Later On

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Archive for April 19th, 2021

The conscious self constructed of memes one adopts: what happens when one’s basic meme set is not consistent?

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Panjo in the New Yorker reviews a biography of Edward Said. From that review:

. . . Multiple and clashing selves were Said’s inheritance from the moment of his birth, in 1935, in West Jerusalem, where a midwife chanted over him in both Arabic and Hebrew. The family was Episcopalian and wealthy, and his father, who had spent years in America and prided himself on having light skin, named him after the Prince of Wales. Said always loathed his name, especially when shortened to Ed. Sent as a teen-ager to an American boarding school, Said found the experience “shattering and disorienting.” Trained at Princeton and Harvard as a literary scholar in a Euro-American humanist tradition, he became an enthusiast of French theory, a partisan of Michel Foucault. In “Orientalism,” published two decades into a conventional academic career, Said unexpectedly described himself as an “Oriental subject” and implicated almost the entire Western canon, from Dante to Marx, in the systematic degradation of the Orient.

“Orientalism” proved to be perhaps the most influential scholarly book of the late twentieth century; its arguments helped expand the fields of anti-colonial and post-colonial studies. Said, however, evidently came to feel that “theory” was “dangerous” to students, and derided the “jaw-shattering jargonistic postmodernisms” of scholars like Jacques Derrida, whom he considered “a dandy fooling around.” Toward the end of his life, the alleged professor of terror collaborated with the conductor Daniel Barenboim to set up an orchestra of Arab and Israeli musicians, angering many Palestinians, including members of Said’s family, who supported a campaign of boycott and sanctions against Israel. While his handsome face appeared on the T-shirts and posters of left-wing street protesters worldwide, Said maintained a taste for Rolex watches, Burberry suits, and Jermyn Street shoes right up to his death, from leukemia, in 2003.

“To be a Levantine is to live in two or more worlds at once without belonging to either,” Said once wrote, quoting the historian Albert Hourani. “It reveals itself in lostness, pretentiousness, cynicism and despair.” His melancholy memoir of loss and deracination, “Out of Place” (1999), invited future biographers to probe the connection between their subject’s cerebral and emotional lives. Timothy Brennan, a friend and graduate student of Said’s, now warily picks up the gauntlet, in an authorized biography, “Places of Mind” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Scanting Said’s private life, including his marriages and other romantic liaisons, Brennan concerns himself with tracing an intellectual and political trajectory. One of the half-concealed revelations in the book is how close Said came, with his Levantine wealth and Ivy League education, to being a somewhat refined playboy, chasing women around the Eastern Seaboard in his Alfa Romeo. In Jerusalem, Said went to St. George’s, a boys’ school for the region’s ruling castes. In Cairo—where his family moved in 1947, shortly before Jewish militias occupied West Jerusalem—he attended the British-run Victoria College. There he was chiefly known for his mediocre marks and insubordinate ways; his classmates included the future King Hussein of Jordan and the actor Omar Sharif.

Cairo was then the principal metropolis of a rapidly decolonizing and politically assertive Arab world. The creation of the state of Israel—following a U.N. resolution, on Palestinian land—and the refugee crisis and wars that ensued were on everyone’s mind. Yet Said inhabited a bubble of affluent cosmopolitans, speaking English and French better than Arabic, and attending the local opera. When he was six years old, he started playing the family piano, a Blüthner baby grand from Leipzig, and he later received private lessons from Ignace Tiegerman, a Polish Jew famous for his interpretations of Brahms and Chopin. Said’s father, who ran a successful office-supply business, was socially ambitious, and his time in America had given him a lasting admiration for the West. At one point, he considered moving his entire family to the United States. Instead, in 1951, he contented himself with dispatching his son to Northfield Mount Hermon School, in rural Massachusetts.

Brennan shows how much Said initially was, as he once confessed, a “creature of an American and even a kind of upper-class wasp education,” distanced from the “uniquely punishing destiny” of an Arab Palestinian in the West. Glenn Gould recitals in Boston appear to have registered more with him than the earthquakes of the post-colonial world, such as the Great Leap Forward or the anti-French insurgency in Algeria. The Egyptian Revolution erupted soon after Said left for the U.S., and a mob of protesters burned down his father’s stationery shop. Within a decade, the family had moved to Lebanon. Yet these events seem to have had less influence on Said than the political currents of his new country did. Brennan writes, “Entering the United States at the height of the Cold War would color Said’s feelings about the country for the rest of his life.” Alfred Kazin, writing in his journals in 1955, already worried that intellectuals had found in America a new “orthodoxy”—the idea of the country as “world-spirit and world hope.” This consensus was bolstered by a professionalization of intellectual life. Jobs in universities, media, publishing, and think tanks offered former bohemians and penurious toilers money and social status. Said began his career at precisely this moment, when many upwardly mobile American intellectuals became, in his later, unforgiving analysis, “champions of the strong.”

