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24 Sep 08:47

Why our faith in cramming is mistaken

by tomstafford

You may think you know your own mind, but when it comes to memory, research suggests that you don’t. If we’re trying to learn something, many of us study in ways that prevent the memories sticking. Fortunately, the same research also reveals how we can supercharge our learning.

We’ve all had to face a tough exam at least once in our lives. Whether it’s a school paper, university final or even a test at work, there’s one piece of advice we’re almost always given: make a study plan. With a plan, we can space out our preparation for the test rather than relying on one or two intense study sessions the night before to see us through.

It’s good advice. Summed up in three words: cramming doesn’t work. Unfortunately, many of us ignore this rule. At least one survey has found that 99% of students admit to cramming.

You might think that’s down to nothing more than simple disorganisation: I’ll admit it is far easier to leave things to the last minute than start preparing for a test weeks or months ahead. But studies of memory suggest there’s something else going on. In 2009, for example, Nate Kornell at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that spacing out learning was more effective than cramming for 90% of the participants who took part in one of his experiments – and yet 72% of the participants thought that cramming had been more beneficial. What is happening in the brain that we trick ourselves this way?

Studies of memory suggest that we have a worrying tendency to rely on our familiarity with study items to guide our judgements of whether we know them. The problem is that familiarity is bad at predicting whether we can recall something.

Familiar, not remembered

After six hours of looking at study material (and three cups of coffee and five chocolate bars) it’s easy to think we have it committed to memory. Every page, every important fact, evokes a comforting feeling of familiarity. The cramming has left a lingering glow of activity in our sensory and memory systems, a glow that allows our brain to swiftly tag our study notes as “something that I’ve seen before”. But being able to recognise something isn’t the same as being able to recall it.

Different parts of the brain support different kinds of memory. Recognition is strongly affected by the ease with which information passes through the sensory areas of our brain, such as the visual cortex if you are looking at notes. Recall is supported by a network of different areas of the brain, including the frontal cortex and the temporal lobe, which coordinate to recreate a memory from the clues you give it. Just because your visual cortex is fluently processing your notes after five consecutive hours of you looking at them, doesn’t mean the rest of your brain is going to be able to reconstruct the memory of them when you really need it to.

This ability to make judgements about our own minds is called metacognition. Studying it has identified other misconceptions too. For instance, many of us think that actively thinking about trying to learn something will help us remember it. Studies suggest this is not the case. Far more important is reorganising the information so that it has a structure more likely to be retained in your memory. In other words, rewrite the content of what you want to learn in a way that makes most sense to you.

Knowing about common metacognitive errors means you can help yourself by assuming that you will make them. You can then try and counteract them. So, the advice to space out our study only makes sense if we assume that people aren’t already spacing out their study sessions enough (a safe assumption, given the research findings). We need to be reminded of the benefits of spaced learning because it runs counter to our instinct to relying on a comforting feeling of familiarity when deciding how to study

Put simply, we can sometimes have a surprising amount to gain from going against our normally reliable metacognitive instinct. How much should you space out your practice? Answer: a little bit more than you really want to.

This my BBC Future article from last week. The original is here

09 Oct 04:00

October 09, 2014

There are exactly 49 tickets left for BAHFest East. This one's gonna sell out soon :)
06 Oct 17:43

A Quick Opinion Piece on the Porn Industry

by Matthew Nolan

An interesting perspective.

I love porn. It’s a fantastic medium ripe with creativity and talent.

Today I read this article on digital medium theft and how it’s killing the porn industry.

It both upset me and got me thinking. I think the porn industry is trapped in the 90s, holding firm to the DVD mentality and hasn’t caught up to the 2000s.

Let me explain a little bit. Porn is almost wholly sold under DVD and internet subscription models, ranging anywhere from $20-$50 per month/dvd. Both are hidden behind aggressive pay walls or adult book stores. Both come laden with copyright warnings and lawsuits. It used to work well for the industry, but as of late it hasn’t been, as it’s experiencing a huge drop in sales. Consumers are watching porn on the free sites, downloading torrents and actively playing the system to receive their content for free. It’s seen as an act of aggression on the porn industry, something that has to be stopped!

But I think think there is another way to look at it. It’s the consumer’s way of saying that they want their content delivered to them in a different way. They’re used to their $1-per-phone-app prices for immediacy and variability. They, as consumers, have changed the way they want to consume pornography and the industry’s done nothing to try and meet this change.

Now I’m not trying to say that porn should be priced at $1 or free or anything like that. But I do know there are alternatives to credit card walls, DVDs and legal lawsuits, and all it takes is for a gutsy company to try something new.

Here’s an example.
Long ago, amid huge music rights violations and dwindling CD sales, Radio Head allowed free DMR-free downloads of their new album, under a pay-what-you-want scheme, users could opt to pay nothing and get the album for free. It was a huge success, both in PR and in sales: people WANTED to pay for the content.

But what I think is especially suitable for the porn industry is the Humble Bundle. A varied collection of games or books or anything digital is made. Users then pay what they want, if they pay above the average they also get access to more things, they can even opt for a percentage of the payment to go to charity. It pays well and users get what they want: to be able to pay for their content, to help a cause, and variability in media all in one go.

It might not be perfect, but I could easily see a DRM-free Humble Bundle of porn doing incredibly well. Keep it loosely based on one subject or theme, throw in a sex worker charity fund as an option to pay and it’s even better. Consumers could pay what they think is appropriate, but at least they will be paying. Consumers love their porn and I believe they are not ALL evil pirates, given the option I think they would want to be able to support their fav porn studios’ works.

These examples might not be wholly right for the porn industry. But they are developments in the entertainment realm to combat the same piracy problem that the porn industry is facing now. Their efforts to meet the changing way consumers want their media delivered, they’re efforts we’ve not seen the porn industry attempt yet.

It’s incredibly easy to see why the industry is failing and hard to understand why it’s not evolving. Pornography used to be at the forefront of media progression, but at some point in the last 15 years failed to develop. The music, games and even comics industries have all sought to develop ways to meet the new way consumers want their entertainment, why can’t pornography do the same?

07 Oct 01:41

Nose Grows Some


I am having trouble with the Pinocchio reference.

04 Oct 22:49

kittydoom: sickomobb: svllywood: Ben Affleck speaks about...


This kinda surprised me.




Ben Affleck speaks about Islamophobia X


OMG im not mad at him for playing as batman anymore

You go on with your bad self, Ben Affleck.


07 Oct 01:03

Islam and the Enlightenment


A socialist view of the interlocking history of Islam and the West. #longreads

In the current Western controversy over Islam, one theme recurs with increasing predictability. Many writers are prepared to acknowledge Muslim cultural and scientific achievements, but always with the caveat that Islamic civilisation never experienced an equivalent to the Enlightenment. "Islam never had to go through a prolonged period of critically examining the validity of its spiritual vision, as the West did during the 18th century," writes the historian Louis Dupre. "Islamic culture has, of course, known its own crisis... yet it was never forced to question its traditional worldview."

The same view has also been expressed by individuals who were originally from Muslim backgrounds but have subsequently abandoned their religious beliefs. Salman Rushdie has recently argued that Islam requires "not so much a reformation... as an Enlightenment".

Muslims have responded in different ways to the claim that their religion has never produced an Enlightenment. Ziauddin Sardar has criticised it in the New Statesman on two grounds. On the one hand, "It assumes that 'Islam' and 'Enlightenment' have nothing to do with each other - as if the European Enlightenment emerged out of nothing, without appropriating Islamic thought and learning." On the other, "It betrays an ignorance of postmodern critique that has exposed Enlightenment thought as Eurocentric hot air." So Islamic thought was responsible for the Enlightenment but the Enlightenment was intellectually worthless. This is not, perhaps, the most effective way of highlighting the positive qualities of Islamic thought. Sardar's incoherence is possibly the result of his own critical attitude towards Islamism. More mainstream Muslim thinkers generally take one of two more positions.

The first is that Islam did not require the Enlightenment, because unlike Christianity its tenets do not involve the same conflict between religion and science. As the Egyptian scholar AO Altwaijri has written, "Western enlightenment was completely opposed to religion and it still adopts the same attitude. Islamic enlightenment, on the contrary, combines belief and science, religion and reason, in a reasonable equilibrium between these components." Islam is certainly less dependent than Christianity on miracles or what Tom Paine called "improbable happenings", but ultimately, because it counterposes reason to revelation, Enlightenment thought casts doubt on all religions - Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism alike.

The second position is that, although the Enlightenment represented progress for the West, it was a means of oppressing the Muslim world. A Hussain asks, "Given that our people have been victims of these developments, then why should we appreciate them?" It is also true that both the Islamic world and Muslims in the West have suffered and continue to suffer from imperialism and racism. But this is not the fault of the Enlightenment as such. Rather, it is an outcome of the failure of Enlightenment ideals to find their realisation in socialism, and the way they have been harnessed instead to the needs of capitalist expansion. In the hands of a resurgent movement of the working class and the oppressed, these ideas can be turned against the warmongers and Islamophobes who falsely claim them as their own.

The history of the Islamic world shows that it also raised many of the themes which later became associated with the Enlightenment, and did so earlier in time. The issue is therefore why the Enlightenment became dominant in the West and not in the Islamic world - or indeed in those other parts of the world, like China, which had previously been materially more advanced than the West.

The comparative basis for the critique of Islam is the Enlightenment that occurred in Europe and North America between the mid-17th and early 19th centuries, but the terms of the argument are changed in relation to Islam. No one refers to a "Christian Enlightenment". If the Enlightenment is given any specificity at all, it is in relation to individual nations. Why then is territoriality the basis for discussion of the Enlightenment for the West, but religion for the East?

A Christian Enlightenment?

