." -- 'Carrie Bradshaw', Sex and the City

"I started to get notes the next week that said that single women were starting to register, at stores, for their birthdays. And I thought, 'That's great, because we put something out there.'" -- Jenny Bicks on Morning Edition [listen]

Yeh. Right. You put something out there, alright: Another quasi-official reason to spend, and spend in a store-register-validated, label-appropriate manner. Sex and the City is really all about social activism and culture-jamming, after all.

As far as I'm concerned, the time is well-overdue to re-examine the idea that human existence is solely for procreation -- if there's one thing that Humans consistently do that other animals don't, it's make their own rules about what their existence is for -- but relating that to Carrie Bradshaw's sense of loss over her $400 shoes really, truly advances that particular cause not one whit, and it's insultingly disingenuous for the script's author to argue otherwise.

How To Succeed In Business Without Getting Paid

In 1993-94, Ron Avitzur and Greg Robbins exploited poor plant security and bureacratic buck-passing to sneak into the Apple offices in Cupertino day after day, month after month, producing a product the company didn't want, for no pay. By the end, they were working 16 hour days, seven days a week, and had been assigned engineering, QA and Human Factors resources. The product they built, Graphing Calculator, was subsequently included as a standard applet through MacOS System 9.

Apple at that time had a strong tradition of skunkworks projects, in which engineers continued to work on canceled projects in hopes of producing demos that would inspire management to revive them. On occasion, they succeeded. One project, appropriately code-named Spectre, was canceled and restarted no fewer than five times. Engineers worked after hours on their skunkworks, in addition to working full time on their assigned projects. Greg and I, as nonemployees who had no daytime responsibilities, were merely extending this tradition to the next level.

....

Why did Greg and I do something so ludicrous as sneaking into an eight-billion-dollar corporation to do volunteer work? Apple was having financial troubles then, so we joked that we were volunteering for a nonprofit organization. In reality, our motivation was complex. Partly, the PowerPC was an awesome machine, and we wanted to show off what could be done with it; in the Spinal Tap idiom, we said, "OK, this one goes to eleven." Partly, we were thinking of the storytelling value. Partly, it was a macho computer guy thing - we had never shipped a million copies of software before. Mostly, Greg and I felt that creating quality educational software was a public service. We were doing it to help kids learn math. Public schools are too poor to buy software, so the most effective way to deliver it is to install it at the factory.

Beyond this lies another set of questions, both psychological and political. Was I doing this out of bitterness that my project had been canceled? Was I subversively coopting the resources of a multinational corporation for my own ends? Or was I naive, manipulated by the system into working incredibly hard for its benefit? Was I a loose cannon, driven by arrogance and ego, or was I just devoted to furthering the cause of education?

I view the events as an experiment in subverting power structures. I had none of the traditional power over others that is inherent to the structure of corporations and bureaucracies. I had neither budget nor headcount. I answered to no one, and no one had to do anything I asked. Dozens of people collaborated spontaneously, motivated by loyalty, friendship, or the love of craftsmanship. We were hackers, creating something for the sheer joy of making it work.

.... On March 11, 1994, the front page of the Times business section contained an article on the alliance among Apple, IBM, and Motorola, picturing Greg and me in my front yard with a view of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Someone I knew in Apple Public Relations was livid. I had asked if she wanted to send someone for the interview, but she had said that engineers are not allowed to talk with the press. It's hard to enforce that kind of thing with people who can't be fired. It was positive press for Apple, though, and our parents were pleased.

We wanted to release a Windows version as part of Windows 98, but sadly, Microsoft has effective building security.


[Ron Avitzur, "The Graphing Calculator Story", via Daypop Top 40]

Personally, I think it's a dessert topping and a floor wax: At no point were Ron and Greg doing anything out of fear for their livelihoods; yet they've surely done their small part to further Apple's "Think Different" mythology, so it can be argued that Apple had value from their efforts for no measurable return. And the squad of supporters that accreted to them over the months of their effort were effectively stealing cycles from other Apple processes, to debatable end. See, I would tend to side with a business analyst if s/he decided that Graphic Calculator really didn't contribute much to the Apple bottom line.

But I don't work for Apple, and most likely never will. I can't stop thinking it's great. And it's damn near an American myth.

There's a darker side, of course: This isn't far different from the maverick spirit that fueled Ollie North's blood-money circle-jerk; the same initiative and gung-ho spirit can drive both dreams and nightmares.

As always, the only real resort is to calls it as we sees it....

Quote for the Moment

.... One myth that I find interesting, but which has nothing to do with Linux or even the IT sector in particular, is the myth of how a single person or even a single company makes a huge difference in the market. It's the belief that things happen because somebody was visionary and "planned" it that way. Sometimes the people themselves seem to believe it, and then the myth becomes hubris.

I have to continually try to explain to people that no, I don't "control" what happens in Linux. It's about having an environment that is conducive to development, not so much about any particular leader. And I think that is true in most cases, be it the "great sport coach" or the "great spiritual leader."

[Linus Torvalds, on C|Net 2004/12/21]

Female Infidelity

Why are men attracted to subordinate women? Well, yes, apparently they tend to be, according to a recent University of Michigan study.

Brown and Lewis found that males, but not females, were most strongly attracted to subordinate partners for high-investment activities such as marriage and dating.

"Our results demonstrate that male preference for subordinate women increases as the investment in the relationship increases," Brown said. "This pattern is consistent with the possibility that there were reproductive advantages for males who preferred to form long-term relationships with relatively subordinate partners.

"Given that female infidelity is a severe reproductive threat to males only when investment is high, a preference for subordinate partners may provide adaptive benefits to males in the context of only long-term, investing relationships---not one-night stands."

So, female infidelity is allegedly a â??severe reproductive threat to males.â? Put bluntly, itâ??s about conquest and possession and making sure junior doesnâ??t look like the milkman, or to update for those hooked on the show, Desperate Housewives,... like the gardener.

Another study that compares testicular size and semen stickiness suggests that, while women are not as promiscuous as chimpanzees, they are not as faithful as gorillas. Maybe there is a reason for this -- to bind communities more closely together and improve the gene pool. And, British scientists recently have proposed a genetic reason for female infidelity.

Considering my original question, do some men really assume that their female assistant would be more faithful than a female colleague or boss? Huh? Rationality also may take a subordinate role in this case.

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Inclusive Schools

This week, December 6-10, is the 4th Annual National Inclusive Schools Week.

The Week recognizes the nation's progress and promotes action towards increasing the capacity of schools and communities to provide a quality education to an increasingly diverse student population, particularly those who have disabilities.

