Friday, December 27, 2013

Feminism for the 21st century

BBC World News aired a Hardtalk with Gloria Steinem earlier today. I watched diligently the first couple of minutes, and I was again struck buy the elaborate, nerdy way in which she puts together her sentences. Substantively, I still ponder the following question. Ms. Steinem remade a point she has raised countless times in the past: in the U.S., “if you count up all the people who were killed in 9/11, plus Americans who were , and you count up all the women who were murdered by their husbands or boyfriends in the same amount of time, more women were murdered by their husbands and boyfriends than were killed in those three events.

Monday, December 23, 2013

A formula for everything

I was looking yesterday at two articles which came out earlier this month, both holding a bold promise. One (“Simple Mathematical Formula Describes Human Struggles”) presents research done by an “interdisciplinary group” studying “complexity” (headed by a physicist) at the University of Miami. They believe they have found a formula which does just that – captures the whole dynamics of “a broad range of human struggles” – “from child-parent struggles to cyber-attacks and civil unrest.” The other article (from the NYT) describes research which has led to a similar success – the discovery of a “formula for happiness.” The author, Arthur C. Brooks, says happiness “has traditionally been considered an elusive and evanescent thing,” akin to a capricious butterfly. But Brooks claims social scientists now know better: they “have caught the butterfly. After 40 years of research, they attribute happiness to three major sources: genes, events and values. Armed with this knowledge and a few simple rules, we can improve our lives and the lives of those around us. We can even construct a system that fulfills our founders’ promises and empowers all Americans to pursue happiness.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

From Miley et al. – with self-love

The NYT ran an article last week covering the Christmas pop concert at Madison Square Garden. The average age of the chaperoned audience was maybe 9, at most 11. Many had come to see Miley, and she did not disappoint. The NYT piece starts with this remarkable paragraph: “The intensity for Miley is real, read an audience member’s live tweet above the stage during the Z100 Jingle Ball on Friday night. Stone truth. Up to the moment of Miley Cyrus’s appearance, whenever her name was mentioned the massed screaming had something extra, a sound of acrid immediacy, released into the air of Madison Square Garden like the smell of burning wires.” Further on Ben Ratliff, the NYT pop critic, says “everything preceding her felt secondary”; and goes on to present a graphic depiction of the singer’s preposterous outfit and absurd “dancing” routine. In his view, despite the obligatory ironizing, there’s an obvious earnestness in Miley’s public provocations, “an almost boring will to transgress.” Mr Ratliff notes that her singing “became a pointed rejection of the rhythm of Jingle Ball, in which the upbeat mood must rule” – an attitude problem which was already apparent a few years back when the star was still 17, and couldn’t quite “access the deep joy" in another song.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Ambrose Bierce’s stroke of insight

I have always wondered how Ambrose Bierce could possibly come up with all his impossible, disconcerting witticisms and surreal plots. I assumed he might have suffered from what is now called PTSD, but I did not know if those four years in the Union army had left a more direct mark on him. And I never bothered to find out. Now it’s the centennial of Bierce’s mysterious disappearance into Panhco Villa’s Mexico, and stories about him are hard to avoid – courtesy of the imperative to maintain web traffic which even high-brow publications can hardly escape.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Those obscure objects of desire

A great piece on the NYT web site is, “The Agony of Instagram,” ostensibly addresses a new kind of “social media envy” cultivated by the Facebook subsidiary. It's blooming because these days “it’s not unusual to scroll through one’s Instagram feed and feel suffocated by fabulousness”  captured in perfect, slightly doctored images meant to relentlessly impress. But the article also points to a darker side of virtual self-actualization – which, for many, can raise the rat race to a whole new level.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Francis Bacon and the end of art, among other things

The record-breaking auctioning of Francis Bacon’s pathetic triptych had to stir yet another virtual tempest in a teacup, that’s for sure. And I thought that had already passed, as so many others have. But Jed Perl, who writes about art for the web site of The New Republic (and perhaps for the magazine, too – I haven’t touched it in maybe 15 years), still wants to fight the windmills. He has a new piece posted whose title cries out in large blue bold font: “The Super-Rich Are Ruining Art for the Rest of Us.

