Sunday, May 01, 2016

Information, Please? — Thank You, Professor Shannon

Siobhan Roberts is graceful and deft explainer of the mysteries of science and mathematics. Her celebration of Claude Shannon's life and work at the dawn of the Information Age made sense to this numerical- and science-challenged blogger. If this is (fair & balanced) science for a dummy, so be it.

[x New Yorker]
Claude Shannon, The Father Of The Information Age, Turns 1100100
By Siobhan Roberts

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Twelve years ago, Robert McEliece, a mathematician and engineer at Caltech, won the Claude E. Shannon Award, the highest honor in the field of information theory. During his acceptance lecture, at an international symposium in Chicago, he discussed the prize’s namesake, who died in 2001. Someday, McEliece imagined, many millennia in the future, the hundred-and-sixty-sixth edition of the Encyclopedia Galactica—a fictional compendium first conceived by Isaac Asimov—would contain the following biographical note:

Claude Shannon: Born on the planet Earth (Sol III) in the year 1916 A.D. Generally regarded as the father of the information age, he formulated the notion of channel capacity in 1948 A.D. Within several decades, mathematicians and engineers had devised practical ways to communicate reliably at data rates within one per cent of the Shannon limit.

As is sometimes the case with encyclopedias, the crisply worded entry didn’t quite do justice to its subject’s legacy. That humdrum phrase—“channel capacity”—refers to the maximum rate at which data can travel through a given medium without losing integrity. The Shannon limit, as it came to be known, is different for telephone wires than for fibre-optic cables, and, like absolute zero or the speed of light, it is devilishly hard to reach in the real world. But providing a means to compute this limit was perhaps the lesser of Shannon’s great breakthroughs. First and foremost, he introduced the notion that information could be quantified at all. In “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” his legendary paper from 1948, Shannon proposed that data should be measured in bits—discrete values of zero or one. (He gave credit for the word’s invention to his colleague John Tukey, at what was then Bell Telephone Laboratories, who coined it as a contraction of the phrase “binary digit.”)

“It would be cheesy to compare him to Einstein,” James Gleick, the author of The Information (2011), told me, before submitting to temptation. “Einstein looms large, and rightly so. But we’re not living in the relativity age, we’re living in the information age. It’s Shannon whose fingerprints are on every electronic device we own, every computer screen we gaze into, every means of digital communication. He’s one of these people who so transform the world that, after the transformation, the old world is forgotten.” That old world, Gleick said, treated information as “vague and unimportant,” as something to be relegated to “an information desk at the library.” The new world, Shannon’s world, exalted information; information was everywhere. “He created a whole field from scratch, from the brow of Zeus,” David Forney, an electrical engineer and adjunct professor at MIT, said. Almost immediately, the bit became a sensation: scientists tried to measure birdsong with bits, and human speech, and nerve impulses. (In 1956, Shannon wrote a disapproving editorial about this phenomenon, called “The Bandwagon.”)

Although Shannon worked largely with analog technology, he also has some claim as the father of the digital age, whose ancestral ideas date back not only to his 1948 paper but also to his master’s thesis, published a decade earlier. The thesis melded George Boole’s nineteenth-century Boolean algebra (based on the variables true and false, denoted by the binary one and zero) with the relays and switches of electronic circuitry. The computer scientist and sometime historian Herman Goldstine hyperbolically deemed it “one of the most important master’s theses ever written,” arguing that “it changed circuit design from an art to a science.” Neil Sloane, a retired Bell Labs mathematician as well as the co-editor of Shannon’s collected papers and the founder of the On-Line Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences, agreed. “Of course, Shannon’s main work was in communication theory, without which we would still be waiting for telegrams,” Sloane said. But circuit design, he added, seemed to be Shannon’s great love. “He loved little machines. He loved the tinkering.”

For instance, Shannon built a machine that did arithmetic with Roman numerals, naming it THROBAC I, for Thrifty Roman-Numeral Backward-Looking Computer. He built a flame-throwing trumpet and a rocket-powered Frisbee. He built a chess-playing automaton that, after its opponent moved, made witty remarks. Inspired by the late artificial-intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky, he designed what was dubbed the Ultimate Machine: flick the switch to “On” and a box opens up; out comes a mechanical hand, which flicks the switch back to “Off” and retreats inside the box. Shannon’s home, in Winchester, Massachusetts (Entropy House, he called it), was full of his gizmos, and his garage contained at least thirty idiosyncratic unicycles—one without pedals, one with a square tire, and a particularly confounding unicycle built for two. Among the questions he sought to answer was, What’s the smallest unicycle anybody could ride? “He had a few that were a little too small,” Elwyn Berlekamp, a professor emeritus of mathematics at Berkeley and a co-author of Shannon’s last paper, told me. Shannon sat on Berlekamp’s thesis committee at MIT, and in return he asked Berlekamp to teach him how to juggle with four balls. “He claimed his hands were too small, which was true—they were smaller than most people’s—so he had trouble holding the four balls to start,” Berlekamp said. But Shannon succeeded in mastering the technique, and he pursued further investigations with his Jugglometer. “He was hacking reality,” the digital philosopher Amber Case said.

By 1960, however, like the hand of that sly machine, Shannon had retreated. He no longer participated much in the field that he had created, publishing only rarely. Yet he still tinkered, in the time he might have spent cultivating the big reputation that scientists of his stature tend to seek. In 1973, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers christened the Shannon Award by bestowing it on the man himself, at the International Symposium on Information Theory in Ashkelon, Israel. Shannon had a bad case of nerves, but he pulled himself together and delivered a fine lecture on feedback, then dropped off the scene again. In 1985, at the International Symposium in Brighton, England, the Shannon Award went to the University of Southern California’s Solomon Golomb. As the story goes, Golomb began his lecture by recounting a terrifying nightmare from the night before: he’d dreamed that he was about deliver his presentation, and who should turn up in the front row but Claude Shannon. And then, there before Golomb in the flesh, and in the front row, was Shannon. His reappearance (including a bit of juggling at the banquet) was the talk of the symposium, but he never attended again. Ω

[Siobhan Roberts is an independent scholar/science journalist based in Toronto. Her most recent book is Genius at Play (2015), about the Princeton mathematician John Horton Conway. The record of Roberts' academic credentials is fugitive, but her focus on reconciling what the British novelist and scientist C.P. Snow famously referred to as "the two cultures" of science and art. For this work, Roberts has served as a Director’s Visitor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ, and a Fellow at the Leon Levy Center for Biography at the CUNY Graduate Center. She also won the Mathematical Association of America’s 2009 Euler Prize for expanding the public’s view of mathematics with her book, King of Infinite Space: Donald Coxeter, the Man Who Saved Geometry (2006).]

