Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Environmental Brain

An interview in Salon with Alva Noë on the nature of consciousness. Noë says what seems right on to me, and a view of mind that largely went to the back-burner after the death of William James. That is, even if there is a correlation between physical brain activity and certain parts of experience, consciousness cannot be reduced to mere electro-chemical processes in the physical brain. The going neurobiological reductionism has long had it that brain and mind are basically the same thing - understand the brain and we understand the mind. Consciousness, however, is not a synaptic experience of electrical charges themselves. On Noë's and others' view, it is what you're experiencing around you right now - sense-perception, thought, ideas, emotions, external resistance - all of which are only possible in the engagement with the environment around us. Noë's claim is that the reductionist view of the brain as a necessary and sufficient condition for consciousness has led research on consciousness astray. Conscious experience is instead an interactive and relational collaboration of brain, environment, and a person's ongoing life activity for which the brain is a necessary but not sufficient condition.
It's one thing to say you wouldn't be you if not for your brain, that your brain is critical to what you are. But I could say that about your upbringing and your culture, too. It's another thing entirely to say that you are your brain...

I don't reject the idea that the brain is necessary for consciousness; but I do reject the argument that it is sufficient. That's just a fancy, contemporary version of the old philosophical idea that our true selves are interior, cut off from the outside world, only accidentally situated in the world...

Consciousness is an achievement of the whole animal in its environmental context. And to really understand it, you'd have to study it that way...

The dominant view in neuroscience today represents us as if we were strangers in an alien environment. It says that we go about gathering information, building up representations, performing calculations and making choices based on that data. But in reality, when we get up in the morning we put our feet on the floor and start to walk. We take the floor for granted and the world supports us, houses us, facilitates us and enables us to carry on whatever our tasks might be. That kind of fluency, that kind of flow, is, I think, a fundamental feature of our lives. Our fitting into the world is not an illusion created by our brains, it's a fundamental truth about our nature....

3-D President

Onion make funny, make laugh.
WASHINGTON—In what is being hailed as a breakthrough in the field of historical record-keeping, the National Archives announced Monday that it would immediately begin outfitting Barack Obama's chest, limbs, and face with an array of motion capture sensors for use in preserving a 3-D account of his time as president...

...Added Reinke, "It's like actually watching the presidency unfold."


Fixing DOJ

On the occasion of Eric Holder formally taking over at the Department of Justice, Scott Horton suggests five steps to fix that battered ministry. Accountability, that crazy and novel democratic notion, is at the heart of the suggestions.

Shanghai Sperm Bank

Um, really?

Friday, March 27, 2009

Going Home Again by Taking It with You

Meet Paco, home of the transient future?


I'm sorry, but this is just too moronic not to mention. You heard about Michelle Bachman's remarks the other day about a "global currency"? And how about that she's introducing legislation against a "global currency"? Scott Horton:
It seems that those who originated and adopted this idea do not understand what a “reserve currency” is. Since shortly after the end of World War II, the world has had a currency that is de facto dominant and has been held by central banks around the world as a reserve (much in the way the world held gold reserves before World War II). That currency is the United States dollar. The fact that a global consensus is emerging against this practice is a powerful statement indicating a lack of confidence in the U.S. economy. But it has nothing to do with the creation of a “global currency.” Nonetheless, this incident is extremely useful: it allows us to pinpoint economic illiterates. Which leaves an important question: how do illiterates get such swift access to the airwaves?
Even being generous and granting that she simply doesn't know much about economics, it is extraordinary that the idea has gone so far as to be introduced legislation. I mean, doesn't proposing legislation involve a team of people and at least some time for reflection?


Scrap idiocy as a way to describe Bachmann. Bring on absolutely insane.
Bachmann: Right now I'm a member of Congress. And I believe that my job here is to be a foreign correspondent, reporting from enemy lines. And people need to understand, this isn't a game. this isn't just a political talk show that's happening right now. This is our very freedom, and we have 230 years, a continuous link of freedom that every generation has ceded to the next generation. This may be the time when that link breaks. And I'm going to do everything I can, I know you are, to make sure that we keep that link secure. We cannot allow that link to break, because as Reagan said, America is the last great hope of mankind. where do we go--

Hannity: The last great hope of man on this Earth.

