Tuesday, 27 May 2008

informed consent, social contracts, and the veil of ignorance

(I've scheduled a few posts to magically appear here while I'm away over the next few weeks. What follows is one.)

Massimo Pigliucci concisely describes the basics of ethical theory: there's contractualism, where
no contractualist really maintains that there ever was a non-social state of nature for human beings (if they did, they would be contradicted by evolutionary biologists), nor that the so-called social contract was an historical event (historians would go crazy with that one), nor that it is actually entered into voluntarily by most people (you are usually born into a society with a given contract, meaning a set of laws and customs
and there's the Rawls variation, which introduces a device he calls the "veil of ignorance," where you
assume that you arrive at the bargaining table with no knowledge whatsoever of your social status, economic power, ethnicity, religion or gender. Then, asks Rawls, what kind of society would you want to set up? The answer, he argued, is a society that would guarantee maximum liberty equally distributed among its members, as well as an equal distribution of wealth and power.
Contemporary America does nothing of the sort (that position is far to the left of any Democrat in office; Libertarians and Republicans need not apply).

There's a funny sort of dichotomy at work here: in the original contractualism, we are all bonded against our will to contracts that no one ever explicitly approved (but which we all purportedly would approve if we were in an imaginary situation disarmingly called a state of "nature"). In Rawls' version, we are asked what contract we would set up if we didn't know anything about our own particular qualities and abilities (his answer is a meritocracy).

One of the great principles of fairness under the rule of law is informed consent. We insist on seeing all the available information (certified by experts!) before making a medical, legal, or financial decision. Why, then, are ethics to be based on ignorance?

Is it truly impossible to reach similar ethical conclusions from a more realistic starting point--a situation in which some ethical system is in place and individuals have partial knowledge of their own status?

Monday, 26 May 2008

scientific images

Sue me; I'm on vacation.

Sunday, 25 May 2008

may 25 roundup

  • Tomato Genetically Modified To Be More Expensive.
  • grade inflation: "I am going to warn you one last chance I am going to ask I want a better than a B-. If I see this [grade] I swear to god I am going to f---ing put you in a wheelchair when I see you..."
  • We must LOL, and so we shall. [via Torontoist]
  • What to do about high tuition costs at wealthy institutions: tax them! Uh, no. If the idea is to induce Harvard to lower tuition, don't ask for a share of their profits (which induces them to pass on their new tax burden to students by raising tuition). Lower Harvard's tax burden by a function of the difference between Harvard's tuition and the tuition at the University of Massachusetts. Use the revenues to subsidize UMass and further lower tuition there. That's a winning combination.
  • In other Massachusetts-related news, Jake Young gives us some of the science behind Senator Ted Kennedy's glioma.
  • Should we remove legal barriers to establishing low stakes prediction markets? Perhaps, but I predict we won't. Hah! See what I did right there?
  • Chemistry rocks.

Saturday, 24 May 2008


In case it is not legible, the caption reads: "Amount of space required to transport the same number of passengers by car, bus or bicycle."

I wish I knew where I first saw this image. I hope the originator appreciates getting the message out enough to forgive my inability to give credit.

Friday, 23 May 2008


In this, the fourth installment of "best of net," I reproduce a section of Horace Miner's "Body Ritual among the Nacirem," originally published in American Anthropologist 58:3, June 1956. It is a seminal work in the field of anthropology, and though by now a bit dated, is nevertheless an instructive read. As always, go read the original.

The anthropologist has become so familiar with the diversity of ways in which different people behave in similar situations that he is not apt to be surprised by even the most exotic customs. In fact, if all of the logically possible combinations of behavior have not been found somewhere in the world, he is apt to suspect that they must be present in some yet undescribed tribe. The point has, in fact, been expressed with respect to clan organization by Murdock (1949: 71).[2] In this light, the magical beliefs and practices of the Nacirema present such unusual aspects that it seems desirable to describe them as an example of the extremes to which human behavior can go.


Nacirema culture is characterized by a highly developed market economy which has evolved in a rich natural habitat. While much of the people's time is devoted to economic pursuits, a large part of the fruits of these labors and a considerable portion of the day are spent in ritual activity. The focus of this activity is the human body, the appearance and health of which loom as a dominant concern in the ethos of the people. While such a concern is certainly not unusual, its ceremonial aspects and associated philosophy are unique.

