Friday, September 11, 2009

9 11 2009

Returning from dinner this evening, I turned the corner of my building right into a small flock of middle school girls. They halted and gasped mid-sentence, staring into the sky "It's the..." said one. "The 9/11 lights," another finished.

tower of light

A few minutes later I found myself in line behind one of them at the corner convenience store. She bought a cigarette lighter. Still later the flock reappeared directly in front of me. One girl said loudly to the others, "don't tell my mom about lighting this fire thing because she'd -" But the speaker was cut off by another girl: "Shhh! don't talk about fire so loud today. It's 9/11!"


I wonder just what today means to them. How old were they when the towers -- which once stood about three blocks from where I encountered the girls -- came down? 6 years old? 4? They've lived the majority of their lives in a post-9/11 world. Can it mean anything like the same thing to them?

world trade center

This is my fourth September 11th living in this neighborhood, in the imaginary shadow of the towers. I wasn't here when it happened, but even I can feel the atmosphere around Ground Zero, every year. It's getting easier. Slowly.


(photos are my own)

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

relationship jujitsu

I highly recommend this great little piece by Laura Munson in the NYT:

Those Aren’t Fighting Words, Dear

“I don’t love you anymore. I’m not sure I ever did.”

His words came at me like a speeding fist, like a sucker punch, yet somehow in that moment I was able to duck. And once I recovered and composed myself, I managed to say, “I don’t buy it.” Because I didn’t.

Her story is an excellent reminder of how tempting it is to always see everything as being about us, as our own fault - and how difficult yet powerful it can be to break out of that pattern. This isn't fuzzy self-help stuff; this is solid practical psychology.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

birdsday on a duck island

Conservative MP Sir Peter Viggers was forced to declare his retirement after attempting to claim £1,645 in taxpayer-funded expenses for a "duck island" in his garden.

Just what is a duck island?

Hytesbury Bird Pavilions

Now you know.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

two is not enough

President Obama's nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court will accomplish at least one thing: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg will no longer feel quite so lonely.

Obama would clearly have been in some trouble had he not nominated a woman for the seat. Here's my question: will there be repercussions if he picks a man for the next vacancy? (Assume here that the next vacancy is not Ginsburg; obviously her replacement must be a woman.) When John Paul Stevens - who joined the Court when Sotomayor and Chief Justice John Roberts were in college - finally retires, will Obama be expected to name a third woman to the Court? And after that - a fourth?

Given that women comprise 51% of the national population, a representation rate of 2/9 is still quite miserable. And 3/9 won't be good enough. I'm not saying that the percentage of women on the Court must precisely mirror national demographics. But the figures also shouldn't demonstrate a blatant and dramatic bias - which they will until women hold more than a third of the seats.

But at what point do people start saying "so many women in a row! Give men a chance!"?

This is a real problem with historically entrenched discrimination. Any systematic attempt to correct it inevitably looks like a new form of ("reverse") discrimination. Does Obama have the political fortitude for that?

Sunday, April 19, 2009

torture memos, Eichmann, and irrevocable irresolution

eichmannThe Bush administration “torture memos” released last week contain the following gem of bureaucratized sadism. It’s lengthy, but definitely worth your time to read. Asked to advise the CIA on the legality of various techniques to acquire “cooperation” from captured Al Qaeda leader Abu Zubaydah, Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee wrote:

In addition to using the confinement boxes alone, you also would like to introduce an insect into one of the boxes with Zubaydah. As we understand it, you plan to inform Zubaydah that you are going to place a stinging insect into the box, but you will actually place a harmless insect in the box, such as a caterpillar. If you do so, to ensure that you are outside the predicate act requirement, you must inform him that the insects will not have a sting that would produce death or severe pain. If, however, you were to place the insect in the box without informing him that you are doing so, then, in order to not commit a predicate act, you should not affirmatively lead him to believe that any insect is present which has a sting that could produce severe pain or suffering or even cause his death. [two lines redacted here] so long as you take either of the approaches we have described, the insect's placement in the box would not constitute a threat of severe physical pain or suffering to a reasonable person in his position. An individual placed in a box, even an individual with a fear of insects, would not reasonably feel threatened with severe physical pain or suffering if a caterpillar was placed in the box. Further, you have informed us that you are not aware that Zubaydah has any allergies to insects, and you have not informed us of any other factors that would cause a reasonable person in that same situation to believe that an unknown insect would cause him severe physical pain or death. Thus, we conclude that the placement of the insect in the confinement box with Zubaydah would not constitute a predicate act.

