Friday, November 25, 2005

Philospher's Carnival XXII

Ian Olasov's For those of you at home is hosting the XXII Philosophers' Carnival. This is a great way to surf philosophy blogs. It's perfectly carnivalesque, yet discussions take place in their own envelopes. Are membranes semipermeable by definition? Hmm.

posted by Fido the Yak at 6:58 AM. 0 comments

Saturday, November 19, 2005


Paul Bourke's Surfaces. The apple is not the most interesting to look at, but interesting to think.

Meanwhile, NASA reports that "the most perfect spheres ever made by humans" have completed their mission aboard Gravity Probe B.

posted by Fido the Yak at 9:37 AM. 0 comments

Friday, November 18, 2005

Winter in Kashmir

The Washington Post lays out the political case for increasing aid to the earthquake survivors in Pakistan. Since I first noted that Unicef was asking for donations, I've had occaision to think about the foreign policy aspects of aid to Pakistan, and I've pretty much decided that they're secondary to the need to care for people in a dire situation.

posted by Fido the Yak at 6:12 AM. 2 comments

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Tone, Truth and Blogging

Senator Barack Obama offers some thoughts on Tone, Truth, and the Democratic Party. In this statement, characteristically diplomatic, Obama is replying to criticisms made by Armando at the Daily Kos, but he is also addressing the left side of the blogosphere, and perhaps he also has a message for the wider community of bloggers.

Bloggers ask, "What's the place of blogs in the grand scheme of things?" Blogs are evidently mediating in our national discourse. Can that be done without a place in the grand scheme? Is being on the fly a place? Isn't it counterintuitive to demand that mediators be given permanent seats at the table?

More and more I see blogs setting the tone of national debates. Does this reflect a fascination on the part of Old News, the fact that reporters spend hours poring over the blogs, or is a genuine integration of old and new media underway? A little of both, perhaps.

How exactly does one take responsibility for an attitude? Journalistic standards have provided a sorry model. And on Capitol Hill, according to Obama's impressions, things ain't quite what they used to be. It's relatively easy to correct a false statement. It's much more difficult to correct a bad attitude.

Is it easy to lie? For a serious person, it's much easier to be wrong than it is to lie. (Not counting "little white lies"--and what kind of misrepresentation is it to consider lying apart from telling little white lies?) It seems like it ought to be relatively easy to have a bad attitude, but then why do some people work so hard at it? And why is a bad attitude so difficult to correct? Do we see an attitude as a true expression of a person's character? A greater truth than any knowledge they share with us? Would that be because we are closely attached to our own attitudes, or are we closely attached to our attitudes because that's how others judge us?

Has the internet engendered a profusion of others? Has there been a concomitant shift in the paradigm of the attitude, a closer identification with attitude on the part of netizens?

I have ruminated. Now I'm ready to reread Brandon's post on Weblogs and the conversible world.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 10:19 PM. 0 comments

Yakety Yak

Here's what's new in Fido's world.

Reading. Finished Lewontin's The Triple Helix. A blizzard of thoughts and a couple of ideas. Need to take a snowshovel to my notes. Been peeking at Gould's Ontology and Phylogeny, but trying to keep my head clear to deal with Lewontin directly.

Just purchased three books: Ethics without Ontology by Hilary Putnam, Rationality in Action by John Searle, and The Firmament of Time by Lauren Eisely.

Listening. Wayne Shorter Quartet, Beyond the Sound Barrier. Featuring Danilo Perez, John Patitucci and Brian Blade. Very nice. Reminiscent of Shorter's High Life. Masterful dynamics, phraseology, filling up space, voiding it. It sounds much larger than a quartet, and smaller too.

Went on another Herbie Nichols binge. "Infectious" doesn't quite say it. Addictive, consuming, driving. I had a Bird tune stuck in my head, couldn't remember the name of it, but it was rhythm changes. Now I'm about to feast on Bird. Ouroboric? That's not quite it either.

Vijay Iyer has a cut of "Habeas Corpus" on his website. Yeah, "Body and Soul."

