January 29, 2005
"Atheism and children" --A Talk by Natalie Angier
Natalie Angier addressed the Ethical Culture Society thus:
I’m here to talk about why my husband and I are raising our daughter as an atheist. The short, snappy answer is, We don’t believe in god. The longer, self-exculpating answer that is the theme du noir is, We believe it is the right thing to do. First, let me talk a little bit about why I use the term atheist rather than a more pastel-inflected phrase like agnostic or secular humanist, or the latest offering, Bright. Now when it comes to any of the mainstream deities proposed to date, I am absolutely atheistic. I can understand the literary and metaphoric value of any number of characters from mythology and religion. During this last election, we all felt like Sisyphus, we pushed that boulder and pushed and pushed, and we were just about at the top of the mountain, well, you know the rest. Or maybe we were Prometheus, with the vulture forever pecking away at our liver, or Job, or the dry run for the Lazarus bit. Yet however legitimate it may be to view any of our religious books as we would the works of Shakespeare or Henry James , I don’t take them seriously as descriptions of how the universe came to be or how any of us will re-be in some posthumous setting, or what god is or wants or whines about. So I am an unalloyed atheist by the standards of the mainstream sects.
About the Bike
Herlihy's descriptions of the bicycle's birth start with very early efforts to replace the horse with a human-powered mechanical substitute that would not only surpass the animal in speed and practicality but also be widely affordable -- what would come to be known as the ''people's nag.'' The first primitive human-powered mechanical horse -- the draisine or velocipede (Latin for ''fast foot'') -- was introduced in Germany by Karl von Drais in 1817, and quickly after in France, England and the United States. The rider sat in a saddle, supported by a brace suspended between two equally sized carriage wheels. Propulsion was provided by the rider, walking or running, much like the present-day two-wheeled child's scooter, dependent on pushing away with a foot on the ground for momentum. Drais estimated that the draisine could achieve a speed of 5 or 6 miles per hour at a walking gait; running, it could reach up to 12 miles an hour.
Tool for Thought
Steven Johnson in the New York Times Book Review:
The word processor has changed the way we write, but it hasn't yet changed the way we think.
Changing the way we think, of course, was the cardinal objective of many early computer visionaries: Vannevar Bush's seminal 1945 essay that envisioned the modern, hypertext-driven information machine was called ''As We May Think''; Howard Rheingold's wonderful account of computing's pioneers was called ''Tools for Thought.'' Most of these gurus would be disappointed to find that, decades later, the most sophisticated form of artificial intelligence in our writing tools lies in our grammar checkers.
But 2005 may be the year when tools for thought become a reality for people who manipulate words for a living, thanks to the release of nearly a dozen new programs all aiming to do for your personal information what Google has done for the Internet. These programs all work in slightly different ways, but they share two remarkable properties: the ability to interpret the meaning of text documents; and the ability to filter through thousands of documents in the time it takes to have a sip of coffee. Put those two elements together and you have a tool that will have as significant an impact on the way writers work as the original word processors did.
January 28, 2005
Down the tubes
Short review of The Subterranean Railway: How the London Underground was Built and How it Changed the City Forever by Christian Wolmar, and The City Beneath Us: Building the New York Subways by Vivian Heller and the New York Transit Museum, in The Economist:
London's was the first underground railway—nearly all of it built in the half-century after 1860—and one of the trickiest. It runs under streets so twisty that they could not simply be dug up in order to lay track—the “cut and cover” method used for much of New York's system. Another difference is London's historic lack of civic government, which meant that the money had to be scrounged, mainly from private investors, all of whom had their own ideas on how the system should work.
Making Memories Stick
R. Douglas Fields writes in Scientific American:
[The] transition from the present mental experience to an enduring memory has long fascinated neuroscientists. A person's name when you are first introduced is stored in short-term memory and may be gone within a few minutes. But some information, like your best friend's name, is converted into long-term memory and can persist a lifetime. The mechanism by which the brain preserves certain moments and allows others to fade has recently become clearer, but first neuroscientists had to resolve a central paradox.
A while ago, I'd posted on some papers and articles on the Internet as a research lab, and had pointed to studies that measured the real world value of MMORPGs (massive multi-player online role playing games). Edward Castronova, who pioneered this research, had estimated that the average wage of the Everquest world of Norrath was US$3.42 per hour, a value that could be measured through the phenomenon of trading items such as virtual magical swords on e-bay.
John Quiggin at Crooked Timber reports on a related but unsurprising phenomenon.
