Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Spontaneous Generations launch!

The Editorial Board of Spontaneous Generations: A Journal for the History and Philosophy of Science is happy to announce the publication of the journal's first issue.
The cool part? "Editorial Board" means me! Well, me and my friends at IHPST: Boaz, Vivien, Delia, and Nirvana. Here's the rest of our launch announcement, including the table of contents (we have some big names on there, so check it out):
The journal consists of scholarly peer-reviewed papers, opinion pieces and reviews. The first issue features a Focused Discussion section devoted to Scientific Expertise. It includes papers by leading philosophers, historians and STS scholars. We hope it will contribute to the growing interest in this subject.

Spontaneous Generations is an open-access online academic journal published by graduate students at the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, University of Toronto. To access the papers, please visit the journal's home page: http://jps.library.utoronto.ca/index.php/SpontaneousGenerations

We encourage your comments and questions on the issues raised by the authors of the articles and opinion pieces published in the first issue of the journal. Please e-mail your comments to the editor at Hapsat.society@utoronto.ca or use the journal's online comment system. We are very excited to inaugurate a journal that will, we hope, open an
exciting dialogue between new as well as experienced HPS scholars.

Table of Contents

We Cannot Allow a Wikipedia Gap! / Sage Rogers Ross

On the Ethics of Medical Care under Resource Constraints / Joseph Agassi

Focused Discussion
Scientific Expertise: Epistemological Worries, Political Dilemmas (Focused Discussion Editor's Introduction) / Boaz Miller

Expertise, Skepticism and Cynicism: Lessons from Science & Technology Studies / Michael Lynch

Science Democratised = Expertise Decommissioned / Steve Fuller

Political Epistemology, Experts, and the Aggregation of Knowledge / Stephen Turner

Wild or Farmed? Seeking Effective Science in a Controversial Environment / Stephen Bocking

Experts, Evidence, and Epistemic Independence / Ben Almassi

Managing Public Expectations of Technological Systems: A Case Study of a Problematic Government Project / Aaron K Martin & Edgar A Whitley

Anatomical Expertise and the Hermaphroditic Body / Palmira Fontes da Costa

The Expert Professor: C.R. Young and the Toronto Building Code / James Hull

An Engineer's View of an Ideal Society: The Economic Reforms of C.H. Douglas, 1916-1920 / Janet Martin-Nielsen

Mothers, Babies, and the Colonial State: The Introduction of Maternal and Infant Welfare Services in Nigeria, 1925-1945 / Deanne van Tol

What Trust in Science? Review of the Trust in Science Workshop / Boaz Miller

Starving the Theological Cuckoo: Review of John Leslie. Infinite Minds: A Philosophical Cosmology / Huw Price

Ruth Rogaski. Hygienic Modernity: Meanings of Health and Disease in Treaty-Port China / Howard Hsueh-Hao Chiang

Geoffrey C. Bowker. Memory Practices in the Sciences / Sara Scharf

Ann Oakley. Experiments in Knowing: Gender and Method in the Social Sciences / Stephen Wallace

Monday, 19 November 2007


As faithful readers (I think there are two of you) know, I have a bit of an obsession with food. Regrettably, I've neglected quite a lot over the past few months, and rather than skip it entirely, I'm going to try to fit it all together in a Very Special Thanksgiving Episode of think deviant. Here goes:

Main Course: The Turkey (food miles)

I've expressed reservations about the environmental aspects of the local food movement before. Local food puts money into the local economy, and that's a good thing. But one reason regions specialize is to take advantage of local resources, and these are often best suited to particular tasks. Areas which are marginal for oranges might be ideal for blueberries, for example. Locals should certainly buy local berries if they're lucky enough to live there, but why should they buy local oranges.
by unit of weight, ship and rail transport in particular are highly energy efficient [from Marginal Revolution]
The middle part of the thousand-mile journey a papaya makes to my plate is the most efficient part. The least efficient part of the journey? The hundred miles on either end, where the food goes from farm to transportation hub and then from transportation hub to market by truck. Worse still (by unit weight) is the trip it takes from market to table. I don't do so bad myself, since I use public transit and a backpack.
The Food Mile measurement is helpful in clarifying the difference between, say, a local farm that is not organic and an organic farm that is not local. So, if you go to Whole Foods, they might have organic apples, shipped from a thousand miles away. Is this better than having pesticide-laced apples grown locally? [more here]
For example,
lamb raised on New Zealand's clover-choked pastures and shipped 11,000 miles by boat to Britain produced 1,520 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per ton while British lamb produced 6,280 pounds of carbon dioxide per ton, in part because poorer British pastures force farmers to use feed. [again, more]
Of course, an environmentalist probably ought to reconsider eating lamb in the first place (read on).

Stuffing (you are what you eat)
I think that food is very important, and I worry that people forget about it in favor of making money and advancing their careers. I think that it is good to have a personal connection with what you eat, whether it's by preparing your meals yourself, eating vegetables from your garden, or supporting a local dairy farmer. I think that researching and practicing organic and sustainable farming techniques is an important social issue, and that the consumer has a responsibility to support farmers who use such techniques.
So says Kate Lee, who helpfully provides a pragmatic list of what goes into food choices: money, taste, nutrition, time/convenience, and source. I hasten to add the social and moral dimensions.

Mashed Potatoes

My old high school is being torn down to make room for a supermarket. The site is just a terrible location. It abuts one of Augusta's two awful traffic circles (a bridge links the two), a nightmare for pedestrians and cyclists, and a wholly confusing experience to visitors, who usually don't realize that the inside lane always has the right of way and that motorists entering the circle must yield to those already in the rotary. The state ranks the roundabouts as the top two sites for fender-benders each year, and this played into the relocation of the high school up the hill and away from the traffic. Hannaford has wanted to the spot for years. For some reason, it thinks the wedge between two rotary feeders is the ideal spot. With no traffic signals, daily commuter traffic out of the city backs up from one circle across the bridge and around the second circle each day at rush hour--just the time most folks want to stop off at the grocery store. But now I hope the project succeeds.
Maine's largest supermarket chain, Hannaford, announced it is building the first completely "green" supermarket. It will meet the highest industry environmental standards and will be the first "green" grocery store in the world. The design of the building includes solar panels, geothermal heating and cooling, energy efficient lighting, a recycling program and a rooftop garden designed to insulate and control rainwater. In addition, the contracting company building the new Hannaford in Augusta is seeking to recycle 95 percent of the old high school it is tearing down on the proposed site.
[as reported in my alma mater's school paper]

Gravy (the Farm Bill)
The 2007 Farm Bill allocates some 286 billion dollars (over five years). It's a massive document, impossible to sum up in a few words. So how about a thousand from Ezra Klein?

