Showing posts from September, 2013



Awais Aftab

(after an incident in the hospital)

Three buxom nurses
and I struggled, befuddled You, who held on to my white-coat
as if your life depends on it You frail little thing,
what tenacity you have in your fingers what vacuous desire in your eyes

Two Poems, Two Amatory Encounters

The Encounter

Ezra Pound

All the while they were talking the new morality
Her eyes explored me.
And when I rose to go
Her fingers were like the tissue
Of a Japanese paper napkin.

Gray Room

Wallace Stevens

Although you sit in a room that is gray,
Except for the silver
Of the straw-paper,
And pick
At your pale white gown;
Or lift one of the green beads
Of your necklace,
To let it fall;
Or gaze at your green fan
Printed with the red branches of a red willow;
Or, with one finger,
Move the leaf in the bowl--
The leaf that has fallen from the branches of the forsythia
Beside you...
What is all this?
I know how furiously your heart is beating.

(via Modern & Contemporary American Poetry by Al Filreis)

The Morality of Going Halfway

*Spoiler alert from Lincoln... well, kinda.*
Thaddeus Stevens: When the war ends, I intend to push for full equality, the Negro vote and much more. [...] We'll build up a land down there of free men and free women and free women and free children and freedom. The nation needs to know that we have such plans. Abraham Lincoln: That's the untempered version of reconstruction. It's not... It's not exactly what I intend, but we shall oppose one another in the course of time. Now we're working together, and I'm asking you— Thaddeus Stevens: For patience, I expect. Abraham Lincoln: When the people disagree, bringing them together requires going slow till they're ready to make up— Thaddeus Stevens: Ah, shit on the people and what they want and what they're ready for! I don't give a goddamn about the people and what they want! This is the face of someone who has fought long and hard for the good of the people without caring much for any of 'em. [...] Abraham L…

Imagined Realities

Coursera: A Brief History of Humankind  by Dr. Yuval Noah Harari
Personal Lecture Notes from Lesson #6: Building Pyramids
(These are personal summaries and paraphrasings of some of the major points of the lectures that I felt to be important. They are not meant to be comprehensive records nor intended to be reproductions of copyright materials. I encourage you to participate in the course for better understanding. All ideas and examples are by Dr. Harari.)
Homo sapiens have no natural instincts for cooperating with large numbers of strangers. Humans evolved for millions of years living in small bands. Consequently, there are no instincts for mass social cooperation. To make up for that, humans have to rely on all kinds of imagined realities that regulate cooperation on such a huge scale. The human empires are based on shared common beliefs, social and legal norms that sustain them. The stability of the complex societies is not based on natural instinct or on personal acquaintance, but o…

Some Whitmanians and Dickinsonians

In week 2 of Modern & Contemporary American Poetry by Al Filreis we explore some of the modern poets who have worked in Whitmanian and Dickinsonian modes of poetry. All the poems discussed are somewhat difficult in the sense that they don't open up to the reader immediately. All of them require some deliberation (to a varying degree) on the reader's part for their meanings and themes to come out, but ultimately the reward of comprehension is worth the effort.
Given that I cannot replicate the extensive discussions, and the nature of the discussions makes it almost impossible even if I had the time and energy, I can offer but small hints of guidance for readers who may be interested in reading and figuring out these poems on their own. It would also be worthwhile listening to poets recite their own poems in the links given.
William Carlos Williams's "Smell!"
Consider a playful sexual interpretation... what can a nose serve as an innuendo for?

Kiss by the Hôtel de Ville

Robert Doisneau Le baiser de l'hôtel de ville (Kiss by the Hôtel de Ville), 1950 Became a recognized symbol of young love, preserved for times to come; the relationship between the couple photographed, however, went on only for 9 months.

Lifting the Veil

"The reasons for wearing the veil are manifold, ranging from liberative to oppressive, and they co-exist. This does not warrant immunity, but a more sophistication of critique."
My article on the Muslim practice of veil published at The Friday Times Blogs.

