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Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The sublime experience of beating Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!

Last night I beat Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! (the two exclamation points are part of the name), the Nintendo classic. This is something I thought I'd never be able to do. I am not being cute: beating Tyson was among the most difficult accomplishments of my life.

Human potential guru Michael Murphy has collected anecdotes of athletes who have experienced transcendence once or twice in their lives when performing beyond what they thought their bodies were capable of. I won't go that far regarding Punch-Out!!, but my consciousness did feel peculiar for a moment there, wrapped entirely around the tiny world of Tyson's movements and my twitch responses.

Are video games, along with everything bad, good for you? I don't know, but kids could do worse than to play games like this that require observation, mental system-modeling, and patience.


Monday, October 30, 2006

Wooden Mirror installation at NYU Tisch's ITP

NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program, their answer to MIT's Media Lab, has an amazing 1997 installation: a "wooden mirror", right. There is a video of the mirror in action.


Anonymous Anonymous on Mon Oct 30, 07:59:00 PM:
I used to work in Tisch--10th floor--saw this thing every day on the way up, but never thought to investigate. Neat!

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Satrapi's Persepolis becoming a film

Marjane Satrapi's wonderful graphic novel Persepolis is being made into an animated film, co-directed by Satrapi and with Catherine Deneuvre as the voice of Satrapi's mother.

Sony pictures has released the following stills:


Saturday, October 28, 2006

Unexpected consequences of war

The NY Times reports on the many unexploded bombs in Germany, still waiting for victims 60 years later:
More than six decades after the end of World War II, Germans still routinely come across unexploded bombs beneath farmers’ fields or city streets. Lately, there has been a skein of such dangerous discoveries, one with deadly consequences.

On Monday morning, a highway worker was killed when his cutting machine struck a World War II bomb beneath a busy autobahn southeast of Frankfurt. The explosion ripped apart the vehicle and damaged several passing cars, wounding four other workers and a motorist.

Also on Monday, a weapons-removal squad defused a 500-pound bomb found next to a highway near Hanover, in the north. The police said it was a British aerial bomb, one of tens of thousands dropped on German roads, factories and cities during Allied bombing raids.

On Saturday, 1,000 people were evacuated from a town east of Berlin after a bomb was discovered. And last week, 22,000 people were evacuated from a district in Hanover after three bombs were discovered near a house. It was the second largest evacuation for a disposal operation since the end of the war.

While the four incidents were not related, they reminded people that even though Germans have spent decades digging out rusty munitions, their landscape remains something of a minefield.

“We’ll have enough work to keep us busy for the next 100 to 120 years,” said Sebastian Semmler, the owner of a small company in Bavaria that specializes in defusing and clearing munitions.

Neoconservatives: the world does not sit still and cooperate with grand schemes. Bombs do not agree to seek only deserving victims. Armed soldiers do not become competent implementors of political strategy.

Bill Kristol told NPR in 2003:

There's been a certain amount of pop sociology in America ... that the Shia can't get along with the Sunni and the Shia in Iraq just want to establish some kind of Islamic fundamentalist regime. There's almost no evidence of that at all. Iraq's always been very secular.

I thought in 2003, and still think, that the preemptive war precedent is not all bad: Iran and North Korea's intransigence notwithstanding, I think it has given pause to dictatorships and encouragement to democratic movements. But it's arrogant, short-sighted and callous to weigh the vague saving of future lives so highly compared to lives today.


Friday, October 27, 2006

R. W. Apple obituary

I completely missed that R. W. Apple died earlier this month. Link to the NY Times obituary.
Mr. Apple enjoyed a career like no other in the modern era of The Times. He was the paper’s bureau chief in Albany, Lagos, Nairobi, Saigon, Moscow, London and Washington. He covered 10 presidential elections and more than 20 national nominating conventions. He led The Times’s coverage of the Vietnam war for two and a half years in the 1960’s and of the Persian Gulf war a generation later and he chronicled the Iranian revolution in between.


the journalism magazine MORE pronounced Mr. Apple “America’s most powerful political reporter” in 1976, a distinction he accepted with some trepidation.

“I am frightened by it,” he told the magazine, “or perhaps awed is a better word. And I am very reluctant to throw it around in the newspaper.” He added: “I’m very ambivalent about the power I have and the way it’s used. Yet I would be transparently un-candid if I didn’t say I do enjoy it enormously.”


For his 70th birthday, he gathered friends at the Paris bistro Chez L’Ami Louis, which he often described as his favorite restaurant, for heaping plates of foie gras, roast chicken, escargots, scallops and pommes Anna, washed down with gallons of burgundy and magnums of Calvados.

Mr. Trillin, who later wrote about the evening for Gourmet, quoted one guest who summed up Mr. Apple’s attitude toward the party, and toward the rich, long life and career that produced it: “It’s my understanding that Apple has simplified what could be a terribly difficult choice by telling them to bring everything.”



There's a funny article on Slate today about the new record for individual and combined scores in Scrabble. The publication being Slate, the predominant tone of the article is contrariness, as Stefan Fatsis (author of Word Freak) wonders if the record is that impressive, given that both players made multiple strategic mistakes during the game. That is, in privileging offense over defense, the players left certain plays unguarded and posted hopes on unrealistic plays that somehow happened to work out. The magic word, QUIXOTRY, was perfectly suited to the situation!
Technically, Cresta's strategy was unsound. Fishing for a once-in-a-lifetime play might be understandable in a casual game, where winning is less urgent. But in competitive play-—even in a club setting, where there's less on the line than in a rated tournament—-exchanging letters three times, as Cresta did, to enhance some combination of Q, U, I, and X is unorthodox at best, suicidal at worst. (The strategically correct move was to dump the cumbersome Q and move on.) In Scrabble, the player who waits for the miracle word usually loses. The implication: Cresta wasn't terribly worried about whether he won or lost.