Translation: you know that Zubaydah has a phobia about insects. It’s okay to lock him into a small, dark box and toss in an insect to crawl all over him, provided that it isn’t actually a dangerous insect, and you don’t explicitly tell him that its sting causes “death or severe pain”. This is okay because a “reasonable person” would not react too badly if his torturers locked him in a trunk with a non-lethal stinging insect.

Such is the Kafkaesque legacy of the Bush administration. This week the Obama administration willingly donned a bit of the old Bush garb, as the new president promised to shield from prosecution CIA officers who engaged in torture. In his prepared statement, Obama said:

In releasing these memos, it is our intention to assure those who carried out their duties relying in good faith upon legal advice from the Department of Justice that they will not be subject to prosecution. … We must protect their identities as vigilantly as they protect our security, and we must provide them with the confidence that they can do their jobs.

The idea, in part, is that the CIA torturers, people who work in very dangerous circumstances and whose ability to follow orders is crucial to national security, should not be punished for having done what they were told was their job. This is the point of a chain-of-command: the people at the top make policy, and the people further down carry it out. If CIA officers were to engage in constant second-guessing of policy, America’s intelligence capabilities would be drastically hindered, perhaps resulting in terrible things. So, while we might hold accountable those who created the torture policy, we should leave alone those who carried it out.

To keep track of things, call this the Good Faith Principle: government agents who act in good faith – who conform to a policy they’ve been told is legal – should not be punished if the policy is later found to be illegal or immoral. I endorse the Good Faith Principle, for the reasons given in the last paragraph.

But, of course, there are obvious counterexamples. Most infamously, perhaps, there is Adolf Eichmann, the senior Nazi bureaucrat who knowingly kept the deportation trains running on time to the concentration camps. Before being sentenced to death in Jerusalem years later, Eichmann insisted that he ought not be punished, for he had merely been “following orders”. Nearly everyone agrees that this is just not good enough; even though Eichmann did not set Holocaust policy, he executed it. He did something absolutely terrible, and he deserved punishment for it.

Call this one the Eichmann Principle: government agents who do bad things should not be later excused from punishment on the grounds that they were “just following orders”. I endorse the Eichmann Principle.

Clearly, the Good Faith Principle and the Eichmann Principle are in tension. One says that government agents may not be held culpable for following orders, while the other says precisely the opposite. And, as I’ve indicated, I endorse both principles. Am I being inconsistent?

At this point the dominant methodology of (analytic) moral philosophy says we should try to formulate some new principle, a middle point that captures the concerns animating each of the previous principles. It will presumably be very complicated, drawing a fine distinction about what sort of conduct may be excused on grounds of good faith, or just how bad an act must be before triggering Eichmann-style responses. I don’t think we should try to formulate any such compromise principle. I don’t believe there is any way to antecedently circumscribe some region of the dense, tangled moral terrain confronted by policy makers and their agents. The problem is one of irrevocable irresolution: there are good reasons behind each opposed principle, and no formulaic way to accommodate both simultaneously.

This much must be clear: there is a line, somewhere between producing one’s own version of “Fear Factor” with entomophobic mujahideen and facilitating the mass slaughter of an ethnic group. Government agents who cross that line, even in good faith, are liable to later punishment. Where is that line? I don’t know. Neither do you, Barack Obama, or various anonymous CIA torturers at black sites around the globe. This is why real-world ethics (not the sterilized academic version) is so difficult: we cannot map unexplored moral continents before we’ve set foot on their shores.

(image: NY Times / Israeli Government Press Office)

Sunday, April 12, 2009

the evo-psych of not being Larry Summers

I’ve just finished reading Robin Dunbar’s 1996 book, Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language. Dunbar is an Oxford anthropologist and evolutionary biologist, most well known for the ‘Dunbar number’: the hypothesis that the ratio of human neocortex to overall brain size predicts (successfully, it seems) stable human social groups of around 150 individuals. Although the book bears a Harvard University Press imprint, it reads at times like popular science, a bit scanty on citations and too-quick with some important arguments. Nevertheless, it’s quite fascinating to read; Dunbar attempts to explain human language (and high-level cognition) as an evolutionary solution to the problem of social friction in a species whose group size has outgrown the practical limits of bonding behavior in other primates (e.g. reciprocal grooming).

I want to riff on a few different points in the book, starting in this post with a point about gender differences in the use of language, and its relation to the status of women in intellectual professions. In chapter 9, Dunbar describes research conducted with colleagues, from which they conclude that “conversations often function as a kind of vocal lek. Leks are display areas where males gather to advertise their qualities as potential mates to the females.” (176) This idea is based upon data gathered from studies of actual human conversations. In one-on-one male/female dyadic conversations, men and women talk for more or less equal periods of time. However, in conversational groups of any larger size, men tend to dominate air time. This is true even when one particular man and one particular woman break off to form a dyadic sub-conversation on the periphery of the main group; the man will tend to speak much more than he would were the pair isolated.