Weaving Relationships

The sixth and final week of Social Psychology course by Prof. Scott Plous deals with empathy, happiness and relationships.
The lectures featured an animated video on empathy by Roman Krznaric titled 'The Power of Outrospection'. It is also available on youtube here. Another featured video was 'Understanding Happiness' from Dan Gilbert's series This Emotional Life. That video is not available online for free but the upshot of it is that you can't be happy alone: happiness comes from satisfying social relationships.
The most interesting part of this week's materials for me was the discussion on factors leading to close relationships in general and romantic relationships in particular. I'll just mention the conclusions here without citing the research studies supporting them.
Proximity: Geographical nearness, and more accurately 'functional distance' (how often people’s paths cross), is a powerful predictor of liking. It is no surprise that most pe…

The Bystander Effect

Week 5 of Social Psychology course deals with conflict, peacemaking and interventions. I wouldn't cover this material, but there was one important phenomenon discussed in the lectures which I'd like to mention. It is the bystander effect. It refers to situations in which people do not offer any help to a victim who is being victimized or is suffering in front of their eyes. Studies have shown that the probability of people offering to help is inversely related to the number of bystanders. Wikipedia has a good entry on this topic, and I'll refer the readers to that.

Agricultural Revolution: The Great Misstep of Humanity

Coursera: A Brief History of Humankind  by Dr. Yuval Noah Harari
Personal Lecture Notes from Lesson #5: History’s Biggest Fraud
(These are personal summaries and paraphrasings of some of the major points of the lectures that I felt to be important. They are not meant to be comprehensive records nor intended to be reproductions of copyright materials. I encourage you to participate in the course for better understanding.)
In this lecture Dr Harari makes the contentious claim that agricultural revolution is 'the biggest fraud in history'.
Contrary to several myths about agricultural revolution, * Agricultural revolution was not due to increase in human intelligence * It did not raise standards of living for humans. Agricultural revolution increased the sum total of food, but it did not lead to a better diet or better life. What it did result in was a demographic explosion and the rise of nobility, kings and elites who took major share of the food. * It did not make work easier. Av…

Dickinson vs Whitman

I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the  beginning and the end,  But I do not talk of the beginning or the end. 
There was never any more inception than there is now,  Nor any more youth or age than there is now,  And will never be any more perfection than there is now,  Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now. 
Walt Whitman, excerpt from section 3, Song of Myself
Week 1 of Modern & Contemporary American Poetry course by Al Filreis is about the poetry of two proto-modernists, Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman. Some representative poems are discussed, with regard to how they break from traditional poetry and serve as prelude to future poets. In addition, an artificial binarism is created between Whitmanian and Dickinsonian modes of poetry, as being two opposite ends of the spectrum of poetic experimentalism and break from tradition in the nineteenth century.
Poems discussed in class Emily Dickinson:Volcanoes be in Sicily,I dwell in PossibilityTell all the Truth b…

Other Times and Other Lives

"Of late, I've met men who dwell in shadows, speaking of other times and other lives."

Da Vinci's Demons, #1.08

Neuronal Network Plasticity and Depression

Neuronal Network Plasticity and Recovery From Depression. Castrén E. JAMA Psychiatry. 2013 Jul 10. 
The brain processes sensory information in neuronal networks that are shaped by experience, particularly during early life, to optimally represent the internal and external milieu. Recent surprising findings have revealed that antidepressant drugs reactivate a window of juvenile-like plasticity in the adult cortex. When antidepressant-induced plasticity was combined with appropriate rehabilitation, it brought about a functional recovery of abnormally wired neuronal networks. These observations suggest that antidepressants act permissively to facilitate environmental influence on neuronal network reorganization and so provide a plausible neurobiological explanation for the enhanced effect of combining antidepressant treatment with psychotherapy. The results emphasize that pharmacological and psychological treatments of mood disorders are closely entwined: the effect of antidepres…

