“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Saturday, April 12, 2008

aux armes, citoyens!

I can say I hope it will be worth
what I give up


In 1908, Karl Kraus wrote a famous essay, the Sink of Inquity, which was later included in the collection entitled The Chinese Wall. It begins like this:

Bourgeois society consists of two kinds of men: the ones who say that somewhere, someone is digging up a den of iniquity, and those who are worried, that they will get the address to it too late. This division has the advantage, that it often unfolds itself in one and the same person, because it isn’t the difference of world view, but only of circumstances and prospects that governs the choice of standpoints. But one goes wrong if one thinks that ethics and sensuality work quietly side by side: rather, they grappley together and are unceasingingly busy intensifying their forces one against the other and amplifying their object. It is now 1908 years that this jealous struggle of two life principles has gone on, in which indignation feeds on desire and desire on indignation, in which the world is always becoming more moral the more unethical it is, and always more ethical, the more immoral it becomes. In the end, we will run out of dens of iniquity to dig up, because up to the point that they are dug up, they are asylums of bourgeois peace. Fantasy sinks into, or curls up into slumber, and ethics is the disappointment that there is no vice.



Kraus had such sensitive skin that it was actually disturbed by metaphysical events, like the ambient sexual hypocrisy of Vienna. Although even Kraus never escaped from the childish traps of patriarchy, which makes the mindless move from the notion that women never want to have sex to the notion that women always want to have sex, a ping pong match between fucking idiots.

This was the week for hypocricy and patriarchal idiocy. So, two women testify Wednesday to being raped in Iraq while working for KBR, a Halliburton subsidiary. There is a congressional hearing. It is reported by the Associated Press. ABC news is the honorable exception to what is otherwise a story that plunges into the same media black hole into which American casualties on the week that Petraeus testified also plunged – or perhaps I should say, were pushed?


WASHINGTON
(AP) — An Illinois woman who says she was raped while working for a contractor in Iraq recounted the experience in a congressional hearing Wednesday.
A woman who made similar allegations before Congress last year listened and fought back tears.

Dawn Leamon of Lena, Ill., said at a Senate subcommittee hearing she was sodomized and forced to have oral sex by a soldier and a co-worker after she drank a cocktail that made her feel strange.

She worked as a paramedic for Service Employees International Inc., a foreign subsidiary of KBR Inc., at Camp Harper near Basra, Iraq. Leamon said the base was frequently under rocket attacks.

The alleged attack occurred just two months after Jamie Leigh Jones, formerly of Conroe, Texas, told a House committee she was raped by KBR/Halliburton co-workers and held a day in a shipping container after reporting the 2005 assault.
The Associated Press does not usually identify people who say they were sexually assaulted, but the women have made their identities public.
Jones wiped away tears as Leamon and a third woman, Mary Beth Kineston, spoke. Kineston, of Olmsted Falls, Ohio, said she was assaulted in 2004 while working as a truck driver with her husband for KBR in Iraq.
"It bothers me that it happened again after I stood up and brought awareness to it and brought KBR to such scrutiny," Jones said during a break.
Jones sued Halliburton, whose former subsidiary is KBR, and is waiting for a judge to rule if it can go to trial or be settled in arbitration. KBR and Halliburton split last year.
Leamon, whose sons served in Iraq and Afghanistan, said employers discouraged her from reporting the rape and pressured her to sign an inaccurate statement with inaccurate details.
Several days after the assault she had to provide medical care to one of her attackers. She officially reported the rape after she was transferred to another camp on Feb. 27 because she feared for her safety.”

Meanwhile, remember the D.C. Madam? The Attorney General’s office tapped the collective wisdom of the many Regency university hires who have so creatively mixed constitutional law and the LeHaye Left Behind books to rid us of the everpresent menace of Deborah Palfrey, a woman whose den of iniquity, otherwise called an escort service, was, on all accounts, a place of the most boring bliss that the wheeler deelers in D.C. could purchase for themselves. The Left Behinders, in a classic Bush maneuver, awkwardly caught in their net a number of high ranking Republican men. But the rule of hypocrisy – also known as the Scooter Libby rule – ensured that none of them are being charged with squat. Instead, we get things like this:

“Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana and other powerful men appear likely to get a pass. Less lucky: the 15 terrified women being hauled by prosecutors into court to recount in graphic detail their past work as prostitutes -- and more than 100 other former prostitutes whose names prosecutors are trying to make public.
Wednesday, prosecutors forced a 63-year-old retired PhD -- her name, like those of other witnesses, now a matter of public record -- to testify about inducing orgasms in her client; the government's lawyers had similar questions for a mother of three who worked briefly for the escort service nearly 15 years ago.
Yesterday, it was the turn of a young naval officer to take the stand; the case will almost certainly end her career. The prosecutor, Daniel Butler, had the woman spell her name slowly and clearly, then had her talk about when she was "aggressive" with a client, when she was "more submissive," when she had a difficult client ("he tried to remove the condom") and how often she got "intimate."
"What do you mean by 'intimate'? "
The soon-to-be-former naval officer looked at him in disbelief. "Touching, caressing," she explained.
"What happened" after that? he demanded.
"Sex."
"What type of sex?"
"Sometimes it was oral sex; usually it was normal."
"Normal?" Butler persisted.
"I'm not sure what you're getting at," the stricken witness pleaded.”

Myself, I am beginning to think that Left Behind is the right phrase. Except this apocalypse is more Yeats than retard Baptist – “Surely some revelation is at hand/Surely the second coming is at hand.” We are in the hands of the worst this country has to offer. That drip drip drip of small cruelties - how long can we take it? They stepped on our necks yesterday, they stepped on our necks today, and so it will be, world without end, unless we rise up and say: enough.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Meanwhile, in afghanistan

This must be Clio’s year for poetic justice. There’s a good chance that, as President Backbone waltzes out of office, like a slacker’s version of the Juggernaut, Osama bin Laden, America’s favorite demon, will be waltzing into Afghanistan. Apparently the Bush economic policy of world class peculation for the wealthy, synergized with the huge Ponzi scheme of securitizing an infinite amount of debt in a finite financial space, is not only having the desired effect of boosting the price of oil for all his pals in the industry, but - as the dollar collapses - is also pushing grain prices higher to create the one two punch in Afghanistan: higher prices, less food. The neo-cons chuckled heartily about the liberal fear, as we invaded Afghanistan in 2001, of starvation hitting that country. They knew that you don’t order up starvation just like that – you have to really work at it. It’s the Marshall plan in reverse!

A blog that we are adding to our list, Abu Muqawama, has an interesting post on this today:

“Oil, Food, and War
The NY Times yesterday ran an editorial suggesting US culpability in an impending world food crisis. The basic argument is that rising demand for grains has been increased beyond a sustainable level as a result of environmentally-suspect drives to increase ethanol use in the US and elsewhere.

In Afghanistan in particular, but also in Iraq, food prices became a major and predictable issue over the winter. As always, ISAF charged with Economic Development and Reconstruction as one of its Lines of Operation and the recipient of most of the money we spend in Afghanistan, did little to nothing to prepare for it. Meanwhile, all through the winter, Afghan newspapers and news shows drew attention to the issue. With children dying and starving in the streets in Ghazni (the focus of several Afghan television reports) and elsewhere, it is imperative that we do something. Unfortunately, while ISAF could have done much to prepare for the crisis, the challenges ahead are daunting and larger than ISAF.

In Afghanistan, the ongoing food crisis is related to several factors, many of which were predictable. Unrest and insurgency in Pakistan have made the transport of goods from Pakistan to Afghanistan more difficult. Increased insurgency in Afghanistan has resulted in more difficulty in transporting goods. Increases in world oil prices have further causes increased transportation prices for food. The worst winter in Afghanistan on record (admittedly, a very short record going back only a decade) exacerbated transportation issues. Meanwhile the droughts of the 1990s compounded by deforestation, erosion, and global warming essentially eradicated the herds that provided dairy and meat for Afghan nomads. Additionally, activists worldwide have highlighted for several months an impending food crisis driven by, among other things, increased ethanol demands and rising meat demands by a larger Chinese middle class. Finally, massive imports of food by the World Food Program have resulted in depressing food prices, which provides an incentive for growing narcotics and a disincentive for producing wheat and other cereals.

With marginal food supply already resulting in more starvation in Afghanistan, the possibility that food insecurity could exacerbate insurgency is real and growing. A low harvest yield this year followed by increasing food prices may well provide the last straw for national insurgency under a new narrative that emphasizes Coalition presence in Afghanistan and the starvation of Muslims under a regime that finally was supposed to bring stability, development, and peace.”

