Tuesday, February 9, 2016

So what if science explains religion?

In recent years, the scientists and polemicists known as the New Atheists have been telling a certain type of evolutionary story. It goes like this:

Once upon a time, when our ancestors were struggling for survival on the African savanna, it was good to see ghosts. What was that rustle in the grass? What was that passing shadow? If your instinct was to detect agency, even in lifeless features of the natural world, you did well for yourself. Sure, you made some silly mistakes, sometimes fleeing from what turned out to be a gust of wind. But you didn’t overlook any genuine threats, and in the end you survived.

The result is a human population hard-wired to detect agency. ... And grown-ups everywhere ascribe purposefulness to the world at large, understanding the workings of the universe in terms of divine agency — another silly mistake! ...

These narratives, in which prehistoric habits of survival become today’s intellectual liabilities, are supposed to undermine religion by scientifically demonstrating the irrationality at its core. But for the psychologist and religion professor (and Episcopal priest) James W. Jones, the author of CAN SCIENCE EXPLAIN RELIGION?: The Cognitive Science Debate (Oxford University, $24.95), they do no such thing.

Suppose, Jones suggests, that someone were to advance a similar argument against the field of biology. Back in the Paleolithic days, the story would go, it was advantageous to differentiate living from nonliving things, to assume that things had causes, to see patterns in nature. But today, far removed from the wilds of East Africa, these cognitive tendencies, detectable in children, drive our biological beliefs. As the “misfiring” of faculties developed for another purpose, these beliefs should be discredited, or at least strongly distrusted.

If presented with this argument, Jones imagines, we would surely make several objections: that the origin of a belief entails nothing about its truth or falsity (if you learn that the earth is round from your drunk uncle, that doesn’t mean it’s not); that biology is not a handful of simple beliefs that a child can possess but rather a complex social practice; and that even if we do have a natural inclination for certain beliefs, they can still be subject to rational scrutiny and confirmed or refuted.
--James Ryerson, NYT, on explanations that don't refute

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Woolly mammoth was not on the dinner menu in 1951

A Yale-led analysis has shown that a famous morsel of meat from a 1951 Explorers Club dinner is not, in fact, a hunk of woolly mammoth. It is green sea turtle meat, most likely set aside from the soup course.

The event, held Jan. 13, 1951 in the Grand Ballroom of the Roosevelt Hotel, featured a dinner of Pacific spider crabs, green turtle soup, bison steaks, and portions of a 250,000-year-old woolly mammoth that had been preserved in glacial ice. At least, that’s the menu that entered popular lore. Others in attendance at the dinner thought the main entrĂ©e was meat from an extinct giant ground sloth.

“I’m sure people wanted to believe it. They had no idea that many years later, a Ph.D. student would come along and figure this out with DNA sequencing techniques,” said Jessica Glass, a Yale graduate student in ecology and evolutionary biology, and co-lead author of a study published Feb. 3 in the journal PLOS ONE. ...

The banquet’s promoter, Commander Wendell Phillips Dodge, was a noted impresario and former agent for film star Mae West. He sent out press notices saying the annual dinner would feature “prehistoric meat.” Some attendees took this to mean woolly mammoth meat, while others believed they were being served meat from the giant ground sloth known as Megatherium. ...

A club member unable to attend the dinner, Paul Griswold Howes of the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Conn., requested that a piece of meat be saved for him to display at the museum. Dodge personally filled out the specimen label for the fibrous chunk of muscle, saying it was Megatherium.

Yet over the years, the idea persisted that woolly mammoth had been served. The notion fit neatly with other stories in popular culture that imagined prehistoric mammoths found in blocks of glacial ice. That image remains iconic even today. ...

Glass was able to extract DNA, purify it and conduct mitochondrial gene sequencing. The results matched the genetic profile for green sea turtle.

