Terror and territory

The relationship between terror and territory is a crucial one in other ways, too. Think of the recent mass killings that have been carried out by young men — and they are nearly all men — in places like Brussels, Paris, Orlando and Berlin. Even before the blood has dried, there will be speculation about the perpetrator’s nationality. If he holds a passport from a predominantly Muslim nation or was born in such a nation, then the act is usually declared a terrorist act, no matter how weak his religiosity or his links to terrorist networks. The man may drink and have girlfriends, but he will be branded a terrorist. His motives will be assumed to be public and thus political. If, however, he is from Western Europe — like the Germanwings co-pilot Andreas Lubitz, who killed 150 in 2015 by downing his plane in the French Alps — then the motive is usually assumed to be private and we will hear about his psychology rather than his politics. If it is terror, then we can see all kinds of exceptional measures brought into force, from detention without trial to the bombing of Islamic State in Syria, as carried out by France after the Paris attacks. If it is “simply” a mass killing, then nothing much happens at all. One of the key differences is the passport. 

—Why Territory? by Ian Kinke, Weapons of Reason issue 4

The best anagram in English

Mark Dominus on The Universe of Discourse has (fully) explored all the anagrams in Webster’s Second International dictionary.

The longest pair (cholecystoduodenostomy and duodenocholecystostomy) isn’t necessarily the most interesting, as both words are made up of three units (cholecysto, duodeno, stomy) in different orders.

So he came up with a way of scoring pairs based on the degree of rearrangement required:

This gave me the idea to score a pair of anagrams according to how many chunks one had to be cut into in order to rearrange it to make the other one. On this plan, the “cholecystoduodenostomy / duodenocholecystostomy” pair would score 3, just barely above the minimum possible score of 2. Something even a tiny bit more interesting, say “abler / blare” would score higher, in this case 4. Even if this strategy didn’t lead me directly to the most interesting anagrams, it would be a big step in the right direction, allowing me to eliminate the least interesting.

From this algorithm, the most interesting anagram pair is 15 letters long, with only two letters that stay next to each other. Go see what it is.

Combating misogyny with information 

Andrew McMillen for Backchannel:

Across the internet, trolls disproportionately target women and members of other underrepresented groups. On Twitter, Reddit, YouTube, Wikipedia, and other open platforms, victims of harassment are forced to make a difficult choice — go silent and preserve their mental health, or try to ignore the abuse and continue expressing themselves openly online. As the wounds deepen, that latter choice becomes harder and harder to justify.

When people get forced off the web, their voices disappear from the internet’s public squares. The ideas and memes that dominate skew even further toward a white male perspective. The web becomes less interesting, less representative, less valuable. We all lose.

But on that Friday night, Temple-Wood had an idea. For every harassing email, death threat, or request for nude photos that she received, she resolved to create a Wikipedia biography on a notable woman scientist who was previously unknown to the free online encyclopedia. She thought of it as a giant “fuck you” to the anonymous idiots seeking to silence her.

I hardly need to state how stupid this sort of abuse is, but what a response. I’m sure I wouldn’t have been able to do this.

Study theology, even if you don’t believe in God

Tara Isabella Burton writing for The Atlantic:

Even in the United Kingdom, where secular bachelor’s programs in theology are more common, prominent New Atheists like Richard Dawkins have questioned their validity in the university sphere. In a 2007 letter to the editor of The Independent, Dawkins argues for the abolishment of theology in academia, insisting that “a positive case now needs to be made that [theology] has any real content at all, or that it has any place whatsoever in today’s university culture.”

Such a shift, of course, is relatively recent in the history of secondary education. Several of the great Medieval universities, among them Oxford, Bologna, and Paris, developed in large part as training grounds for men of the Church. Theology, far from being anathema to the academic life, was indeed its central purpose: It was the “Queen of the Sciences” the field of inquiry which gave meaning to all others. So, too, several of the great American universities. Harvard, Yale, and Princeton alike were founded with the express purpose of teaching theology—one early anonymous account of Harvard’s founding speaks of John Harvard’s ,“dreading to leave an illiterate Ministry to the Churches”and his dream of creating an institution to train future clergymen to “read the original of the Old and New Testament into the Latin tongue, and resolve them logically.”

Universities like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton no longer exist, in part or in whole, to train future clergymen. Their purpose now is far broader. But the dwindling role of theology among the liberal arts is a paradigmatic example of dispensing with the baby along with the bathwater.