Bachmann: Do we get into an inner tube and float 90 miles to some free country? There is no free country for us to repair to. That's why it's up to us now. The founders gave everything they had to give us this freedom. Now it's up to us to give everything we can to make sure that our kids are free, too. It's that serious. I hate to be dramatic, but--

One might legitimately disagree with Obama's budget, but here we're talking about people from cuckoo land. I know this has been around a long time. My family is true-blue Republican conservative. I disagree with them on a lot of things, but I've always been able to understand them. The current wave of absolute hysteria on the right, however, is an incomprehensible leap out of reality formed through the most simplistic, superficial, incoherent, and almost always hypocritical understandings of the terms they purport to worship - like "freedom." Or even just something as basic as "economics." If Bachmann weren't a Republican hack, she might be considered an unstable threat to the people around her. But we apparently coddle in politics what in the real world would be called insanity.

Republican Alternative Budget Roll-Out

From the comments at Fark, via Balloon Juice.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Ski Jump Toilets

I still insist you can know a lot about a people from their toilets. But the Japanese are in another world altogether.


Different Waters posts a wonderful set of videos of classical Balinese performances. Music for Maniacs posts a couple songs from the contemporary western gamelan-ish group, Electric Junkyard Gamelan. And Aphelion Shelter continually keeps the faith with posts of classical and contemporary gamelan compositions.


West African Drugs

The struggling continent has been becoming a conduit for drugs shipped particularly from Colombia and headed towards expanding the market in Europe. There have been signs here and there about the accelerating extent of the trade. The recent coup in Guinea is said to have been a drug coup. Recent assassinations in Guinea-Bissau being linked to the trade from Colombia. Nigeria and other north and west African countries have always been a transit point for heroin. But this is different, according to Chris Blattman and Stephen Ellis. Now it's cocaine, which is apparently pervasive in Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Sierra Leone, etc. Stephen Ellis' piece is a terrific history of the drug trade in west Africa. Very much worth a read.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Sunday Times

Transparent Island by Markus Rummens
Via Mark G, a provocative piece here on the future of newspapers.

Via Chris Blattman, the French physicist Bernard d'Espagnat's conception of "hypercosmic God... a holistic, non-material realm that lies outside of space and time, but upon which we impose the categories of space and time and localisation via the mysterious Kantian categories of our minds."

Benjamin Franklin in Paris from The American Scholar.

In the Sunday Times, "The Art of Political Distraction." Basically, the political red herring - politicized, sure, but we also do it to ourselves. For a more extreme case, see also this older article on the Chinese "Human Flesh Search Engine."

Dahlia Lithwick on Republican hypocrisy. It has seemed particularly shameless recently.

Hugo Chavez begins the inevitable - cutting the budget as oil revenues drop. Although this claim got me in trouble with the opposition in Venezuela, Chavez has done some good things; namely, helping to give dignity to and politically enfranchise the poor (and VZA was at a 50% poverty rate when Chavez came into power). The previous governments had barely worked on that. But the most reasonable claim from the opposition has been that Chavez, by nationalizing the oil industry and other chunks of the economy, has been creating a high-risk climate for dearly-needed investment in the country. That cash has dried up and some major Venezuelan businesses have left the country leaving the economy entirely based on oil. Price fluctuations have major, near-immediate effects on the economy as a whole.

Under Discussion, 2005, by Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla
A series by Kevin Dempsey on international trade rules and climatechange.

Comments on the series finale of Battlestar Gallactica. I agree. Angels? Yes, the writers had to say something about the metaphysics of the BG universe, but this version is too conventional and saccharine with a silly Luddite twist. They should have hired a couple of philosophers to flesh out that sense of a universe of meaninglessness that the show had so creatively developed.

Photographs of "Academic Landscapes" by Vaughn Wascovich at Polar Inertia.

Vaughn Wascovich, 2008

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Tonga Eruption Photographs

Photo: Dana Stephenson/Getty Images
The Big Picture and photographer Dana Stephenson are on the case.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

A Rule-of-Law Case for Torture Prosecutions

Brian Tamanaha at Balkinization says what I think we probably all know: in order to uphold the rule of law, the Bush administration must be pursued for its war crimes. It sets a dangerous legal, moral, and political precedent to do otherwise and, as my friend Darius Rejali has said, "few things predict future torture as much as past impunity." And Tamanaha says that to not pursue criminal investigations is political.

