...For many governments, both national and local, preventing crime is a far higher priority than encouraging friendship and cooperation. But, as Professor Richard Layard of the London School of Economics has argued in his recent book Happiness: Lessons from a New Science , promoting friendship is often easy, cheap, and can have big payoffs in making people happier. So why shouldn’t that be a focus of public policy?
Very small positive experiences can make people not only feel better about themselves, but also be more helpful to others. In the 1970’s, American psychologists Alice Isen and Paula Levin conducted an experiment in which some randomly selected people making a phone call found a ten-cent coin left behind by a previous caller, and others did not. All subjects were then given an opportunity to help a woman pick up a folder of papers she dropped in front of them.
Isen and Levin claimed that of the 16 who found a coin, 14 helped the woman, while of the 25 who did not find a coin, only one helped her. A further study found a similar difference in willingness to mail an addressed letter that had been left behind in the phone booth: those who found the coin were more likely to mail the letter.
Although later research has cast doubt on the existence of such dramatic differences, there is little doubt that being in a good mood makes people feel better about themselves and more likely to help others. Psychologists refer to it as the “glow of goodwill.” Why shouldn’t taking small steps that may produce such a glow be part of the role of government?
Monday, April 30, 2007
Sunday, April 29, 2007
...Ralph Kirshbaum, an American cellist living in London, recalled a car ride with Mr. Rostropovich two years ago. The Russian said he was working on a new Penderecki piece. How many premieres had Mr. Rostropovich given, Mr. Kirshbaum idly asked. “It is No. 224,” Mr. Rostropovich answered — mostly cello works, but also pieces for orchestra, chamber ensemble and voice and piano (he was a capable accompanist)....As I am wont to do, as readers know by now, I have a little story to tell. Many years ago I was in Greece for over a month. I had been traveling in East and North Africa and Athens was my first stop back in Europe. My father happened to be at a conference in France. We hadn't seen each other in over a year and thus planned to get together in Athens. Before he arrived in Greece, and having been in Athens for a week, I looked for things we could do together in addition to visiting the standard tourist sites like the Parthenon. I found that Rostropovich would be performing at the 6th-century B.C. Theater of Dionysius (photo above), Greece's first stone theater, located on the south side of the Acropolis. The event sounded lovely - open air under the stars in the Athens summer night, listening to Rostropovich perform various pieces for cello in one of Greece's most famous theaters, original home of Sophocles, Aristophanes, Aeschylus, and Euripides. I bought two tickets.
My father and I had dinner and then walked to the Acropolis from the restaurant. We arrived outside of the theater - the entrance is to the left of the stage in the photo, just next to it. You then walk past the stage and find your place among the rows of thick limestone seats.
We entered the gradually filling theater. Suddenly, lights burst upon us - television lights, camera flashes, a rush of people. The theater's attention was focused on us! Us!
But no... we happened to be entering right in front of Melina Mercouri, the famous Greek actress who, at the time, was the Greek Minister of Culture. Her entourage flowed regally into the theater led by my father and me, taking their seats in the front row while my dad and I continued to climb the stone steps to our place. And Rostropovich was genius.
...The porn business, in short, has a community standard of its own. What starts on the fringes works its way to the center. And this affects all of us since, more and more, the center of porn culture has converged with the fringes of popular culture. But Kink’s purchase of the armory represents a quirky quantum leap in the process Cambria describes: taking a real-life fetish traditionally relegated to underground clubs and the ethereal back channels of the Web and moving it directly into a brick-and-mortar landmark in the middle of a city — unabashedly, with the conviction that both it and porn can belong there.
For those who feel that B.D.S.M. porn, or any porn, is toxic and reprehensible, the fact that at least some of it is being produced by thoughtful, educated young people might only be more troubling — a sign of how deep into respectable society it has reached. Then Cambria’s point would be more terrifying still: as such material stitches itself more tightly into the mainstream, through both its consumers and its producers, it strengthens its own legality. It makes itself unobscene.
But Acworth, for his part, seems to find hope in some of the developments of the last decade, signs that some unfortunate misunderstandings are being righted. I asked him what he would think if one day he could walk into Wal-Mart and find racks of constrictive leather corsets. “I think it would be great,” he said. Though at that point, he added, in a world so awash with kinkiness: “I’ll probably stop making money. But I won’t mind that. A life goal will have been completed.”
Saturday, April 28, 2007
Anyway,... it's that time of the semester. Besides this, there are proposals to get out, articles to be finished and started, a book to be wrapped up, and meetings all over the place as I go through some career changes....
Here's some good reading, though. This two-part essay on one of the central problems in environmental thought and environmentalism in practice: "Even when we are trying to aid the environment, we are not willing as individuals to leave the system that we know in our heart of hearts is the cause of our problems." It's especially the second part of the essay, on work, that interests me. Although I teach environmental seminars and have done a lot of work in the area, I often revert to personal dismay with the state of both environmental philosophy and environmental activism. There are a ton of moribund ideas out there; their existence is not harmful but the fact that these moribund ideas show up in many of the ways we make environmental policy is harmful. Dividing the world into separate categories for purposes of analysis is fine, but it becomes a problem when we take those analytical distinctions to be ontological. Basically, I think this simple thesis is right:
My argument is simply that the threats to humans and the threats to the environment are not even two parts of the same problem. They are the same problem.
Thursday, April 26, 2007
1. How long do you think the US military will be in Iraq?
2. What is the goal(s) of remaining in Iraq?
3. What do you mean by "freedom"?
4. What kind of "democracy" do you have in mind for Iraq?
5. Is there an economic plan for Iraq?
Add your own.
Wednesday, April 25, 2007
Yeah, it's "hard work," isn't it? Of course, there's the easy way out of all the pain and suffering - to resign. But there's also an easier way out - denial.
