Monday, March 29, 2004

So long Jameer -  

So the little team that could finally loses (Nelson has his shot to tie and misses) and now (what with Xavier losing too) the NCAA is left to the big boys and I'm back to worrying that we've seen the last of Iverson in Philadelphia.

Oh well.

Saturday, March 27, 2004

On the evidence of experience -  

In reply to a longish piece by Sasha Issenberg in Philadelphia Magazine on the intellectual poverty of New York Times columnist David Brooks Patrick Belton offers his two cents at Oxblog. Patrick knows a lot more than I do about a whole suite of really interesting and important policy issues but in this case it seems obvious that he's fallen off the rails and interestingly its for much the same reasons that Issenberg criticizes Brooks.

Let's start with the Issenberg piece. After dealing with the specifics of many of the details that appear in several Brooks pieces (and showing them to be just incorrect) Issenberg comes to the crux of the matter...

"What I try to do is describe the character of places, and hopefully things will ring true to people," Brooks explained. "In most cases, I think the way I describe it does ring true, and in some places it doesn't ring true. If you were describing a person, you would try to grasp the essential character and in some way capture them in a few words. And if you do it as a joke, there's a pang of recognition."

By holding himself to a rings-true standard, Brooks acknowledges that all he does is present his readers with the familiar and ask them to recognize it.

Of course giving readers the familiar and then asking them to recognize it could equally well be broadly construed as reconstruing readers' prejudice and asking them to recognize it. I could fill this and several other weblogs discussing in great detail why this is bad, but let's just say for now that it is a.) not informative b.) caters to the worst rather than, possibly, the best of my sensibilities and c.) is demeaning with respect to the level of insight and understanding I might bring to reading Brooks' column (possibly the greatest offense, I am insightful damn it).

In his discussion of the same piece (it almost sounds from Patrick's comments like he was reading something other that I saw) Patrick makes the case that...

Brooks isn't necessarily purveying stereotypes to his buying audience when he seizes onto status details, Tom Wolfe-like, to summon up the distinction between a secular, educated, suburban (and gentrifying-urban) liberal America on the one hand and a godly, more traditional America on the other. This is distinction most readers and commentators would, based on their lived and reflected-upon experience of American social reality, place more evidentiary faith in than in particular demographic points of information about the moment's sales of No Ordinary Time on Amazon.com. As, I think, they should.

Nor is this to say that considered lived experience of social reality can't contain prejudices and biases which can and should be battered down by cannonades of evidence - only to say that something like Scottish enlightenment philosopher and epistemologist Thomas Reid's notion of common sense should also guide us in steering a path between the assumptions we live by and points of information which are adduced to challenge and demolish them.

This is deeply, deeply troubling on all sorts of levels. For brevity's sake I'll just pick two.

1. Of course Brooks doesn't necessaryily traffic in stereotypes by the act of latching onto status details (things like whether you buy your household appliances at Home Depot or at Resoration Hardware) to distinguish between social groups. He does, however, traffic in sterotypes, and this is the point Issenberg makes, if the status details are made up/wrong and chosen in such a way as to conform to readers preexisting ideas.

2. In the second paragraph cited above Patrick argues that we, all, should adapt opinions informed by experience as well as by the sort of common sense exemplified by Thomas Reid. I'm at a disadvantage here having read very little of Reid's work but I have spent some time working on how people make decisions (in an attempt to work out good ways to justify environmental protection policies) and working my way through some of the large body of work of folks like Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky (both psychologists although Kahneman received in the Nobel prize in Economics) on this topic. Criminally simplifying what Kahneman and Tversky showed is that human's ability to generalize from particular episode (and in the process do things like accurately evaluate risk) is just lousy. What this means for Patrick and for how Brooks writes his columns is that the individual experience is a really, really bad way to decide almost anything, whether mediated by common sense or not.

On balance I love Patrick's stuff but here... I can only think he's been addled by one of those famous Oxford fridays of debauchery.

Friday, March 26, 2004

Department of Impressive Scientists - 1. Pierre-Gilles de Gennes 

In the course of trying to teach myself scaling theory to understand the physics of polymer brushes (roughly theory that semi-quantitatively captures how polymer macroscopic properties change with changes in solution and/or microscopic polymer properties) I've started working my way through a small fraction of the large output of the French Noble Prize winner Pierre-Gilles de Gennes. Clearly you shouldn't have to give a Noble Prize winner public acclaim (I mean in that sense what can I give that the guy doesn't have already) but I'm going to do so anyways.

Often I read articles like this one from the Boston Globe (which called de Gennes "the Isaac Newton of our time") and I think ehhh. I mean no one would suggest that Nobleists are full of it exactly, but there's a fair amount of distance between doing even really great, pheonomenally important science and Newton. The line I'm trying to draw here is this: Newton's work was remarkable both for its intellectual import but also, and perhaps more remarkably, for its almost self-evidently right quality. Reading Newton you get the sense that not only is this obviously how the world works, I would never have seen it. de Gennes has exactly this kind of talent. A talent for simplifying and universalizing: for seeing how all science really is (to paraphrase Kelvin) either physics or accounting. His is the sort of talent that all scientists think they have when they start out. Wow.

