May 05, 2008

Assorted Link Roundup, May 2008

Without style or grace.

Wolfgang Beirl explains why financial engineers (like the ones I've been teaching this semester) are also known as "rocket scientists". There are connections here to Wolfgang's thoughts on telephones and the foundations of statistics.

Man's role in changing the face of the Earth dep't.: Ben Fry's map of the 48 contiguous states, showing only streets and roads. Everything else, astonishingly, emerges from that. (Via Unfogged.)

The radical right revives the theory of magical kingship propounded by Sir J. G. Frazer in The Golden Bough, in which the health of the land is sympathetically tied to the character of the ruler, as an account of the American presidency, and correspondingly prophecies doom, doom, DOOM! should Hillary be elected. Illustrated with kittens. Note: WorldNetDaily, unlike the Landover Baptist Church, is not a parody. (I've mentioned them before.)

Speaking of signs of the apocalypse, Thomas "The Baffler" Frank is now writing op-eds for the Wall Street Journal. (Via Aaron Swartz.)

Mind Hacks offers two neurologically-themed tattoos, observing of the second that it produces "a markedly different effect, despite the fact it resides in the same location".

Steve Laniel and Tom Slee review Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody. You have probably already seen or read Shirky's talk "Gin, Television and Social Surplus". His social history is over-simplified, and I get a bit leery of my own response to things which push my buttons so thoroughly, but nonetheless — preach it, brother Clay, preach it!

Brooks Simpson, in an interview with the Southern Poverty Law Center, briskly shreds various lies about the US Civil War and the Confederacy propagated by modern apologists for "treason in defense of slavery". Via Abiola Lapite, who has a good post on the genetics of height.

Sierpinski cookies (via Dave Feldman).

Because I am a mean and vicious person, I take great pleasure at reading Kathy G. toy with someone who pretends to know something about economics (1, 2, 3, 4). G. is a public-spirited person, so when she says "I write about economic theory because I believe it is Really. Fucking. Important. Bad economic models make for bad economic policies.", I believe her. But I enjoy reading her for the sheer pleasure in the evisceration. Similarly, I think that in a juster world, Camille Paglia would now be remembered only as the occasion for this 1991 Molly Ivins essay.

Kit Whitfield explains the concept of a "Macho Sue":

A disagreeable variant of Mary Sue, often found in action films, cop shows and the more battly kind of science fiction. While Mary Sue is a fictional character who bends the universe around herself with her amazing specialness, Macho Sue bends the universe around his manhood. He has a particular ability to get away with behaviour that would be considered bad in a woman — to the point of behaviour that would be considered typically female by a misogynist if displayed by a woman.

These traits usually involve poor self-control, such as outbursts, tantrums, sulks, and a refusal to take responsibility for his own behaviour towards others when he's upset. It's not uncommon for Macho Sue to be prejudiced, or at least suspicious of the unfamiliar, and he's almost always unusually disrespectful to others; he has a particular propensity for taking an unreasonable dislike to somebody on sight (only to have it validated later). When thwarted, he tends to be affronted as well as frustrated, in a way that suggests neither he nor the narrative think it right that anyone but him should ever get their way. The story tends to throw straw men at him by way of obstacles, but they're never shown as equally masculine, and thus are without any heroism of their own. Macho Sue is emotional, but with such an assumption of gendered authority that nobody questions the manliness — in the rightful sense of 'adulthood' — of his behaviour.

She instances (the characters played by) John Wayne, but, oddly enough, neglects to mention Achilles.

Further on the literary-critical vein, a remarkably funny, yet thoroughly horrifying, review of a set of novels I will not be reading. It ends thus

The PALADIN OF SHADOWS series is arguably the most horrifying series of books I have ever read. It has a hero I can't stand, politics so strong they're comical, and sex scenes that are downright horrifying. And I cannot stop reading it. I am going to buy every single one, and if Ringo ever comes out with a spin-off featuring Katya as Cottontail the Bionic Whore, I will buy that too. Because dammit, there's bad, and then there's so bad you have to memorialize it for future generations.
but you really need to read what comes before it to get the full effect. The reaction by the author of the books in question is — startling. (Via Kate Nepveu.)

Thematically not-unrelated, an experiment with a famous comic book author. (For the record, I liked Ronin well enough when I read it as a teenager, but generally haven't seen what there was to get excited about in Miller's work; at most a "lower and distorted form" of a general theme.)

Second in our series of great moments in Afghan Buddhism: the earliest known oil paintings may be from Bamiyan (via Matthew Berryman).