Dunbar and his colleagues think that the lek hypothesis can explain this difference between male/female conversational behavior in dyads and in larger groups. In lek species, males engage in competitive displays to persuade observant females of their reproductive superiority. The females are welcome to sit back and merely observe; indeed, they must do so if they want to pay attention and accurately size up the males. Dunbar and colleagues hypothesize that a similar thing happens in human conversational groups; the men (unwittingly, most of the time) are driven to speak up, to out-compete one another for the attention of the women. Such competition is unnecessary when there are no other men around, hence in isolated dyads men and women share speaking time more evenly.

One more bit of data ties this into the status of women in intellectual professions. Dunbar and colleagues analyzed not only the total quantity of speaking time, but the frequency of particular conversational content. In general, all humans of any gender tend to talk mostly about social matters; about 65% of their talk-time centers around ‘who-is-doing-what-with-whom’. (That’s one bit of critical data behind Dunbar’s central hypothesis that language evolved primarily to facilitate gossip.) Dunbar observes that in single-gender conversational groups, certain relatively intellectual topics like “work and academic matters or religion and ethics” take up only 0-5% of total conversational time. However, in mixed-gender conversational groups, the proportion of male talk-time devoted to these topics rises significantly, with much less increase in corresponding female patterns.

Dunbar offers a somewhat sketchy evolutionary hypothesis to explain that last bit. In mixed-gender groups, discussion of relatively intellectual topics increases among men because they are a way of advertising intelligence, a type of reproductive advantage. Women have no need to advertise (they are the ones who get to be choosy about mates) and so no need to out-compete each other (or men) in conversational prowess. Hence, women are less likely to increase their conversational attention to abstract subjects. (It’s important to note that all of the underlying data comes from observation of casual conversations – like those in the lunch room or hallway – not from formal contexts as in the seminar or board room, where participants gather with a specific purpose in mind.) Following on all of this, Dunbar concludes the section with the following remarks, whose relevance to his preceding points about gender difference is left unclear:

In the intellectual world of the university, demonstrating your intellectual skills by showing off your knowledge of Kant or the Romantic poets, or by being able to explain yesterday’s lecture on the second law of thermodynamics, may be quite acceptable hallmarks of competence and status. They mark you out as a cut above the rest, the obvious choice in the mating stakes. In that kind of environment, intellectual prowess is as appropriate a criterion of future status or earning power as being the best card player in a bridge club or the best musician in a music club. Knowledge, as it is so often said, is power. (177)

Given all the attention he’s just paid to the relative preponderance of intellectual topics in male conversation, and their role as a competitive advertising mechanism, is Dunbar here attempting to explain the greater success of men in intellectual, academic fields? He doesn’t say – presumably he’s smart enough not to explicitly stick his leg into that political bear trap. But it certainly sounds as if he’s suggesting as much.

Now, here’s the thing. I think we can react to this with the sort of bristly outrage that usually greets evo-psych-fueled gender difference research in feminist circles. The research is reductivist and essentializing; it provides ammunition to those who would naturalize (and implicitly justify) oppressive stereotypes. Et cetera. But I don’t think that’s the correct reaction. I actually think this sort of research should be welcomed by feminists, provided that it rests on solid methodological grounds (about which I won’t judge here).

Notice that nothing in Dunbar’s story implies or entails that men are actually better at intellectual pursuits than are women. The account just explains why men are more prone to talk about them even in informal contexts, and why men are more prone to dominate conversations regardless of topic. So it is entirely consistent with the Dunbar story that we might insist there is no (presently relevant) evidence for suspecting latent intellectual superiority in males. Instead, the account offers us two different tools for correcting gender imbalance in the intellectual professions.

First, the account provides a potential debunking explanation for gender imbalance. We needn’t invoke (as Larry Summers once did) a natural superiority among men in certain intellectual areas. Rather, we need merely presume certain sociological facts about the intellectual professions, and add these to what Dunbar and colleagues tell us. Who is most likely to get ahead? Those who speak up in front of the professional power-brokers. Who is most likely to speak up? Men. Does tendency to speak up have anything necessarily to do with actual competence? No. So we may very well understand the relative success of men in intellectual fields as an incidental consequence of behaviors that are simply arbitrary as to ability.