The assumption is that the Enlightenment, like the Renaissance and Reformation before it, emerged out of what is usually called the "Judeo-Christian tradition". In other words, Christianity was intellectually open and tolerant enough to allow critical thought to emerge, with the result that religion could gradually be superseded, and the separation of church and state brought about. The implication of course is that Islam has been incapable of allowing the same process to take place. The fate of Bruno (who was burned at the stake by the Holy Inquisition) or Galileo (who was threatened with the same fate) for daring to question the doctrines of the Catholic church casts some doubt on the claim that Christianity is intrinsically open to scientific rationality.

At this point the argument usually shifts from Christianity in general to the role of Protestantism in particular or, more narrowly still, that of Calvinism. But this is no more convincing. Writers as politically different as Antonio Gramsci and Hugh Trevor-Roper have explained that Protestant thought was in many respects a retreat from the intellectual sophistication of late medieval Catholic thought, as characterised by, for example, Erasmus. Certainly 16th century Geneva and 17th century Edinburgh were not places in which rational speculation was encouraged. The intellectually progressive role of Protestantism lies in the way in which some versions of the faith encouraged congregations to seek the truth in their individual reading of the Bible, rather than from received authority - an approach which could be carried over into other areas of life. But the teachings themselves did not point in this direction. Justification by faith is an enormously powerful doctrine but not a rational one, since it rests on the claim that the ways of god are unknowable to man. Edinburgh did later become the centre of perhaps the greatest of all national Enlightenments, but in order to do so it had first to abandon the "theocratic fantasies" of the Church of Scotland. And this was true across Europe and in North America. Whatever the specific religious beliefs of individual Enlightenment thinkers, and however coded some of their arguments, the movement as a whole was at war with the Judeo-Christian tradition. It represents not the continuity of Western culture but a profound break within it. Far from being the apotheosis of Western values, the Enlightenment rejected the values which had previously been dominant.

Enlightenment thinkers also took a far more complex attitude to Islam than their present day admirers would have us believe. As Jonathan Israel recounts in his important history, Radical Enlightenment, "On the one hand, Islam is viewed positively, even enthusiastically, as a purified form of revealed religion, stripped of the many imperfections of Judaism and Christianity, and hence reassuringly akin to deism. On the other, Islam is more often regarded with hostility and contempt as a primitive, grossly superstitious religion like Judaism and Christianity, and one no less, or still more, adapted to promoting despotism." Edward Gibbon wrote in a remarkably balanced way about Mohammed and the foundation of Islam in The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire, particularly given his generally critical attitude to Christianity. In general, then, the Enlightenment did not regard Islam as being any better or any worse than Christianity.

Perhaps we should therefore consider the possibility that the decisive factor in both the emergence of Enlightenment in the West and its failure to do so in the East may not be religion as such, but the kind of societies in which their respective religions took root, and which these religions helped to preserve. We will in any case have to qualify the claim that Islam knew no form of scientific rationality. After all, it was Muslim scholars who translated and preserved the philosophy and science of Greece and Persia, which would otherwise have been lost. It was they who transmitted it to their equivalents in Europe, who came to be educated by Muslim hands in Spain and Sicily.

But Muslim achievements in scientific thought were not simply archival. The 13th century Syrian scholar and physician Ibn al-Nafis was first to discover the pulmonary circulation of the blood. In doing so he had to reject the views of one of his predecessors, Avicenna - himself an important medical thinker who, among other things, identified that disease could be spread by drinking water. Ibn al-Nafis died in his bed at an advanced age (he is thought to have been around 80). Compare his fate to that of the second person to propose the theory of circulation, the Spaniard Michael Servetus. In 1553 he was arrested by the Protestant authorities of Geneva on charges of blasphemy, and was burned for heresy at the insistence of Calvin after refusing to recant.

The Islamic world did not only produce scientific theory, but its philosophers also considered the social role of religion. According to the Marxist historian Maxine Rodinson, the Persian philosopher and physician, Rhazes, held the view "that religion was the cause of wars and was hostile to philosophy and science. He believed in the progress of science, and he considered Plato, Aristotle, Hippocrates much greater than the holy books." No comparable figure in, say, 10th century Normandy in the same era could have openly expounded these views and expected to live. In some Muslim states comparable positions were even held at the highest level of the state. In India the Mughul Emperor Akbar (1556-1605) emphasised "the path of reason" rather than "reliance on tradition", and devoted much consideration to the basis of religious identity and non-denominational rule in India. His conclusions were published in Agra in 1591-2, shortly before Bruno was burned at the stake in Rome. Akbar's minister and spokesman, Abu'l Fazl, included several exasperated passages in his book A'in-i Akbari bemoaning the constraints imposed on scientific endeavour by religious obscurantism: "From time immemorial, the exercise of inquiry has been restricted, and questioning and investigation have been regarded as precursors of infidelity. Whatever has been received from father, kindred and teacher is considered as a deposit under divine sanction, and a malcontent is reproached with impiety or irreligion. Although a few among the intelligent of their generation admit the imbecility of this procedure in others, yet they will not stir one step in this direction themselves."

Clearly, then, there is nothing intrinsic to Islamic society which prevented Muslims from rational or scientific thought. Yet these intimations of Enlightenment, which occurred at an earlier historical stage than in the West, never emerged into a similar full-blown movement capable of contributing to the transformation of society. Ibn al-Nafis was untroubled by authority, but his ideas had no influence on medicine in the Islamic world. In the West, where similar ideas were initially punished by death, they were rediscovered and within 150 years were part of mainstream medical thought. Ideas, however brilliant, are by themselves incapable of changing the world - they must first find embodiment in some material social force. But what was this social force in the West, and why was this missing in Islamic and other countries?

The nature of Islamic society

Clearly there were great transformations in Islamic society between the death of the Prophet in 632 and the fall of Constantinople in 1453, but some underlying characteristics remained throughout. The Islamic world rested on a series of wealthy cities ranging from Baghdad in modern Iraq, through Cairo in modern Egypt, to Cordoba in modern Spain. Connecting these urban centres was a system of highly developed desert and sea trade routes, along which caravans and ships brought luxury goods like spices and manufactured goods like pottery. The richness and the opulence of this civilisation stood in stark contrast to impoverished, backward Europe.

But what was the basis of the underlying economy - the "mode of production"? Feudalism, the mode which dominated in Western Europe and Japan, was of minor importance in the states of the Muslim world, with the major exception of Persia (modern day Iran) and parts of India. Instead, the dominant mode was what some Marxists, including the present writer, call the tributary mode. In Europe the feudal estate monarchies presided over weak, decentralised states. Power was devolved to local lords based in the countryside, and it was here, in their local jurisdictions, that exploitation was carried out through the extraction of rent and labour services. But precisely because of this fragmented structure it was possible for capitalist production to begin between these different areas of parcellised sovereignty. The towns varied in size and power, but some at least were free from lordly or monarchical domination, and provided spaces where new approaches to production could develop.

Attempts have been made to present the Enlightenment as a pure expression of scientific rationality which coincidentally appeared in the epoch of the transition from feudalism and the bourgeois revolutions. But it must rather be understood as the theoretical accompaniment of these economic and political processes - though in many complex and mediated ways.

The conditions which allowed capitalist development, and hence the Enlightenment, did not exist to the same extent in the Muslim world. In the Ottoman Empire, which lay at its heart, there was no private property in land, no local lordship, and therefore little space for new approaches to production and exploitation to arise. The state was the main exploiter and its officials displayed a quite conscious hostility to potential alternative sources of power, hence the bias it displayed towards small-scale commerce and the hostility it displayed towards large mercantile capital. Consequently, merchants tended to be from external "nations" - Jews, Greeks or Armenians - not from the native Arab or Turkish populations. There is nothing inherently stagnant about Islamic societies, but they stand as the best example of how ruling classes are consciously able to use state power, the "superstructure", to prevent new and threatening classes from forming, with all that implies about the thwarting of intellectual developments. "Asking why the scientific revolution did not occur in Islam", writes Pervez Hoobdhoy, exaggerating only slightly, "is practically equivalent to asking why Islam did not produce a powerful bourgeois class."

This lack of the development of a new, more advanced economic class meant that Islamic theorists had no material examples to look to. Take the Tunisian writer Ibn el Khaldun (1332-1402), author of the Kitab Al-Ilbar or Book of Examples (usually referred to in English as The Muqaddimah or Introduction to History). His sociological insights identified the continuing struggle between civilisations based, on the one hand, on towns and traders (hadarah) and, on the other, on tribes and holy men (badawah), the two endlessly alternating as the dominant forces within the Muslim world. Adam Smith and his colleagues in the Historical School of the Scottish Enlightenment could develop a theory that saw societies develop and progress upwards from one "mode of subsistence" to another because they had seen this movement in England, and wished to see it reproduced in Scotland. Ibn el Khaldun saw only cyclical repetition in the history of Islamic society, and could not envisage any way to break the cycle. His work could not transcend the society it sought to theorise.

In the face of this, the doctrines and organisation of Islam are difficult to separate. In Christian Europe, church and state were allied in defence of the existing order. In the Islamic world they were fused - there was no separate church organisation. There were of course differences between branches of Islam - Shias favoured rule by charismatic imams, Sunnis a consensus among believers - but in neither was there an overarching church organisation comparable to that of Christianity. Instead a federal structure arose which adapted to the individual states. It is difficult, therefore, to dissociate reasons of state from reasons of religion. A belief in predestination implied that it was impious or even impossible to attempt to predict future events. A belief in utilitarianism focused intellectual investigation or borrowing only on what was immediately useful. Finally, as the boundaries of the Islamic world began to run up against the expanding European powers from the 16th century on, the idea of drawing on their methods and discoveries became all the more painful to contemplate for ruling elites accustomed to their own sense of superiority. As the Western threat grew, the control over what was taught became even more extreme.

Partial reform

The example of China also tends to support the view that the key issue is not religion but the nature of the economy and the "corresponding form of the state". Like Islamic societies, China encompassed a great civilisation with important scientific and technical accomplishments, surpassing those of Europe. But here too there was a bureaucratic tributary state acting to suppress emergent class forces and their dangerous ideas. Reading the work of one leading intellectual in 17th century China, Wang Fu-Chih (1619-92), it is difficult not to see him as a predecessor to Adam Smith in Scotland or the Abbé Sieyes in France, but unlike them his thoughts led to no immediate results. In China, as in the House of Islam, the state acted to control the spread of dangerous thoughts. But China was not an Islamic country - the similarities lie not in religion, but in economy and state, and it was these that led them to a common fate.

So was it possible that Enlightenment ideas could be forced onto these societies from without? The temporary conquest of the Ottoman province of Egypt by French revolutionary armies in 1798 led to an attempt, first in Egypt and Turkey, to adapt at least some of the technical, scientific and military aspects of scientific rational thought. Many of the aspects of Islam which are ignorantly supposed to be "medieval" traditions are products of this period of partial reform. As one historian notes, "The burqa was actually a modern dress that allowed women to come out of the seclusion of their homes and participate to a limited degree in public and commercial affairs". Another points out, "The office of ayatollah is a creation of the 19th century, the rule of Khomeini and of his successor as 'supreme Jurist' an innovation of the 20th." The imperial division and occupation of the Middle East after the First World War froze, and in some cases even reversed, the process. It should not be forgotten, in the endless babble about Western superiority, that feudal social relationships - against which the Enlightenment had raged - were introduced into Iraq by the British occupiers after 1920 to provide a social basis for the regime.

The subsequent history has been told in remorseless detail by Robert Fisk in The Great War For Civilisation and cannot even be attempted here. The question is, after over 100 years of imperialist intervention, does the Islamic world today have to reproduce the experience of the West, from Renaissance to Reformation to Enlightenment? In 1959 one Afghan intellectual, Najim oud-Din Bammat wrote, "Islam today has to go through a number of revolutions at once: a religious revolution like the Reformation; an intellectual and moral revolution like the 18th century Enlightenment; an economic and social revolution like the European industrial revolution of the 19th century." History, however, does not do repeats. Leon Trotsky's theories of uneven and combined development and permanent revolution argue that these revolutions do not have to follow each other, but can interlock and be compressed in time. Christian Europe, after all, was incomparably less developed than Arab or Persian civilisation in the 10th or 11th centuries. But its very backwardness allowed it to incubate a far higher form of class society - capitalism - and hence to "catch up and overtake" its former superiors and in the process fragment, occupy and destroy them.

When the Enlightenment ideas came to the masses of the Islamic world, they came not as a recapitulation of the European experience of the 17th and 18th centuries, but in the form of Marxism - the radical inheritor of that experience. Unfortunately the theoretical and organisational forms in which Marxism made its impact were Stalinist and consequently carried within them the seeds of disaster - most spectacularly in Iraq during the 1950s and in Iran during the 1970s, but more insidiously almost everywhere else. It is because of the catastrophic record of Stalinism, and more broadly of secular nationalism, that people who would once have been drawn to socialism see Islamism as an alternative path to liberation today.

What future, then, for Islam and the Enlightenment? We should remember the experience of the West. Our Enlightenment occurred when Christianity was older than Islam is now and did not occur all at once. People did not simply become "rational" and abandon their previous views because they heard the wise words of Spinoza or Voltaire. It happened over time, and because the experience of social change and struggle made people more open to new ideas that began to explain the world in a way that religion no longer did.

Socialists in the West today have to begin with the actual context of institutional racism and military intervention with which Muslims are faced every day. The absolute obligation on socialists is first to defend Muslims, both in the West and in the developing world, and to develop the historic alliance at the heart of the anti-war movement. To say to that they, or people of any faith, must abandon their beliefs before we will deign to speak to them is not only arrogant but displays all the worst aspects of the Enlightenment - "Here is the Truth, bow down before it!" Why should Muslims listen to people whose self-importance is so great they make agreement with them a precondition of even having a conversation? Enlightenment cannot be imposed by legal fiat or at the point of a gun. The real precondition of debate is unity in action, where discussion can take place secure in the knowledge that participants with different beliefs nevertheless share goals as a common starting point. It is, I suspect, more than a coincidence that those who are most insistent on the need for Islamic Enlightenment are the voices crying loudest for war. The original Enlightenment will never recur. However, we may be seeing the first signs of a New Enlightenment, not in these voices but in the actions of those - Muslim and non-Muslim alike - who have taken to the streets to oppose them.

Neil Davidson was the joint winner of the Isaac Deutscher Memorial Prize in 2003.

07 Oct 00:56

Why Turkey is the only Muslim Democracy


Interesting piece, looking at the history of Islam and Democracy. #longreads

Democracy in its Western form, that is, constitutional and representative government, is becoming popular again after a long period of relative unpopularity, and many people in nondemocratic countries are beginning to see in the Western form of democracy the best if not the only solution to their problems. There is, however, a difficulty. The nature and character, the methods and purposes, of democratic systems are usually understood--at most--by those who live by them. Even the best-informed and most sophisticated observers in nondemocratic countries have great, often insuperable difficulties in understanding the political processes of the Western democracies. In particular, it is exceedingly difficult to grasp the meaning of limited government, of civic and human rights, and of participation, other than by direct personal experience over a long period of time--and few outside the existing democracies have had the opportunity to acquire such experience.

There are, however, other, more immediately recognizable advantages achieved by democracy that make it more attractive, and two in particular: economic success and military victory--that is, wealth and power. While success in the market is more cogent, and in the long run more beneficial, success in the battlefield is assuredly more dramatic. It is therefore not surprising that in the past each wave of democratic enthusiasm in the non-democratic world has been preceded, and in large measure encouraged, by some striking military victory of democratic powers over less democratic or undemocratic operations


That becomes very clear in the Islamic lands, in particular from the mid-nineteenth century, when both rulers and intellectuals were becoming increasingly aware of the poverty of their societies and the weakness of their states, as contrasted with the wealth, power, and aggressive self-confidence of the West. This was a time of closer contact with the West, through the study of language, a growing Western presence, in the form merchants, educators, and, increasingly, military and naval personnel, and the beginnings of a significant Muslim, chiefly Ottoman presence in Western countries. The first Muslims to live abroad for any length of time were diplomats. Then came student missions, followed--after the spread of democratic ideas--by political exiles, and, in the course of time, travelers of many different kinds.

This marked a dramatic change after more than a thousand years during which travel in infidel lands was regarded as something reprehensible or even forbidden, except for certain very limited purposes, such as ransoming captives or buying food in times of dearth.

There were many democratic victories in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that encouraged democratic emulation. Already, during the first half of the nineteenth century, the radical ideas of post-revolutionary France and the practical example of parliamentary monarchy in Britain aroused some flickers of interest. Major changes, however, began after the Crimean War, the first in which Turkish and Western troops fought side by side as allies against a common enemy, and in which the news, both from the war fronts and from allied capitals, was brought daily by telegraph and published daily in newspapers. The impact of the victory won by the more-or-less democratic Western powers over their totally undemocratic Russian opponent was therefore more direct and immediate than ever before.

This victory was followed by a wave of democratic movements and quasi-democratic reforms in the 1860s. Some were reform from the top. In 1861, the bey of Tunis under Ottoman suzerainty, promulgated a written constitution, the first ever in a Muslim country. In 1866, the khedive of Egypt went a step further and convened an elected assembly, again the first if its kind. The assembly held its three prescribed terms and was followed by other similar assemblies "elected" in 1769, 1876, and 1881. Contested elections had been held in 1857, in the Rumanian principalities, then under Ottoman suzerainty, but the Egyptian elections of 1866 were the first ever in a Muslim country.

More important in the long run than these grudging and limited concessions from above were the growing movements from below--the first movements of opposition to authority that were neither tribal nor ethnic, neither sectarian nor regional, but inspired by an ideology and an aspiration uniting people of different regional, ethnic, and religious backgrounds in a common cause. The most important of these was the Ottoman constitutionalist movement of the 1860s and 1870s, which finally achieved its aim with the promulgation of the first Ottoman constitution on December 23, 1876. After a general election--the first in Islamic history--parliament assembled in Istanbul in March 1877, with a Senate of 25, and a Chamber of 120 members. Its sixth and last meeting was held on June 28, 1877. After further elections a second parliament assembled on December 13, 1877, and showed unexpected vigor: on February 14, 1878, the Sultan dissolved the Chamber and ordered the members to return to their constituencies. In the words of the proclamation:

Since present circumstances are unfavorable to the full discharge of the duties of Parliament . . . and since under the constitution, the limitation or curtailment of the period of session of the said Parliament in accordance with the needs of the time forms part of the sacred imperial prerogatives, therefore, in compliance with the said law, a High Imperial order has been issued . . . that the present sessions of the Senate and Chamber, due to end at the beginning of March . . . be closed as from today.[1]

A new era of democratic optimism began with the spectacular Japanese victory over Russia in 1905. This victory of a small Asian power over a mighty European empire sent a thrill of exultation and hope through all the Asian lands threatened by European imperialism, including Iran and Turkey. There were some who made the further observation that victorious Japan was the one Asian country that had accepted westernization and as part of it had adopted a constitution and a bicameral parliament on the British model, while defeated Russia was the one European power that still persisted in maintaining the old autocratic order. The lesson, so it seemed at the time, was clear and unmistakable, and was understood even in Russia, where a kind of parliamentary regime was installed. It is surely not coincidental that the Japanese victory, which was closely watched and enthusiastically applauded in both Persia and Turkey, was followed in short order by the Persian constitutional revolution of 1906, and the Young Turk revolution of 1908, the one to introduce, the other to restore, constitutional government.

Neither achieved much success. Both the Ottoman and the Iranian constitutionalists found themselves obliged almost from the start to struggle against both internal dissension and external intervention; both were impeded by their own lack of experience and by the lack of much real understanding or support even among their followers. By the outbreak of war in 1914, both constitutional regimes had degenerated into autocracies that were in many ways more repressive and more destructive than the traditional--and therefore in some degree limited--authoritarian regimes that they had replaced.


In 1918, the victory of the democratic Western allies over the much less democratic Central Powers provided further evidence that democracies, though less willing to start wars, are better able to end them. The collapse of Russia, the one autocracy among the Allies, and the triumphant emergence of the United States with a leading role in the Western camp, brought the final proof for the proposition that democracy makes a nation healthy, wealthy, and, if not wise, at least strong. The British and French, the dominant powers in the Middle East and, indeed, in most of the Islamic world, created or encouraged the creation of regimes in their own image, setting up constitutional and parliamentary republics and limited monarchies in almost all the countries under their rule or domination.

By the 1930s, these democratic institutions were in a sorry state. And while much of the blame for their failure could be placed on imperial and other external interference, there were voices, in some countries, that argued that part of the problem lay at home. In most places, however, this seemed an unnecessary hypothesis. By then, liberal democracy was no longer the only model on offer in Europe. Nor was it the most attractive, since in many eyes it was discredited both by the imperial role of those who professed it and by the lamentable failures of the institutions that they had installed or sponsored and the so-called liberal economies over which they presided. In place of liberalism and democracy, a new message, first from Italy, then from Germany, won widespread support. Italian and German unification had long been seen as the model for the creation of a greater national unity, and many Arabs, like many Italians and Germans, were willing to sacrifice personal freedom for national unity and strength. Fascism and nazism seemed to offer a way to success and glory. They also enjoyed the immense advantage of fighting the same familiar enemies. Some Turks too were enticed by the vision of a greater pan-Turkish unity, though for them the common enemy that they shared with Nazi Germany was not the West but the Soviet Union, the imperial power ruling over most of the Truck peoples.

By 1945, fascism and nazism had suffered the most perspicuous of defeats--in the battlefield. But this time the triumph of liberal democracy was neither as clear nor as persuasive as it had been in 1918. The economic disasters of the depression were not forgotten, and the military victory was--with some cause--ascribed to the Soviet Union at least as much as to the Western powers. The case for socialism was further strengthened when the British electorate in the moment of victory dismissed Winston Churchill and his cabinet and elected what appeared to be a Socialist government in their place.

By the 1990s, the power, indeed the existence, of the Soviet Union had come to an end, and the attraction of Marxist economics survived only among the dwindling bands of fundamentalist true believers. The various socialist programs, ranging from the Stalinist Soviet model to the milder West European varieties, had all failed dismally to resolve, or even to keep pace with, their mounting economic problems. "Democracy" retained its magic, but it was a word-magic, unrelated to reality, and all too often designated a one-party dictatorship combining congenial elements from both the nazi and the communist systems, and ruling over an increasingly depressed and impoverished populations.

The striking American success in the cold war--as dramatic as a victory in the battlefield--and the relative affluence achieved by the United States and other Western countries seemed once again to confirm the generally beneficial effects of democratic institutions. The lesson was reinforced, not weakened, by the much greater economic success of Germany and Japan, since both of these countries had renounced their earlier autocratic institutions and had adopted constitutional and representative government.

Even before the end of the cold war and the collapse of the Soviet Union, democracy was advancing and several dictatorships were more or less peacefully suspended. This movement was particularly noticeable in Southern Europe and parts of Latin America; it also affected a number of countries in Asia and Africa. It has so far had little success in the world of Islam. While democratic movements have won some support, especially among intellectuals, they face powerful opposition from a rival appeal to the discontented--that of the different movements collectively and inaccurately known at the present day as Islamic fundamentalists. These often differ considerably from one another, and even more from mainstream Islam. They share, however, a profound aversion to the basic principles that underlie the Western practice of constitutional and representative government. Some observers--and some Muslims--have even gone so far as to argue that Islam as such is inherently incompatible with democracy.

Any discussion of this proposition must begin with definitions of terms. The definition of Islam, in this context at least, is the prerogative of the Muslims. Non-Muslim scholars and other observers may make descriptive and even analytical statements about the Islamic past and present, but it is not for them to say what Muslims should or can do in the future. Only Muslims can answer that question--only they can decide what to retain of the rich and diverse inheritance of fourteen centuries of history and culture, and how to interpret that inheritance and adapt it to new needs and challenges. There will surely be many different answers given by Muslims; much will depend on which answer prevails.

The definition of democracy for our present purpose is a simpler task. What is meant is a system of constitutional and representative government, in which those who wield power can be dismissed and replaced without violence, and by known rules and procedures universally understood and accepted. As Samuel Huntington has observed, this must happen at least twice before a democracy can be regarded as "consolidated."[2]

Continental Europe and Latin American in the 1930s and 1940s offer classical examples of anti-democratic forces that used democratic freedom to win power, and then made sure that they did not lose it the same way. Adolf Hitler rose to power by a free election in a democratic Germany, but there were no more free elections in Germany as long as he remained alive. There are other movements in the world today, very different from nazism or fascism in their declared programs and ideologies, but sharing their contempt for the democratic institutions that they intend to use and then cast aside.

Of the fifty-one sovereign states that make up the membership of the International Islamic Conference, some have never tried democracy; others have experimented, failed, and abandoned the attempt; a few are experimenting again with a cautious and limited relaxation of central power. Several have passed the first test, of a change of government by democratic procedures. Only one in modern times has passed the more searching test, of a second change of rulers by democratic procedures--of a government willing to submit to the will of the people and leave by the self-same route by which it came. That one is the Turkish Republic.


Turkey's road to democracy has not been easy. On the contrary, progress has been difficult, along a road beset with obstacles and interrupted by many setbacks. Since the epoch-making general election of 1950, when a party that had enjoyed a monopoly of political power for decades allowed itself to lose a free election and submitted itself to the will of the people, there have been no less than three military "interventions," as the Turks call them. What is remarkable is not that these interventions took place--that is, after all, the norm in that region and political culture--but that after all three, the military withdrew to its barracks, and allowed, even facilitated, the resumption of the democratic process. Since then, Turkey has passed the test of democratic change not just once, but several times.

This definition of democracy is admittedly limited and formal, and takes no direct account of such other considerations as respect for civic, human and minority rights. It has, however, the advantage of being both unambiguous and measurable, and there can surely be no doubt that the preservation of democracy, thus, defined, offers the best chance for securing and maintaining those other rights that are an essential part of a free society,

An explanation of the relative success of democracy in Turkey, if one can be found, could also be of value in explaining, and perhaps correcting, the failures of democracy elsewhere.

If I had been writing one hundred years ago, or perhaps even less, I might have begun by considering what characteristics the Turks as a nation might possess that others lack. In the intellectual climate of our times, such explanations are no longer acceptable. Even if we replace the word "nation" by the word "culture," the inquiry would still present some hazards. Fortunately, an inquiry along these lines is hardly necessary, since a wide range of alternative explanations is on offer.

One of the most persuasive is what one might call the political explanation. Turkey alone, it is argued, was never colonized, never subject to imperial rule or domination, as were almost all the Islamic lands of Asia and Africa. The Turks were always masters in their own house, and, indeed, in many other houses, for a long period. When their mastery was finally challenged, they won their war of independence, and are therefore able to achieve a degree of realism, a detachment, and of self-criticism that is not possible in countries where political life was dominated for generations by the struggle for independence, and in which freedom and independence become virtually synonymous terms, to the detriment of the former.

In Turkey, democratic institutions were neither imposed by the victors, as happened in the defeated Axis countries, nor bequeathed by departing imperialists, as happened in the former British and French dependencies, but were introduced by the free choice of the Turks themselves. This surely gave these institutions a much better chance of survival.

That cannot, of course, be the whole explanation. There are, after all, other Muslim countries that were not under imperial rule. Afghanistan was effectively independent until the Soviet invasion. Saudi Arabia conducts its own affairs and contributes literally to those of other countries. Syria and Iraq have been independent for considerably longer than the brief period that they were under foreign rule, yet it is there that the failure of democracy has been most decisive and most dramatic. Iran, like Turkey, has seen its independence threatened but never lost, and has retained, even after the Islamic revolution, the forms and structures of constitutional and representative government. It seems unlikely, however, that a genuine transfer of power will be allowed within the present structure. Old established, sovereign independence may be a part of the explanation, but it is not the whole of it.

Linked with the political is what one might call a historical explanation--that Turkey, of all the Muslim countries, has had the longest and closest contact with the West, dating back almost to the beginnings of the Ottoman state. Turkey, for long the sword and buckler of Islam against the West, made a deliberate choice for westernization, and for a Westward political orientation. Specifically, the Turkish experiment in parliamentary democracy has been going on for a century and a quarter--much longer than in any other country in the Islamic world--and its present progress therefore rests on a far stronger, wider, and deeper base of experience. The vicissitudes of democracy under the late Ottomans, under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and under his successors would seem to confirm the belief that democracy is a strong medicine, which must be administered in small and only gradually increased doses. Too large and too sudden a dose can kill the patient.

Successive governments of Turkey wisely did not attempt to introduce full democracy all at once, but instead went through successive phases of limited democracy, laying the foundation for further development, and, at the same time, encouraging the rise of civil society. This process may be seen in many different aspects of life in the country, as, for example, in the newspaper press, which is certainly free, and which one hopes in the course of time will also become responsible, and in trade unions, about which one might make the same observation. Of interest in this connection is the decision made by the then prime minister of Turkey, Süleyman Demirel, to restore to the trade unions assets that had previously been placed under a sequestration order. This was not because he regarded the trade unions as political supporters of his--indeed, they were quite the reverse--but because of the realization that the existence of such powerful and entrenched interests is a safeguard for democratic institutions, which other interests might otherwise seek to curtail, suspend, or destroy.

Many observers have attached great importance to economic circumstances, and, in particular, to the fact that Turkey, alone among the Muslim countries, has achieved a significant economic growth and a substantial rise in the standard of living, and this by its own efforts, not by some fortunate accident, such as the presence of oil in the subsoil. Turkish economic growth was not due to resources discovered by others and used by others for purposes invented by others. It was due to the emergence of new attitudes to economic activity, of new policies for economic development, and of new social elements able to put these policies into effect.

This kind of socioeconomic change in late Ottoman times, and more especially, by the time of Atatürk, had already produced a professional, technical, managerial, entrepreneurial middle class, displaying, to an increasing extent, the attitudes and mores of their Western counterparts. They form an essential part of the civil society, without which Western-style democratic institutions cannot survive. A parallel development is already under way in some other countries, and may yet offer the best hope for the emergence of free societies in the Middle East.

Some observers, especially among those who see in Islam an obstacle to democratic development, point to secularism as the crucial difference between Turkey and the rest of the Muslim world. The English word "secularism" may be somewhat misleading, since it is often used in the context of antireligious philosophy. The term used in Turkish is based on the French "laicitè," which denotes what we might call "separation"--the principle of separation between religion and the state.

In Turkey, that was accomplished by Atatürk in a series of radical measures, including the disestablishment of Islam, the virtual repeal of the Sacred Law (Shari'a), and the enactment in their place of civil and criminal codes of a nonreligious character. Most other states in the Islamic world either have Islam in some form of words enshrined in their constitutions or else claim that Islam itself is their constitution, and that they need no other. The chief exception is the Republic of Indonesia, which is not secular, but does not establish any one religion. The choices of the former Soviet republics with Muslim majorities are not yet known. The system they inherited from their former masters is not laicitè, but might more accurately be described as the establishment and enforcement of another creed, Marxism-Leninism, with its own scriptures, doctrines, hierarchy, and inquisition.


Reference has been made to the emergence of a "civil society," a term increasingly popular of late. It is sometimes used with different and even contradictory meanings. The modern popularity of the term seems to have begun in communist Eastern Europe, where the pollution of language was at its worst, and where the word "democracy," along with such other words as "peace" and "freedom," had been more than usually tainted. From there it spread to Western Europe, where it was launched in May 1988 by Michel Rocard, then prime minister of France, in an official circular addressed to his government and published in the Journal Officiel.[3] Latterly, it has also been heard increasingly in countries of the Middle East.

The term has a long, complex, and interesting history, and seems to vary in shades of meaning from country to country. Not long ago, a paper that I wrote on "Islam and the Civil Society" was published in a German translation. To my surprise, the German version read "Islam und die Civil Society." The German translator obviously felt that there was no German equivalent to this English expression. Clearly, there had been a German equivalent in the past: the civil society was, for example, discussed at great length by Hegel, who did not write in English. But when I pointed this out to my translator, he replied that the German term used by Hegel, "Bürgerliche Gesellschaft," would nowadays convey something entirely different, and not at all relevant, to the German reader. It may be useful, therefore, to devote a moment or two to the historical and lexical evolution of "civil society."

The term first appears in Western Europe in the thirteenth century, in the Latin translation of Aristotle's Politics--a translation that had a momentous effect on the development of political thought in the European Middle Ages. The idea was taken up by others, notably by St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica; finding the term "civitas" used in the Latin translation to render the Greek polis or politeia inadequate, he preferred to use "communitas civilis," which was later translated into English, French, and other languages as "civil society."

This notion was further developed by the Thomists, and then later by such political and legal thinkers as Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau and the men of the eighteenth-century Scottish enlightenment (Adam Ferguson, for example, wrote an essay on the history of the civil society), and then most notably by Hegel in his lectures on the philosophy of law. In these lectures, he set forth what is probably still the dominant, though by no means the only, definition of the civil society: that which exists between the family and the state; those institutions, organizations, loyalties, and associations that exist above the level of the family, and below the level of the state. In his definition, these are created by private persons, pursuing their own self-interest. They are therefore to a large extent, though not exclusively, economic, consisting of bodies formed for economic purposes, and others formed to protect and enjoy property, to administer justice, and similar functions.

The notion of a civil society was revived and reshaped by the Italian neo-Marxist Antonio Gramsci, who died in one of Mussolini's prisons in 1937 and is principally known by his posthumous writings. Rescuing this idea from near oblivion, he gave it a new development, defining it as the totality of institutions and groups that produce and direct ideology to ensure the hegemony of the ruling class in a given society.

This Gramscian reinterpretation has had a considerable impact in recent years. Some even appear to be under the impression that the civil society was Gramsci's invention or creation. For the present inquiry, I propose to keep fairly close to the Hegelian definition, mentioning these others only to avoid possible confusion. The term therefore denotes those interests, associations, organizations, loyalties, and authorities between the family and the state. For Middle Eastern purposes, we may extend and redefine the notion of the family to include a number of other involuntary automatic loyalties by birth, ethnic group, tribe, clan, and--in a downward spiral--religion, sect, faction, region, and locality. The civil society exists, if at all, between these and the state, the legal though not always effective monopoly of the use of violence in a society. The disintegration of what was a functioning democracy in the Republic of Lebanon, when that democracy was first put to a serious test, can plausibly be ascribed to the absence of a real civil society in this sense. That is to say, there were insufficient associations or allegiances between the loyalty owed by birth and the obedience imposed by force. The voluntary association was either lacking or was undermined and rendered insignificant by older and more powerful forces.

Representative democracy based on civil society is difficult enough to operate even in the most favorable of circumstances, even in its countries of origin in the Western world. Its application to non-Western societies has often been made harder, not easier, by westernization and modernization, and it is not always easy to distinguish between the two.

Part of the difficulty arises from the differences and contradictions of the available Western models. The French Revolution served as the model of democratic change for almost all non-English-speaking societies. Yet if we look back on the slightly more than two hundred years that have passed since the revolution in France, we see two monarchies, two empires, one more-or-less fascist dictatorship, and five republics. Obviously, things did not run too smoothly. If we turn from France to other countries that followed the French model, in Eastern Europe and the Middle East and Latin America, the situation is incomparably worse.

The French conception of democracy is essentially optimistic, and rests on the belief that good men can take power and use it for good purposes. The Anglo-American conception of democracy is essentially pessimistic, assuming that men who wield power, however good they may be, would probably be tempted to use it for bad purposes, and that the essential feature of political democracy is therefore the limitation of power--the existence of institutional restraints on its exercise. The meaning of the French Revolution, as Lord Acton pointed out a long time ago, and as is true of others that followed the French model, is not the limitation of the sovereign power, but the abrogation of intermediate powers--in other words, a step not towards, but away from the civil society.

In the Ottoman Empire, before the reforms and the modernization of the state and society, there were many intermediate powers. They included, notably, the religious establishment, independently financed through waaf revenues, the military establishment, and especially the by-now hereditary corps of the janissaries, and, in the later centuries, the ayan, or notables, who amounted to a provincial gentry and magistracy.

In the course of the nineteenth-century reforms, virtually all these previous limiting powers were eliminated or enfeebled or taken over, with the result that while on the one hand the regime was in principle becoming more democratic, through the promulgation of a constitution and the establishment of elected and representative bodies, in fact it was becoming less democratic, through the reinforcement of the sovereign power, not only by the abrogation of intermediate powers but also through the vastly improved apparatus that modern technology could provide for surveillance, repression, indoctrination, and control. All these are at the disposal of any modern dictator, the least of whom can be far more tyrannical than any of the legendary tyrants of the past.


It is not easy to create and maintain free institutions in a region of age-old authoritarian traditions, in a political culture where religion and ethics have been more concerned with duties than with rights, in which obedience to legitimate authority is a religious obligation as well as a political necessity, and disobedience a sin as well as a crime. That much is obvious, and generally recognized. What is less obvious, and is insufficiently recognized, is that the task of maintaining free institutions have been made harder, not easier, by the processes of modernization in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

There were, in both the Islamic and Ottoman heritages, elements that might well have been conducive, in favorable circumstances, to the functioning of free institutions and respect for human rights. For example, there is in the Sunni doctrine of sovereignty an element of contract, even of consent, and consent inevitably implies the possibility of withholding, or even withdrawing, consent.

According to the Sunni juridical statements on the institution of sovereignty, the ruler does not derive his authority from descent, and even God is the ultimate but not the immediate source of authority. The immediate vesting of authority is in principle by a process of election and contract, which in Arabic is called bay'a, and in Turkish becomes biat. The principal obligation assumed by the sovereign under the terms of this contract is to maintain, enforce--and also obey--the Sacred Law, which in principle he did not create and cannot change, and by which he is bound no less than the humblest of his subjects. The jurists did not think in terms of rights of the subject, but their discussion of the duties of the ruler to his subjects can provide a starting point for a move in that direction.

In fact, of course, leaving theory aside, the institution of sovereignty became hereditary, and more or less theocratic. But the traditional concept of a contractual exchange of duties between sovereign and subject remained. The ruler had obligations toward the subject, and his contract was in theory dissoluble, sometimes also in practice dissoluble if he failed to carry out the terms of his contract. The Caliphate, and later the sultanate, were autocracies--there can be no doubt about that. But they never became the unbridled despotism imagined by many European observers of the Ottoman state in its heyday.

In fact, this state, which achieved a greater level of stability and continuity than any previous Islamic dynasty, also showed greater respect than any of them for the Sacred Law, and a greater willingness to submit to its authority. This is aptly symbolized in the rules laid down in the Kanunname of the House of Osman for the ceremonies on the Bayram Festival. When the dignitaries come to greet the Sultan, says the Kununname, the Sultan himself shall rise to his feet to receive the high officers of the state and of the law.[4] The Ottoman recognized a supreme religious authority in the highest instance of the Shari'a, with power even to authorize the deposition of the sultan. The actual role of this authority, the sheyhülislam, was determined in the main by the play of politics and personalities. The significant thing in the present context is that such an authority, with such a jurisdiction, should have been recognized at all.

The same stability and continuity of the Ottoman state allowed the emergence and consolidation of intermediate powers, which were able--to an increasing extent in the later Ottoman centuries--to impose effective constraints and limitations on the sovereign power of the sultans. They could no longer do so after the great changes, especially the technological changes, of the nineteenth century, which enabled, for example, Sultan Abülhamid to wield despotic powers far greater than those ever enjoyed by Mehmed the Conqueror or Süleyman the Magnificent.

There was, therefore, in the movement for constitutional and representative government in nineteenth-century Turkey something more than a desire to import or imitate Western practices. There was also something that in the long run was probably far more important--a desire to restore a perceived loss of old established rights, and to restrain what was perceived as a newly imposed despotism. This aspect is often mentioned in the writings of the Young Ottomans and of the constitutionalists, but has been dismissed by many modern scholars as a romantic or apologetic effort to legitimize foreign ideas and practices and to make them more acceptable by ascribing them to authentic, indigenous origins.

Certainly, there was an apologetic element in this as in other similar arguments put forward by advocates of reform in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Sometimes this reaches absurd proportions, as, for example, when a Janissary mutiny is compared to a chamber of deputies. But there is more than a romantic rewriting of history in the arguments of the Ottoman constitutionalists. There is a basis in Ottoman historical reality that may be an important element in the ultimate triumph of constitutional and representative government in the Turkish Republic.

"Ultimate triumph" may seem too strong a term to designate a still-fledgling democracy, which has endured three military interventions in half a century, and which still faces massive problems and powerful challenges. But despite these difficulties, the successes of Turkish democracy, as compared with other countries of comparable background, traditions, and experience, have been remarkable. They were made possible by profound and far-reaching changes in social, cultural, and intellectual life, which preceded, accompanied, and followed political and economic changes. To one who has followed the transformation of modern Turkey for more than half a century, it seems certain that while this process of change may still be delayed or even halted, it can no longer be reserved.

Bernard Lewis, Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Near Eastern Studies Emeritus at Princeton University, is the author of, most recently, Islam and the West and The Shaping of the Modern Middle East (both published by Oxford University Press).

[1] Zabit Ceridesi, II, p. 46 See Robert Devereux, The First Ottoman Constitutional Period (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1963), p. 236.
[2] Samuel P. Huntington, The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late 20th Century (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991), p. 266 ff.
[3] On this and on the earlier history of the term, see Guy Berger, "La Société civile et son discours," in Commentaire, 12/46 (1989), pp. 121-78, and later issues.
[4] Kanunname-I-Al-I Osman, TOEM supplement (Istanbul, 1330), p. 25.

Related Topics:  Democracy and Islam, Middle East politics, Turkey and Turks  |  Bernard Lewis  |  March 1994 MEQ receive the latest by email: subscribe to the free mef mailing list This text may be reposted or forwarded so long as it is presented as an integral whole with complete and accurate information provided about its author, date, place of publication, and original URL.

06 Oct 14:08

Red Robot's Tips for Dealing With Internet Harassment


Red Robot knows what's up.

red robot on harassment

New strip up on Medium today! I may have had too much fun.

06 Oct 00:00



The alt-text on this one is, well... suggestive.

Check it out--when I tug the C-terminal tail, the binding tunnel squeezes!
05 Oct 21:58

How cats have trained us to pet them

by whyevolutionistrue

Second kitten looks very much like my now gone cat, who was similarly demanding. Via Russian Sledges.

Among the other benefits for which cats have domesticated humans, one is the procurement of fusses. Here is a video, sent by reader Diana MacPherson, showing the variety of ways that cats demand petting. As she said, “My favourite is the last one because the kitteh is so polite.” And so it is!

19 Sep 16:30

Whisky Investing…the last time around

by Lew Bryson

Totally bizarre.

Author - Lew BrysonMy father died four years ago, and I have to say; he was a bit of a pack rat. More than a bit, really. It took us all day to clean out the garage (which hadn’t held a car since the Johnson administration); honestly, why did a man who rarely worked on his own car need five grease guns?

My mother’s been working her way through all the papers and letters he saved, and she found this one, and thought I’d find it interesting. Once I’d had a look, and chuckled, I thought you might find it interesting as well:




It was sent, by air mail (a 4p stamp at the time), to my father’s RD1 address, in April, 1973. To the best of my knowledge, my father never drank an ounce of Scotch whisky in his life, and in 1973, his life savings amounted to his teacher’s pension (which was out of his reach) and about $1,000 in a savings and loan account that we would spend two months later on a family vacation we’d been planning for ten years. We were hardly investors, and certainly not Scotch lovers…yet Strathmore not only found us, but sent a hand-addressed letter to us.

In less than ten years, Scotland would be awash in whisky (which in 15 more years would become the bounty of under-priced mature whisky that some of us swam in, joyfully, for a happy, golden time).

We are being encouraged to “invest” in Scotch whisky again. I feel like I should check my mailbox. And keep a hand on my wallet.

The post Whisky Investing…the last time around appeared first on Whisky Advocate.

04 Oct 23:28

Dear Everyone on the Internet:


In light of recent events:

Apparently I need a warning label. 

So here is an attempt to produce one. 

Allow me to identify roughly what it is that I believe in, so you can contextualize everything else. 

I am a Scientist, and consider myself a Feminist and a Leftist. I am not an Anarchist because I feel that anarchism is too utopian. But I lean that way anyway, just by nature. I am deeply anti-authoritarian, and am suspicious of all uses of power, even when they are nominally on my side (this is the most important time to be skeptical, IMO). I am an Atheist, and apparently congenitally unable to hold religious beliefs. That said, I understand the value of religion in other people’s lives. I am a pro-nuclear Environmentalist. I am not anti-gun. I believe people have a right to chose things for themselves that I would not chose for them, or that I believe aren’t a good idea. I am unapologetically, furiously angry at the entire human race for being a bunch of fuckups. Probably a bunch of other things that are escaping me at the moment. 

I like to argue, and I like to smash ideas into each other and see what happens.  I believe that subjecting them to constant testing is the only way you can really trust your ideas. I try to assume the best of the people I am arguing with, rather than the worst. I value a diversity of opinions and ideologies, because no one way of looking at the world can be correct all the time. To believe otherwise is foolish.

I am also deeply sarcastic, and believe quite strongly in calling people on their bullshit. Also, I swear kind of a lot. 

This means that I will inevitably say things that you will not agree with, and that I may say them in a manner that is not gentle, even if I do not have ill will towards you, even if I love you.

I do not consider this a problem. 

If I don’t like you, you’ll know, as I am more than capable of being quite vicious and dismissive.

That said, I try my best not to unintentionally injure others, and I try to treat the experiences of others with the respect and care it deserves. Sometimes that means that I shut up, because my opinion doesn’t really matter in the face of their lived experience. Sometimes it doesn’t. 

Sometimes I fail at doing the things I try my best to do, because I am a mostly hairless bipedal ape with a questionable moral compass, just like you.  

I am not going to pretend to be other than what I am just so that you’ll like me or think I’m cool or something.  I only care about what a tiny handful of people very close to me think of me, so statistically speaking, chances are your opinion of me doesn’t matter to me at all. You are of course still welcome to call me on my bullshit, though you shouldn’t expect me to just roll over about it. I can be very stubborn. 

If you find these things to be problematic: don’t follow me.

Perhaps my life will be the worse for it, but maybe yours will be better.

22 Sep 18:37

Automated Whisky Dispense at Grane in Omaha

by Lew Bryson

Not sure how I feel about this. Definitely rules out the Generous Pour though.

Lew BrysonHow do you like your whisky? I don’t mean whether you like it neat, or watered, or in a cocktail; how do you like it socially, how do you like it served?

Grane, a new bar in Omaha, Nebraska, has a completely new way to serve whisky: by automated machine. Grane’s founder, Daniel Matuszek, explains that the whole bar is built around the system, developed by WineEmotion, a European company that developed the technology for wine dispense.

“We went to them over a year ago and told them about the growth of whisky,” Matuszek recalls, explaining that they were looking to use the technology for whisky instead of wine. “They resized and retrofitted the pistons that push the liquid. They used the same technologies, but remade for whisky bottles. We got an exclusive arrangement for spirits dispensing with this for a year, global exclusivity. We’re the first and only place to use this; not Chicago, LA, or NYC, not London: Omaha.”

Grane has a “speakeasy feel,” according to Matuszek, but the whisky dispensers are sleekly modern, hard-edged technology. A customer buys a smart card (see the video, below) and “loads” money onto it. It’s whisky, so you probably want to load heavy. Then you take a look at what’s on offer; there are currently 35 bottles available at any one time. “We have a world whisky machine, a bourbon machine, two Scotch whisky machines, and a high-end machine,” Matuszek says.

You choose a whisky, press one of three buttons (½, 1, or 1.5 ounce) above that particular spout, and the whisky pours into your glass. It’s quick, it’s accurate, and you can see the bottle directly below the spout. It’s all customer-operated; no bartender involved. “It breaks down some of the barriers,” he says about the direct operation. “People can read about the whiskies, and then they can try by themselves, at their own pace, their own judgment.”