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Saturday, April 30, 2016

Today's BIG Question: How Low Can We Go?

In today's snark sweepstakes for blog entries, Eags (Timothy Egan) finished a close second to The Krait (Gail Collins); see his essay here. However, The Krait (explanation of this blog's nom de plume here. supplied an LOL-moment with nearly every line. Just when you think it can't get any worse... it does... in spades. If this is (fair & balanced) political nincompoopery, so be it.

[x NY Fishwrap]
The One Thing Worse Than Trump
By The Krait (Gail Collins)

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Ted Cruz continues to astound. Every time it appears he can’t get more awful, he finds a new avenue, like a ground mole sniffing out a beetle. Right now, he’s in Indiana, trying to save his presidential career by ranting about transgender people and bathrooms.

“Even if Donald Trump dresses up as Hillary Clinton, he shouldn’t be using the girls’ restroom,” Cruz declaimed at a rally. It’s his new favorite line. He is constantly reminding Republican voters that Trump, when asked which bathroom transgender people should use, simply replied the one that they felt most appropriate.

That was possibly the most rational moment of the Trump campaign, and of course he has since started fudging on it. But not enough for Cruz, who has earned the distinction of being a presidential candidate who can make Donald Trump look good. “I get along with almost everybody, but I have never worked with a more miserable son of a bitch in my life,” said the former House speaker, John Boehner. He also called Cruz “Lucifer in the flesh.”

If this has become a battle between fear and loathing, it appears that Republicans who know both candidates are deciding they’d rather be afraid.

Tuesday’s Indiana primary is critical for Cruz, and he scored a coup when Governor Mike Pence endorsed him. Perhaps Pence, an extreme social conservative, felt he had to go with the only candidate who opposed allowing rape victims to seek abortions. But you have heard more enthusiastic announcements from flight attendants demonstrating the proper use of seatbelts.

Pence praised Trump for taking “a strong stand for Hoosier jobs” while blandly commending Cruz for his “knowledge of the Constitution.” We all know that as a youth, Ted memorized that document, and you can imagine him reciting Article II for the edification of his classmates. Which is both commendable and a possible explanation for why his former college roommate told The Daily Beast that he’d rather vote for a name picked randomly from the phone book.

It was a week in which Cruz made headlines with his disastrous attempt to connect with Indiana sports fans, in which he referred to a basketball hoop as a “ring.” That was a terrible moment, although certainly not as bad as Trump’s boastful announcement that he’d gotten the backing of the ex-boxer Mike Tyson. (“I love it … Iron Mike. You know all the tough guys endorse me. I like that, O.K.?”) Tyson has strong ties to Indiana, having served three years in prison there for raping a beauty pageant contestant in 1992.

Cruz made a desperate play for attention by picking Carly Fiorina as his ticket’s vice-presidential candidate. While he’s still way behind in delegates, the senator from Texas now leads the pack in anointed running mates.

Fiorina was obviously chosen after long and careful consideration. But who do you think the other finalists were? He clearly needed a woman whose best career option was joining the Ted Cruz ticket. I am thinking the possible contenders were:

A) That State Board of Education candidate in Texas who claims Barack Obama used to pay for his drug habit by working as a prostitute.

B) Mrs. Cruz

C) The House member who made the impassioned speech denouncing government regulation of ceiling fans.

D) Wendy who delivered pizza to the campaign headquarters during the Ohio primary.

The woman from Texas is an actual person. The one from the House is Representative Marsha Blackburn (R-TN). (“First they came for our health care. Then they took away our light bulbs … now they are coming after our ceiling fans.”) She’d be perfect, really. But unfortunately, she’s leaning toward Trump.

Cruz says that as the former head of a Fortune 500 company, Fiorina knows “where jobs come from.” (And where jobs go — she laid off 30,000 Hewlett-Packard employees.) She also ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in California — who can forget that campaign commercial where her opponent was depicted as a satanic sheep? The California connection might at least help him out in the state’s June primary, except that Fiorina decamped for Virginia after she lost the election, leaving behind memories and unpaid campaign debts.

The whole political world tuned in to watch Cruz announce Fiorina’s elevation, then wandered off to dust some bookshelves as he orated on for half an hour before turning over the stage. Fiorina then mesmerized the remaining viewers by singing a song, which she claimed she used to entertain Cruz’s daughters on bus rides, in a little-girl voice.

Cruz has been dragging the children, 5 and 8, into his campaign a lot. It appears they now spend their days on a bus with Carly Fiorina and being trotted onstage by Dad — before he gets to the part about Donald Trump cross-dressing in the girls’ restroom. They’ve also starred in a TV campaign ad reading from a mock Christmas book called “The Grinch Who Lost Her Emails.”

Free the Cruz Kids. Ω

[Gail Collins joined the New York Times in 1995 as a member of the editorial board and later as an op-ed columnist. In 2001 she became the first woman ever appointed editor of the Times editorial page. At the beginning of 2007, she took a leave in order to complete America's Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates and Heroines. Collins returned to the Times as a columnist in July 2007. Collins has a BA (journalism) from Marquette University and an MA (government) from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Gail Collins’s newest book is As Texas Goes...: How the Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda (2012).]

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Friday, April 29, 2016

Meet A Man For Our Season

Professor Steven Nadler, an expert on Spinoza, finds that the philosopher's writings in the 17th century resonate today with his exposure of ugly truths about his fellow citizens and their society in the 17th century. If this is a (fair & balanced) call for a neo-Spinozist, so be it.

Mea culpa from the blogger: the spellings of numerous words and the grammatical curiosity of single quotation marks betray the Anglo-Austo origins of Aeon.

[x Aeon]
Why Spinoza Still Matters
By Steven Nadler

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In July 1656, the 23-year-old Bento de Spinoza was excommunicated from the Portuguese-Jewish congregation of Amsterdam. It was the harshest punishment of herem (ban) ever issued by that community. The extant document, a lengthy and vitriolic diatribe, refers to the young man’s ‘abominable heresies’ and ‘monstrous deeds’. The leaders of the community, having consulted with the rabbis and using Spinoza’s Hebrew name, proclaim that they hereby ‘expel, excommunicate, curse, and damn Baruch de Spinoza’. He is to be ‘cast out from all the tribes of Israel’ and his name is to be ‘blotted out from under heaven’.