...MS. CURRY: I also asked Mrs. Bush about other challenges her husband is facing.
(To Mrs. Bush.) You know the American people are suffering watching --
MRS. BUSH: Oh, I know that very much. And believe me, no one suffers more than their president and I do when we watch this, and certainly the commander in chief, who has asked our military to go into harm's way.
MS. CURRY: What do you think the American public need to know about your husband?
MRS. BUSH: Well, I hope they do know the burden, the worry that's on his shoulders every single day for our troops. And I think they do. I mean, I think if they don't, they're not seeing what the real responsibilities of our president are.
Much has been made about the president's denial of the far-reaching destructiveness of the war. No need to repeat that here again. But it occurs to me that this president has a gambling addiction. The war started as a radical gamble (without a clear idea of what was to be won). It cannot be seen as a mistake or the fault of poor intelligence, since many many people were quite vocal about the morality of such a war and the probable consequences. Both have turned out to be accurate.
It was, rather, a high-stakes gamble with American troops and Iraqi civilians as a good-sized pile of chips. The gamble was lost, and everyone knows it, but the president doesn't know enough to leave the table and cut his losses. He empties the bank account for more and more chips to lose at the deadly table. He still dreams of his own glory.
Of course, he's not emptying his own bank account. He's spending others' pain, suffering, good-name, and wealth. When Laura Bush tells us how much the Bushes are suffering over the war started by her husband, this personal "suffering" is more the kind that occurs when a wealthy kid blows his trust fund at the blackjack tables or high-risk stock investments. The big difference between the metaphor and the reality, of course, is the long trail of dead and maimed. That seems to me pretty obviously more genuine suffering as opposed to that caused by obstacles to the amoral, highly improbable self-glory sought by the gambling president.
Monday, April 23, 2007
Currently, there are laws mandating that products marketed as "chocolate," must contain a certain percentage of cocoa butter by weight. However, the FDA is reviewing a "citizens petition" to allow chocolate manufacturers to substitute vegetable fats or oils for the cocoa butter. Who are these citizens? The LA Times reports that they belong to the Chocolate Manufacturers Assn., the Grocery Manufacturers Assn., the Snack Food Assn. and the National Cattlemen's Beef Assn.
Sunday, April 22, 2007
A this point, it looks like Sarkozy and Royal are the two candidates headed to the next round, the run-off.
Friday, April 20, 2007
How about the so-called "politicization" of the event that the talking heads get all ruffled about? Yeah, so what. The politicization is flying from all political sides.
Charles Krauthammer starts his WaPo piece today on the right note, saying that only silence is appropriate, not "political gain." He then immediately says that the only important questions regard "divine justice," and then spends the rest of the piece trashing gun control advocates and Barack Obama (but not the tough-guy victim-blamers or lock-em-all-up-before-they-kill proponents, such as Krauthammer himself). So much for the silence. Another case of pundit bloat, but a particularly hypocritical and stupid one in which Krauthammer, as usual, views himself as immune from even his own criticisms. The one thing he's right about is that it's an exercise in reductive futility to search for the one true cause of such tragedies. Bobby Lightfoot's screed is more interesting than Krauthammer's.
Before Krauthammer came along, silence seemed the right approach. The only other thing I could muster would be to make reference to the hundreds of people killed in Iraq this week, reported by the same news sources that have been splashing the Virginia Tech case all over the place as another day in the life of Iraq. How about Congo too? Mexico? Nigeria? Yet, the people suffering in Blacksburg are reasonably focused on their own tragedy and so, living a couple hundred miles away, it seemed a bit crass to point out other tragedies, as if this would be a way of saying "get over it."
Or how about the emphasis on the shooter being Korean, a "loner," a fan of violent video games, guns, and a movie I'm also a big fan of, Chan-Wook Park's "Old Boy"? These are all contingent features of this particular killer. They don't explain anything more generally; they simply generate more hatred and more fear of yet more things.
But Peter Levine's post helped me out today. I'll let him do the speaking, but I think he has it - that is, what I've wanted to say.
One reason to tell the Virginia Tech story in detail is to provide us with the information we might need to act as voters and members of various communities. For instance, I work at a university much like Virginia Tech and could agitate for new policies in my institution. But it is generally a bad idea to act on the basis of extremely rare events. There have been about 40 mass shootings in the USA. During the period when those crimes have occurred, something like half a billion total people have been alive in America. That means that 0.000008 percent of the population commits mass shootings. There cannot be a general circumstance that explains why someone does something so rare. The availability of weapons, mental illness, video games--none of these prevalent factors can "explain" something that in 99.999992 percent of cases does not happen. (Bayes' theorem seems relevant here, but I cannot precisely say why.)
It is foolish to use such rare events to make policy at any level--from federal laws to school rules. For instance, if lots of people carried concealed weapons, there is some chance that the next mass killer would be stopped after he had shot some of his victims. But millions of people would have to carry guns, and that would cause all kinds of other consequences. The day after the Blacksburg killings, two highly trained Secret Service officers were injured on the White House grounds because one of them accidentally discharged his gun. Imagine how many times such accidents would happen per year if most ordinary college students packed weapons in order to prevent the next Blacksburg.
The last paragraph was a rebuttal to those who want to use Cho Seung-hui as an argument for carrying concealed weapons. But it would be equally mistaken to favor gun control because it might prevent mass shootings. Maybe gun control is a good idea, but not because it would somewhat lower the probability of staggeringly rare events. Its other consequences (both positive and negative) are much more significant.
If obsessive coverage of a particular tragedy does not help us to govern ourselves or make wise policies, it does reduce our sense of security and trust. It reinforces our belief that "current events" and "public affairs" are mostly about senseless acts of violence. It plants the idea that one can become spectacularly famous by killing other people. These are not positive consequences.