Meanwhile, [Yale graduate student Matt] Davis found an item in the Explorers Club archives that pointed in the same direction. It was a published statement from Dodge soon after the banquet, joking that he may have discovered a “potion” that turns green sea turtle into giant sloth meat.
--Jim Shelton, YaleNews, on another legend debunked by DNA analysis

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Understanding Iron Mike

Unfortunately the same can't be said for Mike Tyson, who plays the decidedly limited role of a bilingual, "foreign devil" crime boss who eventually goes mano a mano with [Donnie] Yen [in the movie Ip Man 3]. Likely unintentional but nevertheless helpful, English subtitles are provided not only for Tyson's Cantonese but also for his English lines.
--Michael Rechtshaffen, LA Times, on unintentional hilarity

Friday, January 22, 2016

What happens when you double teacher salaries?

How does a large unconditional increase in salary affect employee performance in the public sector? We present the first experimental evidence on this question to date in the context of a unique policy change in Indonesia that led to a permanent doubling of base teacher salaries. Using a large-scale randomized experiment across a representative sample of Indonesian schools that affected more than 3,000 teachers and 80,000 students, we find that the doubling of pay significantly improved teacher satisfaction with their income, reduced the incidence of teachers holding outside jobs, and reduced self-reported financial stress. Nevertheless, after two and three years, the doubling in pay led to no improvements in measures of teacher effort or student learning outcomes, suggesting that the salary increase was a transfer to teachers with no discernible impact on student outcomes.
--Joppe de Ree, Karthik Muralidharan, Menno Pradhan, and Halsey Rogers on double for nothing

How to erase fear

New research suggests that it may be possible not just to change certain types of emotional memories, but even to erase them. We’ve learned that memories are uniquely vulnerable to alteration at two points: when we first lay them down, and later, when we retrieve them.

Merel Kindt, a professor of psychology at the University of Amsterdam, and her colleagues have seemingly erased the emotional fear response in healthy people with arachnophobia. For a study published last month in the journal Biological Psychiatry, she compared three groups made up of 45 subjects in total. One group was exposed to a tarantula in a glass jar for two minutes, and then given a beta-blocker called propranolol that is commonly prescribed to patients for performance anxiety; one was exposed to the tarantula and given a placebo; and one was just given propranolol without being shown the spider, to rule out the possibility that propranolol by itself could decrease spider fear.

Dr. Kindt assessed the subjects’ anxiety when they were shown the spider the first time, then again three months later, and finally after a year. What she found was remarkable. Those who got the propranolol alone and those who got the placebo had no improvement in their anxiety. But the arachnophobes who were exposed to the spider and given the drug were able to hold the jar containing the tarantula on Day 1 and, by three months, felt comfortable holding the spider with their bare hands. Their fear did not return even at the end of one year.

How does this work? Well, propranolol blocks the effects of norepinephrine in the brain. This chemical, which is similar to adrenaline, enhances learning, so blocking it disrupts the way a memory is put back in storage after it is retrieved — a process called reconsolidation. ...

But there’s a flip side to this story about how to undo emotional learning: how to strengthen it. We can do that with drugs as well, and may have been doing it for some time.

Anxiety enhances emotional memory. We all know that — it’s why you can easily forget where you put your wallet, but will never forget being attacked. This is the case because anxiety leads to the release of norepinephrine in the brain, which, again, strengthens emotional learning. It is also why we should think twice about casually prescribing stimulants like Ritalin and Adderall for young people who really don’t need them. Stimulants also cause the release of norepinephrine and may enhance fear learning. So it is possible that taking stimulants could increase one’s risk of developing PTSD when exposed to trauma.

Indeed, a study that will be published next month found that the escalating use of stimulants by the military in active duty soldiers, including those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, was strongly correlated with an increase in the rates of PTSD, even when controlling for other factors, like the rate of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
--Richard A. Friedman, NYT, on remixing memory

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Einstein had imposter syndrome

The exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

The Machiavellian reason to let North Korea have nukes

In one meeting, [a North Korean] official asked, “Why do the president and secretary of state keep saying that the United States will not allow North Korea to have nuclear weapons when in fact you are not doing much to stop us?” He deduced that there must be a hidden agenda. “It’s because you want us to have nuclear weapons as an excuse to tighten your grip on South Korea and Japan, your two allies.” We responded that there was no hidden agenda and that the United States really did not want the North to have those weapons. I’m not sure we convinced him.