This should surprise no one. Ruled by far side nosepickers, who are elected by far side nosepickers, we can only expect the worst, until the next time, which is even worse, and so on.

opinions as expertise


Ten years ago, in the pre-LI days, we didn’t think that much about politics. LI was a different person – oh, habitually and thoughtlessly leftist, but in point of fact, in my New Haven cocoon, my chief concern, besides love love love, was working on my novel. I was happy. Then I made some decisions, like moving away from a place where I knew a lot of people to moving to a place where I knew few. Quitting secretary work, with its steady pay, to become a freelancer, where the payscale is equivalent to what you receive after a few hours patrol with a shakily scribbled cardboard sign and a coffee can out near the intersection of Lamar and 5th street. My fictional genius, the only thing in my life that I really ever liked, dried up. And, of course, as the Bush era kicked into high gear, I became all too aware of politics and, more keenly than ever before, of the total collapse and utter worthlessness of the so called “Left”. Of course, it was at this time, too, that it became easy to go to newspapers online. In the nineties and before, I would read the Sunday Times, but in general, I could give a fuck. If you found a paper on a table at a coffee shop, you read it. Since the days of Reagan, my kind of person disappeared from politics, so it all became one big foreign sport to me, like hurling.

Such has been life for me. Or rather, my posthumous life. The bark has grown over my face, but unlike my compañeros in the seventh circle, underneath it I have become dull and listless about my own life, while burning with a perpetual flame over the horrors of the moronic inferno.

Well, as I became acquainted with the newspaper world, and blogs, and shit, I became more aware of the oddity that was opinion journalism. Often of course there is no distinction at all between opinion journalism and journalism, but since – in the last ten years – I have actually practiced journalism – calling people you don’t know up and asking them questions and building a story around what you find out – I do recognize that journalism is a trade with an actual skill – "skill" I define as the set of routines which you could actually write instructions for - at the base. An expertise. Just like the roller of cigars in my last post, the journalist has to research, has to know how to ask questions, and if the journalist is any good, has to allow the story to take him or her to the right people. It is in the moment in which the journalist let’s go that the possibility of great journalism opens, and at that point it is no longer an expertise.

But having opinions, on the other hand, is an odd kind of expertise. These figures are, recognizably, extensions of the barroom philosopher, and – on tv – tap into the same mix of aggressions and grievances. The overwhelming self pity of the affluent, which is the astonishment of the world. Which is why I want to add to yesterday’s figura (the wonder and the cigar roller) another figure – William James’ moral philosopher.

William James’ essay, The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life, looks at morality by way of looking at the self-image of the moral philosopher. It is a harsh scrutiny. When the moral philosopher goes beyond producing a natural history of moral systems (something like Nietzsche’s project), and tries to say something about morality itself, the mp gets in all kinds of trouble. James imagines how the world in which the moral philosopher exists implies an insoluble dilemma that the moral philosopher seemingly can’t solve:

“The moment one sentient being, however, is made a part of the universe, there is a chance for goods and evils really to exist. Moral relations now have their status, in that being's consciousness. So far as he feels anything to be good, he makes it good. It is good, for him; and being good for him, is absolutely good, for he is the sole creator of values in that universe, and outside of his opinion things have no moral character at all.

In such a universe as that it would of course be absurd to raise the question of whether the solitary thinker's judgments of good and ill are true or not. Truth supposes a standard outside of the thinker to which he must conform; but here the thinker is a sort of divinity, subject to no higher judge. Let us call the supposed universe which he inhabits a moral solitude. In such a moral solitude it is clear that there can be no outward obligation, and that the only trouble the god﷓like thinker is liable to have will be over the consistency of his own several ideals with one another. …

If now we introduce a second thinker with his likes and dislikes into the universe, the ethical situation becomes much more complex, and several possibilities are immediately seen to obtain.

One of these is that the thinkers may ignore each other's attitude about good and evil altogether, and each continue to indulge his own preferences, indifferent to what the other may feel or do. In such a case we have a world with twice as much of the ethical quality in it as our moral solitude, only it is without ethical unity. The same object is good or bad there, according as you measure it by the view which this one or that one of the thinkers takes. Nor can you find any possible ground in such a world for saying that one thinker's opinion is more correct than the other's, or that either has the truer moral sense. Such a world, in short, is not a moral universe but a moral dualism. Not only is there no single point of view within it from which the values of things can be unequivocally judged, but there is not even a demand for such a point of view, since the two thinkers are supposed to be indifferent to each other's thoughts and acts. Multiply the thinkers into a pluralism, and we find realized for us in the ethical sphere something like that world which the antique sceptics conceived of﷓-in which individual minds are the measures of all things, and in which no “objective” truth, but only a multitude of subjective” opinions can be found.”

