The Last Days of Nature

In reaction to last week’s The New Yorker article on synthetic biology (Specter, Michael, “A Life Of Its Own,” 28 September 2009, pp. 56-65):

The objective of synthetic biology is the final subsumption of the logic of nature into the logic of capitalism. Capitalism being the logic of human desire, the objective of synthetic biology is — as with the whole of the technological endeavor — the elimination of all intercession between desire and its fulfillment. It is the attempt to return to the purity of the hallucination of the breast, to do away with despised reality testing, the creation of a world of pure subjectivity.

For a cyberpunk rereading of Hegel: Freud as the last of the Young Hegelians.

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Vanity Fair

David Schmader’s description of Vanity Fair (“On Spoofing GOOP,” SLOG, The Stranger, 8 September 2009):

Vanity Fair, which was designed for me by God, who forced People and The New Yorker to have a baby, then swaddled the results in ambitiously art-directed fashion ads. It is one of America’s great narcotics …

I think that Vanity Fair is the best magazine in the U.S. today, a perfect combination of superficiality and seriousness, playfulness and piety.

The Iconography of Barack Obama: The First American

26 January 2009 The New Yorker and 14 February 2009 Economist, both with Barack Obama as George Washington

See what I’m sayin’. A lot has been made of President Obama’s appropriation of Abraham Lincoln, but why stop there. Obama is the every-president. The 26 January 2009 issue of The New Yorker put Drew Friedman’s illustration, “The First” on the cover and the 14 February 2009 issue of The Economist has for its cover a parody of Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware, both featuring Barack Obama as George Washington.

Everything Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Outliers: The Story of Success, hit the stores today. As a loser, I’m not super-enthused about successful people. That said, I’ve become a big Malcolm Gladwell fan, so here are a few links.

He’s just the sort of person who should have a blog; and he has one. He maintains an archive of his published writings, as does The New Yorker where he is a staff writer. His previous two books are The Tipping Point (2000) and Blink (2005).

He’s presented on some of his ideas at the 2006 and 2007 New Yorker conferences. He’s been on Q&A with Brian Lamb. Apparently Charlie Rose is a big fan because Mr. Gladwell had been on his show seven times. NPR has done a number of profiles, interviews and reviews which can be found in their archive. And of course he’s given a TED Talk. It’s on the origin of extra chunky pasta sauce and the proliferation within product lines. More fundamentally it’s on the death of Platonism in the commercial food industry.

He’s been profiled in Fast Company (Sacks, Danielle, “The Accidental Guru,” January 2005), The New York Times (Donadio, Rachel, “The Gladwell Effect,” 5 February 2006) and now for his latest book New York Magazine (Zengerle, Jason, “Geek Pop Star,” 9 November 2008).

I used one of his articles as the basis for a little snark with “Malcolm Gladwell’s Infinite Monkey Theorem” (27 May 2008).

The funny thing you’ll notice if you follow a few of these links is that the hair isn’t the only big thinker factor. Despite a considerable speaker’s fee, Mr. Gladwell doesn’t own many suits.

The Ouroboros Economy II

A few months ago I took the opportunity of the Business Week cover depicting the economy as ouroboros for a few snickers (“Ouroboros to Mise en Abyme,” 28 July 2008). Now the ouroboros economy makes another appearance, this time in the much more serious pages of The New Yorker (Lanchester, John, “Melting into Air,” 10 November 2008, pp. 80-84). Again, I don’t have anything in mind: it’s just an icon shopping around for more meanings. But Mr. Lanchester gives it a novel and grandiose go:

… finance, like other forms of human behavior, underwent a change in the twentieth century, a shift equivalent to the emergence of modernism in the arts — a break with common sense, a turn toward self-referentiality and abstraction and notions that couldn’t be explained in workaday English. In poetry, this moment took place with the publication of “The Waste Land.” In classical music, it was, perhaps, the première of “The Rite of Spring.” Jazz, dance, architecture, painting — all had comparable moments. The moment in finance came in 1973, with the publication of a paper in the Journal of Political Economy titled “The Pricing of Options and Corporate Liabilities,” by Fischer Black and Myron Scholes.

The revolutionary aspect of Black and Scholes’s paper was an equation that enabled people to calculate the price of financial derivatives based on the value of the underlying asset. … The trade in these derivatives was hampered, however, by the fact that — owing to the numerous variables of time and risk — no one knew how to price them. The Black-Scholes formula provided a way to do so. It was a defining moment in the mathematization of the market. The trade in derivatives took off, to the extent that the total market in derivative products around the world is counted in the hundreds of trillions of dollars. Nobody knows the exact figure, but the notional amount certainly exceeds the total value of all the world’s economic output, roughly sixty-six trillion dollars, by a huge factor — perhaps tenfold.

It seems wholly contrary to common sense that the market for products that derive from real things should be unimaginably vaster than the market for things themselves. With derivatives, we seem to enter a modernist world in which risk no longer means what it means in plain English, and in which there is a profound break between the language of finance and that of common sense. …

If the invention of derivatives was the financial world’s modernist dawn, the current crisis is unsettlingly like the birth of postmodernism. For anyone who studied literature in college in the past few decades, there is a weird familiarity about the current crisis: value, in the realm of finance capital, evokes the elusive nature of meaning in deconstructionism. According to Jacques Derrida, the doyen of the school, meaning can never be precisely located; instead, it is always “deferred,” moved elsewhere, located in other meanings, which refer and defer to other meanings — a snake permanently and necessarily eating its own tail. This process is fluid and constant, but at moments the perpetual process of deferral stalls and collapses in on itself. Derrida called this moment an “aporia,” from a Greek term meaning “impasse.” There is something both amusing and appalling about seeing his theories acted out in the world markets to such cataclysmic effect.