Nonetheless, his own early impulse, born of an immigrant’s insecurity, was, as he later put it, to make himself over “into something the system required.” His earliest intellectual mentors were such iconic figures of American literary culture as R. P. Blackmur and Lionel Trilling. He wrote a prize-winning dissertation on Conrad; he read Sartre and Lukács. In his early writings, he faithfully absorbed all the trends then dominant in English departments, from existentialism to structuralism. Devoted to Chopin and Schumann, he seems to have been as indifferent to blues and jazz as he was to Arabic music. He adored Hollywood movies, but there is no evidence that, in this period, he engaged with the work of James Baldwin or Ralph Ellison, or had much interest in the civil-rights movement. When students protesting the war in Vietnam disrupted a class of his, he called campus security.

Brennan detects a hint of what was to come in a remark of Said’s about the dual selves of Conrad: one “the waiting and willing polite transcriber who wished to please, the other an uncooperative demon.” Much impotent anger seems to have long simmered in Said as he witnessed “the web of racism, cultural stereotypes, political imperialism, dehumanizing ideology holding in the Arab or the Muslim.” In a conversation filmed for Britain’s Channel 4, Said claimed that many of his cultural heroes, such as Isaiah Berlin and Reinhold Niebuhr, were prejudiced against Arabs. “All I could do,” he said, “was note it.” He watched aghast, too, the critical acclaim for “The Arab Mind,” a 1973 book by the Hungarian Jewish academic Raphael Patai, which described Arabs as a fundamentally unstable people.

It’s not hard to see how Said, upholding the “great books” courses at Columbia, would have come to feel intensely the frustrations that writers and intellectuals from countries subjugated by Europe and America had long experienced: so many of the canonical figures of Western liberalism and democracy, from John Stuart Mill to Winston Churchill, were contemptuous of nonwhite peoples. Among aspiring intellectuals who came to the U.S. and Europe from Asia, Africa, and Latin America, a sense of bitterness ran especially deep. Having struggled to emulate the cultural élite of the West by acquiring a knowledge of its literature and philosophy, they realized that their role models remained largely ignorant of the worlds they had come from. Moreover, the steep price of that ignorance was paid, often in blood, by the people back home.

It was the Six-Day War, in 1967, and the exultant American media coverage of Israel’s crushing victory over Arab countries, that killed Said’s desire to please his white mentors. He began reaching out to other Arabs and methodically studying Western writings about the Middle East. In 1970, he met Arafat, initiating a long and troubled relationship in which Said undertook two equally futile tasks: advising the stubbly, pistol-toting radical on how to make friends and influence people in the West, and dispelling Arafat’s impression that he, Said, was a representative of the United States. . .

Read the whole thing.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 April 2021 at 6:09 pm

Consciousness in the electric brain: Currents? or Field?

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I came across “Brain wifi,” with the subtitle:

Instead of a code encrypted in the wiring of our neurons, could consciousness reside in the brain’s electromagnetic field?

The article, by Johnjoe McFadden, professor of molecular genetics at the University of Surrey, begins:

Some 2,700 years ago in the ancient city of Sam’al, in what is now modern Turkey, an elderly servant of the king sits in a corner of his house and contemplates the nature of his soul. His name is Katumuwa. He stares at a basalt stele made for him, featuring his own graven portrait together with an inscription in ancient Aramaic. It instructs his family, when he dies, to celebrate ‘a feast at this chamber: a bull for Hadad harpatalli and a ram for Nik-arawas of the hunters and a ram for Shamash, and a ram for Hadad of the vineyards, and a ram for Kubaba, and a ram for my soul that is in this stele.’ Katumuwa believed that he had built a durable stone receptacle for his soul after death. This stele might be one of the earliest written records of dualism: the belief that our conscious mind is located in an immaterial soul or spirit, distinct from the matter of the body.

The Katamuwa Stele cast, digitally rendered by Travis Saul. Courtesy of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.

More than 2 millennia later, I was also contemplating the nature of the soul, as my son lay propped up on a hospital gurney. He was undertaking an electroencephalogram (EEG), a test that detects electrical activity in the brain, for a condition that fortunately turned out to be benign. As I watched the irregular wavy lines march across the screen, with spikes provoked by his perceptions of events such as the banging of a door, I wondered at the nature of the consciousness that generated those signals.