The fundamental belief underlying the whole system appears to be that the human body is ugly and that its natural tendency is to debility and disease. Incarcerated in such a body, man's only hope is to avert these characteristics through the use of ritual and ceremony. Every household has one or more shrines devoted to this purpose. The more powerful individuals in the society have several shrines in their houses and, in fact, the opulence of a house is often referred to in terms of the number of such ritual centers it possesses. Most houses are of wattle and daub construction, but the shrine rooms of the more wealthy are walled with stone. Poorer families imitate the rich by applying pottery plaques to their shrine walls.

While each family has at least one such shrine, the rituals associated with it are not family ceremonies but are private and secret. The rites are normally only discussed with children, and then only during the period when they are being initiated into these mysteries. I was able, however, to establish sufficient [504 begins ->] rapport with the natives to examine these shrines and to have the rituals described to me.

The focal point of the shrine is a box or chest which is built into the wall. In this chest are kept the many charms and magical potions without which no native believes he could live. These preparations are secured from a variety of specialized practitioners. The most powerful of these are the medicine men, whose assistance must be rewarded with substantial gifts. However, the medicine men do not provide the curative potions for their clients, but decide what the ingredients should be and then write them down in an ancient and secret language. This writing is understood only by the medicine men and by the herbalists who, for another gift, provide the required charm.

The charm is not disposed of after it has served its purpose, but is placed in the charmbox of the household shrine. As these magical materials are specific for certain ills, and the real or imagined maladies of the people are many, the charm-box is usually full to overflowing. The magical packets are so numerous that people forget what their purposes were and fear to use them again. While the natives are very vague on this point, we can only assume that the idea in retaining all the old magical materials is that their presence in the charm-box, before which the body rituals are conducted, will in some way protect the worshiper.

Beneath the charm-box is a small font. Each day every member of the family, in succession, enters the shrine room, bows his head before the charm-box, mingles different sorts of holy water in the font, and proceeds with a brief rite of ablution.[5] The holy waters are secured from the Water Temple of the community, where the priests conduct elaborate ceremonies to make the liquid ritually pure.

In the hierarchy of magical practitioners, and below the medicine men in prestige, are specialists whose designation is best translated as "holy-mouth-men." The Nacirema have an almost pathological horror of and fascination with the mouth, the condition of which is believed to have a supernatural influence on all social relationships. Were it not for the rituals of the mouth, they believe that their teeth would fall out, their gums bleed, their jaws shrink, their friends desert them, and their lovers reject them. They also believe that a strong relationship exists between oral and moral characteristics. For example, there is a ritual ablution of the mouth for children which is supposed to improve their moral fiber.

The daily body ritual performed by everyone includes a mouth-rite. Despite the fact that these people are so punctilious [6] about care of the mouth, this rite involves a practice which strikes the uninitiated stranger as revolting. It was reported to me that the ritual consists of inserting a small bundle of hog hairs into the mouth, along with certain magical powders, and then moving the bundle in a highly formalized series of gestures.[7]

In addition to the private mouth-rite, the people seek out a holy-mouth-man once or twice a year. These practitioners have an impressive set of paraphernalia, consisting of a variety of augers, awls, probes, and prods. The use of [505 begins ->] these objects in the exorcism of the evils of the mouth involves almost unbelievable ritual torture of the client. The holy-mouth-man opens the client's mouth and, using the above mentioned tools, enlarges any holes which decay may have created in the teeth. Magical materials are put into these holes. If there are no naturally occurring holes in the teeth, large sections of one or more teeth are gouged out so that the supernatural substance can be applied. In the client's view, the purpose of these ministrations [8] is to arrest decay and to draw friends. The extremely sacred and traditional character of the rite is evident in the fact that the natives return to the holy-mouth-men year after year, despite the fact that their teeth continue to decay.
You will have to look to the original to see conclusions about this backward people.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

hypothesis-free research

Whenever I wonder if philosophers of science are really necessary, I run into a story like this:*
The young scientist next to me shrugged and said that models were of no use to him because he did "discovery-driven research". He then went on to state that discovery-driven research is hypothesis-free, and thus independent of the preexisting bias of traditional biology.
What the young scientist means might more descriptively be termed "foreground-hypothesis-free," although that's hardly a catchy phrase. All of the hypotheses in the sort of experiment indicated (an undirected search for correlations within a large dataset) are relegated to the background: the identification and measurement of data represented in the set, together with the statistical apparatus and a single uber-hypothesis: correlations are interesting.

I can think of several words that better describe this class of research: thoughtless or shallow. Harsh? You bet.

* It should be noted, perhaps, that Jake Young is a PhD in neuroscience and the storyteller Steven Wiley is a practising biologist. So maybe this is a stronger case for the existence of philosophy of science than for philosophers of science.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

two wrongs don't make a right

Leif Wenar says it is "patronizing theft to buy natural resources." Tyler Cowan says "he proposes suing Exxon to create a chain reaction."