The Omission of Lyndon Johnson from the Democratic Pantheon

If there is a unifying thread to U.S. history it is that of the ongoing process of bringing American practice into line with American principle, of the march of freedom, of the expansion of the franchise. In this story there is one great subplot that stands above all others: that of the experience of the African American: the middle crossing, slavery, the fatal flaws of the U.S. Constitution, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow and the civil rights movement. At the denouement of this story stand two characters, towering over all others: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Taylor Branch was right to structure his biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. around Exodus. King led African Americans out of the dessert, but was not allowed to enter the Promised Land himself. Lyndon Johnson, on the other had, is an exile: a man from the heart of the franchise, who is today persona non grata.

Today, Lyndon Johnson would have been a hundred years old (27 August 1908 – 22 January 1973) and George Packer comments on the strange exclusion of this giant of the left from the Democratic pantheon (“L.B.J.’s Moment,” Interesting Times, The New Yorker, 24 August 2008):

Whenever Democrats gather to celebrate the party, they invoke the names of their luminaries past. The list used to begin with Jefferson and Jackson. More recently, it’s been shortened to F.D.R., Truman, and J.F.K. The one Democrat with a legitimate claim to greatness who can’t be named is Lyndon Johnson. The other day I asked Robert Caro, Johnson’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning biographer and hardly a hagiographer of the man, whether he thought Johnson should be mentioned in Denver. “It would be only just to Johnson,” Caro said. “If the Democratic Party was going to honestly acknowledge how it came to the point in its history that it was about to nominate a black American for President, no speech would not mention Lyndon Johnson.” Caro is now at work on the fourth volume of his epic biography, about Johnson’s White House years. “I am writing right now about how he won for black Americans the right to vote. I am turning from what happened forty-three years ago to what I am reading in my daily newspaper — and the thrill that goes up and down my spine when I realize the historical significance of this moment is only equaled by my anger that they are not giving Johnson credit for it.”

In the week of Johnson’s one hundredth birthday, I would like to believe that there is some Democrat in Denver who will do him the justice of speaking his name.

Malcolm Gladwell’s Infinite Monkey Theorem

The Infinite Monkey Theorem apparently still holds if you substitute mediocre humans for monkeys. Here is Malcolm Gladwell writing on how to brute force genius (“In the Air,” The New Yorker, 12 May 2008):

In the nineteen-sixties, the sociologist Robert K. Merton wrote a famous essay on scientific discovery in which he raised the question of what the existence of multiples tells us about genius. No one is a partner to more multiples [simultaneous scientific discovery], he pointed out, than a genius, and he came to the conclusion that our romantic notion of the genius must be wrong. A scientific genius is not a person who does what no one else can do; he or she is someone who does what it takes many others to do. The genius is not a unique source of insight; he is merely an efficient source of insight. “Consider the case of Kelvin, by way of illustration,” Merton writes, summarizing work he had done with his Columbia colleague Elinor Barber:

After examining some 400 of his 661 scientific communications and addresses . . . Dr. Elinor Barber and I find him testifying to at least 32 multiple discoveries in which he eventually found that his independent discoveries had also been made by others. These 32 multiples involved an aggregate of 30 other scientists, some, like Stokes, Green, Helmholtz, Cavendish, Clausius, Poincaré, Rayleigh, themselves men of undeniable genius, others, like Hankel, Pfaff, Homer Lane, Varley and Lamé, being men of talent, no doubt, but still not of the highest order. . . . For the hypothesis that each of these discoveries was destined to find expression, even if the genius of Kelvin had not obtained, there is the best of traditional proof: each was in fact made by others. Yet Kelvin’s stature as a genius remains undiminished. For it required a considerable number of others to duplicate these 32 discoveries which Kelvin himself made.

This is, surely, what an invention session is: it is Hankel, Pfaff, Homer Lane, Varley, and Lamé in a room together, and if you have them on your staff you can get a big chunk of Kelvin’s discoveries, without ever needing to have Kelvin — which is fortunate, because, although there are plenty of Homer Lanes, Varleys, and Pfaffs in the world, there are very few Kelvins.

Our tendency is to imagine Newton, Darwin or Einstein as the pinnacle of genius, but they are merely the peak performance of that draft design kludge we all carry around in out heads. One can easily imagine ranks of genus many levels beyond our showings to date, ranging all the way from the Star Trek character Data to the gods (I uses these literary examples merely to demonstrate that we’re capable of imagining higher orders of genus). Each ranking of genius, all the way up to the gods, bears the same relation to the rank just below as Kelvin does to Homer Lanes, Varleys, and Pfaffs: not one of qualitative difference, but merely one of efficiency. And that relation obtains not just between each level, but over the entire span from pinnacle to base as well. It’s the wet machine corollary of Turing completeness.

This is, of course, why the proof from design for the existence of god fails, because one can imagine the universe being created in an instant by a supergenius, but it is equally plausible that it was created by a committee with some time on their hands. And the more time available or the larger the committee, the less capable any of its members has to be to produce a given output.