Friday, January 8, 2016

The societal downside of flexible work schedules

As I discovered in a study that I published with my colleague Chaeyoon Lim in the journal Sociological Science, it’s not just that we have a shortage of free time; it’s also that our free time, in order to be satisfying, often must align with that of our friends and loved ones. We face a problem, in other words, of coordination. Work-life balance is not something that you can solve on your own.

Our study, which drew on data from more than 500,000 respondents to the Gallup Daily Poll, examined the day-to-day fluctuations and patterns in people’s emotions, week after week. ...

As measured by things such as anxiety, stress, laughter and enjoyment, our well-being is lowest Monday through Thursday. The workweek is a slog. Well-being edges up on Friday, and really peaks on Saturday and Sunday. We are, in a real sense, living for the weekend.

The surprising finding was that this is also true of unemployed people. ...

Free time is also a network good. The weekend derives much of its importance from the fact that so many people are off work together. ...

This conclusion points to a key feature of the work-life problem: You cannot get more “weekend” simply by taking an extra day off work yourself. If we were to take more time off as individuals, we would be likely to spend that time, as the jobless do, waiting for other people to finish work. ...

Over the past few years, many workplaces have looked for ways to create more flexibility in individual work schedules. There is no question that doing so has many benefits. But my research suggests that a disadvantage of these efforts is that they may lead us even further from a weekend-like system of coordinated social time.
--Cristobal Young, NYT, on the value of blue laws and common Sabbaths

Advice to female economists: Don't coauthor with men

[Harvard economics graduate student Heather] Sarsons compiled data on the publication records of young economists recruited by top universities in the United States over the last 40 years. ...

While women in the field publish as much as men, they are twice as likely to perish. And this higher rate for women being denied tenure persists even after accounting for differences in tenure rates across universities, the different subfields of economics that women work in, the quality of their publications and other influences that may have changed over time.

But Ms. Sarsons discovered one group of female economists who enjoyed the same career success as men: those who work alone. Specifically, she says that “women who solo author everything have roughly the same chance of receiving tenure as a man.” ...

Here is where it gets interesting. When an economist writes a paper on her own, there is no question about who deserves the credit. Each additional solo research paper raises the probability of getting tenure by about 8 or 9 percent, she calculated. The career benefit from publishing a solo paper is about the same for women as it is for men. But unlike women, men also get just as much credit for collaborative research, and there is no statistical difference in the career prospects of authors of individually written papers and those of papers written as part of a research team. ...

When women write with men, their tenure prospects don’t improve at all. That is, women get essentially zero credit for the collaborative work with men. Papers written by women in collaboration with both a male and female co-author yield partial credit. It is only when women write with other women that they are given full credit. ...

Interestingly, Ms. Sarsons has performed a parallel analysis of the field of sociology. In contrast to economics, there are no discernible differences in how men and women are given credit for joint work. One possible reason for this happier finding is that sociologists explicitly describe who deserves the most credit in a collaboration, by listing that person as the first author. This explicit attribution eliminates the need to make inferences, reducing the scope for sexist judgments. By contrast, economists list authors alphabetically, and the ensuing ambiguity may give greater space for sexist stereotypes to express themselves. Another possibility is that sociologists, many more of whom are women, are simply less sexist than economists. ...

As for Ms. Sarsons, a young economist who will have to navigate this thicket, she is taking her own advice. Her paper begins by saying, “This paper is intentionally solo-authored.”
--Justin Wolfers, NYT, on attribution bias

Friday, January 1, 2016

Partisan bias and its cure: money

Did unemployment get better or worse during Ronald Reagan’s presidency? In a 1988 survey, some 80 percent of dedicated Republicans accurately said it had improved, compared with 30 percent of loyal Democrats. In the 1990s, the pattern reversed on a range of factual questions about economic and fiscal issues. In a 1997 survey, for example, Republicans were far less likely than Democrats to acknowledge that the budget deficit had declined during the Bill Clinton administration. ...