A culture's disappearing means that a people's situation is so changed that the actions that had crucial significance are no longer possible in that radical sense. It is not just that you may be forbidden to try them and may be severely punished for attempting to do so; but worse, you can no longer even try them. You can't draw lines or die while trying to defend them. You find yourself in a circumstance where, as Lear puts it, "the very acts themselves have ceased to make sense."But the book is about hope, after all; seeking guidance, Chief Plenty Coups went to the woods, where he dreamed that the Crow need to remain open to the possibility of unimagined new frameworks for living. Taylor, again:
But here we have something more extreme than uncertainty: the very shape of this hope remained to be defined. The dream told the Crow that the old standards of courage and shame were going to lose their validity. And yet they would not be left completely adrift in a world without meaning and direction; new standards would emerge if they learned to watch and observe like the Chickadee. Lear writes:In his conclusion, Taylor generalizes Lear's concept of radical hope, applying it optimistically to his own fears regarding the contemporary eradication of cultures around the world; maybe, he thinks, just maybe (despite the fact that "a world civilization, highly unified economically, politically, and in communications, has exacted, and will go on exacting, a tremendous human cost in the death or near death of cultures") he can be hopeful, too.What makes this hope radical is that it is directed toward a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is. Radical hope anticipates a good for which those who have the hope as yet lack the appropriate concepts with which to understand it.
The hope is "radical," because it is virtually impossible to say beforehand what the shape of this new kind of life will be. This has to emerge in specific new forms, drawing on the particular cultural resources of each society. There is no general formula, except utterly empty, formal ones, like: "find a novel solution from within your own traditions." The notion that there could be a how-to manual for this kind of creative initiative is close to absurd.The lingering and scary question, here, is: isn't the Bush administration itself engaged in some kind of 'radical hope'? Taylor and Lear would point out that the Bush people are hoping for something they can--however incompletely, however foolishly--conceptualize: it is, instead, what we have all along known it was: simply radical stupidity.
In spite of that, a powerful stream of thought and policy in our society persists in thinking in such hortatory ways. There is, for example, the notion that so-called experts can be dispatched to teach societies that have been living for centuries under authoritarian rule how to become democracies. Some even think that it's obvious how to do this—just hold elections. All people, we are told, desire "freedom"; we just have to remove the bad guys who are stopping them from having it. The naive, destructive rhetoric of the Bush administration is an extreme case, but many less crude versions of the same idea underpin Western policies of development.
Thursday, April 19, 2007
But take a look at this pointless article on Sarkozy in the Washington Post. What is this supposed to say? That everyone, including the French, just wants to be like Americans?... Sarkozy is pro-American? Well, he is. So what. He's also considered a very dangerous man by many on the very large left in France, as Sarkozy appeals to the Le Pen right and anti-immigration sentiment.
The WaPo piece is basically a set-up. Without saying much of anything about his politics, the authors of the piece go on and on about how Sarkozy likes American movies, the American rugged individual myth, and so on. The extent of the portrayal of criticism against Sarkozy is that the left doesn't like him.
Geez. It's bad enough that the government and the major media generally flaunt a pompous ignorance about Middle Eastern, Latin American, African, and Asian countries. But France?
Good English discussions of the election are difficult to come by. Here's a place to start in looking at the election, with links to the major French dailies. Charles Kupchan has a few things to say here. Live-blogging of the election will happen here at République des blogs.
And Kupchan again on the French dilemma:
A center-left voter is today having to make a very difficult judgment. If they vote for their preferred candidate, Ségolène Royal, and the polls are indicative of the first round, then Royal and Sarkozy go through to round two. If that happens, it’s very likely Sarkozy will win. If the Royal voters instead were to vote for Bayrou, and Bayrou went through to the second round instead of Ségolène Royal, he’s the next president.
From the buzz I'm hearing today, if Alberto Gonzales were a stock, we'd be at that point when those automatic trading halts kicked in because so many people are trying to sell. But let's not get distracted by Alberto Gonzales. He's just a cog. In almost every case, what we're talking about here is Gonzales's willingness to take orders from the White House -- most importantly from Karl Rove and President Bush -- on firing US Attorneys for corrupt purposes and using the Justice Department to suppress Democratic turnout in swing states. Mr. Gonzales is a secondary issue. The real players are in the White House.I don't think the president even knows he's corrupt.
The conclusion for the US? Withdraw.
While Sunni disenchantment with al-Qaeda is all to the good, it has little to do with American strategy and, crucially, even less to do with giving up on the anti-American insurgency. The real driving force has been the increasingly aggressive, unilateralist behavior of al-Qaeda. Since declaring an Islamic State of Iraq last October, it has overplayed its hand, alienating local Iraqi tribal leaders and major insurgent groups alike. They level a litany of complaints about their al-Qaeda counterparts: killing members of their factions, intimidating Sunnis, ransacking their homes, and stealing their money. Many insurgency factions are also put off by the absolutist rhetoric of the Islamic State of Iraq's leader Abu Omaral-Baghdadi, who in best Bush fashion declares that all who are not with the Islamic State are against it. Many Sunnis have been particularly offended by the Islamic State's cavalier use of the doctrine of takfir, declaring those who have not declared fealty to al-Qaeda to be non-Muslims and legitimate targets.
If this were only a power struggle between otherwise similar factions, or an accumulation of local grievances, then these developments might be of limited interest. But there are fundamental strategic differences between al-Qaeda and the larger insurgency's respective goals for Iraq. Their current clash mirrors a vocal debate which has broken out on the jihadi internet forums recently over whether Iraq should be seen as part of a "global" jihad or as only a national one.