The parallel between this pandoxia and the world of the opinion journalist/think tanker/policy expert seems pretty tight. All of those types – all of those media figures – are the decayed and corrupted progeny of the moral philosopher. Admittedly they drift among the very wrecks of reason, and lack even the tiniest speck of that intellectual integrity which would cause a real philosopher to give up a point if it were proven wrong. Admittedly, the opinion makers combine traits from another lineage – that of the court flatterer, the servant, the pimp – and enjoys a wealth founded on such deep and constant abjection and bowing before the powers that be as to make the objective observer dizzy with nausea and loathing, and itching for the rotten tomato to hurl at his pissant phiz – but I want to bracket that and ask: what do these people practice for ten years?

Of course, “these people” collects a mass of gibbering idiots into an indistinctness that may weaken our point. Because of the “left” is closer to the moral philospher line, we can get more specific by picking out a few creatures that wore their leftiness into career making trajectories – say, Hitchens, or Nick Cohen, or Paul Berman. We have noticed one thing about this type: their ‘expertise’ is founded, explicitly or implicitly, on their greater ‘sensitivity’ to the moral. For these people, morality is a form of sensuality – they are always prone to “feel” more than others. It seems odd to say about a group that has advocated for the greatest mass murder committed by a Western power since Vietnam, but such is truly the case. The logic of the case is laid out in James’ essay. As the moral philosopher deals with no objective fact – for try as one may, there are, James says, no objective moral relations among things that don’t depend, ultimately, on there being subjects – or, in other word, subjectivity is the base upon which these relations are built, even though that they are built in the way they are built is an objective fact – so the moral philosopher who seeks to convince must find a way to, in effect, idealize his own sensibility. This can have interesting effects. James outlines one of them that applies directly to the promoters of the Iraq war:

“A look at another peculiarity of the ethical universe, as we find it, will still further show us the philosopher's perplexities. As a purely theoretic problem, namely, the casuistic question would hardly ever come up at all. If the ethical philosopher were only asking after the best imaginable system of goods; he would indeed have an easy task; for all demands as such are prima facie respectable, and the best simply imaginary world would be one in which every demand was gratified as soon as made. Such a world would, however, have to have a physical constitution entirely different from that of the one which we inhabit. It would need not only a space, but a time, "of n-﷓dimensions," to include all the acts and experiences incompatible with one another here below, which would then go on in conjunction﷓-such as spending our money, yet growing rich; taking our holiday, yet getting ahead with our work; shooting and fishing, yet doing no hurt to the beasts; gaining no end of experience, yet keeping our youthful freshness of heart; and the like. There can be no question that such a system of things, however brought about, would be the absolutely ideal system; and that if a philosopher could create universes a priori, and provide all the mechanical conditions, that is the sort of universe which he should unhesitatingly create.”

Although the application of this passionate embrace of one's moral superiority in an imaginary world - which reeks of a never to be overcome infantile narcissism that hangs over these lefties in an odd way, as though they were all really big babies has its major application recently in the war, it has a larger application among the whole group of opinion journalists as they report on the economy, or the elections, or popular culture - whatever the object upon which they lay golem like hands, it is the same story. The practice of the opinion journalist - their ten years - are spent storing up the method of trying to “make a case” – ignoring all facts that may get in the way of the case, and arranging, and if necessary exaggerating as much as one can, all the facts that make for the case. This is the opposite of the objective method. But it does bring into accordance the moral philosopher and the pimp, those two forebears of opinion journalism, perfectly. James shows that the moral philosopher who falls for this trick risks becoming comic. I think I’m going to close this post with this beautiful graf:

“Now we are blinded to the real difficulty of the philosopher's task by the fact that we are born into a society whose ideals are largely ordered already. If we follow the ideal which is conventionally highest, the others which we butcher either die and do not return to haunt us; or if they come back and accuse us of murder, every one applauds us for turning to them a deaf ear. In other words, our environment encourages us not to be philosophers but partisans. The philosopher, however, cannot, so long as he clings to his own ideal of objectivity, rule out any ideal from being heard. He is confident, and rightly confident, that the simple taking counsel of his own intuitive preferences would be certain to end in a mutilation of the fulness of the truth. The poet Heine is said to have written "Bunsen" in the place of '"Gott" in his copy of that author's work entitled "God in History," so as to make it read "Bunsen in der Geschichte." Now, with no disrespect to the good and learned Baron, is it not safe to say that any single philosopher, however wide his sympathies, must be just such a Bunsen in der Geschichte of the moral world, so soon as he attempts to put his own ideas of order into that howling mob of desires, each struggling to get breathing﷓room for the ideal to which it clings? The very best of men must not only be insensible, but be ludicrously and peculiarly insensible, to many goods. As a militant, fighting freehanded that the goods to which he is sensible may not be submerged and lost from out of life; the philosopher, like every other human being, is in a natural position. But think of Zeno and of Epicures, think of Calvin and of Paley, think of Kant and Schopenhauer, of Herbert Spencer and John Henry Newman, no longer as one﷓sided champions of special ideals, but as schoolmasters deciding what all must think﷓-and what more grotesque topic could a satirist wish for on which to exercise his pen? The fabled attempt of Mrs. Partington to arrest the rising tide of the North Atlantic with her broom was a reasonable spectacle compared with their effort to substitute the content of their clean﷓shaven systems for that exuberant mass of goods with which all human nature is in travail, and groaning to bring to the light of day. Think, furthermore, of such individual moralists, no longer as mere schoolmasters, but as pontiffs armed with the temporal power, and having authority in every concrete case of conflict to order which good shall be butchered and which shall be suffered to survive﷓and the notion really turns one pale. All one's slumbering revolutionary instincts waken at the thought of any single moralist wielding such powers of life and death. Better chaos forever than an order based on any, closet﷓philosopher's, rule, even though he were the most enlightened possible member of his tribe. No! if the philosopher is to keep his judicial position, he must never become of the parties to the fray.”

Thursday, April 10, 2008

the wonder and the 10 year rule

J.D. Beresford was a mid-level Edwardian man of letters – friend of D.H. Lawrence, to the extent that Lawrence had male friends – did the Georgian literary circuit, wrote a critical study of HG Wells, and a sci fi novel – The Hampdenshire Wonder – that was just re-issued in a critical edition from the University of Nebraska press. Because LI’s faithful reader Brian likes to mention SF, and because I’ve had fun reading Culture Monkey’s SF and Utopia posts, I picked it up, in a manner of speaking. It is the story of Victor Stott, a child of extraordinary, superhuman mental capability born to two ordinary parents – although one of them, to be fair, was a great cricketeer. His superiority to the merely human is evidenced from the instant he is born, since his gaze even in the first hours has the power, when turned on a person directly, to make that person feel like one of the lower creatures, a worm, a dog, or at the very least a servant. The story is narrated by a journalist, who we first meet in a train, reading Bergson’s Time and Free Will, “as it is called in the English translation.”

The baby has a huge head – usually the sign of idiocy, but in this case the sign of the ‘bigger brain’. His father, Ginger Stott, soon walks out on his wife and child, since he can’t stand the boy’s gaze. He thinks of him as a horror. Unfortunately, the child arouses the instinctive enmity of the village vicar, a medievalist and inveigher against modernity, Mr. Crashaw. But, by chance, he is spotted by the village landlord, Henry Challis, a wealthy dilettante in the sciences, particularly, it seems, anthropology, who functions as Victor’s protector.

When Victor is four, Challis has him taken to his mansion, thinking he will teach him to read, even though the child’s masterly attitude and glance unnerves him. Nevertheless, he piles some of the 11th edition Encyclopedia Britannica up on a chair so the boy can sit and look at a dictionary – which he of course soon absorbs. And then it is time for the encyclopedia itself. Challis has hired an assistant, George Lewes, a young man on the verge of … distinction in some field, and Lewes claims, at first, that the child is just mimicking reading. But then comes the terrible day that Victor Stott finishes the last volume and begins a discourse that lasts for six hours, which apparently is not only couched at a level of scientific sophistication far beyond the human, but also, in as much as Challis understands it, contains a view of reality that is so harsh and cruel that it crushes Challis’s idealism:


"I am most interested," said Challis. "Will you try to tell me, my boy,
what you think of--all this?"