The latest issue of Jazz Improv has arrived. Strictly for Jazz dorks. Wallace Roney has some things to say about ideas and self expression, about sounding unique and sounding like you are continuing somebody else's project. He tells an anectote about learning the diminished scale from Miles (who got it from Bud Powell). He explains that different cats call it by different names; the concept is similar, but not identical. It becomes evident later in the interview that Roney approaches the diminished scale as it fits into one of three primary melodic centers (the others being major and minor). I think I can hear that in his playing, and the quartal stuff made sense--more sense than any explanation of harmolodics I've ever read. It's weird to think about all this knowledge being created and handed down, imagining what it was like when these ideas were relatively unheard of.

Blog. Brandon opens a discussion of Weblogs and the Conversible World. Any ideas? Well, it's a topic that interests me, and Brandon's take on it is refreshing as always, but I can't say anything useful or pleasant off the top of my head. File under ruminations.

John Emerson returns to The Reality of Time.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 6:17 AM. 0 comments

Friday, November 11, 2005

African Union in Darfur

The Brookings Instititution's Project on Internal Displacement has released an assessment of the African Union mission in Sudan (ht Coalition for Darfur). The report presents a forthright and detailed account of the successes and failures of the mission so far. The first part of the report contains an exemplary summary of the situation in Darfur, briefly explaining how the crisis began, and how the situation has developed since the African Union became involved. The performance review is less engaging, but worth taking note of because the stakes are so high, for the people of Darfur, of course, but also for the African contintent.

The report concludes with a series of recommendations. I'll reproduce the first three, addressed to the international community:

  1. Increase immediately the number of troops in Darfur to at least 20,000 and provide the requisite financial and logistical assistance. If the AU is not able to manage this increase, the UN, NATO or the EU should assume responsibility for the operation. In particular, the UN could merge AMIS with UN peacekeeping forces in southern Sudan, or NATO and the EU could contribute forces to those of AMIS.

  2. Strengthen the mandate of the troops in Darfur so that they have clear responsibility to protect civilians and IDPs,insure the safe delivery of humanitarian assistance and support the safe return of IDPs and refugees to their homes.

  3. Enhance support to the AU Special Envoy for the Darfur talks and increase pressure on the government of Sudan and the warring parties to negotiate a peace agreement.

Incidentally, the report includes an independent corroboration (p. 48, n. 182) of Kingibe's charge that forces allied with the Government of Sudan have been engaging in perfidy.

Update: Cf. Refugees International's report, No Power to Protect: The African Union Mission in Sudan

posted by Fido the Yak at 12:36 AM. 0 comments

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Realities of nonintervention

Christopher Hitchens writes on Realism in Darfur:

Nonintervention does not mean that nothing happens. It means that something else happens. Our policy in Darfur has not just failed to rescue a stricken black African population: It has actually assisted the Sudanese Islamists in completing their policy of racist murder. Thank heaven that we are tough enough to bear the shame of this, and strong enough to forgive ourselves.

I have been following some of the discussions of liberal interventionism taking place at the Talking Points Memo Cafe's America Abroad section, and also the TPM bookclub responses to Daadler and Lindsay's America Unbound. On the one hand the predominance of Monday-morning quarterbacking in these discussions effectively sidelines forward thinking about the problems in the world at this moment. On the other hand, the debate has clarified some crucial differences between popular varieties of internationalism (something I've tried to do pretty awkwardly), so it's a good read for those who would articulate a liberal foreign policy agenda. Hitchens' point has been raised by a few of the discussants, but not so starkly as Hitchens himself puts it.

"Nonintervention does not mean that nothing happens. It means that something else happens." It's a good place to begin a discussion of how nations ought to be relating to other nations. As I've previously argued (pretty awkwardly?), the noninterventionist's claim to realism isn't particularly compelling. Not doing anything has real consequences, some of them quite nasty. It is also clear that the noninterventionist position does not emerge ex nihilo, but historically occurs as a step back from previous levels of engagement. Can there be a responsible stepping back, or a stepping back consistent with advancing longterm common interests in peace and justice? To a degree this must be argued case by case. We can't assume that not doing anything will lead to good outcomes any more than we can assume that military actions will lead to good outcomes.