Subsidies are not an innately bad thing. They are the economic carrots encouraging the behavior Congress prescribes. The trouble is, Congress isn't necessarily the best judge of appropriate behavior. There are a lot of things to consider. World's Fair begins with these:
1. crop growth practices affect biodiversity, water use, and environmental health--locally and nationally;
2. chemical usage on crops in the form of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers has severe environmental consequences, the degree of which we need not elaborate here;
3. decisions about genetically modifying seeds, the role such seeds will play following genetic drift in coming years and decades, and the concomitant issues of control and power between agri-business and local farmers, have ramifications for all of us;
4. crop shipment, to, from and across America, affects our use of fossil fuels and output of greenhouse gases; and
5. food eating habits by Americans have an affect on future personal and public health issues, as in, what diseases they will face in the future.
Politicians have other concerns as well. A few years ago, I heard House Democrat Tom Allen speak of the dairy subsidy in Maine as a choice we make to protect a way of life with the added benefit to bolster a self-sufficient food economy in a time of global uncertainty due to terrorism. He's probably right on both counts, but here on the ground, the difference is clear: here in Toronto, it costs me nearly $4 for a half-gallon of milk. Back home in heavily-subsidized Maine? $2.

Here's more on small farms and subsidies.

The Sides (organic movement)

The sustainable farming practices of pastoral England did not always import well to the United States. In the established communities of New England, social ties greatly constrained potential misuses of common lands; deeds specified grazing rights and encourages crop rotations. As settlers moved west, the social constraints -- and experienced older farmers -- simply weren't a consideration, and more rapine practices dominated. Railroads, land speculation, vast open tracts, and massive government water projects accelerated westward settlement/plunder. As a result of decades of unsustainable cash crop manufacture, the 1920s drought literally blew millions of tons of topsoil away. Big, mechanized agricultural concerns consolidated land ownership, and efficiency reigned as the governing ethic for American farming. [Such a gloss pains the historian in me. Every American should know this story, but few do. Worster's Nature's Economy is essential, if Marxist, background.]

DDT, pesticides, and fertilizer runoff helped agriculture recover from the devastation of the Dust Bowl, but the deadly side-effects trumpeted by Carson's Silent Spring signaled an ideological shift in America's thinking about its relationship with itself (that is, society and environment, or that great social construct, "wilderness"). After decades, organic farming is hitting the mainstream. Yet at the same time,
conventional farming is starting to look a lot like organic farming.

The earthworm-rich soils, so prized by organic farmers, are being achieved through contemporary no-till (or no-plough) techniques. In Australia, most farmers use rotation to get crops out of synchronisation with weeds and to return nutrients to the soil. Natural predators are being used to control pests, and companies such as Dow Chemical are producing safe, short-acting pesticides. In fact Dow's latest pesticide, Spinosad, is also happily used by organic farmers because it is naturally produced by bacteria. [more]
In other words, agribusiness has rid itself of its greatest ills, yet retains its greatest efficiencies. Experiments in organic, local, and fair trade economies are necessary, and each represents a considerable and important ethos agriculture has yet to fully absorb, but I have to wonder: is it time to give the free-market food market another chance?

Pumpkin Pie (food labels)
Finally, these days it seems to take some kind of special training to understand food labels. Free range? Organic? Organic Plus? Wild? Natural? McSweeney's has the perfect glossary:

Local. This is food grown by local farmers who dislike you because you're living in the subdivision that used to be prime farmland owned by their grandparents. Local food may be purchased at farm stands, which is where your children will someday be buying pot. If you buy local organic foods, you may skip dinner altogether and ascend directly to heaven, where you'll be greeted by 72 varietals of virgin olive oil.

Saturday, 10 November 2007

beer and exercise

Infinite Heineken, originally uploaded by hoobiewan.

It turns out, beer is a better post-workout drink than water. There's a study, but I've chosen not to fact-check this one.

Inside a beer vat, originally uploaded by hoobiewan.

The Great Church of Heineken, originally uploaded by hoobiewan.

a town called Hilvarenbeek

Out my window: quaintness!, originally uploaded by hoobiewan.

Despite being a very small town, Hilvarenbeek has a windmill, a church, and a hotel. I have not much to say about Hilvarenbeek, except that the bus runs once per hour most of the day (twice hourly in the early morning). Like any good inn, there is an active bar downstairs at the Hotel Brabant. Although lodging away from the cities was inconvenient once or twice, the price was right and I did see a lot more of the countryside than I might otherwise have done.

My hotel from the outside, originally uploaded by hoobiewan.

My hotel from the outside, originally uploaded by hoobiewan.

The church, originally uploaded by hoobiewan.

CAUTION! Tractors!, originally uploaded by hoobiewan.

Saturday, 27 October 2007

a respite from Amsterdam

From Jason Kottke via Marginal Revolution:

Ben Tesch is about to launch a collaborative weather site called cumul.us. It'll aggregate weather information and harness the wisdom of crowds to see if they can make better weather predictions than the experts.

Tyler Cowan predicts Ben's effort will fail:

how many government agencies already work at predicting the weather?, or in other words the crowd is already in place.

I'm not so sure. If the weather report says, "chance of rain in Toronto," and the crowd in Mississauga is getting wet, I take the umbrella. Moreover, when I'm planning a trip to Vancouver, I look for average temperatures as a means to an end: I want to know what to pack. It's much better to know that everyone is wearing a scarf. The genius of Ben's site is in removing the middleman -- most of us want a weather report that's good enough to keep from looking like a dolt. And as long as we're doing what everyone else is doing, we've done it. If we're all wet, at least we're all wet together.

models and simulations

I've been to a number of conferences before, but this was my first real conference, meaning that it's the first conference in my field which required travel. And it was great. I can't wait to do it again. After I catch up on my sleep.

The papers given at the conference, Models and Simulations 2, are going to be published in Synthese sometime next year, but I don't think it would be wholly inappropriate to give a bit of a preview and reaction to some of the talks. I'm not entirely sure what etiquette demands, so I'll err on the side of trying to say interesting things (er, perhaps now would be a good time to mention to family and friends that you're welcome to skip this part and just look at the pictures).

Philosophers can't resist an opportunity to blur the distinction between the sublime and the absurd. And so it is that I stood in a room with Paul Humphreys and Bob Batterman and debated the disposition of this projector. I think it was Batterman who suggested the possibility that the cage was there for our protection, perhaps from an evil transforming mechanism. I was getting ready to feel sorry for the poor cyclopean beast -- not only is it caged (and what a cage it is!), but also chained. I'm not sure, but if you look hard enough, I think there's something profound in there.