Tamanaha is writing mostly to other lawyers and thus assumes the rule-of-law justification. Clearly, a political approach to investigations would itself be a legal and moral disaster and Tamanaha is correct in saying that the prosecutor ought to be viewed by all as politically neutral. This may seem an obvious point, but it bears reminding that separating politics from a genuine effort at upholding the universal application of rules and laws is hardly straightforward. Appeal to rule of law is an attempt to surmount this problem. Rule of law in this case at least is inherent to democracy in the sense that it embodies the claim that no one is above the law, including governing authorities and institutions. Again, this claim might seem obvious, but appeal to rule of law is a crucial element in the effort to rein in the Bush administration's claimed state of exception, that extra-legal fringe through which the administration operated.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Politicians in My Eyes

Listening... Catbirdseat posts the 1975 punk rarity, "Politicians in My Eyes" by the band Death. Death was a pre-Bad Brains trio of Detroit black dudes who moved from R&B to punk and cut just a few songs in 1975-1976. This is rare and great stuff, well worth the download and pursuit of the Drag City compilation of Death's mid-70s work. Politicians in my eyes... awesome.

Slums of the World

Via Chris Blattman via Africa Unchained, a map of the great slums of the world. They're everywhere, of course, but not always in the millions of people. According to this map, the largest are in Mexico City, Caracas, and Bogota. If you've ever seen these slums, they vary in degrees of misery. The worst I've experienced at this scale are that giant ring of extreme poverty around Mexico City and the massive poverty of Bombay. It's only going to grow.

What Torturing for Information Looks Like

Hilde has been making this case for several years (see also here).
It may be true that individual torturers are sadists, or the policy-makers seek to terrorize populations of people. But torture is primarily an information-gathering tool for the US, as a matter of policy. It's an information economy. And the individual prisoners are the aggregate bits of data that comprise the information-gathering tool. The justification comes a priori: information is good; information in the name of the defense of civilization is better. But torture information is an odd entity in that much of the framework narrative of what is sought through torture comes a priori as well. Bits of data make no sense otherwise. They're meaningless bits of data. Those bits have to fit into a background framework of interpretation, beliefs, assumptions, values, goals, etc. for them to come to make sense. But the information from one torture victim is unlikely to have much useful meaning.

For torture to be effective as an information-gathering method, it has to be institutionalized and used broadly. This is what I mean by aggregation. The information comes from observation of patterns generated by aggregating what the individual victims say and less from the words of an individual torture victim. Meaningful information from torture necessarily comes from torture's institutionalization. Some information is easy enough to verify: you can indeed verify where an individual torture victim says a weapons cache is by going there and finding the weapons or not. This kind of everyday use of torture, however, hasn't been part of the American (liberal) justification of torture. It's too small-scale and doesn't rise to the level of moral urgency of the ticking time bomb scenario, for example, which is the image the institution uses to justify morally its existence. But, while you could possibly verify concrete things like a weapons cache through torture of one person, you can't verify an alleged plot and its full details without torturing broadly and collecting the bits of information - sorting out the consistent from the inconsistent - into a patterned narrative.
Now take a look at this guest-post in the Washington Note by Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell's Chief of Staff as Secretary of State (via Scott Horton). Wilkerson discusses what the media has missed in their portrayal of Guantanamo Bay.
...the ad hoc intelligence philosophy that was developed to justify keeping many of these people, called the mosaic philosophy. Simply stated, this philosophy held that it did not matter if a detainee were innocent. Indeed, because he lived in Afghanistan and was captured on or near the battle area, he must know something of importance (this general philosophy, in an even cruder form, prevailed in Iraq as well, helping to produce the nightmare at Abu Ghraib). All that was necessary was to extract everything possible from him and others like him, assemble it all in a computer program, and then look for cross-connections and serendipitous incidentals--in short, to have sufficient information about a village, a region, or a group of individuals, that dots could be connected and terrorists or their plots could be identified.

Thus, as many people as possible had to be kept in detention for as long as possible to allow this philosophy of intelligence gathering to work. The detainees' innocence was inconsequential. After all, they were ignorant peasants for the most part and mostly Muslim to boot.

A couple of other pieces on the torture regime are worth your while. Mark Danner's NY Review of Books review of the 2007 ICRC Report on the Treatment of Fourteen "High Value Detainees" in CIA Custody. (You can see the original report here, among other places). And a brief discussion of Obama's torture policy by Andrew Sullivan.

Monday, March 16, 2009


...In Texas for an event celebrating the life and work of this philosopher, former teacher, and great man.