The only thing more patronizing than paying a pittance to the worlds poor for the natural resources we need for lip gloss and shave cream is suing on behalf of those poor people.

That said, Wenar is right that there's a problem. Here are my priorities:
  1. Wherever possible, we should use renewable resources.
  2. If renewable resources won't do it, we should do our best to keep the resources we've already "harvested" in the supply loop, preferably through reuse, but through recycling when the materials need to be reprocessed.
  3. Whenever renewable resources are harvested, it should be in sustainable volumes, and prices should reflect replacement cost.
  4. When non-renewable resources are harvested, the price should be high. I don't know how high.
I doubt a lawsuit is the way to settle the issue.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

applying the broken windows policy to terrorism

Often the most fascinating part of learning about science is the conclusions scientists (and others) draw from the evidence. Aaron Clauset, who has spent three years at the Santa Fe Institute modeling statistics of terrorism, has found that size and frequency of attack follow a power law.
the statistical distribution fits severe events like 9/11 to the same curve as more common but less severe ones that kill a dozen or so people. the pattern suggests that such rare and large events are not outliers, as was previously thought, but are somehow interconnected with the smaller attacks. the authors claim that if an underlying connection exists, then taking measures to discourage small-scale attacks might also prevent severe ones.
Hat tip 3QD

As I've said before, power laws can emerge automatically from random connections between nodes; an explanation involving a power law is often a claim that no explanation is required--that the behavior is to be expected, like an equilibrium condition. It is divergence from power laws (in situations where we might expect them) that would require explanation. But of course the point of power laws is that they indicate a systematic regularity in phenomena that might otherwise be assumed to be unrelated--for example, large and small terrorist attacks. The final sentence in the above quote is the fascinating one: that not only is there a relationship between small and large attacks, it is a strong enough one that decreasing the number of small attacks should also decrease the number of large attacks.

A professor of mine once noted that there is a strong inverse correlation between the number of mules (per capita) and professorial pay within the region (that is, if one area has more mules, we would expect professors there to be paid less). Yet there is no reason to think that one causes the other--that is, killing mules will not increase professorial pay. In fact, a common cause is responsible for both: the more agricultural a state, the more mules there will be, and the lower professorial pay will be. The more urban a region, the fewer mules and the higher the pay.

It certainly seems right that large-scale terrorism should be more closely related to small-scale terrorism than are mules to payscales, but mere similarity is no guarantee.

The idea that large terrorist attacks can be prevented by dealing sharply with small terrorist attacks is an intriguing one, and it has strong similarities to a crime-reduction policy that has become popular in major US cities in recent years. The Broken Windows policy begins from the premise that most crimes are crimes of opportunity, and opportunities are more apparent in "bad neighborhoods"--those with broken windows. To reduce subway crime, then-Mayor Giuliani of New York instituted the policy of cleaning graffiti from trains on a daily basis. No train left the yard with graffiti on it. Indeed, the policy worked: graffiti on trains dropped dramatically. As did littering and turnstile jumping (although the latter probably had more to do with the complementary policy of daisy-chaining jumpers together and processing their tickets en masse with a roving paddy-wagon).

But in the larger scheme, Broken Windows has had some unfortunate side effects: many more people are incarcerated for small crimes, increasing the number of three-strikes convictions, straining the penal system, and inadvertently (one hopes) targeting the homeless and mentally ill (whose crimes are usually of the nuisance variety).

Could fighting Broken Windows Terrorism have similar unexpected consequences?

Monday, 19 May 2008

getting csi right -- UPDATE

On Saturday, I wrote about the problem of error in forensics. Grits for Breakfast notes one of the problems I didn't mention explicitly: in some states, lab reports are not treated as "testimonial" evidence (and therefore defendants do not have the right to cross examine lab technicians). This position is being challenged, and the Supreme Court is watching with interest.

Grits worries that
Forensic science isn't "objective" science, it's goal oriented.
That's not the problem; science is always goal oriented. The problem is that a life hangs in the balance, and the single case matters.

Grits also worries that certain forensic findings cannot be falsified. That seems implausible, but I could be missing something. Even the least-reliable of forensic tests will show some potential suspects to be inconsistent with the evidence found at the scene of the crime. For example, even if a fingerprint whorl cannot reliably select a particular individual from the general population, it can eliminate anyone without whorly fingers. Surely it is malpractice to exclude such evidence when found, so it seems that the only worry could be that the CSIs stop looking for evidence (or more likely, the lab technicians stop processing the evidence they have). Here, the worry isn't that the findings can't be falsified, it's that evidence is only processed until the prosecution is satisfied it can make its case--and this standard is too low.