"At the Creative Commons conference last week, I heard a story to the effect that when the owners of one of these games tried to prohibit item trading they were sued and, in the course of litigation discovered that the plaintiff ran a sweatshop in Mexico where workers participated in the game solely to collect salable items. Clearly as long as the wage is below $3.42 there’s an arbitrage opportunity here. More technically sophisticated arbitrageurs have replaced human workers by scripted agents, working with multiple connections. Either way, arbitrage opportunities can’t last for ever, and are likely to be resolved either by intervention or inflation.
The positive economics of all this are interesting enough. But how about policy analysis? Who benefits and who loses from this kind of trade, and do the benefits outweigh the costs?"
Abbas stands for the politics of cool and clear rationality
Hussein Agha and Robert Malley in the New York Review of Books:
Abu Mazen is, like Arafat, a rarity: a genuinely national Palestinian figure. But he is so in radically dissimilar fashion. Where Arafat attained national status by identifying with and belonging to every single constituency and factional interest, Abu Mazen did so by identifying with none. Arafat immersed himself in local politics; Abu Mazen floats above it, his service being to the national movement as a whole. Abu Mazen's world is more rooted in what is familiar and recognized by most people as the order of things. His language is of the acceptable, more everyday variety, his reality far less animated by the ghosts of the past. Instead of the politics of ambiguous and creative intensity, he stands for the politics of cool and clear rationality.
Read the article here.
Escape From the Universe
Michio Kaku in Prospect:
The universe is destined to end. Before it does, could an advanced civilisation escape via a "wormhole" into a parallel universe? The idea seems like science fiction, but it is consistent with the laws of physics and biology. Here's how to do it.
Read the article here.
You Can't Ignore My Wrath
Kristen Philipkoski in Wired News:
You can try, but you can't ignore that angry voice yelling at you, or anyone else. Whether it's your dad, your girlfriend, your sister or a stranger, you must pay attention.
Human brains are just wired that way, according to a study published in the Jan. 23 issue of Nature Neuroscience. Wrathful voices trigger a strong response in the brain, even when we are trying not to pay attention or the comments are meaningless, say researchers at the University of Geneva.
Jack Shafer in Slate:
The premature triumphalism of some bloggers indicates that they haven't paid attention to how Webified journalists have become. They also ignore media history. New media technologies almost never replace old media technologies, they merely force old technologies to adapt and find new ways to connect with their audiences. Radio killed the "special edition," but newspapers survived. When television dethroned radio as the hearthside infobox and cratered the Hollywood box office, radio became a mobile medium, and Hollywood devoted itself to spectaculars that the tiny TV set couldn't adequately display. The competitive spiral has continued, with cable TV, VCRs and DVDs, satellite TV and radio broadcasters, and now Internet broadcasters entering the fray. The only extinct mass medium that I can think of is the movie house newsreel.
The Coming Wars
Seymour M. Hersh writes in the New Yorker:
George W. Bush’s reëlection was not his only victory last fall. The President and his national-security advisers have consolidated control over the military and intelligence communities’ strategic analyses and covert operations to a degree unmatched since the rise of the post-Second World War national-security state. Bush has an aggressive and ambitious agenda for using that control—against the mullahs in Iran and against targets in the ongoing war on terrorism—during his second term. The C.I.A. will continue to be downgraded, and the agency will increasingly serve, as one government consultant with close ties to the Pentagon put it, as “facilitators” of policy emanating from President Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney. This process is well under way...
In my interviews, I was repeatedly told that the next strategic target was Iran. “Everyone is saying, ‘You can’t be serious about targeting Iran. Look at Iraq,’” the former intelligence official told me. “But they say, ‘We’ve got some lessons learned—not militarily, but how we did it politically. We’re not going to rely on agency pissants.’ No loose ends, and that’s why the C.I.A. is out of there.”
Mamdouh Udwan, 1941-2004
Peter Clark in The Guardian:
Mamdouh Udwan, who has died of cancer aged 63, was one of Syria's best-known writers. He distinguished himself as poet, novelist, dramatist, critic and translator. A rebel and a champion of liberty, he was uneasily respected by the Syrian establishment.
The Incredible Inkjet
Jason Daley in Popular Science:
If you were to toast the most dazzling gadget in your home, you might compose an ode to your plasma TV, recite a limerick about your computer-controlled telescope, or maybe sing the praises of your video conferencing, nose-hair-trimming espresso maker. But the invention most deserving of your adoration, the contraption that will one day sit in the pantheon of great American machines alongside the telephone and the transistor radio, is something far more prosaic. It is the inkjet printer, and it is much more than a peripheral. Its core technology may seem simple—an array of nozzles that moves back and forth, depositing tiny droplets of ink on paper—but its breadth of uses has turned out to be nothing short of astonishing, so much so that the humble inkjet is driving innovation in disciplines from aerospace engineering to pharmacology.