Al-Qaeda presents a global vision of Iraq's role and future. In a document published by the London-based Arab newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi, al-Qaeda laid out a strategic agenda that placed Iraq at the center of a global jihad. The Islamic State of Iraq would become a central base for exporting jihad against kafir Arab regimes, the West, and Iran (with a high priority placed on the last). What that means is that al-Qaeda is in no hurry to see the Americans leave, since this would deprive it of its main source of propaganda and direct access to Americans targets. Thus, al-Qaeda rejects any negotiations with the United States. Indeed, at least some of its global rhetoric is likely tailored to feed American fears of withdrawal.
The Islamic Army of Iraq and other locally rooted insurgency factions explicitly reject this vision of global jihad, insisting instead on a strict focus on liberating Iraq from American occupation. These factions have certainly been radicalized by the spiraling civil war in Iraq, but they lack al-Qaeda's monomaniacal fixation on the Shia and have on occasion entertained proposals for a cross-sectarian alliance. In recent weeks, some of these factions have gone out of their way to reassure neighboring Arab states that they consider the jihad exclusively Iraqi, and would not tolerate Iraq becoming an exporter of jihad. These insurgent factions have said that they would talk to the United States on the condition that it commit to withdrawing. (In fact, they probably already did talk to U.S. officials earlier this year, and according to recent reports are currently talking with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.) And unlike al-Qaeda, these factions actually badly want an American withdrawal from Iraq.
Tuesday, April 17, 2007
Here are five blogs that make me think:
2. Motel de Moka
3. Philosopher's Playground
4. Global Guerillas
If, and only if, you get tagged, write a post with links to 5 blogs that make you think. Link to this post so that people can easily find the exact origin of the meme.
Let me say a little something about my choices above. I generally don't find much orthodox philosophy to be very interesting any more, though my PhD is in Philosophy and I continue to read some of it and write some. This is a contingent, disciplinary issue. I love philosophy and I think it can make serious contributions to social and political well-being, individual well-being, environmental well-being, and carving out new possibilities for human thought and experience. But much of disciplinary philosophy is engaged with problems which have arisen through the disciplinarity of the discipline. There's nothing inherently wrong with this. It's simply that I lose interest when philosophy starts spending all of its time talking about itself.
So, though the natural route for me might be to choose a few philosophy sites, I've only chosen one, Steve G's place. The reason is that Steve spends much of his time not only thinking about serious philosophical issues, but also about why these ought to matter to non-philosophers. The guy is apparently a great teacher, and I think that is evident from his blog posts - their substance, their easy-going tone, and their candidness. Steve is a natural. He makes me think not only about the issues he's discussing, but also about what it means to do philosophy and what we should want philosophy to be able to do.
As for the others, I prefer to be taught something. These blogs teach me in different ways, and not necessarily because they set out to be explicitly pedagogical, but because they set out to share an intelligent passion for a subject or set of issues. They all take a real joy in what they do even if the issue at hand isn't a joyful one. They have intellectual passion, if we view the intellectual as not requiring a particularly rigid mode of linguistic expression.
Subtopia is a terrific blog on the "militarization" of space/place. Bryan Finoki prompts reflection on the space around us, the built environment, and how we live through them as we do any social or political institution. You can read a lot about a people by observing their space, sometimes lessons that are otherwise incapable of being verbalized.
Motel de Moka is a music blog. The good folks here teach me quite a bit about contemporary music from all genres. If it weren't for them, I'd be much poorer in terms of the music of my life.
I find Global Guerillas to be - sorry, John (but I mean this in a good way) - really wacky. John Robb is looking at the nature of violent conflict in the 21st Century and doing so through solid empirical analysis but also extremely interesting flights of speculation. And he's usually spot on. He often poses questions that the DC thinktank folks really should be asking but aren't. John sees things in both the short and long-term. Thinktanks and talking heads usually can't see past the weekend or are incredibly sloppy when they attempt to.
BibliOdyssey is a wonderful, idiosyncratic site. PK delves into the libraries of the world to find illustrations, prints, etchings, paintings, and other images that are otherwise forgotten except to archivists. The stories they tell about human existence are as fascinating, if not more so, as any narrative history or philosophical explanation. In the process, worlds open up, turn, disappear, reappear in contemporary contexts, and constantly show us how far the human imagination can extend into the world and out of it.
Monday, April 16, 2007
I hope at some point during the 2008 campaign, someone will ask Guiliani [sic]: "Given that you believe George Bush became president due to divine intervention, can we also assume you believe God hates America?"
Sunday, April 15, 2007
KuiperCliff has a nice piece on Frank Lloyd Wright's late designs for Baghdad.
A colleague reminded me today that the great American architect Frank Lloyd Wright had been involved in plans to modernise the Iraqi capital Baghdad, located on the plain between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates. He visited the city in May 1957, as an old man nearing his 90th birthday, and, inspired both by Arab and Persian art and architecture, began to draft a series of blueprints for a new city...Read.
Lloyd Wright’s “Plan for Greater Baghdad” was drawn up over the course of several months following his visit, and his romantic vision drew heavily on the myth and memory of Harun al-Rashid, the 8th century caliph under whom Baghdad rose to pre-eminence as the regional cultural and political capital in the Islamic period. That Baghdad was destroyed in 1258 by the Mongols, but has remained alive in the Arab memory ever since...
This basic bundle of assumptions is highly suspect for some philosophers, sociologists, anthropologists, and so on. Critics have long argued that the portrayal of individuals as self-maximizers is an impoverished view of the individual, not even empirically correct (and much of economics views itself as an empirical science) because it selects one feature of human being at the expense of an array of others. Why? The answer is often given that the atomistic notion of the individual "works" in economic models. The problem, of course, is that such models are premised on such assumptions about individual behavior - the models then confirm the assumptions. Note the circularity.