But new research from two teams of political scientists adds a wrinkle to these findings. It turns out that the partisan bias in how people answer factual questions about the economy is diminished by this one weird trick: Pay people.

That is a conclusion reached in two new papers in The Quarterly Journal of Political Science, one from four scholars led by John G. Bullock at the University of Texas at Austin, the other by Markus Prior of Princeton and two colleagues.

When survey respondents were offered a small cash reward — a dollar or two — for producing a correct answer about the unemployment rate and other economic conditions, they were more likely to be accurate and less likely to produce an answer that fit their partisan biases. ...

The effect was even more pronounced when respondents were rewarded for honestly answering “I don’t know” when they didn’t have enough information. ...

The paper by Mr. Bullock, Alan S. Gerber, Seth J. Hill and Gregory A. Huber found that offering a $1 payment for a correct response and a 33-cent payment for an answer of “Don’t know” eliminated the entire partisan gap between Democrats and Republicans on questions about the economy.
--Neil Irwin, NYT, on the value of skin in the game

What happens to stuff you buy and then return

Little known to shoppers, however, is that a majority of returned items never make it back to retailers’ shelves. Instead, the items wind their way through liquidators, wholesalers and resellers, many of the purchases ending up in landfills. According to some estimates, as much as two million tons of returned items — most of it undamaged merchandise — are thrown away each year, enough to fill over 200,000 garbage trucks. ...

Optoro’s approach to cutting waste is to offer retailers more direct and cost-efficient ways to sell their returned goods through a software platform that tracks returns, quickly assesses which channel is the most effective for each returned item, and routes products to those channels.

For undamaged products that have a high resale value, like baby goods, power tools or tablet devices, Optoro’s software might direct products to its own discount site, Blinq.com, which sells open-box goods at discounts.
--Hiroko Tabuchi, NYT, on the cost of returned merchandise

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Making it easier to say no: Personal policies

Time-use surveys reveal that we have more leisure time than in decades past—but you’d hardly know it from how busy everyone feels. A prime reason for our modern busyness is, of course, our inability to just say no... to the endless demands on our time. So how do you say no without looking or feeling like a jerk? Enter “personal policies.”

Personal policies are an established set of simple rules that guide your decisions and actions. On the surface, they offer a gentler way of saying no, as in: “I don’t take work calls on Saturdays because that’s my time with family.” On a deeper level, they encourage reflection, help to define priorities and aid decision-making, especially with in-the-moment requests. They can stop you from defaulting to that regretful “yes.” ...

“Personal policies work because they essentially remove rejection from the equation.” You’re not saying “no” to the person but simply upholding your policy.

In addition, says William Ury, co-founder of the Harvard Negotiation Project, “executing on [policies] consistently can signal a sense of integrity, predictability and trustworthiness, which is key to building any strong personal or professional relationship.” ...

In another study, published in the International Journal of Research in Marketing, the same researchers found that people who said “I don’t” in role-playing and scenario-based exercises were more persuasive than those who said “I can’t.” So the next time an eager hostess tries to break your diet by offering “just a little piece,” kindly tell her, “No thank you, I don’t eat cake,” says Prof. Patrick. Saying “I don’t” connotes a higher degree of conviction and makes it harder for someone to push back.
--Jennifer Breheny Wallace, WSJ, on the power of rules instead of discretion

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Bad cafeteria food is offensive cultural appropriation

Students at an ultra-liberal Ohio college are in an uproar over the fried chicken, sushi and Vietnamese sandwiches served in the school cafeterias, complaining the dishes are “insensitive” and “culturally inappropriate.”

Gastronomically correct students at Oberlin College — alma mater of Lena Dunham — are filling the school newspaper with complaints and demanding meetings with campus dining officials and even the college president.

General Tso’s chicken was made with steamed chicken instead of fried — which is not authentically Chinese, and simply “weird,” one student bellyached in the Oberlin Review.