You should read Existence Is Wonderful. She changes my mind about things.

I become more and more convinced that one of the keys to understanding our intellectual life is the Skolnick Effect. It is hard to understand the success of neuromarketing otherwise, for example. It's not that functional brain imaging can't be scientifically useful (I'm involved in some projects myself), but the level of the usual study which gets popular attention is to tell us, on the basis of tiny samples, that some part of the brain is differentially activated by thoughts of attaining money, chocolate, justice and sex and/or dirty pictures. (That last link in particular offers a glimpse into a remarkable clusterfuck of bad science journalism amplifying sloppy thinking.) At this point what you are really learning is that there isn't a straightforward mapping from our psychological concepts to paticular brain regions, which is something the neuropsychologists have been trying to tell you for quite a while now. You can even say it with math, but that doesn't seem to make people any more inclined to listen.

Worse, the journalists — and even many of the scientists — seem incapable of separating "implemented in the brain" from "innate". (A recent offender, via Abiola. [It wouldn't surprise me in the least if some sense of social hierarchy is innate in human beings — with all the disclaimers about what such statements mean hereby incorporated by reference — but the point is that the results reported are completely irrelevant to the question of innateness.]) I realize we have thousands of years of ingrained ideas about mind-body dualism and human nature to work through here, but honestly, people, could we at least get into the eighteenth century? All our thoughts and actions involve our brains somehow; detecting them in the brain with current technology says nothing about their being innate, unless you want to seriously say that the rules of chess are hard-wired into our genomes. But if I pursue this further I will get into the bog of free will, and the idiotic conclusions about it people draw from weird experiments...

(Meanwhile, the fact that people can get papers in Science out of the astonishing prediction that territorial ethnic conflict requires the geographic proximity of (self-perceived) ethnic groups, and is rare in locales where one group is an overwhelming majority, suggests that there is a version of the Skolnick Effect involving toy-model simulations.)

The newly-risen Fafblog shows that prophetic parody is the only way to keep up with the real news.

Carlos Yu has, sadly, stopped blogging. I feel a bit bad because I always liked his stuff and rarely told him so. I will miss very much the only blogger capable of writing about ancient Sanskrit plays featuring "creepy horny drunk carnivorous beggars covered in human ash, accompanied by hott chick acolytes, carrying around someone's skull, asking you for money" (parenthetically adding "I think they used to squat in Tompkins Square Park"); the grand unified theory of wingnuts; Garry Wills; paleobiochemistry; football and other pure products of America; and God knows what else. I hope that, like Fafblog, he will one day return.

A while back, Brad DeLong linked to a parody of Thomas Aquinas's proofs of the existence of God, Five Ways of Proving the Existence of Santa Claus. This is ridiculous, of course, but really not much more so than such serious topics treated by the Angelic Doctor as the relation of the saints to the damned (the saints in Heaven will see the suffering of the damned perfectly; will have no pity towards them; and will in fact rejoice in their suffering); whether the weeping of the damned will be corporeal (yes, but there will be no tears); and whether the damned will be in material darkness:

The disposition of hell will be such as to be adapted to the utmost unhappiness of the damned. Wherefore accordingly both light and darkness are there, in so far as they are most conducive to the unhappiness of the damned. Now seeing is in itself pleasant for, as stated in Metaph. i, "the sense of sight is most esteemed, because thereby many things are known."

Yet it happens accidentally that seeing is painful, when we see things that are hurtful to us, or displeasing to our will. Consequently in hell the place must be so disposed for seeing as regards light and darkness, that nothing be seen clearly, and that only such things be dimly seen as are able to bring anguish to the heart. Wherefore, simply speaking, the place is dark. Yet by Divine disposition, there is a certain amount of light, as much as suffices for seeing those things which are capable of tormenting the soul. The natural situation of the place is enough for this, since in the centre of the earth, where hell is said to be, fire cannot be otherwise than thick and cloudy, and reeky as it were.

Some hold that this darkness is caused by the massing together of the bodies of the damned, which will so fill the place of hell with their numbers, that no air will remain, so that there will be no translucid body that can be the subject of light and darkness, except the eyes of the damned, which will be darkened utterly.

On which note, I have a final exam to give.

Linkage; The Commonwealth of Letters; Minds, Brains, and Neurons; The Natural Science of the Human Species; The Beloved Republic; Afghanistan and Central Asia; The Dismal Science; Math; Learned Folly; The Running-Dogs of Reaction; The Continuing Crises; Philosophy; Psychoceramics

Posted at May 05, 2008 16:59 | permanent link

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