Thursday, February 17, 2011

The All-New One-Line Book-Review Quiz Competition Contest!

Here are my one-line reviews of the ten most-recent books I've read. Just to make it more interesting, I've separated the books and the reviews and added a couple of extra red herrings for kicks. See how many books you can match with their reviews. Or don't bother.


(1) Hitch 22: A Memoir, by Christopher Hitchens

(2) Direct Action and Democracy Today, by April Carter

(3) The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance with Fascism from Nietzsche to Postmodernism, by Richard Wolin

(4) The Death of the Liberal Class, by Chris Hedges

(5) Karl Polanyi: The Limits of the Market, by Gareth Dale

(6) Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, by Kathryn Schulz

(7) The End of the World as We Know it: Social Science for the Twenty-First Century, by Immanuel Wallerstein

(8) Beyond the Hoax: Science, Philosophy and Culture, by Alan Sokal

(9) Enough is Enough: How to Build a New Republic, by Fintan O'Toole

(10) Jacques Lacan: Death of an Intellectual Hero, by Stuart Schneiderman


(a) Facts? Yes, well, you can prove anything with facts.

(b) Man is born ignorant. It is education that makes him stupid.

(c) A tale told by a fool, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

(d) Like the proverbial curate's egg, it is good in parts.

(e) If this is what it feels like to be wrong, I don't want to be right.

(f) Everything I most assuredly know about morality and obligation, I learned from baseball.

(g) With most men, unbelief in one thing springs from blind belief in another.

(h) It is better for civilization to be going down the drain than to be coming up it.

(i) Courage is the power to let go of the familiar.

(j) On a level plain, simple mounds look like hills; and the insipid flatness of our present bourgeoisie is to be measured by the altitude of its great intellects.

(k) In these matters the only certainty is that nothing is certain.

(l) There is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is living in Ireland.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

You're Wired

While we're on the subject of bias in the accumulation of knowledge (see previous post), here's a piece from the January 30th New York Times on the gender bias among Wikipedia contributors. If you can, ignore the unfortunate sexist implications that might be derived from the paragraphs below. 

With so many subjects represented — most everything has an article on Wikipedia — the gender disparity often shows up in terms of emphasis. A topic generally restricted to teenage girls, like friendship bracelets, can seem short at four paragraphs when compared with lengthy articles on something boys might favor, like, toy soldiers or baseball cards, whose voluminous entry includes a detailed chronological history of the subject.

Even the most famous fashion designers — Manolo Blahnik or Jimmy Choo — get but a handful of paragraphs. And consider the disparity between two popular series on HBO: The entry on “Sex and the City” includes only a brief summary of every episode, sometimes two or three sentences; the one on “The Sopranos” includes lengthy, detailed articles on each episode.

Is a category with five Mexican feminist writers impressive, or embarrassing when compared with the 45 articles on characters in “The Simpsons”?

You're Weird

A brief but amusing article by Joshua E. Keating in Foreign Policy magazine on the limited subject pool of psychology research.

All's weird but me and thee, and even thee's a bit weird.

Capital as Power

D. T. Cochrane manages to reference two of my favourite social theorists in the title of his recent paper, "Castoriadis, Veblen and the 'Power Theory of Capital'," which is available for download here and really well worth reading. I'd recommend it to anarchists, anyway. If only Cochrane had managed to crowbar in Pierre Bourdieu and David Graeber as well, he'd have produced my all-time favourite article.  The abstract reads

The prevailing, and largely unacknowledged, uncertainty around capital puts a question mark behind many proclamations regarding the ideology, theory, and praxis of the capitalist system. A clearer understanding of ‘what we talk about when we talk about capital’ is a priority if we wish to distinguish useful theoretical positions from misguided pretenders. In this paper, I examine the theoretical common points of Thorstein Veblen and Cornelius Castoriadis as they contribute to the 'power theory of capital' being developed by political economists Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler.

