Sunday, July 31, 2016

“Hilary Clinton Makes History”

This was the title of the NYT editorial celebrating Hilary Clinton’s official nomination as the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate. According to it, “Mrs. Clinton’s nomination brings women a big step closer to the pinnacle of American politics.” Perhaps. What it does immediately is bring a real outlier closer to the presidency of the United States. The broader effects are yet to be seen – and become a topic of ideological strife. I am still wondering if a human being with “normal” emotional/visceral reactivity can survive the US presidential campaign. Perhaps President Obama is, indeed, the closest we’ll ever get.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

“Will Sanders Supporters Come Around?”

In this piece on the NYT web site, psychologists Yarrow Dunham and David Rand predict a positive outcome. They point to multiple psychological experiments (some with kids) indicating a common “human tendency to forge alliances as the context demands.” In other words, team spirit wins over contingent (and even some deep) divides. Except when it doesn’t – as the mutiny in the French football/soccer team at the 2010 world cup suggests.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

"There is no difference between computer art and human art"

This is the title of an Aeon piece by Oliver Roeder, a senior writer for ESPN’s FiveThirtyEight site. His basic argument is that since algorithms are created by humans, the art they generate is human art, too. This could well be a joke, but perhaps isn’t – which would be symptomatic in itself. My first reaction was to say there is a fundamental difference between real art and that produced by an algorithm (no matter how much “creativity” has gone into it). One requires, and evokes, a powerful emotional response; the other doesn’t. On second thought, artists, writers, composers, and others started to work on erasing this difference over a century ago. The cultured elite was initially abhorred, but quickly lost taste in representational art,  rhymed poetry, traditional narrative, tonal music, and the like – and embraced most forms of aesthetically neutral (or worse) art, poetry/writing, music, architecture, etc. This trend has recently been reinforced by the entry of tech billionaites into the prestigious art market. So perhaps we have reached the point where there is no meaningful difference between human and algorithmic artistic output.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Martha Nussbaum’ lessons for a life well lived – and conceptualized

The New Yorker carries a really chilling profile of the esteemed philosopher (“The Philosopher of Feelings”). It makes you think, “is this what it takes to achieve unrivaled success as a thinker and academic?” Also, much recent research has highlighted how much social judgment depends on proper emotional response, including gut feeling. So the article left me wondering about something else – how could someone so hardened, rationalizing, and detached become the preeminent philosophical authority on human emotion? Or perhaps this is a symptom in itself? I would be really curious about Prof. Nussbaum’s reaction to her profile, whatever that might be…

P.S. I keep thinking about this – an extreme, highly "weird" outlier, "monumentally confident" as she formulates universal principles valid for all of humanity? Or is this perhaps  refracted in a non-existing tear drop  the image of most Western social theorizing, despite the obligatory protestations of cultural sensitivity? I guess Prof. Nussbaum deserves all the sympathy she has tried to extend to the less fortunate  looking down from her elevated SES, fabulous apartment, plane windows, etc. In any case, it would be interesting to see some fMRI data for scholars who write about emotions – too bad I can't afford it myself...

Monday, July 18, 2016

Imagine … a digital afterlife!

On The Atlantic web site, neuroscientist Michael Graziano imagines a bright future when individual minds will be routinely uploaded on to some sort of IT hardware (“Why You Should Believe in the Digital Afterlife”). The vision he projects is surprisingly poetic—though not quite in the “machines of loving grace” tradition: “Think about the quantum leap that might occur if instead of preserving words and pictures, we could preserve people’s actual minds for future generations. We could accumulate skill and wisdom like never before. Imagine a future in which your biological life is more like a larval stage. You grow up, learn skills and good judgment along the way, and then are inducted into an indefinite digital existence where you contribute to stability and knowledge.” Of course, Prof. Graziano’s utopia could be another clever hoax meant to provoke silly comments from clever readers. In case it isn’t, it may need to be amended slightly: 1) machine learning could at some point take care of the accumulation of skills and knowledge commonly associated with humans—making the latter superfluous; and 2) the project could work only for individuals like Graziano himself, Ray Kurzweil (whose foresight the neuroscientist praises), the early Dr. Sheldon Cooper, Richard Hendricks, etc.—whose thought processes run along strictly logical/algorithmic lines.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The future is (almost) now?

Ruth Franklin has a great book review in the NYT (“Lionel Shriver Imagines Imminent Economic Collapse, With Cabbage at $20 a Head”). In the novel, American civilization has apparently collapsed under its own weight – ending la dolce vita for the 1%. Here are the last 2 sentences from the review: “‘The line between owners of swank Washington ­townhouses and denizens of his sister-in-law’s Fort Greene shelter was perhaps thinner than he’d previously appreciated,’ Lowell realizes late in the novel. The line separating us from our dystopian future may be equally thin. The curse of Cassandra, after all, was that she told the truth.” The trouble is – I tend to trust people who can write so well…

Saturday, June 4, 2016

We Have Become an Idiocracy

Joel Klein is the in-house satirist of Time Magazine. But in this piece he is only half-joking...

Friday, May 27, 2016

Geoff Dyer’s Creative Boredom

According to a book review in Time Magazine, the writer has two great gifts – he is easily bored in places everyone else finds exciting, and can cleverly convey his sense of insufferable boredom. Beijing’s Forbidden City? “Jeez, it went on forever, and every bit looked axactly the same as every other bit.” Time spent in a small Norwegian town promising a unique view of the northern lights? “It was like a lifetime of disappointment compressed into less than a week, which actually felt like it had lasted the best – in the sense of worst – part of a lifetime.” Polynesia? It “translates as ‘many islands,’ all of which you wish you were on instead of the one you actually are on.” Apparently, this goes on and on. So what would it take to get Mr. Dyer mildly excited? More dopamine binding in his mesolimbic pathway, I guess – though this could get in the way of his wry humor. 