Furthermore, the bundle presumes that interests and preferences are somehow given a priori. Critics argue that one doesn't know what one's interests are until one is in society, as an ontological and epistemological matter. I can't know that I want that Mercedes Benz or Oreo cookie or trip to Jamaica or piece of wilderness preserved unless I am embedded within a social milieu in which such things are already valued, often for non-market reasons. Satisfying my interests is going to be a function of socially-determining what those interests actually are. Those interests can be complex, yielding very little in the way of being able to make predictions by observing my individual purchasing behavior, my willingness to pay for a good, and my psychological state. But orthodox economists say that this is precisely what we can say about me as an individual, and that such behavior in the aggregate is a reflection of what a society wants and thus what is reasonable to want in general since we're supposedly choosing more or less rationally in order to self-maximize. This puts the cart before the horse in that whatever it is that I want cannot be entirely explained by observing my individual behavior (I can make quite reasonable choices for lots of reasons beyond maximizing my own preferences), and my choices are made from an array of previously socially-valued options. Those prior options may be entirely irrational from the vantage point of, say, the intrinsic value of an object (wilderness, music, a trip, etc.) or, say, the long-term survival of human beings.
Here is an interesting article in The New York Times Magazine that discusses preferences in choices of music. The question is what makes a pop song a hit.
So, the author and his colleagues devised an experiment in which they looked for influence of others' voting patterns about the worth of pop songs. What they found was this:
Conventional marketing wisdom holds that predicting success in cultural markets is mostly a matter of anticipating the preferences of the millions of individual people who participate in them. From this common-sense observation, it follows that if the experts could only figure out what it was about, say, the music, songwriting and packaging of Norah Jones that appealed to so many fans, they ought to be able to replicate it at will. And indeed that’s pretty much what they try to do. That they fail so frequently implies either that they aren’t studying their own successes carefully enough or that they are not paying sufficiently close attention to the changing preferences of their audience.
The common-sense view, however, makes a big assumption: that when people make decisions about what they like, they do so independently of one another. But people almost never make decisions independently — in part because the world abounds with so many choices that we have little hope of ever finding what we want on our own; in part because we are never really sure what we want anyway; and in part because what we often want is not so much to experience the “best” of everything as it is to experience the same things as other people and thereby also experience the benefits of sharing...
...our mutual dependence has unexpected consequences, one of which is that if people do not make decisions independently — if even in part they like things because other people like them — then predicting hits is not only difficult but actually impossible, no matter how much you know about individual tastes.
The reason is that when people tend to like what other people like, differences in popularity are subject to what is called “cumulative advantage,” or the “rich get richer” effect. This means that if one object happens to be slightly more popular than another at just the right point, it will tend to become more popular still. As a result, even tiny, random fluctuations can blow up, generating potentially enormous long-run differences among even indistinguishable competitors — a phenomenon that is similar in some ways to the famous “butterfly effect” from chaos theory.
In our artificial market, therefore, social influence played as large a role in determining the market share of successful songs as differences in quality. It’s a simple result to state, but it has a surprisingly deep consequence. Because the long-run success of a song depends so sensitively on the decisions of a few early-arriving individuals, whose choices are subsequently amplified and eventually locked in by the cumulative-advantage process, and because the particular individuals who play this important role are chosen randomly and may make different decisions from one moment to the next, the resulting unpredictably is inherent to the nature of the market. It cannot be eliminated either by accumulating more information — about people or songs — or by developing fancier prediction algorithms, any more than you can repeatedly roll sixes no matter how carefully you try to throw the die...Right. In other words, preferences are socially and historically contingent and contextual and these contexts are highly unstable as a matter of prediction. In order to make predictions one has to bracket out various assumptions that may very well be quite strong, both theoretically and empirically. One has to bracket out uncertainty. One creates models that take as presuppositions characteristics of human behavior that yield modeled outcomes that do suggest predictability.
What our results suggest, however, is that because what people like depends on what they think other people like, what the market “wants” at any point in time can depend very sensitively on its own history: there is no sense in which it simply “reveals” what people wanted all along. In such a world, in fact, the question “Why did X succeed?” may not have any better answer than the one given by the publisher of Lynne Truss’s surprise best seller, “Eats, Shoots & Leaves,” who, when asked to explain its success, replied that “it sold well because lots of people bought it.”...
If markets not only reveal our preferences but also modify them, then the relation between what we want now and what we wanted before — or what we will want in the future — becomes deeply ambiguous.
But the further and perhaps most important point is that what we want not only has to do with the historical contingency of markets, but also with the referent of self-maximization and "interests" and with the very structural conditions through which socialized "self-maximization" operates.
Let me draw a larger normative question that really requires more justification (for even raising the question) than I can provide here for now. If the point is that individual choice is a fundamental good in its own right, and if that individual choice is actually premised upon historically contingent and unpredictable social conditions and structures, then shouldn't true choice be a political question - rather than a market issue - over the deep structures of society, including the market itself?
Friday, April 13, 2007
Thursday, April 12, 2007
"I just want to say that George W. Bush is the syphilis president."...Peace, bro.
Not long ago we spoke on the phone. I asked Kurt how he was. "Too fucking old," he replied.
The following by SteveG is taken from the comments. See also Steve's obituary of Vonnegut here.
Kurt is up in Heaven now.
"Do you know what a Humanist is? I am honorary president of the American Humanist Association, having succeeded the late, great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov in that functionless capacity. We Humanists try to behave well without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an afterlife. We serve as best we can the only abstraction with which we have any real familiarity, which is our community.