Thursday, March 12, 2009



I think I'm ready to fill in my butterfly ballot for album of the year. That would be London-based Micachu & The Shapes, Jewellry. It came out two days ago on Rough Trade UK, and will be out next month in the US. Micachu (Mica Levi) is something like 21 years old, and this is already brilliant jangly, experimenting anti-pop DIY punk-pop. Hell, nobody knows what to call it. Micachu gave a stab and called it "hillbillie pop," which a bandmate immediately rejected.

Micachu's debut album contains a lovely androgynous voice, a Harry Partch-inspired guitar-like invention Micachu calls a "chu," producer Matthew Herbert, and hacked melodies that are really like nothing else in pop music. They're apparently already gaga over her in the UK (a sample: "Every time I think about Micachu a little bit of excitable wee comes out").

Here's a review from the Irish Times. A sniffy BBC review here. If you can make it download from her MySpace page, try Micachu's "Filthy Friends" mixtape too.

Fluxblog has one of my favorite tracks, "Calculator." Also try "Golden Phone" from here.

I'm completely smitten. Record of the year... but... it is a butterfly ballot.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Socialism and "Socialism"

There's a nice convergence today of three top-notch discussions of "socialism," prompted by a NY Times reporter asking Obama the other day whether he is a "socialist." Times have changed. The accusation of political evil used to be the L-word, "liberal." I guess the right has caught on that the American people have moved left. Now it's the S-word.

Both Andrew Koppelman and Peter Levine make the point that Obama is only really a socialist if one makes that claim (or accusation) from the perspective of a rather far out and vicious libertarianism (which makes every existing government look "socialist").

I suggest reading Peter's post first. It's brief and to the point that it's rather incoherent to try label the new administration "socialist" because it's unclear what the term really means. Then move on to Koppelman's tidy discussion of different political shades on the left (Social Democracy and Democratic Socialism) and the right ("Market Fetishists" and "Sentimental Fools") in the US. His take is that Obama is a basic Social Democrat, and the critics on the right are Market Fetishists. If you're still going, move on to Sheri Berman's piece in Dissent, "Unheralded Battle: Capitalism, the Left, Social Democracy, and Democratic Socialism."

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Pursuing the Torture Presidency

Scott Horton discusses the new Justice Department report that could crack open the pursuit of Bush administration officials and lawyers - especially John Yoo - on torture and civil liberties violations.
Sources at the department who have examined this report state that it echoes some of the harshest criticisms that have appeared in the academic literature, but the report’s real bombshell, they say, will be its detailed disclosure of Yoo’s dealings with the White House in connection with the preparation of the memos. It is widely suspected that the Yoo memos were requested as after-the-fact legal cover for draconian policies that were already in place (“CYA memos”). If the Justice Department internal probe concludes this is the case, that could have clear consequences for the current debate surrounding the Bush administration’s accountability for torture.

Border Tunnels

A terrific piece here by Bryan Finoki on smuggling tunnels beneath the US-Mexico border. Apparently over 100 of them discovered during the past two decades.

Bryan writes, "Fence, or no fence, US-Mexico border tunnels allegedly date back to at least the days of Prohibition. But, throw in a high-tech surveillance fence, and the tunnels truly get to do their thing, much like they did in Berlin and Sarajevo, for example – the tunnels get to fulfill their own ideal destinies skirting the constraints of uber power."

Blog Watching

Students blog, and do it really well.

Isaac Smith's blog, carefully disguised by the title Isaac S. Smith.

Luna Liu's new travel blog at Amy Magazine, called 那不过是一个旅行的世界. Nice photos.

And Theresa MacPhail's Satire, Social Commentary,... (though the name changes).

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Still Tinkering

Still tinkering....

Nice readin's around the internets, though:

Wednesday, March 04, 2009


I'm fiddling around with a new design for the blog. It won't be much changed, but I'm really tired of the old template. I don't know what I want it to look like, so there'll be some testing of appearances here for a bit, often half-formed. For one thing, I need to learn how to use this new template gizmo thing blogger has.

Sorry for the mess.
See that stupid bar above (when it's there it crosses the melon photo horizontally)? Know how to get rid of it? Or the white strip further down the sidebar after all the links? I do know I want to make the central strip with the text wider and then change the color of the outer background. I've never understood why blogs by default use this narrow vertical strip and are supposed to do so because it's said to be easier to read. Why not use the whole page? Maybe it's simply because Blogger will insist on wacking out the alignment if I widen the text part....