One of Slate's readers posted this challenge to Slate's contrariness about the record-setting game: Records often involve strategic mistakes. The post raises the example of Cal Ripken, Jr.'s record-setting streak for consecutive games played--were there games when it would have been better strategy to sit Ripken? Neat idea. I've been thinking about it all day.


Blogger Ben on Fri Oct 27, 05:18:00 PM:
I remember Michael Lewis talking about this type of phenomenon in his 2001 NYT Magazine profile of a 15-year-old stock manipulator.

The boy in question, Jonathan Lebed, initially got the stock market itch after his team won a grade school competition to get the highest equity returns on a fictional investment. He and his friends figured out that the smartest strategy for the average investor--a balanced portfolio--would never post the highest returns. Only shoot-the-moon bets on tiny, volatile companies--bets that most likely would lose everything--had a chance at winning.

It's a big problem with our culture that the most visible and celebrated successes are people whose path to the top should not, or cannot, be followed. As a teacher, I found it hard to compete with the glory of a handful of rappers who make getting rich look easy. Thanks, Kanye "College Dropout" West. Dealing drugs is even worse -- it seems like something you can immediately make money at, when in reality it's a low-margin job for the great majority of dealers (per Freakonomics)

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Solidarity with Georgians in Russia

The Moscow Times reports on escalating discrimination against Georgians in Russia, and support Georgians are receiving from the Russian intelligentsia:
A group of liberal political activists in St. Petersburg has decided
to protest the current anti-Georgian sentiment in Russia by officially
adopting Georgian-sounding surnames.

Alexander Shurshev, an activist in the Yabloko Party's youth
organization, said he was changing his name to Shurshadze.

"In Russia today, people are discriminated against based on their
ethnicity," Shurshev said this week. "I've decided to give my name a
Georgian ending to show my solidarity with the Georgians who are being
Roman Omari Vephvadze, senior priest at the Georgian church on
Starorusskaya Ulitsa, said his parishioners were afraid to go out in
Police have ordered Tomsk State University to hand over information on
its Georgian students, reported Thursday.

Administrators have begun to gather information not only on Georgian
citizens, but also on ethnic Georgians with Russian citizenship, the
news portal reported.
The NY Times reports that, among other disturbing recent incidents, "A group of men burst into a contemporary art gallery [in Moscow] Saturday, destroying work by an ethnic Georgian artist and beating up the owner, Marat Guelman."

I have never lived in Russia, but everything I know suggests that Putin is a dangerous man and an enemy of democracy. He's running Russia into the ground and poisoning its democratic potential. I'm no fan of Dick Cheney, but he was right on in his remarks in Vilnius earlier this year.


Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Gender and genes

In response to my post defending Larry Summers's infamous comments on gender and genes, Anna Gordon wrote:
1. I think few would disagree that by the time teenagers take the SAT's they've already been substantially influenced by differential cultural factors based on their gender.

2. The etiology of autism spectrum disorders including Asperger's is very, very, very poorly understood. The best anyone can say at the moment is that evidence is consistant with the disease's resulting from a combination of factors which have yet to be well elucidated. Those factors may include genetic susceptibility but almost certainly include environmental factors. Environmental factors are not randomly distributed with regard to sex, and that difference is an artifact of culture. Therefore it would be misleading to use the gender distribution of those diseases as evidence of extra-cultural differences between the sexes.

3. You say the question is reasonable, but I must disagree with its premise. Why ask if gender differences are cultural or not? If they're cultural they could potentially be changed.

As you point out, you can never fully "adjust" for cultural factors, because the contstruct encompasses a seeming infinity of causal pathways. In this context, every new cultural difference discovered presents an opportunity to narrow the gap between men and women in the sciences. On the other hand, anything that can't be explained by already known cultural factors goes into a catch-all which you have carefully avoided calling "innate" differences. But the term "cultural" includes every aspect of human life that is sensitive to human intervention.

So if the difference isn't cultural, what is it? Biological? Genetic? Divine? Searching for causes of gender disparity that fall within our control has scientific relevance because it shows us what we can change. Searching for differences beyond our control is searching for a reason to give up. It's also inherently unproveable. The latter makes it sloppy thinking, the former makes it hurt.
I think the central question here is Anna's point 3: why ask if gender differences are cultural or not?

There are many other questions inside that one. Are men like Summers connoting that their success is purely due to merit, and not to men's social advantages? Why search for genetic differences in aptitude for social roles or intellectual specialization? And even if there is some evidence for these, why point it out?

I strongly disagree that "Searching for differences beyond our control is searching for a reason to give up." Summers's speech is wide-ranging and considers lots of possible options, and in it I think he is legitimately searching for understanding and wisdom.

I agree with Summers that in the past 30 years there has been a lot of fair research concluding there is an impact of genes on personality, athletic ability and intellectual direction. I am thinking of studies on separated identical twins, infant body chemistry, and differences in the focus of newborn boys and girls. None of these mean that socialization does not factor hugely in the organization of our world, and in particular I think this trend has been incorrectly, and maliciously, interpreted in support of racial discrimination--see Stephen Jay Gould's debunking of The Bell Curve. But the findings should not be ignored merely because we do not want them to be true or because their most familiar promoters are assholes.

Why are the two choices in nature/nurture debates so often presented so as to suggest that it is only acceptable to search for things we will be happy to find? I too would prefer that there were no connections between gender and genetic predispositions, but I don't think it is so.

I agree that the relationship between autism and gender differences is still not well understood, but it seems to me that the trend in research makes it hard to remain agnostic of the genetic-cause hypothesis. Simon Baron-Cohen--and his mostly female graduate research team--have recorded the amount of attention days-old babies pay to faces versus inanimate objects, and it seems that baby girls are interested more in people than in things, and baby boys the reverse.

Culture could creep into those results because of researchers' expectations, the treatment, attention and affection baby girls versus baby boys experience in their first days, and even different behavior by the parents while the baby was in utero; also, their numbers suggest that if there is any measurable difference at that age, it is slight. But is our best, most intellectually rigorous conclusion from such studies just to chalk up the cause as culture, and dismiss genetic causation as a relic of the past on par with superstition?