My prejudice is to regard stepping back as an unattractive option. This puts me and likeminded liberals in an awkward position, because military action is self-evidently unattractive, and I share the liberal belief that war must be an option of last resort. If it's true, as I believe, that the Bush administration's doctrine of preemption presented us with a false choice between doing nothing and launching a total war against Iraq, it appears to be equally true that the political left, instead of articulating a strong alternative to a faulty premise, has more and more committed itself to the weak alternative of donothingism. Thus the political realities are such that the prospects for a genuinely liberal internationalism appear rather dim. Meanwhile the need for a strong advocacy of liberal internationalism is no less urgent than it has ever been.

posted by Fido the Yak at 12:37 PM. 0 comments

Buddhist Writing

Another thoughtful post from Kyle at Fluid Imagination: Ain’t no one here but us aggregates.

Immediate reactions? Automatic writing. Uriah at Desert Landscapes has been commenting on Barry Dainton's "The Self and the Phenomenal." My little criticism of Dainton still sticks in my mind. The question of whether we totally lose consciousness during sleep should not be swept under the rug. What we call "consciousness" may all too easily gloss over a variety of disparate phenomena. This is a serious challenge to phenomenology, but also an interesting set of problems in itself.

posted by Fido the Yak at 1:30 AM. 0 comments

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Ask Dick Cheney

Fareed Zakaria explains why torture is stupid. What further explanation was needed? Why beat a dead horse? I don't know. Ask Dick Cheney. He's the Vice President of the United States, and he wants to torture people.

What's the difference between wanting to torture people and wanting to preserve legal loopholes, ambiguities and exceptions that have demonstrably led to people being tortured? The former is merely vicious, the latter is both vicious and cowardly. Is there any other difference that matters? Ask Dick Cheney, and while you're at it ask him how it is that torture has been committed under his watch.

Is it a bad thing to have government documents in the public domain, documents like the Army Field Manual, the United States Code of Laws (esp. Title 18, Part 1, Chapter 113c), or the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution? Would we be better off if the English Bill of Rights of 1689 had never been made public? What if the first rule of the Code of Hammurabi had been the first rule of Fight Club? What if Moses had been told to keep it on the down low? Who would dare call it justice? Ask Dick Cheney, the Vice President of the United States.

posted by Fido the Yak at 11:22 PM. 0 comments

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Expedite this

The Washington Post reports that the House Appropriations Committee killed a $50 million request to fund the African Union peacekeeping mission in Sudan (ht Coalition for Darfur). Here is the language from the conference report on the 2006 Foreign Operations, Export Financing, and Related Programs Act:

The conference agreement does not include a provision proposed by the Senate (section 6119) that transferred $50,000,000 to the FMF account for assistance to support the African Union Mission in Sudan. While the conference agreement does not include additional funds for this Mission in Sudan, the Administration should expeditiously submit a request for any necessary funding.

Why on earth would the Committee think that this was appropriate? Without increased funding for more troops, better equipment, better logistical and technical support, and a strong, clear mandate to protect civilians, the African Union mission will surely fail. Could a failure of this mission possibly be in our national interests? It's way past the point of saying "Put up or shut up." Congress and the administration have already committed the United States to preventing genocide in Darfur. There can be no backtracking or evasion without consequences. To fail in this will entail a loss of credibility and stature. Honor and decency seem to be on the chopping block as well.

posted by Fido the Yak at 2:48 PM. 0 comments

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Rorty v. Epistemology

Two dissents: Value Added Philosophy, by Kyle at Fluid Imagination, and Normal Discourse in Philosophy by Alex at Strictly Speaking. (ht Prior Knowledge.)

posted by Fido the Yak at 9:46 AM. 0 comments

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Are You Looking at Me?

Robert Barton shows that "like brain size and neocortex size, relative expansion of parvocellular lateral geniculate nucleus layers is correlated with both frugivory and social group size" in primates1. The parvocellular system is a part of the brain that specializes in processing colors, in contrast to the magnocellular system which processes motion2. The link between frugivory and color vision doesn't require much explanation; if you specialize in eating fruit, color vision helps you spot the fruit amidst the trees, and allows you to discern qualities such as ripeness. A competing hypothesis holds that large brain size is correlated with frugivory in the primates because of a selection for spatial memory. Barton's case for the primacy of color vision should lead to a reexamination of the emergence of spatial memory in primates.

But that's not the end of the story. How do we explain the correlation between parvocellular elaboration and large social groups? Barton argues that the answer lies in another aspect of the parvocellular system: the capacity for high-acuity vision.