Over the centuries, there have been periodic calls for the herem against Spinoza to be lifted. Even David Ben-Gurion, when he was prime minister of Israel, issued a public plea for ‘amending the injustice’ done to Spinoza by the Amsterdam Portuguese community. It was not until early 2012, however, that the Amsterdam congregation, at the insistence of one of its members, formally took up the question of whether it was time to rehabilitate Spinoza and welcome him back into the congregation that had expelled him with such prejudice. There was, though, one thing that they needed to know: should we still regard Spinoza as a heretic?

Unfortunately, the herem document fails to mention specifically what Spinoza’s offences were — at the time he had not yet written anything — and so there is a mystery surrounding this seminal event in the future philosopher’s life. And yet, for anyone who is familiar with Spinoza’s mature philosophical ideas, which he began putting in writing a few years after the excommunication, there really is no such mystery. By the standards of early modern rabbinic Judaism — and especially among the Sephardic Jews of Amsterdam, many of whom were descendants of converso refugees from the Iberian Inquisitions and who were still struggling to build a proper Jewish community on the banks of the Amstel River — Spinoza was a heretic, and a dangerous one at that.

What is remarkable is how popular this heretic remains nearly three and a half centuries after his death, and not just among scholars. Spinoza’s contemporaries, René Descartes and Gottfried Leibniz, made enormously important and influential contributions to the rise of modern philosophy and science, but you won’t find many committed Cartesians or Leibnizians around today. The Spinozists, however, walk among us. They are non-academic devotees who form Spinoza societies and study groups, who gather to read him in public libraries and in synagogues and Jewish community centres. Hundreds of people, of various political and religious persuasions, will turn out for a day of lectures on Spinoza, whether or not they have ever read him. There have been novels, poems, sculptures, paintings, even plays and operas devoted to Spinoza. This is all a very good thing.

It is also a very curious thing. Why should a 17th-century Portuguese-Jewish philosopher whose dense and opaque writings are notoriously difficult to understand incite such passionate devotion, even obsession, among a lay audience in the 21st century? Part of the answer is the drama and mystery at the centre of his life: why exactly was Spinoza so harshly punished by the community that raised and nurtured him? Just as significant, I suspect, is that everyone loves an iconoclast – especially a radical and fearless one that suffered persecution in his lifetime for ideas and values that are still so important to us today. Spinoza is a model of intellectual courage. Like a prophet, he took on the powers-that-be with an unflinching honesty that revealed ugly truths about his fellow citizens and their society.

Much of Spinoza’s philosophy was composed in response to the precarious political situation of the Dutch Republic in the mid-17th century. In the late 1660s, the period of ‘True Freedom’ — with the liberal and laissez-faire regents dominating city and provincial governments — was under threat by the conservative ‘Orangist’ faction (so-called because its partisans favoured a return of centralised power to the Prince of Orange) and its ecclesiastic allies. Spinoza was afraid that the principles of toleration and secularity enshrined in the founding compact of the United Provinces of the Netherlands were being eroded in the name of religious conformity and political and social orthodoxy. In 1668, his friend and fellow radical Adriaan Koerbagh was convicted of blasphemy and subversion. He died in his cell the next year. In response, Spinoza composed his ‘scandalous’ Theological-Political Treatise, published to great alarm in 1670.

Spinoza’s views on God, religion and society have lost none of their relevance. At a time when Americans seem willing to bargain away their freedoms for security, when politicians talk of banning people of a certain faith from our shores, and when religious zealotry exercises greater influence on matters of law and public policy, Spinoza’s philosophy — especially his defence of democracy, liberty, secularity and toleration — has never been more timely. In his distress over the deteriorating political situation in the Dutch Republic, and despite the personal danger he faced, Spinoza did not hesitate to boldly defend the radical Enlightenment values that he, along with many of his compatriots, held dear. In Spinoza we can find inspiration for resistance to oppressive authority and a role model for intellectual opposition to those who, through the encouragement of irrational beliefs and the maintenance of ignorance, try to get citizens to act contrary to their own best interests.

Spinoza’s philosophy is founded upon a rejection of the God that informs the Abrahamic religions. His God lacks all the psychological and moral characteristics of a transcendent, providential deity. The Deus of Spinoza’s philosophical masterpiece, the Ethics (1677), is not a kind of person. It has no beliefs, hopes, desires or emotions. Nor is Spinoza’s God a good, wise and just lawgiver who will reward those who obey its commands and punish those who go astray. For Spinoza, God is Nature, and all there is is Nature (his phrase is Deus sive Natura, ‘God or Nature’). Whatever is exists in Nature, and happens with a necessity imposed by the laws of Nature. There is nothing beyond Nature and there are no departures from Nature’s order – miracles and the supernatural are an impossibility.

There are no values in Nature. Nothing is intrinsically good or bad, nor does Nature or anything in Nature exist for the sake of some purpose. Whatever is, just is. Early in the Ethics, Spinoza says that ‘all the prejudices I here undertake to expose depend on this one: that men commonly suppose that all natural things act, as men do, on account of an end; indeed, they maintain as certain that God himself directs all things to some certain end; for they say that God has made all things for man, and man that he might worship God’.

Spinoza is often labelled a ‘pantheist’, but ‘atheist’ is a more appropriate term. Spinoza does not divinise Nature. Nature is not the object of worshipful awe or religious reverence. ‘The wise man,’ he says, ‘seeks to understand Nature, not gape at it like a fool’. The only appropriate attitude to take toward God or Nature is a desire to know it through the intellect.

The elimination of a providential God helps to cast doubt on what Spinoza regards as one of the most pernicious doctrines promoted by organised religions: the immortality of the soul and the divine judgment it will undergo in some world-to-come. If a person believes that God will reward the virtuous and punish the vicious, one’s life will be governed by the emotions of hope and fear: hope that one is among the elect, fear that one is destined for eternal damnation. A life dominated by such irrational passions is, in Spinoza’s terms, a life of ‘bondage’ rather than a life of rational freedom.