Richard Dawkins would do well to look at the skills imparted by the Theology department of his own alma mater, Oxford (also my own). The BA I did at Oxford was a completely secular program, attracting students from all over the religious spectrum. My classmates included a would-be priest who ended up an atheist, as well as a militant atheist now considering the priesthood. During my time there, I investigated Ancient Near Eastern building patterns to theorize about the age of a settlement; compared passages of the gospels (in the original Greek) to analogous passages in the Jewish wisdom literature of the 1st century BC; examined the structure of a 14th-century Byzantine liturgy; and read The Brothers Karamazov as part of a unit on Christian existentialism. As Oxford’s Dr. William Wood, a University Lecturer in Philosophical Theology and my former tutor, puts it: “theology is the closest thing we have at the moment to the kind of general study of all aspects of human culture that was once very common, but is now quite rare.” A good theologian, he says, “has to be a historian, a philosopher, a linguist, a skillful interpreter of texts both ancient and modern, and probably many other things besides.” In many ways, a course in theology is an ideal synthesis of all other liberal arts: no longer, perhaps, “Queen of the Sciences,” but at least, as Wood terms it, “Queen of the Humanities.”

Yet, for me, the value of theology lies not merely in the breadth of skills it taught, but in the opportunity it presented to explore a given historical mindset in greater depth. I learned to read the Bible in both Greek and Hebrew, to analyze the minutiae of language that allows us to distinguish “person” from “nature,” “substance” from “essence.” I read “orthodox” and “heretical” accounts alike of the nature of the Godhead, and learned about the convoluted and often arbitrary historical processes that delineated the two.

Emphasis mine, as I’m currently thinking and reading about generalism and breadth vs. depth of knowledge. Working in a university means these thoughts occur rather often.

Blackboards smudge productively

Peter Biello’s Granite Geek: Why Do Mathematicians Love Blackboards So Much? for All Things Considered:

And you write that this doctor that you interviewed carries around his own chalk.

Oh, absolutely. And that is not unusual at all. My son is in a Ph.D program in mathematics and he talks about some of his professors that carry around their own chalk. Particularly colored chalk. You want different colors to emphasize different parts of the formula, the equations, or the proofs you’re doing.  And if you have your own chalk – you happen to like the mount of dust produces, or you like how the line goes – you carry around your own because you never know. You show up and they have crummy chalk. That would be horrible.

Another thing he talked about that’s actually useful, and this is my favorite one, he said that blackboards smudge productively, which is just a great line. You know, you’re writing on a blackboard and oops, you make a mistake, you can rub it out with your hand, or you rub it out with an eraser. And it’s really easy to do. But it’s really hard to do it completely. You can’t get rid of it entirely. There’s always a little bit of a smudge and you write over it. And I’ve always thought that was a bad thing. And he argues that for mathematics, and particularly mathematics research, it’s a good thing because a lot of math research involves taking existing concepts and applying them in new ways. And so if you’ve written an existing equation everybody’s familiar with and then rubbed out a part of it and written something new over it, there is a visual sign that you have taken an existing concept and tweaked it, which is sort of like a reminder to the people in the audience that this is how you approach it. This is not some new thing you’ve brought down from on high, it’s an alteration of an existing one.

It looks like a fish until you grab it, and then it looks like a naked chicken breast

Nicholas St. Fleur writes for the New York Times about Geckolepis megalepis, a species recently discovered in Madagascar with a remarkable way of escaping danger:

The fish-scale gecko has a freaky way of eluding danger. When snatched by an attacker, it rips off its scales and skin so it can slip away unscathed. Basically, it streaks to survive.

“It looks like a fish until you grab it, and then it looks like a naked chicken breast,” said Mark D. Scherz, a doctoral candidate at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. The torn-away scales reveal the gecko’s pink flesh, and through its translucent tissue you can see its spine and blood vessels. “It’s bizarre, it’s really surprising, and it’s quite uncomfortable when you see them,” he said.

It may seem like a gruesome getaway, but it doesn’t hurt the lizard. It loses its skin and scales with extreme ease and regenerates them in full a few weeks later. The new scales grow in with a different pattern than the previous ones, but other than that are nearly indistinguishable from the originals.

How to keep a reading journal

Sarah Ditum:

I don’t really – not really-really – know anything until I’ve copied it out, by hand, with pen and paper. Note-taking helps me to memorise the most useful, interesting, beautiful or aggravating parts of a book. It also means that whenever I want to retrieve a reference from something I’ve read, I can find it in my notebook. Not marked with a torn-up train ticket and then replaced on a bookshelf but I’ve forgotten which bookshelf, or given to a charity shop in the hopeful belief I’d never need to think about it again; but in my notebook, with a page number, marked on the contents page.

Ditum goes on to describe her method and tools. See also this post about keeping a journal and collecting.