Archive for The New York Times

Clockers [book review]

Posted in Books, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 15, 2014 by xi'an

Throughout my recent trip to Canada, I read bits and pieces of Clockers by Richard Price and I finished reading it last Sunday. It is an impressive piece of literature and I am surprised I was not aware of its existence until suggested it to me (as I was checking for recent books by another Richard, Richard Morgan!). Guessing from the summary it could be of interest and from comments it was sort of a classic, I ordered it more or less on a whim (given a comfortable balance on my account, thanks to ‘Og’s readers!) It took me a few pages to realise the plot was deeply set in the 1990′s, not only because this was the high of the crack epidemics, but also since the characters (drug dealers and policemen) therein are all using beepers, instead of cellphones, and street phone booths).

“It’s like a math problem. Juan got whacked at point X, he drove away losing blood at the rate of a pint every ninety seconds. He was driving forty-five miles an hour and he bought the farm two miles inside the tunnel (…) So for ten points, [who] in what New Jersey town did Juan?” Clockers (p.272)

The plot of Clockers is vaguely a detective story as an aging and depressed homicide officer, Rosso, hunts the murderer of a drug dealer, being convinced from the start that the self-declared murderer Victor did not do it. In parallel, and somewhat more closely, the book follows the miserable plight and thoughts and desires of Victor’s brother, Strike, who is head of a local crack dealing network, under the domination of the charismatic and berserk Rodney Little… But the resolution of the crime matters very little, much less than the exposure of the deadly economics of the drug traffic in inner cities (years before Freakonomics!), of the constant fight of single mothers to bring food and structure to their dysfunctional families, to the widespread recourse to moonlighting, and above all to the almost physical impossibility to escape one’s environment (even for smart and decent kids like Victor and, paradoxically enough, the drug-dealing Strike) by lack of prospect and exposure to anything or anywhere else, as well as social pressure, early pregnancies and gang-related micro-partitioning of cities.

When I mentioned Clockers to Andrew, he told me that he also liked it very much but that the characters were not quite “real”. I somewhat agree in that, while the economics, the sociology and the practice of drug-dealing sound very accurately reproduced (for all I know!), the characters are more caricaturesque or picturesque than natural. The stomach disease of Strike sounds too much like an allegory of both his schizophrenic split between running the drug trade and looking for a definitive quit, while the sacrifice of his brother makes little sense, except as a form either of suicide or of escape from an environment he can no longer stand. What is most surprising is that Richard Price (just like Michael Crichton) is  a practised screenwriter (who collaborated to Spike Lee’s 1995 Clockers). So he knows how to run an efficient story with convincing characters and plot(s). Hence my little theory of a picaresque novel… (Here is Jim Shepard’s enthusiastic review of Clockers. With the definitely accurate title of “Sympathy for the dealer”.)

the ultimate simulation

Posted in Books, University life with tags , , , , , , on February 23, 2014 by xi'an

Another breakfast read of the New York Times that engaged enough of my attention to write a post (an easily done feat!): besides a lengthy introduction, Edward Frenkel, the author of the column, considers the Platonic issue of whether or not “mathematical entities actually exist in and of themselves”, an issue also central to Neal Stephenson’s Anathem. And suddenly switches to another philosophical debate, realism versus idealism, the later view being that reality only exists in the mind. And seriously (?) considers the question of whether or not we live in a computer simulation… Uh?! There is actually research going on with this assumption, as shown by the arXiv paper the column links to. This is also called the Matrix Hypothesis on Wikipedia. While I understand the appeal of arguing that we cannot distinguish between living in a real world and living in the simulation of a real world (this is a modern extension of Plato’s cave), I do not get the point of addressing the issue in a Physics paper. Seems more appropriate for science-fiction literature. Like Philip K. Dick‘s…

off to Duke

Posted in Books, Mountains, pictures, Statistics, Travel, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 15, 2013 by xi'an