It's not too late to get on board the Jesuit bandwagon. 

It looks as if this, this, this, this may be the year that Geoffrey's 'system' for picking the Final Four (Jesuit schools advance unless playing teams he's seen more than once during the season) may finally pay off as the little school that could, St Joseph's University from suburban Philadelphia is still standing. I hope they continue and allow me to watch/read about college basketball for one more week without thinking I need a bath.

Thursday, March 25, 2004

Oh the tangled web we weave when we first practice to deceive... 

In the grand tradition of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction "It was a dark and stormy night..." Contest, the BBC yesterday started an exercise in fiction writing by committee (each sentence contributed by a different individual) with the only requirement being that all sentences need be cliches. The results are great, exactly what a veteran of the Bulwer-Lytton contest might have expected (BBC link via Patrick Belton and Oxblog).

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Some Insights from the Tatoo Parlor... 

S. K. Williams "Open Letter to the Customers at the Tatoo Parlor Where I Work" sums up a lot of complicated feelings I've had on tatoos for a while. I mean, if you (a woman) are going to get a uterus tatooed on your lower belly wouldn't you at least want to make sure it was, basically, anatomically correct?

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

On Being an Old Fuddy Duddy (part 1): 

I'm 29 and have spent the lion's share of my adult life in academia (which is to say surrounded, mostly, by men and women in the 18-22 demographic). When I was an undergraduate (cast your mind back to 1992-1996) the dominant women's aesthetic was crunchy: flannel, shorts, minimal make up, everyone had a Nalgene water bottle. I've got fond memories of this sort of vibe but for the last couple of years on campus the trend seems to be almost the opposite: young women bedecked in tight tank tops, midriffs bare even in winter and shorts which a friend of mine once described as vertically challenged (which is to say wider than they are long). The logical extension of all of this is the Girls Gone Wild video series in which, I presume, otherwise really average college age women engage in all kinds of debauchery (make out sessions, masturbation...) in front of video cameras in exchange for hats and t-shirts. One of the interesting things about what I see on campus, and what the GGW videos sell from the internet portal, is that its all symptomatic of a gradual movement to do all the sorts of things feminists used to decry as derogatory toward women in the name of enpowerment. This theme and an interesting description of a night out with the GGW crew in South Beach Miami can be found, courtesy of Ariel Levy, in Slate, here.

Sunday, March 07, 2004

Getting Energy from Waste Water - 

Bruce Logan, a professor of Civil Engineering at Penn St, has generated a lot of media hubaloo recently with a pilot version, produced with Hong Liu and Ramanathan Ramnarayanan, of a microbial fuel cell (article is here, it will require a subscription to Environmental Science and Technology). The basic idea is to run waste water through a closed fuel cell containing a consortium of microorganisms. Faced with the abundant source of organic carbon these organisms find themselves in metabolic heaven, oxidizing carbon like crazy. The key point is that the geometry of the fuel cell allows the bugs to dump the electrons from the carbon compounds onto conducting rods and to have this flow of energy removed from the cell where it can either be stored (in some other sort of battery) or immediately used to do useful work.

This is a really nice experiment. It is, however, worth noting its limitations. Basically the idea behind the work is to harvest some of the wasted energy from sewage. However, it still takes energy to produce all the things that go into sewage. Which is to say it takes energy to produce the food we eat, to heat and cool the houses we live in and to create the clothing we wear. Some of this fuel is used (e.g. as heat to keep us warm in the winter) other parts of it (e.g. food that is incompletely digested) is not. This system can, at best, just make up some small portion of this cost. It doesn't even have the potential to remove our fossil fuel dependence.

Saturday, March 06, 2004

Introducing Democracy into the Middle East and why its so difficult - 

The sociocultural problems in Saudi Arabia have been well documented (by Robert Baer among others): a dissolute and corrupt royal family that is bleeding the country dry, no willingness to allow for any meaningful social criticism and rights for any of a large number of minorities. Less clear in much of this work, but really nicely highlighted in Elizbeth Rubin's piece in the current issue of the New York Times Magazine, is just why reform is so difficult.

Rubin argues that the modern state of Saudi Arabia was founded on a sort of devil's agreement betweent he House of Saud and the Wahhabi clerics...

The Saud dynasty and the Wahhabi clerics mutually reinforce each other's authority. It's been that way since the 18th century, when Muhammad Ibn Saud, a tribal ruler in the untamed deserts of central Arabia, struck a bargain with Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, a puritanical religious reformer. They would purge Islam of the idol worshiping that had slipped into Bedouin religious practices, unify the competing tribes and conquer the Arabian peninsula. The Sauds lost and regained power over the centuries, but that religious-political covenant has endured and is the source of today's Saudi system. The royal family rules over politics, security and the economy. The clerics hold sway over things social and cultural while preaching loyalty to the ruler as one of the highest duties of the good Muslim.

So substantive reform, then, requires a sort of rewiring of the basis of the state: inventing a new state justification, and somehow managing to substitute it for the old, on the fly. Once you start to think about how truly difficult this is, the rest of the article, largely focussed on the reform efforts of the jounrnalist/activit Mansour Al-Nogaidan seem all to predictable.

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