A much larger worry is that
most 'pattern evidence' - handwriting analysis, shoe and tire print comparisons, etc., has no research-based foundation at all. Much of forensic science is 'soft' science, [former executive director of the National Forensic Technology Science Center Bill Tilstone] said, that at best has not or even cannot be comprehensively tested for accuracy.

Sunday, 18 May 2008

may 18 roundup

  • Rate Your Students (hat tip to regular reader Zac)
  • One potential solution to the problem of invasive species? Microwave them to death! Via /.
  • Something new from Gladwell: on Myhrvold's "invention factory"
  • Rubik's cube too easy? Try megaminx, the 4-D version.
  • Or have a look at a life-size photo of a blue whale. Via /.
  • Understand quantum theory but not US politics? (or vice-versa?) This may help: "Transactioner: 'If I vote for Nader, it won't lead to Bush winning the election, because causality is an illusion' Questioner: 'But if you vote for Nader instead of Gore in a close election, aren't you aiding Bush?' Transactioner: 'Bah! You silly Democrats and your respect for chronology. I can just go back in time and change my vote to Gore if Bush wins!'"

Saturday, 17 May 2008

getting csi right

Since its debut eight years ago, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation has been credited with an increased interest in and knowledge of forensic science. Enrollment in forensics courses jumped, and it has remained high. By 2002, the effect was pronounced enough that juries were coming to expect greater forensic detail at trial and criminals were becoming (relatively speaking) more adept at covering their tracks.

Unfortunately, the unreality of televised forensics was also beginning to give people the wrong impression about what to expect from forensics. It's not typical for the same individual to photograph the scene, collect evidence, transport it to the lab, analyze it, capture the bad guy, interrogate him, and then testify at the trial. But this bit of dramatic license is not nearly as damaging as the simplification of the science.

...to judge by the most comprehensive study on the reliability of forensic evidence to date, the error rate is more than 10% in five categories of analysis, including fiber, paint and body fluids. ...DNA and fingerprints are more reliable but still not foolproof....a 2005 study in the Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology suggests a fingerprint false-positive rate a bit below 1%, a widely read 2006 experiment shows an alarming 4% false-positive rate.

How can we preserve the usefulness of forensic evidence while protecting the public when it breaks down? The core problem with the forensic system is monopoly. Once evidence goes to one lab, it is rarely examined by any other. That needs to change. Each jurisdiction should include several competing labs. ...

This procedure may seem like a waste. But such checks would save taxpayer money. Extra tests are inexpensive compared to the cost of error, including the cost of incarcerating the wrongfully convicted....

Other reforms should include making labs independent of law enforcement and a requirement for blind testing. When crime labs are part of the police department, some forensic experts make mistakes out of an unconscious desire to help their "clients," the police and prosecution. Independence and blind testing prevent that.

That's forensics expert Roger Koppl writing in Forbes [Alex Tabarrok of MR did the work of selecting the quote].

Would the situation be improved if the lay public knew a bit more about the intricacies of arguing from uncertainty? What constitutes a reasonable doubt in a case that relies on several pieces of physical evidence each of which has a 10% error rate? Can CSI's techno-beats and hot forensics techs make statistics sexy?

Friday, 16 May 2008


The third entrant in my distinguished "best of net" series comes from Malcolm Gladwell. As always, you should read the whole thing. I'm not quoting nearly as much from this one as I have in past "best of net" entrants.

