Academia

  1. Steven Pinker takes on a big challenge as he attempts to explain the history of violence in his 800+ page best-selling book Better Angels of Our Nature. To do this Pinker breaks down human history into five parts:
    • The Pacification Process – going from hunter gatherers into settled civilizations
    • the Civilizing Process consolidation of small kingdoms into large kingdoms with centralized authority and commerce
    • The Humanitarian Revolution—emergence of Enlightenment philosophy that puts substantial value on human’s capacity to be logical, creative, and non-violent
    • The Long & New Peace—a time supported by political hegemony and the trend of wars becoming more infrequent and less violent
    • The Rights Revolution—the incremental distribution of rights to once-suppressed groups (women, animals, gay rights, etc.)
  2. Pinker attributes the trend of decreasing violence throughout history to the genetic evolution of the humans , an increase in global commerce, the feminization of cultural norms, growth in information and communication networks, and reliance on science and reason (as opposed to religious doctrine).
  3. In order to prove that things have gotten better he has to prove that things were much worse. Notably he emphasizes the savage nature of tribes and, as Stephen Corry notes, Pinker “promotes a fictitious, colonialist image of a backward ‘Brutal Savage’, which pushes the debate on tribal peoples’ rights back over a century”.
  4. In order to slickly prove his point, that violence has definitely decreased over time, Pinker also asks the reader to accept the following truths:
    • That capitalism has been an overwhelmingly positive contribution to the world, since “violence has declined since its advent”…minus a few inconvenient statistical peaks of violent wars and genocides.
    • That we should ignore the violent the dealings of Colonialism. As the New Yorker says, this is a serious omission because “of the scale of the slaughter and because of the way it troubles the distinction between savage and civilized.” (New Yorker)
    • That we should ignore small modern wars because they are essentially statistical flukes, these wars include: “The Korean war, the Chinese invasion of Tibet, British counter-insurgency warfare in Malaya and Kenya, the abortive Franco-British invasion of Suez, the Angolan civil war, decades of civil war in the Congo and Guatemala, the Six Day War, the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 and of Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Iran-Iraq war and the Soviet-Afghan war” (New Yorker)
    • Here is my favorite –> That using a graph he provides, we are asked to draw conclusions of the “rate of battle deaths in state-based armed conflicts between 1900 and 2005” (Figure 6-1) while being instructed to ignore the figures for the first and second world wars. The New Yorker says it best here: “Though he hesitates to label the Second World War an out-and-out fluke, he is reduced to claiming that, as far as his thesis is concerned, it doesn’t really count. Accidents happen, and the Nazis’ rise to power was one of them”(New Yorker)
  5. Ultimately , though Pinker is “most likely correct that prehistoric life was more violent than life in agrarian civilizations and modern states…the way he pitches the evidence raises suspicions from the very beginning…The sources Pinker cites for the numbers of dead are themselves just aggregates of other estimates, the vast majority of which, if one follows the thread of sources to the end, turn out to be more or less informed guesses.” (Foreign Affairs)

I found the conclusions the author made to be poorly argued and statistically undisciplined. As a renowned academic it is no surprise Pinker can throw around academic jargon, but this does not make up for his habit of misinterpreting the scope of his data to convince himself and others of what seemed to be his pre-existing beliefs.

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Landmark: Elizabeth Street Gallery 
Date opened: 1991

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History: The 20,000-square-foot Elizabeth Street Garden sits on a portion of the site of a former school. When the school was demolished in the late 1970s the lot lay vacant and undeveloped until 1991 when the Elizabeth Street Gallery leased the site and installed an antique sculpture garden. The Gallery houses a collection of extraordinary pieces including second-century Greek and Roman carved-stone vessels.

Fun note: This garden is one of the last remaining green spaces that exist in lower manhattan. Since the start of 2013 the garden has become increasingly used as a space to host community events, display mural art, and launch city-wide festivals (like The New York Festival of Light tonight!). It is a gorgeous parcel of land we hope stays undeveloped. To visit, check out the garden hours at http://elizabethstreetgarden.org/

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Building: The Puck Building
Date built: 1885
History:

The Puck building derives its name from Puck Magazine, America’s “first successful humor magazine”–that is, humor in  social satire and political cartooning. The magazine is also the first to successfully use full-color lithography in weekly prints and the first magazine to carry illustrated advertising.

puck logoPuck-Building-new-york-354045_400_600Puck, originally a mischievous character from Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s dream, served as the personified symbol of the satirical magazine. The magazine’s cover always quoted the character, Puck, as saying “What fools these mortals be!” Today, Puck can be found at the corner of the building and above the western doorway with a top-hat and a hand-mirror, ostensibly repeating his famous refrain to admiring pedestrians.

