Monday, February 21, 2011


(Consider this to be me playing the devil's advocate and trying to be provocative) First Tunisia, then Egypt, now Libya, and Bahrain (and god knows what else!) -- does all this mean that the neoconservatives were right after all?

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Nepotism, social capital and elites

Here's Gail Collins (via Crooked Timber):
In Wisconsin, the new Republican governor, Scott Walker, wants to strip state employees of their collective-bargaining rights because: “We’re broke. We’ve been broke in this state for years.” Wisconsin’s Democratic state senators went into hiding to deprive the Republican majority of the quorum they need to pass Walker’s agenda. The Senate majority leader, Scott Fitzgerald — who happens to be the brother of the Assembly speaker, Jeff Fitzgerald — believes the governor is absolutely right about the need for draconian measures to cut spending in this crisis. So he’s been sending state troopers out to look for the missing Democrats. The troopers are under the direction of the new chief of the state patrol, Stephen Fitzgerald. He is the 68-year-old father of Jeff and Scott and was appointed to the $105,678 post this month by Governor Walker. Perhaps the speaker’s/majority leader’s father was a super choice, and the fact that he was suddenly at liberty after having recently lost an election for county sheriff was simply a coincidence that allowed the governor to recruit the best possible person for the job. You’d still think that if things are so dire in Wisconsin, the Fitzgerald clan would want to set a better austerity example.
This is interesting but I think it's a mistake to think about it as something essentially Republican.  This is rather a characteristic of American politics and elite American society in general where social capital plays a big role in the formation of the ruling elite class (business people, politicians, journalists).   My guess is that it starts very early from college itself -- in fact the composition of elite colleges (Harvard, Princeton, Yale) is a key ingredient.  Elite colleges are a great place to make "networks" and it is these networks that we see reflected in the larger political process.  While I wouldn't call it nepotism, it is indeed a sophisticated form of nepotism.  Business-people, politicians -- they all come from the same colleges and attend the same cocktail parties, they own shares in the same companies or share the same stock-brokers.  It's rare to find something as extreme as the case of the Fitzgerald family but my guess is that this kind of "elite culture" is pretty common in the corridors of power. 

[It is also common, for instance, in elite schools in academia, where a kind of consensus on what an elite school is and the resulting social network formation -- the professors were graduate students at elite schools, are friends with other professors in elite schools, conferences are held just between elite schools -- means that elite schools have a very typical constitution in terms of its student and faculty-body and tend to self-perpetuate.]

Monday, February 14, 2011

Forms of tacit knowledge?

The philosopher-chemist Michael Polanyi was very interested in what he called the "tacit dimension": forms of knowledge that can be performed but not articulated.  The classic example is riding a bicycle, which is almost impossible to put into words, and can only be taught by actually putting someone on a bicycle.  Tacit knowledge is also called know-how, as opposed to know-that, which is knowledge that can be broken down into propositions (The sky is blue, the sea is green, and so on).

Talking to a friend today, I found out something interesting about the forms that this tacit knowledge can take.  Now, typically a skill like tennis or swimming (or riding a bicycle!) isn't forgotten, even when one doesn't do it for a while.  In a sense, this is because this know-how is stored not in terms of linguistic propositions but in our muscles; this is "muscle memory." 

But my friend told me that he once ran 11 miles after a long time and then ended up really sore!  I asked him how  he managed to run that distance after such a long gap.  He said that if you had done that sort of thing before (run long distances, that is), you could always do it again, howsoever long the gap.

This was an interesting claim.  The know-how he was referring to wasn't just the art of running -- although it was that too -- but stamina.  In other words, muscle memory is also about stamina, and not just technique.  I thought that was pretty interesting.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

SACO: America's concentration camp in China

I really really encourage everyone to read Xujun Eberlein's wonderful five-part post on America's Chinese concentration camp -- a camp that no American knows about but is almost imprinted in every Chinese mind.  It is utterly fascinating and a wonderful combination of history and memoir.

1. Prologue,
2. Evolution,
3. Puzzle,
4. Explorers
5. Revision

And no, nothing is what it seems.