"So elementary ...inchoate ... a disjunctive ...patchwork," replied
the Wonder. His abstracted eyes were blind to the objective world of our
reality; he seemed to be profoundly analysing the very elements of
thought.

Then that almost voiceless child found words. Heathcote's announcement
of lunch was waved aside, the long afternoon waned, and still that thin
trickle of sound flowed on.

The Wonder spoke in odd, pedantic phrases; he used the technicalities of
every science; he constructed his sentences in unusual ways, and often
he paused for a word and gave up the search, admitting that his meaning
could not be expressed through the medium of any language known to him.

Occasionally Challis would interrupt him fiercely, would even rise from
his chair and pace the room, arguing, stating a point of view, combating
some suggestion that underlay the trend of that pitiless wisdom which in
the end bore him down with its unanswerable insistence.

During those long hours much was stated by that small, thin voice which
was utterly beyond the comprehension of the two listeners; indeed, it is
doubtful whether even Challis understood a tithe of the theory that was
actually expressed in words.

As for Lewes, though he was at the time nonplussed, quelled, he was in
the outcome impressed rather by the marvellous powers of memory
exhibited than by the far finer powers shown in the superhuman logic of
the synthesis.

One sees that Lewes entered upon the interview with a mind predisposed
to criticise, to destroy. There can be no doubt that as he listened his
uninformed mind was endeavouring to analyse, to weigh, and to oppose;
and this antagonism and his own thoughts continually interposed between
him and the thought of the speaker. Lewes's account of what was spoken
on that afternoon is utterly worthless.”


Victor Stott is evidently an evolutionary time traveler – at least, given the popular Edwardian misinterpretation of Darwin’s theory as one of directional evolution. He is a sport of nature born into the present from the distant biological future. And while that starts up all kinds of topics in itself, LI is interested in the story as a sort of background myth – the genius from outer space - to start another topic we’ve been thinking about ever since we reviewed Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman for a short notice in the New Yorker. There was a factoid Sennet quotes that I had not heard before, perhaps because I’m not a music student – that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert. LI was intrigued by this figure, and tracked down this article by Ericcson which quotes the studies showing that the “10 year benchmark”, as it is sometimes called, has been studied in a number of domains of skill, and seems to be generally, but not universally, true. I should note that the factoid should not be read that 10 years of practice will make you an expert, but that expertise takes ten years of practice – this is a retrospective judgment not about all, but about the most skillful:

“Among investigators of expertise, it has generally been assumed that the performance of experts improved as a direct function of increases in their knowledge through training and extended experience. However, recent studies show that there are, at least, some domains where "experts" perform no better then less trained individuals (cf. outcomes of therapy by clinical psychologists, Dawes, 1994) and that sometimes experts' decisions are no more accurate than beginners' decisions and simple decision aids (Camerer & Johnson, 1991; Bolger & Wright, 1992). Most individuals who start as active professionals or as beginners in a domain change their behavior and increase their performance for a limited time until they reach an acceptable level. Beyond this point, however, further improvements appear to be unpredictable and the number of years of work and leisure experience in a domain is a poor predictor of attained performance (Ericsson & Lehmann, 1996). Hence, continued improvements (changes) in achievement are not automatic consequences of more experience and in those domains where performance consistently increases aspiring experts seek out particular kinds of experience, that is deliberate practice (Ericsson, Krampe & Tesch-Römer, 1993)--activities designed, typically by a teacher, for the sole purpose of effectively improving specific aspects of an individual's performance. For example, the critical difference between expert musicians differing in the level of attained solo performance concerned the amounts of time they had spent in solitary practice during their music development, which totaled around 10,000 hours by age 20 for the best experts, around 5,000 hours for the least accomplished expert musicians and only 2,000 hours for serious amateur pianists. More generally, the accumulated amount of deliberate practice is closely related to the attained level of performance of many types of experts, such as musicians (Ericsson et al., 1993; Sloboda, et al., 1996), chessplayers (Charness, Krampe & Mayr, 1996) and athletes (Starkes et al., 1996).”

According to Harald Mieg’s The Social Psychology of Expertise, Chase and Simon (the inevitable Herbert Simon) did a famous study of chess masters and found that they had to devote “10,000 to 50,000 hours staring at chess problems” – and it is from their 1973 study that the 10,000 hours benchmark got its start.