Perhaps something about philosophers preferring absurdity to silence?


Bjorn Lomborg is at it again. A few years back, he made waves with The Skeptical Environmentalist. In it, Lomborg evaluates climate models according to the standards of economic theory, with the punchline that the uncertainties in climate models can't be made to behave enough to cast useful predictions. Now, with Cool It, Lomborg is suggesting that even if climate change is happening, the proposed counteractions are too expensive, particularly given the uncertainty about their efficacy.

One difficulty in economics is in deciding how much to value the future. Here's a concrete example from Lenny Smith, a statistician at LSE. Last year, Lenny's favourite pub flooded. The pub's been around for centuries and it's flooded before, but this was a bad one. The kitchen was ruined. The owner, knowing Lenny has an interest in climate change, asked him a simple question: when I rebuild my kitchen, should I take this opportunity to upgrade my kitchen, or am I going to lose my investment in another flood next year? There's real money at stake, and a decision has to be made without delay. The key to making a good decision is this: what's the discount rate? How many years will be available over which to amortize this investment? Obviously, the time window on economic decisions is crucial. If you just care about the next four years, you get a different answer than if you're planning for the next twenty. In the next four years, it's unlikely that there will be another flood of the same magnitude. But in the next twenty, there might be, especially if the climate changes rapidly. On an even longer scale, say a century, there will almost certainly be another devastating flood at Lenny's pub whether the climate shifts or not. The uncertainty introduced by climate change is how long between disasters?

Discount rates are one tool economists use to constrain their models. This allows them to ignore very long-term, low-likelihood events in order to focus on the here and now. For the most part, this makes sense. When deciding next year's NASA budget, we heavily discount the possibility of an Armageddon-style comet strike. In the long run, it's almost a certainty that there will be a comet strike, but the likelihood of it happening in the next century is quite low. It makes sense to keep thinking about comet strikes, and what we might do about them, but it doesn't make sense to devote a large fraction of our resources to it.

Lomborg's reasoning about climate change is slightly more subtle than this. He's not saying it isn't happening or even that it won't have drastic effects. He's saying climate change will be disadvantageous to some and advantageous to others, and that given our limited resources, we should devote them to problems we know we can fix -- like malaria or cholera. The first point is debatable at best. It's surely true that life on earth isn't threatened by climate change. And some of Lomborg's particular claims may also be right: malaria might disappear from the African sub-continent. But it's important to realize why this might occur: all of the water will have evaporated, turning the fertile lands into desert. Desertification isn't quite the cure most people are looking for. As to the second claim, that we should spend our resources on cost-effective measures, it's hard to argue with the premise, but (again, riffing on Lenny Smith), there's no point in curing AIDs if there aren't any people around to not have it. We have to balance the short and long term, and climate scientists are essentially saying we're discounting too much.

The trouble with Lomborg -- and many climate critics -- isn't that they're wrong about the uncertainties about the future, or the likely ineffectiveness of particular proposed measure. It's that the stakes are too high, and their arguments are being co-opted into a policy of non-action. The Bush administration refuses to sign onto Kyoto because its demands are ineffective. Very well, but he isn't proposing an alternative. In fact, while arguing that we need more information, he's cutting public funding to the National Science Foundation.

But Bush and Lomborg are right about one thing: weather and climate models are tough. It's hard to know what to think about them. Worse, it's hard to know how to think about them. That's where philosophy is supposed to help. It's commonplace that climate models have a lot of uncertainty in them. But what's uncertain? What goes in? What happens in the middle? Or what comes out?

The distinction is crucial. To take a simple example, if I put a glass of water in my freezer overnight, I don't need to know much about the initial conditions to predict that in the morning it'll be frozen (unless my freezer is broken, or I leave the door open, or someone takes the glass out of the freezer, or earth is destroyed by a meteor while I sleep). This is because all initial conditions converge on one outcome: frozen glass of water. The trouble is, climate predictions don't converge. In fact, the results (what comes out) diverge wildly depending on the initial conditions you set (what goes in), or on the parameter values you choose in the model you use (what happens in the middle).

This is exactly what Wendy Parker, a philosopher at Ohio U, works on, and she has some nice things to say. She starts by noticing that models are often developed with a particular circumscribed purpose -- to identify processes, predict within a specified error bound, or simply to describe some phenomenon to a particular audience. Incompatibilities in assumptions or predictions do not necessarily rule out compatibility with respect to any of these purposes. A typical climate model (a physics-based one, rather than just a regression analysis) has initial conditions -- current climate variables, some nonlinear equations with particular parameter values

The trouble with atmospheric science, she says, is that the uncertainties in a given model are often so great that it's difficult to choose a model, even for a proscribed purpose. The "epistemically responsible" choice, at this point, has to be to sample the candidates. This can allow us to find a range of uncertainties or perhaps even a lower bound -- a "non-discountable envelope", to go back to Lomborg. But can we know what's likely to occur?

Woodward has done some work on ensemble explanations, and he suggests criteria for robustness and completeness with respect to some predictive hypothesis H: an ensemble prediction is robust if every candidate predicts H, and it is complete if you know that one of the candidates is actually true. This makes sense, but unfortunately, it just doesn't apply in the case of climate models. In fact, it's more likely that we can show that every candidate is NOT true. Furthermore, the results vary rarely converge on an interesting H. That is, they may all agree the temperature will rise in the next ten years, but the particular predictions may range from 0.1 to 10 degrees.

Again, how do we say what's likely? It's not at all clear that we can just take the probability values that come out of the equations at face value, Wendy says, because they map uncertainty about parameter values onto uncertainty about future climate variables. It's not clear "probability" is even the right category.

As Lenny says, our job doesn't end with running the numbers. We have to explain what they mean. And we just don't have the vocabulary to do that. For a philosopher, that's a call to arms.

Monday, 22 October 2007


Rijksmuseum, originally uploaded by hoobiewan.

There's some nice stuff at the Rijksmuseum, but I was a surprised not to see many of the Dutch Genre paintings I remember Michael Grillo showing in my undergraduate Honors lectures. Paintings from the same period, the Dutch Golden Age (the 17th century) were definitely in evidence, but few of the ones I remember from slides. A common theme at the time was the still life feast: a table overflowing with rich, exotic foods. Dishes of silver, gold, and glass were brimming with oranges, walnuts, oysters, and cakes. Special care was taken to play with reflected color and realism. These paintings represented the cosmopolitan, merchant-class culture of the Netherlands when they were a world power and the Dutch fleet ruled the seas. Vermeer's skill with color is obvious in reproduction, but it is more obvious still when displayed beside contemporary works. Rembrandt's gigantic Nightwatch really is quite amazing, though the cultural significance is clearly lost on me. Back outside, the fog lingers on past eleven in the morning, but the sun is bright and it's beginning to warm up. Just down the street is the Van Gogh museum, where I learned how Vincent was influenced by Japanese art. It's really evident in some of his paintings once you think to look for it. Next door is a temporary exhibit on 19th century Barcelona, where I see some early Picasso.