I would go one step even further. If Dunbar et al. are right, then all of us – men and women alike – are hardwired to expect differential linguistic behaviors between genders. We expect men to be more dominating and intellectual (even in casual conversation), and we expect women to be more quiet, or attentive only to gossipy matters. We’re generally not aware of having these expectations, still less of why we have them. But have them we do – and as with all expectations, we are unnerved when they are not met. We are biologically conditioned to react appreciatively to dominating, intellectual discursive behavior from men, and to react with at least some measure of confusion to the same from women. Hence, in addition to the success-generating basic tendencies mentioned in the last paragraph, we see another explanatory factor for relative male domination of intellectual fields: we are disposed to reward intellectual success-seeking men, and to punish similar women. Indeed, this might explain why, until very recently, nearly every human culture excluded women from political and other intellectual discussion, on grounds of propriety.

Building upon these explanatory stories, Dunbar’s account offers us a practical tool for remediating gender imbalance. Consider your academic department ‘s or workplace’s resident alpha male blowhard. He seizes control of every conversation. He clearly experiences intellectual discourse as a form of combat. Merely pointing out to him that his behavior edges out other conversational participants probably has zero effect. He cannot understand why they don’t just talk more, if they want to!

But imagine now another strategy. Show him Dunbar’s research. Explain to him that his behavior is at least partly explicable as the bidding of his lek-frenzied ape brain. Ask: does he want to be the sort of creature whose manner of participation in an abstract, rarified environment conforms better to that of a horny chimpanzee? He is a conscious, reflective being; if he wants to, he can modify the output of his evolutionary programming through a regime of attentive habituation. And with this new insight, he might also try to correct inferences he makes about the competence of others based upon their inability or unwillingness to act just like him. Is such an argument likely to work on most blowhards? No - people’s self-concepts are extremely resilient. But getting the story out might have appreciable effects upon more moderate men, and more generally on everyone in authority, whose assessments of individuals’ conversational practices matters to their advancement in the profession.

If nothing else, here’s a take-away point. Evolutionary psychology, even gender-difference evolutionary psychology, needn’t always be a vehicle for unreflective stereotype reification. We – our brains, our behaviors, or social institutions - are products of naturally selective forces. Some of the outcomes of these evolutionary processes worked perfectly well for our primate forebears, but they have come out of sync with modern, reflective, socially-conscious humans. Evolutionary psychology can sometimes allow us to trace (speculatively, at least) the causal origins of these undesirable behaviors, and so might sometimes point us to the causal-psychological joints where they may be most efficiently dismantled.

image (c) Charles Burns at

Thursday, April 9, 2009

chirp chirp chirp

After a hiatus, birdsday returns, audibly.

Take a look at You can listen to peaceful chitters and chirps whenever you want!

Powered by Birdsong Radio

Friday, March 27, 2009

Freedom's never free. It's $3.1 billion.

Freedom TowerThe new World Trade Center got its first commercial tenant today: Beijing Vantone, a Chinese foreign trade group, agreed to lease 5 floors of the flagship tower, whose skeleton is only now beginning to protrude above street level. Interestingly – as pointed out this morning on WNYC, the local NPR affiliate – the contract refers to the building as “1 World Trade Center”, and not as the “Freedom Tower”. (See an NY Times article cryptically referring to it as “once called the Freedom Tower”. And, released even while I’ve been writing, here is confirmation of the official name change. )

Evidently there’s been some decision to let the “Freedom Tower” name gradually dissipate. I have mixed views about this change.

It would seem to be a good thing. The name was always a bit embarrassing, appearing to merely recapitulate America’s disturbingly possessive attitude toward the concept (if not the practice) of freedom. Wasn’t it enough that the building’s forcedly symbolic height was already a 1,776 foot long stick in the eye of America’s enemies? (Incidentally, is preservation of this purported symbolic measure going to end up another argument against converting to the metric system?)

Worse yet, the name carried certain vague yet unmistakable links to the Bush administration’s ideology of promiscuously vengeful victimhood. Why did the terrorists attack us? Because they hate our freedom! You know who else hated freedom? Saddam Hussein! Alongside the eyes-wide-shut moral permissiveness endowed on American policy by that slippery sentiment, the semiotic presence of undefeated ‘Freedom’ at Ground Zero doubtlessly also helped salve wounded national pride. Comforting and perhaps understandable in the attack’s aftermath, the whole thing is a bit awkward eight years, two wars, and one Abu Ghraib later.

And, for goodness sake, this is commercial real estate. Hey, I think that capitalism is the least-bad socio-economic system ever invented by our species. But even I wonder if the ‘Freedom’ logo is a bit tarnished attached so prominently to a shiny robber baron encampment. (Not to mention that the artist’s conception depicts an enormous jagged blue phallus rudely erupting from graceful lower Manhattan.)

Now, to be fair, there’s nothing new about embarrassingly sentimental public nomenclature. Indeed, Liberty Street, which lines the southern boundary of the Trade Center site, was known as King Street until, in a fit of fraternal regicidal pride, New Yorkers celebrated the French Revolution. But haven’t we as a society moved beyond unselfaware triumphalist civic dubbing?

Yet. A part of me – presumably the same part that secretly enjoys Disney World – wonders if maybe the old name was a good name. Us postmoderns are all so ironic, detached, sensitive and self-conscious. We’re bred to greet heart-on-sleeve expressiveness with nary but an awkward cringe-snicker. Couldn’t it be healthy, just sometimes, to indulge in a bit of old timey earnest na├»ve glorious romanticism? The Freedom Tower, for all its sleek lines and energy-efficient ventilation, might have borne a name, a mere name, radiating fuzzy proud American can-do-ism, the spirit of our grandparents’ generation, out over the Hudson River and into the jaded fallow countryside beyond.

No? Well, dear friends and countrymen, we’ll always have One World Trade.

image from Wikipedia

Monday, February 23, 2009

fidel tells it like it is

You may not know that, in addition to being the semi-retired dictator of the Cuban workers' paradise, Fidel Castro is also a newspaper columnist! He writes regularly for Granma, the totalitarian state's major print news organ. Recent topics include "media terrorism" and the fact that he, Fidel, has outlasted 10 American presidents. In his February 9 column (drawn to my attention by this fun New Yorker piece which in turn comes to me from An), Fidel offers some cogent reflections on Rahm Emanuel, Barack Obama's White House Chief of Staff. His writing here has an addled stream-of-consciousness flavor to it - James Joyce with head trauma and a 50-year-old axe to grind. You could read the whole thing here if you'd like, but I've summarized it below, so that one might more easily appreciate the fine structure of El Comandante's thoughts. Each bullet point represents the thesis of one paragraph, in order, from Fidel's column.

Rahm Emanuel
by Fidel Castro

-Rahm Emanuel has a funny name!

-Immanuel Kant was a German philosopher, but he spelled his name with an 'I'.

-The Cuban ambassador to Venezuela wrote a book called The Transparency of Enmanuel.

-That Enmanuel is the son of Clara Rojas Gonzalez, who unsuccessfully ran for president of Colombia before being kidnapped by the FARC.

-He was born in the jungle during Rojas Gonzelez's captivity.

-She stayed there out of solidarity with Ingrid Betancourt for six years.

-I also spent time in prison after trying to seize control of a fortress in 1953.

-After the revolution, I sometimes thought about Kant.

-I took over Cuba before Obama and Rahm Emanuel were even born!

-Rahm Emanuel served in the Israeli military during the first Gulf War.

-America sells lots of weapons to countries in the Middle East.

-American racists would like to assassinate Barack Obama.

-Obama and Rahm Emanuel cannot fix the US economy.

-Even Kant, Plato, Aristotle and John Kenneth Galbraith could not fix the American economy. But maybe Abraham Lincoln could.

-Capitalism is bad.

The End

Thursday, February 12, 2009

birdsday gets counting

This weekend is the Great Backyard Bird Hunt. Count birds in your own backyard (or, for New Yorkers, the alley visible from your apartment window) from February 12-16, and submit your results here.

animated bird count

image from

Thursday, February 5, 2009

birdsday chocolatey goodness

For birdsday today we bring you glad tidings of chocolate penguins. Or one chocolate penguin, as presented (and given to me) by An Xiao. Penguins are birds after all!

chocolate penguin

Important facts about penguins:
In their avian form, penguins smell very bad.
In their chocolate form, penguins taste very good.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

a birdsday bridge to the future

Baby peregrine falcons on the Throgs Neck Bridge. See NY Times story here.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

ofessionalpray ournalismjay

A light article in the NYT includes an unexpected word.

THE earth held firm in its orbit. The continents did not founder. Martial law was not imposed. This, despite the fact that the “21” Club has loosened its tie for the first time since it opened at 21 West 52d Street 79 years ago.
Actually, “21” instituted the policy “after Labor Day, a soft opening if you will,” said Bryan McGuire, the manager for the last, yes, 21 years. “We wanted to be on a more level playing field with our competitors,” he said, adding, “We didn’t think it was that big a deal.” Especially since, during lunch, the tie policy was ixnayed in 1996, he said.