Architecture:
The Puck building serves as an example of “German Romanesque Revival” architecture. The façade of the building certainly exhibits a Romanesque style given the copious number of arches and the long lower arcade that adorns the entirety of the edifice.

372447-4Puck, the personified character after which the building was named, stands over the entrance of the building as a reminder of old publishing district that once stood in its place. Taking a moment to appreciate this building’s stunning bright, red brick façade pays tribute to a magazine that once “served as a major institution in the city’s civic and cultural life”.

Fun Note: Puck magazine harshly criticized corrupt politicians and tycoons via its political and satirical cartoons. In 1916 media mogul William Randolph Hearst, an often satirized figure, bought the magazine and after two years the magazine, suspiciously, stopped printing. Conspiracy theorists unite!

This post is for Peter Boyce who now works in this gorgeous building.  

 Sources: http://www.neighborhoodpreservationcenter.org/db/bb_files/1983PuckBuilding.pdfhttp://goo.gl/bNc9EK, http://www.nyc-architecture.com/SOH/SOH037.htm,

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David Hume argues that there is a difference between what we believe to be “reason” versus what we think is “moral”. Ultimately he proposes that “reason” is based on science–a matter that is factual and not swayed by bias or feeling (2+2=4). Alternatively, what we consider to be “moral” is based on the feelings evoked in response to a subject or occasion (murder feels bad, so it must be bad). 

1. Morals cannot be derived from reason. Reason has no consequence, it stands only as fact. Morality has a consequence, it produces actions that reflect moral values.

“Since morals, therefore, have an influence on the actions and affections, it follows, that they cannot be deriv’d from reason…Morals excite passions, and produce or prevent actions. Reason of itself is utterly impotent in this particular. The rules of morality, therefore, are not conclusions of our reason. . . .”

2. In examining why morality is derived from feelings, not reason, we find that morals occur when we are faced with a situation that makes us feel good or bad–and these sentiments guide our perception of whether such action is moral or immoral. Here we find that murder is bad because it feels wrong.

“Take any action allow’d to be vicious: Wilful murder, for instance. Examine it in all lights, and see if you can find that matter of fact, or real existence, which you call vice . In whichever way you take it, you find only certain passions, motives, volitions and thoughts. There is no other matter of fact in the case. The vice entirely escapes you, as long as you consider the object. You never can find it, till you turn your reflexion into your own breast, and find a sentiment of disapprobation, which arises in you, towards this action. Here is a matter of fact; but ’tis the object of feeling, not of reason. It lies in yourself, not in the object. So that when you pronounce any action or character to be vicious, you mean nothing, but that from the constitution of your nature you have a feeling or sentiment of blame from the contemplation of it. Vice and virtue, therefore, may be compar’d to sounds, colours, heat and cold, which, according to modern philosophy, are not qualities in objects, but perceptions in the mind”

3. “This is” versus “this ought to be”. Hume recommends that readers take note of how authors propose arguments about “what is” and “what ought to be”. “What is” denotes facts, science, and reason. “What ought to be” denotes opinion and morality. There is a bridge that separates these two which requires explanation to bridge the two.

” In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark’d, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not , I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought , or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought , or ought not , expresses some new relation or affirmation…”

4. What is good? What is bad? We know the answer to this given by understanding whether an action makes us feel good or bad. If murder makes us feel bad, then it is bad. Feeling is what bridges reason with morality.

“…we are brought back to our first position, that virtue is distinguished by the pleasure, and vice by the pain… any action or sentiment upon the general view or survey gives a certain satisfaction or uneasiness in order to shew the origin of its moral rectitude or depravity, without looking for any incomprehensible relations and qualities, which never did exist in nature, nor even in our imagination, by any clear and distinct conception.”

This post was inspired by the Edx Course “Ideas of the 20th Century”

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, cities tried to respond to [internal] issues with active government–what historians have labeled progressivism. Despite the persistence of corruption, widespread poverty, and racial discrimination, cities increased municipal expenditures, professionalized their administration, and constructed buildings and infrastructures that supposed the most vibrant and successful era in American urban history. in the late twentieth century, by contrast, the response to similar issues was the withdrawal of active government, evident in reduced federal funds, reliance on market based solutions to urban problems, and the need to turn to private initiatives, like special service districts to carry out public functions, such as street cleaning and security. The results are everywhere to be seen, in homelessness on city streets, poverty spreading outward to inner suburbs, uncontrolled sprawl eating up open space, crumbling infrastructure, gross inequity on public education, the future of urban finance mortgaged to casino gambling, the incapacity to prevent or respond effectively to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the subprime mortgage crisis. The widely heralded comeback of American cities is thing and fragile. If you move away from shiny center cities, it is not nearly so visible. Look at city budgets, and it does not seem nearly so robust. The question, What is an American City? has begun to elicit both a cacophony of definitions and an array of intelligent and promising ideas about ow to respond. But we have yet to see a powerful and pervasive new urban progressivism. Clearly,, though, without the will to forge an effective and coordinated political response, the future of American cities, however defined, is unlikely to be as buoyant as their past.

Michael B. Katz, “What Is An American City?” Dissent 56, 3 (2009)

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Bite Sized Summary:  Story of man’s desire for perennial youth at the cost of his soul. The novel is an exposé of humanity’s odious tendencies when unchecked by nature.

Thoughts: Overrated, but worth a quick read. I was interested by the parallel between Dorian’s character in the book as a reflection of Oscar Wilde’s reflections on his own life. This quote from Oscar Wilde, I thought, embodied Dorian’s character pretty tightly–while also touching on the characters of Basil and Henry.

I let myself be lured into long spells of senseless and sensual ease. I amused myself with being a flaneur, a dandy; a man of fashion. . . . Tired of being on the heights, I deliberately went to the depths in the search for new sensation. What the paradox was to me in the sphere of thought, perversity became to me in the sphere of passion. Desire, at the end, was malady, or a madness, or both. I grew careless of the lives of others, I took pleasure where it pleased me, and passed on. I forgot that every little action of the common day makes or unmakes character, and that therefore what one has done in the secret chamber one has someday to cry aloud on the house-tops. I ceased to be lord over myself. I was no longer the captain of my soul, and did not know it. I allowed pleasure to dominate me. I ended in horrible disgrace. -Oscar Wilde

Questions: Does the ending of the book mean that Wilde was not a fan of aestheticism? Could it mean that he disapproves of the way he led his own life? I read the revised (popular version) of the book, does it differ much from the first print Wilde intended to be published?

So it turns out Detroit is pretty awesome.

I don’t want to bore you with the details of it’s history and it’s problems so I’ll (concisely) outline the issues and the solutions.

Problems:

  1. Detroit (also known as Motor City) is where the automobile industry was built ( Ford, GM, Chrysler etc) but all those giants left the city years ago = no jobs
  2. Detroit was built around large highways, roads, and for cars. But with no jobs people can’t buy cars. And because its a city built for cars, guess what? There’s no reliable public transportation.
  3. The suburbs was where the party was at in the 1950’s. Only people with jobs and enough money could afford to live there (predominantly caucasian residents) while poor people were economically exiled from the suburbs and could only afford to live in downtown detroit (predominantly African American residents). This created a phenomenon known as chocholate cities and vanilla suburbs. The phenomena was consolidated by the infamous 8 mile line, a line that to this day points to the strong racism that is left over. 
  4. Detroit is a sprawling city (like LA). It was purposefully built that big for all the 2 million people that filled up all the city in the 50’s, but today only 800,000 people occupy the sprawling space. That means there’s no living density.
  5. Bottom line what remains of the city is a 32% rate of unemployment, high levels of crime,  economic segregation, racial segregation and no reliable public transportation.

Solutions:

  1. No jobs solution: there is a lot of support for entrepreneurship and for small businesses that are popping up throughout the city.
  2. No public transportation: there is a light rail project the city is planning that will facilitate transportation from the suburbs into the city.
  3. Racism: there’s plan to improve education and to increase living densities so there is a build up of trust amongst the city’s residents.
  4. No density: they’re planning to divide Detroit into five “cities” or “villages” (kinda like Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens) to make people live in closer quarters, and all the space in between will be green space. Which would make Detroit the first green city!
  5. Bottom line: the residents of Detroit are doing everything they can to improve their city–whether that’s through planting community gardens, small businesses, or talking to strangers visiting Detroit and telling them of all the great things going on–they’re doing their part. There’s a ton of hope for what Detorit can be, the people are wonderful, there’s a ton of space, and land is cheap. Opportunities are endless.

My stay in Detroit has ended, tomorrow I leave for Sao Paulo where I hope to meet more great people, find awesome food, and learn more about another cool city.

Brazil here I come.