Outside the Rijksmuseum is this sign, because what Amsterdam really needs is an ad campaign.

Um. A light?, originally uploaded by hoobiewan.

No one knows why they take pictures like this. We all do it, though.

Notice how the streets are paved with stone? They do that even with new streets. It's absolutely amazing. Cars, bicycles, and people all get separate pavers.

The Night Watch in Bronze, originally uploaded by hoobiewan.

I'm not sure why someone thought to reproduce Rembrandt's work in bronze, but here it is.

By now quite exhausted, I make my way back to Amsterdam Centraal and hop a train to Tilburg, by way of 's-Hertogenbosch. Past four in the afternoon, I'm dead on my feet, and I fall into a cab to Hotel Brabant in Hilvarenbeek.

Friday, 19 October 2007

7 am

7 am, originally uploaded by hoobiewan.

Although it's dark when the plane lands at six, by seven it's possible to see enough to wander, though it's still far too early for any shops to be open. The streets of Amsterdam, like those of most very old cities, do not even approximate a grid shape. I snap this picture of a canal tour routemap and use it to find the sites of sights for the rest of the day:

Amsterdam, originally uploaded by hoobiewan.

It's close to nine before I see other people on the street in any numbers, and I'm pretty happy to have had the city to myself for a while, to get my bearings (or lose them?) By now I've completed half a circuit, starting from Centraal Station I've made it down to museumplein. I find some pastry and beat the crowds to the museums.

extra vowels

I'm pretty bad at languages other than English. This is something I discovered in high school Latin, and nothing that's occurred since then has changed my mind about it -- my reading knowledge of French essentially consists in rapid dictionary usage coupled with good logical inference about what English sentence is most likely to have the words I just looked up. I resolved long ago not to let ignorance slow me down, and it's a good thing, or I'd have been a bit frightened to go to the Netherlands. Fortunately for me, everyone there speaks English. And anyhow, a lot of words are cognates to familiar words anyhow, but with some extra vowels added. Centraal Station, for example, is Central Station. That works out pretty well for someone like me.

I'm an entailer. I make detailed plans. Lists, with checkboxes. But not on this trip. I decided to forgo any form of planning beyond flight and lodging. I may have taken things a bit to the extreme. I didn't buy a guidebook or look at a map before I left, so I spent my first half-hour after getting off the plane wandering around Schiphol Airport running my eyes past Netherlands place names on train schedules. Although my present task was simply to get to Amsterdam, I thought it might be wise to check on the route between Amsterdam and Tilburg (the location of the conference, and the nearest train depot to my hotel in Hilvarenbeek). Somehow, I managed to glean that I'd have to head for Utrecht and/or possibly s'Hertogenbosch toward Breda. This settled to the extent it would be before I bought my ticket, I headed for Amsterdam. The plan: wander around for a while and find some food.

if you build it, they will come

Goodbye Toronto, originally uploaded by hoobiewan.

One of the very unfortunate facts about Toronto is that no subway line extends to the airport. I can't decide whether it is a passive-aggressive knock at tourists, or a criminally negligent oversight. It is a one hour subway ride from Coxwell to Kipling, a journey made bearable (this time) by a clever innovation of mine: bringing along some specialist readings. From Kipling, it is another half-hour on a bus to the airport itself, followed by the security shuffle and zoned boarding of the 767. My seat? 47. That's out of 50. Finally, three hours after it began, my journey to seat 47 comes to and end, and the six hour flight to Amsterdam commences. The plane lifts off at 17:00 and lands seven hours later at 06:00. This time dilation (compression?) is just such that I have to get up when I'm starting to feel tired enough to sleep. It's dark at 06:00 in Amsterdam.

All my bags are packed...

All my bags are packed..., originally uploaded by hoobiewan.

I take an irrational pride in the fact that I can fit things into small spaces. As with most of my irrational prides, this is one first pointed out to me by someone else. Bending the laws of physics in this way really is a skill of sorts, and it is useful enough that a small amount of pride is probably justified. I take it to extremes, unfortunately, regularly making outlandish claims about being able to fit large stone monuments into small leather pouches. What is most unfortunate about my skill of packing tightly is that it is a necessity, because any space savings I gain stuffing socks into intra-molecular spaces I lose by way of a serious ailment: Overgrown Boy Scout Syndrome (OBSS). "Be prepared," implores the Scout motto, and I take it very seriously. When packing for a trip to Florida in the summer, I will always briefly consider whether I might need my parka. My worst offense is usually shoes. On my trip to San Francisco a few years back, I believe I had two pairs of shoes and sandals. This was a five-day trip, with no hiking excursions or the like planned. In the end, I'm not sure the shoes I chose were really the best for the trip. I long thought OBSS was an incurable lifelong ailment, but I have come to believe that this was just an enabling conviction. If I set a real limit for myself, surely I could make do with less. The goal: fit everything I'd need for a week in the Netherlands into one backpack.

For a while, I thought I was going to have to buy myself a larger backpack to meet my goal. Indeed, I went shopping for one the day before my trip. Ultimately, though, I succeeded, and I now have another skill of which to be irrationally proud.

the notebook

the notebook, originally uploaded by hoobiewan.

To avoid, at least in part, the creeping fictionalization of memory, I kept a journal of sorts while I was in the Netherlands recently. The idea was that I would record all sorts of interesting observations about Amsterdam (and the conference I attended), take lots of pictures with my new camera, and then post a slightly polished version here, on this blog. As usual, the practice is a bit more complicated, but this is mostly because I was having too much fun to be bothered with writing things down. This is the writer's lament; writing is a reflective activity, for me careful and slow. So despite my good intentions, the following is a reconstruction gleaned from skeletal fragments, scratchy notes in a slim leather-bound journal.