People who are led by passion rather than reason are easily manipulated by ecclesiastics. This is what so worried Spinoza in the late 1660s, as the more repressive and intolerant elements in the Reformed Church gained influence in Holland. It remains no less a threat to enlightened, secular democracy today, as religious sectarians exercise a dangerous influence on public life.

In order to undermine such religious meddling in civic affairs and personal morality, Spinoza attacked the belief in the afterlife of an immortal soul. For Spinoza, when you’re dead, you’re dead. There might be a part of the human mind that is ‘eternal’. The truths of metaphysics, mathematics, etc, that one acquires during this lifetime and that might now belong to one’s mind will certainly remain once one has passed away — they are, after all, eternal truths — but there is nothing personal about them. The rewards or benefits such knowledge brings are for this world, not some alleged world-to-come.

The more one knows about Nature, and especially about oneself as a human being, the more one is able to avoid the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, to navigate the obstacles to happiness and wellbeing that a person living in Nature necessarily faces. The result of such wisdom is peace of mind: one is less subject to the emotional extremes that ordinarily accompany the gains and losses that life inevitably brings, and one no longer dwells anxiously on what is to come after death. As Spinoza eloquently puts it, ‘the free man thinks of death least of all things, and his wisdom is a meditation on life, not on death’.

Clergy seeking to control the lives of citizens have another weapon in their arsenal. They proclaim that there is one and only one book that will reveal the word of God and the path toward salvation and that they alone are its authorised interpreters. In fact, Spinoza claims, ‘they ascribe to the Holy Spirit whatever their wild fancies have invented’.

One of Spinoza’s more famous, influential and incendiary doctrines concerns the origin and status of Scripture. The Bible, Spinoza argues in the Theological-Political Treatise, was not literally authored by God. God or Nature is metaphysically incapable of proclaiming or dictating, much less writing, anything. Scripture is not ‘a message for mankind sent down by God from heaven’. Rather, it is a very mundane document. Texts from a number of authors of various socio-economic backgrounds, writing at different points over a long stretch of time and in differing historical and political circumstances, were passed down through generations in copies after copies after copies.

Finally, a selection of these writings was put together (with some arbitrariness, Spinoza insists) in the Second Temple period, most likely under the editorship of Abraham ibn Ezra, who was only partially able to synthesise his sources and create a single work from them. This imperfectly composed collection was itself subject to the changes that creep into a text during a transmission process of many centuries. The Bible as we have it is simply a work of human literature, and a rather ‘faulty, mutilated, adulterated, and inconsistent’ one at that. It is a mixed-breed by its birth and corrupted by its descent and preservation, a jumble of texts by different hands, from different periods and for different audiences.

Spinoza supplements his theory of the human origins of Scripture with an equally deflationary account of its authors. The prophets were not especially learned individuals. They did not enjoy a high level of education or intellectual sophistication. They certainly were not philosophers or physicists or astronomers. There are no truths about nature or the cosmos to be found in their writings (Joshua believed that the Sun revolved around the Earth). Neither are they a source of metaphysical or even theological truths. The prophets often had naïve, even philosophically false beliefs about God.

They were, however, morally superior individuals with vivid imaginations, and so there is a truth to be gleaned from all of Scripture, one that comes through loud and clear and in a non-mutilated form. The ultimate teaching of Scripture, whether the Hebrew Bible or the Christian Gospels, is in fact a rather simple one: practice justice and loving-kindness to your fellow human beings.

That basic moral message is the upshot of all the commandments and the lesson of all the stories of Scripture, surviving whole and unadulterated through all the differences of language and all the copies, alterations, corruptions and scribal errors that have crept into the text over the centuries. It is, Spinoza insists, there in the Hebrew prophets (‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbour as yourself’ [Leviticus 19:18]) and it is in Paul’s letters (‘He who loves his neighbour has satisfied every claim of the law’ [Romans 13:8]). Spinoza writes: ‘I can say with certainty, that in the matter of moral doctrine I have never observed a fault or variant reading that could give rise to obscurity or doubt in such teaching.’ The moral doctrine is the clear and universal message of the Bible, at least for those who are not prevented from reading it properly by prejudice, superstition or a thirst for power.

Does Spinoza believe that there is any sense in which the Bible can be said to be ‘divine’? Certainly not in the sense central to fundamentalist, or even traditional, versions of the Abrahamic religions. For Spinoza, the divinity of Scripture — in fact, the divinity of any writing — is a purely functional property. A work of literature or art is ‘sacred’ or ‘divine’ only because it is effective at presenting the ‘word of God’.

What is the ‘word of God’, the ‘universal divine law’? It is precisely the message that remains ‘unmutilated’ and ‘uncorrupted’ throughout the Biblical texts: love your neighbours and treat them with justice and charity. But Scripture, perhaps more than any other work of literature, excels at motivating people to follow that lesson and emulate its (fictional) portrayal of God’s justice and mercy in their lives. Spinoza notes that ‘a thing is called sacred and divine when its purpose is to foster piety and religion, and it is sacred only for as long as men use it in a religious way’. In other words, the divinity of Scripture lies in the fact that it is, above all else, an especially morally edifying work of literature.

And yet, for just this reason, Scripture will not be the only work of literature that is ‘divine’. If reading William Shakespeare’s The Tempest or Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn moves one toward justice and mercy, or if reading Charles Dickens’s Hard Times inspires one toward love and charity, then these works too are divine and sacred. The word of God, Spinoza says, is ‘not confined within the compass of a set number of books’.

In a letter to Spinoza, the Cartesian Lambert van Velthuysen objects that, according to the Theological-Political Treatise, ‘the Koran, too, is to be put on a level with the Word of God’, since ‘the Turks… in obedience to the command of their prophet, cultivate those moral virtues about which there is no disagreement among nations’. Spinoza acknowledges the implication, but does not see it as an objection. He is perfectly willing to allow that there are other true prophets besides those of Scripture and other sacred books outside the Jewish and Christian canons.

The Bible’s moral message and its prescriptions for how we are to treat other human beings represents the authentic ‘word of God’. Spinoza insists, then, that true piety or religion has nothing whatsoever to do with ceremonies or rituals. Dietary restrictions, liturgical and sacrificial practices, prayers – all such elements typical of organised religions are but superstitious behaviours that, whatever might have been their historico-political origins, are now devoid of any raison d’être. They continue to be promoted by clergy only to create docile and obedient worshippers.