Once you get past the question of what to call sliced and fried potatoes (French Fries? Chips? Freedom Fries?) comes the more difficult question: what to put on them. Salt? Vinegar? Lime? Tabasco? Gravy? Cheese? Mayonnaise? Or how about the obvious choice: ketchup?
Today there are thirty-six varieties of Ragú spaghetti sauce, under six rubrics—Old World Style, Chunky Garden Style, Robusto, Light, Cheese Creations, and Rich & Meaty—which means that there is very nearly an optimal spaghetti sauce for every man, woman, and child in America.
There is one ketchup.
It was a conundrum: what was true about a yellow condiment that went on hot dogs was not true about a tomato condiment that went on hamburgers, and what was true about tomato sauce when you added visible solids and put it in a jar was somehow not true about tomato sauce when you added vinegar and sugar and put it in a bottle. Moskowitz shrugged. "I guess ketchup is ketchup."
Gladwell is a storyteller, and this is the story of Grey Poupon, Heinz, and Ragu. Heady stuff.
Tomato ketchup is a nineteenth-century creation—the union of the English tradition of fruit and vegetable sauces and the growing American infatuation with the tomato. But what we know today as ketchup emerged out of a debate that raged in the first years of the last century over benzoate, a preservative widely used in late-nineteenth-century condiments. Harvey Washington Wiley, the chief of the Bureau of Chemistry in the Department of Agriculture from 1883 to 1912, came to believe that benzoates were not safe, and the result was an argument that split the ketchup world in half. On one side was the ketchup establishment, which believed that it was impossible to make ketchup without benzoate and that benzoate was not harmful in the amounts used. On the other side was a renegade band of ketchup manufacturers, who believed that the preservative puzzle could be solved with the application of culinary science. The dominant nineteenth-century ketchups were thin and watery, in part because they were made from unripe tomatoes, which are low in the complex carbohydrates known as pectin, which add body to a sauce. But what if you made ketchup from ripe tomatoes, giving it the density it needed to resist degradation? Nineteenth-century ketchups had a strong tomato taste, with just a light vinegar touch. The renegades argued that by greatly increasing the amount of vinegar, in effect protecting the tomatoes by pickling them, they were making a superior ketchup: safer, purer, and better tasting. They offered a money-back guarantee in the event of spoilage. They charged more for their product, convinced that the public would pay more for a better ketchup, and they were right. The benzoate ketchups disappeared. The leader of the renegade band was an entrepreneur out of Pittsburgh named Henry J. Heinz.
and later,
There are five known fundamental tastes in the human palate: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami. Umami is the proteiny, full-bodied taste of chicken soup, or cured meat, or fish stock, or aged cheese, or mother's milk, or soy sauce, or mushrooms, or seaweed, or cooked tomato. "Umami adds body," Gary Beauchamp, who heads the Monell Chemical Senses Center, in Philadelphia, says. "If you add it to a soup, it makes the soup seem like it's thicker—it gives it sensory heft. It turns a soup from salt water into a food." When Heinz moved to ripe tomatoes and increased the percentage of tomato solids, he made ketchup, first and foremost, a potent source of umami. Then he dramatically increased the concentration of vinegar, so that his ketchup had twice the acidity of most other ketchups; now ketchup was sour, another of the fundamental tastes. The post-benzoate ketchups also doubled the concentration of sugar—so now ketchup was also sweet—and all along ketchup had been salty and bitter. These are not trivial issues. Give a baby soup, and then soup with MSG (an amino-acid salt that is pure umami), and the baby will go back for the MSG soup every time, the same way a baby will always prefer water with sugar to water alone. Salt and sugar and umami are primal signals about the food we are eating—about how dense it is in calories, for example, or, in the case of umami, about the presence of proteins and amino acids. What Heinz had done was come up with a condiment that pushed all five of these primal buttons. The taste of Heinz's ketchup began at the tip of the tongue, where our receptors for sweet and salty first appear, moved along the sides, where sour notes seem the strongest, then hit the back of the tongue, for umami and bitter, in one long crescendo. How many things in the supermarket run the sensory spectrum like this?
Not many, it would seem. Read it!

Thursday, 15 May 2008

retracting papers

An editorial in Nature 453:258 (15 May 2008) [paywall] tells a "cautionary tale about the weaknesses -- not the strengths -- of the scientific process." Whether we see strength or weakness, it seems, depends on how we tell the story. On one hand,
it seems to be a shining example of the scientific method in action. Two papers published by biochemist Homme Hellinga and his students at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina, claimed a breakthrough in rational enzyme design. Last year, another chemist found that Hellinga's enzymes didn't actually work, which led to the retraction of the two papers this February. Then, this March, a third group published research showing that rational enzyme design really is possible. All has ended happily, it seems, with the field marching forward in triumph.
As the editorial goes on to explain, missing from that account is the cost, both in dollars and reputation. The chemist unable to reproduce the results lost both time and money in his attempt to use rational enzyme design in his work. Hellinga's reputation (and previous results) have come under scrutiny, and Hellinga's student's reputation may have been irreparably damaged even though she was cleared of any wrongdoing.

In a game of trust, a retraction is only the first step to regaining status.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

the shape of politics to come - UPDATE

Back in February, I noted that font experts selected Obama and McCain as the winners in the race for President. Although they were selecting winning font choices, it's worth following up now that McCain is the presumptive nominee for the Republicans. The NYTimes has a piece on the McCain camp's selection of Optima as their font of choice. Optima, the article notes, is the font Maya Lin selected for the Vietnam Memorial (photo by Sarah, I think). This fits well with McCain's war hero status, whether he had anything to do with the selection or not.