We had a memorial services for Isaac a few years back, and at one point I said, "Isaac is up in Heaven now." It was the funniest thing I could have said to a group of Humanists. I rolled them in the aisles. It was several minutes before order could be restored. And if I should ever die, God forbid, I hope you will say, "Kurt is up in Heaven now." That’s my favorite joke."
Wednesday, April 11, 2007
"The very fundamental issue is, they don't know where the hell they're going."
--Retired Marine Gen. John "Jack" Sheehan, a former top NATO commander, regarding the White House; cited in Reuters, “White House seeks 'czar' to oversee wars: report” (Washington Post, April 11)
Tuesday, April 10, 2007
Higher-level strategic thinking requires that you view your cohorts and/or enemies as rational agents with possibly independent objectives, while you also imagine various alternative scenarios that could play out and develop ways of acting/reacting based upon those hypothetical scenarios.
...But soldiers with a U.S. military police unit that has provided police training and patrols in Sadr City for most of the past 10 months said the Mahdi Army disrupts their efforts every day. Most of the Iraqi police they train are either affiliated with the militia or intimidated by it, the soldiers said. At worst, they said, militia infiltration in the police might be behind attacks on Americans, even though Iraqi officials offered assurances that the Mahdi Army was lying low.
"I don't really think there is an end or a beginning. I think it's all intermingled," Staff Sgt. Toby Hansen, 30, said about the Mahdi Army's relationship to the police trained by his unit. "Eventually, when we leave, they're going to police their own city. They're going to do it their way."...
Lower-grade strategic thinking involves only that you treat your cohorts and/or enemies as children.
"I think they've got the concept down. The trick is going to be to get them to continue after we leave," said 1st Lt. Mike Mixon, 32, the platoon's leader. "I'm just trying to make them see that they can all live with each other without killing each other."
Monday, April 09, 2007
"AS THE GOVERNMENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA IS NOT IN ANY SENSE FOUNDED ON THE CHRISTIAN RELIGION, -- AS IT HAS IN ITSELF NO CHARACTER OF ENMITY AGAINST THE LAWS, RELIGION OR TRANQUILITY OF MUSSELMEN [MUSLIMS], -- AND AS THE SAID STATES NEVER HAVE ENTERED INTO ANY WAR OR ACT OF HOSTILITY AGAINST ANY MEHOMITAN [MUSLIM] NATION, IT IS DECLARED BY THE PARTIES THAT NO PRETEXT ARISING FROM RELIGIOUS OPINIONS SHALL EVER PRODUCE AN INTERRUPTION OF HARMONY EXISTING BETWEEN THE TWO COUNTRIES."
--Article 11 of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the United States and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli of Barbary, finished after George Washington left office; cited in John Meacham, American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation (New York: Random House, 2007) p. 103, p. 262
Sunday, April 08, 2007
Nevertheless, a Thai government scientist, who after three decades of research is one of the world’s leading durian experts, now says he has managed to excise its stink.
Working at an orchard here, near the Cambodian border, the scientist, Songpol Somsri, crossed more than 90 varieties of durian, many found only in the wild, and came up with a fruit that he says smells as mild as a banana. He named it Chantaburi No. 1, after his home province and the location of the research center.
It will please Thai consumers, he says, and might help broaden the acceptability of the durian, unlocking the door to new American and European customers who, like an increasing number of Thais, are likely to reject a fruit that reeks like last season’s unwashed gym socks.
“Most Thais don’t like too strong a smell, except some old people,” Dr. Songpol said.
Saturday, April 07, 2007
In the mid-1970s, in Bangkok, I lived in a neighborhood compound on Soi Ekamai. The neighborhood had about a dozen families and was owned and managed by the prime minister's wife. My best friends were two English brothers, Adam and Benji, and two Thai boys, Go and Pi. We thought of ourselves as very cool, unlike our school-fellows whose lives were filled with embassy functions, piano lessons, and turning Bangkok into the expatriate's mirror of home. Bangkok was still full of klongs (คลอง) at the time (today, they're mostly filled and paved). You could go by boat from our neighborhood to the Chao Phraya River, a couple of miles away, through the system of smaller klongs leading to larger ones and finally to the rivers, passing through other neighborhoods, temple grounds, and markets along the way. We played among the klongs in our neighborhood, filled as they were with water snakes and frogs, a fish we called "grami," lily pads, and a sense of exploration.
One of the klongs extended underneath the prime minister's wife's house. She had a giant place, built, traditionally, on stilts above the klong. The klong had been separated from the other waterways into a pond. It was covered in lily pads, full of fish of various types, and extended to a rusty dark depth. It was home to "The Big Fish."
The Big Fish was a legend in the neighborhood. We insisted on its existence to our parents, who mostly humored our childhood mythologizing. No, really, The Big Fish exists. I saw it, but only once. My friends also saw it. It was truly big. And it was orange. Most likely some type of goldfish let loose into the "wild" to develop into a Leviathan. My friends and I would often stop by the pond during daily adventures to sit and watch for The Big Fish. Sightings were very rare among any of us, but we had all seen it. It moved up from the depths to swish at the surface before plunging into the black, deeper parts underneath the house. It was a beast so large that its movements were like a giant ship on the ocean and the illusion that its speed and strength turned everything around it into slow motion.
Once we had seen The Big Fish, which had required patience and belief in the demigod, we postulated the existence of an even larger Big Fish, The Big Big Fish. My friend Adam, the eldest of us, insisted he had seen The Big Big Fish, though no one else had. Once you've explained the universe, the human urge is to postulate a further prime mover. The Big Fish, in its small way, had instigated an infinite regress in the neighborhood cosmology. We hadn't worked out causality yet - simply mass and energy - although we were close with the postulation of the mother fish. I found myself drawn to the pond even when none of my friends were around. I'd sit and watch for The Big Big Fish. When none of us apart from Adam managed a glimpse of The Big Big Fish, the story arose (in that organic way that, among children, stories "arise" seemingly without origin or attribution) that The Big Big Fish might have died. Perhaps, we surmised, we were waiting on something that no longer existed. In this case, our watching at the edge of the pond would be pointless.
