Tuesday, November 24, 2015

New Pavlov Biography Rescues Him From Behaviorism

"In the West, [Ivan Pavlov] has often been taken to have adopted an extremely mechanistic stimulus–response model of mental processing. He himself played his part in constructing this image, not least through the anthropomorphism of much of his research on dogs. But, as [recent biographer Daniel P.] Todes notes, the biggest contribution to this misapprehension was made by his first translators, who erroneously rendered his key experimental concept as “conditioned” rather than “conditional” reflex. In combination with the stereotype of dogs salivating to bells, this has made Pavlov come across as a narrow determinist and as a scientist preoccupied with external phenomena rather than underlying causes. In America, he has been domesticated as a variety of behaviourist. But this is a very misleading view.
One part of the stereotype is correct: Pavlov and his co-workers spent a great deal of their time getting dogs to salivate (though their preferred stimuli were the buzzer and the metronome, not the bell). But, as Todes shows in an exposition both lucid and nuanced, that was merely the starting point. Dogs for Pavlov were experimental subjects rather than machines for replicating results. He and his colleagues developed close working relationships with their animals (even as they tortured them). Control groups were unthinkable: all the dogs were individuals. This allowed Pavlov to conduct elaborate sequences of experiments on the same dog, with multiple combinations of stimuli, but quickly forced him to confront an inconvenient fact: dogs, like human beings, were different. Excitation and inhibition were not universal mechanisms, but varied in their intensity and interrelations from one animal to the next. By 1924, Pavlov enjoyed excellent lab conditions, including the purpose-built “Towers of Silence” where dogs could be isolated from extraneous stimuli, but even this apparently most neutral of environments affected dogs in profoundly different ways. A psychiatrist, perhaps, would have welcomed this evidence of irreducible psychic variation, but a physiologist and determinist, such as Pavlov always remained, badly needed to find a way of accounting for it. The second half of Pavlov’s life may be regarded as one long search for a way of embracing the complexity without abandoning core mechanistic positions.
The underlying irony was that, from approximately the mid-point of his life, this world-renowned physiologist was in fact going after the psyche. Even if he still thought nervous impulses the best way of explaining the mind’s functioning, he was starting to push against the limits of his earlier explanatory models. In earlier days, he had taken “conditional reflexes” as a synonym for what the psychologists called “associations”. He attempted to prove the point by establishing in dogs longer chains of reflexes: not just light-equals-meat, but also metronome-equals-light-equals-meat. But these experiments did not yield satisfactory results: Pavlov had to admit that associations were broader than reflexes, and that the cumulative study of individual reflexes could not account for the “systematicity” of the nervous system. 
In the last decade of his life, as he came to acknowledge that the psychic whole was more than the sum of its nervous parts, his work took a distinctly psychiatric turn. No doubt this was partly the result of intellectual one-upmanship: he wanted to use his physiological toolkit to show the established specialists in the human mind the limits of their own aetiological speculations. But Pavlov’s interest in psychiatric abnormalities was also born of the sheer opportunism of any good researcher. Quite simply, a number of his dogs were nervous wrecks. In 1924, at least a couple of the animals were traumatized by their narrow escape from drowning during the Leningrad flood. Others were broken by the programme of experiments to which they were subjected – vivisection, isolation, electric shocks, jarring sounds. Earlier in his career, Pavlov might have discarded such animals as no longer “normal” and fit for purpose. Now they had become his most intriguing subjects: he analysed mental illness as a “break” caused by intolerable burdens on the nervous system. He was also more explicitly extrapolating from animals to humans. In the mid-1930s, he held court at “Clinical Wednesdays”, where he examined two or three patients [human or canine?] and then delivered a diagnosis, with psychiatrists in silent and sceptical attendance.
Pavlov’s dogs also drew him into the nature-versus-nurture debate. It was plausible to suppose that variation in dogs’ nervous types could be explained by heredity and by their different life experiences before entering the clutches of his lab assistants. In the early 1920s, Pavlov endorsed research on mice that seemed to demonstrate the inheritance of acquired characteristics, only later to have to retreat from this position when the experimental results were shown to be flimsy. A few years later, with the creation, thanks to Bolshevik largesse, of a bucolic experimental station outside Leningrad, he had the opportunity to investigate heredity in a more controlled and convincing manner. Dogs could be reared in controlled environments as “free” or “imprisoned”, and multiple generations could be studied to investigate inherited characteristics."