Monday, December 9, 2013

The 24/7 brain

There are now numerous brain studies which indicate that sleep can do wonderful things for you. Apparently, sound sleep affects positively gene expression and helps the myelination (or maturation) of neural fibers connecting distant brain regions (which is essential for neural and mental integration); plays a key role in neural restoration and washing away the toxins built in the brain during a stressful day; facilitates the consolidation of long-term memories; etc. All these findings should perhaps prompt the obvious question:

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Historical Moneyball

Cass Sunstein offers on The New Republic web site a critical review a new entry in the bulging “digital humanities” genre – a new book in which Steven Skiena and Charles Ward present a statistical model for ranking the most significant figures in the history of humankind. Sunstein’s title speaks for itself: “Statistically, Who Is the Greatest Person in History? Why Quants Can’t Measure Historic Significance.” He describes how the two authors developed their model based on what they saw as “objective” indicators – taken from the latest constellation of entries in the English-language Wikipedia, and weighted with a version of Google’s algorithm. Skiena and Ward kept refining their formulas as those kept producing absurd results – until they reached a list of names which to them seemed credible, but Sunstein still finds quite ludicruous.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

The “selfish gene” lives on…

– despite the express desire of David Dobbs and a few biologists he interviewed to “lay it to rest.” Dobbs (of “orchid kids” fame) describes their scheming in another great article on epigenetics in Aeon, “Die, Selfish Gene, Die.” In it, he explains why some biologists have offered a revisionist view, seeking to dethrone the “selfish” gene as the lead actor in the evolutionary show. Instead, they have tried to represent it as a member of a larger cast – featuring prominently epigenetic mechanisms. Richard Dawkins and other evolutionary hardliners, however, have refused to budge. Perhaps Dawkins’s fundamentalist stance on this shouldn’t be surprising since his reputation and personal fortune are so heavily invested in the “selfish gene” meme he let out of the bottle. What does seem a bit surprising, though, is the fervor with which in the comments below the article supporters of Dawkins and his fellow travelers accuse Dobbs, readers who like his article, and – be extension, the dissident scientists he quotes – of misunderstanding the gene-centric theory. They argue that the theory merely states that the gene is the elementary unit which gets selected and transmitted in evolution, nothing more than that. So should we conclude that the revisionist biologists who have converted to the epigenetics paradigm are similarly dumb?

Friday, December 6, 2013

The banality of overtheorizing

Richard Brody has taken another stab at Hannah Arendt's reputation as a thinker on the web site of The New Yorker  (“Hannah Arendt’s Failure of Imagination”) – this one occasioned by the release of a new book with interviews (including her last) and a new documentary. Unlike Arendt’s notorious diagnosis of Eichmann, Brody’s take-down seems spot on. He claims Arendt’s “mechanistic view of Eichmann’s personality, as well as her abstract and unsympathetic consideration of the situation of Jews under Nazi rule, reflect her inability to consider the experiences of others from within.” So Eichmann came out as a quasi-automaton and a mere cog in the machine, and Jewish leaders who were pressed to collaborate with the murderous Nazi regime appeared almost equally guilty of the tragedy which befell their community.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Pro-social psychopaths?

Neuroscientist James Fallon, who some time ago delivered on stage a striking self-revelation, has a new book out, The Psychopath Inside. I haven’t read the book, but I did revisit the online talk which preceded it. In his routine, Fallows describes how a few years back he got around to doing a neuroimaging study of the brains of psychopathic serial killers; how he recruited himself and family member as controls; and how he found out that the brain which showed the most obvious lack of activity in its empathetic regions turned out to be – his own.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Everything bad is good – or bad – for you

A few days ago, Science Daily published two summaries of new neuroimaging studies whose findings seemed to point in opposite directions: Video Game Play May Provide Learning, Health, Social Benefits,” and “Teens Eat More, Cheat More After Playing Violent Video Games.” What are we to make of these divergent evidence-based conclusions?

Men and women, same but equal?

A brain study made front-page news the other day (at least in The Independent), and was splashed across countless information outlets across the world. A team of researchers scanned the brains of close to a thousand men and women, and uncovered “striking differences” (as one title put it) between the brain connectivity typical of the two genders. They found greater neural connectivity from front to back and within one hemisphere in males, suggesting their brains are structured to facilitate connectivity between perception and coordinated action." Women, on the other hand,  appeared to have stronger wiring between the two hemispheres,  indicating they were generally better at integrating analytic thinking and intuition.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Want to think like a nerdy detective?

It’s been almost a year since Maria Konnikova’s book, Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Homes, hit the bookstores – or, mostly, their virtual reincarnations. Since then, the author has produced countless articles and online video appearances aimed at hawking her thinking manual. They all leave, however, one vital question unaddressed: Why would anyone in her right mind want to think like Sherlock Holmes? So, here is how Arthur Conan Doyle once introduced Holmes: