17 July 2010

Daily Digest, 2010.07.16

Friday: Žižek!; Will I? I Will; Unhinged; a really old gene for sperm; NYT Mackerras obituary; Kissin spouts off; Book Catalogue for Android; death by caffeine; unlock your inner savant.


Spiegel Online has an entertaining article by Philipp Oehmke (in English) on Slavoj Žižek, "the most dangerous philosopher in the West." (This follows on the Telegraph interview with Žižek that I linked to a week ago.)

Oehmke's article makes Žižek sound like a clown.  (But is this necessarily a distortion?)

Some quotes (quite a few are funny, in an appalling sort of way):
The Big Three, the great thinkers of the new left, will be speaking at the event, held at Berlin's Volksbühne Theater on a weekend in late June: Antonio Negri, an Italian in his late 70s, is a former political prisoner and the author of "Empire," the best known neo-Marxist bestseller of the last 10 years; Alain Badiou, a philosophy professor in Paris, is in his early 70s, very abstract, a Maoist and a universalist, and is searching for a new "communist hypothesis"; and Zizek, a Slovenian psychoanalyst in his early 60s who teaches philosophy in Ljubljana and is a visiting professor in London and Saas Fe, Switzerland, the "Elvis of Cultural Theory" (as he is referred to in a film). One of his bitterest opponents once called Zizek "the most dangerous philosopher in the West." It wasn't meant as a compliment, which is precisely why Zizek likes the nickname so much.
The three men are intellectuals, but they are also stars, like the existentialists Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and, more recently, the post-structuralists Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Derrida. But ever since the height of the post-structuralists' popularity, almost 20 years ago now, this position has remained unoccupied, with the possible exception of Bernard Henri-Levy, whom Zizek despises mainly because of his tendency to show too much chest hair
Zizek, Badiou and Negri have known each other for years. Sometimes they work together, but each of them is more apt to take note of what the others are doing, what they are saying or what they are writing about, even if they have more than likely not read the others' books. Negri is not aloof enough and too much of a class warrior for Zizek and Badiou. Badiou is too rarefied for Negri, and Zizek publishes so many books that even he probably doesn't have time to read them all.
Most of the presentations are difficult enough to understand in their original languages. Translated, they become virtually unintelligible. 

This brand of theory also has to be consistently sexy. It has to entertain, provoke and be easily quotable in the form of sound bites and physically palpable like rock music. Zizek delivers all of the above. One could say that he's reinvented the profession. Some would say he's defiled the profession
He can speak more quickly than he can think. He's like a jackhammer. He has published more than 50 books, which have been translated into more than 20 languages. His most recent book, "Living in the End Times," is a 400-page treatise on the demise of the liberal democracy. 

Zizek's roughly 600-square-foot apartment looks as though Tito were still in power. It consists of three rooms and is carelessly furnished. A poster from a Mark Rothko exhibition hangs on the wall above the sofa in Soviet-era colors; otherwise, the furnishings consist of a rack of DVDs, bookshelves, mountains of "Star Wars" Legos and his laundry, which he keeps in his kitchen cabinets. He serves iced tea in Disney cups.
The experience of meeting Zizek is initially fascinating for everyone (for the first hour), then frustrating (it's impossible to get a word in edgewise) and, finally, cathartic (the conversation does, eventually, come to an end). Zizek begins to talk within the first few seconds, and in his case talking means screaming, gesticulating, spitting and sweating. He has a speech defect known as sigmatism, and when he pronounces the letter "s" it sounds like a bicycle pump. He usually begins his discourse with the words "Did you know…," and then he jumps from topic to topic, like a thinking machine that's been stuffed with coins and from then on doesn't stop spitting out words.
Does any human being have 50-books worth of good ideas?

Yes, that was a rhetorical question.


Jonah Lehrer at the Frontal Cortex has an good report on a new paper that studies the effect of different types of internal mental soliloquy.

Having been told that they would be given a task to solve anagrams, 53 undergraduates (WEIRD ones, no doubt), were told either to ask themselves whether they would work on anagrams (the "Will I?" condition) or to tell themselves that they would work on them (the "I Will" condition). The "Will I?" group solved nearly 25 percent more anagrams than the "I Will" group.

The underlying issue here is intrinsic motivation (represented in this experiment by the "Will I?" condition) and extrinsic motivation (here the "I Will" condition). Typically an extrinsic motivation might be a reward or a grade.  It should come as no surprise (at least not to any teacher) that intrinsic motivation is more effective, but nearly all institutional education, from grade school through university, is based on extrinsic motivation.  And that (to me) is one of the things that is profoundly wrong with it.

And it also accounts for grade grubbing.

The article is:
Ibrahim Senay, Dolores Albarracin, and Kenji Noguchi (2010), "Motivating Goal-Directing Behavior Through Introspective Self-Talk: The Role of the Interrogative Form of Simple Future Tense," Psychological Science. The article is behind a paywall at Sage Journals, and costs $35.00.  However, what is apparently a draft version of it is available here.
Here is the abstract:
Although essential for psychology, introspective self-talk has rarely been studied with respect to its effects on behavior. Nevertheless, the interrogative compared with the declarative form of introspective talk may elicit more intrinsically motivated reasons for action, resulting in goal-directed behavior. In Experiment 1, participants were more likely to solve anagrams if they prepared for the task by asking themselves whether they would work on anagrams as opposed to declaring that they would. In the next three experiments, merely writing Will I as opposed to I will as part of an ostensibly unrelated handwriting task produced better anagram-solving performance and stronger intentions to exercise, which suggests that priming the interrogative structure of self-talk is enough to motivate goal-directed behavior. This effect was found to be mediated by the intrinsic motivation for action and moderated by the salience of the word order of the primes.


Dave Davies from Fresh Air at NPR interviews Daniel Carlat on his new book Unhinged: The Trouble with Psychiatry. Two years ago, Carlat had a piece (which I have not yet read) in the NYT Magazine called "Dr. Drug Rep" about "being paid to push the anti-depressant Effexor to his colleagues."

Carlat's main point is that psychiatrists now function almost entirely as diagnosticians who prescribe medication, and very few (on the order of 11%) now do any psychotherapy. (This is certainly my own experience.) And, he suggests, this may not be a good thing. 

He's right. 

Although, frankly, he comes across as rather naive about many key aspects of the system. For example, he betrays no hint that the DSM might be anything other than a reliable diagnostic manual based solely on disinterested science—which seems odd for someone who has written an article about acting as a shill for Big Pharma.  And he seems still, in his own practice, to follow this model, of having hundreds of patients whom he sees for short periods of time, acting basically a psychopharmacologist, while sending the patients elsewhere for psychotherapy.  He seems to me to talk around his own personal complicity in this, when Davies raises the question.  But no one is forcing him to do this. (Admittedly, later in the interview, he says that he is trying to incorporate more psychotherapy into his own practice.)

There's a quite candid sequence about 14:30 into the interview where Carlat admits that he, in effect, lies to his patients about how these medications work, by (for example), telling them that an SSRI corrects a deficiency in serotonin in the brain, when, in fact, we basically have no idea how SSRIs work.

A quote:
"We don't have any direct evidence that depression or anxiety or any psychiatric disorder is due to a deficiency in serotonin because it's very hard to actually measure serotonin from a living brain. Any efforts that have been made to measure serotonin indirectly — such as measuring it in the spinal fluid or doing post-mortem studies — have been inconclusive. They have not shown conclusively that there is either too little or too much serotonin in the fluids. So that's where we are with psychiatry. ... In cardiology, we have a good understanding of how the heart pumps, what electrical signals generate electricity in the heart. And due to that understanding, we can then target specific cardiac medications to treat problems like heart failure or heart attacks. Again, based on a pretty well worked out knowledge of the pathophysiology — again not perfect, but pretty well worked out."
Although it is not news, it is still striking to hear him tell the story that something like half of the "research" articles on Zoloft were ghost-written by an advertising firm employed by Pfizer.

Carlat is also quite candid about his time as a shill for Effexor, and his dealings with drug reps.  I've seen drug reps in the wild, and it's pretty creepy.

The NPR site includes an extract from Chapter 1 of Carlat's book.


80 beats aggregates several stories on a new study in PLoS Genetics on a gene involved in sperm production (and, apparently, nothing else) that has been conserved across a very wide range of species, from sea anemones to humans, over the course of 600 million years. The gene is called BOULE, and the study is:
Chirag Shah, et al. (2010), "Widespread Presence of Human BOULE Homologs among Animals and Conservation of Their Ancient Reproductive Function," PLoS Genetics.  The article is freely available online.


Allann Kozinn's obituary of Charles Mackerras at the NYT.

Die Welt am Sonntag interviews (auf Deutsch) pianist Evgeny Kissin, who recently wrote an open letter to the BBC protesting what he sees as a blatant anti-Israel bias in their reporting .

No comment (I don't hear enough of the BBC to have an opinion of the coverage of Israel).

However, Kissin does not strike me as a profound thinker (but then neither does he strike me as a profound pianist).

He also discusses his new recordings of Mozart concertos (which, I have to confess, I'm unlikely to listen to any time soon).

Tech tools

I don't, alas, have an Android phone. But if I did, I'd almost certainly get the Book Catalogue app, reviewed by Billie Hara at ProfHacker at The Chronicle of Higher Education. It allows you to keep a catalogue of your personal library in your phone, so that, for example, you can make sure not to buy a book that you already have when you're at Borders or Pazzo Books.  Sounds cool:  you can use the phone to scan the barcodes on books in order to enter their information into the program or input the ISBN number.


An online calculator that will tell you how much caffeine it will take to kill you, given your body weight (via Vaughan at Mind Hacks). You can choose to have the answer presented in terms of any one of a large variety of caffeine-bearing drinks.

It would take 186.14 shots of espresso to kill me at my current weight.  And I can only say, proudly, that this number is much lower than it would have been six months ago.

It would take 415.43 cans of Coca-Cola Classic.  Although here the problem is perhaps more complicated than the calculator lets on: because if I'd drunk 415.43 cans of Coke, my body weight would no longer be what it was when I started.

via BoingBoing, blatant marketing for a dubious idea, trancranial magnetic stimulation to unlock you inner savant (so I feel a little guilty for abetting this), but still an interesting graphic on some amazing brains (including Daniel Tammet, Kim Peek, and Derek Paravicini).

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