Monday, November 23, 2015

Captagon - Drug of Choice for Syrian fighters

The Guardian
"As Syria sinks ever deeper into civil war, evidence is starting to emerge that a brutal and bloody conflict that has left more than 100,000 people dead and displaced as many as two million is now also being fuelled by both the export and consumption of rapidly increasing quantities of illegal drugs.
Separate investigations by the news agency Reuters and Time magazine have found that the growing trade in Syrian-made Captagon – an amphetamine widely consumed in the Middle East but almost unknown elsewhere – generated revenues of millions of dollars inside the country last year, some of which was almost certainly used to fund weapons, while combatants on both sides are reportedly turning to the stimulant to help them keep fighting.
Captagon, the trademark name for the synthetic stimulant fenethylline, was first produced in the 1960s to treat hyperactivity, narcolepsy and depression, but was banned in most countries by the 1980s as too addictive. It remains hugely popular in the Middle East; Saudi Arabia alone seizes some 55m tablets a year, perhaps 10% of the total thought to be smuggled into the kingdom.
The drug is cheap and simple to produce, using ingredients that are easy and often legal to obtain, yet sells for up to $20 a tablet. A Lebanese psychiatrist, Ramzi Haddad, said that Captagon had "the typical effects of a stimulant", producing "a kind of euphoria. You're talkative, you don't sleep, you don't eat, you're energetic."
Those effects explain why fighters from most of the warring parties in the conflict – with the exception of al Qaida-linked groups, which mostly hold to a strict interpretation of Islamic law – are now said to be making extensive use of Captagon, often on night missions or during particularly gruelling battles. But doctors and psychiatrists say use of the drug is also becoming widespread among Syria's increasingly desperate civilian population."

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Middle Passage -- Robert Hayden


Jesús, Estrella, Esperanza, Mercy:

       Sails flashing to the wind like weapons,
       sharks following the moans the fever and the dying;   
       horror the corposant and compass rose.

Middle Passage:
               voyage through death
                               to life upon these shores.

       “10 April 1800—
       Blacks rebellious. Crew uneasy. Our linguist says   
       their moaning is a prayer for death,
       ours and their own. Some try to starve themselves.   
       Lost three this morning leaped with crazy laughter   
       to the waiting sharks, sang as they went under.”

Desire, Adventure, Tartar, Ann:

       Standing to America, bringing home   
       black gold, black ivory, black seed.

               Deep in the festering hold thy father lies,   
               of his bones New England pews are made,   

               those are altar lights that were his eyes.

Jesus    Saviour    Pilot    Me
Over    Life’s    Tempestuous    Sea

We pray that Thou wilt grant, O Lord,   
safe passage to our vessels bringing   
heathen souls unto Thy chastening.

Jesus    Saviour

       “8 bells. I cannot sleep, for I am sick
       with fear, but writing eases fear a little
       since still my eyes can see these words take shape   
       upon the page & so I write, as one
       would turn to exorcism. 4 days scudding,
       but now the sea is calm again. Misfortune
       follows in our wake like sharks (our grinning   
       tutelary gods). Which one of us
       has killed an albatross? A plague among
       our blacks—Ophthalmia: blindness—& we   
       have jettisoned the blind to no avail.
       It spreads, the terrifying sickness spreads.
       Its claws have scratched sight from the Capt.'s eyes   
       & there is blindness in the fo’c’sle
       & we must sail 3 weeks before we come
       to port.”

               What port awaits us, Davy Jones’
               or home? I’ve heard of slavers drifting, drifting,   
               playthings of wind and storm and chance, their crews   
               gone blind, the jungle hatred
               crawling up on deck.

Thou    Who    Walked    On    Galilee

       “Deponent further sayeth The Bella J
       left the Guinea Coast
       with cargo of five hundred blacks and odd   
       for the barracoons of Florida:

       “That there was hardly room ’tween-decks for half   
       the sweltering cattle stowed spoon-fashion there;   
       that some went mad of thirst and tore their flesh   
       and sucked the blood:

       “That Crew and Captain lusted with the comeliest   
       of the savage girls kept naked in the cabins;   
       that there was one they called The Guinea Rose   
       and they cast lots and fought to lie with her:

       “That when the Bo’s’n piped all hands, the flames   
       spreading from starboard already were beyond   
       control, the negroes howling and their chains   
       entangled with the flames:

       “That the burning blacks could not be reached,   
       that the Crew abandoned ship,
       leaving their shrieking negresses behind,
       that the Captain perished drunken with the wenches:

       “Further Deponent sayeth not.”

