January 19, 2014

Today's reading list

  • The Paratext's the Thing

    How directors' commentaries etc. are becoming part of the Primary Text. Makes me want to read the referenced book Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation by Gerard Genette. Related thought: the fascination with binge watching but not with binge reading is a sad vindication of Infinite Jest.

  • What Is It About Middlemarch?

    Favorite section:

    One of the oldest and most universal moral precepts is the Golden Rule: Treat others as you want them to treat you. That mandate shows up in Confucianism and in the Code of Hammurabi. It was reiterated by Seneca and by the Buddha. It appears in the Bible, as the command to love thy neighbor as thyself. It might possibly have been taught to more people than any other notion in history.

    It is also, on reflection, a little weird. For a guideline about how to treat others, the Golden Rule is strikingly egocentric. It does not urge us to consult our neighbors about their needs; it asks us only to generalize from ourselves--to imagine, in essence, that everyone's idea of desirable treatment matches our own. As such, it makes a curiously narrow demand on our imagination, and, accordingly, on our behavior. And it is not alone. From Kant's Categorical Imperative to John Rawls's Veil of Ignorance, the self is a common benchmark in moral reasoning.

    Middlemarch breaks with this tradition. Morality does not start with the self, Eliot insists; it starts when we set the self aside. "Will not a tiny speck very close to our vision blot out the glory of the world?" she asks. And then: "I know no speck so troublesome as self." What a killer line, and what a memorable image. We dwell in moral myopia; literally and figuratively, we are too close to ourselves.

  • What scientific idea is ready for retirement?

    Four answers dealt with a personal axiom: don't think of absolutes, think of a continuum. In "Humaniqueness", Irene Pepperberg argues against absolute human and absolute other. In "Things are either true or false", Alan Alda argues against the obvious. In "Essentialism", Richard Dawkins argues against our bias towards Platonic ideals. And in "Infinity", Max Tegmark argues against rounding up to infinity when actual values are available.

    Also interesting: in "Mouse models", Azra Raza (cool name) points out that it is well-known that mice are horrible models for human disease studies. Entrenchment and convenience seem to be the only reason they are still used. Or, to paraphrase, they're the worst model except for all others.

  • For World Literature

    I remember 20-or-so years ago I knew a guy that was teaching lit at Morehouse. He was preparing the most geographically eclectic syllabus I've ever seen. Apparently, that's still an aberration.

    Arguments against are: translations don't do justice to the originals, and only an insignificant fraction of any country can be presented. The article points out that of the most polyglot--which is rare enough--beyond five or so languages is rarer still. With that, the choice of Readable Literature is very small indeed. And the fraction of taught divided by untaught books in the English language is by necessity small.

    New directions include: large corpus text analysis to examine similarities of style etc.; borderless organizations of similarly themed yet differently nationed books; grouping books across global politics; etc. An example of Thoreau reading the Baghavad Gita, Ghandi reading Thoreau then revisiting the Baghavad Gita because of him, then MLK absorbing Ghandi's writing reminded me that part of this history is expressed in Glass's Satyagraha. That instance of cross-century and cross-nation influence seems an equally important approach.

posted by sstrader at 12:10 PM in Science & Technology | permalink

January 18, 2014


I started reading the article "The Closing of the Scientific Mind" on the recommendation of Arts & Letters Daily a few weeks ago. That has been my go-to site for gathering reading material when not deep into a novel. I comb through the interesting articles, add them to Readability, then send them to my Kindle. Long web articles are much more enjoyable on the Kindle.

This article, however, was agonizingly bad. Just painfully, painfully stupid.

The premise was a review of how computer technology has altered our view of humanity. The result was a caricatured attack on science. It pushes all my buttons for the misplaced arrogance of the Can Science Explain A Rainbow?!?? crowd, so the number of eye rolls per sentence were probably out of proportion to its offenses. But just a few:

[Scientists] have forgotten their obligation to approach with due respect the scholarly, artistic, religious, humanistic work that has always been mankind's main spiritual support. ... But science used to know enough to approach cautiously and admire from outside, and to build its own work on a deep belief in human dignity. No longer. - From the start, there's a feigned whither humanism back-of-hand-to-forehead fretting. From the straw man of some perfect historical time when scientific investigations circumscribed certain areas to the presumed right that some subjects are off limits. Man has searched for answers to everything everywhere at all times. It is only magisterial forces that would stop those investigations. Saying curiosity is offensive is like saying hunger is offensive.

Many scientists are proud of having booted man off his throne at the center of the universe and reduced him to just one more creature ... They are abusing their cultural standing. Science has become an international bully. - Confusion of outcome with intent, paired with oddly medieval incendiary phrasing. I'll assume that this is a reference to the discovery of evolution and the defense of that fact is the bullying we're discussing. How odd that the defense of the weak interaction of electrons or the gravity generated by physical objects is never assailed by the religious and ignorant. One discovered fact is little different from another, and certainly has no morality.

Attacking Darwin is the sin against the Holy Ghost that pious scientists are taught never to forgive. - I'll simply rewrite as: attacking universally accepted truths without any evidence against them reveals the attacker as a crackpot. There, that's better. Also, apparently when all you have is a hammer, everything must be expressed in terms of spirituality.

The Kurzweil Cult teaches that... - Ha. Kurzweil, in the most charitable circles, is considered a ... well, I'll just quote from a very popular review by a Carnegie Mellon professor of Kurzweil's most ambitious book, stating it is A Rare Blend of Monster Raving Egomania and Utter Batshit Insanity. The study of artificial intelligence and consciousness is far from a mature area. Much more is unknown than is known. To not only attack the unproven theories but also present them as the signpost of all of science, and pick the biggest crackpot out there as the model, is ... simply being an asshole.

There is much more in this vein, and I have to admit I could only rage through half of it, so maybe it completely turns around in the end. One last thing about the author: David Gelernter is a professor of computer science at Yale. This makes me sad.

posted by sstrader at 9:51 AM in Science & Technology | permalink