IMG_2181On my way to Duke and O’Bayes 2013, I took an early flight to Atlanta, with a bit of a delay because of a faulty tractor in Charles de Gaulle airport but all in all an overall smooth trip. We alas flew too much south this time to get any view of Greenland except for the glimpse below… Apart from working on my slides for today’s lecture, I watched bits (actually most) of rather silly films, The Lone Ranger and Oblivion, not really worth reviewing here. (The former is playing too much on second degree references to Pirates of the Caribbean. From Johnny Depp making faces to his playing with his watch, to the recurrent madman wearing women’s clothes and playing with an umbrella. The second one was just appalling, from the abysmally poor acting to the ultimate absence of a plot…) I also read in The NYT about a new super-prize in Mathematics to be launched by a few “philanthropists”, including Mark Zuckerberg. The paper was not giving any detail on the focus of the prize and on the motives of the generous donators. Interestingly, the similar prize they set for physics went to two proponents of string theory, which is still a mathematical construct with no experimental evidence, as far as I understand…IMG_2176Rereading Johnson’s PNAS paper for my tutorial had the side result of making me realise him using a flat prior on a normal mean without more justification than there is a “constant factor that arises from the uniform distribution on μ”…

Are we hard-wired for war?

Posted in Books, Kids with tags , , , , on October 27, 2013 by xi'an

“There is a story, believed to be of Cherokee origin, in which a girl is troubled by a recurring dream in which two wolves fight viciously. Seeking an explanation, she goes to her grandfather, highly regarded for his wisdom, who explains that there are two forces within each of us, struggling for supremacy, one embodying peace and the other, war. At this, the girl is even more distressed, and asks her grandfather who wins. His answer: “The one you feed.””

Another opinion piece from the New York Times I (also) read in the train to the airport bound for Warwick is about the Hume-an human (supposed) predisposition for war, hence the title “are we hard wired for war?” This question reminded me of my daughter’s philosophy dissertation of last week as war may appear as the ultimate example of the “nature vs culture” debate, wars resulting from societal pressures… until one thinks of the constant fighting in most animal societies, where from ants to chimpanzees, groups within the same species are fighting for supremacy. The paper in itself is rather inconclusive, with good feelings and little folk tales like the above replacing scientific evidence and deeper philosophical arguments (also missing from this post!)

Something I just noticed when looking at both authors (of this tribune and the previous one on traditional Chinese medicine) is that they both mix a Buddhist approach with scientific arguments, Asma with his book Why I am a Buddhist, and Barash with his book Buddhist Biology: Ancient Eastern Wisdom Meets Modern Western Science. It is thus no wonder they entertain the idea of an absence of boundaries between science and religion.

the dangers of pseudo-science

Posted in Books, University life with tags , , , on October 26, 2013 by xi'an

“The borderlines between genuine science and pseudoscience may be fuzzy, but this should be even more of a call for careful distinctions, based on systematic facts and sound reasoning. To try a modicum of turtle blood here and a little aspirin there is not the hallmark of wisdom and even-mindedness. It is a dangerous gateway to superstition and irrationality.”

“This is a standard modus operandi of pseudoscience: it adopts the external trappings of science, but without the substance.”

Interestingly enough, the New York Times paper on Traditional Chinese medicine that I discussed in a previous post induced a new (reply) column in the New York Times by Massimo Pigliucci and Maarten Boudry. It is called the dangers of pseudo-science and it rightly separates empirical hypothetico-deductive reasoning (like bark helping with headaches) from irrational beliefs like qi, which cannot be tested or falsified. The authors echo (much more eloquently) my surprise at Asma’s discourse as being opposed to the fundamentals of the philosophy of science and as using particularly weak philosophical arguments… Of course, the difference between science and pseudo-science has always been a fuzzy one, dixit the above quote, as illustrated for instance in the first issues of the Proceedings of the Royal Society, which mixed articles introducing calculus with articles attempting to prove the existence of God and articles about witchcraft experiments. But there are cases like astrology (and qi) that are demonstrably pseudo-science, for being both non-falsifiable and inoperative at explaining (and predicting) phenomenons and effects. (As a coincidence (?), I bought a very short introduction to Philosophy of Science while in Warwick. And may even post about this book! I think I will abstain from Pigliucci’s and Boudry’s, Philosophy of Pseudoscience, though, as it would take me a bit far from home.)


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