Just how do the atoms and molecules that make up the neurons in our brain – not so different to the bits of matter in Katumwa’s inert stele or the steel barriers on my son’s hospital bed – manage to generate human awareness and the power of thought? In answering that longstanding question, most neurobiologists today would point to the information-processing performed by brain neurons. For both Katumuwa and my son, this would begin as soon as light and sound reached their eyes and ears, stimulating their neurons to fire in response to different aspects of their environment. For Katumuwa, perhaps, this might have been the pinecone or comb that his likeness was holding on the stele; for my son, the beeps from the machine or the movement of the clock on the wall.

Each ‘firing’ event involves the movement of electrically charged atoms called ions in and out of the neurons. That movement triggers a kind of chain reaction that travels from one nerve cell to another via logical rules, roughly analogous to the AND, OR and NOT Boolean operations performed by today’s computer gates, in order to generate outputs such as speech. So, within milliseconds of him glancing at his stele, the firing rate of millions of neurons in Katumuwa’s brain correlated with thousands of visual features of the stele and its context in the room. In this sense of correlating with, those brain neurons would supposedly know at least some aspects of Katumuwa’s stele.

Yet information-processing clearly isn’t sufficient for conscious knowing. Computers process lots of information yet have not exhibited the slightest spark of consciousness. Several decades ago, in an essay exploring the phenomenology of consciousness, the philosopher Thomas Nagel asked us to imagine what it’s like to be a bat. This feature of being-like-something, of having a perspective on the world, captures something about what it means to be a truly conscious ‘knower’. In that hospital room watching my son’s EEG, I wondered what it was like to be one of his neurons, processing the information registering the slamming of a door. As far as we can tell, an individual neuron knows just one thing – its firing rate. It fires or doesn’t fire based on its inputs, so the information it carries is pretty much equivalent to the zero or one of binary computer language. It thereby encodes just a single bit of information. The value of that bit, whether a zero or a one, might correlate with the slamming of a door, but it says nothing about the door’s shape, its colour, its use as a portal between rooms or the noise of its slamming – all features that I’m sure were part of my son’s conscious experience. I concluded that being a single neuron in my son’s brain would not feel like anything.

Of course, you could argue, as neurobiologists usually do, that . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Then in the New Yorker I was reading “Do Brain Implants Change Your Identity?” by Christine Kenneally. It’s an interesting article, but what caught my eye was a description of the conscious experience of an epilectic seizure, which is (as the article explains) an electric storm in the brain which of course would disrupt the electromagnetic field. If that indeed is where consciousness resides, that would explain this woman’s description:

. . . The human brain is a small electrical device of super-galactic complexity. It contains an estimated hundred billion neurons, with many more links between them than there are stars in the Milky Way. Each neuron works by passing an electrical charge along its length, causing neurotransmitters to leap to the next neuron, which ignites in turn, usually in concert with many thousands of others. Somehow, human intelligence emerges from this constant, thrilling choreography. How it happens remains an almost total mystery, but it has become clear that neural technologies will be able to synch with the brain only if they learn the steps of this dance. . .

. . . I asked Leggett to describe what it was like to have a seizure. She didn’t know. When one took hold, she was ripped out of her consciousness; she wasn’t there. Afterward, there was a terrible sense of having been absent. She would feel mortified in front of anyone who had witnessed the seizure and alarmed as she took stock of the injuries that she often suffered. Even worse, she said, was that epilepsy stole her memories. Every time she had a seizure and then returned, she seemed to have left some of her memories behind her. . .

Written by LeisureGuy

19 April 2021 at 5:42 pm

Is Facebook Buying Off The New York Times?

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Dan Froomkin writes in the Washington Monthly:

Over the past two decades, as Big Tech has boomed, news organizations have been going bust. Between 2004 and 2019, one in every four U.S. newspapers shut down, and almost all the rest cut staff, for a total of 36,000 jobs lost between 2008 and 2019 alone. Local newspapers have been particularly devastated, making it ever more difficult for people to know what is happening in their communities.

Many factors contributed to this economic collapse, but none more so than the cornering of the digital advertising market by the duopoly of Facebook and Google. Facebook’s threat to a free press—and, by extension, to democracy—is especially pernicious. The social media company is financially asphyxiating the news industry even as it gives oxygen to conspiracy theories and lies. As a result of its many roles in degrading our democracy, it faces mounting scrutiny by politicians and regulators.