As Rudy VanderLans puts it,
What does Optima say about Senator McCain? Nothing. It probably says more about the designer than anything else. Who, except designers, would judge a candidate by the typeface?
Not exactly McCain's base. But Matthew Carter has the most interesting tid-bit:

The moment of typographic truth will come when Senator McCain picks a vice presidential running mate and two names have to be combined on banners and bumper stickers. By choosing Optima, a rather distinctive typeface, he may have seriously limited his options.

I set the possible names in a bold weight of Optima caps and certain things became clear. HUCKABEE looks awkward in Optima, and ROMNEY is afflicted with the same difficult ‘EY’ combination that has plagued the current vice presidency. Perhaps because Optima is a German typeface, the word SCHWARZENEGGER looks predictably good.

Although it’s German, Optima took its inspiration from Quattrocento inscriptional lettering in the cathedrals of Florence and Siena, which may explain why GIULIANI looks so simpatico. In the end, however, my research suggests that the optimal running mate — so long as you don’t have to typeset her first name — is RICE.

Good choice.

Monday, 12 May 2008

the fallacy fallacy

One of the grand worries in the business of evolutionary explanations is that they sometimes (especially when put into colloquial terms) seem to confuse is with ought. This is known formally as the naturalistic fallacy (or its converse, the moralistic fallacy, depending on which way the conflation runs). Whenever a report on scientific findings uses the word "should," I worry.

Azra Raza of 3QD quotes a piece in Scientific American:
In research that could give doctors a way to reassign sex in cases of unclear gender, scientists report this week that they have figured out why some children with genes that should make them boys are instead born as girls.
A more precise statement might go:
In research that could give doctors a way to assign sex in cases of unclear gender, scientists report this week that they have figured out why some children with genes expected to make them boys are instead born as girls.
The phrase "think deviant" comes from the notion that a goal of science is to explain why it is that things deviate from what we might otherwise expect. And so I have no problem with journalistic characterization of results as unexpected or revolutionary--science even for workaday Kuhnian normal scientists can be incredibly exciting. No new paradigm is suggested by results like this one: the Sox9 gene, which is expected to activate, sometimes doesn't. Manipulating this process can change sexual expression.
[Lovell-Badge] adds that he's very hopeful that with further analysis, scientists may determine ways to reassign gender later in life, "perhaps for cases of sex reversal or perhaps even for individuals who want to undergo sex changes," although he acknowledged that "this is getting very contentious."
And that's precisely the point: it's an exciting find and raises fascinating ethical issues by itself--issues that shouldn't be confused at the start by careless use of words like "should" when "expected" will do.

Sunday, 11 May 2008

science in the 21st century

Bee over at BackReaction is helping to organize a cool-sounding conference at the Perimeter Institute on Science, Society, and Information Technology. Check out the poster:

may 11 roundup

Saturday, 10 May 2008

best of net: THE ART CATALOG

Morgan Meis (of 3QD) reviews 30,000 years of art in The Smart Set
It’s a piece of coyness. I prefer to imagine a group of art historians sitting around a table with a sixth or seventh bottle of wine giggling to each other like schoolgirls. “Take that, art theorists! We give you a book with all art and no theory. We give you a book that says nothing and simply is what it is. We give you description and description alone. Its subject matter? The entirety of the history of art. Take that!
As with all of my "best of net" series, you should go read the original, but I will quote long sections here:
Art historians and the theorists of art have been at quiet war with one another for a long time. The theorists, per their nature, accuse the historians of “mere” scholarship. The historians, per theirs, accuse the theorists of airy speculation. But it is difficult for the historians to be vocal in their accusations. The central problem is that once you enter into the verbiage you’ve already given up a good deal of ground to the theorists. You’re fighting them on their turf and they’re going to get you tangled up in a morass of “whys.” It is as if entering into the debate at all is already to concede it. Silence, the mute labor of the scholar, is thus a potent weapon in itself. Plus, it drives the theorists to distraction, like dealing with a lover who returns your letters unopened.

This, I think, is the weapon of choice for the folks at Phaidon who put 30,000 Years together. Show, and do not tell. The lack of telling may also be due to the fact that E. H. Gombrich is dead and therefore couldn't write the preface. Gombrich, the pre-eminent art historian of the 20th century, published his book, The Story of Art, with Phaidon in 1950. It has been called the most famous and popular art book ever written. In it, he proposed to do battle with “big ideas” of every stripe. His opening to the text, a sentence of which he was forever fond, goes like this: "There really is no such thing as art, there are only artists."