Most importantly, genetic predispositions are no reason to give up; quite the contrary. Simon Baron-Cohen's research suggests that men are genetically predisposed to what he calls "systematic" thinking--not just in ability but, more importantly, in interest. At first glance such a view seems in line with giving up on encouraging women to excel in math and science, but it could mean just the opposite. Women may well need extra attention in communicating what is attractive and interesting about science and math, and even more clear opportunities to begin extracurricular hobbies in design and computing through alternative groups that are not the usual boys' clubs.

After all, abstract-thinking, systematizing boys of the same age exist in large enough numbers that they can reliably find each other for designing intricate Dungeons & Dragons maps, hacking computers, building bedroom security devices, and making blueprints for robots (I speak from experience). It must be much harder for those girls who also want to design robots to find each other, believe that their interests are valid, and continue to develop them.

The limiting of opportunities for women in our culture is awful, and arguments like Summers's and mine can't help but be reminders of that. I do know that that hurts. But the facts on this issue aren't necessarily favorable to either sex. The trophy does not so clearly belong to the gender that is overrepresented among the abstract-thinking and socially dysfunctional.

Finally, if we are seriously trying to figure out how human beings work, we need to put off emotional and political reactions. We should not condemn Summers or anyone for others' interpretations of their views, and we should not demand justification for asking the questions that they do. There is value in the truth in its own right.


Monday, October 23, 2006

Everybody's Protest Novel

Edward Rothstein's "Connections" features for The New York Times are usually great. He recommends cool books and museum visits (here are two recent reviews of the 19th c. journalism exhibit at the New York Historical Society and a comparison of the Exploratorium and the Tech Museum of Innovation). "Connections" is a vague name for a column, but Rothstein always comes up with something I think I'd like to know more about.

I'm less impressed by today's article in the series, about Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s new introduction to the Annotated Uncle Tom's Cabin. An abridged version of Gates's essay about Uncle Tom's Cabin was featured on the back page of The New York Times Book Review yesterday. I know the books section and the Book Review don't have the same editor or staff--both sections write reviews of certain books, and the reviewers sometimes disagree--but Rothstein's article is basically a summary of Gates's essay and repeats many of the same anecdotes. The same art appears in both articles.

Rothstein's article is about how Gates and co-editor Hollis Robbins have reassessed the value of Stowe's novel and have found it to be not nearly as terrible as its reputation became in the 20th century. I read Uncle Tom's Cabin three or four times in college, and I was always surprised at how many different ways there are to read it--as part of a long tradition of anti-slavery protest literature, as domestic fiction that emphasized women's role in activism, as genre fiction, as an attempt to cobble all those things together. Rothstein's work in the "Connections" article is to sum up some of Gates's findings about the multiple ways of reading the book:
Now, however, a new edition of the novel with intelligent annotations by Mr. Gates, who teaches at Harvard, and Hollis Robbins, who teaches at the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins, marks a serious attempt to resurrect it as both a central document in American race relations and a significant moral and political exploration of the character of those relations.

Its literary qualities are not dismissed; they are affirmed. Mr. Gates finds the novel “culturally capacious.” He sees in it, too, not just the preaching of a moralistic visionary but also revelations about the tensions and contradictions latent in the tangled net of slavery and domestic life.

This doesn’t mean the flaws are ignored. The annotators dutifully take note of the whiffs of condescension that appear even in the midst of Stowe’s impassioned empathy, her subtle suggestions of racial inferiority in the midst of sympathy. They also point out Stowe’s use of sentimental Victorian melodrama in the plotting and description; can a victim be more saintly than Uncle Tom or a master be more satanic than Simon Legree? In this they also echo some of the long-standing assessments of the novel. George Sand said one must “love its very faults.” George Orwell called it “the supreme example of the ‘good bad’ book” that is “preposterous,” while also being “deeply moving and essentially true.”

But what do those summaries do that Gates's essay doesn't? Here's an excerpt from Gates's essay:
I doubt that many of those who tossed around the insult had actually read Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel. But James Baldwin had. In a scathing 1949 critique, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” Baldwin boldly linked the sentimentality of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” to the melodrama of Richard Wright’s 1940 novel “Native Son,” a work far more appealing to black power types. “Uncle Tom” had become such a potent brand of political impotence that nobody really cared how far its public usages had traveled from the reality of its literary prototype.

When I returned to “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” not long ago, it struck me as far more culturally capacious — and sexually charged — than either Baldwin or the 60’s militants had acknowledged. Half a century after Baldwin denounced it as “a very bad novel” in its “self-righteous, virtuous sentimentality” and promotion of feminine tears and anguish as a form of political protest, both the novel and Baldwin’s now canonical critique are ripe for reassessment.

I guess I want from Rothstein a couple more connections to and from Gates's work, not merely a summary of it. I bet he could have done something really cool with the Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, Stowe's response to pro-slavey critics of the novel who took issue with its accuracy. She says her project in the Key is to account for all the facts of the novel:
Artistically considered, it might not be best to point out in which quarry and from which region each fragment of the mosaic picture had its origin; and it is equally unartistic to disentangle the glittering web of fiction, and show out of what real warp and woof it is woven, and with what real colouring dyed. But the book had a purpose entirely transcending the artistic one, and accordingly encounters at the hands of the public demands not usually made on fictitious works. It is treated as a reality--sifted, tried, and tested, as a reality; and therefore as a reality it may be proper that it should be defended.

The writer acknowledges that the book is a very inadequate representation of slavery; and it is so, necessarily, for this reason--that slavery, in some of its workings, is too dreadful for the purposes of art. A work which should represent it strictly as it is would be a work which could not be read; and all works which ever mean to give pleasure must draw a veil somewhere, or they cannot succeed.

The author will now proceed along the course of the story, from the first page, and develop, as far as possible, the incidents by which different parts were suggested.