Facebook has responded to the negative attention by creating a highly sophisticated public relations effort, which includes becoming the number one corporate spender on federal lobbying and engaging in a massive advertising blitz aimed at the D.C. policy audience. Less well known, and potentially far more dangerous, is a secretive, multimillion-dollar-a-year payout scheme aimed at the most influential news outlets in America. Under the cover of launching a feature called Facebook News, Facebook has been funneling money to The New York TimesThe Washington PostThe Wall Street Journal, ABC News, Bloomberg, and other select paid partners since late 2019.

Participating in Facebook News doesn’t appear to deliver many new readers to outlets; the feature is very difficult to find, and it is not integrated into individuals’ newsfeeds. What Facebook News does deliver—though to only a handful of high-profile news organizations of its choosing—is serious amounts of cash. The exact terms of these deals remain secret, because Facebook insisted on nondisclosure and the news organizations agreed. The Wall Street Journal reported that the agreements were worth as much as $3 million a year, and a Facebook spokesperson told me that number is “not too far off at all.” But in at least one instance, the numbers are evidently much larger. In an interview last month, former New York Times CEO Mark Thompson said the Times is getting “far, far more” than $3 million a year—“very much so.”

For The New York Times, whose net income was $100 million in 2020, getting “far, far more” than $3 million a year with essentially no associated cost is significant. And once news outlets take any amount of money from Facebook, it becomes difficult for them to let it go, notes Mathew Ingram, chief digital writer for the Columbia Journalism Review. “It creates a hole in your balance sheet. You’re kind of beholden to them.” It’s not exactly payola, Ingram told me, searching for the right metaphor. Nor is it a protection racket. “It’s like you’re a kept person,” he said. “You’re Facebook’s mistress.”

There’s no evidence that the deal directly affects coverage in either the news or editorial departments. Before the Facebook News deal, the Times famously published an op-ed titled “It’s Time to Break Up Facebook,” by Chris Hughes, a cofounder of Facebook turned critic. And since the deal, columns from Tim Wu and Kara Swisher, among others, have been similarly critical. In December, the editorial board welcomed a lawsuit calling for Facebook to be broken up.

And Facebook and Google money is, admittedly, all over journalism already. Virtually every major media nonprofit receives direct or indirect funding from Silicon Valley, including this one. When the Monthly gets grants from do-good organizations like NewsMatch, some of the funds originate with Facebook.

But these three points are beyond dispute.

First, the deals are a serious breach of traditional ethics. In the pre-internet days, independent newspapers wouldn’t have considered accepting gifts or sweetheart deals from entities they covered, under any circumstance. The Washington Post under the editor Leonard Downie Jr., for instance, wouldn’t even accept grants from nonprofits to underwrite reporting projects, for fear of losing the appearance of independence. Facebook, which took in $86 billion in revenue last year, is a hugely controversial behemoth having profound, highly newsworthy, and negative effects on society. Accepting money from them creates a conflict of interest.

Even for trusted news organizations whose audiences believe they can’t be bought outright, “it might come across as hypocrisy to heavily criticize an industry while also collaborating with them,” says Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, the director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. Agreeing to keep the terms of the deal confidential is also a mistake, Nielsen told me. “This sort of opacity I don’t think builds trust.”

Second, these deals help Facebook maintain the public appearance of legitimacy. Journalists, critics, and congressional investigators have amply documented how Facebook has become a vector of disinformation and hate speech that routinely invades our privacy and undermines our democracy. For The New York Times and other pillars of American journalism to effectively partner with Facebook creates the impression that Facebook is a normal, legitimate business rather than a monopolistic rogue corporation.

Finally, these agreements undermine  . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, and it’s worth readingg.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 April 2021 at 11:00 am

Lemon Bay, a Mallard-formula soap from Grooming Dept, with the iKon Shavecraft X3

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I naturally did use Grooming Dept pre-shave. I specifically mention it because the result this morning is a perfect shave, and thus I want all contributing factors specified.

This silvertip brush combines a relatively long loft with a relatively low knot density, the result being an extraordinarily gentle brush. It loaded easily and quickly — “gentle” does not mean “ineffective” — and I quickly worked up a very nice lather, nice in both fragrance and feel. The snakewood handle is light in weight and so the brush overall has a light feeling.

The X3 is an extremely good slant, here mounted on the RazoRock barberpole handle. The X3 is extremely comfortable, so there was no nick danger (“Nick Danger, Third Eye”), and the result was smooth perfection.

A splash of lemon Myrsol, and the week begins, with clear skies and a temperature of 57ºF.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 April 2021 at 10:23 am

Posted in Shaving

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