In the late 1980s, I returned to Bangkok as a solitary traveler and visited the old neighborhood on Soi Ekamai. I checked out the pond and sat for a while at its edge. No fish at all, no gramis, nothing.
When I see the 100-year old rockfish laid out on the scientist's table and subject to the adult's measurement ("damn, that's big!"), there's a sense of loss. It's not the measurement that's astonishing. It's the end of that particular fish life. It is The Big Fish. But there is no Big Big Fish. Or the hope. There isn't another 100 years or more for such fish. There is a definite end in this here life with nothing to follow except the measurements.
Bottom photo: Watching for The Big Fish, photo by Mother Helmut
Friday, April 06, 2007
But "Will America also release fifteen innocent prisoners out of Guantanamo?"
The US government is appealing the ruling by the federal judge in El Paso who ordered Posada released.
As part of its 15-year plan to develop nationwide science and technology literacy, particularly among farmers and migrant workers, Beijing has rolled out an 860 million renminbi ($111 million) initiative to introduce China's vast, rural adult population to science. Formally established last year, the program uses unusual means such as "science trains" and "science circuses" to deliver its message. Academics and educators now tour the country, traversing even remote areas of Inner Mongolia and Gansu provinces, where they greet locals, hand out materials and books translated into the nation's minority languages, and unfurl red banners that read "Spread the Scientific Spirit."
Thursday, April 05, 2007
Wednesday, April 04, 2007
A Pakistani tribal militant group responsible for a series of deadly guerrilla raids inside Iran has been secretly encouraged and advised by American officials since 2005, U.S. and Pakistani intelligence sources tell ABC News.Terroristic attacks, funding via Gulf countries, a growing network....
The group, called Jundullah, is made up of members of the Baluchi tribe and operates out of the Baluchistan province in Pakistan, just across the border from Iran...
U.S. officials say the U.S. relationship with Jundullah is arranged so that the U.S. provides no funding to the group, which would require an official presidential order or "finding" as well as congressional oversight.
Tribal sources tell ABC News that money for Jundullah is funneled to its youthful leader, Abd el Malik Regi, through Iranian exiles who have connections with European and Gulf states...
The leader, Regi, claims to have personally executed some of the Iranians...
"Regi is essentially commanding a force of several hundred guerrilla fighters that stage attacks across the border into Iran on Iranian military officers, Iranian intelligence officers, kidnapping them, executing them on camera," Debat said.
Tuesday, April 03, 2007
One way to begin defending yourself is to create a tautology in which your opponents find themselves pantomiming glass walls as they try to exit the bubbly circularity.
Fifteen years ago in my book The End of History and the Last Man I argued that, if a society wanted to be modern, there was no alternative to a market economy and a democratic political system. Not everyone wanted to be modern, of course, and not everyone could put in place the institutions and policies necessary to make democracy and capitalism work, but no alternative system would yield better results. [my emphasis]OK, Fukuyama suggests that democracy and capitalism are necessary conditions for being "modern" or having "better results." Setting aside the normative issues (why we should be "modern," etc.), the statement does alert us to figuring out what Fukuyama means by modernity or "being modern." Apparently, it's also a normative goal. But what is the content of being modern? One way of viewing this is to see "modern" as synonymous with "liberal" (of course, in the politico-historical philosophical sense). We then might say that, if one wants greater levels of individual autonomy and liberty, robust regimes of rights protecting those liberties and others, and an anti-authoritarian bent. There are varieties of liberalism, despite the typical European critical conflation of liberalism with market economies, including later variants (Mill, Dewey) that can be viewed as rejections of capitalism as antagonistic to liberal principles (as antagonistic to robust notions of individual self-realization, for instance). The less libertarian notions of liberalism (Mill, Dewey, Rawls) seek more robust social and economic institutions that provide opportunities for individuals to develop in ways they see fit, and thus view the state as more active in the lives of citizens (as opposed to say, the libertarian minimal state of Robert Nozick, which views the role of the state as simply maintaining fair property transactions and nothing more). And there are variants that give pride of place to pluralism and self-governance that, by necessity, overlap with democratic political organization. Further, it is still disputed in some quarters whether liberalism implies any particular form of governance.
Since Enlightenment notions of modernity are perhaps inextricably intertwined with contemporary notions of liberalism, either Fukuyama has a very strict notion of modernity operating implicitly underneath his rhetorical gestures or he's simply equating modernity with that typically American version at the conjunction of generally weak representative democracy and institutions geared towards sustaining the market economy. If the latter is the case, he's simply giving us a tautology and his entire point is vapid.
But let's see if he clears up what he means by "modern," then.
Whew, okay. It seems here that to be "modern" is now demonstrated in the desire to have "political stability, job opportunities, health care, and education" and "to be free of tyranny." This is considered different from "liberal society," characterized by individual rights and the rule of law. Rather, the latter is a "byproduct of successful modernisation." I find this confusing and welcome any efforts to clear it up. But it seems to me the tautology simply becomes more sophisticated here.
Inspiring and hopeful as these events were, the road to liberal democracy in the Middle East is likely to be extremely disappointing in the near to medium term, and the Bush administration's efforts to build a regional policy around it are heading toward abject failure.
To be sure, the desire to live in a modern society and to be free of tyranny is universal, or nearly so. This is demonstrated by the efforts of millions of people each year to move from the developing to the developed world, where they hope to find the political stability, job opportunities, health care, and education that they lack at home.