Isn't that such an odd idea for a novelist to try--to catalogue all her sources (some of which, the editors of the UTC electronic text project point out, were published later than the novel? But that insistence on accounting for the terrible truth of every detail fits perfectly with Stowe's project for the novel and Baldwin's later criticism of the protest novel genre as being over-determined and sentimental. It would have been a cool idea to contrast Stowe's obsessive catalogue with Gates's and Robbins' project in annotating the book.


Anonymous Anonymous on Tue Oct 24, 09:03:00 AM:
Thank you!

Hollis Robbins

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Google and Wikipedia: different approaches to China

In January 2006, Google launched, a version of Google served from within China that voluntarily censors many listings. See, for example, one popular comparison: the search results for "tiananmen" on compared to the results on the regular

On Google's official blog, they explained the decision:

Google users in China today struggle with a service that, to be blunt, isn't very good. appears to be down around 10% of the time. Even when users can reach it, the website is slow, and sometimes produces results that when clicked on, stall out the user's browser.

This problem could only be resolved by creating a local presence, and this week we did so, by launching, our website for the People's Republic of China. In order to do so, we have agreed to remove certain sensitive information from our search results. We know that many people are upset about this decision, and frankly, we understand their point of view.

Filtering our search results clearly compromises our mission. Failing to offer Google search at all to a fifth of the world's population, however, does so far more severely.

Wikipedia, in contrast, refused to censor themselves. The Guardian reported:
[Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy] Wales said censorship was "antithetical to the philosophy of Wikipedia. We occupy a position in the culture that I wish Google would take up, which is that we stand for the freedom for information, and for us to compromise I think would send very much the wrong signal: that there's no one left on the planet who's willing to say 'You know what? We're not going to give up.'"
It is starting to seem that even granting Google its excuses, Wikipedia's choice has been wiser. The Chinese government has been blocking Wikipedia for a year, but they have just unblocked it, likely because there is so much public demand.'s Cory Doctorow writes:
China needs Wikipedia and Chinese net-users would access it using circumvention tools -- the block on Wikipedia made Chinese Wikipedia users into automatic dissidents.

Beijing is now stuck playing cat-and-mouse with Wikipedia, having to ferret out every potentially sensitive page and update its filters accordingly. If MSFT, Yahoo and Google followed Wikipedia's lead, we could force Beijing to devote ever-escalating resources to this effort, a denial-of-service attack on its censors.


Friday, October 20, 2006

Departed, or what I should have done when Jack Nicholson started waving his hands around like Godfather III-era Pacino

Alice tells me that The Believer has a no snarkiness rule. I admire that, but I don't know where else to turn but to snarkiness to describe why I hated The Departed.

If you were a great director who had success with crime movies, and you've run out of ideas, which of these would you include in your new movie?

A) Jack Nicholson at his most vamping
B) at least three scenes that end with one cop punching another
C) shootouts where bullets conveniently only hit minor characters
D) stock sexpot sidekick to the big boss
E) zany Chinese gangsters
F) resolve complicated plot situations by just killing off antagonists
G) large plot elements hinging on suspect events (somehow calling back an unlisted number, writing your return address on a piece of mail you send to your enemy, leaving secret possessions lying around, openly discussing organized crime on cell phones)

Leonardo DiCaprio starts out the movie well-cast as a brooding dork who isn't tough enough to be a cop. He got 1400 on his SATs! But he reveals he can keep his hand completely steady while inside he's screaming.

Soon he's in the middle of some serious trouble, a perfect setup to show these two aspects of his character in conflict. Can he suppress his book smarts convincingly? What will happen to him if, say, he is forced to kill someone? What if he has to stay stoic while someone he knows is hurt? What if he has to give up love to stay dedicated to his task? What if he has to kill to protect his identity? What if he must walk into a situation where the police will want to shoot him, not knowing who he is--and he can't reveal the truth?

Luckily for him, none of these things ever happen, and he is able to easily sidestep any pesky incidents that might introduce dramatic tension. We are told that he's cracking up, but we're shown few of the actual madness-inducing incidents, though he mentions he's been undercover for a year. (I got the feeling that the audience at my screening chose to ignore Scorcese's explicit time frame and stick to the much briefer one implied by his direction.)

Matt Damon's acting is great, but his character is mishandled by Scorcese and writer William Monahan. At the start of the film, his is a great character. He is legitimately dedicated and proud to do his job, but at the same time he must undermine his own work. Will this contradiction grow slowly, until he can't deny that he must make a choice? How does he reconcile his opposing allegiances? Will his huge ambition prove stronger than he expects? Will he reveal himself unintentionally through things he tells his therapist friend?

No, it turns out, he has no qualms at all, and only faces the contradiction at all thanks to some questionable deus ex machina. It turns out that the suggestion of ambition we get at the beginning of the film is a fluke; the closing shot of the film awkwardly focuses on a dramatic element that the film has completely forgotten. And it turns out the therapist character, for all the exposition of her job function and its dramatic promise, could have just as easily been an MD or lawyer.

The worst part of Jack Nicholson's performance is that at the beginning of the movie he is trying to be a real person, which makes it all the more disappointing later when he gets lazy and starts turning on the famous pizazz. The film reminded me of Heat and Road to Perdition, which also started strongly as realistic crime dramas but turned into hokey star vehicles.

The Departed is a remake of the Hong Kong movie Infernal Affairs, and its mishandling feels like that of a Hong Kong movie: strong setup, missed dramatic opportunities, characters left static and indistinct, a disappointing climax that does not address the film's big questions.

Boston writer William Monahan certainly has an ear for dialect, though, and sounds like a cool guy. Imdb quotes him saying:
I wanted to be an old-fashioned man of letters, so I essentially prepared myself very carefully through my 20s for a job that doesn't exist anymore; You may be able to find a man of letters in Syria or the Horn of Africa, but you could work Manhattan or London with dogs for a year and never find one. Anthony Burgess is dead, Vidal is the last lion, and at any rate belles-lettres aren't where they were left. Anyway, I'm making movies now. Just before all this happened, I thought, 'Out of everything you can do or think you can do, pick one thing and be it.' What I picked was to be the screenwriter."