The National Down Syndrome Congress is co-sponsoring the National Inclusive Schools Week. I know a lovely young lady named Helen who has Down syndrome (trisomy 21). She also has type 1 diabetes and is moderately retarded. She had successful open-heart surgery when fourteen months old, followed by eye surgery for strabismus six months later. Helen recently turned 21 and is a happy, healthy special education student at a local public high school.

There are good things going on in the world. There is progress on some fronts. Educationally, the benefits and practical implementation of full inclusion are debated. My feeling is that to provide the least restrictive environment for a disabled student does not necessarily indicate full academic inclusion in all cases, although some type of inclusion is very important for normal social development.

I appreciate strides to integrate these students, to promote tolerance of diversity, and I gladly celebrate this week.

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"Sad people, photographed beautifully"

On Morning Edition this morning, Ken Turan describes Closer as lacking the emotional depth it seems bound to portray; I wonder both if he's not missing the point, and if those who would accuse him of missing the point aren't missing one of their own.

Turan describes characters whose "adult problems [torrid and tortuous confessions of adultery, intercepted emails, evesdrop't IM sessions, etc.] are fake adult problems"-- but one could argue (and I'm sure some will) that all such problems are "fake adult problems" in any number of senses: In that they're not really "adult"; in that the (implicit) distinction between "adult problems" and "childish problems" is faulty; and most to the point here, in that there's a good likelihood that "real world" problems of this sort are just as fake as these, in their own way.

It seems to me that the most profound truth about humans is that we keep going on -- we keep "living through it". The horror of the moment will pass. The great love that we'd die without....we live without. Life is not as Young Werther would have experienced it -- but Young Werther had the great fortune of being a fictional character. The rest of us have to live with the failed expectation of getting over our one true love, of waking up in the morning and not thinking first of our absent loved ones; of wanting things we ought not want.

The rest of us, in short, have to live with living through it. And of then not feeling guilty about it.

Or not. One way that people manage to avoid that guilt is to never get "through" it. Creating and perpetuating new dramas all the time, to keep life interesting. Drumming up a sense of guilt for feeling better.

It can be seen as adaptive: Without the drama, without the interest, some people just lose interest in continuing.

Brothers Divided

Front-page local news recounts beginning testimony in the trial concerning the brutal murder of Robert Seaman at the hands of his wife, Nancy.

On a wide screen, prosecutors displayed large, color photographs of Seaman's mutilated body, showing numerous hatchet wounds to his head, 18 stab wounds to his back and a slashed throat.

Oakland County Medical Examiner Ljubisa Dragovic, wielding a hatchet over a Styrofoam head, told jurors how it was likely a similar tool was used to repeatedly chop Seaman's skull and face. Dragovic said it likely "took minutes" to inflict that many wounds, including four that punctured Seaman's lung and two that sliced his aorta. He probably was rendered unconscious with the first blows, Dragovic said, because there were few wounds to show Seaman had fought back.

The Detroit Free Press story was accompanied by a photo of the judge, aghast, covering his mouth with his hand as he viewed the autopsy photos. I wouldnâ??t want to be a juror in this case, which is as bizarre as it is gruesome.

Apparently Jeff Seaman, Nancy's oldest son, delivered testimony against her yesterday, refuting his motherâ??s claim that she killed her husband in self-defense. Nancyâ??s younger son, Greg, is expected to deliver much different testimony.

Kaluzny said outside the courtroom that Nancy Seaman will take the stand in her own defense and he will call the Seamans' other son, Greg, 23, who will provide a much different portrayal of life in the family's home. Kaluzny said his client was dismayed by Jeff Seaman's testimony on Tuesday.

"We were surprised at the extent to which he's going out of his way to hurt her every way he can," Kaluzny said.

Two brothers having been raised in the same home are painting two different pictures of life with mom and dad? Perhaps itâ??s not all that bizarre. The Detroit News describes Nancy Seaman as â??a devout Catholicâ?; therefore, she might be familiar with biblical stories of brothers poles apart. Cain and Abel and also Jacob and Esau come to mind.

Testimony is to resume Thursday.

My next installment will report how different the younger brotherâ??s testimony proves to be.

UPDATE: The younger brother, Greg, did contradict his brother's story substantially. Nancy Seaman is expected to take the stand next week. I wonder if her testimony will shed any more light or not.

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Humanoid

Last night I saw Alan Ayckbournâ??s futuristic play, Comic Potential.

It was great fun, but all the while I had a nagging feeling. We all have a mechanistic side to us. Yet, there appears to be more to being human. Wherefrom comes the android Jacieâ??s spontaneous emotion that isnâ??t controlled by a programmer, her laughter, her love?

Is there some magic wand that makes her/it different from the other actoids? That isnâ??t sufficiently explained to me. She/It views it as a programming fault. Is emotional development for humans just an evolutionary glitch? Perhaps, perhaps not.

But, that still doesnâ??t explain her/its critical self-awareness.

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Run, baby, run

Without running, our bodies might have turned out looking like those of apes, said Harvard University anthropology professor Daniel Lieberman, co-author of a new study in the Nov. 18 issue of Nature. "This ability of ours to run incredibly long distances rather efficiently is incredibly rare. It's unique," he said. "No other primates like to run, or are even good at it."

[...]

The researchers found numerous physical traits that evolved in humans and appear to be critical to the ability to run: head designs that prevent overheating and allow humans to see the world as they run without too much jiggling; a ligament in the back that acts as a kind of shock absorber; shorter forearms that allow for better counterbalancing of the upper and lower bodies; and huge buttocks that provide stabilization. [â??Running Revolution Started as Evolutionâ? by Randy Dotinga, Forbes, November 18, 2004]

Huge? Hey, watch yourself, buddy!

From ABC News:

They also hypothesize that running preceded brain enlargement and may have precipitated brain development by allowing primitive man to locate and consume more protein.

Ah, I see. Then manâ??s brain development precipitated development of the desktop computer, so we can develop even more gargantuan buttocks.

Time for my exercise...

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Thoughts on Monogamy

Nina Utne recounts her meeting with Murat Yagan and his wife, Maisie, a few years back. They are elders of an ancient tradition, passing on the teachings of Ahmsta Kebzeh.

Nina writes:

When I asked about the flirting I saw all around me, Maisie confirmed that the deliberate cultivation of sexual energy is central to Circassian vitality and longevity. As for Murat's flirtations with other women, she said that she considered it an honor that other women admired her husband. It is seen as perfectly normal and honorable for a husband to have sex with other women, as long as he doesn't neglect his wife's well-being -- including her sexual well-being.

Do women who have sex with other women's husbands pay a penalty? I asked. No, she said, a little vaguely, and then went on to explain that there are usually circumstances that make such liaisons legitimate, like widowhood or marriage to a much older man. Then, recognizing that there was something of a double standard in what she was saying, she told me that she could only recount the experiences of the culture she knew, a culture whose traditions had created generations of peace, health, and well-being. "You live in a different world," she concluded, "and you will have to take from this what makes sense for you now."