Wednesday, 4 July 2007

the secret pain of the hipster

For hipsters, prevailing ideas and values are not necessarily oppressive, just stupid; not necessarily worthy of anger, just ridicule. (They generally focus on cultural output from the recent past, for reasons we have yet to consider.) Thus for example hipsterism encourages its adherents to propose, in writing, on their t-shirts, to sell moustache rides for five cents, not because they intend to give anyone a moustache ride, and not even because the apposition of ‘moustache’ and ‘ride’ is seen as a source of humor. What is humorous is that in some imagined Country Comfort Lounge in Amarillo or Cheyenne a generation ago some big slab of a man actually sported a moustache of which he was proud, which he believed could function directly and un-ironically as a sexual attractant.
This from Justin E.H. Smith, who says hipsters
construct their social identity primarily in opposition to the prevailing sensibilities of the age, without however conceiving this opposition as political.
This, I think, takes me out of the running for hipsterhood for good. The only thing that annoys me more than justifying actions based on accord with prevailing sensibilities is justifying actions based on opposing prevailing sensibilities. Perhaps this is what unsettles me slighly about hipster irony, or "snarkiness." There's an insidiousness to it. Hipster irony avoids the heavy-duty destructiveness of traditional against-the-man political opposition, but it isn't exactly lighthearted. Snark is smug, and it's not constructive. It serves to point out the absurdity of the status quo, but it offers no real alternative. There is, I think, some frustration there, as in John Mayer's über-hip Waiting on the World to Change:
me and all my friends
we're all misunderstood
they say we stand for nothing and
there's no way we ever could
now we see everything that's going wrong
with the world and those who lead it
we just feel like we don't have the means
to rise above and beat it

so we keep waiting
waiting on the world to change
Step three, I'd say.

recursive (adj.) see recursive

Daniel L. Everett says recursion might not be essential to language after all. Recursion, or self-reference, plays a central role in most human languages. It gives language its incredible power and flexibility. Parmenides exploits recursion in his famous liar's paradox, "this sentence is lie." But
Pirahã culture, Everett claimed, was unique: it was totally focused on immediate experience and it lacked basic number skills, a vocabulary for colours, a past perfect tense and a creation myth.
The Pirahã, Everett says, do use recursion in their language, it's just not built into their grammar. They have to construct self-reference by telling stories in which, for example, one part is subordinate to another. The modern paradigm of linguistics was framed by Chomsky 50 years ago, amd the fundamental feature is the Universal Grammar; the biological basis for language. Disagreements in linguistics are supposed to be about determining the elements of that universal grammar, not about whether it exists (although strong arguments exist on both sides of that question as well. I always found Chomsky more reasonable, but Fodor's arguments are infuriatingly hard to dismiss. Indeed, the only thing harder than arguing against Fodor is agreeing with him). In any case, recursion is one feature of language few thought to deny.

Assuming Everett is right, what are the implications? (not for Chomsky, for

For one, Pirahã seem not to count. Mathematics is heavily recursive, to the point that an elementary exercise for computer scientists learning about recursion is to formulate the recursive rules of arithmetic--counting, addition, subtraction, multiplication, and (this one's tricky) division.

Pirahã are an interesting folk, and it's hard to know which (if any) of their values are related to their recursionless grammar. Everett started out as a missionary, but found it hard going trying to convince the Pirahã. This is partly because one of their strongest values is "no coercion."
When I began to tell them the stories from the Bible, they didn't have much of an impact. I wondered, was I telling the story incorrectly? Finally one Pirahã asked me one day, well, what color is Jesus? How tall is he? When did he tell you these things? And I said, well, you know, I've never seen him, I don't know what color he was, I don't know how tall he was. Well, if you have never seen him, why are you telling us this?
The Pirahã, who in some ways are the ultimate empiricists—they need evidence for every claim you make—helped me realize that I hadn't been thinking very scientifically about my own beliefs.
In striking contrast to the way we tend to think of empiricism, however,
the Pirahã are not that curious about what we have. They haven't shown interest in a number of things that other indigenous groups [have].... The Pirahã have been in regular contact for a couple of hundred years now, and they have assimilated almost nothing. It's very unusual.
Everett thinks this is because of thir focus on the immediacy of experience: they just aren't interested in things "if they don't know the history behind them."

Everett is building a case for culture making architectonic demands on language, amd it's intriguing to turn the question upon ourselves: what linguistic demands is our culture making? Supposing we undergo a cultural change, what implications might it have for language?

To connect this narrowly to my field, what has this to say about incommensurability between scientific paradigms?

Thursday, 28 June 2007

moral stunts

University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt and graduate student Jesse Graham have expanded on previous theory to come up with a list of five domains for ethical “intuitions” that seem to be common across humankind: concern for harm to people, fairness, loyalty to members of the in-group, respect for authority, and “spiritual” purity.
I make a distinction between ethics and morals that may not be universal. Ethics are rules of action, while morals are the values underlying them (I can get away with loose talk like this because I'm neither a moral philosopher nor an ethicist). It's not clear yet whether Haidt and Graham are following a similar distinction, but you should take a moment to judge for your self based on the five categories they've picked out.
Haidt and Graham then asked 1,613 people who identified themselves as liberals or conservatives to answer questions aimed at identifying which of the five domains elicited strong reactions from them (including cognitive disgust at certain possible moral scenarios). The results were stunning, if not entirely surprising with hindsight: while conservatives where sensitive to all five moral “domains,” liberals were concerned only with the first two (harm to others and fairness).
I think Haidt and Graham are conflating ethics and morals. That might be an unfair accusation, given that it's my distinction and not theirs, but I make it for a reason, and it's precisely to draw a line between such principles as fairness and loyalty. Perhaps it's a failure of imagination on my part, but it's hard for me to imagine a situation in which actions guided by "fairness" would be wrong, but I can easily think of situations in which loyalty would be. Fairness is universal, loyalty conditional. It never occurred to me that anyone else could think otherwise. Taking the results on board
may go a long way toward explaining why certain people simply cannot see the point of starting a moral crusade in response to, say, homosexuality (which falls under “spiritual purity,” whatever that is), or do not understand how someone can follow a leader regardless of how stupid or criminal his actions may be (“my country right or wrong,” which falls under both respect for authority and loyalty to the in-group).
From here.

I have questions: Where does the difference come from? Is it innate? Genetic? Learned? How strong are these "intuitions"? Are there degrees? Can these intuitions be overcome? Reasoned for or against? How does one decide between the five in cases of conflict? Does everyone have a set order?

I have trouble deciding between avoiding harm to people and fairness. But both are clearly more important than the other three. Loyalty is a clear winner over there remaining pair. I tend to respect authority because it is easy and convenient. There are some activities I'm uncomfortable witnessing and others I refuse to take part in. I assume that's what's meant by spiritual purity, but I'm really not certain.

I suppose that makes me a godless liberal.

Wednesday, 20 June 2007


Yesterday, I said our built environment
usually fades into the background. Or, better, it seeps into our subconscious.
That's not entirely true. This happened today, just down the street from my house:Yikes.

From Torontoist.