But this is different from saying that there is a universal desire to live in a liberal society - that is, a political order characterised by a sphere of individual rights and the rule of law. The desire to live in a liberal democracy is, indeed, something acquired over time, often as a byproduct of successful modernisation.Moreover, the desire to live in a modern liberal democracy does not translate necessarily into an ability to actually do so....
That is, Fukuyama appears to be saying that the desires of what are essentially conditioned or guaranteed by liberalism are distinct from the desire for liberalism. Why make this distinction? After all, if one seeks the things supposedly guaranteed in liberalism - and Fukuyama has already claimed that liberalism is the sole guarantee - it would seem that seeking liberalism as a general political means follows. Is he saying that people are stupid because they desire certain ends, then choose the wrong political means to achieve those ends? Further, isn't the "desire" itself an ideological position that mirrors or is equivalent to the ideology of liberalism? Not necessarily. An authoritarian regime could conceivably guarantee "political stability, job opportunities, health care, and education" and be relatively non-tyrannical. But Fukuyama asserts that there is no alternative to liberal-democratic market economies in materially supporting these desires. That is, the desire and its fulfillment are basically the same thing, although people apparently don't realize this.
So, we're modern if we desire liberal institutions, and the best liberal institutions will be ones that encourage democracy and open markets... but liberal institutions of this sort are a "byproduct of successful modernisation." Eh?
How about, in the context of his ongoing self-reeducation, the claims to have had little to do with Bush policy?
Long before you have a liberal democracy, you have to have a functioning state...Well, this is perfectly acceptable. We have apparently mistaken Fukuyama's pronouncements as saying something about the role of American power in the world, rather than about power and history in more abstract terms. Fukuyama was at the very core of neo-con influence within the government, particularly in the State Department in the 1980s working alongside Wolfowitz, Libby, and Rumsfeld. Clearly, however, Fukuyama has changed his tune since the disaster in Iraq became undeniably apparent to proponents of the war. Fukuyama ought to be praised for his belated intellectual honesty on this count. But not regarding his role in the lead-up to the war.
The End of History was never linked to a specifically American model of social or political organisation. Following Alexandre Kojève, the Russian-French philosopher who inspired my original argument, I believe that the European Union more accurately reflects what the world will look like at the end of history than the contemporary United States. The EU's attempt to transcend sovereignty and traditional power politics by establishing a transnational rule of law is much more in line with a "post-historical" world than the Americans' continuing belief in God, national sovereignty, and their military.
Finally, I never linked the global emergence of democracy to American agency, and particularly not to the exercise of American military power. Democratic transitions need to be driven by societies that want democracy, and since the latter requires institutions, it is usually a fairly long and drawn out process.
Even if his general thesis of the "end of history" culminating in liberal democracy is detached from any specific espousal of the overt use of unilateral, self-interested power by the US (Krauthammer's position, for example), it nonetheless truncates the possibility of alternatives. Such is the nature of strongly teleological notions of political history. The ends of history become fixed targets. Fukuyama's - with, it must be noted, misgivings - is liberal democracy, often defined by him circularly as "modernization." This notion of history fits well with a vision of linear economic, political, and technological development, a line along which some countries/societies/cultures have advanced and others have not. It fits well with the American self-image as the vanguard nation along that line, leading the rest of the world into its own self-image (which, by the way, is entirely unsustainable and, for many, undesirable). And it serves to create a political and economic ideological context in which speeding up that advancement is encouraged. This is indeed what Fukuyama gains from Hegel, but especially Marx. Fukuyama was instrumental in furthering the influence of this notion of history, and the American place in it, in both the academy and in longer-term planning within Republican-led State Departments.
Maybe it would help Fukuyama to make his case if he were a bit clearer on what modernization actually is, why we ought to seek it, and how it is related to liberal democracy. Perhaps the reeducation might then involve reevaluating the most fundamental precepts of the Fukuyama thesis.
Sunday, April 01, 2007
From photographer Chris Jordan's series, Running the Numbers. (via Next Nature).
Reverse Foreign Aid
Historically, the global balance sheet has favored poor countries. But with the advent of globalized markets, capital began to move in the other direction, and the South now exports capital to the North, at a skyrocketing rate. According to the United Nations, in 2006 the net transfer of capital from poorer countries to rich ones was $784 billion, up from $229 billion in 2002. (In 1997, the balance was even.) Even the poorest countries, like those in sub-Saharan Africa, are now money exporters...Poor Nations to Bear Brunt as World Warms
Newt Gingrich Mocks Bi-Lingual Education
The world’s richest countries, which have contributed by far the most to the atmospheric changes linked to global warming, are already spending billions of dollars to limit their own risks from its worst consequences, like drought and rising seas.
But despite longstanding treaty commitments to help poor countries deal with warming, these industrial powers are spending just tens of millions of dollars on ways to limit climate and coastal hazards in the world’s most vulnerable regions — most of them close to the equator and overwhelmingly poor...
"The American people believe English should be the official language of the government. ... We should replace bilingual education with immersion in English so people learn the common language of the country and they learn the language of prosperity, not the language of living in a ghetto," Gingrich said to cheers from the crowd of more than 100.Public opinion must lead climate change investors
"Ninety percent of money invested in energy supply goes to oil and gas. The impact of climate change could come much quicker. If these impacts started to be very visible that might change behavior."
MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif., April 1, 2007 - Google Inc. (NASDAQ: GOOG) today announced the launch of Google TiSP (BETA)™, a free in-home wireless broadband service that delivers online connectivity via users' plumbing systems. The Toilet Internet Service Provider (TiSP) project is a self-installed, ad-supported online service that will be offered entirely free to any consumer with a WiFi-capable PC and a toilet connected to a local municipal sewage system...