Nina came â??to see that our contemporary American ideal -- courtship leading to the monogamous, isolated nuclear family -- is just one option. And that in trying to hold onto this as the one and only way, we disregard all the evidence of dating disasters, unhappy marriages, and train-wreck divorces. We could be asking how we can find intimacy in new forms that are based on truth and integrity -- and that truly promote happiness and well-being.â?

Iâ??m not sure where Iâ??m going with this except to say that itâ??s not clear to me that monogamy is only dependent on nature or, on the other hand, only nurture. We definitely see evidence in our world of polygamous past and present societies, and we quite often do see serial monogamy in our Western culture, even in the absence of polygamy. The Wikipedia page for â??monogamyâ? even references an article about anthropological research showing â??The Virtues of Promiscuity.â?

Whatever reasons can be given for or against monogamy, there is no doubt that some rational explanations often will bite the dust when confronted with irrational feelings and needs, and when humans attach moral or spiritual significance to relationships. And, I somehow donâ??t envision an asexual future as a likely cure-all for human beings.

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Dharma Judo

Also from the Trudeau interview: He spoke of attending a state dinner at the Clinton White House, in the company of his wife, Jane Pauley. "At that time I was depicting him as a kind of levitating waffle," Trudeau recalled. When he reached President Clinton in the receiving line, Clinton grasped his hand, turned to the visiting President of Morocco, and remarked: "Mister President, this is Garry Trudeau. He's a cartoonist. He makes fun of me for a living."

The Moroccan president was not amused.

The story leapt out at me because it showed Clinton turning Trudeau's comic-page attacks on him to his advantage. It allowed him to offer a subtle slight to his guest -- a leader whose human rights record was poor at best. "In America, we don't fear criticism," he seemed to be saying.

I can't imagine George W. Bush being willing to expose himself in that way. It requires an ego less fragile than Bush's.

In An "Ownership Society", Love Is A Liability

Text for the moment is from Jack London's under-appreciated dystopian political thriller, The Iron Heel -- his narrator and heroine, sheltered young intellectual Avis Everhard, is trying to get to the bottom of a worker's injury claim:

"Why did you not call attention to the fact that Jackson was trying to save the machinery from being injured?" I asked Peter Donnelly, one of the foremen who had testified at the trial.

He pondered a long time before replying. Then he cast an anxious look about him and said:

"Because I've a good wife an' three of the sweetest children ye ever laid eyes on, that's why."

"I do not understand," I said.

"In other words, because it wouldn't a-ben healthy," he answered.

"You mean--" I began.

But he interrupted passionately.

"I mean what I said. It's long years I've worked in the mills. I began as a little lad on the spindles. I worked up ever since. It's by hard work I got to my present exalted position. I'm a foreman, if you please. An' I doubt me if there's a man in the mills that'd put out a hand to drag me from drownin'. I used to belong to the union. But I've stayed by the company through two strikes. They called me 'scab.' There's not a man among 'em today to take a drink with me if I asked him. D'ye see the scars on me head where I was struck with flying bricks? There ain't a child at the spindles but what would curse me name. Me only friend is the company. It's not me duty, but me bread an' butter an' the life of me children to stand by the mills. That's why."

"Was Jackson to blame?" I asked.

"He should a-got the damages. He was a good worker an' never made trouble."

"Then you were not at liberty to tell the whole truth, as you had sworn to do?"

He shook his head.

"The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?" I said solemnly.

Again his face became impassioned, and he lifted it, not to me, but to heaven.

"I'd let me soul an' body burn in everlastin' hell for them children of mine," was his answer.

Henry Dallas, the superintendent, was a vulpine-faced creature who regarded me insolently and refused to talk. Not a word could I get from him concerning the trial and his testimony. But with the other foreman I had better luck. James Smith was a hard-faced man, and my heart sank as I encountered him. He, too, gave me the impression that he was not a free agent, as we talked I began to see that he was mentally superior to the average of his kind. He agreed with Peter Donnelly that Jackson should have got damages, and he went farther and called the action heartless and cold-blooded that had turned the worker adrift after he had been made helpless by the accident. Also, he explained that there were many accidents in the mills, and that the company's policy was to fight to the bitter end all consequent damage suits.

"It means hundreds of thousands a year to the stockholders," he said; and as he spoke I remembered the last dividend that had been paid my father, and the pretty gown for me and the books for him that had been bought out of that dividend. I remembered Ernest's charge that my gown was stained with blood, and my flesh began to crawl underneath my garments.

"When you testified at the trial, you didn't point out that Jackson received his accident through trying to save the machinery from damage?" I said.

"No, I did not," was the answer, and his mouth set bitterly. "I testified to the effect that Jackson injured himself by neglect and carelessness, and that the company was not in any way to blame or liable."

"Was it carelessness?" I asked.

"Call it that, or anything you want to call it. The fact is, a man gets tired after he's been working for hours."

I was becoming interested in the man. He certainly was of a superior kind.

"You are better educated than most workingmen," I said.

"I went through high school," he replied. "I worked my way through doing janitor-work. I wanted to go through the university. But my father died, and I came to work in the mills.

"I wanted to become a naturalist," he explained shyly, as though confessing a weakness. "I love animals. But I came to work in the mills. When I was promoted to foreman I got married, then the family came, and . . . well, I wasn't my own boss any more."

"What do you mean by that?" I asked.

"I was explaining why I testified at the trial the way I did--why I followed instructions."

"Whose instructions?"

"Colonel Ingram. He outlined the evidence I was to give."

"And it lost Jackson's case for him."

He nodded, and the blood began to rise darkly in his face.

"And Jackson had a wife and two children dependent on him."

"I know," he said quietly, though his face was growing darker.

"Tell me," I went on, "was it easy to make yourself over from what you were, say in high school, to the man you must have become to do such a thing at the trial?"

The suddenness of his outburst startled and frightened me. He ripped* out a savage oath, and clenched his fist as though about to strike me.

"I beg your pardon," he said the next moment. "No, it was not easy. And now I guess you can go away. You've got all you wanted out of me. But let me tell you this before you go. It won't do you any good to repeat anything I've said. I'll deny it, and there are no witnesses. I'll deny every word of it; and if I have to, I'll do it under oath on the witness stand."

[full text at Gutenberg]

Whole and its whole parts

There has been a recurring theme in my life regarding interrelationships of wholes and parts that has particularly raised its head during the last few days in very concrete sociopolitical and socioeconomic modes.