Also according to Miegs: “John R Anderson at Carnegie Mellon showed that the increase in speed is a function of the amount of practice. “There do not appear to be any cognitive limits on the speed with which a skill can be performed.”… Anderson described the case of a woman whose job was to roll cigars in a factory. Her speed at cigar making improved continuously over ten years.” [21]

What connection does the Wonder have with the cigar woman? Hopefully, we’ll come back to this in another post.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

cause and the newspapers

As a sage, LI is tickled by causal statements that are casually put out by newspapers, since they beg all the great philosophical questions about causes, while collectively they show us exactly how ideology works. The New York Times would not, for instance, publish a headline like: “400 murders happen across US – poverty blamed.” But the NYT headline about the daily doings of the stock market are invariably couched in causal terms. Today, for instance, it is: Stocks Fall After Disappointing Earnings. Day after day a story about the stocks rising and falling has been woven, a story in which a big, broad, rough, easily seen causality is spotted to explain rises and falls. It is always, of course, local. Thus, the fall today comes about because of this:

“Wall Street retreated moderately Tuesday after disappointing reports from aluminum producer Alcoa Inc. and chip maker Advanced Micro Devices Inc. raised concerns about weaker-than-expected first-quarter earnings overall.”

Now, of course, that begs the question: do the traders on Wall Street suffer from complete short term memory loss? Have they read a paper in the last six months? Have they seen that we are entering into, or in, or coming out of, etc., etc. a recession?

Having established the convention of attributing some local cause to the rises and falls of the stock market, the newspapers then stick to it even if, at a certain point, to do so means they have to trip over themselves – even if the news they present is ‘novel’ in the causal chain only if you haven’t read a newspaper in the last six months.

In fact, the newspaper reader is continually finding him or herself in this bind, especially on stories that continue for a long time, such as the occupation of Iraq. We are presumed to know enough about it to want to know about the news there, but are treated, at the same time, as if we have forgotten so many details that we need specialists to give us causal diagnoses. And, of course, these specialists are always: a., non Iraqi; b., entrenched in a position which depends on their adhering to one or another ideological line; and c., as anxious that we forget what we know about Iraq. Thus, the NYT that reported about the huge ammunition dumps which were merrily raided by guerillas, insurgents, militias and what have you in 2004 has moved on to the idea that the only supplier of weaponry has to be the Iranians, because the military said so – thus forgetting the fact that the military case, made last year, for the provenance of weaponry from Iran was almost funny, it was so laced with contradictions, wishful thinking, cherrypicking and lies.

The problematic relationship between the new and its causes – one of Bergson’s major concerns – is embodied in the standard newspaper story, which tries to skim the causal surface, as it were, to show how emergents – new events – can be generated by old conditions.

It often turns out that the new emergents never existed in the first place – which then becomes news. For instance, today the NYT pretty much erases a scare story from 2004:
“Fears of Iraq Becoming a Terrorist Incubator Seem Overblown, French Say

“After the Paris police smashed a cell suspected of sending insurgents to Iraq early in 2005, French authorities predicted a new and dangerous threat: young Muslims lured to the Iraqi battlefields who would return, radicalized, to use their newfound battlefield skills in terrorist acts inside France.

Dominique de Villepin, then the interior minister, singled out the cell in a speech two months later as proof of a risk that Iraqi-trained jihadists would “come back to France, armed with their experience, to carry out attacks.”

Judge Jean-Louis Bruguière, France’s senior counterterrorism magistrate at the time, later warned that Iraq was a “black hole sucking up all the elements located in Europe.” Some of them were coming back to Europe, he added, and some of those were armed with chemical and biological weapons training.

Now, as members of the cell are awaiting a verdict in their case, French and other European intelligence and law enforcement officials are saying those fears appear to be overblown. The logistical challenges and expense of reaching Iraq has been one deterrent, they said, particularly with Syria’s making episodic efforts to halt the use of its territory as a transit route. Compared with the thousands of European Muslims who joined the fight in Afghanistan in the 1990s through organized networks in Britain, the number of fighters going to Iraq has been extremely small, according to senior French intelligence officials.”