What Spinoza regards as ‘true religion’ and ‘true piety’ requires no belief in any historical events, supernatural incidents or metaphysical doctrines, and it prescribes no devotional rites. It does not demand accepting any particular theology of God’s nature or philosophical claims about the cosmos and its origins. The divine law directs us only on how to behave with justice and charity toward other human beings. ‘[We are] to uphold justice, help the helpless, do no murder, covet no man’s goods, and so on’. All the other rituals or ceremonies of the Bible’s commandments are empty practices that ‘do not contribute to blessedness and virtue’.

True religion is nothing more than moral behaviour. It is not what you believe, but what you do that matters. Writing to the Englishman and secretary to the Royal Society Henry Oldenburg in 1675, Spinoza says that ‘the chief distinction I make between religion and superstition is that the latter is founded on ignorance, the former on wisdom’.

The political ideal that Spinoza promotes in the Theological-Political Treatise is a secular, democratic commonwealth, one that is free from meddling by ecclesiastics. Spinoza is one of history’s most eloquent advocates for freedom and toleration. The ultimate goal of the Treatise is enshrined in both the book’s subtitle and in the argument of its final chapter: to show that ‘freedom to philosophise may not only be allowed without danger to piety and the stability of the republic, but that it cannot be refused without destroying the peace of the republic and piety itself’.

All opinions whatsoever, including religious opinions, are to be absolutely free and unimpeded, both by necessity and by right. ‘It is impossible for the mind to be completely under another’s control; for no one is able to transfer to another his natural right or faculty to reason freely and to form his own judgment on any matters whatsoever, nor can he be compelled to do so’. Indeed, any effort by a sovereign to rule over the beliefs and opinions of citizens can only backfire, as it will ultimately serve to undermine the sovereign’s own authority. In a passage that is both obviously right and extraordinarily bold for its time, Spinoza writes:

a government that attempts to control men’s minds is regarded as tyrannical, and a sovereign is thought to wrong his subjects and infringe their right when he seeks to prescribe for every man what he should accept as true and reject as false, and what are the beliefs that will inspire him with devotion to God. All these are matters belonging to individual right, which no man can surrender even if he should so wish.

A sovereign can certainly try to limit what people think, but the result of such a vain and foolhardy policy would be to create only resentment and opposition to its rule. Still, the toleration of beliefs is one thing. The more difficult case concerns the liberty of citizens to express those beliefs, either in speech or in writing. And here Spinoza goes further than anyone else in the 17th century:

Utter failure will attend any attempt in a commonwealth to force men to speak only as prescribed by the sovereign despite their different and opposing opinions … The most tyrannical government will be one where the individual is denied the freedom to express and to communicate to others what he thinks, and a moderate government is one where this freedom is granted to every man.

Spinoza’s argument for freedom of expression is based both on the right (or power) of citizens to speak as they desire, as well as on the fact that (as in the case of belief) it would be counter-productive for a sovereign to try to restrain that freedom. No matter what laws are enacted against speech and other means of expression, citizens will continue to say what they believe, only now they will do so in secret. Any attempt to suppress freedom of expression will, once again, only weaken the bonds of loyalty that unite subjects to sovereign. In Spinoza’s view, intolerant laws lead ultimately to anger, revenge and sedition.

There is to be no criminalisation of ideas in the well-ordered state. The freedom of philosophising must be upheld for the sake of a healthy, secure and peaceful commonwealth, and material and intellectual progress. Spinoza understands that there will be some unpleasant consequences entailed by the broad respect for civil liberties. There will be public disputes, even factionalism, as citizens express their opposing views on political, social, moral and religious questions. However, this is what comes with a healthy, democratic and tolerant society.

‘The state can pursue no safer course than to regard piety and religion as consisting solely in the exercise of charity and just dealing, and that the right of the sovereign, both in religious and secular spheres, should be restricted to men’s actions, with everyone being allowed to think what he will and to say what he thinks’. This sentence, a wonderful statement of the modern principle of toleration, is perhaps the real lesson of the Treatise, and should be that for which Spinoza is best remembered.

When, in 2012, a member of the Portuguese-Jewish congregation in Amsterdam insisted that it was finally time for the community to consider revoking the herem on Spinoza, the ma’amad, or lay-leaders, of the community sought outside counsel for such a momentous decision. They convened a committee — myself, along with three other scholars — to answer various questions about the philosophical, historical, political, and religious circumstances of Spinoza’s ban. While they did not ask us to recommend any particular course of action, they did want our opinions on what might be the advantages and disadvantages to lifting the ban.

We submitted our reports, and more than a year passed without any news. Finally, in the summer of 2013, we received a letter informing us that the congregation’s rabbi had decided that the herem was not to be revoked. In his opinion, Spinoza was indeed a heretic. He added that while we can all appreciate freedom of expression in the civic domain, there is no reason to expect such freedom within the world of orthodox Judaism. Moreover, he asked rhetorically, are the leaders of the community today that much wiser and better informed about Spinoza’s case than the rabbis who punished him in the first place?

No doubt, Spinoza would have found the whole affair amusing. If asked whether he would like to be readmitted to ‘the people of Israel’, he would most likely have replied: ‘Do whatever you want. I couldn’t care less.’ Ω

[Steven Nadler is the William H Hay II Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His books include Spinoza: A Life (1999) and A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age (2011). Nadler received a BA (philosophy) from Washington University (St. Louis) and both an MA and PhD (philosophy) from Columia University.]

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Thursday, April 28, 2016

For Some People, There Is Life After Blogging

If you ever wondered about the life of a talking-head away from cable news, think no further because former blogger (Wonkette) Ana Marie Cox pulls the curtain away from life as cable news "pundit." Cox is still snarky, but she no longer writes it (exception here and there— the "Talk" section of the NY Fishwrap Zine). If this is a (fair & balanced) consideration of the latest iteration of snark, so be it.

[x The Baffler]
Face Value
By Ana Marie Cox

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Cable news ratings peak during an election season, and networks add as much political content as possible to capitalize on the nation’s always fleeting interest in the process. The demand for pundits increases along with that interest.

I know because I’m one of them.

In the post-blogging era, the distinction between journalist and commentator, citizen and pundit, has dissolved. There are more opinions than there are people. (Science will have to come up with a new anatomical metaphor for the possession of so many.)