Goodness - the Grey Lady is using pig latin! Perhaps it helps capture the tone of the story, the ebbing of rigid expectations amidst economic spiral. But, still, definitely a surprise.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Bidengaffe Watch, Day One

Days in office: 1
Joe Biden gaffes: 1

Watch Obama's face, then his right arm. "No, Joe, none of that. We have work to do!"

Introducing Birdsday

Surely you know about Caturday (although some sects honor the holiday a day later).

Cats are wonderful in all sorts of ways, but what about birds? Birds deserve a day of blogospheric adoration too! So begins a new weekly feature - Birdsday.

This week I'll start to gently ween you from cats. But next week - birds alone!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

the world revolves around you

I've been thinking about geocentric cosmology today.

geocentric universeNowadays we all know that the Ptolemaic/Aristotelian model of the universe is silly. The earth (and the other planets) go around the sun. Copernicus was so awesome not because he discovered something truly profound, but because he (and Brahe and Galileo) provided the arguments and data that eventually forced a bunch of stupid reactionary authorities to stop setting fire to astronomers and to start acknowledging really obvious facts. What kind of moron would put the dinky little earth at the center of the universe?

But pretend you've never been taught anything about astronomy. Go outside and look at the moon and the sun and the stars for a couple days. Go ahead - I'll wait.

Okay, notice anything? The sun and the moon and the stars move. They move, and the earth doesn't move. You can tell it's not moving, because very rarely you do feel the earth move, especially in southern California. But most of the time you don't feel any earth movement. So all those things up in the sky move, and they somehow disappear over one horizon and then reappear over the other horizon later on.

Now, if you're really gullible and superstitious, you might think that the sun and whatnot do something magical, like teleporting back to where they started, or they die and are reborn every day. Or whatever. But, no, we're being scientific. So here's an experiment: get your friend to run around you in a circle while you keep your head still. Notice that she disappears at one side of your visual field but reappears at the other side... because... she's moving in an orbit while you observe from a stationary position! That's it - the sun and moon and stars go in a circle around the earth! This is scientific progress!

Hang on though, some friendless little nerd has an objection. Try a different experiment, he says: have your friend stay stationary, while you run around her in a circle. And while you are running, spin around, so that your back is sometimes toward your friend and your front is sometimes toward your friend. Notice that your friend disappears on one side of your visual field, and reappears on the other. But you are moving, not your friend. Couldn't the earth's relation to the sun or moon be like that? Couldn't the earth be moving?

What a lame idea! Why would I want to spin while running around my friend? I'd trip and hurt myself! And why would the earth - which certainly doesn't feel like it's spinning to me! - do something so stupid? This is a needlessly complicated theory, when good old common sense tells us that the earth is holding still. This idea is obviously the sort of babble you get from crazy people, or troublemakers.

Galileo before the holy office
Galileo before the Holy Office, Joseph-Nicolas Robert-Fleury (via wikicommons)

Here's my point: geocentric cosmology was not an obviously false and stupid dogmatic position. It was, in fact, a scientific improvement upon earlier theories of planetary motion. And it was incredibly satisfying on an intuitive level. Copernicus and his friends were only able to overturn the view by providing a tight explanatory framework, and an increasingly demanding amount of data that finally overwhelmed extant accounts. Geocentric cosmology is the simplest explanatory theory when you're idly watching the stars one night, but it stops being simplest when you look at hundreds of nights' observations of all the celestial bodies. Which is to say - heliocentric theory is the best theory, but not at an intuitive level.

Except it certainly feels intuitive to us now. Of course the earth goes round the sun! But it only feels this way because we were raised on colorful planetarium displays. We were taught a heliocentric cosmology before we were able to develop an independent intuitive sense of the universe. That's why it now seems so obvious that Copernicus was right and the prevailing authorities were idiots. But they did not have the benefit of building a diorama of the solar system in elementary school.

So I wonder, now, which contemporary ridiculous and counter-intuitive views will be utterly obvious in the future. For what lapse of scientific common sense will our distant ancestors mock us? And who among our lunatic fringe will someday be a hero of rational progress? Just how much will we come to resemble the Inquisition berating Galileo? We are, after all, still plenty arrogant, even if we're no longer the center of the universe.

top image: Min Su Yun

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

urban renewal, the detroit way

News from my hometown:

Man says city of Detroit razed his fixer-upper


DETROIT (AP) — There are thousands of buildings that should be demolished in Detroit. Eric Roslonski says his house wasn't one of them.

Roslonski filed a lawsuit against the city Monday, more than two years after a house he was restoring suddenly was destroyed.