Others were up in arms over banh mi Vietnamese sandwiches served with coleslaw instead of pickled vegetables, and on ciabatta bread, rather than the traditional French baguette.

“It was ridiculous,” gripes Diep Nguyen, a freshman who is a Vietnam native.

Worse, the sushi rice was undercooked in a way that was, according to one student, “disrespectful” of her culture. Tomoyo Joshi, a junior from Japan, was highly offended by this flagrant violation of her rice. “If people not from that heritage take food, modify it and serve it as ‘authentic,’ it is appropriative,” she said.

Oberlin’s black student union joined in the fray this month by staging a protest outside Afrikan Heritage House, an on-campus dorm.

The cafeteria there wasn’t serving enough vegan and vegetarian options and had failed to make fried chicken a permanent feature on the Sunday night menu, the school newspaper reported.

Those students started a petition that also recommends the reduction of cream used in dishes, because “black American food doesn’t have much cream in it,” according to the Review.

The Nevada-based Universal Society of Hinduism joined the food fight last week after students discovered that the traditional Indian dish, tandoori, contained beef.

“Consuming beef was considered sacrilegious among Hindus,” blasted society president Rajan Zed, the Chronical-Telegram reported.

Campus dietitian Michele Gross told the Review this week the first meeting between college officials and dyspeptic students went well, and changes are being implemented to address all concerns.
--Melkorka Licea and Laura Italiano, New York Post, on one application of political correctness I could get behind

Friday, December 18, 2015

Streaming TV series are a new genre of art

...streaming shows — by which here I mean the original series that Netflix, Amazon and their ilk release all at once, in full seasons — are more than simply TV series as we’ve known them. They’re becoming a distinct genre all their own, whose conventions and aesthetics we’re just starting to figure out.

In TV, narrative has always been an outgrowth of the delivery mechanism. Why are there cliffhangers? So you’ll tune in next week. Why are shows a half-hour or an hour long? Because real-time viewing required predictable schedules. Why do episodes have a multiple-act structure? To leave room for the commercials.

HBO series like “Deadwood” — which jettisoned the ad breaks and content restrictions of network TV — have been compared to Dickens’s serial novels. Watching a streaming series is even more like reading a book — you receive it as a seamless whole, you set your own schedule — but it’s also like video gaming. Binge-watching is immersive. It’s user-directed. It creates a dynamic that I call “The Suck”: that narcotic, tidal feeling of getting drawn into a show and letting it wash over you for hours. ...

When you watch a series weekly, the time you spend not watching — mulling, anticipating, just getting older — is a part of the show. “Breaking Bad,” for instance, is the story of a man’s descent, or rise, from ordinary life to murderous criminality. In narrative time, the story takes about two years. Watched live on AMC, it aired for more than five years. Binged — as many late-joining fans saw it — it took maybe a week or three.

The live viewer saw Walter White’s change distended, in slow-motion; little by little, he broke badder and badder, in a way that emphasized the gradual slope of moral compromise. The binger saw him change in time-lapse, in a way that suggested that the tendency to arrogance and evil was in him all along. Neither perception is wrong. In fact, both themes are thoroughly built into the show. But how you watch, in some way, affects the story you see. ...

This approach has advantages. With a few hours to seal the deal, you don’t need to load up your first episode with gimmicks, and you can avoid the tedious network practice of “repeating the pilot”: telling repetitive stories in the early episodes to accommodate latecomers. You can pack a series with story and incident and trust viewers not to forget details...
--James Poniewozik, NYT, on the medium and the message

Monday, December 7, 2015

The liberal case for allowing suspected terrorists to buy guns

Since the atrocities in Paris, many Senate Republicans had been arguing that the threat of terrorism was so severe, the U.S. could not afford to take in Syrian refugees. And yet, on Thursday, these same lawmakers voted down a bill that would have prohibited anyone on the federal government's terror watch list from purchasing firearms in the United States. ...

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton, and the New York Times editorial board all railed against the GOP’s opposition to the measure. But before self-identified progressives join that chorus, they should consider this: A bill that bars suspected terrorists from buying guns is a bill that gives the White House the unilateral authority to rescind the constitutional rights of American citizens.