It’s a buyer’s market for news organizations, and I am fully aware that being an entertaining interlocutor with a face that doesn’t break the camera is a factor whenever I get work. Those are the two valuable assets I bring to the table, and when a print publication hires me—at least as I see it, looking back on the last eight years—cable news’ demand for me is part of the decision.

Going on TV makes my print employers happy. It makes me happy, too: it’s a relatively cost-free way of saying to a larger public what I write for my readers. To be completely honest, it’s fun. And the vast majority of the talking heads you see on cable news are doing it for the same reasons I am: it makes their employers happy, and it’s mildly exhilarating, like the rollercoasters you don’t have to be tall to ride. They are not doing it for the money, believe it or not. Only a fraction of the pundits appearing on any given show are paid “analysts.” Most of them are remunerated in more existential terms.

This is the process behind a cable news hit (they are called “hits,” for no good reason as far as I can tell, though I like to think of myself as a journalistic gun for hire). First, a booker calls you the day before in a panic. Bookers are always panicked. I understand that panic. If going on live TV is walking a high-wire without a net, programming live TV is stringing the wire without a net, under a deadline. The show needs you IMMEDIATELY, or, in fact, in about twenty-four hours, but they need a commitment IMMEDIATELY.

“We’re doing a segment on CAMPAIGN THING THAT JUST HAPPENED. Can you come on to talk about it?”

Once availability is established, then you move on to what you’re going to say. “Okay, HOST wants to see if THING THAT JUST HAPPENED is going to CHANGE THE NATURE OF THE RACE. What do you think?”

You can try to offer a nuanced view. A booker in a non-panicked state (maybe they’ve already booked the first person they need for the segment and therefore aren’t haunted by the specter of dead air) may be responsive to a nuanced view. Whatever you say will eventually show up as an extremely condensed sound bite when the host asks you about it, but there’s some payoff to trying for complexity—it could mean that you will get an open-ended interrogatory sound bite from the host.

However, there is also a chance that the booker will tell you, “I need to talk to my producer about this.” That usually means that what you plan to say doesn’t fit into the outline they’ve established for the segment. They ask you about foreign policy, but you want to say that foreign policy doesn’t matter. They want someone to explain why the White House did XYZ, but you think they did XZY. “I need to talk to my producer” isn’t a lie, but given the utter panic of most booking situations, if there’s any chance what you have to say will fit into the segment they envision, then they will start with the car confirmation and date-making immediately.

Yes, the car. I have a love-hate relationship with the car service that comes with doing a cable news hit. Sending a limo to pick you up seems like a big expense for what amounts to five minutes of airtime, but almost everything weird about cable news makes sense if you remember the sugar-high adrenaline rush of making sure nothing goes wrong, no one is ever late, and there are no surprises. They want you to be on time, and so, a car.

The car makes me feel conspicuous, especially in the neighborhoods where I’ve lived the past few years. On the other hand, being driven around by someone can generate a sense of pleasant alienation, a numbness on par with heading to a gangland sit-down: I am different, I am not in control, I am being driven to an appointment that I may not emerge from alive. (TV IS LIFE AND DEATH, remember. Panic.)

At the TV studio, you get makeup. Early on, I thought of objecting under the pretense of false modesty. But next time you watch cable news, think about how distracting it would be if everyone on the screen was airbrushed and sparkly except for that one person with the bad skin and greasy hair. I suppose it’s also the case that to give some people makeup and not others could affect how viewers felt about what they were saying. I mean, maybe.

(Ancillary weirdness about the spray-on makeup most network makeup artists use: it is almost impossible to clean off without a Silkwood shower. This leads to the very Washington spectacle of two badly dressed men sitting down for drinks wearing eyeliner.)

So resisting that tiny compressed-air foundation gun is futile, and after a while you get used to it. Also, the women (yup, usually women) who do your hair and makeup are probably the nicest people you’ll meet in the course of going on cable news, and they’re the ones most likely to listen if you talk to them.

The primary goal of those running a cable news network is to create interesting programming, though that is often in conflict with the primary goal of those booking the segment, which is to avoid surprises. Worst-case scenario is probably when two guests reach an unexpected agreement. Usually, it’s a balancing act: planned disagreement. When I first started being a regular guest on cable, engendering conflict was the rule. Bookers would make sure that my opinion on an issue was opposed to that of the other guest. Sometimes opinions don’t have a clear opposite, of course, in which case, sketching out a stance in shades of gray—the war in Iraq is a catastrophe and we shouldn’t necessarily pull out, sex education for children is a great idea and parents should have a say in it—is a great way to keep the show humming along and to keep your dinner plans intact.

But my opinions aren’t that complicated most of the time. So I’d give the booker my take (often based on having asked people who knew more than me), and usually the booker would tell me the name of the other guest (again, no surprises), and what his (come on, it’s a he) opinion was. I’d then tell the booker my witty rejoinders, which allowed the host to play knowledgeable intermediary. “Guest A, you have a problem with the kinds of solutions posed by Guest B. In fact, you’ve said [THING I SAID]. Is that right?”

This pattern kept the conversation from becoming an exchange of ideas. If a good debate is two people tossing ideas back and forth, then a cable news debate circa 2004 was two people tossing ideas to a third person, who held onto them and kept them from being in play. It was like trying to bounce balls off a marshmallow wall.

But that was years ago. Sometime in the last four years—I think it may have been during the 2008 election—the cable networks I appear on stopped trying to book guests on “both sides” of an issue (because, come on, every issue has exactly two sides, amiright?). Instead, segments now tend to take one side of an issue as the starting point; the role of guests is to work with the host to either build up or tear down that point of view.

To the extent there’s balance . . . well, only one of the networks pretends to be interested in “balance,” and it seems to have decided that balance means putting a big, fat finger on the scale. The other networks aim for the spectacle of polite outrage at what’s happening outside the studio walls: eye rolling as analysis. Though, to be honest, there’s a lot about political campaigns to roll your eyes at.

Outrage is, actually, an improvement—at least no one has to be an on-air punching bag. Selfishly, it’s meant that I’m freed up to improvise within the confined space allotted to me. Bookers still want me to spell out my opinions and arguments in advance, but since I’m not supposed to be directly addressing the ideas of whomever I’m on with, I can occasionally work in a fact that reflects the sometimes fuzzy contours of what I really believe. The downside of this approach is that it’s still not so much a conversation as a series of mini-monologues.