He said he put more than $30,000 into the property on the east side of Detroit after buying it for $7,000. One day in summer 2006, he couldn't find 13405 Flanders.

"I drove up and down the street three times — where is my house?" Roslonski said.

His lawyer, Jeffrey Dworin, said the house was taken off a demolition list, then apparently reinstated without Roslonski's knowledge.

"It happens," Dworin said.

A message seeking comment was left with the city's law department, which was closed for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday Monday.

Roslonski is suing Detroit for his losses under a federal civil rights law. He fixed another house on the same street and sold it for $85,000.

"I see all these boarded-up and burned-out houses. I'm trying to make the city a better place," he said.

Abandoned homes in Detroit are sad either way. They look miserable, of course, but their destruction (usually to be replaced by nothing at all) entails the irrevocable extermination of pieces of civic and domestic history. This case - a foiled attempt to salvage, not destroy - is especially sad.

Monday, January 19, 2009

nonsense sells?

I try to apply interpretive charity to just about everything, but I'm having a hard time with this ad: (hat tip - angry asian man)

Here's what seems to be happening: In each of the mirror panes, there is a different 'version' of the white customer - a black man (on the left), a Latino man (in the center) and an asian - evidently Filipino - man (on the right). Each of the reflections match up with the customer, except the last, who is inexplicably holding a bag of Skittles. This prompts a query from the customer and a shout (in Thai) from the tailor, provoking a bizarre exchange with the Tagalog-speaking reflection. Eventually the Filipino version of the customer kicks the mirror, shattering himself, and the tailor finds this funny.

So far as I can tell, that is what happens. But what on earth is going on? What is the ad's metaphysical conceit? Is the mirror a gateway to a series of alternate universes, each featuring a racial counterpart to the reflected subject? Why is the tailor's race consistent in each universe? (And why is he Thai?) Or is this is a weird sci-fi thing; are the reflections employees of the tailor, mimicking the customer before closed circuit cameras projecting to a series of screens? Does that explain why the tailor appears to be berating the Skittles-eater?

I doubt there is any correct answer to those questions, and I suspect this is part of the ad's strategy. The commercial is so strange that many viewers will attempt to puzzle out what they have just seen - to engage in interpretation - and will probably seize upon the plot-turning Skittles bag. (Notice that the only line of English dialogue explicitly references the product.) Which makes for a very natural question: what does Skittles have to do with what is going on here? The answer - a conceptual connection between the multiracial theme and Skittles' "Taste the Rainbow" tag line - isn't particularly satisfying (it certainly doesn't explain anything about the plot). But it does require the viewer to think about Skittles.

the absurd and the advert

Dave Munger at Cognitive Daily recently discussed a study regarding the relation between humor and memorability in advertisement. Viewers often remember funny ads, but do they remember the products advertised? The study's upshot seems to be that humorous commercials do work best when the product is directly relevant to the joke, but only if the brand is not previously associated with levity, and only if the audience is not high in "need for humor". Munger poses an interesting challenge:

Of course, this opens a paradox for advertisers. Clearly humor works best when it's unexpected and related to the product. But if an brand develops a reputation for producing humorous ads, whether it's Bud Light or Mutual of Omaha, won't viewers eventually begin to expect humor regardless of how serious the company's line of business?

Does the Skittles ad avoid such pitfalls? The commercial is not merely funny; it is bizarre. In order to (probably unsuccessfully) attempt comprehension of the message, a viewer must actively engage with the product. Presumably that hikes memorability, and it might also counteract any prior expectations of humor associated with the brand. Nowadays, it's hard to know what to expect from a Skittles commercial.

The Skittles ads come from TBWA/Chiat/Day, an agency known for its offbeat work (including the famous 1984 Apple ad and the contemporary and increasingly irritating 'Get a Mac' campaign). Seth Stevenson at Slate's Ad Report Card doesn't think highly of the Skittles ads (part of a sometimes creepy series), on the grounds that these days, "freaky-ass ads are a dime a dozen". But maybe that's because this thing works - people remember ads that just don't make sense, and they remember trying to figure out what the product has to do with the insanity.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

flight 1549 recovery photos

The plane is up! And on a barge bound for New Jersey.

These photos are nowhere near as good as my shots from the day of the crash, because (a) the police wouldn't allow us within 100 feet of the plane, (b) my camera doesn't do too well in low-light, and (c) I was shivering. But I thought some folks might still like to see how things look on the Hudson tonight.

crash recovery photo 1

crash recovery photo 2

crash recovery photo 3

crash recovery photo 4

crash recovery photo 5

Yeah, I know that the photos you've seen elsewhere are much better. The police allowed professionals (i.e. accredited news agency photographers) to get much closer. The really lucky ones rented rooms in the high-rise building overlooking the site, which is where those amazing aerial shots put up by the big news agencies come from. So much for citizen journalism, huh?