The parvocellular system mediates a range of visual processes in the neocortex, particularly those that involve the perception of fine details. This kind of processing is critically involved in facial recognition, and perception of gaze direction and facial expression. Several areas of the neocortex whose main visual inputs are parvocellular, such as [the] inferotemporal cortex, are specialized for processing social information of this type. These kinds of complex visual cues must be processed and integrated to achieve what Brothers calls "the accurate perception of the dispositions and intentions of other individuals."3

Barton wants us to understand social cognition not as a higher cognitive function over and above basic sensory processing, but rather as a "large array of sensory-cognitive operations occuring in parallel"4. Okay. What are the implications of that idea?

Aporiai, thoughts along the way:

  • Hamblet's critique of Levinas' monadology still seems very wrong to me, though she obviously knows what she's talking about.

  • Husserlian phenomenology will probably never satisfactorily resolve the tension between the transcendental ego and the lifeworld.

  • Lyotard's coupling of the "image of the Other" with the addressivity of language struck me as insightful, but perhaps too abstract, too abbreviated. Is there a more primary orientation towards the Other? Can it be discovered through phenomenological reduction? Could we speak of an image to or from the Other? The imagination of the Other as a give and take of possibilities? Can that simply be a modality of intending? And why Other instead of others? (That's obvious, but is it so obvious in all primates?)

  • The notion of "cognitive templates" has been bugging me, particularly with regard to human evolution. For instance what would a face template accomplish that an orientation towards others would not? For the species, I mean. Obviously, if you look at adults, whose relations to others are highly structured, it's stupid to deny the use of something like cognitive templates--I'd rather say "apperceptive schemata," but the idea is about the same. But how do they emerge? Were they the direct product of a genetic mutations that glommed onto the hominid lineage? At what points? Or do they instead owe their genesis to the habitus? And if the answer is by and large both, then we really ought to clarify what we mean by "cognitive template" or "apperceptive schema" because we may be describing radically different phenomena by the same term. Barton's research doesn't settle the dispute, but it may moot certain points of contention. What can we say about social cognition that holds true for all primates? What if anything marks social cognition in Homo sapiens as unique?

  • If we imagine culture rather abstractly as a system of possibilities, or a bit more concretely as a matrix of cultivated dispositions and capabilities, then on what grounds do we limit its scope to Homo sapiens (or hominins, or Homininae)? Empirical evidence? It's not that cut and dry. And besides, we have to face the question of whether our thinking is circumscribed or distorted by biological facts of our being here.

  • Stated positively, what can we discover about ourselves by virtue of our being born into the Order Primates? Suborder Haplorhini, and so on? Philosophers are wont to discuss life quite apart from the discoveries of the life sciences. Is this simply a question of method? Do we have any call to imagine that different methods might lead to similar insights? What would that say about how we know things? Ho de anexetastos bios ou biôtos anthrôpôi: Could Socrates have meant that it is only his elenctic method of inquiry that makes life livable for a human being? I rather suspect he was presenting a more general defense of free inquiry. But I have my doubts. Are the ideas of modern evolutionary science or indeed any rigorous discipline so embedded in a history of methodical applications and elaborations that they cannot be freely shared? How can we tolerate ideas being placed beyond scrutiny by virtue of their belonging to highly specialized traditions of inquiry? Does our knowledge of social cognition in primates suggest one kind of answer?

  • Do chimpanzees play peekaboo? With their infants? The bonobo ethology is unclear to me. Which primates play peekaboo?

  • If we think of an idea as an object, we can say that once we come upon an idea and grasp it, we can think it again. But the idea we come back to is never exactly the same as the idea we initially grasped. Does a monkey think, I'm eating the same fruit over and over and over....? How about a gorilla? How is it that most of us get over it, thinking about food instead of eating it?

  • Are you looking at me?

Lewontin's Triple Helix just arrived. Later.

1 Robert Barton, "The Evolutionary Ecology of the Primate Brain," IN Phyllis C. Lee, Comparative Primate Socioecology, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999, p. 183.

2 For more on the neurology of vision see the work of Peter Lennie.

3 Barton, Op. cit, pp.187-188. For ease of reading I have stripped Barton's citations from this paragraph. I'm assuming that his references are on target, but I don't know the relevant literature well enough to swear to it.

4 Ibid, pp.186-187.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 4:29 PM. 0 comments