Occasionally, I wonder if this is what viewers enjoy. Twitter often lets me know if I did well, or at least hit a nerve (is there a difference?). But the people who watch cable news and immediately tweet about it are freaks (like me). What constitutes good infotainment for the rest of the nation? I’m worried that the answer is "Dancing with the Stars."

Am I insane to think that there’s even a tiny bit of educational value in the discussions we have on cable news? Because despite all I’ve said, I do believe that. I suppose I have to. If I think about it rationally, there’s probably a lot more to be learned about the state of the American economy in a half hour of "Pawn Stars" than in any block of dayside news, though it’s also true that you can’t fact-check "Pawn Stars" while it’s happening, and sometimes you get to say something worthwhile right in the middle of a news event. I often describe my role in the pageantry of election season as “color commentary,” the equivalent of what a SportsCenter anchor does, though probably with less impact.

The relationship between what happens on cable news and what happens in a campaign is much more direct than the relationship between cable news chatter and what happens to the country as a whole. Campaign staffers react to what reporters say about them, but voters’ desires and opinions are more mysterious. I wish I understood these relationships better. That said, I’m happy to offer my opinion on them. What time will you be sending the car? Ω

[In 2004, Ana Marie Cox became the founding editor of the political blog Wonkette. Cox and Wonkette gained notoriety in the political world for publicizing the story of Jessica Cutler, also known as "Washingtonienne", a staff assistant to Senator Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) who accepted money from a George W. Bush administration official and others in exchange for sexual favors. In July 2006, Cox was named the Washington editor of Time.com, where she also wrote The Ana Log. Presently, Cox is a NY Fishwrap 'Zine columnist ("Talk"). Wonkette emerita, political junkie, self-hating journalist, and author of Dog Days (2006). She has worked for Time, GQ, Mother Jones, and, most recently, The Guardian US. She received a BA (history) from the University of Chicago.]

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Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Here's A Survival Guide For The Days After Friday, January 20, 2017

Today, The New Yorker's resident psychologist, Maria Konnikova turns her gaze on resilience as an antidote to bad things happening to good people. Her report focuses on research that examines the victims or survivors of bad things, not the bad things themselves. If this is a (fair & balanced) secular alternative to the existence of evil in our midst, so be it.

[x New Yorker]
How People Learn To Become Resilient
By Maria Konnikova

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Norman Garmezy, a developmental psychologist and clinician at the University of Minnesota, met thousands of children in his four decades of research. But one boy in particular stuck with him. He was nine years old, with an alcoholic mother and an absent father. Each day, he would arrive at school with the exact same sandwich: two slices of bread with nothing in between. At home, there was no other food available, and no one to make any. Even so, Garmezy would later recall, the boy wanted to make sure that “no one would feel pity for him and no one would know the ineptitude of his mother.” Each day, without fail, he would walk in with a smile on his face and a “bread sandwich” tucked into his bag.

The boy with the bread sandwich was part of a special group of children. He belonged to a cohort of kids—the first of many—whom Garmezy would go on to identify as succeeding, even excelling, despite incredibly difficult circumstances. These were the children who exhibited a trait Garmezy would later identify as “resilience.” (He is widely credited with being the first to study the concept in an experimental setting.) Over many years, Garmezy would visit schools across the country, focussing on those in economically depressed areas, and follow a standard protocol. He would set up meetings with the principal, along with a school social worker or nurse, and pose the same question: Were there any children whose backgrounds had initially raised red flags—kids who seemed likely to become problem kids—who had instead become, surprisingly, a source of pride? “What I was saying was, ‘Can you identify stressed children who are making it here in your school?’ “ Garmezy said, in a 1999 interview. “There would be a long pause after my inquiry before the answer came. If I had said, ‘Do you have kids in this school who seem to be troubled?,’ there wouldn’t have been a moment’s delay. But to be asked about children who were adaptive and good citizens in the school and making it even though they had come out of very disturbed backgrounds—that was a new sort of inquiry. That’s the way we began.”

Resilience presents a challenge for psychologists. Whether you can be said to have it or not largely depends not on any particular psychological test but on the way your life unfolds. If you are lucky enough to never experience any sort of adversity, we won’t know how resilient you are. It’s only when you’re faced with obstacles, stress, and other environmental threats that resilience, or the lack of it, emerges: Do you succumb or do you surmount?

Environmental threats can come in various guises. Some are the result of low socioeconomic status and challenging home conditions. (Those are the threats studied in Garmezy’s work.) Often, such threats—parents with psychological or other problems; exposure to violence or poor treatment; being a child of problematic divorce—are chronic. Other threats are acute: experiencing or witnessing a traumatic violent encounter, for example, or being in an accident. What matters is the intensity and the duration of the stressor. In the case of acute stressors, the intensity is usually high. The stress resulting from chronic adversity, Garmezy wrote, might be lower—but it “exerts repeated and cumulative impact on resources and adaptation and persists for many months and typically considerably longer.”

Prior to Garmezy’s work on resilience, most research on trauma and negative life events had a reverse focus. Instead of looking at areas of strength, it looked at areas of vulnerability, investigating the experiences that make people susceptible to poor life outcomes (or that lead kids to be “troubled,” as Garmezy put it). Garmezy’s work opened the door to the study of protective factors: the elements of an individual’s background or personality that could enable success despite the challenges they faced. Garmezy retired from research before reaching any definitive conclusions—his career was cut short by early-onset Alzheimer’s—but his students and followers were able to identify elements that fell into two groups: individual, psychological factors and external, environmental factors, or disposition on the one hand and luck on the other.

In 1989 a developmental psychologist named Emmy Werner published the results of a thirty-two-year longitudinal project. She had followed a group of six hundred and ninety-eight children, in Kauai, Hawaii, from before birth through their third decade of life. Along the way, she’d monitored them for any exposure to stress: maternal stress in utero, poverty, problems in the family, and so on. Two-thirds of the children came from backgrounds that were, essentially, stable, successful, and happy; the other third qualified as “at risk.” Like Garmezy, she soon discovered that not all of the at-risk children reacted to stress in the same way. Two-thirds of them “developed serious learning or behavior problems by the age of ten, or had delinquency records, mental health problems, or teen-age pregnancies by the age of eighteen.” But the remaining third developed into “competent, confident, and caring young adults.” They had attained academic, domestic, and social success—and they were always ready to capitalize on new opportunities that arose.