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

the built environment

The built environment--the buildings and streets and parks that form the background of our daily activities--usually fades into the background. Or, better, it seeps into our subconscious. It nevertheless shapes our movements, alters our mood, and becomes a part of our identity. This is my beautiful building.
It's just down the street from this monstrosity, the Royal Ontario Museum.
Don't get me wrong; I'm not against modern architecture. I rather like this bit of Wright-inspired tastefulness, the Gardiner Museum, also just down the street.
I'm not against glass, either, as I'm quite fond of Apple's Fifth Avenue retail store:I like the idea of preserving our heritage (top) and building the new and exciting (bottom). But mixing the two can be very dangerous (the ROM). A progressive alien crystalline form engulfing our very heritage may not have been quite the effect the architects intended.

Progress is a funny thing.

In Maine, we pay dairy farmers money to keep them in business. We do it so that we continue to have a dairy industry in Maine. It's a part of our heritage we want to hold on to, even if it isn't self-sustaining. At the same time, we want to be a part of the global economy. So we give tax breaks to high-tech companies in the hopes that the old can live alongside the new. It would be easy to say that every time we change our built environment, we're giving up a piece of our culture. Every time we cut down a 200 year old oak to widen a street, we're selling our very soul. Would greening Trafalgar have the same effect? More to the point, there was a day Old Vic was new--a great mass of stone thrust up out of farm lands, a manifestation of the siren call of progress ushering in a new economy of opportunity--and inequality. To avoid change is to stagnate, to become irrelevant. The challenge is to make each change our own, to incorporate it into our environment so that it, too, can seep beneath our consciousness and become a part of us. Toronto has a long history of architectural creativity, as much evidenced by what it has chosen not to do as by its current distinctive skyline.

I am by no means settled on this question. Perhaps knowing something about architecture might help. Likely not. Although knowing something would surely accelerate my ruminations and perhaps allow me fuller expression of them, I suspect that the question of heritage and progress will remain forever a very personal and troubled one.

architectural warfare

I've been planning this post for a while, but a friend of mine beat me to it.

Blowing up buildings as a form of psychological warfare has a long and ignoble history. Sometimes, it takes the form of an
architectural ritual, played out over centuries between rival governments and religions. This is the "repeated demolition or adaptation of each other's buildings," and retaliation can sometimes take generations. For instance, Bevan writes about the site of the cathedral, in Córdoba, Spain, which "started out as a Roman temple" before being destroyed by Christian Visigoths: "A subsequent church on the site was replaced by a mosque following the Arab conquest of the early eighth century. Some seventy years later this was itself demolished to create the first stage of a massive new mosque. The Christian recaptured Córdoba in 1236 and consecrated the building as a cathedral."
I wonder if the tradition will continue?

traveling at the speed of science

UPDATE: Some sort-of mainstream coverage of the odd theory that nerves might conduct via sound, not electricity. See my March post.

the gay index

I've had a middling interest in Florida's ("Richard," not "State of") work ever since I noticed the chronic bumbling efforts of Maine's recent governors to legislate economic improvement. While I was an undergrad, Florida's work was becoming the vogue in Maine, the newest incarnation of slick slogan politics designed to excite and elect.

Florida was just the latest in a series of revitalization efforts I recall vaguely from my childhood. Allow me to derisively parody them now: First, it was low-income housing (Theory: if you build it, they will come. Practice: if you build it, construction companies will finance your next campaign!). Then we had downtown revitalization (Theory: if you build communities, people will live there! Practice: people sure do appreciate the picturesquely crumbling quaint "shoppes" as they whiz by at 65mph on the freeway) Next came tax incentives and targeted education packages (Theory: people move to where the jobs are. Practice: Umm... it's kinda cold in Maine. Do we have to move there?). Then comes the Florida package: the "Creative Economy." (Theory: if there's culture, engineers will move in. Practice: gee, it's too bad we don't have culture).

The key predictor for the Creative Economy is what Florida calls the Gay Index (it's an appropriate name; it's basically the number of gay people living in the region). The idea is that more gay people there are, the more artists there will be, and the more artists there are, the more culture there is. Ta-da! Number of gays equals amount of culture. 3quarksdaily has a different take. It's well worth a read, but here's the postcard version:

Florida is trying to predict cities that are ready for a high-tech boom. This means he's trying to figure out which cities will seem like safe homes for the educated middle class. Which means finding out which cities aren't already gentrified, but have the potential to become gentrified. And that means finding bohemians--the criminalized, marginalized minority who are nevertheless safely white. In other words, gays.

Obviously, this is the real reason we in the US don't want gays in the military. We need them for urban class warfare within our own borders.

Friday, 8 June 2007

an appetite for philosophy

Everything is relative, I suppose. 3QuarksDaily says Whole Foods is moving into New York City's Bowery District. And that's a bad thing.
I once served some sliced raw albacore tuna doused in soy to a friend. I had bought the fish not far from Whole Foods from Alex, the fisherman who had caught it and brought it the next day to the Greenmarket. I'm lucky to live in a city where this is a humdrum and everyday transaction. My friend, a film producer, remarked, "This is great! But how did it get sterile?"

Not that Whole Foods is responsible for food ignorance or food paranoia, mind you, but it's certainly capitalizing on the trend. And that's not all.
There is something else alienating about Whole Foods: it posits a universe in which we are all only consumers. The holism its name gestures towards is not the holism of a community in which buyers and sellers know each other. Instead, it's purely about the foods themselves: one's interest in food is projected as only another form of self-interest.
One of the best lines:
Neoliberal shoppers prefer the impersonal embrace of a corporate parent, disguised as some vague moral goodness.
And later:
The last decade's avalanche of information about food, where to get it, what's in it, and how it's made has been mostly a very good thing: the industrialized food system that wallows in corn syrup, hydrogenated soybean oil, and boneless, skinless chicken breasts is finally being recognized as unhealthy for both individuals and society, as well as the very soil.... Labels are often a shortcut for thinking.
I must admit, I had always thought of Whole Foods and Trader Joe's as A Good Thing. They really are better than most supermarket chains (more expensive, too). But is the solution to the supermarket-of-the-world problem to build a better supermarket? Perhaps not. Most of the youngish, hipster-bohemian-starving-student neoliberals I know (pause: do I know anyone NOT in that category?) buy food in markets when they can. Some even eat local.

Back home in Maine, we have weekly farmer's markets and backyard gardens galore--during growing season. But it takes a lot of effort to eat local. Most folks rely on a supermarket or country store to top up the pantry. I've mentioned my concerns about pat answers to systemic problems before, and movements like Eat Local still make me nervous. I love the sentiment, but inhabitants of Urbania are too unaware of the complexities of food networks to really get what they're asking of folks outside city limits. At first glance, it might seem like agricultural communities would have an easier time eating local. But the fact is, rural areas don't have fish markets and fruit stands within walking distance of homes. They lack the rich diversity of food choices now offered only by a local supermarket or country store.