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Individualism’s Final Victory?

A story on the NYT web site hails “The End of the Office Dress Code.” Its strapline clarifies the message: “In the sartorial battle between the individual and the corporation, the individual is winning.” I searched for the slightest whiff of irony in the text, but found none. So it must be true – for better or worse. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Matrix in reverse?

A team of psychologists have identified a mathematical network in the brain – distinct from the one recruited for language-mediated thinking. It is activated when we juggle or simply see numbers. Needless to say, this network must be more developed in mathematicians – or, more generally, in individuals who are better with numbers rather than words. Needless to say, this may be the network you need to have beefed up in your brain in order to be taken seriously as a social scientists these days (and soon it may give you a leg up in the humanities, too). So, unlike Cypher who says he sees people when he looks at numbers, you will be able to see numbers and equations when you think of people and social “interactions.”

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

A gender gap that is here to stay?

I sent the other day an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, “The Subtle Ways Gender Gaps Persist in Science,” to a friend. She pointed out that even in the “social sciences” the gender gap persists in a very obvious way, and perhaps for a reason. She thinks most research there has become so reductionist and quasi-autistic, that “extreme male brains” must be naturally attracted to and likely to excel at such work. And, of course, they also tend to hire and promote kindred souls (for lack of a better word), despite occasional bitter rivalries. According to my friend, this self and other-selection keeps even many men out – and only women who can at least imitate the modus operandi of the male cognitive outliers can put a foot in the door. Apparently, this problem is particularly acute in economics, where the proportion of female tenure-track and tenured faculty is lower than in computers and pure math.

P.S. A NYT piece says blacks and Hispanics are "conspicuously absent" from tech jobs - just as women are. It seems males from a few racial/cultural groups are overrepresented in nerdy jobs across the board - and, of course, in the high-stakes gambling that is now called "investment." So "the best and the brightest" won't go away, no matter how many satirical jibes they need to suffer.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Amusing ourselves to death – or not?

The Neuroskeptic recently posted a comment on a study examining “joke addiction as a neurological symptom.” Apparently, some patients with brain damage develop a compulsion to joke all the time, and seem most obsessed with pun-based punch lines. Curiously, this usually happens to individuals who have suffered some brain damage on the right side of the brain. Could “neurotypicals” develop a similar tendency? In fact, this blog post reminded me of several American friends and colleagues (who seem to suffer from a milder form of compulsive wiseckracking), my favorite sitcoms, and much of British and American humor (to say nothing of a few jokes in the comments section beneath the Neuroskeptik’s text).

Tuesday, February 16, 2016


Another op-ed piece in the NYT lamenting how “dependence on navigation technology is eroding our cognitive map of the world around us” (“Ignore the GPS. That Ocean Is Not a Road.” – by Greg Milner). It was prompted by – what else – the accident with the hapless American Millennial who decided to “put his faith in the GPS.”And followed its directions for 250 miles out of Reykjavik. One might be tempted to retort that we and our skill set are evolving, as the wheel has. And we are developing new abilities while losing some old ones that are no longer essential for our survival and wellbeing. 

This argument always reminds me of the penguins who once lost their ability to fly but developed new aptitudes needed to adapt to the harsh Antarctic environment. Of course, one could still say that the penguins are doing just fine without that essential bird skill, thank you. Perhaps – until, say, a giant iceberg cuts them off from the ocean, as it happened in 2010 at Cape Denison. The creatures then needed to waddle 60 km to catch fish. Their colony has now shrunk by 150,000 - with the remaining 10,000 penguins apparently facing a dire future. 

Sunday, January 24, 2016


Adrian Wooldridge reviews in the NYT two books trying to make sense of the senseless – the slide of the Republican presidential fracas into bizarre vaudeville, and the puzzling grassroots resonance achieved by the most unbelievable candidates. The titles of the books are worth noting: Why the Right Went Wrong, and Too Dumb to Fail. Wooldridge’s review itself contains two punch lines which alone make it worth reading. He says Trump is “more of an exclamation mark than an aberration.” And “the Internet-enabled news-cum-entertainment industry stokes political resentments even as it creates epistemic anarchy."

Friday, January 15, 2016

The joy of self-dissociation

What do investment bankers, IT professionals, and academic philosophers have in common? A remarkable ability to abstract from their own personal experiences and existential standpoint. They do it apparently in the pursuit of strict utilitarian rationalityfor the sake of profit, self- optimization, universally valid knowledge, wellbeing-maximizing charity, and related sub-goals (with traders also gaining a much-needed defensive mechanism, given the unforgiving nature of their “work”). This is, at least, the common theme in three articles I serendipitously read in quick succession: “The Happiness Code” by Jennifer Kahn (NYT), “Investment Bankers Severely Dissociate Their Sense of Self from Their Work” by Shannon Hall (Scientific American Mind), and “Add Your Own Egg” by Nakul Krishna (The Point). Incidentally, all three groups are handsomely rewarded for their radical self-abstraction – the successful philosophers with jobs, status, sense of intellectual superiority, and self-assured peace of mind, if not necessarily ballooning "net worth."