A few days ago I read an excerpt from Jeremy Rifkinâ??s book, The European Dream, in my latest issue of Utne. Rifkin compares â??the American and Europeanâ? dreams.

Though historians seldom allude to it, the American Dream is largely a European creation transported to American soil and frozen in time. The American Dream was born in the early modern era -- a period that saw the flowering of the individual, the development of a sophisticated private property regime, the invention of market capitalism, and the creation of the nation-state. The Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment idea of science as the relentless pursuit and exploitation of nature's secrets had begun to take hold in Europe. While much of Europe eventually tempered its religious fervor, its scientific zeal, and its enthusiasm for unbridled market capitalism, preferring a compromise in the form of democratic socialism, America did not. Instead, successive generations chose to live out those older traditions in their purest forms, making us the most devoutly Protestant people on Earth and the most committed to scientific pursuits, private property, capitalism, and the nation-state.

That difference is reflected in the American and European Dreams, which at their core are about two diametrically opposed ideas about freedom and security. For Americans, freedom has long been associated with autonomy. An autonomous person is not dependent on others or vulnerable to circumstances beyond his or her control. To be autonomous one needs to be propertied. The more wealth one amasses, the more independent one is in the world. One is free by becoming self-reliant and an island unto oneself. With wealth comes exclusivity, and with exclusivity comes security.

The new European Dream is based on different assumptions about what constitutes freedom and security. For Europeans, freedom is found not in autonomy but in embeddedness. To be free is to have access to many interdependent relationships. The more communities one has access to, the more options one has for living a full and meaningful life. It is inclusivity that brings security -- belonging, not belongings.

Now, to reiterate, these are respective dreams. But, in view of practical application, these ideals do inform the direction of concrete social, economic, and political itineraries.


I respect individual accomplishments. Development of healthy, wholly integrated individuals is a good goal, in my opinion. There are good aspects of the American Dream. Yet, as much as we are individuals, we are likewise whole individuals within larger nested wholes of family, local community, nation, world community.


Driving around yesterday, listening to part of a controversial Ken Wilber book tape, A Brief History of Everything, I was impelled to consider the relationships of wholes and whole parts. As the larger wholes emerge from a combination of the whole parts, they are reliant on the whole parts remaining whole in order to retain optimal functioning. One alternative is disintegration that compromises the larger whole. Our physical bodies work that way, for instance.


There is nothing wrong with self-reliance or making a good living, but there is everything wrong with selfishly believing that one is â??an island unto oneselfâ? if one is partaking of the benefits of living in a society, particularly when that island has been formed from the carcasses of othersâ?? unnecessary misfortune. Autonomy inextricably tied into obsessive love of money and power courts disaster. Those body parts that are perceived as expendable by destructive cancerous cells undermine the health of the corporate body. (Need I mention the effects of present American policy contributing to the discordant international atmosphere?) Yes, that is a judgment based on my personal values. That is what we humans do. We judge because we do live with others interrelatedly. True hermits might exist apart from society, but they are in the minority. Besides, they likewise could very well be at the mercy of societies considering that we all share this earth.


In short, we are not all the same, yet human taxonomic schemes need not be dominated by uncaring, power-hungry elites. Or is that an inevitable condition of a flawed world?

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"I fault this president for not knowing what death is"

E.L. Doctorow looks to the President, and the consequences of his nature, with a novelist's eye:

.... there is one more terribly sad thing about all of this. I remember the millions of people here and around the world who marched against the war. It was extraordinary, that spontaneous aroused oversoul of alarm and protest that transcended national borders. Why did it happen? After all, this was not the only war anyone had ever seen coming. There are little wars all over he world most of the time.

But the cry of protest was the appalled understanding of millions of people that America was ceding its role as the last best hope of mankind. It was their perception that the classic archetype of democracy was morphing into a rogue nation. The greatest democratic republic in history was turning its back on the future, using its extraordinary power and standing not to advance the ideal of a concordance of civilizations but to endorse the kind of tribal combat that originated with the Neanderthals, a people, now extinct, who could imagine ensuring their survival by no other means than pre-emptive war.

The president we get is the country we get. With each president the nation is conformed spiritually. He is the artificer of our malleable national soul. He proposes not only the laws but the kinds of lawlessness that govern our lives and invoke our responses. The people he appoints are cast in his image. The trouble they get into and get us into, is his characteristic trouble.

Finally, the media amplify his character into our moral weather report. He becomes the face of our sky, the conditions that prevail. How can we sustain ourselves as the United States of America given the stupid and ineffective warmaking, the constitutionally insensitive lawgiving, and the monarchal economics of this president? He cannot mourn but is a figure of such moral vacancy as to make us mourn for ourselves.

[E.L. Doctorow, "The Unfeeling President"] [via MeFi]

Hobbesian Market Theory

The religions of Free-Marketism and Libertarianism, to the extent that they are espoused by the Bushite regime, are fundamentally informed by what academics call "Neoliberalism", which "... focuses on the establishment of a stable medium of exchange, and the reduction of localized rules, regulations and barriers to commerce, and the privatization of state run enterprises." The theory is that "unnatural" impediments to market function, like "localized rules" and other "trade barriers", minimum wage laws, centralized systems of social welfare, etc., will produce inefficiencies; as markets are made more efficient, capital will seek its level, flowing (in part) outward from the industrialized nations, and trickling down to the lower echelons of society -- and all will benefit.

The doctrines appeal to the Anglo-American obsession with "fairness": On a level playing field, everyone would get what they deserved. In practice, capital tends to accumulate in the hands of elites, and stay there, and neo-liberal regimes result in a war of all against all, enforced by the implicit rules of the new system -- as Pierre Bordieu described in 1998:

Thus the absolute reign of flexibility is established, with employees being hiring on fixed-term contracts or on a temporary basis and repeated corporate restructurings and, within the firm itself, competition among autonomous divisions as well as among teams forced to perform multiple functions. Finally, this competition is extended to individuals themselves, through the individualisation of the wage relationship: establishment of individual performance objectives, individual performance evaluations, permanent evaluation, individual salary increases or granting of bonuses as a function of competence and of individual merit; individualised career paths; strategies of "delegating responsibility" tending to ensure the self-exploitation of staff who, simple wage labourers in relations of strong hierarchical dependence, are at the same time held responsible for their sales, their products, their branch, their store, etc. as though they were independent contractors. This pressure toward "self-control" extends workersâ?? "involvement" according to the techniques of "participative management" considerably beyond management level. All of these are techniques of rational domination that impose over-involvement in work (and not only among management) and work under emergency or high-stress conditions. And they converge to weaken or abolish collective standards or solidarities (3).