Pilot    Oh    Pilot    Me


Aye, lad, and I have seen those factories,   
Gambia, Rio Pongo, Calabar;
have watched the artful mongos baiting traps   
of war wherein the victor and the vanquished

Were caught as prizes for our barracoons.   
Have seen the nigger kings whose vanity
and greed turned wild black hides of Fellatah,   
Mandingo, Ibo, Kru to gold for us.

And there was one—King Anthracite we named him—
fetish face beneath French parasols
of brass and orange velvet, impudent mouth
whose cups were carven skulls of enemies:

He’d honor us with drum and feast and conjo   
and palm-oil-glistening wenches deft in love,   
and for tin crowns that shone with paste,   
red calico and German-silver trinkets

Would have the drums talk war and send   
his warriors to burn the sleeping villages   
and kill the sick and old and lead the young   
in coffles to our factories.

Twenty years a trader, twenty years,
for there was wealth aplenty to be harvested   
from those black fields, and I’d be trading still   
but for the fevers melting down my bones.


Shuttles in the rocking loom of history,   
the dark ships move, the dark ships move,   
their bright ironical names
like jests of kindness on a murderer’s mouth;   
plough through thrashing glister toward   
fata morgana’s lucent melting shore,   
weave toward New World littorals that are   
mirage and myth and actual shore.

Voyage through death,
                               voyage whose chartings are unlove.

A charnel stench, effluvium of living death   
spreads outward from the hold,
where the living and the dead, the horribly dying,   
lie interlocked, lie foul with blood and excrement.

       Deep in the festering hold thy father lies,   
       the corpse of mercy rots with him,   
       rats eat love’s rotten gelid eyes.

       But, oh, the living look at you
       with human eyes whose suffering accuses you,   
       whose hatred reaches through the swill of dark   
       to strike you like a leper’s claw.

       You cannot stare that hatred down
       or chain the fear that stalks the watches
       and breathes on you its fetid scorching breath;   
       cannot kill the deep immortal human wish,   
       the timeless will.

               “But for the storm that flung up barriers   
               of wind and wave, The Amistad, señores,
               would have reached the port of Príncipe in two,   
               three days at most; but for the storm we should   
               have been prepared for what befell.   
               Swift as the puma’s leap it came. There was   
               that interval of moonless calm filled only   
               with the water’s and the rigging’s usual sounds,   
               then sudden movement, blows and snarling cries   
               and they had fallen on us with machete   
               and marlinspike. It was as though the very   
               air, the night itself were striking us.   
               Exhausted by the rigors of the storm,
               we were no match for them. Our men went down   
               before the murderous Africans. Our loyal   
               Celestino ran from below with gun   
               and lantern and I saw, before the cane-
               knife’s wounding flash, Cinquez,
               that surly brute who calls himself a prince,   
               directing, urging on the ghastly work.
               He hacked the poor mulatto down, and then   
               he turned on me. The decks were slippery
               when daylight finally came. It sickens me   
               to think of what I saw, of how these apes   
               threw overboard the butchered bodies of
               our men, true Christians all, like so much jetsam.   
               Enough, enough. The rest is quickly told:   
               Cinquez was forced to spare the two of us   
               you see to steer the ship to Africa,   
               and we like phantoms doomed to rove the sea   
               voyaged east by day and west by night,   
               deceiving them, hoping for rescue,   
               prisoners on our own vessel, till   
               at length we drifted to the shores of this   
               your land, America, where we were freed   
               from our unspeakable misery. Now we   
               demand, good sirs, the extradition of   
               Cinquez and his accomplices to La   
               Havana. And it distresses us to know   
               there are so many here who seem inclined   
               to justify the mutiny of these blacks.   
               We find it paradoxical indeed
               that you whose wealth, whose tree of liberty   
               are rooted in the labor of your slaves
               should suffer the august John Quincy Adams   
               to speak with so much passion of the right   
               of chattel slaves to kill their lawful masters   
               and with his Roman rhetoric weave a hero’s   
               garland for Cinquez. I tell you that   
               we are determined to return to Cuba
               with our slaves and there see justice done. Cinquez—
               or let us say ‘the Prince’—Cinquez shall die.”