Anonymous Anonymous on Mon Oct 23, 10:00:00 AM:
There was an interesting article in the Boston Globe a few weeks ago about William Monahan. I recommend it.

I haven't been to see The Departed yet because I'm worried about all the violence. If I'm going to spend most of the movie hiding under my jacket, it's probably not worth $10. But I'm on the fence--I'm really curious and might just give in and go see the movie.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The brain: built for mimicry

The NY Times reports a study that strengthens the case of sociobiologists who argue that humans evolved for cooperation just as much as, if not more than, for individual promotion:
The most significant finding was the discovery of “mirror neurons,” a widely dispersed class of brain cells that operate like neural WiFi. Mirror neurons track the emotional flow, movement and even intentions of the person we are with, and replicate this sensed state in our own brain by stirring in our brain the same areas active in the other person.

Mirror neurons offer a neural mechanism that explains emotional contagion, the tendency of one person to catch the feelings of another, particularly if strongly expressed. This brain-to-brain link may also account for feelings of rapport, which research finds depend in part on extremely rapid synchronization of people’s posture, vocal pacing and movements as they interact. In short, these brain cells seem to allow the interpersonal orchestration of shifts in physiology.

Of course, these patters can also be used to outmaneuver and manipulate others for individualistic reasons, as documented among chimpanzees in Frans de Waal's excellent Chimpanzee Politics, and as documented among humans all the damn time.


Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Defending Summers

It's a season for ridiculous academic debacles (see the Columbia Minutemen fiasco), so now is as good a time as any to mention William Saletan's defense in Slate of Larry Summers' comments on why women are underrespresented in science positions in academia.

I missed this piece when it came out, but it's the best defense of Summers I've come across. And I sorta agree with him, though I wish the piece didn't carry the cringe-inducing subtitle "The pseudo-feminist show trial of Larry Summers":
Everyone agrees Summers' remarks were impolitic. But were they wrong?
He offered three possible reasons for this gender gap. The biggest, he suggested, was that fewer mothers than fathers are willing to spend 80 hours a week away from their kids. The next reason was that more boys than girls tend to score very high or very low on high-school math tests, producing a similar average but a higher proportion of scores in the top percentiles, which lead to high-powered academic careers in science and engineering. The third factor was discrimination by universities.
By some accounts, Summers referred to "innate ability" or "natural ability" as a possible explanation for the sex difference in high-school test scores.
Claude Steele, a Stanford psychologist, writes that in his 1997 study, female students in a math test "performed equal to men when the test was represented as insensitive to gender differences." ... But the study compared average scores, not the distribution of high and low scores, which was Summers' point.
Sex is easily the biggest physical difference within a species. Men and women, unlike blacks and whites, have different organs and body designs. The inferable difference in genomes between two people of visibly different races is one-hundredth of 1 percent. The gap between the sexes vastly exceeds that.
You'd expect some of these differences to show up in the brain, and they do. A study of mice published a year ago in Molecular Brain Research found that just 10 days after conception, at least 50 genes were more active in the developing brain of one sex than in the other.
Let's be clear about what this isn't. It isn't a claim about overall intelligence. Nor is it a justification for tolerating discrimination between two people of equal ability or accomplishment... It's a claim that the distribution of male scores is more spread out than the distribution of female scores—a greater percentage at both the bottom and the top. Nobody bats an eye at the overrepresentation of men in prison.
Already Summers is being forced to apologize, in the style of a Communist show trial, for sending "an unintended signal of discouragement to talented girls and women." But the best signal to send to talented girls and boys is that science isn't about respecting sensitivities. It's about respecting facts.
It's not especially cogent. The 'just more spread out' argument sounds like reaching. "Respecting facts" should not mean, say, confusing gender differences with straightforward evolutionary explanations (aggression and greed, and therefore the gender imbalance among prisoners) with differences that are much harder to explain in evolutionary terms.

I'd just say that there are, or at least might reasonably be, demonstrable differences in certain spatial and mathematical abilities between the top scorers within each gender, even after you adjust (if that is possible) for cultural factors. There are gender differences for autism and Asperger's syndrome, and those have been recently connected to mathematical ability; it's reasonable to ask if cultural changes could be insufficient to ever produce equal numbers of top female and male mathematicians and hard scientists.


Blogger Anna on Sat Oct 21, 03:22:00 PM:'s reasonable to ask if cultural changes could be insufficient to ever produce equal numbers of top female and male mathematicians and hard scientists.

Some points:

1. I think few would disagree that by the time teenagers take the SAT's they've already been substantially influenced by differential cultural factors based on their gender.

2. The etiology of autism spectrum disorders including Asperger's is very, very, very poorly understood. The best anyone can say at the moment is that evidence is consistant with the disease's resulting from a combination of factors which have yet to be well elucidated. Those factors may include genetic susceptibility but almost certainly include environmental factors. Environmental factors are not randomly distributed with regard to sex, and that difference is an artifact of culture. Therefore it would be misleading to use the gender distribution of those diseases as evidence of extra-cultural differences between the sexes.

3. You say the question is reasonable, but I must disagree with its premise. Why ask if gender differences are cultural or not? If they're cultural they could potentially be changed.

As you point out, you can never fully "adjust" for cultural factors, because the contstruct encompasses a seeming infinity of causal pathways. In this context, every new cultural difference discovered presents an opportunity to narrow the gap between men and women in the sciences. On the other hand, anything that can't be explained by already known cultural factors goes into a catch-all which you have carefully avoided calling "innate" differences.
But the term "cultural" includes every aspect of human life that is sensitive to human intervention.

