Monday, January 31, 2011

We, Robots

This is the title of Jonah Lehrer’s review (in the NYT) of Sherry Turkle’s alarmist new book, Alone Together. In it, she describes the Internet “as a corporate trap, a ball and chain that keeps us tethered to the tiny screens of our cellphones, tapping out trite messages to stay in touch.” Lehrer thinks these worries are clearly overblown. In his view, the Internet is “just another tool, an accessory that allows us to do what we’ve always done: interact with one other. The form of these interactions is always changing. But the conversation remains.” So, the form of human “interactions” is changing, but its essence has remained the same. In her review of The Social Network (“Generation Why,” in the New York Review of Books), Zadie Smith reaches a very different conclusion. She says the movie “is not a cruel portrait of any particular real-world person called ‘Mark Zuckerberg. It’s a cruel portrait of us: 500 million sentient people entrapped in the recent careless thoughts of a Harvard sophomore”; 500 million “members” who have adopted Zuckerberg’s definition of friendship as “the exchange of personal trivia.” Why has that happened? Nicholas Carr, who suspects that “Google is making us stupid,” offers the following hypothesis: “as we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence.” What is “artificial” about this new kind of sentience Carr describes? Apparently, a degree of emotional numbing as those countless hours interacting with flickering screens rewire our (and our kids’) brains. But these concerns would also seem misplaced to anyone who has always “interacted” with the larger world and others in the manner Zuckerberg does.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

10 Restaurants Worth a Plane Ride

This is a NYT article - and the restaurants profiled in it are not just in foreign countries; most are on other continents. The title says it all.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Science über alles

Jonathan Gottschall has argued that the only way to rescue literary criticism from marginalization and irrelevance is to put it on a solid scientific basis - which would involve the relentless application of statistics to all sorts of problems. The tag line for his article in the "Ideas" section of Boston Globe ("Measure for Measure") reads: "Literary criticism could be one of our best tools for understanding the human condition. But first, it needs a radical change: embracing science." Hm - what would be a simple hypothesis regarding the "human condition" which Gottschall could test using his favorite tools? How about: "God is dead"?

Towards the end of his essay Gottschall says: "The great wall dividing the two cultures of the sciences and humanities has no substance. We can walk right through it." Indeed - this is how things must look if you think all reality can be reduced to mechanical interactions, and equations reflecting those interactions. In "The Matrix," Cypher watches those greenish ones and zeros flowing down the computer screen and says that he can sees human beings behind them. With nerds, it's the other way around - they look at people, and all they can see is numbers.

When C. P. Snow wrote "The Two Cultures," his analysis had a clear class angle. The literature/humanities circles he criticized for their lack of scientific understanding came mostly from Britain's top "public" (that is, private) boarding schools and old universities. Hence, they were very much part of the traditional elite. Most of the scientists, on the other hand, were of lower-middle or even working class origins and came mostly from the new polytechnics. Fast-forward half a century, and the picture is quite different - nerds have taken over most of the commanding heights in society and the economy. There are still a few minor bastions of metaphorical thinking (for example, some sectors of literary criticism and some other fuzzy areas), but their days seem numbered. I bet Gottschall could easily calculate their rate of attrition.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

And the first will be last...

A NYT article says school districts in the US are scooping tens of thousands of iPads. They want to give those to to students, sometimes starting with kindergarten. What does this bold move demonstrate? Here is a suggestion: educators can now use only one last trick to attract and keep the attention of most students - put a screen under their nose. Poor communities which lack the resources to equip every child with a computer should in fact count this as a blessing. Unless the good Samaritans from One Laptop per Child Come Along. Judging from our daughter's experience, if Bulgarian education has one saving grace, it's the continuing reliance on hard copy and handwriting. There is research which suggests that printed matter evokes a stronger emotional reaction, and handwriting activates the brain in more beneficial way - as compared to reading from a screen and typing respectively. Oh, and some exciting statistics from the current issue of the Atlantic: the amount of time 15-to-19-year old in the US spent reading on a weekend day went down from 16 to 5 minutes in two years (between 2007 and 2009).

Tuesday, January 4, 2011


A couple of months ago, the writers behind the Simpsons tried a couple of digs at Fox News. During the opening credits of one episode, they inserted a Fox News helicopter adorned with the slogan: “Fox News: Not Racist, but No. 1 with Racists.” At the start of the next episode, the slogan was changed to “Unsuitable for Viewers under 75.” Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly fumed, and the Simpsons bunch – supported by their loyal liberal followers – probably felt a sense of warm gratification at their own boundless courage. But the Simpsons are in fact subsidizing Fox News, and Fox News anchors must be secretly grateful for such satirical pricks which can nicely illustrate the nihilistic hubris of the liberal media elite. As Marx would have put it, this is the objective truth about the relationship between the two Fox brands; and any other interpretation must be a form of false consciousness.

The truth about suicide bombers

This is the title of a recent article from the “Ideas” section of Boston Globe. It describes the work of Israeli and American researchers who have founds a simple explanation for the seemingly puzzling phenomenon: many suicide bombers are merely troubled individuals looking for an excuse to commit suicide (as an outright taking of one’s own life is forbidden by the Quran). This strikes me as a lame attempt by academics to explain away and discredit a detestable practice - one of the very few left in the age of cultural sensitivity and tolerance. But it may also reflect the genuine inability of most number-crunchers to fathom any search for self-transcendence, no matter how misguided it can be. This is a deficit which may also underlie recent attacks on religion by a dream team of beautiful minds (including Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking, and the like).

Monday, January 3, 2011

Living on for the ages

This is the start of a newspaper article published back in November:

Messy Mya, burgeoning rapper and YouTube sensation, identified as 7th Ward murder victim

By Brendan McCarthy, The Times-Picayune

Moments after gunshots roared through the 7th Ward on Sunday night, a lone snapshot appeared on the Internet.

In it, a 22-year-old man is lying cheek to the ground, crimson pooling around his neck. His eyes are closed, his torso curled.

Chaos explodes around him, with the arms of others pressed to the back of his head. And someone is holding a cell phone just inches from his face.

This is how the world learned of Messy Mya's death.

The last will be first...

A couple of weeks ago, a lengthy NYT article drew attention to the pitfalls of “Growing up Digital, Wired for Distraction.” It chimed with concerns expressed in previous articles, as well as a Frontline documentary, Digital Nation, aired last February. Of course, technophiles will remain unconvinced; some will even continue to argue that “everything bad is good for you.” But I am now mulling a mischievous hypothesis: maybe some societies which find themselves on the losing side of the “digital divide” will be able to give a better neurological head start to their young.

Call to arms

For a couple of weeks now, the bestseller list in France has been topped by a 30-page pamphlet (Indignez-vous!) penned by Stéphane Hessel, a 93-year-old former resistance fighter. He appeals to readers to become outraged and express indignation at the state of modern society: the growing gap between the rich and poor under Sarkozy, France’s callous treatment of immigrants, the plight of the Palestinians, threats to France’s welfare system and the environment, etc. Essentially, Hessel calls on French society to reembrace the values of the resistance. How nice when someone who has lived a truly rich and meaningful life really cares to leave such a precious intellectual legacy behind. As another example, take Gordon Murray, the dying banker who recently published The Investment Answer, a pamphlet advising investors to relax and give up on efforts to beat the market. Or Randy Pausch, the Carnegie Mellon computer scientist who, after similarly being diagnosed with terminal cancer, gave several “last lectures” (available on YouTube) – advising anyone willing to listen how to achieve their childhood dreams, and how to manage their time more efficiently (by, for example, installing extra monitors on their PCs, avoiding long phone conversations, etc.).