The terror watch list was one of the many Orwellian pre-crime initiatives adopted in the wake of 9/11. Last year, the Intercept published a 2013 document outlining the Obama administration’s criteria for labeling an individual a suspected terrorist. Those official guidelines stipulated that neither “concrete facts” nor “irrefutable evidence” were required to make that designation. That same evidentiary standard is applied to the smaller subset of individuals assigned to the No Fly List.

Some liberals may feel that the threat of terrorism justifies this dramatic exercise of state power. But it’s worth remembering that we live in a country that holds elections every four years and that, for the moment, Donald Trump has a non-zero chance of becoming our next president. The Obama administration considers the Black Lives Matter movement enough of a national-security threat to put its protesters under the surveillance of Homeland Security. Is it inconceivable that an administration less sympathetic to the movement’s goals might use its counterterrorism authority to inhibit the physical movement of its leading activists? Or that a candidate who has suggested establishing a database of all American Muslims might use the terror watch list in an oppressive manner?

Perhaps a liberal can oppose the lax criteria of the terror watch list and still wish to see it used as a tool for restricting the sale of guns. ...

But the problem with this reasoning is that, however unfortunately, gun ownership is currently construed as a constitutionally protected right. Thus, granting the executive branch the authority to unilaterally deny American citizens access to firearms would actually undermine our nation’s civil liberties more than the No Fly List ever could.

If the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of such an authority, it would create a precedent for the executive branch to rescind other protected rights in the name of preventing terrorism.

If that threat seems small and theoretical compared to the peril of our country’s daily gun violence, the same can be said about the threat posed by suspected terrorists purchasing firearms.

Yes, in the last ten years, 2,000 terror suspects legally purchased guns in the United States. But those 2,000 terror suspects account for roughly zero percent of American gun deaths over that period.
--Eric Levitz, New York, on the wrong way to prevent terrorist violence

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Is the U.S. really an outlier in mass shootings?

In his June 18, 2015, remarks from the White House, Obama said, "Now is the time for mourning and for healing. But let’s be clear: At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency. And it is in our power to do something about it." ...

For a look at the statistics, we checked with two researchers, Jaclyn Schildkraut of the State University of New York in Oswego and H. Jaymi Elsass of Texas State University. They have been collecting and analyzing mass-shooting incidents in 11 countries, covering the period from 2000 to 2014. ...

Schildkraut and Elsass shared the summary information from their database with PolitiFact. Here’s their table:

The chart does show that the United States has more mass shootings -- and more people cumulatively killed or injured -- than the other 10 nations combined, partly because it has a much bigger population than all but China.

Still, using this data, it’s easy to dispense with the first claim Obama made -- that "this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries." ... Clearly it does happen elsewhere, and not in trivial numbers. Seven of the countries saw double-digit numbers of people killed in mass shootings during that period.

By contrast, the second part of Obama’s claim -- that "it doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency" -- isn’t entirely off-base.

We compared mass shooting incidents across countries [by calculating] the number of victims per capita -- that is, adjusted for the country’s total population size.

Calculating it this way shows the United States in the upper half of the list of 11 countries, ranking higher than Australia, Canada, China, England, France, Germany and Mexico.

Still, the U.S. doesn’t rank No. 1. At 0.15 mass shooting fatalities per 100,000 people, the U.S. had a lower rate than Norway (1.3 per 100,000), Finland (0.34 per 100,000) and Switzerland (1.7 per 100,000).

We’ll note that all of these countries had one or two particularly big attacks and have relatively small populations, which have pushed up their per-capita rates. ...