Monday, March 02, 2009

Psy-ops of the Mind

This is fun stuff. John Cole:

Deep in this Ben Smith piece on the numerous conspiracy theories about Obama’s birth certificate and the desire by some on the right to get rid of the “birthers” is this nugget:

Meanwhile, the Birthers’ persistence has prompted another, competing conspiracy theory on the right.

“I’m not a conspiracist, but this could be a very big conspiracy to make conservatives disgrace themselves,” Medved said.

They have cultivated the crazy for so long that it is spinning out of control, and now they are struggling to reel it back in. I guess a years worth of whisper campaigns about Obama not being a citizen, being Muslim, being sworn in on the Koran, not covering his heart during the pledge of allegiance, and the rest of the nonsense is coming back to haunt them. And mind you, it wasn’t just whisper campaigns and email chains. They fed this baby. Prominent conservative Republican mouthpieces gave credibility to these rumors, and the newly annointed CPAC blogger of the year spent the better part of 2008 pushing pictures of Obama in “muslim-like” clothing.

And now they are so frustrated with their own creation that they are paranoid that it is a conspiracy to discredit them.
Joshua Marshall tweaks it further:
I just want to give props to the Democratic psyops operation that's paying off Michael Steele to get into a gonzo spat with Rush. Great work, guys.
When, over the span of at least a decade, you engage in constant up-is-downism, making your "own reality," pretending that the world is a few thousand years old (and thus a work like the Mahabharata was written before anything existed - miraculous!), spinning conspiracy after conspiracy, and trying to juggle a thousand lies at once, you're bound to start wondering what's real and what's not. You're bound to start thinking that you're a puppet in Plato's cave. And why not start to wonder if your dire enemy is the puppet-master and your entire life story is being told to you by that Democratic micro-dictaphone implanted in your cochlea?

Social Mapping by GPS

Daniel Little ponders some of the possibilities of what he calls GPS-based "mobile social mapping."
...This would function as a sort of “social reality meter” that would render more visible the social realities and human inequalities we traverse as we travel.

Such a device is entirely possible. It would require a spatially coded social data base, including characteristics such as infant mortality, high school completion, poverty, crime, single-parent families, home ownership, property values, and as many other characteristics as we might be interested in. These features would be attached to a geographical location (a census tract, for example, with a boundary file), and the map would dynamically display several selected variables as we travel through the region.

It's an interesting idea and probably just around the corner as are interactive maps of all sorts.

This global map I've been considering developing, a certain kind of climate change map which would likely use something like GoogleEarth as a basic platform, could potentially change international dynamics regarding emissions measurements, responsibilities, formal obligations, and efforts on all sorts of levels. I don't think it's hyperbolic to say that an instrument like this has the potential to change political and economic systems. I won't go into that much further because I'm still mulling the idea....

But GPS social mapping, a dynamic global climate map, and the like have potentially huge ramifications - negative and positive - beyond how we've ever thought of maps and even in terms of how we think of ourselves. GoogleEarth and personal GPS systems have already shown this to some extent. The potential for inverse influence - the influence of the tool's use on its users - is even greater as the information input becomes more complex, integrating social media tools like Facebook.

Little suggests that, with a social mapping device, we might develop a “location-based social awareness” regarding injustices, poverty, crime, and so on around us. But I think we would probably have to be prepared already to perceive injustices. We would have to already see ourselves as holding certain kinds of values that make us sensitive to injustices in order to use the tool in this way.

Many, of course, would use the tool to know which areas to avoid, and the possible resulting segregation could further entrench poverty, for example. When World Bank and IMF employees would first arrive in Washington DC, they used to be told (and still might be), "don't go past 16th Street" when looking for a place to live or going out on the town. 16th Street is that vertical line in the DC map above that runs through the 5 in "5.0." It's the imaginary line of real economic and racial segregation in DC, even if there are pockets of contrasting neighborhoods throughout.

A social mapping tool would likely lead many to avoid the "accidents" of setting foot in socio-economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. In other words, it could facilitate the conversion of prior biases and fears into action.

On another note, I wonder if this kind of map, which I find fascinating despite its anachronism, might find a home in GPS social mapping. Maybe such information is irrelevant today.

Sunday, March 01, 2009