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Sully for Treas

Sully Sullenberger Do I have to be the first to say the obvious? Timothy Geithner should step aside, so that Obama may appoint heroic pilot Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger as the next Secretary of the Treasury. Sully will bring this economy to a safe landing on the Hudson and even do two walkthroughs to make sure we've all safely gotten out. And he will be the last one to leave before it sinks.

photo: AP via CBC.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Hudson river plane crash photos

This is normally a commentary blog, but today is a somewhat unique occasion. I managed to be on the Battery Park City pier to which US Airways flight 1549 was pushed, shortly after its incredible landing in the Hudson River.

Hudson River plane crash

More photos, in sequence as the plane drifted down the river toward, then past, me:

Hudson River plane crash

Hudson River plane crash

Hudson River plane crash

The tug boats barely managed to halt the plane's downriver drift before it would have struck the outthrust pier in the last image.

A moment after I took that last image, the NYPD made everyone leave the pier, very quickly.

I've put up a few more pictures here.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

a thoroughly modern presidential honeymoon

Obama wedding
Once upon a time, newly married western couples would get to know each other during a period known as a honeymoon, a ‘sweet month’. For most, especially those in arranged marriages, the weeks following nuptials required adjusting to a shared life together, a series of mutual compromises and sometimes unwelcome discoveries. But the inevitable personal friction could be mostly smoothed over by the sheer novelty of the experience.

Modern honeymoons are usually quite different, because many modern couples live together for months or years before becoming formally married. Nevertheless, there remain new challenges, especially the legal, financial, and emotional consequences of being bound to another person for (one then expects) the rest of one’s life. Perhaps this is why we have invented such elaborate rituals around marriage, and why so many modern honeymoons take the form of lengthy vacations to exotic places. For couples who already share a life together, novelty must be generated artificially.

The metaphorical ‘honeymoon period’ enjoyed by a new public figure, especially a new president, seems to be now undergoing a similar shift. Normally, the goodwill and cooperation a president receives for the first few months (the ‘first hundred days’ usually) follow in part from the novelty of regarding this unfamiliar person - and retinue of officials and advisors – as the nation’s leadership. We, the public and the congress, grant our new administration the benefit of the doubt, and we try to meet awkward adjustments with good humor.

Barack Obama’s incipient administration, however, has begun to look like the live-in boyfriend with whom the marriage is just a formality. Obama appointed nearly his entire cabinet weeks in advance. He arrived in DC earlier than most new presidents do (so that his daughters could begin attending school). He has already begun negotiating with congress for a new economic stimulus package. Despite the ‘one president at a time’ rhetoric, Obama’s administration has already leaked the imminent closure of Guantanamo Bay, and other foreign policy signals are emerging. Surely it means something that, two weeks before inauguration, Bill Richardson accomplished the functional equivalent of a cabinet resignation.

None of this is a mistake on Obama's fault. It would be irresponsible to sit idle while the economy teeters. The Bush administration’s discredit is so complete that Obama was sucked into the policy-making vacuum even before officially winning election. But the transition has been so competent and so thorough that we’ve now been thinking of him as the president for weeks. Do we now even get a honeymoon with Barack? Just like any modern marriage, we’ll need some artificial novelty to spice things up. There will be an enormous display for the inauguration, and reminders for weeks afterward just how special this new president happens to be. Mark your calendar: Barack Obama is taking the country to a suite in the Bahamas for a week.

(photo from

Friday, January 2, 2009

metaphysics on board

Here is the start of an AP story:

There were 124 passengers on Northwest Airlines Flight 59 when it left the Netherlands. There were 125 when it landed in Boston.

Phil Orlandella, a spokesman for Logan International Airport, says a woman went into labor and gave birth to an apparently healthy baby girl over the Atlantic Ocean on Wednesday during the eight-hour flight from Amsterdam.

The first paragraph (unwittingly?) takes a position on a rather contentious issue in politics, ethics, and metaphysics!

How many passengers were on the flight when it left the Netherlands? If you think that a fully-developed fetus is a person, then the answer is 125. If you think otherwise, then the answer is 124. The story appears to be taking sides.

I wonder if this occurred to the writer or editor at any point. Obviously the aim was to produce a punchy lede paragraph. But that’s not all that happened… You might say that this article was a human interest story when it took off, and a maneuver in the culture wars when it landed.