Elsass warned PolitiFact of a few caveats about the data. While they believe their database "to be among the most exhaustive compilations available," Elsass noted that it may not include every instance of mass shootings. It also doesn’t include every example of mass killings -- just those committed by firearms, even though mass stabbings are not uncommon in such places as China. Finally, their database doesn’t include acts generally considered to be terrorism, such as the attack in Paris on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

"If these were included, we are likely to see something much different statistically as there have been a number of very high-profile terrorist attacks in Europe, some including the use of firearms, that are excluded from the current analysis," she said. But in all likelihood, this would only make the case against Obama’s claim stronger.
--Kelly Herring and Louis Jacobson, PolitiFact, on mass shootings everywhere

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Performance anxiety at the urinal

Not long after the invention of the idea of personal space in 1959 came a classic ’70s study gamely titled “Personal Space Invasions in the Lavatory.” In it, researchers spied upon urinals to see how long it took for men to begin emptying their bladders.

It takes, we learned, almost twice as long when there is a man at a urinal next to you, and about half as long as when someone is one urinal away, compared to going it alone.

Closeness breeds anxiety; penis-related closeness can be overwhelming.
--Choire Sicha, NYT, on unrelaxing things

Friday, November 27, 2015

Refusing racial victimhood

In a grand corridor of Harvard Law School, framed professors’ photographs hang on a wall. A week ago, someone put slivers of black tape over the faces of most of the African-American professors. I am one of those whose photograph was marked. ...

Since then I have been asked repeatedly how I feel about having been targeted by what some deem to be a racial hate crime. Questioners often seem to assume that I should feel deeply alarmed and hurt. I don’t.

The identity and motives of the person or people behind the taping have not been determined. ... Some observers, bristling with certainty, insist that the message conveyed by the taping of the photographs is obvious. To me it is puzzling.

Assuming that it was a racist gesture, there is a need to calibrate carefully its significance. On a campus containing thousands of students, faculty members and staff, one should not be surprised or unglued by an instance or even a number of instances of racism. The question is whether those episodes are characteristic or outliers. ...

Activists have succeeded in shoving to the top of the higher-education policy agenda the claims, dissatisfactions and aspirations of African-American students.

Successes, however, can generate or exacerbate destructive tendencies. I worry about two in particular. One involves exaggerating the scope of the racism that the activists oppose and fear. The other involves minimizing their own strength and the victories that they and their forebears have already achieved.

I have asked dissidents to tell me with as much particularity as possible the circumstances that led them to say that they feel burdened, alienated, disrespected, oppressed. ...

While some of these complaints have a ring of validity, several are dubious. ... Racism and its kindred pathologies are already big foes; there is no sustained payoff in exaggerating their presence, thus making them more formidable than they actually are.

Disturbing, too, is a related tendency to indulge in self-diminishment by displaying an excessive vulnerability to perceived and actual slights and insults. Some activists seem to have learned that invoking the rhetoric of trauma is an effective way of hooking into the consciences of solicitous authorities. Perhaps it is useful for purposes of eliciting certain short-term gains.

In the long run, though, reformers harm themselves by nurturing an inflated sense of victimization. A colleague of mine whose portrait was taped over exhibited the right spirit when he jauntily declared that it would take far more than tape to slow him down.
--Randall Kennedy, NYT, on maintaining perspective

Monday, November 23, 2015

Yoga is now politically incorrect

In studios across the nation, as many as 20 million Americans practice yoga every day. Few worry that their downward dogs or warrior poses disrespect other cultures.

But yoga comes from India, once a British colony. And now, at one Canadian university, a yoga class designed to include disabled students has been canceled after concerns the practice was taken from a culture that “experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and western supremacy,” according to the group that once sponsored it.

In a telephone interview with The Washington Post, Jennifer Scharf, who taught the class for up to 60 people at the University of Ottawa, said she was unhappy about the decision, but accepted it.
--Justin Wm. Moyer, Washington Post, on the expanding zone of censure and prohibition

Why Jet Li didn't kiss Aaliyah

We all know the story of Romeo Must Die, how Jet Li is the movie’s hero, and the whole time you see this connection developing between him and Aaliyah, who played the female lead. And in the last scene, Li was supposed to kiss her, but when they showed the movie to test audiences, people said they found that disgusting. In the version they released, you just see them give each other a hug.
--Into the Badlands actor Daniel Wu on the bamboo romantic ceiling. HT: ACT