How does a printer go from spitting out pictures of Uncle Bob to powering jet planes? The secret of the inkjet’s unheralded versatility lies in its print head—a silicon or composite plate a tenth of an inch wide studded with as many micro-nozzles as a manufacturer can cram onto it. The nozzles fill with ink, and either heat or an electric charge forces out uniform droplets [see “Inkjet 101,” below]. Refined over the past 20 years from heads with 12 nozzles to ones with more than 3,000, the inkjet is the first cheap, mass-produced machine to control minute pearls of fluids—it ultimately jump-started the field of microfluidics. This precise control of ever-smaller droplets (some now a small fraction the size of a pinpoint), coupled with faster printing speeds has opened up dozens of new and decidedly more glamorous applications: printing cellphones and human livers, delivering drugs more efficiently and without side effects, producing fuels without nasty by-products.
The Joy of Sexology
"Does it matter that Alfred Kinsey enjoyed his work more than he let on?" asks Christina Larson at the Washington Monthly:
In September, Fox Searchlight, a film studio known for such offbeat sleeper-hits as Thirteen and Bend It Like Beckham, arranged one of the first screenings of its upcoming movie, Kinsey, which stars a tweed-clad Liam Neeson as 1940s sex researcher Alfred Kinsey... Radio host Laura Schlessinger and Judith Reisman, author of a book titled Kinsey, Sex, and Fraud, tried to place ads in a Hollywood trade publication alleging Kinsey was a pervert and a pedophile. (Their ads were declined as obscene.) Focus on the Family and Concerned Women for America, two social conservative organizations, later bombarded newspaper film critics with mailers impugning Kinsey's character and research. When Kinsey opened to the public, the Abstinence Clearinghouse, a network for chastity educators, organized foot soldiers to picket theaters and hand out pamphlets titled “Casualties of Kinsey.” The group's director, Leslee Unruh, explained that “Kinsey should be looked upon in the history books as Hitler, as Saddam Hussein.”
Other 20th century avatars of sexual open-mindedness don't draw comparisons to perpetrators of mass genocide, including those who came earlier and yelped louder than Kinsey... Why does Kinsey hold such a distinct place in conservative crosshairs?
Righting Copyright: Fair Use and "Digital Environmentalism"
Roberst S. Boynton in Bookforum (via Arts & Letters Daily):
Who owns the words you're reading right now? if you're holding a copy of Bookforum in your hands, the law permits you to lend or sell it to whomever you like. If you're reading this article on the Internet, you are allowed to link to it, but are prohibited from duplicating it on your web site or chat room without permission. You are free to make copies of it for teaching purposes, but aren't allowed to sell those copies to your students without permission. A critic who misrepresents my ideas or uses some of my words to attack me in an article of his own is well within his rights to do so. But were I to fashion these pages into a work of collage art and sell it, my customer would be breaking the law if he altered it. Furthermore, were I to set these words to music, I'd receive royalties when it was played on the radio; the band performing it, however, would get nothing. In the end, the copyright to these words belongs to me, and I've given Bookforum the right to publish them. But even my ownership is limited. Unlike a house, which I may pass on to my heirs (and they to theirs), my copyright will expire seventy years after my death, and these words will enter the public domain, where anyone is free to use them. But those doodles you're drawing in the margins of this page? Have no fear: They belong entirely to you.
January 27, 2005
The Einstein Flip
As we all know by now, 2005 is the hundredth anniversary of Einstein's "Annus Mirabilis." Dennis Overbye writes in the New York Times:
The International Year of Physics, as the United Nations has officially designated 2005, has already had its zany moments of physics fun, with more to come. This month, Ben Wallace, 18, a professional stunt cyclist, flew off a ramp in the London Science Museum and did a back flip 12 feet in the air while folding his bicycle sideways - a maneuver designed by a Cambridge physicist who said she was inspired by a tale that the 26-year-old Einstein had invented his theory of relativity while riding a bicycle.
Never mind that there is no evidence that Einstein even had a bicycle as a young man. Never mind that the "Einstein flip" itself, as complicated and carefully plotted as it was, relies strictly on the old-fashioned laws of Isaac Newton.