In farm country there's not much demand for Big Organic. Perhaps it's because people are closer to food there. I've never heard anyone in Maine ask about "sterilizing" fish. Of course, I've never heard anyone ask for raw fish, either, unless for bait. Maybe it's just another facet of the city-country contrast.

Whole Foods represents a trend to reform the supermarket, to make healthy and safe the dangerously industrialized food system. Even some supermarkets in Maine are making an effort to sell local produce (studies have shown that people will pay more for local food. It's a winning business model). Unfortunately, even trendy supermarkets perpetuate homogenization. Now we have a dozen varieties of apples all stamped "Certified Organic." My fear is that trendy Eat Local movements also have a homogenizing effect. The idea that Eating Local is possible, cost-effective, or desirable in all locations at all times just seems a little foolhardy.

Wednesday, 6 June 2007

oh, canada

A high school student in Inuvik, NWT was told that she could not perform ["The Only Gay Eskimo"] at a school fundraiser. The reason she was given was that her Inuvialuit elders find the word "Eskimo" offensive....

Our first thought was that "Gay Eskimos to World: Don't Call Us Eskimos" would have to officially be The Most Quintessentially Canadian Story EVER, narrowly beating out "Dispute Between Canada and Denmark Ends Peacefully."
Torontoist fills in the details.

expanding earth

Craziest thing I've seen all day. Forget plate tectonics. Forget subduction. Forget the laws of physics. It's way simpler! The Earth is growing, silly scientists! Just watch the animation!

In case you didn't make it through the video (I only did because I was too flabbergasted to stop the madness), even this guy isn't crazy enough to deny evolution. The "theory" has been debunked by someone with far more patience than I.

how cool is this?

LinkA rocket is casting a shadow onto the moon! Check out the explanation.

drawing targets

Ever notice how writing sometimes turns into drawing targets around where the arrows hit?

Yeah, me neither.


There may be rhetoric about the socially constructed nature of Western science, but whenever it matters, there is no alternative. There are no specifically Hindu or Taoist designs for mobile phones, faxes or television. There are no satellites based on feminist alternatives to quantum theory. Even the great public sceptic about the value of science, Prince Charles, never flies a helicopter burning homeopathically diluted petrol, that is, water with only a memory of benzine molecules, maintained by a schedule derived from reading tea leaves, and navigated by a crystal ball.
--From a review of Blackburn's book

Thursday, 31 May 2007

i in ur hed, wastin ur time

It's probably too late to mention this in a hip way (if anything having to do with the Internet can ever really count as "hip"), but the LOLcats phenomenon just seems to keep expanding. Already, linguists are studying it; one day, perhaps a thesis will be written about LOLcats... in a LOLcat dialect.

These kitties are getting out of hand--they can code now:
BTW this is true
BTW this is false


  • Postmodernism annoys me. Just one example: the "smirking forceps of quotation marks." "Smirking forceps" is a better descriptor than "scare quotes." If anyone was ever scared off by punctuation, it wasn't a postmodern. Postmoderns are in love with them. After all, there's no better way to indicate sophistication than to smirk.
  • Contronyms, words that are their own antonym, amuse me (e.g. "strike" means hit, except in baseball, where it's a miss).
  • Technological neologorrhia annoys me. Neologorrhia is my neologism for the flood of new words that seems always to accompany new technology. "Neologorrhia" doesn't count, because (1) I invented it and (2) it's postmodern neologorrhia, not technological neologorrhia. It'd be hypocritical of me to complain about that, after trademarking postculturalism in my last post. Or would that be just appropriately postmodern enough?

experimental history

Computer modeling is big in population biology. The great thing about a model is that you can just relabel the parts and make it about something else. For example, we can revise the "wave-of-advance" model so that it describes the uptake of advantageous technology through a population rather than describing the spread of advantageous genes through a population. The key is that
any trait that preexists alongside the advantageous one could be carried along with it, such as genetics or language, regardless of any intrinsic superiority.
In applying this "cultural hitchhiking" model to food production, the authors found that the two traits can be decoupled wherever geographic "inhomogeneity" halts the spread of the carrier trait. Two such "inhomogeneities" are
the "subsistence boundary," land so poor that the wave of advance is halted, and the temporary "diffusion boundary" where the wave cannot move into poorer areas until its gradient becomes sufficiently large.
So, for example, indigenous people in poorer lands beyond a diffusion boundary can adopt technologies selectively, effectively erecting a cultural boundary.

If a model like this seems a little too ad hoc, perhaps a new version can be coupled with the counterfactual approach of some economic historians. Counterfactual histories have their own problems--they tend to oversimplify systems or overestimate the importance of one or two components. Yet there is a time-honored method of learning to think deeply about complex systems: games. That's why my next grant application will include a game console.

History is a field with many challenges. It would be nice to be able to ask Darwin what he actually meant in paragraph two of page 236 of Origin of the Species. But he's dead, so we can't. And even if we could, there's no telling whether we could trust his word (250 years is a rather long time to remember accurately). In that sense, it's actually helpful that the subjects of history are usually dead--dead people can't change their minds about what they've done. But often enough, they changed their minds during their lives. Put this together with our innate desire to connect events together in a linear (progressive) narrative, and we have quite the recipe for disagreement. Sometimes, there's very little archival material to go on, a fact with its own trade off. On one hand, it can be hard to tell how representative the extant materials are. On the other, there's less substance to disagree about. If somehow all of these difficulties are resolved, Deleuze offers a suggestion to keep us all in work: it is our job to determine what goes unsaid. I'll say no more on that.

no bake cookies

I've been avoiding the blog recently, because I've had too many half-baked ideas recently, and now that it's summer, it's too hot for baking. So rather than my delicious home-made chocolate chip cookies made with grandma's secret recipe, this time around, it's no-bake cookie time.