In this way, a Darwinian world emerges - it is the struggle of all against all at all levels of the hierarchy, which finds support through everyone clinging to their job and organisation under conditions of insecurity, suffering, and stress. Without a doubt, the practical establishment of this world of struggle would not succeed so completely without the complicity of all of the precarious arrangements that produce insecurity and of the existence of a reserve army of employees rendered docile by these social processes that make their situations precarious, as well as by the permanent threat of unemployment. This reserve army exists at all levels of the hierarchy, even at the higher levels, especially among managers. The ultimate foundation of this entire economic order placed under the sign of freedom is in effect the structural violence of unemployment, of the insecurity of job tenure and the menace of layoff that it implies. The condition of the "harmonious" functioning of the individualist micro-economic model is a mass phenomenon, the existence of a reserve army of the unemployed.

[Pierre Bordieu, "The essence of neoliberalism", Le Monde Diplomatique, December 1998] [Courtesy "Candida Cruikshanks" via The Tutor]

Jack London noticed the same thing a hundred years ago; it can be seen as another way of keeping us asking the wrong questions. If we're busy protecting our assets (or the assets of our loved ones), then we're too busy to see what's really going on.

But if we can choose to live in this un-natural way (and anyone who doesn't see that it's unnatural is ignorant of basic ethology), then we can choose to live in ways that will not leave us as miserable as this way does.

This here Bordieu fella may be some kind of po-mo froggy intellectual, but he sure can talk some sense when he wants to.

The New Pinkertons

"Libertarian anarchists" often smugly trot out the idea of privately-funded security agencies as the great solution to all of the obvious crime-related objections to -- well, to libertarian anarchism. DynCorp is the great, one-word counter-argument. If you can afford to hire DynCorp, "right" and legal oversight become irrelevant.

DynCorp specializes in outsourcing security. Other names are more public, but there may be no company more deeply and richly integrated into the fabric of governmental security outsourcing. For example, DynCorp currently holds contracts with the U.S. government to manage American drug interdiction efforts in Colombia and Mexico-US border posts, and to advise the new Iraqi government on law-enforcement and security issues. They have a specialty in field helicopter maintenance, so the Army often contracts DynCorp to operate forward Apache attack helicopter bases, like "Camp Commanche" in Bosnia.

They also run the Bosnian police forces.

Sometime in early 2000, two DynCorp employees approached officers of the Army's Criminal Investigative Division with evidence that DynCorp contractors were heavily involved with the local sex-trade -- in many cases even "purshasing" young (as young as 12 year old) women as personal sex slaves. You can guess what happened next, right?

You got it: DynCorp fired the whistelblowers, and covered up the rest: Several (but far from all) perpetrators were fired, a few more shipped back to the states (to be shipped out again somewhere else, presumably), but most went scot free. Why? Well, I'm guessing they aren't clearly under US jurisdiction.

But what about Bosnian jurisdiction? Couldn't they be arrested and prosecuted by Bosnian law enforcement authorities? Ah, but remember: DynCorp is Bosnian law enforcement....

Ultimately, the grievances of the whistleblowers were upheld, albeit in a less than gracious manner on DynCorp's part: One made an out of court settlement for wrongful termination, and the other was able to get relief under a Brtish whistleblower statute. DynCorp itself, of course, has yet to admit that it fired either for cooperating with the CID.

It's curious to note, here, that we're coming full-circle (well, full-spiral, at least): As for one-word retorts, "Pinkerton" should have been sufficient. But it's my experience that people who self-label as "libertarian" usually don't have much consciousness of history; the only image they get from "Pinkerton" is a bunch of middle-aged guys in armored trucks and ugly uniforms. Great American fortunes have been built in no small part by private armies, not to mention dynasties with histories both notorious and obscured, and we mythologize the private use of force to this day.

I sometimes believe we are not really a civil society, in America. Much of the rest of the world sees us as a lawless place, in one sense or another, and in a way they're right. One reason that we can instinctively see private armies as a good thing, that we instinctively believe we need to own assault rifles to defend our homes and Glock .40s to defend our persons is that we don't have coherent and consistent traditions of civil behavior. I fear that the same lack of homogeneity that has generally protected us from fascism, also renders us unable to trust civil authority, however it is vested.

[Link courtesy The Tutor.]

Time to Choose: Selective Service, or National Service

There's a lot of noise lately about the reinstatement of the draft. The Bushites are said to favor it; there are a couple of different bills working their way through Congress that would implement a new draft. The Selective Service Administration is said to be planning for it.

The military don't want it: They say it would dilute their force-readiness, and reduce the quality of their troops. Since Vietnam, they're deeply concerned with morale, and one of the worst things you can do for the morale of a fighting force is to inject a bunch of unwilling conscripts into the ranks. (And no, "conscripts" does not imply "unwilling".)

Yes, conscription and mandatory service work in some places, like Switzerland and Israel. But those are places where there has been a strong sense of civil society, and that's frankly something we haven't had in this country. I would say we've never had it; certainly we haven't had it in a long time, at least. We're a nation of individualists, and there are strong anti-civil strains in our culture.

All that having been said, National Service is actually a really interesting idea. It's been supported by advocates ranging from Charlie Rangel to Bill Buckley. But it's not without its cost. For example, as long as it's not mandatory for everyone, it will be exploited to get choice posts for the children of privilege. That's just how things work in America. (If it's voluntary and incentivized -- or anti-dis-incentivized, as Buckley would have it -- there are different pitfalls. But those are another subject for another time.)

And if a national service term is mandatory for everyone, regardless of lottery number, then we're talking about an enormous quantity of people. Back of the envelope (250 million divided by average age of 70 times 2 years) ... that's about seven million people in compulsory national service at any given time, conservatively, give or take.

What would we do with them?

Injecting seven million people into the Armed Forces -- or even into "National Defense" -- is a recipe for chaos. If it worked, it would be either an accident or a tribute to damage control. Whether the top-down mandarins in the Bush White House want to admit it or not, there is actual expertise down on the line. You can't just plug in bodies and make it work. (I like to refer to this as the "lost knowledge" problem.) And there's significant communications overhead from increased staffing. (In computing and engineering, this is known variously as the "one baby, nine ladies" or "mythical man-month" problem, a.k.a. "Brooks Law".)

So it makes more sense to spread those seven million out over a wider area of service. We can deploy them to make America a heavily-patrolled camp, but we can derive a corrollary of Brooks Law to predict that making it a heavily-patrolled camp will not make it a well-patrolled camp. Just to make sure my meaning is clear: Rapidly increasing the number of bodies applied to national security will probably result in decreased security.

To me, it makes more sense to apply these people to public works. For heaven's sake, if it keeps the foaming-mouth brigade happy, don't call it "Americorps" or even allude to that successful Clinton-era public service program. But talk sensibly about making national service have something to do with making the nation better, not just increasing our focus on "terror".