The download is part of the Bichler & Nitzan Archives on account of Cochrane's heavy use of their book Capital as Power, which I've ordered but am yet to read. The "full description" at the Book Depository reads:

Conventional theories of capitalism are mired in a deep crisis: after centuries of debate, they are still unable to tell us what capital is. Liberals and Marxists both think of capital as an 'economic' entity, which they count in universal units of 'utils' or 'abstract labour', respectively. But these units are totally fictitious. Nobody has ever been able to observe or measure them, and for a good reason: they don't exist. Since liberalism and Marxism depend on these non-existing units, their theories hang in suspension. They cannot explain the process that matters the most - the accumulation of capital. This book offers a radical alternative. According to the authors, capital is not a narrow economic entity, but a symbolic quantification of power. It has little to do with utility or abstract labour, and it extends far beyond machines and production lines. Capital, the authors claim, represents the organized power of dominant capital groups to reshape - or creorder - their society. Written in simple language, accessible to lay readers and experts alike, the book develops a novel political economy. It takes the reader through the history, assumptions and limitations of mainstream economics and its associated theories of politics. It examines the evolution of Marxist thinking on accumulation and the state. And it articulates an innovative theory of 'capital as power' and a new history of the 'capitalist mode of power'.

Which may not grab many of our readers but which only serves to make it even more alluring to me. Yes, I'm perverted like that. Either way, do give the Cochrane paper a look over, because it provides a valuable (sorry) introduction to alternative theories of value.

Shmuel N. Eisenstadt (1923–2010)

In lieu of an obituary, a profile of sociologist Shmuel Eisenstadt, author of the groundbreaking-but-bloody-difficult-to-obtain Origins and Diversity of Axial Age Civilizations and The Political Systems of Empires. Eisenstadt died last September.

Watch It, Assblood

The ever-delightful and near-incomprehensible Skateboarder magazine carries a regular feature in which pro boarders (or is it pro skaters?) provide graphic details of all the injuries they've sustained in their brief young lives. This month, it's the turn of Leo Romero:

Friday, February 04, 2011

We're Just Biased

Over at the very wonderful Third Culture site (link in blog roll, below left), this year's Edge question, What Scientific Concept Would Improve Everybody’s Cognitive Toolkit?, has been answered by over 160 respondents. Among those we liked is Douglas Rushkoff's:

Technologies Have Biases

People like to think of technologies and media as neutral and that only their use or content determines their impact. Guns don't kill people, after all, people kill people. But guns are much more biased toward killing people than, say, pillows — even though many a pillow has been utilized to smother an aging relative or adulterous spouse.

Our widespread inability to recognize or even acknowledge the biases of the technologies we use renders us incapable of gaining any real agency through them. We accept our iPads, Facebook accounts and automobiles at face value — as pre-existing conditions — rather than tools with embedded biases.

Marshall McLuhan exhorted us to recognize that our media have impacts on us beyond whatever content is being transmitted through them. And while his message was itself garbled by the media through which he expressed it (the medium is the what?) it is true enough to be generalized to all technology. We are free to use any car we like to get to work — gasoline, diesel, electric, or hydrogen — and this sense of choice blinds us to the fundamental bias of the automobile towards distance, commuting, suburbs, and energy consumption.

Likewise, soft technologies from central currency to psychotherapy are biased in their construction as much as their implementation. No matter how we spend US dollars, we are nonetheless fortifying banking and the centralization of capital. Put a psychotherapist on his own couch and a patient in the chair, and the therapist will begin to exhibit treatable pathologies. It's set up that way, just as Facebook is set up to make us think of ourselves in terms of our "likes" and an iPad is set up to make us start paying for media and stop producing it ourselves.

If the concept that technologies have biases were to become common knowledge, we would put ourselves in a position to implement them consciously and purposefully. If we don't bring this concept into general awareness, our technologies and their effects will continue to threaten and confound us.

and Jonathan Haidt's:

Contingent Superorganism

Humans are the giraffes of altruism. We're freaks of nature, able (at our best) to achieve ant-like levels of service to the group. We readily join together to create superorganisms, but unlike the eusocial insects, we do it with blatant disregard for kinship, and we do it temporarily, and contingent upon special circumstances (particularly intergroup conflict, as is found in war, sports, and business).