Of course, when a story is erased, the fact that it has been engrained in the stories since is ignored. Because the past is officially flat, for the newspaper – yesterday’s jigsaw puzzle – that one of the puzzle pieces was jimmied into place – or even that all of the jigsaw puzzle pieces, when you look back on it, don’t fit together at all – is of antiquarian interest only. But of course the past is not flat, and the news the newspaper reports, with the reports always incorporating the controlling voices of experts so that the reader will know what to think, enshrines a choice about the past. Bertrand Russell once asked how we would know if the world was created yesterday if that creation included our memories of the past and all the elements that make us deduce that there was a past - which is an elaboration of Philip Gosse's theory that God created Adam with a navel for the same reason that the art forger browns the paper on which he proposes to create a seventeenth century drawing by Rembrandt. Russell's puzzle is at the dark heart of journalism.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

A lack of common ground

LI admits to being a little out of joint with the current American kultcha. But there are times, oh, there are times when we realize that we just don’t get it. Case in point – this sad article about the end of the boom in Maricopa, Arizona, that could have been entitled, from my perspective: what if they offered you a great deal on property in Hell?

Here are some descriptive grafs – and let me confess, I can coolly read the most disgusting tortures described in 100 days of Sodom, but this, this was almost beyond me. The agony, the vision that opens up of infinite environmental wreckage to create the most boring environment possible to train up children in the fine arts of psychpathy…

“IN THE EARLY 1990S, Maricopa was a small farming community with a population of about 600, mostly longtime farmers and Hispanic laborers, along with a few American Indians. Local businesses included a low-profile Nissan testing site and the state’s largest beef-cattle feed lots — industries that chose Maricopa because it was out of the way. But as Phoenix grew, far-thinking developers began buying up tracts of land in and around Maricopa. By 1996, one developer, Mike Ingram, had amassed with his business partners 18,000 acres — an area larger than the island of Manhattan — most of it purchased for $500 an acre or less. He had a vision of Maricopa’s future, and he helped persuade the state to widen the two-lane road to Phoenix, turning it into a four-lane divided highway. That year, Ingram and his partners announced plans to build a 6,000-acre community in Maricopa. They cleared farmland, brought in utilities and designed a maze of cul-de-sacs, drives, circles and courts oriented around a golf course. They sold building rights to a variety of “superbuilders” like KB Homes, Hacienda Builders and Continental Homes, and in the fall of 2001, the first houses went on sale, while they were still being built.

The first subdivision was completed in 2003 and quickly sold out. The median price for a new home in the city was $147,000, about $80,000 less than a new home in Chandler. Other builders rushed to get in on Maricopa. Within a matter of months, a grove of pecan trees would transform into a few thousand new housing units. The Maricopa post office requested a new ZIP code. Builders literally couldn’t put up houses fast enough, which drove up demand, which drove up prices and buzz. The median house price rose to $160,290 in 2004, then to $212,051 in 2005 and $281,798 in 2006. Subprime financing supercharged the town’s growth; according to First American CoreLogic, a housing-analysis firm based in Santa Ana, Calif., more than a third of buyers in Maricopa in 2004 and 2005 were subprime, a higher rate than in the rest of Arizona and the United States. Investors and speculators bought houses in Maricopa before they were built — often having put little or no money down — and resold them for a profit without ever moving in, sometimes on the day construction was completed. Maricopa’s mayor calculated that at one point in 2005, three new people moved to Maricopa each hour.


Ideally, a growing city will negotiate with developers to reduce the impact that new residents will have on the area; it might offer the builder smaller setbacks from the road in exchange for providing space for a school or widening roads. But at the beginning of Maricopa’s growth, the city was unincorporated, and all these negotiations were made by a three-person county board of supervisors that was working from rural zoning codes dating back to 1962. As a result, in those early years, decisions about Maricopa were driven by the concerns of developers, who left little space in their plans for business or commerce — just lots and lots of houses. They created blocks of identical homes, because it was more efficient to build with as little variation as possible. They built sidewalks on only one side of the street to save money. They happily left space in subdivisions for playgrounds and five new elementary schools, which they thought would help bring in the young families they were targeting, but they did not leave space for parks for older kids or for a high school. Each builder worked independently, so there were no paths connecting any of the subdivisions.”

Actually, things are looking up in Maricopa from my point of view. With houses being abandoned by the block, the place seems on the verge of acquiring character as a Bush ghost town. Now, that, I admit, would be all right. The sprinkler systems malfunction, the grass dies, the stray mesquite plants starts growing in the abandoned guest room, the Goofy mail box shows definite spots of rust, one night a coyote races up the street. But the stories, the heartfelt stories, of people who were attracted to a life that wouldn’t challenge a low IQ chicken – it amazes the fuck out of me.