Nevertheless, there will be consequences to pumping seven million inexperienced workers into the infrastructure -- most notably, the injection of seven million inexperienced workers into the infrastructure. You'd have to pay them, which means increased "revenue" (i.e., taxes) (and note, some of the biggest backers of this idea are Republicans). At least initially, they'll displace a lot of people already doing these jobs. Initially, a society-wide national service plan would have a hugely disruptive economic impact.

I've said this is an interesting idea, so I'm not about to just shoot it down. There are huge potential advantages. Such a large quantity of civil labor could improve small aspects of our quality of life -- our streets could be cleaner, our highways better maintained (and aren't those good uses to put these folks to?).
The greatest potential benefits are the very ones that Buckley and others imagine: If we all give service, then we all have a real sweat-equity stake in the country, for the first time in its history.

The competetive advantage for America of such common spirit shouldn't be ignored. We'd raise laggard aspects of our standard of living, as a practical matter (those roads and streets, a generally better-maintained infrastructure). But if run correctly, it could have terrific unifying effects by forcing us to mingle across socioeconomic classes, geographic regions, religious orientations.... The Swiss have long argued that forced integration of service units across language barriers is a major factor in preserving the unity of a nation with four national languages. (The fourth is Romansch, in case you're wondering...)

Again, though, the nature of the incentives used to drive compliance could have a major impact on how well that would work -- and again, that's a separate issue.

Swimwear issues

Swimsuits seem to be a hot topic at this year's Miss American pageant. Contestants need to decide whether to wear a one-piece or a skimpy bikini. Speedo is lapping up all the attention. *yawn*


Well, okay, maybe it's not a yawn for everybody, but then I'm one person who wears a swimsuit because I like to swim. I wore a string bikini years agoâ?¦ once, only once, because, well, I like to swim, and I kept falling out of the darn thing.

Miss Florida Jenna Edwards, who describes herself as "a little top-heavy," chose the two-piece but had to get a replacement for the top because it didn't fit.

Yes, I do relate to tops that don't fit. Being busty is not always a boon. But simply getting a larger, skimpy top isn't practical if one likes to swim, as in SWIMsuit. And this brings up the question of why Miss America does not have a swimming event. Let's put these suits to good use. How many laps can you manage without losing your top, Miss Florida?


I know. I shouldn't be irreverent. This competition offers scholarships to young women. Now, what, again, is the relationship between academic accomplishments and sexual voyeurism...?

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So-called disabilities

Learning about Rembrandt's possible vision problem rang a bell for me. No, I'm not walleyed, and I'm certainly no painter of renown, but I can relate to a visual disability becoming an advantage in certain instances. And those who have a high degree of myopia as I do might just relate, too. When not wearing my glasses or contact lenses, I'm able to see very fine detail by viewing an item closely to my eyes without blurriness. (And, no, I haven't opted for laser vision surgery.) Of course, this does not in any way compare to the advantages of boosting the ability of depicting a three-dimensional reality on a two-dimensional canvas.


Disabilities among artists are not unusual. In fact, innovation sometimes can be directly associated with a disability:

Too often people assume that successful disabled people have "triumphed over" their impairment without recognizing the important role that the disability itself may have had in their achievements. ["Disability and Innovation" by Griff Hogan]

So, I raise my glass to the "underdogs" who end up transcending the commonplace.


As a side note, Wikipedia is also coming into its own. My first link above from Forbes includes a link to this online encyclopedia for more information about Rembrandt. ;-)

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What you are...

"You have two choices: to control your mind or to let your mind control you. You're already familiar with the latter experience, allowing yourself to be swept along by fears, neuroses, insecurity, for we all have self-destructive tendencies.


"Don't confuse insanity with a loss of control. Remember that in the Sufi tradition, the master - Nasrudin -- is the one everyone calls the madman. And it is precisely because his fellow citizens consider him insane that Nasrudin can say whatever he thinks and do whatever he wants. So it was with court jesters in the Middle Ages; they could alert the king to dangers that the ministers would not dare to comment on because they were afraid of losing their positions.


"That's how it should be with you; stay insane, but behave like normal people. Run the risk of being different, but learn to do so without attracting attention. Concentrate on this flower and allow the real "I" to reveal itself."


"What is the real "I"?" asked Veronica. Perhaps everyone else there knew, but what did it matter: She must learn to care less about annoying others.


The man seemed surprised by the interruption, but he answered her question.


"It's what you are, not what others make of you."

So sayeth the Sufi master to residents of a psychiatric hospital in Paulo Coelho's book, Veronica Decides to Die. This book has been around for several years, but I finally got around to reading it recently. Even though I don't share Coelho's view of a Christian god, albeit not your garden variety,... after reading some of his books, I appreciate his untraditional path and the value he places on life experience in the quest for self-knowledge.


There are only a few people with whom I trust my deepest thoughts, people who don't only see me as an amalgamation of preconceived roles they assume to be me. I suppose not sharing all our innermost "insanity" with others provides a functional safety net in order to survive in a world not truly healthy. As Veronica's Dr. Igor comments on a worldly sense of reality, "It's whatever the majority deems it to be. It's not necessarily the best or the most logical, but it's the one that supports the desires of society as a whole."


I have to wonder what the "real 'I'" would be for some other people,... if some would uncover an appealing lunacy,... if others would even be capable of discovering this,... or if (sadly, in some cases) what some are is what others make of them.

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More Thoughts on Tech-Macho Bullsh*t

A few more thoughts on the Kalsey-Firefox Affair. It's another illustration of Tech Macho Bullshit in action: If you're not "clueful" enough to see how much better off you are with Firefox, then you "deserve" IE.

Personally, I think that a "cluefulness-test" is the moral equivalent of playground bullying. (Geeks getting their own back?) And I don't think anyone deserves IE, but that's just me.

As far as I can see, this resembles the dueling of "eXtreme Programming" versus "traditional" methodoligies in that both are manifestations of the geek's adolescent obsession with control. They want to be able to make the decisions about what's "right" and "wrong" without subordinating themselves or their labor-power to inferior beings. The fact that those inferior beings do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this town escapes their mind; they only remember that they have to suffer the indignity of living with, working for, and being paid by them.

It's a real problem when backend geeks arrogate all app decisions unto themselves. Here's a real clue: If the app is hard for average users to use, it's a failure. Period. "Better" becomes irrelevant, because if you can still say it's "better" at that point, you're clearly using the wrong metrics.

The New Republican Drug Of Choice: Cocaine

John Perry Barlow noticed something interesting in NYC last week. It seems cocaine is making a comeback:

I'm talking about the interesting fact that, along with the Republican National Convention, New York is being hit with a cocaine epidemic that is even worse than the snowstorm that gripped this town during the mid to latter 80's. (During the last Bush administration, to put a finer point on it.) This time there won't be a crack problem to get all racist about, however. Cocaine in New York is now so cheap and plentiful that such economic measures as cooking it down to crack need not be taken by the poor.

People who learned better 20 years ago are suddenly snorting blow again. People you would never think would mess with this stuff are messing with it big time. Once again one commonly sees lines on the tabletops and the frantic eyes you can never make contact with. I was in a club the other night that was full as a tick with beautiful-looking people pharmaceutically disabled from beholding one another's beauty.

At the same time that the white death has made such a roaring comeback, the drugs that I think are relatively harmless, pot and the psychedelics, are in extremely short supply. Pot is selling at cocaine prices, a hundred dollars a gram sometimes. And coke is selling at pot prices. An ounce of coke would cost about the same as an ounce of decent sensimilla a few years ago. Mushrooms are scarce. LSD is functionally off the market.

What's going on?

...

But then, cocaine is a Republican drug. It makes its users self-obsessed, aggressive, and greedy. It plays hell with one's sense of consequence. It's generally preferred by people who have more money than humanity. And, best of all, the weirdos and peaceniks who like to waste their useless time stoned on marijuana or psychedelics, tend to hate it. ("All the more for us, eh, Buffy?")

....

Once again, one can see clearly what the War on Some Drugs is really about. It's the culture, stupid. It certainly isn't about public safety, since coke and booze are the perfect combination for social depravity of all sorts. Instead, it provides a beautiful opportunity to jail the blacks and hippies who prefer the non-Republican drugs. It makes huge bank for one's wing-tipped colleagues.

Can it really be that the Bush Administration has decided to turn a blind eye to blow? Or is it that they are simply too incompetent, despite turning Columbia into a war zone. Maybe this is just a local phenomenon, arising from the fact that approximately 10,000 New York police officers, who ordinarily focus on narco crime, have been diverted to convention patrol.

.... Just what we need, a whole arena packed with irritable, glaze-eyed folks who are even more certain of their superiority than usual....

To once again quote an old prof: "Isn't it interesting that the only drugs that are legal make you either depressed or tense?" Add: Or temporarily sociopathic?

But it may be simpler: It may just be economics. As we shift focus from the America-exacerbated problem of narco-terrorism to the America-exacerbated problem of global religious terrorism, the drug-kingpins can expand their production and trafficking operations. And since our "homeland security" measures have been such dismal failures, we still have wide-open borders.

And to top it all off, those goddamn drug producers are behaving like manufacturers, and working to improve production! That's right -- those bastards are getting scientific, and breeding super-high-production coca plants! Clever S.O.B.s....you'd think good capitalists like the Bushites would applaud that kind of initiative.

Maybe that's what's going on, after all...

Impersistence of Memory, Part 2

"I would give these people involved in the debate the benefit of the doubt that it's not political lying," says psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, of the University of California, Irvine, an expert on the reliability of eyewitness testimony. "It's sort of wanting to remember things in a certain way. That's probably why all these people seem so sincere. They may actually believe what they're saying."

....

"Even if it was my own memory, I'd be skeptical about the details," says Christine Ruva, a psychologist at the University of South Florida. "Memories aren't stored in a data file of fact. Instead, we take all the information we know about the world, we know about ourselves, and we construct something."

["Kerry Debate May Show Fickleness of Memory", originally via AP Science News on Yahoo News; article removed, now link to "Kerry Debate May Show Fickleness of Memory", via Guardian]

Finally, someone other than me has pointed out that it's not such a strange thing for memories of combat to change over time. This slow Saturday night, via the AP Science news feed on Yahoo news, a summary piece on how stress relates to memory. Some hightlights:

You'd think the details would be scorched into a veteran's memory like a cattle brand: ducking gunfire, seeing someone die in battle, bracing against a blast's concussion. Who could forget?

Yet such memories not only blurred over time in one classic psychological study of soldiers, but mutated too. Old recollections faded; new mental pictures took over. Whole new chunks of personal history materialized from the muck of memory.

"People went from, 'Yes, I saw one friend killed,' to 'I saw no friends killed,' to 'I saw two friends killed,' to `I saw three friends killed,'" said Dr. Andy Morgan, a Yale University psychiatrist who helped run the six-year study.

....

Far from being an indelible recording, human memory is fragile, incomplete, malleable and highly subject to suggestion, researchers have shown in dozens of studies.

Time isn't the only factor that obscures memory. Great stress or danger during an event â?? as in combat â?? appears to gum up the mechanisms of remembrance, perhaps through a hormone rush that temporarily dulls memory-forming areas of the brain.

Later, our own, sometimes incorrect inferences about what happened gain equal footing with what we really saw or heard. The recollections of others, like old war buddies at a reunion, can overwrite our own. [emphasis added]

"Memory doesn't work like a videotape," says Dawn McQuiston-Surrett, a psychologist at Arizona State University West.

...Yale researchers interviewed about 150 [soldiers] at intervals over six years, starting soon after their return from the first war with Iraq in 1991.

They asked the soldiers questions about their experiences, including whether they took incoming gunfire, faced Scud missile attacks and witnessed a friend's death. About 15 percent changed their recall of something significant, like seeing a friend die, the researchers reported.

Some veterans were upset when their own discrepancies were pointed out. Some even asked for help. ""They would say, `Which one is it?' to me," Morgan said. "I'd say, 'I don't know. I wasn't there.'"

Veterans with psychological or emotional problems tended to change their memories more often, the researchers found. But nearly everyone changed recollections over the six years.

Memory experts say a mild state of vigilance during an event boosts its commitment to memory. But being scared for your life, as during a crime or combat, impedes memory.

Other researchers say memories are especially fickle when the events unfolded on a broad stage or in multiple parts. Such recollections are inevitably partial, and a soldier will tend to fill in blanks unconsciously with personal inferences and the memories of others.

In unconsciously remolding memories, people often substitute details that make more sense or enhance their personal self-image, like turning a routine act of soldiering into heroism. People reshape their memories under pressure or encouragement from others.

["Kerry Debate May Show Fickleness of Memory", originally via AP Science News on Yahoo News; article removed, now link to "Kerry Debate May Show Fickleness of Memory", via Guardian]

So here we're looking at emperical verification that people's memories of traumatic events are malleable, and even subject to fabrication. We're looking at verification that it's possible for a group of people -- motivated, say, by hatred for a former comrade -- might convince one another that things happened in a certain way.