Ever since the publication of G. C. Williams' 1966 classic Adaptation and Natural Selection, biologists have joined with social scientists to form an altruism debunkery society. Any human or animal act that appears altruistic has been explained away as selfishness in disguise, linked ultimately to kin selection (genes help copies of themselves), or reciprocal altruism (agents help only to the extent that they can expect a positive return, including to their reputations).

But in the last few years there's been a growing acceptance of the fact that "Life is a self-replicating hierarchy of levels," and natural selection operates on multiple levels simultaneously, as Bert Hölldobler and E. O. Wilson put it in their recent book, The Superorganism. Whenever the free-rider problem is solved at one level of the hierarchy, such that individual agents can link their fortunes and live or die as a group, a superorganism is formed. Such "major transitions" are rare in the history of life, but when they have happened, the resulting superorganisms have been wildly successful. (Eukaryotic cells, multicelled organisms, and ant colonies are all examples of such transitions).

Building on Hölldobler and Wilson's work on insect societies, we can define a "contingent superorganism" as a group of people that form a functional unit in which each is willing to sacrifice for the good of the group in order to surmount a challenge or threat, usually from another contingent superorganism. It is the most noble and the most terrifying human ability. It is the secret of successful hive-like organizations, from the hierarchical corporations of the 1950s to the more fluid dot-coms of today. It is the purpose of basic training in the military. It is the reward that makes people want to join fraternities, fire departments, and rock bands. It is the dream of fascism.

Having the term "contingent superorganism" in our cognitive toolkit may help people to overcome 40 years of biological reductionism and gain a more accurate view of human nature, human altruism, and human potential. It can explain our otherwise freakish love of melding ourselves (temporarily, contingently) into something larger than ourselves.

and David Myers's:

Self-Serving Bias

Most of us have a good reputation with ourselves. That's the gist of a sometimes amusing and frequently perilous phenomenon that social psychologists call self-serving bias.

Accepting more responsibility for success than failure, for good deeds than bad.

In experiments, people readily accept credit when told they have succeeded (attributing such to their ability and effort). Yet they attribute failure to external factors such as bad luck or the problem's "impossibility." When we win at Scrabble it's because of our verbal dexterity. When we lose it's because "I was stuck with a Q but no U."

Self-serving attributions have been observed with athletes (after victory or defeat), students (after high or low exam grades), drivers (after accidents), and managers (after profits and losses). The question, "What have I done to deserve this?" is one we ask of our troubles, not our successes.

The better-than-average phenomenon: How do I love me? Let me count the ways.

It's not just in Lake Wobegon that all the children are above average. In one College Board survey of 829,000 high school seniors, zero percent rated themselves below average in "ability to get along with others," 60 percent rated themselves in the top 10 percent, and 25 percent rated themselves in the top 1 percent. Compared to our average peer, most of us fancy ourselves as more intelligent, better looking, less prejudiced, more ethical, healthier, and likely to live longer — a phenomenon recognized in Freud's joke about the man who told his wife, "If one of us should die, I shall move to Paris."

In everyday life, more than 9 in 10 drivers are above average drivers, or so they presume. In surveys of college faculty, 90 percent or more have rated themselves as superior to their average colleague (which naturally leads to some envy and disgruntlement when one's talents are underappreciated). When husbands and wives estimate what percent of the housework they contribute, or when work team members estimate their contributions, their self-estimates routinely sum to more than 100 percent.

Studies of self-serving bias and its cousins — illusory optimism, self-justification, and ingroup bias — remind us of what literature and religion have taught: pride often goes before a fall. Perceiving ourselves and our groups favorably protects us against depression, buffers stress, and sustains our hopes. But it does so at the cost of marital discord, bargaining impasses, condescending prejudice, national hubris, and war. Being mindful of self-serving bias beckons us not to false modesty, but to a humility that affirms our genuine talents and virtues, and likewise those of others.

and Scott D. Sampson's:


Humanity's cognitive toolkit would greatly benefit from adoption of "interbeing," a concept that comes from Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. In his words:

"If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in [a] sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either . . . "Interbeing" is a word that is not in the dictionary yet, but if we combine the prefix "inter-" with the verb to be," we have a new verb, inter-be. Without a cloud, we cannot have a paper, so we can say that the cloud and the sheet of paper inter-are. . . . "To be" is to inter-be. You cannot just be by yourself alone. You have to inter-be with every other thing. This sheet of paper is, because everything else is."

