January 31, 2009

Science Taken For Wonders

Reading George Makari's "Revolution In Mind: The Creation of Psychoanalysis" (Harper, 2008), the question that keeps leaping up at every turn is: how did anyone take Freud seriously for so long? Put another way, what deep psychological need did Freudian psychoanalysis — a sort of astrology of the mind, short of real evidence, a mishmash of wishful thinking and received prejudices masquerading as the key to unmasking wishful thoughts and prejudices — what deep needs did it tap to be able to seduce several whole generations of philosophers, analysts, and patients? Now that's a problem best studied by psychology (or social psychiatry, perhaps). In this history, Freud himself comes across as mercurial, manipulative, spiteful; the group of Freudians around him as a typical cult, concerned mostly with a desperate struggle not to alienate the Leader and find themselves on the outside. Not a pretty picture, but not that untypical of any insurgent movement, in the field of science or elsewhere.

Freud's monumental reputation loomed large in the Easter Island of philosophy I inhabited in Sydney all those years ago (where he seemed to have been regarded as a founder of the science and philosophy of mind), but he and Freudianism were basically invisible in the science and history of science courses I took at the same time. And it's easy to see why: at every step of the history as told by Makari I want to leap up and ask "but where's the evidence?" or "how could you conceivably test that?" after some new assertion or complex model has been unveiled. Entire theories seem to have been spawned by (or grounded on) anecdotal evidence often gained from a single unverified clinical case (and then just as easily abandoned). The whole history comes across as a whirl of epicycle upon epicycle, self-validating, unfalsifiable, almost medieval, a sort of ungrounded Aristotelian hermeneutics of the mind, and as fundamentally changeable as Freud himself.

But Freudianism isn't necessarily Freudian any more, and while it's a lot of fun, it's unfair to visit the sins of the father on his children (especially since he abandoned so many of them). In the ferment of ideas about the mind during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, I have to admit that Freud seems to have had a good productive line of suggestive metaphors, established some useful vocabulary, and done a lot of good in deliberately letting quite a few essential cats out of the bag. But science? What Freud does seem to have bequeathed science isn't so much a science of the mind (we're still a long way from that), but a series of suggestive and largely-untested models for such a science; whether they'll be successful in the longer term isn't clear. But it makes for a very readable history….

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January 26, 2009

Horse Trailer Day

Celebrate! I'll be doing my bit by taking fairy bread to work. Thanks to the ever-reliable Spike for reminding me of that great Oz (and NZ, I suspect) delicacy….

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January 20, 2009

Great Expectations

After all the choreographed celebrations and cellphone salutes, the question before us is not whether Obama can live up to expectations; it's whether the American people can do so. It's refreshing to hear a Grownup president speak — and one who talks of sacrifice almost as an entitlement — but were enough people listening? Too many years of encouraging people to hear whatever they wanted to hear (and to act however they want without thinking of consequences) takes its toll….

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January 15, 2009

The Endless Summer

That endless summer, the California drought-time winter: wind-blown streets and dusty sidewalks, the creepy dry heat of the Santa Ana winds blustering in from the deserts for days on end, the bare Sierras shimmering in the distance; we're heading for the driest January ever recorded, normally the wettest month of the wet season. It gets on your nerves.

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January 11, 2009

No True Scotsman

In a rather over-the-top and unintentionally-funny article for Design Observer, the great Murray Moss flails away at design windmills with whole paragraphs of things like:
"When he says 'come down a notch or two,' does Mr. Cannell [in an NYT article on design and recession] mean that Design should retreat from its current expansive, ambitious, fearless, exploratory, guild-breaking, all-encompassing plateau, from its hard-won re-positioning in the Arts? And revert back to what? To the perceived mid-century notion of efficiency and comfort?"
Those words seem almost, well, designed to set off the puffery detectors; "fearless, exploratory, guild-breaking, all-encompassing…"? Lordy, it's just design, dammit; and what is design but art harnessed for commerce and / or practicality? Self-importance? Moi?

"Designers and their true supporters have fought hard over the last fifteen years to expand the definition of design, not shrink it." And I guess that those of us who haven't fought hard for quite the same things — the expansion of the Design empire, for one — or bought any of the $10,000 designer chairs Moss mentions as exemplars of Design — just aren't True Supporters. Oh well. It's back to the drawing board for me, I guess….

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January 08, 2009

14th and Broadway

Massed TV news helicopters in the skies over Oakland are never a good sign; especially when they're over your neighbourhood. Last night, sporadic rioting, arson, vandalism, and protests in response to the Shooting (it's increasingly being capitalized around here); tomorrow? Who knows. What I think I most worry about is what's going to happen when the officer either isn't charged or is found not guilty after trial. That won't be sporadic….

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January 06, 2009

Fnoffle

Maybe I just like saying fnoffle ("We say that 'fnoffle' is a unary predicate…"), but maybe it's also because Aatu's such a consistently good read on Usenet (that ancient inflammable backwater) and carries Torkel Franzen's flame so effectively (it's hard to go past "The confused idea at issue is a perfect illustration of a very real danger in philosophy of mathematics, of reading philosophical significance into technical results without special argument" as an articulation one of my pet peeves…).

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January 04, 2009

On Home Ground

At about 2am New Year's Day, at my local BART station (Fruitvale), BART police shot and killed a passenger while he was face down on the platform in custody and being stood over by several BART police officers; he was not at that point apparently being violent, nor was he armed; the guy had been in a fight in the train. BART stonewalled about the shooting. So far, so normal.

But since it all happened in front of a BART train full of people, cell phone videos of the actual shooting and the associated mayhem have started to emerge, and dozens of witnesses have come forward saying essentially the same thing — that the victim was shot fatally in the back once by a police officer who was standing behind and above him while he was on the ground, in custody, and not being violent. You can see the mayhem yourself on YouTube without a lot of effort: this is the "semi-official" version (taken from a KTVU interview with the woman who took it)), but the more incriminating video also shown on TV news last night (where you see the actual shooting itself, with both the cop involved and the victim quite visible) doesn't appear to have made it to YouTube. BART's still stonewalling — something that's not so smart in the age of cellphone video and YouTube, maybe.

(Fruitvale BART station has a long history of violence, and shootings there aren't exactly novel, but I think what I don't understand is why there wasn't a riot at that point and why the police officers weren't simply ripped to shreds or thrown off the raised platform by the crowd…).

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January 01, 2009

Paradise Drive

"I was driven into Paradise" — Schoenberg on exile in California (that same California that surprisingly threads its way between Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Harry Partch, Henry Cowell, La Monte Young, Steve Reich, Terry Reilly, and John Adams at least…).

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