So if the difference isn't cultural, what is it? Biological? Genetic? Divine? Searching for causes of gender disparity that fall within our control has scientific relevance because it shows us what we can change. Searching for differences beyond our control is searching for a reason to give up. It's also inherently unproveable. The latter makes it sloppy thinking, the former makes it hurt.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Guardian gets tech

In London I read The Guardian and thought it was a great secondary paper to the London Times. The Guardian has lots of those nice touches which a secondary paper has the room to print and focus on: long excerpts from notable books, a two-page spread of a color photograph at the middle of the paper every day (I brought home their poster-sized photo of hundreds of heartbroken Russians at Anna Politkovskaya's funeral), and weekly sections every day on particular topics like technology and social outreach.

The technology weekly section was the best I've seen at a daily or weekly paper. Where the Times runs endless pieces shilling products and reporting bland industry news, the Guardian's stories covered pressing questions of technology's impact on society.

Stories from the Times's Thursday Circuits section this week pushed bacteria-preventing mouse pointers, wireless headphones, the Cingular 3125, and's home automation tools. The website's leading tech story today was "I.B.M. Division Moves to China".

The Guardian, meanwhile, covered (in a section with only six pages of copy): the question of whether tech consumers will continue to swallow digital rights management (DRM); how Microsoft's new piracy prevention could shut legitimate users out of their own systems; a prediction that Nintendo's Wii will bring women and non-gamers into the console video game fold; a celebration of municipal wireless; excerpts from what bloggers are writing about tech; and an interview with the company Rare, widely considered the most artistically accomplished video game developing house.

The Guardian also editorializes with regard to tech, a topic the NY Times editors don't seem to know much about. The Guardian has (I think the British would say "have") an ongoing editorial series advancing a policy they call "Free Our Data":
Rather than trying to recover costs by selling data, government agencies should follow the US federal practice of making data available to all comers.

Every Thursday over the past six months, we have published at least one Free Our Data case study. We've looked at the failure of public bodies to agree who owns intellectual property in postal addresses and we have identified examples where Crown copyright prevents citizens having free access to material that should be in the public domain - the laws of the land, for example. We have also looked at case studies overseas, such as Manitoba's free data policy.

Their series also pointed out that when Bill Clinton addressed the joint Houses of Parliament, his words were in the public domain; but when Tony Blair spoke immediately after, his words were controlled by government copyright and cannot be reproduced in the UK, in the EU, or in countries with copyright treaties with the UK or the EU, without specific permission from the crown. There's news just as bad happening with technology rights in the US, such as the fact that it's illegal to demonstrate how easy it is to hack Diebold voting machines, and that it's illegal to uninstall some computer viruses and spyware (because to do so requires "circumventing" them, a criminal action under the Digital Millenium Copyright Act). But you won't know about these problems by reading the Times.

To its credit, the Times's Circuits section this week did have an excellent story about Sony's new, and flawed, e-book reader, and another that summarized the MIT Media Lab's One Laptop Per Child project. A paragraph from the latter story reads:
The idea of a laptop for every schoolchild grew out of [Media Lab director John] Negroponte's experience in giving children Internet-connected laptops in rural Cambodia. He said the first English word out of the mouths of the Cambodian students was "Google."
And there's one thing no paper seems to get right: technical advice columns. The Guardian's is just as bad as those of the NY Times and the Village Voice, where Brendan Koerner's disappointing "Mr. Roboto" continues to run.


Friday, October 13, 2006

How do you substitute _____ for ______ ?

From the Guardian, October 12, 2006:
"...Palm has kept much of the design and styling of its Treo series of PDAs and substituted its own OS for a Windows one..."
So which is it that the PDAs run now? I read that sentence as saying it's Palm's own OS, but they make clear in the article that the device now "runs the Windows Mobile operating system". I think of the direct object of 'substitute' as being the new thing being brought in, and the indirect object the old thing being replaced. What is the correct pattern for this, or do people do it both ways?


Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Unexpected delight in London's nooks and crannies

So I'm in London for two days to perform, no joke, a secret mission for Hugh Grant. I've been here twice before, but I only now am I doing the kind of aimless wandering necessary to give the city an identity in my mind.

Of course, Foucault, Derrida, Gramsci etc. instruct me that this identity is really my construction and not the city's. For example, I will forever think of London as a great city for antiques, simply because I wandered through a cluster of antiques stores in the Islington area that I found wonderful (but others would find unremarkable).

I spent an hour in "After Noah", an antique shop with the usual stock of bureaus etc. but also scores of vintage toys, including in the basement a ragged old 1940s "Finger Football" which used piano-style keys to lift 20 opposite-facing semicircles on the table to flick the ball towards the goals.

Nearby was a Japanese print shop selling hundreds of 19th century prints by Hokusai and others for as little as £20 (which at the current rate is roughly equivalent to $800). The Japanese students working there showed me several prints by a well-known 18th/19th century print block artist named Yoshitoshi, which were amazingly psychedelic and expensive.

I never knew that London was a beautiful city, with old and new architecture blended nicely. The newer architecture actually isn't awful, for the most part (one exception: the Bradican building, which looks like a Krushchev-era instant concrete housing complex). It looks like they were spared the worldwide architectural nightmare of the '70s and '80s.

There's all sorts of pleasant surprises for someone walking around the city, like carefully decorated (but not numbingly landscaped) seating areas along the Thames, and old stone stairways two feet wide that sneak up the side of London Bridge (whose 19th-century incarnation is, ironically, now sitting in the American southwest). There are countless people on the street everywhere, on the bridges and sidestreets, which I didn't expect--I somehow thought London was more like an extended depopulated financial district.

As for art, I knew the Tate Modern was supposed to be good, but I enjoyed others just as much: the National Gallery, Somerset House, and the Barbican. I didn't know most of the museums are free, Washington DC-style, and that unlike the ostensibly free Met in New York, donations are suggested without any arm-twisting.