First up? Some random pointers to things other people wrote. Each of these made me say, "hmm." Perhaps one will have the same effect on you.
  • The Supreme Court has decided to fiddle with the notion of obviousness in patents. I'm not sure whether this counts as news, but it occurs to me that our current system (court-regulated markets) is a bit absurd. And an obvious alternative already exists within the academic community: journals. Priority claims might be settled in the same way in either case, but what's really at issue here is cold hard cash. Specifically, who gets it? Millions of dollars are at risk in either case--in the form of exclusive rights to manufacture or license in the case of patents, and in the form of opportunities to seek funding and credit in the other. Some kind of virtuous circle is supposed to exist between reputations of journals and reputations of individuals publishing therein. Members of the field explicitly review new contributions and deem them worthy or unworthy of acceptance (credit). Those who get credit are granted entry into the pool of potential reviewers for future rounds. Throw away patents, I say. Forget about formulating a legal test for obviousness. There's a better system already in place. It's obvious.
  • Science now has half a brain. Half a mouse-brain to be exact.
  • I'm an Eagle Scout (though I'm a bit ashamed to admit my affiliation with an organization whose crackdown on gays, girls, and atheists I detest), but I never earned any of these merit badges.
  • Maps are fun. These ones are more fun than usual. I'm amused by the toy manufacture versus toy consumption maps. I'm frightened by the port numbers map. And I'm disturbed by the war death map.
  • Do you suppose famous art influences our idea of the beautiful? If so, what does it say that we seem to be so fond of frowning beauties?
  • I meant to say lots of smart things about the now-ancient debate about "framing science." Instead, I'll just point out two of the better takes on the now-ancient "framing science" debates on scienceblogs. (see also my previous post on framing in politics)
  • Finally, I just want to trademark a new academic term: post-culturalism. Will it be all the rage in the next few years? Does it already exist without me knowing? Who knows. But this is one beer-induced idea I actually remembered the next day, so here it is.
One day, perhaps, my posts will return to their usual highly crafted, polished form. For now, this is all I can manage.

Monday, 23 April 2007

walk through walls, like a philosopher

One of the great things about being an academic is that you interact with weird people. No offense, weirdos--you perform a great service. You tell me things I would never know without you. One of you, for example, told me that the Israeli Defense Force reads the postmodern philosophy of Deleuze. This from Eyal Weizman at www.frieze.com (sorry, I don't have a better citation). An Israeli friend of mine suggests taking this story with a grain of salt, so please do so. Nevertheless, I find it interesting enough to warrant repeating.

In its way, I suppose this should not be unexpected--philosophy and warfare have always influenced one another. The trouble is, when I'm in the world of philosophers, I tend to view warfare at a distance: abstract and simple. Philosophy enters, if at all, at a moral or ethical level.

But Deleuze (reconditioned) is all about tactics: rethinking the battlefield itself. The idea is simple enough. Examine your preconceptions about battle. These will probably be very similar to the preconceptions your enemy has. Now invert those conceptions--in a world of booby-traps, doors become the one place you don't pass through. Instead, you walk through walls. In a world of deadly crossfire, alleys aren't passages, they're barriers. Former barriers (buildings, civilian dwellings, ceilings, and walls) become passageways.

What better way to surprise a Clauswitzian than by being Foucaultian?

That's not to say all philosophy is equally useful. Derrida, apparently, is a bit to opaque even for the IDF. Can't say I'm surprised.

Saturday, 21 April 2007

graduate school is great exercise

There is an exercise placebo effect. From Psychological Science via Overcoming Bias.
Although actual behavior did not change, 4 weeks after [a group was told their on-the-job routine satisfied the Surgeon General's exercise advisory, they] perceived themselves to be getting significantly more exercise than before. As a result, compared with the control group, they showed a decrease in weight, blood pressure, body fat, waist-to-hip ratio, and body mass index. These results support the hypothesis that exercise affects health in part or in whole via the placebo effect.
I'm sure I need not remind everyone that reading my blog satisfies the Surgeon General's exercise advisory. Keep reading and watch those pounds fall away!

Friday, 20 April 2007

art without a frame

Here is another dated post, a Washington Post piece by Gene Weingarten. It is significant not so much for the 'experiment' but for Weingarten's thoughtful analysis.

The setup: what happens when one of the world's greatest musicians plays one of the world's greatest instruments at one of the worlds greatest, uh, metro stops?

Mark Leithauser, senior curator at the National Gallery, puts the project in perspective:
"Let's say I took one of our more abstract masterpieces, say an Ellsworth Kelly, and removed it from its frame, marched it down the 52 steps that people walk up to get to the National Gallery, past the giant columns, and brought it into a restaurant. It's a $5 million painting. And it's one of those restaurants where there are pieces of original art for sale, by some industrious kids from the Corcoran School, and I hang that Kelly on the wall with a price tag of $150. No one is going to notice it. An art curator might look up and say: 'Hey, that looks a little like an Ellsworth Kelly. Please pass the salt.'"
Context matters. Most reports would stop here. Not Weingarten. He brings in Kant.

Paul Guyer of the University of Pennsylvania, one of America's most prominent Kantian scholars, says... if Kant had been at the Metro watching as Joshua Bell play to a thousand unimpressed passersby, "He would have inferred about them... absolutely nothing."

Even this is not the end of the story--to say that art needs a frame and a person on the street can't be blamed for missing it isn't enough. The most interesting parts of the story are the interviews with the individuals who did notice the art. Check out the article--there are accompanying videos.

neuroscience and experience

From Will Wilkinson (a month ago):
One afternoon recently, Paul [Churchland] says, he was home making dinner when [spouse] Pat burst in the door, having come straight from a frustrating faculty meeting. “She said, ‘Paul, don’t speak to me, my serotonin levels have hit bottom, my brain is awash in glucocorticoids, my blood vessels are full of adrenaline, and if it weren’t for my endogenous opiates I’d have driven my car into a tree on the way home. My dopamine levels need lifting. Pour me a Chardonnay, and I’ll be down in a minute.’”
Wilkinson looks upon Pat's statement as a victory of some sort; her capacity to diagnose the chemical cause of her emotional symptoms, and moreover her ability to prescribe a treatment, is rather a trick (apparently, the Churchlands talk like this all the time), but not of the sort Wilkinson wants. He thinks that the alternative to Pat's highly attuned scientific sense of herself--her scientific objectivity, let's say--is what keeps her from walking in and shouting at Paul for making a mess in the kitchen. Sorry, but one has little to do with the other. Naming chemicals doesn't prevent transference. Moreover, any self-observant person is capable of saying, "Paul, don't speak to me, I'm in a bad mood. I need to relax. Pour me a Chardonnay, and I'll be down in a minute." Leave out the neuroscience, and we still get the same result.

None of which is to say I disagree with the self-diagnosis Pat gives--surely she's right. Nor am I insisting there's "more to the experience" (however phenomenologically unsatisfying 'glucocorticoid' may be). Despite my stubborn deterministic materialism, I am simply not convinced science is always helpful. There's a reason we have everyday language, and it's to describe everyday experience. Only for people like Paul and Pat, who know the phenomenological content of 'seratonin', is such a descriptor appropriate. The rest of us already have a word for that: tired.