       The deep immortal human wish,   
       the timeless will:

               Cinquez its deathless primaveral image,   
               life that transfigures many lives.

       Voyage through death
                                     to life upon these shores.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Old Man River -- Frank Sinatra (1967)

I gets weary and so sick of tryin'
I'm tired of livin' and I'm feared of dyin'

Here we all work 'long the Mississippi
Here we all work while the white folk play
Pullin' them boats from the dawn 'til sunset
Gettin' no rest 'til the judgment day

Don't look up and don't look down
You don't das make the white boss frown
Bend your knees and bow your head
And pull that rope until you're dead

Let me go 'way from the Mississippi
Let me go 'way from the white man boss
Show me that stream called the River Jordan
That's the old stream that I long to cross

Ol' Man River, that Ol' Man River
He must know somethin' but he don't say nothin'
He just keeps rollin', he keeps on rollin' along

He don't plant tatters and he don't plant cotton
And them what plants 'em is soon forgotten
But Ol' Man River, he just keeps rollin' along

You and me, we sweat and strain
Body all achin' and racked with pain
Tote that barge, lift that bail
Get a little drunk and you lands in jail

I gets weary and so sick of tryin'
I'm tired of livin' and I'm feared of dyin'
And Ol' Man River, he just keeps rollin' along


Friday, November 20, 2015

CPB Classic: A Modest Proposal for a College Curriculum

From August, 2013

A Modest Proposal for a College Curriculum

"A "return to rigor" in the college experience is certainly in order. College graduates should differ from non-graduates in more ways than just their projected lifetime earnings, SAT scores, and high school GPAs. They should actually know things that non-grads do not, and they should behave in ways that non-grads do not. In my view, a college graduate should be readily discernible from the non-grad in his appearance, presentation, manner of speech, work habits, leisure activities, physical fitness, morals, and social relations. Graduates should be different from when they matriculated four years earlier."

Freshman Year

"The fall seminar would cover, at a minimum, Homer, Plato, Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Herodotus, and Thucydides. The spring seminar would add Aristotle, Euripedes, and Sophocles. See here to see how all these works can be read in a year."

No Latin?

"Four years of high-school Latin would dramatically arrest the decline in American education....Nothing so enriches the vocabulary, so instructs about English grammar and syntax, so creates a discipline of the mind, an elegance of expression, and serves as a gateway to the thinking and values of Western civilization as mastery of a page of Virgil or Livy (except perhaps Sophocles’s Antigone in Greek or Thucydides’ dialogue at Melos)."

What about athletics?

"Seniors will compete in Modern Penathlon, endurance running, open water swimming, and multi-day wilderness trekking."

The End Product

"How would a graduate of such a program differ from typical college graduates? This would not be a person to trifle with, a person inured to hardship and possessing extremely strong self-discipline. They can read Ancient Greek and French, paint a portrait, and ride a horse. They have extraordinary mental and physical endurance. They have mastered both elements of the liberal arts and sciences."

Thursday, November 19, 2015

"Leave them only their eyes with which to weep."