If bicycle stunts aren't your cup of tea, perhaps you would take in "Constant Speed," a ballet inspired by relativity, which the Rambert Dance Company will perform in London starting May 24. Maybe you would like to download the rap song "Einstein (Not Enough Time)" by DJ Vader, adopted by Britain's Institute of Physics for an educational computer game, or the Einstein@Home screen saver, which will allow your computer to process signals from the cosmos for the twitches and vibrations of space-time known as gravitational waves.
Or maybe you would like to try the Pirelli Group's contest for the best five-minute multimedia explanation of relativity. (The prize is 25,000 euros, or about $32,500.)
Read more details of the planned celebrations here.
New York Students Dominate Intel Science Contest
Lily Koppel in the New York Times:
Students from New York State again dominated the list of 40 finalists in the Intel Science Talent Search announced yesterday.
New York had 13 finalists, followed by California, Florida, Illinois and Maryland with four each. Connecticut and New Jersey had none.
The contest, founded in 1942 and formerly known as the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, is regarded as a sort of junior Nobel Prize. Intel, the world's largest computer chip maker, became the sponsor in 1999.
A list of the finalists and descriptions of their projects can be found on the Web at www.sciserv.org/sts/64sts/finalists.asp.
Primo Levi on the Liberation of Auschwitz
"At the beginning of The Truce, Primo Levi tells of his own moment of liberation in January 1945, when the Russians - for him, 'four young soldiers on horseback' - arrived at Auschwitz:
'They did not greet us, nor did they smile; they seemed oppressed not only by compassion but by a confused restraint, which sealed their lips and bound their eyes to the funereal scene. It was that shame we knew so well, the shame that drowned us after the selections, and every time we had to watch, or submit to, some outrage: the shame the Germans did not know, that the just man experiences at another man's crime; the feeling of guilt that such a crime should exist, that it should have been introduced irrevocably into the world of things that exist, and that his will for good should have proved too weak or null, and should not have availed in defence.
So for us even the hour of liberty rang out grave and muffled, and filled our souls with joy and yet with a painful sense of pudency, so that we should have liked to wash our consciences and our memories clean from the foulness that lay upon them; and also with anguish, because we felt that this should never happen, that now nothing could ever happen good and pure enough to rub out our past, and that the scars of the outrage would remain within us forever, within the memories of those who saw it, and in the places where it occurred and in the stories that we should tell of it. Because, and this is the awful privilege of our generation and of my people, no one has ever been able to grasp better than us [translation modified here - NG] the incurable nature of the offence that spreads like a contagion. It is foolish to think that human justice can eradicate it.'"
Shazia Mirza, Muslim Comedienne
From The Telegraph:
As Britain's only Muslim woman known to be performing stand-up comedy, Mirza, 26, is becoming a favourite with comedy club promoters and radio discussion programmes.
Demand for the Birmingham-born comic is also now coming from two countries at the heart of international events: America and Pakistan.
In America, she has been asked to appear on Oprah Winfrey's television programme and take part in a benefit event to raise money for families of the victims of the World Trade Centre attack.
In Pakistan, where her parents were born, she is wanted for a one-woman show in Lahore. In another career boost, she collected a Young Achiever of the Year prize in this week's GG2 Leadership and Diversity Awards, which recognise success stories within the Asian community.
More here. Take a look at Shazia's homepage here. She is doing a show in New York City on February 15th, and in Boston on the 16th. Details about that here. Thanks to Sughra Raza for bringing this to my attention.
January 26, 2005
John Updike on Haruki Murakami's new novel
From the New Yorker:
Haruki Murakami’s new novel, “Kafka on the Shore” (translated, from the Japanese, by Philip Gabriel; Knopf; $25.95), is a real page-turner, as well as an insistently metaphysical mind-bender. Spun out to four hundred and thirty-six pages, it seems more gripping than it has a right to be and less moving, perhaps, than the author wanted it to be. Murakami, born in 1949, ran a Tokyo jazz club before he became a published writer, with the novel “Hear the Wind Sing,” in 1979. Though his work abounds with references to contemporary American culture, especially its popular music, and though he details the banal quotidian with an amiable flatness reminiscent of Western youth and minimalist fiction in the hungover nineteen-seventies, his narratives are dreamlike, closer to the viscid surrealism of Kobo Abe than to the superheated but generally solid realism of Mishima and Tanizaki. We often cannot imagine, while reading “Kafka on the Shore,” what will come next, and our suspicion—reinforced by Murakami’s comments in interviews, such as the one in last summer’s Paris Review—is that the author did not always know, either.
Animaris Rhinoceros Transport
Lakshmi Sandhana reports in Wired News:
A self-styled god, Jansen is evolving an entirely new line of animals: immense multi-legged walking critters designed to roam the Dutch coastline, feeding on gusts of wind. Over the years, successive generations of his creatures have evolved into increasingly complex animals that walk by flapping wings in response to the wind, discerning obstacles in their path through feelers and even hammering themselves into the sand on sensing an approaching storm.
A scientist-turned-artist, Jansen's bizarre beach animals have their roots in a computer program that he designed 17 years ago in which virtual four-legged creatures raced against each other to identify survivors fit enough to reproduce. Determined to translate the evolutionary process off-screen, Jansen went to a local shop and found his own alternative to the biological cell -- the humble plastic tube.
Complexity and memory
New research in complexity is offering some insights into how memory works.
"Meeting a friend you haven't seen in years brings on a sudden surge of pleasant memories. You might even call it an avalanche.
Recent studies suggest that avalanches in your brain could actually help you to store memories. Last year, scientists at the National Institutes of Health placed slices of rat brain tissue on a microelectrode array and found that the brain cells activated each other in cascades called 'neuronal avalanches.'"
50 Most Loathsome People in America, 2004
Continuing our love of lists, here's one from the brilliant Buffalo Beast. Right in the middle we find:
25. Dr. Phil
Crimes: Not a doctor. Not wise. Offers troubled souls nothing but the sweet feeling of surrendering control. Only reason for prominence is that Oprah just couldn’t support her show by herself anymore. Offers troubled simpletons meaningless slogans that resonate for a maximum of five days before they realize they already knew that shit and they still can’t stop whatever compulsive behavior got them onto his show in the first place. Is almost certainly regularly involved in some unspeakable depravity that he can’t stop and which caused him to fabricate his public persona in a frantic attempt to convince us he’s normal.
Smoking Gun: Both presidential candidates were forced to submit to his pedantic bullshit in some bizarre new soft focus emasculation ritual to get slack-jawed housewives to vote for them.
Punishment: A lifetime of guest spots on Springer.
Read the rest (some are extremely funny) here.
Architect Philip Johnson Dies at Age 98
From the Miami Herald:
Johnson's work ranged from the severe modernism of his New Canaan home, a glass cube in the woods, to the Chippendale-topped AT&T Building in New York City, now owned by Sony.
He and his partner, John Burgee, designed the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif., an ecclesiastical greenhouse that is wider and higher than Notre Dame in Paris; the RepublicBank in Houston, a 56-story tower of pink granite stepped back in a series of Dutch gable roofs; and the Cleveland Playhouse, a complex with the feel of an 11th century town.
January 25, 2005
The Pirelli Challenge to Commemorate the Centenary of the Discovery of Relativity
This year marks the centenary of four paper by Einstein that, well, transformed the world, to be cliched about it. To commemorate the anniversary, Pirelli Worldwide is sponsoring the Pirelli Relativity Challenge 2005.
"[T]he Pirelli Internetional Award launches the Pirelli Relativity Challenge. An award for the best multimedia work that explains special relativity theory to the layperson.
The philosophy of the Award is that the effective communication of science is as important as the underlying science itself. This challenge seeks to promote this philosophy by simplifying and demystifying one of science's most complex theories."
"1. Submissions must be interactive multimedia presentations -in about five minutes- of Einstein’ Special Relativity Theory (hereinafter referred to as the “Works”), for example, a .swf animation by means of Macromedia tools. The Pirelli Internetional Award Technical Committee is available for any clarification and advise.
2. Submissions must be sent by FTP or by an e-mail attachment before March 31, 2005 to the adresses the respective links.
3. The Jury will be formed by a reknown physicist, a famous scientific journalist, an unknown young student, a representative of industry, and a representative of the net economy.
4. The only award consists in a 25,000 Euro check (more than US $ 30,000), given to the winner in occasion of the Pirelli Internetional Award Ceremony, which will be held in Rome at mid 2005. . ."
Doctor Dolittle's Delusion
Elizabeth Svoboda reviews Doctor Dolittle's Delusion: Animals and the Uniqueness of Human Language by Stephen R. Anderson, in the San Francisco Chronicle:
Alex, an African Grey parrot, knows what he wants and intends to get it. "Want nut!" he squawks at his scientist owner, Irene Pepperberg. Before he can get his reward, though, he has to perform a task. "What matter?" Pepperberg asks Alex, showing him a cloth ball. "Wool," he answers correctly -- he can also identify wood, plastic, metal and paper -- then munches on his requested treat. Unlike some parrots with a vast capacity for mimicry, Alex has a "vocabulary" of only about 100 words, but he has an important cognitive advantage: He actually seems to know what he's talking about. Watching Alex and Pepperberg interact, it's easy to conclude that the parrot, like Hugh Lofting's Gub-Gub the pig or Jip the dog, has mastered the fundamentals of human language.
Not so fast, says Stephen R. Anderson, a professor of linguistics and cognitive science at Yale University.
Isaiah Berlin's Letters
Simon Schama reads Letters 1928-1946 by Isaiah Berlin, edited by Henry Hardy:
If reading this glorious collection of Berlin's letters is, predictably, a heady experience, it is also a hearty one. Not in the British sense of cheery muscularity (definitely not Berlin's thing), but in the sense that the letters reveal an intellectual sensibility in which uncompromising analytical clarity was uniquely married to an unshakable faith in the decent instincts of humanity. Abstract ideas, free-floating in their own rarefied sphere of discourse, unmoored from historical place and moment (the philosophical fashion when he arrived in Oxford in the early 1930s), became for Berlin a kind of high intellectual aesthetics. In the hands of its nimblest practitioners, such as J.L. Austin, the performance was a marvelous thing to behold, but in the end, as Berlin realized while crossing the Atlantic in the belly of a bomber in 1944, it was play, not work. It was not, at any rate, his kind of work. So while the collection is packed with letters that place Isaiah Berlin in the same rank of modern epistolary artists as Evelyn Waugh and Kenneth Tynan, and can be enjoyed as the most delicious kind of literary and intellectual confectionery, the book is best read as a Bildungsroman of the twentieth century, the strenuous journey of an exceptional mind toward its own self-realization.
More here in The New Republic.
Improving on Google
Javed Mostafa in Scientific American:
In less than a decade, Internet search engines have completely changed how people gather information. No longer must we run to a library to look up something; rather we can pull up relevant documents with just a few clicks on a keyboard. Now that "Googling" has become synonymous with doing research, online search engines are poised for a series of upgrades that promise to further enhance how we find what we need.
January 24, 2005
Empire of the Senseless
When Donald Rumsfeld turned the phrase "Old Europe" he meant a culture more than a landmass, those quaint habits and ideals of our continental brethren--respect for international law or taste for good wine--which ought to be left behind. Ours is an empire of intolerable provincialism, small minded and close fisted at once. In the latest number of the increasingly reliable New York Review of Books, Tony Judt takes stock of the kulterkampf:
Consider a mug of American coffee. It is found everywhere. It can be made by anyone. It is cheap—and refills are free. Being largely without flavor it can be diluted to taste. What it lacks in allure it makes up in size. It is the most democratic method ever devised for introducing caffeine into human beings. Now take a cup of Italian espresso. It requires expensive equipment. Price-to-volume ratio is outrageous, suggesting indifference to the consumer and ignorance of the market. The aesthetic satisfaction accessory to the beverage far outweighs its metabolic impact. It is not a drink; it is an artifact.
This contrast can stand for the differences between America and Europe —differences nowadays asserted with increased frequency and not a little acrimony on both sides of the Atlantic. The mutual criticisms are familiar. To American commentators Europe is "stagnant." Its workers, employers, and regulations lack the flexibility and adaptability of their US counterparts. The costs of European social welfare payments and public services are "unsustainable." Europe's aging and "cosseted" populations are underproductive and self-satisfied. In a globalized world, the "European social model" is a doomed mirage. This conclusion is typically drawn even by "liberal" American observers, who differ from conservative (and neoconservative) critics only in deriving no pleasure from it.
To a growing number of Europeans, however, it is America that is in trouble and the "American way of life" that cannot be sustained. The American pursuit of wealth, size, and abundance —as material surrogates for happiness —is aesthetically unpleasing and ecologically catastrophic. The American economy is built on sand (or, more precisely, other people's money). For many Americans the promise of a better future is a fading hope. Contemporary mass culture in the US is squalid and meretricious. No wonder so many Americans turn to the church for solace.
These perceptions constitute the real Atlantic gap and they suggest that something has changed. In past decades it was conventionally assumed—whether with satisfaction or regret—that Eu-rope and America were converging upon a single "Western" model of late capitalism, with the US as usual leading the way. The logic of scale and market, of efficiency and profit, would ineluctably trump local variations and inherited cultural constraints. Americanization (or globalization—the two treated as synonymous) was inevitable. The best—indeed the only—hope for local products and practices was that they would be swept up into the global vortex and repackaged as "international" commodities for universal consumption. Thus an archetypically Italian product—caffè espresso—would travel to the US, where it would metamorphose from an elite preference into a popular commodity, and then be repackaged and sold back to Europeans by an American chain store.
But something has gone wrong with this story. It is not just that Starbucks has encountered unexpected foreign resistance to double-decaf-mocha-skim-latte-with-cinnamon (except, revealingly, in the United Kingdom), or that politically motivated Europeans are abjuring high-profile American commodities. It is becoming clear that America and Europe are not way stations on a historical production line, such that Europeans must expect to inherit or replicate the American experience after an appropriate time lag. They are actually quite distinct places, very possibly moving in divergent directions. There are even those—including the authors of two of the books under review—for whom it is not Europe but rather the United States that is trapped in the past.
'Intelligent design' taught in Pennsylvania
HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania (AP) -- High school students heard about "intelligent design" for the first time Tuesday in the Pennsylvania school district that attracted national attention by requiring students to be made aware of it as an alternative to the theory of evolution.
The case represents the newest chapter in a history of evolution lawsuits dating back to the Scopes Monkey Trial in Tennessee nearly 80 years ago. In Georgia, a suburban Atlanta school district plans to challenge a federal judge's order to remove stickers in science textbooks that call evolution "a theory, not a fact."
Stephen Jay Gould is sorely missed today.
String Theory 101
Alok Jha in The Guardian:
Edward Witten is so softly spoken that his voice sometimes threatens to drift away completely. His desk is a jumble of papers and his blackboard a mess of equations. But his hushed words come straight to the point and are infused with understanding and passion.
Witten's quiet manner belies his status. In his role as de facto scientist-in-chief of string theory, Witten, the Charles Simonyi professor of mathematical physics at the Institute of Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton, is undoubtedly the heir to Albert Einstein's title of greatest living physicist. If Einstein were alive today, he would probably be a string theorist, engaged in a remarkable, but still very controversial, theory that claims to explain absolutely everything around us.
V. S. Pritchett: Wizard of the Lower Middle
Michael Gorra reviews V. S. Pritchett: A Working Life by Jeremy Treglown, in the New York Times Book Review:
"A Working Life" -- the subtitle is exact. Even in his 80's, the English writer V. S. Pritchett (1900-97) would ''go fast up the four flights of steep stairs to my study . . . every day of the week, at 9 o'clock in the morning.'' He would light his pipe, put a pastry board across the arms of his chair and begin to roll out the words of a review or a story. The hours until lunch would seem but ''a few minutes.'' There were more words before dinner, and sometimes after it too, and every now and then he would ''go on writing in my sleep, in English mostly but often, out of vanity, in Spanish.'' It was all done by hand with paper and pen, his part of it anyway. His wife, Dorothy, typed up the work of the day before, making a clean copy for him to cover with an ''ant's colony of corrections.''
The pseudo-feminist show trial of Larry Summers
William Saletan in Slate:
Larry Summers, the president of Harvard, suggested the other day that innate differences between the sexes might help explain why relatively few women become professional scientists or engineers. For this, he has been denounced—metaphorically, of course—as a Neanderthal. Alumni are withholding donations. Professors are demanding apologies. Some want him fired.
Everyone agrees Summers' remarks were impolitic. But were they wrong? Is it wrong to suggest that biological differences might cause more men than women to reach the academic elite in math and science?
less grammar, more play
Philip Pullman in The Guardian:
The report published this week by the University of York on its research into the teaching of grammar will hardly surprise anyone who has thought about the subject. The question being examined was whether instruction in grammar had any effect on pupils' writing. It included the largest systematic review yet of research on this topic; and the conclusion the authors came to was that there was no evidence at all that the teaching of grammar had any beneficial effect on the quality of writing done by pupils.
Whenever you can, count
Jim Holt writes about Extreme Measures: The Dark Visions and Bright Ideas of Francis Galton by Martin Brookes, in the New Yorker:
In the eighteen-eighties, residents of cities across Britain might have noticed an aged, bald, bewhiskered gentleman sedulously eying every girl he passed on the street while manipulating something in his pocket. What they were seeing was not lechery in action but science. Concealed in the man’s pocket was a device he called a “pricker,” which consisted of a needle mounted on a thimble and a cross-shaped piece of paper. By pricking holes in different parts of the paper, he could surreptitiously record his rating of a female passerby’s appearance, on a scale ranging from attractive to repellent. After many months of wielding his pricker and tallying the results, he drew a “beauty map” of the British Isles. London proved the epicenter of beauty, Aberdeen of its opposite.
Such research was entirely congenial to Francis Galton, a man who took as his motto “Whenever you can, count.”
January 23, 2005
What Price Relevance?