Depending on your perspective, the above passage may sound like profound wisdom or New Age mumbo-jumbo. I would like to propose that interbeing is a robust scientific fact — at least insomuch as such things exist — and, further, that this concept is exceptionally critical and timely.

Arguably the most cherished and deeply ingrained notion in the Western mindset is the separateness of our skin-encapsulated selves — the belief that we can be likened to isolated, static machines. Having externalized the world beyond our bodies, we are consumed with thoughts of furthering our own ends and protecting ourselves. Yet this deeply rooted notion of isolation is illusory, as evidenced by our constant exchange of matter and energy with the "outside" world. At what point did your last breath of air, sip of water, or bite of food cease to be part of the outside world and become you? Precisely when did your exhalations and wastes cease being you? Our skin is as much permeable membrane as barrier, so much so that, like a whirlpool, it is difficult to discern where "you" end and the remainder of the world begins. Energized by sunlight, life converts inanimate rock into nutrients, which then pass through plants, herbivores, and carnivores before being decomposed and returned to the inanimate Earth, beginning the cycle anew. Our internal metabolisms are intimately interwoven with this Earthly metabolism; one result is the replacement of every atom in our bodies every seven years or so.

You might counter with something like, "Ok, sure, everything changes over time. So what? At any given moment, you can still readily separate self from other."

Not quite. It turns out that "you" are not one life form — that is, one self — but many. Your mouth alone contains more than 700 distinct kinds of bacteria. Your skin and eyelashes are equally laden with microbes and your gut houses a similar bevy of bacterial sidekicks. Although this still leaves several bacteria-free regions in a healthy body — for example, brain, spinal cord, and blood stream — current estimates indicate that your physical self possesses about a trillion human cells and about 10 trillion bacterial cells. In other words, at any given moment, your body is about 90% nonhuman, home to many more life forms than the number of people presently living on Earth; more even than the number of stars in the Milky Way Galaxy! To make things more interesting still, microbiological research demonstrates that we are utterly dependent on this ever-changing bacterial parade for all kinds of "services," from keeping intruders at bay to converting food into useable nutrients.

So, if we continually exchange matter with the outside world, if our bodies are completely renewed every few years, and if each of us is a walking colony of trillions of largely symbiotic life forms, exactly what is this self that we view as separate? You are not an isolated being. Metaphorically, to follow current bias and think of your body as a machine is not only inaccurate but destructive. Each of us is far more akin to a whirlpool, a brief, ever-shifting concentration of energy in a vast river that's been flowing for billions of years. The dividing line between self and other is, in many respects, arbitrary; the "cut" can be made at many places, depending on the metaphor of self one adopts. We must learn to see ourselves not as isolated but as permeable and interwoven — selves within larger selves, including the species self (humanity) and the biospheric self (life). The interbeing perspective encourages us to view other life forms not as objects but subjects, fellow travelers in the current of this ancient river. On a still more profound level, it enables us to envision ourselves and other organisms not as static "things" at all, but as processes deeply and inextricably embedded in the background flow.

One of the greatest obstacles confronting science education is the fact that the bulk of the universe exists either at extremely large scales (e.g., planets, stars, and galaxies) or extremely small scales (e.g., atoms, genes, cells) well beyond the comprehension of our (unaided) senses. We evolved to sense only the middle ground, or "mesoworld," of animals, plants, and landscapes. Yet, just as we have learned to accept the non-intuitive, scientific insight that the Earth is not the center of the universe, so too must we now embrace the fact that we are not outside or above nature, but fully enmeshed within it. Interbeing, an expression of ancient wisdom backed by science, can help us comprehend this radical ecology, fostering a much-needed transformation in mindset.
and we haven't even begun to skim the surface. No doubt the answers will all be out in book form before Christmas.  But don't wait.  Go look now.