This angle of the story should have been discussed literally months ago, because it's obvious, it's non-controversial among people who actually know anything about the field, and it's spectacularly relevant -- and, oh, also because there's a whole lot of arrant nonsense being fronted around this whole issue of behavior under fire. But this touches on a very uncomfortable set of truths, all of which come back to the fact that we do not -- I say again, that we do not, not that we might not -- remember things as they really happened, and that such tools as recall through hypnosis may be worse than useless.

Left unsaid in articles like this: If memories formed during periods of high stress (when "...scared for your life, as during a crime or combat....") are less trustworthy, doesn't that call into question most convictions for violent crime? And is there anyone who dares to point this inconvenient fact out?

Also worth mentioning: One would think that memories formed of George Bush during his time serving in the Alabama Air National Guard would have been formed during "a mild state of vigilance" (e.g. gettign prepared to fly training missions over Alabama), and hence be that much more reliable than the memories of those serving while 'scared for their lives.' And yet, still, nobody remembers serving in Alabama with the President. Curious indeed.

Wikipedia: The Latest Threat To American Civilization

It's fashionable in many circles to trash on Internet information resources. And worst is any information resource that's driven by "community." Take the recent story from the Syracuse Post-Standard by would-be technopundit Al Fasoldt.

Wikipedia, [Liverpool High School Librarian Susan Stagnitta] explains, takes the idea of open source one step too far for most of us.

"Anyone can change the content of an article in the Wikipedia, and there is no editorial review of the content. I use this Web site as a learning experience for my students. Many of them have used it in the past for research and were very surprised when we investigated the authority of the site."

"I was amazed at how little I knew about Wikipedia," Fasoldt continues. I'm amazed at how little he still does. For example, he doesn't correct Ms. Stagnitta's fallacious assertion that there's "no editorial review". In fact, Wikipedia articles do, absolutely, receive editorial review. All the time. Twenty-four-by-seven.

That's how Wikipedia works.

The research required to correct this misapprehension wouldn't be difficult: Fasoldt (or Stagnitta) could start by scanning the Wikipedia Community Portal, look at the Wikipedia Village Pump for discussions of policy questions, or look at their Policies and guidelines entry. If he wanted to be really adventurous, and really interested in testing how reliable Wikipedia is, he could experiment by trying to hack the system and drive an inaccurate edit; if he did that, he'd discover that there is, in face, editorial review -- it's just not performed by an anointed editor, but rather by people who might have some kind of actual knowledge on the subject. (Mike at Techdirt.com suggested such an experiment, and was rebuffed.)

But there's more at play here than sloppy research. In correspondence with Mike at Techdirt.com, Fasoldt used terms like "repugnant" and "outrageous" -- terms which are clearly driven by fear or anger (the latter in any case usually being driven by fear). So I have to sit here and ask myself: What is it about Wikipedia that inspires such fear and rage? And I think I know what it is. It's the very idea that information not sanctioned by some kind of official authority could be taken as reliable.

Because, after all, if information is "free", then information gate-keepers have empty rice-bowls.

Let's look for a moment at who's complaining: A high school librarian (well, we assume she's a librarian, Fasoldt's piece actually doesn't identify her as such), and a would-be pundit with a penchent for John Stossel-ish ranting. These are both people in eroding professions, most likely looking to avoid challenges from "authorities" who aren't designated as "authoritative" by membership in their guild. Heaven forbid that some student should rely on a Wikipedia article that's the collective work of three or four entomology graduate students in different universities, rather than one from Brittanica that was written by one grad student and then signed by his advisor. Such things will certainly and truly cause the end of civilization as we know it.

This is another one of those false dichotomies that frightened practitioners of marginal professions use as leverage to get their heads screwed still deeper into the sand. Wikipedia is a good thing. It's not a good thing because community-driven content is an inherently good thing (though that last is almost true); it's a good thing because they do it well. That's partly a function of size and critical mass; but it's also partly a function of rigor in management. The rules get enforced, and editorial quality stays generally good, because like most successful "open source" projects, there's really a fairly high degree of central control in the areas that really matter.

It's easy to see why Wikipedia would be very, very threatening to a public school librarian; it's also easy to see why it could suddenly seem very threatening -- or, at least, like a blood-spotted chicken -- to someone who's set himself up to be a mediator for technical information. In the more "elite" echelons of librarianship and technical journalism (visit the reference desk at a good-sized college or public library for examples of the former, or read Dan Gillmour or ... for examples of the latter), the practitioners for the most part have a deep understanding that they are not gate-keepers, but guides. In the margins, that sense seems to get lost. Whether that's primarily due to the general noise of trying to make a living, or due to more petty fear of the future, is hard to tell -- and in any case, they're probably not so often mutually exclusive.

All that said, and as a final word, the free and open creation and maintenace of public information resources by the public that uses them is an inherently good thing, provided the quality of the information remains high. In that sense, Wikipedia could and probably should be a poster child for the proper and proportional application of [American] Libertarian and Anarchist ideas. It's an example of the "direct action" of many participants aggregating into an objectively good result.

One final point: Curiously enough, the quality of information never actually seems to be at issue for Stagnitta and Fasoldt. You'd think that if they're so concerned about reliability of the information, they'd want to actually test the information. But they seem more focused on explaining why it couldn't possibly be reliable, versus testing whether it actually is. Well, I guess I can't expect them to be scientists.

ADDENDUM: I got some of the links wrong, herein. The original story lead was via BoingBoing, and that's where the terms "repugnant", "dangerous", and "outrageous" appeared.

Lesson For the Day: Make Sure They Want It Before You Try To Sell It To Them

When you highlight a community website, it's a good idea to check and make sure that it does actually have a community involved with it.

Case in point: Dan Gillmour heaped praise upon GoSkokie.com [alternate link] as a great example of "hyperlocal online journalism". As The Register UK points out, as of Gillmour's blog entry there hadn't been a posting in three weeks.

He'd have been better served to note a site I mentioned in a while back in a comment on "Open Source Journalism", iBrattleboro. They're active, and they use the site for real community news. Of course, we have no idea how much of iBrattleboro's news might be the product of one feverishly detail-oriented brain, but the point remains that it could actually be useful to someone, where GoSkokie won't be. It clearly has no critical mass. (That Gillmour could cite this as a 'done-right' example without it having critical mass is pretty strange -- that should be the most obvious requirement for a successful community site.)

To me, the key and obvious difference between these two efforts is that the one that has traffic and posting activity was actually created by real, bona fide members of the community -- not by students at a journalism school working from a grand plan [1.5MB pdf]. At risk of seeming anti-intellectual: If you're not from there, it's incumbent upon you to explain why the locals should give a damn what you think.

Addendum: Dan Gillmour pointed out that he's featured iBrattleboro before; now that I think about it, he may have been where I heard of it...I'd say my memory isn't what it used to be, but I fear it never was.

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