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Monday, May 28, 2007


I'm reading Douglas Hofstadter's "I am a Strange Loop". He talks about how big of a soul a given creature has and mentions a measurement system proposed by James Huneker with which to quantify this idea (p. 22). He suggests that our level of reluctance to kill a given creature is roughly an accurate measure of the amount of souledness, or the number of Hunekers contained:

In short, I would here argue, echoing and generalizing the provocative statement by James Huneker, that "souledness" is by no means an off-on, black-and-white, discrete variable having just two possible states like a bit, a pixel, or a light bulb, but rather is a shaded, blurry numerical variable that ranges continuously across different species and varieties of object... I would also argue that most people's largely unconscious prejudices about whether to eat or not to eat this or that food, whether to buy or not to buy this or that article of clothing, whether to swat or not to swat this or that insect ... reflect precisely this kind of numerical continuum in their minds, whether they admit it or not.
Its one thing to claim that people have some kind of internal model like the above in mind -- this seems quite reasonable. Its another to claim that this internal model coresponds to something fundamental in the world -- remains to be shown.

Of course, I have to counter this with a quote from Elizabeth Costello (p. 67):

.. And the fact that animals, lacking reason, cannot understand the universe but have simply to follow its rules blindly, proves that, unlike man, they are part of it but not part of its being: that man is godlike, animals thinglike.

Even Immanuel Kant, of whom I would have expected better, has a failure of nerve at this point. Even Kant does not pursue, with regard to animals, the implications of his inuition that reason may be not the being of the universe but on the contrary merely the being of the human brain.

And that, you see, is my dilemma this afternoon. Both reason and seven decades of life experience tell me that reason is neither the being of the universe nor the being of God. On the contrary, reason looks to me suspiciously like the being of human thought; worse than that, like the being of one tendency in human thought. Reason is the being of a certain spectrum of human thinking. ...

I haven't yet fully gotten what Hoffstadter's concept of a strange loop is, but I wonder about this human-centrism. Haven't we learned again and again, how unspecial we are? Are we to find in the realm of consciousness we truly are the center of the universe? This process of taking our intuitions and assuming that there is something fundamental to them can be a bit dangerous.
Anyway, as usual, I'm impatient, and have to write something before I understand it... but isn't that the time its the most interesting? Before its all settled down and solidified?

Monday, May 21, 2007

tick season

As usual, I escape from my office by walking in a nearby pine forest.
I follow a certain path that leads nearby to an abandoned skeet shooting range, making a loop ending up back on a main road for a 5 minute walk back to my office. In the winter, my snow footsteps were the only ones in this particular path.

Today, I followed the path, enjoying the sun and watching the streaky clouds. A few hours later, I was talking to someone about magnets when they noticed a tick crawling on my pant-leg. Now, home, and ready to take a shower, I find another one feasting on my inside leg just above my knee. I guess its the season for responding to each small itch with a frantic search. Is it worth giving up the walks for? Until I learn the hard way, the answer will be no.

Monday, May 07, 2007

postdoctoral success/failure

I'm rereading Sharon Traweek's ethnography (1988) of high energy physicists, Beamtimes and Lifetimes. Here's a great paragraph about how someone sees their postdoc experience in retrospect (p. 90):

Another postdoc knows that he has not "made it," and he is angry. Reexamining his postdoctorate, he believes that he now understands why he failed. In the first year, he thinks, the senior experimentalists are scanning the postdocs to see who is "charismatic". They watch how the postdocs handle conversations; the preferred style is confident, aggressive, and even abrasive if one suspects that another's ideas are wrong; he feels he could have adopted this style if he had understood its importance. The next step would have been to seek out "an action sector"-- and exciting volatile, and fashionable area. At that point in his career, "charm" became fashionable. He feels he ought to have taught himself and taught others about "charm". He should have anticipated where the problems lay and cultivated connections accordingly. The next step would have been to gain responsibility for some large, important project-- so important that others would have sought him out to talk. Ideally, he should have proposed an experiment of his own. Instead, out of loyalty and commitment, he stuck with his assigned task. Now he feels this cost him his career in high energy physics. He believes that he would have had difficulty being granted these responsibilities, however; he sees himself as being outside the "old boys' club," because in the labs where he did graduate work his undergraduate school was not considered to be "on the map." This postdoc has come to these conclusions retroactively; he is comparing his career over the past several years with those who have made it. He has since left high energy physics.

I like how "charm" could be read in the non-technical sense and it still almost works in the paragraph!

This whole chapter, "Male tales told during a life in physics" is pretty good. I suppose one does need to remember the warning that anthropologists often talk to those at the margins of a society/culture, so while those people can often have the clearest perspective and speak the most freely, they also may have a certain bitterness and interest in painting the community in a bad light.