Yale Open Courses

"Now, out West. Where's Sherman? There he is. Can we see this? Now, the other major campaign of the war that of course will ultimately lead to Union victory — and I won't get us quite to the dead-end of the war today by any means — but it is, of course, William Sherman's Atlanta Campaign through northern Georgia, the fall of Atlanta by September of '64. The campaign lasted all that summer. At the same time this stalemate sets in in Virginia, around Petersburg, with these thousands of casualties. And you must try to, if you can imagine Northerners standing in post offices and telegraph offices all over the towns of the Midwest, New England, waiting for casualty reports, and the adjutants of regiments writing the lists. Standing in a small town post office and a telegraph comes through with a list of the dead; a dozen, two dozen, three dozen, men, from a town that only had 1000 people. It was beginning to destroy Northern morale.
It was then that Sherman, based on this strategy of conquest, destruction of resources and war upon people, made the decision, really quite quickly, to launch his march to the sea. It took him a couple of months to organize it but from November 15th to Christmas Eve — that's about five weeks — Sherman's army marched 285 miles from Atlanta to Savannah with 62,000 troops. They were almost unopposed. General John B. Hood's Confederate Army, that had surrendered — in effect given up — Atlanta, had retreated south to fight again. And Hood's idea, but actually without Jefferson Davis's approval — well if Sherman was going to invade toward the East, toward the sea and destroy Georgia, Hood took an army of about 30,000 men and invaded back up into Tennessee, hoping that Sherman would stop and come after him. Sherman said, "Let him go." It was a kind of a game now, of time, resources, destruction, and who would give up. "We are not fighting a hostile army anymore," Sherman said, I'm quoting him, "we are fighting a hostile people. His aim and objective now was the civilian population, and Americans had never made war on civilians quite like Sherman would in Georgia. "We cannot change the hearts of those people," Sherman wrote of the South, "but we can make war so terrible and make them so sick of war that generations will pass before they will ever again appeal to it." Now up in the Shenandoah Valley, Philip Sheridan's Union Army, under similar orders, to make war on society, gave a simple order to his officers; and most of that army was cavalry. His order was put in the starkest of total war terms. He said, quote, "Leave them only their eyes with which to weep." This was now savage war.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Not everyone likes Stephen Grosz's The Examined Life

NY Review of Books 
"But what are we to say of the likes of Haruki Murakami? Or Salman Rushdie? Or Jonathan Franzen? Or Jennifer Egan, or recent prize-winners like Andrés Neuman and Eleanor Catton, or, most monumentally, Karl Ove Knausgaard? They are all immensely successful writers. They are clearly very competent. Knausgaard is the great new thing, I am told. I pick up Knausgaard. I read a hundred pages or so and put it down. I cannot understand the attraction. No, that’s not true, I do get a certain attraction, but cannot understand why one would commit to its extension over so many pages. It doesn’t seem attractive enough for what it is asking of me.
Take Elena Ferrante. Again and again I pick up her novels and again and again I give up around page fifty. My impression is of something wearisomely concocted, determinedly melodramatic, forever playing on Neapolitan stereotype. Here, in My Brilliant Friend, the narrator is remembering a quarrel between neighbours:
As their vindictiveness increased, the two women began to insult each other if they met on the street or the stairs: harsh, fierce sounds. It was then that they began to frighten me. One of the many terrible scenes of my childhood begins with the shouts of Melina and Lidia, with the insults they hurl from the windows and then on the stairs; it continues with my mother rushing to our door, opening it, and looking out, followed by us children; and ends with the image, for me still unbearable, of the two neighbors rolling down the stairs, entwined, and Melina’s head hitting the floor of the landing, a few inches from my shoes, like a white melon that has slipped from your hand.

What can one say? Making no effort of the imagination, Ferrante simply announces melodrama: “Harsh, fierce sounds”; “One of the many terrible scenes of my childhood”; insults are “hurled.” The memory is “for me still unbearable” though in the following pages the incident is entirely forgotten. Is “entwined” really the right word for two people locked in struggle on the stairs? As in a B movie, a head hits the floor a few inches from our hero’s shoes. Then comes, the half-hearted attempt to transform cartoon reportage into literature: “like a white melon that has slipped from your hand.”
I can’t recall dropping a melon myself, but if the aim of a metaphor is to bring intensity and clarity to an image, this one goes in quite a different direction. The dull slap of the soft white melon hitting the ground and rolling away from you would surely be a very different thing from the hard crack of a skull and the sight of a bloody face. I’m astonished that having tossed the metaphor in, out of mechanical habit one presumes, the author didn’t pull it right out again. And even more I’m astonished that other people are not irritated by this lazy writing.
It’s not only fiction that does this to me. I am told, for example, that Stephen Grosz’s book The Examined Life—a psychoanalyst giving us his most interesting case histories—is a work of genius and is selling like hotcakes. I buy a copy, and halfway through I toss it away, literally, at the wall, in intense irritation. How can people like these stories, with their over-easy packaging of what are no doubt extremely complex personal problems, their evident and decidedly unexamined complacency about the rightness of the analyst’s intervention?"