Gombrich was crotchety in a lovable and straightforward sort of way and he always stuck to a basic premise: Art is about image making. Those images, he thought, can either come from the "memory image" — the clear and precise idea we have of how things look — or from the "mimetic image" — the attempt to faithfully reproduce the look of things in sensual perception. Artists, in producing images, swing from one option to the other and the history of art is nothing but the "story" of individuals producing images according to their skill in one craft or the other. Period.

The crucial thing about this view of art is that it obliterates periods. In fact, if you take his viewpoint to its logical conclusion you have to say that there isn't really such a thing as a history of art at all. (Which makes sense, since Gombrich has already said that there is no such thing as art. A history of nothing, therefore, would merely be nothing times two.) There are simply a lot of different works, they got created over time, and some of them represent the apex of skill in making visual objects.

And that, it is easy to see, is the hidden polemic behind 30,000 Years of Art. It is a book that doesn't really believe in art with a capital-A at all. Indeed, “art” is in lowercase on the front cover. The book could just as easily have been called, 30,000 Years of Skilled Individuals Producing Things to Look At. The word “art” is just a placeholder for a longer and clumsier sentence.

This anti-art-as-concept approach is heightened by the way that the works chosen for 30,000 Years are visually reproduced in the book. Every “art” object is shown floating in the middle of a white background, popping off the page as an image, pure and vibrant. An image. Sculptures, friezes, and objects, are, along with paintings, flattened out into an absolute, imagistic space. It's beautiful but it's weird. The idea that any of these works need to be seen in the context of the worlds in which they were created is utterly denied. They exist, instead, in a timeless place, a graphical version of the white box.

The accompanying texts for each of the works follows what I'm calling a Gombrichian focus on image and on skill. We get some background, we get some explanation about materials and techniques used in fabrication, and then we get a sense of why the work represents an extraordinary moment in the application of skill. One of the first works shown, for example, is the “Venus of Lespugue,” an ivory figure created in the Gravettian Period around 23,000 B.C. The text says: "As a highly stylized composition in hard material, the piece is a uniquely confident example of very early human sculpture."


There is an absolute refusal to rank or to organize except along the indifferent axis of temporality. The closest thing to a guide in the book is the timeline at the very end. But all you get from that is a graph showing how different civilizations overlap over time, which helps to explain why “Sakalava Couple,” a relatively crude statue from Madagascar, is on the same page with Francisco de Goya's “Third of May 1808.” It is extraordinary to watch this leveling instinct at work. There is a kind of historian’s revenge being exhibited on every page. The book is drunk with the power it wields in smashing through every received idea about “Art” and its “development.”


The first 27,500 years are a reasonably smooth romp. Then things get a little trickier. Gombrich himself was always aware that somewhere in the 18th century the plot thickens considerably. That’s because it was around that time when people in Europe decided that when they were doing art, they were doing Art. It's also the time during which theories of art really start to proliferate and aesthetics becomes a specific discipline. People decided that Art was a specific kind of activity with its own domain and its own rules.


This can all be summed up with one specific object and one specific question: What in the world is 30,000 Years going to do with Marcel Duchamp's “Fountain,” the factory-produced, ceramic urinal that Duchamp turned upside down, signed R. Mutt, and displayed as a work of art in an exhibit in 1917? It is a work that denies artistic skill in almost every way that Gombrich meant it. It is the quintessential challenge to the story of image and skill. This, in fact, is the question that Arthur C. Danto, the eminent art critic and philosopher, once posed as an attack on the Gombrich line. The fact, Danto noted, that Gombrich cannot account for works like Duchamp's “Fountain” means that Gombrich's claim that art is essentially about visual images breaks down once we get into the modern period. Art, Danto would point out, has changed. To ignore this fact would be to close one's eyes to everything that has been happening in art for at least the last 150 years.

Do the authors succeed in dealing with the self-reference and irony of Dada? Can art have a history without a theory? Find out the answers to this and much more: read the exciting conclusion at The Smart Set!

Also, see my previous writing on Dada.

Friday, 9 May 2008

why we're in it

Dan Drezner made full professor before forty, and shares the ten benefits the title confers. My favourite is:

4) When required to wear full academic regalia, full professors get to wear swords. Nobody better mess with me at commencement.

After tenure, there's little else to look forward to besides wearing a sword.

Hat tip Marginal Revolution. And three seconds later, Pure Pedantry. Hooray memes!

what would jane jacobs do?