You’re probably wondering the same things I was. Is there potential for the whisky to be harmed, or changed, or contaminated? Keep in mind that the same issues for whisky are there for wine: contamination, oxidation, and — prime importance considering the cost of whiskies — waste. The whisky is pushed by food-grade argon gas, with the uptake from the bottom of the bottle; the headspace fills up with argon. The spout will drip two or three drops, but cut-off is precise. There is very little to go wrong here.

“The majority of people have been hitting that half-ounce button; they want to try things,” Matuszek notes, which must not surprise anyone who knows whisky lovers. “We don’t keep them on for months at a time. we have a barrel of Dickel 9 year old we selected, and we’ll keep that on. But we go all the way from the biggest baddest Ardbeg to Glenmorangie Nectar d’Or. We’re teaching people about Japanese whisky, Canadian whisky, and all that.”

Will people like getting whisky without a bartender? (Grane’s bartenders are fully employed making cocktails, of course.) Will automated dispense catch on outside of Omaha? Will this be the next thing where people will say they can taste the difference? Would you buy auto-dispense whisky?

The post Automated Whisky Dispense at Grane in Omaha appeared first on Whisky Advocate.

04 Oct 23:57

prguitarman: MY...


Best use of wheel LED systems?

30 Sep 13:59

Working Under Pressure

by ateliersisk

More of my friend Amanda's impressive work. I hope she continues not to get blown up.

Come on; there is sixpence for you: let’s have a song.  ~ Twelfth Night

This year’s ornament (Four Calling Birds) needed to be produced in a material strong enough for the open-work design, and the resin we chose resulted in a learning curve. To suppress damaging air bubbles in both our moulds and casts, it was necessary to subject our materials to pressure. The standard equipment used for pressurizing might have cost upwards of $700 USD; we opted to modify a pressure paint pot for a fraction of that price.

J and C test the fittings.  Caution is in order with every use: this equipment can explode.

J and C test the fittings. Caution is in order with every use: this equipment can explode.


The songs of real winged creatures accompany the work outside, where ventilation and peace are found while the weather allows.  As it turns out, ‘calling birds’ may have come from ‘colly birds.’  Colly means black and European blackbirds were likely the subject of the fourth day of Christmas.  We used images of blackbirds and the crows outside to sculpt our birds.  So who wanted a blackbird for Christmas?  Well, do you recall Sing a Song of Sixpence?  The bird was considered a delicacy in past ages.  As with the Twelve Days of Christmas, no one truly knows the origins of Sing a Song of Sixpence; perhaps Shakespeare, or the piece could be a reference to the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII.


Amanda prepares to depressurize the pot and examine a cast.

Success!  A clean mould = a clean cast.  Many things can still go awry, but overall, the results are consistent.  Each cast takes about 15 minutes to create; our next step is to build a two-tier shelf in the pot, enabling the production of at least two casts at a time.

Success! A clean mould = a clean cast. Many things can still go awry, but overall, the results are consistent. Each cast takes about 15 minutes to create; our next step is to build a two-tier shelf in the pot, enabling the production of at least two casts at a time.

Raw casts ready for the removal of any excess resin before receiving finishes.  Gold leaf is being applied to one on the far left.

These are raw casts ready for the removal of any excess resin before receiving finishes. Gold leaf is being applied to one on the far left.


And here they are, the 2014 ornaments in Antique, Verdigris, and Gold Leaf (Limited Edition)…

05 Oct 01:16

Loneliness and Solitude: Finding Your Tribe


This is Tbone. She's an interesting lady.


“Language … has created the word ‘loneliness’
to express the pain of being alone.
And it has created the word ‘solitude’
to express the glory of being alone.”
― Paul Tillich, The Eternal Now

I had an interesting conversation with an 11-year-old the other day. He told me that last year, he was quite isolated at school, and he had to learn how to enjoy being alone. This year, he said, things were different, and he finally felt like he had a group of friends and a place that felt like home.

I was struck by the maturity of his words, and I told him that I understood.

You see, it is better to have one person in your life who is the right person for you than to be adrift in a sea of strangers who call each other “friend.” I learned this in the last two years. I was lonely for months, and then it all clicked. I realized that I didn’t miss any particular person, I didn’t miss our discussions or the places we went or the things they supposedly found fun. Not at all.

And, at some point, I wondered how I ever thought any of them were my friends to begin with.

Solitude not loneliness.

When you’re surrounded by people who are laughing and having a great time, it’s often hard to admit that you don’t belong. But, often, that’s the one thing you need to do to find yourself.

There’s a tribe for you. While you’re looking for it, learn to relish solitude.

04 Oct 06:32

indikhan: YOOOOOOOO


This is pure genius. via Cooper.



04 Oct 09:12

Electric Wizard - 'Time to Die' (2014)

Title track from the new full-length album, out on Spinefarm Records:
03 Oct 04:08

Annihilation, a brief review (with tweets) · tertiarymatt


As I say below: this fucking book, you guys.

  1. So, it would appear that I am going to inhale "Annihilation" tonight, because I am already more than halfway through it.


    — M.S. (@tertiarymatt)Fri, Oct 03 2014 01:39:53
  2. There's other things I should be doing, of course. This is the problem with me and books that contain stories.


    — M.S. (@tertiarymatt)Fri, Oct 03 2014 01:40:24
  3. ...and done. What follows is a brief summation of my feelings about this book, "Annihilation", by Jeff Vandermeer.


    — M.S. (@tertiarymatt)Fri, Oct 03 2014 03:46:24
  4. Imagine that you took the essence of what made Lovecraft great; his sense of a gigantic, utterly inhuman universe that we cannot understand,


    — M.S. (@tertiarymatt)Fri, Oct 03 2014 03:47:42
  5. along with the sense of wild beauty and exhilaration and joy of strangeness that sometimes appeared in his dream cycle stories, but stripped


    — M.S. (@tertiarymatt)Fri, Oct 03 2014 03:48:33
  6. out his racist bastardness, his stiffness, his inability to imagine a narrator who was not, in many essential ways, H.P. Lovecraft.


    — M.S. (@tertiarymatt)Fri, Oct 03 2014 03:49:25
  7. And instead infused the work with a slowly revealed empathy, an examination of what it means to be a human in relation to the world;


    — M.S. (@tertiarymatt)Fri, Oct 03 2014 03:50:22
  8. And, of course written in a way that is dense with meaning, but entirely approachable, and which limbers up as the narrator reveals herself.


    — M.S. (@tertiarymatt)Fri, Oct 03 2014 03:53:44
  9. As a scientist and perennial outsider, observer, loser-of-those-who-would-be-close, self-contained, self-propelled apparatus


    — M.S. (@tertiarymatt)Fri, Oct 03 2014 03:56:34
  10. staring out at and straining towards a world we are senselessly ruining, I feel a deep, sorrowful empathy with the narrator.


    — M.S. (@tertiarymatt)Fri, Oct 03 2014 03:57:44
  11. In short, the book was very good and has climbed down into me already. Hopefully there's a boxed set of it and the other two that I can buy.


    — M.S. (@tertiarymatt)Fri, Oct 03 2014 03:59:12



30 Sep 00:44

Review: Wild Turkey Diamond Anniversary Bourbon

by Jason Pyle

Kind of a lot for Wild Turkey, but maybe it really is that good.

Wild Turkey released a limited edition bourbon in celebration of Jimmy Russell’s 60 years with Wild Turkey. As Master Distiller, Mr. Russell has been responsible for providing the whiskey loving world with great whiskey all those decades. It’s pretty remarkable. The Diamond Anniversary Bourbon is a blend of 13 and 16 year old bourbon from barrels selected by Eddie Russell, Jimmy’s son and the other Master Distiller. Incidentally, Eddie has been with Wild Turkey for 34 years himself – pretty impressive (but it’s not 60). Let’s tuck into this one and see what it’s got.

wild-turkey-diamondWild Turkey Diamond Anniversary Bourbon, Barrel 45.5% abv (91 proof), $125/bottle
Color: Medium Amber/Golden
Nose: Honey, dried apricot, orange, brown sugar, sweet vanilla & floral notes, dry toasted oak.
Palate: Razor sharp and elegant. Honey, caramel, vanilla, bright orange, fresh mint, chile heat, cinnamon, and dry oak.
Finish: Medium finish, dry, lingering caramel sweetness, bitter char, and barrel spices.
Overall: This whiskey is an absolute beauty – presenting both bright, balanced, clean flavors while being extremely complex and nuanced. On top of that it is effortlessly drinkable. All of this quality comes at a price though – great whiskey abounds for this much dough. Whether it’s worth it to you or not depends completely on your whiskey budget and how much you enjoy this style. If you can stomach the price, you will be rewarded with an outstanding pour. Here’s to Jimmy Russell and a fitting salute to 60 years.
Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 9.3 (Superb/Outstanding)

03 Oct 02:12

MICE info!

by Emily Carroll

Click through, oh Boston Sharebros.

03 Oct 07:00

Note-o-rame: THE NOTENING

by Dylan

Dylan's notes are always great.

Hello my dears!

Welcome to Week #2 (of 6) in which I step away from page updates, instead  catching up on the Notes section and beginning the technical work to assemble the next print volume. I love adding notes for pages, going into more detail on bits and bobs that appear in the story and have some greater historical or scientific interest.

This week I cover pages 250-259. Topics covered include ancient cultic mysteries, weird regional dialects, wolf names, rabbit genders, and more! Head on over.

In other news, Noelle Stevenson’s lovely, weird, silly book Nimona just concluded its online run (go read!), and the book collection of Ben Dewey’s infinitely hilarious Tragedy Series is now available for pre-orders. I predict you’ll love them both!

30 Sep 00:59



Ariel and Eric, or what?

01 Oct 04:00

October 01, 2014


That shit is cold.