Lempicka, The Kiss

Tamara de Lempicka, The Kiss (c. 1922) Source

Lego-block Teleology

"Suppose we take a set of Lego blocks, and the things we can construct with them, as the domain of a very simple science. We can list all possible ways of attaching two blocks together, and then use that list to describe how to attach a third, a fourth, and so on, recursively. Eventually we have descriptions of an immense set of objects – walls, bridges, houses, and of course many objects that have no meaning for us at all. Now suppose, further, that before we start testing this theory of Lego objects, a mischievous daemon introduces an identical, slight, imperceptible curvature in the shape of each block. We will have no knowledge of it because it is so slight as to unmeasurable in individual blocks. The first objects we build will be in accord with the theory that we developed for perfectly rectangular blocks, but as they grow, we may find that many objects can’t be completed because the members become warped in various ways, as a result of an accumulating curvature. On the ot…


Edward Feser on how a popular introductory textbook on the philosophy of mind grossly misrepresents the case for dualism.

Vesuvius at Home

Volcanoes be in Sicily (#1705)

Emily Dickinson

Volcanoes be in Sicily
And South America
I judge from my Geography—
Volcanos nearer here
A Lava step at any time
Am I inclined to climb—
A Crater I may contemplate
Vesuvius at Home.

(hat-tip: Modern & Contemporary American Poetry)

We are the Biblical Flood

Coursera: A Brief History of Humankind  by Dr. Yuval Noah Harari
Personal Lecture Notes from Lesson #4: The Human Flood
(These are personal summaries and paraphrasings of some of the major points of the lectures that I felt to be important. They are not meant to be comprehensive records nor intended to be reproductions of copyright materials. I encourage you to participate in the course for better understanding.)
Homo sapiens reached Australia about 45,000 years ago, by crossing vast stretches of open sea up to 100-150 kilometres between the islands of Indonesia and Australia. Most likely this was preceded by the establishment of first sea-faring societies in Indonesia. The journey itself is not the only fact of significance; it was the first time any species has managed to migrate out of the Afro-Asian ecological system to settle and adapt into a completely new ecological system.
The moment humans landed on the shore of Australia, they began to transform the Australian ecological syste…

How the World Works

"Well, it doesn’t work according to the textbooks. If you look at economic textbooks, the whole world is meant to work according to the logic of differential calculus; there are these reciprocal relationships - one side goes up and one side goes down. But deep within it there’s a paradox. On the one side you have Adam Smith, where everyone is pursuing their own self-interest leading to an outcome which is better than any of them could have intended. On the other, you have John Maynard Keynes. Today Keynes is thought of as someone who just talks about deficit spending and so on, but that’s just complete rubbish. Keynes’s central message is that individual rational action can be collectively disastrous. So, if you have a series of economic models in a text book where everything balances out, it’s much more attuned to the world working the way that Smith would like to tell us. 
But what if it works the other way? That basically there are fallacies of composition and collective acti…


"If I do nothing, if I study nothing, if I cease searching, then, woe is me, I am lost."

Vincent van Gogh

The Abilene Paradox

One of the interesting ideas explored in week 4 of Social Psychology is The Abilene Paradox. It is a paradoxical situation in which all members of a group (or organisation) collectively decide to pursue a course of action which, in reality, none of them wants to pursue. None of them knows that others also feel this way, and because everyone thinks that everyone else wants it, they all agree to the group decision in order not to be the sole opposing voice. In this way, the group decision runs counter to the individual preferences of all members.
The lecture contained a fun and entertaining educational video by CRM Learning explaining this paradox. Unfortunately that particular 2nd edition is not available for free outside Coursera (you can see the trailer here) but the first edition of the video with the same script can be viewed here. Alternatively you can read the classic 1988 paper by Jerry B. Harvey in which this concept was first proposed.