Jane Jacobs was a champion of the neighborhood and enemy of the car. In the last half of the twentieth century, highway systems literally sliced apart neighborhoods, diverted traffic around cities and away from downtown districts. City planning increasingly centered on cars, until Jacobs urged us to "look, listen, linger and think" in neighborhoods - in other words, to remember what we had forgotten while we were driving our cars: neighborhoods are pretty cool places to be.

Today's ecological pressures seem to be pressing for increasing density in cities, and taller buildings mean fewer neighborhoods. As I walk the streets of Toronto, I see the change all around me. Half a dozen such structures have sprung up within sight of the University of Toronto campus, each tearing down a medium-density neighborhood and replacing it with a twenty-story condominium.

"We are wedging ourselves between a rock and a hard place: between the pleasures of medium-density living (Greenwich Village, Park Slope, Toronto’s Annex) and the ecological necessity of even more density," explains Andrew Blum. He goes on to cite historian William Cronon: "idealizing a distant wilderness too often means not idealizing the environment in which we actually live." Blum's point is that "thinking of cities this way means seeing their density and grit not as the destruction of the environment but as part of its preservation."

The key is to bring together these two apparently discordant senses of "environment": the ecological and the social. Cities need to be proactive and encourage development of mixed-use structures that support inclusion in neighborhoods. I shouldn't think it difficult to reserve the first floor of a condominium for neighborhood shops--a baker, grocer, laundromat, pub, gym, or barber, all accessible from out of doors.

Related: maps of Toronto's high rises and an urban design contest called thinkToronto on spacing.ca.

Thursday, 8 May 2008

found art?

in fat and real estate, it's all about location, location, location

Kahn's team found some surprising benefits to subcutaneous fat. Mice with subcutaneous fat transplanted into their abdomen gained only about 60% of the weight packed on by the control group, which, like most mice, continued to expand. These transplant recipients also had better glucose and insulin levels. The mice that got extra subcutaneous fat in subcutaneous areas also fared better than controls, although not as well as the first group.
This from sciencenow via 3qd.

Doctors are no doubt working on ways to turn this into an expensive weight-loss surgery in which fat is sucked out of your abdomen and injected directly into your thighs.

Or perhaps Sir Mixalot has it right after all?

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

education kills

[photo by Nirvana]
“These flies died about 20 percent faster than flies with the same genes, but which were not forced to learn.” Forming neuron connections may cause harmful side effects.
I think the lesson here is: invert the question, get a grant. It isn't "why are humans so smart?" It's "why are so many animals so dumb?" As usual, evolutionary biology can "explain" any set of data.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

change of place, change of mind

Richard Florida in the Boston Globe:
Human personalities can be classified along five key dimensions: agreeableness, conscientiousness, extroversion, neuroticism, and openness to experience.... These personality types are not spread evenly across the country. They cluster.
Florida avoids making causal claims, merely noting the correlation, but just given facts about personality types, he makes one prediction about who will move where:

Conscientious and agreeable types in particular are less likely to move. Once they find a place, they tend to spread out gradually over time. Extroverts, on the other hand, are much more likely to move over greater distances. Open-to-experience types are drawn to thrills and risk, and moving, after all, is one of life's biggest new experiences.

This fuels a process of selective migration whereby agreeable and conscientious regions are drained of the most driven, most creative, and most mobile - only reinforcing their psychogeographic profiles, while magnifying the innovative edge in places where open-to-experience types concentrate.

Florida's previous work on the creative class (see my reaction) suggests that municipalities should work to attract these mobile innovators, but this new work says otherwise. The mobile creative class may be the catalyst for change, but they are not a stable long-term commodity - they may well start up a company and then move on to another location. What's needed to sustain their industry is a reliable supply of conscientious workers balanced with enough innovators to keep the economy sharp. If a region doesn't have enough conscientious workers settled in, it is doomed to a policy of constant roiling turmoil. Too much industry turnover, and the economy will be unable to sustain itself through the rough periods. Too little industry turnover, and the economy will be unable to adapt to keep up with competition.

The billion dollar question is how can a region build a base of conscientious workers - the very people who are less likely to move - without at the same time frightening away the mobile innovators?

hat tip 3 quarks daily

Monday, 5 May 2008

may 5 roundup

  • if you get the joke, you have no right to complain.
  • best time to remember? just before you forget.
  • the LHC as a spam filter: "the LHC will create about a billion collisions per second, and only about 100 of them will actually get stored on hard disk.... the trigger makes some snap judgments about what events are fun."
  • the rationality of single motherhood. Hint: "'Black culture' doesn't explain why the single moms are disproportionately in the states where lots of young black men are in prison."
  • how many people are airborne over the US at any given moment? (the art of estimation)