Two things stand out most from my visit. One is a small installation in an old, unused church off Southwark park (which seems to be pronounced like "Suffolk" but with 'th' instead of the 'f's). It's called "Bridge", by a young designer named Michael Gross. He has flooded the church with several feet of water, and his device allows you to walk across it as if suspended by the water's surface. He achieves this by means of a series of circular steps; as you shift your weight onto one, the next emerges. It's entirely mechanical, and still needs work in order to become effortless and discreet, so experiencing it is mostly a matter of braving the buggy steps in hope that you don't fall into the pool, but Gross told me he intends to get the kinks out and deploy it in a natural lake or river in the next few years.

The other sight that stands out so far is the British Museum's central atrium, apparently opened in 2000, which is breathtaking. The picture at right can't do justice to the wonder of watching the pattern of triangular glass panes change as you walk around the circular, enclosed reading room at the center of the atrium. The glass panes contrast against the old walls, but somehow it feels successful where I.M. Pei's tacked-on Louvre pyramid doesn't: it brings the sky into the space and keeps the focus on the atrium as a whole.

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Blogger Jeff'y on Mon Oct 23, 10:59:00 PM:
I went to the British Museum thrice during my four months in London. The central courtyard is otherworldly–I felt like I was inside the Death Star.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Times correction: sorry for rearranging Brooklyn

The New York Observer recently noted an unusual Times correction. In repeated articles about the Atlantic Yards project -- which I believe is a bad idea, and have campaigned against -- the Times called the project's site "near downtown Brooklyn".

That isn't untrue, but it's misleading. It's also "near central Brooklyn", "partially in Park Slope", and "in an low-density brownstone neighborhood", but all of these give a very different picture of the impact the 19-building, mostly-skyscraper project would make. I live two blocks from where the skyscrapers would begin, and if this is Downtown Brooklyn, why is it a mile to the nearest Citibank?

The Times finally conceded, after being hounded by excellent blogger Norman Oder, that the project is better called "in Prospect Heights and on a block in Park Slope":
Because of an editing error, an article in The Arts on Tuesday about Frank Gehry's design for the first phase of the Grand Avenue development project in Los Angeles misstated the location of the proposed Atlantic Yards project that Mr. Gehry is designing in Brooklyn. (The error also appeared in sports articles on Feb. 9 and April 11, in the City section on Jan. 15 and in several articles in 2003, 2004 and 2005.) It is on rail yards and other land in Prospect Heights and on a block in Park Slope; it is not in Downtown Brooklyn, although it is near that neighborhood.
This kind of correction is not easy for the Times to make, especially when it involves admitting a mistake in too many articles for the Times to list.

In the same Observer bit is mention of an unrelated, classic Times correction:
In yesterday's issue, The New York Times did not report on riots in Milan and the subsequent murder of the lay religious reformer Erlembald. These events took place in 1075, the year given in the dateline under the nameplate on Page 1. The Times regrets both incidents. (March 11, 1975)


Thursday, October 05, 2006

Ansari in is space, but no one cares

Anousheh Ansari is not only the first female space tourist but the first blogging astronaut, and she has a fascinating account of adjusting to space, which is something some of us could well be doing themselves later in life, given the twin trajectories of life expectancy and global warming. Why is this not page one news?

There are some other important stories in the news. Russia and Georgia, which has many American military advisors, are heading dangerously close to war, which would be the first US-Russia proxy war since the fall of the Soviet Union. But isn't Ansari's experience the kind of thing everyone should be hearing about?


Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Fraught with... well, nothing

Can something be just "fraught", and not "fraught with ________"? Steven Lee Myers in the NY Times yesterday:
The arrest of the four Russian officers last week on espionage charges touched off a new round of furious accusations between the two countries, whose relations have been fraught for years.
American Heritage says "Marked by or causing distress; emotional" is acceptable, but gives the word's origin as the same Middle English ancestor of "freight".

Perhaps communications and signals could be just "fraught", meaning some version of "loaded", but Myers seems to mean fraught with tension, not with meaning or weight.


Rape, murder, torture, and other uncertainties

A month ago, Peter Boyer had a fascinating and unsettling piece in the New Yorker about the Duke lacrosse team rape scandal:

“The nature of the information kept changing, and was extraordinarily confusing,” [Duke president Richard H. Brodhead] recalls. “You don’t have a playbook in the drawer. And what made it hard was not only the scale of emergency—it was the combination of the extraordinarily inflammatory versions of the story with very high degrees of uncertainty.”


Brodhead reflected on all that had happened as we chatted in his office in July, and said that it brought to mind Shakespeare’s “Othello”—not for its obvious associations with interracial passions and violence but for its lesson on prejudgment. The scene at the beginning of the play, he said, was particularly instructive. Desdemona’s father hears about his daughter’s relationship with the Moor, and he sighs, “Belief of it oppresses me already.”

“He doesn’t say, ‘Oh, now I see what you’re getting at,’ ” Brodhead said. “He’s saying, ‘Now I realize that I always believed it’—‘Belief of it oppresses me already.’ It’s probably, to my mind, the greatest literary image of the action of prejudice—how a story is told to engage something in the mind that brings with it absolute certainty that derives from the nature of the stereotypes.”

The Duke case seems to be ending with some clarity, but there are so many high-profile cases in recent American history where we will probably never know what happened. Did Kobe Bryant really experience that sex as consensual? Was Lee Harvey Oswald killed to protect mob leaders or to protect Pentagon war promoters?

In rape cases, in particular, it seems that evidence is incredibly difficult to parse, especially through far-removed news reports. Few other crimes hinge so much on the understanding on the people involved, rather than more readily verifiable events.

In many public cases of he-said-she-said, like Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill or the Bush administration ignoring intelligence on al-Quaeda and Iraq, it's not hard to piece together a coherent picture of how events transpired because one side has such a clear incentive to lie. This is also generally taken to be true in rape cases, but there have been enough cases of false accusation to make this assumption dangerous.