New exclusive comic at The Nib!
29 Sep 14:30

Monday Matchup #15: Noodler's Konrad Flex Pen in Amazon Pearl and Noodler's Green

by Rachel Goulet

Dig that shade of pen.

Mondays might be tough, but one positive is that they equal a fresh start. New beginnings make me think 'green' and 'go'. So, to get you pumped up this Monday and propel you into the week, our Monday Matchup is vivid, fresh, and screams "get going!"

We’ve paired the Noodler’s Konrad flex pen in Amazon Pearl with Noodler's Green. It's almost like they were made for each other. This pair is spunky and allows diversity in your writing stokes as well as color. The green is on the darker side, but has some natural shading that works perfectly with the flex nib. If you're looking for something new and different, this is exactly the combo you need.

Hopefully this week's match gets you revved up for a new week with new beginnings. Sometimes a little change, like a new match, is all you need to start fresh and stay motivated. You've got this!

Caitlin did this week's drawing using the Konrad flex pen shown and a Noodler's brush pen. The writing sample was contributed by Alex to show off the pen's capabilities.

Hope you have a successful, bright, and fresh Monday!
29 Sep 05:01


by Ian

Feeling this.


29 Sep 04:00

September 29, 2014


Paging GN...

There are now exactly 22 general admission tickets for BAHFest East If you want to come, please buy soon!
10 Sep 06:06

fuck-yeah-feminist: This deserves so many reblogs. Feminism is...


Via Osiasjota


This deserves so many reblogs.

Feminism is having a wardrobe malfunction.

Does your brand of feminism remove barriers for women, or simply move them around? Does is expand options for women, or does it just shift them? You don’t liberate women by forcing them to choose option B instead of option A. What is comfortable for you might not be comfortable for someone else, and it’s entirely possible that what you see as oppressive, other women find comfortable or even downright liberating.

Some women would feel naked without a veil. Some women would find it restrictive. Some women would feel restricted by a bra. Some women would feel naked without one. Some women would feel restricted by a tight corset. Others love them. Some wear lots of clothes with a corset. Some only wear the corset and nothing else. What makes any article of clothing oppressive is someone forcing you to wear it. And it’s just as oppressive to force someone not to wear something that they want to wear.

27 Sep 19:47

Melvins-Butthole Surfers supergroup release new song "Sesame Street Meat" -- listen


Click thru for listens.

As previously reported, sludge rockers Melvins recruited Butthole Surfers guitarist Paul Leary and bassist J.D. Pinkus to join them in recording their upcoming 23rd studio album, Hold It In. Already, the one-off supergroup has previewed the October 14th release with the country-fried “Brass Cupcake” and the voluminous “Bride of Crankenstein”.

Today, they unveil another of the album’s 12 tracks with the — um, delightfully titled “Sesame Street Meat”. Here, the four-piece achieve the apex of Melvins’ particular brand of visceral, deeply nihilistic sludge metal. Guitars smash and wail like blown-out power tools, drums plod along with the grace of some Godzilla nemesis, and Buzz Osborne croons like some mid-level demon in an Elvis Presley cover band. It’s dark, menacing, and totally frightening; and, yes, it will totally make you think of Snuffleupagus being torn apart by rabid wolves.

(Read: Melvins: Three Bastards, 30 Years)

“This track is one of the first songs we recorded together,” drummer Dale Crover told The Quietus. “I love Jeff’s slinky little bass line that comes in around the 3rd measure! Then the whole band kicks in and just crushes you like a bug! One of my faves! I can’t wait to play it live!”

Listen in below.

In support of Hold It In, the trio of Osborne, Crover, and Pinkus will embark on a US tour in October. Consult their full schedule here.

26 Sep 17:37

Is Civilization Natural?


My lab in the news (ish).

A view of Seattle from the Bullitt Center. i i

A view of Seattle from the Bullitt Center.

Brad Kahn/Flikr

So, there's the city and then there's the country, the built environment and the wilderness, nature and civilization. Whatever name the dichotomy goes by, we usually think of the world humans create and the world outside their creations as separate and unequal.

But as we enter the Anthropocene — an era in which human activity represents a principle driver of planetary changes — it may be time to rethink this ancient polarity. It's a question that has more than academic importance. How we resolve this split may have a lot to do with our chances for creating a technological society that can last for more than a century or so. That's because the Anthropocene is really the "Age of the City."

Since the dawn of cities some 8,000 years ago, we have always lived between the poles of the world we built and the world outside. The city and nature are the Ying and Yang of human experience, with a host of assumptions, ethics and values pinned to either side.

The city was civilization and the world outside its gates was chaos and danger. On the other hand, the city was the nexus of corruption, while the natural environment was an unspoiled Eden, an original wilderness requiring protection from our greed.

But now, more than half the people on the planet live in a city or a suburb of one. And it's projected that by 2050, more than 80 percent of all human beings will be living in urban areas. That is why the Anthropocene and the city are so strongly coupled. It's the resource needs of cities, and the feedback those needs generate, that are so strongly affecting the planet. What scientists call the "coupled Earth systems" of atmosphere — hydrosphere, cryosphere, geosphere and biosphere — are changing because of our cities and their requirements. That is why all our city building now makes traditional distinctions between the natural environment and the built environment less meaningful.

To understand the breadth of urbanization's impact, consider what Steven Koonin, the director of NYU's Center for Urban Science and Progress, calls the "Dark Spaces." When you look at a map of the Earth at night, what you see are cities showing up as dense luminous webs of light. You also see thin tendrils of highways that connect the cities. Beyond that, there are large sections of Dark Space. But while these Dark Spaces might seem the true domain of wilderness, the truth is more far more complex.

Look around a city and what do you see? Cars, streetlights, air conditioners, heating units. All of them consume energy. But where does that energy come from? It originates in places like the oil-rich Alberta Tar Sands or West Virginia's mountain top removal coal mining. It comes from something the writer Venkat Rao has called "Hamiltonian Cathedrals" (after Alexander Hamilton and his vision of American industrialization). Hamiltonian Cathedrals are the sites of vast industrial-scale resource development. But in spite of their scale, Hamiltonian Cathedrals are, generally, entirely hidden to world of the city dweller.

Those vast scales of resource extraction in the Dark Spaces are needed to feed the ever-growing cities in which we humans now choose to live. It's the feedback of all that resources consumption in cities (as in climate change) that means there is little space on the planet that can truly be thought of as "untouched." And as Luis Bettencourt, a physicist at the Santa Fe Institute who works on cities, notes:

"...the way we've been drawing these resources from nature and into the cities is simply not sustainable. An urbanized planet will need more energy but it is crucial we get it in different ways: that is possible but requires massive change."

Something, therefore, has to change — and our polar ideas of of nature vs. civilization may be the first thing that needs to go.

This week, I was in Seattle working with University of Washington professor Marina Alberti, who leads the Urban Ecology Research Lab. Dr. Alberti is a wonderfully creative researcher who likes to think in terms of cities as "hybrid ecosystems." She takes the idea of "hybrids" from genetics. Hybrids can be a step along the way to developing new species. Seeing the city as a hybrid ecosystem means thinking about how cities depend on the natural flows of water, clean air and soil to function properly. It also means seeing how cities change those flows to create something new that didn't exist before. For example, recent studies have shown how vacant lots create new habitats and road corridors can function as routes of seed dispersal for many plant species. Researchers also have seen some songbirds changing their behavior in urban environments as compared to natural ones.

These examples show plants and animals creating new behaviors in the environments we created for ourselves. As we come to understand that response more deeply, there's the possibility for cities themselves to change with the goal of becoming more resilient and sustainable in the face of the Anthropocene challenges. It's about human and natural systems evolving together.

This possibility of "co-evolution" means cities will need to become far more responsive to what used to be thought of as nature lying outside their domains. It means recognizing how deeply the city relies on natural systems and thinking creatively about working with those systems rather than paving everything over.

There are, for example, ideas about edging coastal cities with wetlands for storm surge protection. Then there is urban farming — including their most radical version, the vertical skyscraper farm. Whether these ideas can work or not, each is an attempt to rethink how the natural world appears within and serves urban spaces.

One concrete strategy for addressing this issue of sustainability and resilience is to make cities act more like nature. Think about how forests get everything they need from whatever moves through where they stand. Building cities that use this principle is called biomimicry — and it means bringing more of the services nature provides to the city back within its confines.

I had a chance to see this in practice during a visit to the Bullitt Center in Seattle, which is billed as one of the "greenest buildings in the world." You can think of it as "extreme green." All the water and all the power the building needs are drawn from whatever falls on this multi-story building and its site. The roof splays away from the buildings walls like the canopy of a tree maximizing the surface area for solar collection (while the building draws power from the grid in the winter it generates enough electricity in the summer to make up the difference). Extending from the third floor there is a wetlands "garden" (complete with horsetails) that purifies the building's water before returning it back to the ground.

With all of its innovations, the Bullitt Center is designed to be an experiment in biomimicry (among other ideas). And it seems to be working. After a year in operation, the Bullitt has shown that it is possible to become more fully "passive" in terms of resource impact.

So do we have to live with the nature vs. city split?

There will always be a day-to-day distinction between living in urban spaces and getting away into nature. But as far as our civilization building goes, we need to go beyond the old distinctions. With the dawning of the Anthropocene we've become a true planetary species. That's what gets the astronomer in me really interested. With all our city building, it's the entire planet that we're changing now. And once we get to that scale, the distinction between nature and not-nature has to get updated. We need a perspective that's more sustainable and more resilient if we're going to make it for another 100, 500 or 5,000 years.

If we're building cities that affect the entire planet, maybe its time to starting thinking like one. Maybe it's time to think how nature and cities can evolve together.

You can keep up with more of what Adam is thinking on Facebook and Twitter: @adamfrank4