Rational Decisions

Week 6 of Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy is about rational decision making.
There are a number of possible acts an agent can choose, and associated with each act are a number of possible outcomes, each with a certain probability. Each outcome has an associated utility value which specifies how much the agent desires the corresponding outcome. Given these parameters, it is possible to calculate which act results in the maximum utility, and the Principle of Maximizing Expected Utility asserts that a rational agent will act in the manner which maximizes the expected utility.
The von Neumann-Morgenstern (VNM) axioms: These are 4 axioms of rational decision making. These axioms lead to the theorem that every decision of a VNM-rational agent in a given set of scenarios is characterized by maximization of the expected value of a single function u, which is the utility function.
Not surprisingly, real life human decisions often violate the VNM theorem, such that no single utility fu…

Hypothesis and Confirmation

Week 5 of Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy is about what it means for an evidence (E) to confirm a hypothesis (H) relative to background knowledge (K). The issue is addressed using Bayesian Confirmation Theory, which is derived from Bayes' Theorem.
Bayes Theorem describes the relationship between the new (or posterior) probability of a hypothesis (H), after having learned a piece of evidence (E). Using the theorem we can derive a formula known as Bayes' rule.
P(H) is the prior probability of hypothesis P(E/H) is the likelihood of evidence given the hypothesis P(E) is the expectedness of the evidence P(H/E) is the posterior probability of the hypothesis, the new probability given the Evidence
Evidence confirms the hypothesis if the posterior probability is greater than the prior probability of the hypothesis. Evidence disconfirms the hypothesis if the posterior probability is less than the prior probability of the hypothesis, and the evidence is irrelevant if the posterior …

The Atrocious Subtitle

It seems to me that Thomas Nagel's Mind and Cosmos signed its own death warrant by the outrageously misplaced subtitle Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False. I liked the book and I find its central arguments quite appealing, but I would never phrase the main thesis as it is spelled out in the subtitle. It is not only a horridly crude portrayal of a sophisticated philosophical critique, it instantly sets off the readers on a misguided idea of what the book intends to do. I do not know if Nagel chose this subtitle himself, and perhaps he did, but it is so incongruent with the contents of the book that it seems more likely to be an act on the part of the publishers as a marketing tactic. Half of the horrible reviews that the book has received have focused more on the what the subtitle says about the book than what the book says about the book.
To the best of my understanding, Nagel at no point demonstrates that the Materialist Neo-Darwinian…


I would love to get some feedback from the readers of this blog regarding my recent series of posts on Coursera lectures, if anyone is interested. To clarify, the intention is not to deliberately promote Coursera, if anyone got that impression. I am not making any money out of it or getting any other sort of advantage (in fact, there is always the concern of copyrights on my mind, hence the disclaimers). It's just more convenient for me to post about what I am studying. But how do you, the reader, feel about it? Do the posts annoy you? Are you indifferent to them? Do you enjoy them or find them useful? Would you prefer them to be more brief and shorter? Here's your chance, speak now or forever hold your silence!

The Stone Age

Cave of the Hands, Argentina Cave art dating from from 13,000 to 9,000 years ago Image source
Coursera: A Brief History of Humankind by Dr. Yuval Noah Harari
Personal Lecture Notes from Lesson #3: Daily Life in the Stone Age
(These are personal summaries and paraphrasings of some of the major points of the lectures that I felt to be important. They are not meant to be comprehensive records nor intended to be reproductions of copyright materials. I encourage you to participate in the course for better understanding.)
For the vast majority of history, Homo sapiens lived as hunter-gatherers, and this had significant impact on shaping their bodies and minds. Subconsciously, we still live in the stone-age. This is one of the central ideas of evolutionary psychology: our minds are shaped by evolutionary pressures. 
Some scholars believe that stone-age humans lived in communes without marriage or monogamy, and children were raised by the entire tribe. Other scholars strongly disagree. Yes, human…

Conditionals (If-Then)

Week 4 lectures of Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy are about conditionals (if-then) sentences. A lot of the material was pretty technical and I had a difficult time following it step by step. Consequently, I don't think I am in a position to offer a summary of it as in previous posts, but I'll just talk briefly about my broad understanding of the main conclusions.
Conditionals are sentences of the form 'If A, then B'. They are of two kinds: indicative conditionals and subjunctive conditionals. A subjunctive conditional (also called counterfactual) indicates what would be the case if A were true (although it is not true). For example, 'If Oswald had not killed Kennedy, someone else would have'. An indicative conditional indicates what is the case if A is (in fact) true (which it may or may not be). For example, 'If Oswald did not kill Kennedy, someone else did'.
What I understand is that there are two ways of making sense of indicative condition…