It's interesting to see who buys the theory that the Sept. 11 2001 attacks were orchestrated by some portion of the US government. In my view, Occam's razor makes it clear that the canonical version of events--i.e., the planes that crashed were the planes we were told they were, the pilots weren't in on the plot, the hijackers really were al-Qaeda agents operating without instruction from the US government. Of course some details, such as if the White House looked the other way or willfully left the country vulnerable so as to draw an attack, are open questions. It's possible that one day Anita Hill will reveal her accusations to have been lies, just as it's possible that mice run the world as a giant computer, and that Jesus will come down from heaven and be angry that I (like he) never converted from Judaism. In the mean time, I agree with Richard Dawkins, paraphrased by Newsweek: he's agnostic about God [and I'm agnostic about 9/11 conspiracies] the same way he's agnostic about the existence of fairies.

But the fact that certain cold, hard facts can never be knowable is lost on some people, including Alan Dershowitz, whom no amount of facts will ever convince that there's something deeply wrong about the fact that our people violently seized Palestinian Arabs' farms and homes in 1947-49. In his NY Times review of Sebastian "Perfect Storm" Junger's new book A Death in Belmont, Dershowitz writes:

In an intriguing paragraph, Junger makes a disturbing claim about the genre of nonfiction that many have made about great fiction: "Maybe the truth isn't even the most interesting thing about some stories, I thought; maybe the most interesting thing about some stories is all the things that could be true. And maybe it's in the pursuit of those things that you understand the world in its deepest, most profound sense."I think he is wrong. Nonfiction must be about actual truth, not about how coincidences could lead to a deeper truth. Junger should understand this, especially since he has criticized James Frey's "new journalism." An important difference between fiction and nonfiction is that in novels and plays, Chekhov's dictum prevails: "If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on a wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off." There are no coincidences: a chest pain is followed by a heart attack; a phone call is always meaningful; the purchase of a life insurance policy is followed by a murder or suicide. In real life, on the other hand, most chest pains are caused by transient indigestion; phone calls tend to be from life insurance salesmen; the purchase of a policy is followed by years of good health; and rifles gather dust on walls.

Dershowitz's writings on Judaism and Israel would benefit from his taking Junger's words to heart. See his assertion in The Case for Israel that “Israel’s record on human rights is among the best in the world”, the cogent accusations from (also often unreliable) Norman Finkelstein that Dershowitz plagiarized parts of that book (see Finkelstein's summary of the case, and Dershowitz's evasive defense), an argument between Dershowitz and Israeli anti-torture activists where his memory doesn't seem as crystal clear as he claims, and his haphazard treatment of one ideological debate.

In a course on "narrative history", I once asked Simon Schama what problems occur in writing history as a story focused closely on people, rather than a series of corroborated facts stated dispassionately and conspicuously sourced. If all we know is that a group of soldiers went from point A to point B in two hours and encountered scattered fire, can we say for example that they "trudged on, going into the oncoming bullets, when they longed to go away from them"? If weather reports say that a particular day in history was rainy, can we work rain into the day's events at will, as some narrative historians do, when the rain might well have let up, or the report could have been wrong in the first place?

I got the impression that Schama had never carefully examined these questions. He didn't find the question interesting--I should say it seemed to me that he didn't find it interesting--and said simply that the rules of evidence are the same no matter what kind of history you are writing. Dershowitz would surely agree.

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Anonymous Anonymous on Thu Oct 05, 10:35:00 AM:
One thing that really bugged me about the Duke article was how Boyer kept referring to the lacrosse players as "boys." There was a letter in the most recent New Yorker about this, actually. None of the players are minors, right? This is like the opposite of those cases where a 10-year-old is tried as an adult--only here, someone is trying to portray adults as children. For what purpose, I'm not entirely sure.
Blogger Ben on Thu Oct 05, 10:54:00 AM:
That does seem weird now that you mention it. Though "men" or "guys" would also be awkward. Maybe it unconsciously reflects a paternal aspect of sports teams' relationship with their coach, administration, and alumni?

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Coliseum Books is closing (again)

I love Coliseum Books (on 42nd Street across from Bryant Park), and I'm sad--though perhaps not surprised--that it's closing shop.


Monday, October 02, 2006

Letter to the Boston Globe: Jacoby pretty dumb himself

To the editor of the Boston Globe,

Jeff Jacoby is right to decry that college students are ignorant of the basic facts of American history ("Dumbing down democracy", October 1). But he's wrong, as right-wing critics of universities so often are, to assume the culprit is that students are instead receiving "full exposure to every reigning value of political correctness". I attended Cambridge public schools for thirteen years and then majored in history at Columbia University. You can't find a more liberal education, but I was never lectured about any of the four bugaboos Jacoby names--"diversity", "secularism", "gay rights" or "global warming".

I can name all the presidents and constitutional amendments, and place all (well, most) of the world's coutries on a map, but that's thanks to Carol Siriani at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High, not the knowledgeable--but specialized--lecturers I had in college. That college doesn't do a good job of covering the basics is due to our nation's trend towards specialization in work and education, not due to the mythical indulgent leftist academics Jacoby likes to conjure. Right-wing culture warriors often seem to flounder when problems can't be neatly placed on a left-right axis.

We should push colleges to introduce survey courses that teach the basics of United States and world history. But in the meantime, Jacoby should pause and think about whether he could pass a test on history topics that are less traditionally taught, but equally important: the basic disagreement between W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington's philosophies; when and why the black rights and women's rights movements split; how the American labor movement has interacted with women's rights, black rights and immigrants' rights.

Oh, and by the way, Jacoby is wrong to say the Bill of Rights "expressly prohibits the establishment of a national religion". It states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion", which supporters of school prayer point out does not prevent states or localities from allowing or even demanding Christian prayer, and leaves open the chance that states or even the president could declare a national religion. Let's be glad that some students, though clearly not Jacoby, are specializing in Constitutional law.

Ben Wheeler
Brooklyn, NY


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