What was it that set the resilient children apart? Because the individuals in her sample had been followed and tested consistently for three decades, Werner had a trove of data at her disposal. She found that several elements predicted resilience. Some elements had to do with luck: a resilient child might have a strong bond with a supportive caregiver, parent, teacher, or other mentor-like figure. But another, quite large set of elements was psychological, and had to do with how the children responded to the environment. From a young age, resilient children tended to “meet the world on their own terms.” They were autonomous and independent, would seek out new experiences, and had a “positive social orientation.” “Though not especially gifted, these children used whatever skills they had effectively,” Werner wrote. Perhaps most importantly, the resilient children had what psychologists call an “internal locus of control”: they believed that they, and not their circumstances, affected their achievements. The resilient children saw themselves as the orchestrators of their own fates. In fact, on a scale that measured locus of control, they scored more than two standard deviations away from the standardization group.

Werner also discovered that resilience could change over time. Some resilient children were especially unlucky: they experienced multiple strong stressors at vulnerable points and their resilience evaporated. Resilience, she explained, is like a constant calculation: Which side of the equation weighs more, the resilience or the stressors? The stressors can become so intense that resilience is overwhelmed. Most people, in short, have a breaking point. On the flip side, some people who weren’t resilient when they were little somehow learned the skills of resilience. They were able to overcome adversity later in life and went on to flourish as much as those who’d been resilient the whole way through. This, of course, raises the question of how resilience might be learned.

George Bonanno is a clinical psychologist at Columbia University’s Teachers College; he heads the Loss, Trauma, and Emotion Lab and has been studying resilience for nearly twenty-five years. Garmezy, Werner, and others have shown that some people are far better than others at dealing with adversity; Bonanno has been trying to figure out where that variation might come from. Bonanno’s theory of resilience starts with an observation: all of us possess the same fundamental stress-response system, which has evolved over millions of years and which we share with other animals. The vast majority of people are pretty good at using that system to deal with stress. When it comes to resilience, the question is: Why do some people use the system so much more frequently or effectively than others?

One of the central elements of resilience, Bonanno has found, is perception: Do you conceptualize an event as traumatic, or as an opportunity to learn and grow? “Events are not traumatic until we experience them as traumatic,” Bonanno told me, in December. “To call something a ‘traumatic event’ belies that fact.” He has coined a different term: PTE, or potentially traumatic event, which he argues is more accurate. The theory is straightforward. Every frightening event, no matter how negative it might seem from the sidelines, has the potential to be traumatic or not to the person experiencing it. (Bonanno focusses on acute negative events, where we may be seriously harmed; others who study resilience, including Garmezy and Werner, look more broadly.) Take something as terrible as the surprising death of a close friend: you might be sad, but if you can find a way to construe that event as filled with meaning—perhaps it leads to greater awareness of a certain disease, say, or to closer ties with the community—then it may not be seen as a trauma. (Indeed, Werner found that resilient individuals were far more likely to report having sources of spiritual and religious support than those who weren’t.) The experience isn’t inherent in the event; it resides in the event’s psychological construal.

It’s for this reason, Bonanno told me, that “stressful” or “traumatic” events in and of themselves don’t have much predictive power when it comes to life outcomes. “The prospective epidemiological data shows that exposure to potentially traumatic events does not predict later functioning,” he said. “It’s only predictive if there’s a negative response.” In other words, living through adversity, be it endemic to your environment or an acute negative event, doesn’t guarantee that you’ll suffer going forward. What matters is whether that adversity becomes traumatizing.

The good news is that positive construal can be taught. “We can make ourselves more or less vulnerable by how we think about things,” Bonanno said. In research at Columbia, the neuroscientist Kevin Ochsner has shown that teaching people to think of stimuli in different ways—to reframe them in positive terms when the initial response is negative, or in a less emotional way when the initial response is emotionally “hot”—changes how they experience and react to the stimulus. You can train people to better regulate their emotions, and the training seems to have lasting effects.

Similar work has been done with explanatory styles—the techniques we use to explain events. I’ve written before about the research of Martin Seligman, the University of Pennsylvania psychologist who pioneered much of the field of positive psychology: Seligman found that training people to change their explanatory styles from internal to external (“Bad events aren’t my fault”), from global to specific (“This is one narrow thing rather than a massive indication that something is wrong with my life”), and from permanent to impermanent (“I can change the situation, rather than assuming it’s fixed”) made them more psychologically successful and less prone to depression. The same goes for locus of control: not only is a more internal locus tied to perceiving less stress and performing better but changing your locus from external to internal leads to positive changes in both psychological well-being and objective work performance. The cognitive skills that underpin resilience, then, seem like they can indeed be learned over time, creating resilience where there was none.

Unfortunately, the opposite may also be true. “We can become less resilient, or less likely to be resilient,” Bonanno says. “We can create or exaggerate stressors very easily in our own minds. That’s the danger of the human condition.” Human beings are capable of worry and rumination: we can take a minor thing, blow it up in our heads, run through it over and over, and drive ourselves crazy until we feel like that minor thing is the biggest thing that ever happened. In a sense, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Frame adversity as a challenge, and you become more flexible and able to deal with it, move on, learn from it, and grow. Focus on it, frame it as a threat, and a potentially traumatic event becomes an enduring problem; you become more inflexible, and more likely to be negatively affected.

In December the New York Times Magazine published an essay called “The Profound Emptiness of ‘Resilience.’ “ It pointed out that the word is now used everywhere, often in ways that drain it of meaning and link it to vague concepts like “character.” But resilience doesn’t have to be an empty or vague concept. In fact, decades of research have revealed a lot about how it works. This research shows that resilience is, ultimately, a set of skills that can be taught. In recent years, we’ve taken to using the term sloppily—but our sloppy usage doesn’t mean that it hasn’t been usefully and precisely defined. It’s time we invest the time and energy to understand what “resilience” really means. Ω

[Russian-born Maria Konnikova came to the States with her parents at age 4. Konnikova is a contributor to The New Yorker (online), where she writes a weekly blog focusing on psychology and science. She is the author of both Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes (2013) as well as The Confidence Game (2016). Konnikova received a BA (psychology and creative writing, magna cum laude) from Harvard University and a PhD (paychology) from Columbia University.]

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