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Saturday, December 30, 2006

Gladwell on dependency ratios, open-sourcing

Malcom Gladwell on dependency ratios and the limits of open-sourcing

Elsewhere: Jon Pott on Mozart and John Wilson's year in books at B&C.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

After P-Modernism: More Modernism - Alchemy in Philadelphia

John Wilson in B&C online:

As the vogue for "postmodernity" slowly fades, it is becoming increasingly clear that we are still in modernity, whatever that means, and running parallel to this new study of alchemy are similar trends in many different fields, which have in common their discovery that "modernity" was rather different than had been supposed. That Isaac Newton was deeply engaged in alchemy is emblematic of this reassessment. But equally notable is the way in which early chemistry was interwoven with theological disputes, especially with regard to the Eucharist—a recurring theme at the conference.

Then again, as Newman shows in his brilliant book Promethean Ambitions: Alchemy and the Quest to Perfect Nature, published by the University of Chicago Press in 2004, the history of alchemy has a bearing on our concern over the "rapidly eroding boundaries between the realms of the artificial and the natural," as considered for example by the President's Council on Bioethics. If the alchemist is not our contemporary, he is our ancestor, and we need to know about him—for his own sake, yes, but also better to understand ourselves and our times.

Life After Postmodernism

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Psychology as the Genetics of the 1950s

Louis Menand, on Timothy Leary, in the New Yorker:

[Leary] received a Ph.D. in psychology, in 1950. There was no more opportune moment to become a psychologist. Psychology in the nineteen-fifties played the role for many people that genetics does today. “It’s all in your head” has the same appeal as “It’s all in the genes”: an explanation for the way things are that does not threaten the way things are. Why should someone feel unhappy or engage in antisocial behavior when that person is living in the freest and most prosperous nation on earth? It can’t be the system! There must be a flaw in the wiring somewhere. So the postwar years were a slack time for political activism and a boom time for psychiatry. The National Institute of Mental Health, founded in 1946, became the fastest-growing of the seven divisions of the National Institutes of Health, awarding psychologists grants to study problems like alcoholism, juvenile delinquency, and television violence. Ego psychology, a therapy aimed at helping people adapt and adjust, was the dominant school in American psychoanalysis. By 1955, half of the hospital beds in the United States were occupied by patients diagnosed as mentally ill.

The belief that deviance and dissent could be “cured” by a little psychiatric social work (“This boy don’t need a judge—he needs an analyst’s care!”) is consistent with our retrospective sense of the nineteen-fifties as an age of conformity. The darker version—argued, for example, by Eli Zaretsky in his valuable cultural history of psychoanalysis, “Secrets of the Soul”—is that psychiatry became one of the instruments of soft coercion which liberal societies use to keep their citizens in line. But, as Zaretsky also points out, leading critics of conformity and normalcy—Herbert Marcuse, Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer, Norman O. Brown, Paul Goodman, Wilhelm Reich—thought that it was all in the head, too. For them, normalcy was the neurosis, for which they prescribed various means of personal liberation, from better drugs to better orgasms. In the early years of the Cold War, personal radicalism, revolution in the head and in the bed, was the safer radicalism. The political kind could get you blacklisted.


Friday, May 12, 2006

If the subway system were like health care...

From Malcolm Gladwell's blog:

I always try to think of a suitable analogy [for the problems with employer-based health care] and fail. The closest I can come is to imagine if we had employer-based subways in New York. You could ride the subway if you had a job. But if you lost your job, you would either have to walk or pay a prohibitively expensive subway surcharge. Of course, if you lost your job you would need the subway more than ever, because you couldn't afford taxis and you would need to travel around looking for work.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Book Bag: 'The Ancient Engineers'

De Camp, L. Sprague. The Ancient Engineers (Ballantine Books, 1995). [P-A-G-toc]

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Book Bag: 'Landscape and Gender in Italian Opera'

Senici, Emanuele, et al., ed. Landscape and Gender in Italian Opera: The Alpine Virgin from Bellini to Puccini (Cambridge Studies in Opera) (Cambridge, 2005). [P-A-G-toc-exc]

Why the need to invent mountains where in reality there are none? In short, because the female protagonists of I Puritani and Le Pardon de Ploërmel, Elvira and Dinorah, are virgins. To be sure, the nineteenth-century lyric stage was densely populated by virgins who live happily in flat or modestly undulated lands, from Rosina in Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia (Seville) to Amelia in Verdi's Simon Boccanegra (Genoa), from Fenella in Auber's La Muette de Portici (Naples) to Charlotte in Massenet's Werther (a German town), from Marzelline in Beethoven's Fidelio (a castle near Seville) to Eva in Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (Nuremberg). These characters' virginity is not one of their defining traits, however, nor does it constitute a central theme of the operas to which they belong – it is not the object of elaborate choral praise, for example. In the cases of Bellini's Elvira and Meyerbeer's Dinorah, though, bodily purity and what the nineteenth century considered its emotional and psychological manifestations, such as innocence and modesty, are emphatically thematised. In nineteenth-century opera the portrayal of an emphatically virginal heroine is often associated with a mountain setting, most frequently the Alps, where the clarity of the sky, the whiteness of the snow, the purity of the air function as symbols for the innocence of the female protagonist. The ideal playground for two virgins with a capital V, then, is the mountains, and amidst mountains they were duly placed, notwithstanding geographical reality. This conventional association between a vividly depicted mountain landscape and emphatically virginal female characters is present in all the main national traditions of nineteenth-century opera. Intro

Book Bag: 'Augustine And Postmodernism'

Caputo, John D., et al., ed. Augustine And Postmodernism: Confession And Circumfession (Indiana Series in the Philosophy of Religion) (Indiana U Press, 2005). [P-A-toc]

Situated at a point still very early in the formation of the tradition of metaphysical theology and more than a millennium before the formation of modernist systems of onto-theologic, Augustine's search for God is at once philosophical and scriptural, Neoplatonic and personal, metaphysical and anchored deeply in the dynamics of pre-philosophical experience. Nowhere is this more evident than in the pages of the Confessions, which are astir with the passion of his search for God, or of God's search for him, so that his confessions are the records, the "acts" (acta), more of God's doings than his. It is little wonder that it is the Confessions that have drawn the attention of Heidegger, Derrida, and Lyotard. The enduring timeliness of Augustine is in no small part a function of his passionate phenomenology avant la lettre of the temporality of the heart's restless love of God. Intro


Thursday, April 13, 2006

Book Bag: 'A Companion To Digital Humanities'

Schreibman, Susan, et al, ed. A Companion To Digital Humanities (Blackwell Companions to Literature and Culture) (Blackwell, 2005). [P1-P2-A-G-toc]

Computers and the techniques they made possible have over the years altered how many historians have understood their craft. To some they have opened the historical imagination to new questions and forms of presentation, while to others they have instead shuttered the historical imagination, at best limiting and channeling historical thinking and at worst confining it to procedural, binary steps. This chapter traces where the historical profession has come in the years since these professional debates and tries to assess how computing technologies have affected the discipline and how they will shape its future scholarship. p.56