Some time ago, The Times Literary Supplement stopped taking the pulse of British intellectual life. It is testimony to their grandeur, however, that they would devote this week's cover to something so seemingly otiose as the appearance of a new edition of Henry Fielding's plays. A world that cares about such things is indeed a better world than the one we have.
Here, the rather unadorned periods of Claude Rawson:
"Henry Fielding died almost exactly a quarter of a millennium ago, on October 8, 1754. He was by then best known as one of the masters of the European novel, and as a political journalist, social thinker, and magistrate. Two decades earlier, however, he had been England’s leading playwright, producing over two dozen plays in less than ten years. His dramatic career was curtailed by the Licensing Act of 1737, which his own plays helped to provoke, and which remained in force until 1968, though latterly in the cause mainly of moral rather than political censorship. His plays are now seldom produced, but Shaw called him 'the greatest practising dramatist, with the single exception of Shakespear, produced by England between the Middle Ages and the nineteenth century', a wording which, as is sometimes remarked, left room for Shaw himself to claim the top spot."
Above all, however, it is in their style and technical organization that the novels draw most deeply on the plays. The keen sense of the well-shaped, tightly ordered narrative, with firm plot-resolution, for which Tom Jones is especially celebrated, is a remarkable application of playwriting disciplines to a work of panoramic scope and untheatrical length, and the novels show many local signs of theatrical organization: chapters or episodes framed as set pieces, analogous in shape and length to a scene in a play, comic misunderstandings, reversals and well-timed coincidences, conversations heard at cross purposes. They also show an alert ear for dialogue of a stylized and typifying kind, designed to bring out the cant of social groups or the character – revealing accents of wicked or foolish types, and showing marked traces of the dramatic genres Fielding practised: the manically aphoristic repartee of Restoration wit-comedy, the quick-time exchanges of farce, the bumptious precisions of comic opera, the stage-rustic speech of Squire Western."
The virus hunter
From New Scientist:
How do some people find what everyone else has missed? Is it hard work, instinct, luck, breaking the rules – or something extra? Albert Osterhaus isn’t sure. But he has a big reputation, with major credits for SARS, bird flu and seal distemper and his methods can be "unconventional".
Albert Osterhaus qualified as a vet, but quickly tired of neutering cats. He moved into research, and graduated from Utrecht University in 1978 with a PhD in virology. His reputation as a virus collector was founded at the Netherlands' National Institute for Public Health and Environment, where he was responsible for ensuring that vaccines produced in kidney cells of monkeys and rabbits were clear of extraneous viruses. This gave him the opportunity to work on a range of animal viruses, eventually producing ground-breaking research. Now he heads a 100-strong lab at Erasmus University,Rotterdam, owns two biotech companies, and is part of numerous global collaborations.
Read Diane Martindale's interview of Osterhaus here.
The economics of happiness
From a review of Happiness: Lessons from a New Science by Richard Layard, in The Economist:
For the past half-century, those lucky enough to have been born in a rich country have had every prospect of growing richer. On average, incomes in Britain, America and Japan, adjusted for inflation, have easily doubled over that time. On top of this come the benefits of longer lives of better quality, thanks to advances in medicine and to a plethora of consumer goodies making living easier and more enjoyable. You might, even, expect folk to be a great deal happier today than in the 1950s.
You would be wrong, according to many surveys taken in rich countries. These tend to show that, once a country has lifted itself out of poverty, further rises in income seem not to create a meaningful rise in the proportion of people who count themselves as happy. Since the 1950s, for example, the proportion of Americans who tell pollsters that they are “very happy” has stayed constant at around 30%, while the proportion who say that they are “not very happy” has barely fallen. Explaining this paradox, and offering suggestions for increasing the supply of happiness, is the aim of a new book by Richard Layard, a professor of economics at the London School of Economics and a Labour peer.
Turtles Can Fly
Marie Valla in Newsweek:
"Turtles Can Fly," the first feature film set in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein, could be Bahman Ghobadi's ticket to the Oscars. The Kurdish-Iranian director's third film bittersweetly chronicles the life of a village waiting for war to erupt. While adults watch events unfold on American cable-news channels, children try to make a few bucks collecting land mines. Their self-proclaimed leader, a boy called Satellite, falls in love with the enigmatic and ever-escaping Agrin, who flees the brutality of war with her armless brother and a blind toddler in tow. But tragedy, it turns out, isn't so easily outrun.
Read the interview here.
A Glimpse of Supersolid
Graham P. Collins in Scientific American:
Solids and liquids could hardly seem more different, one maintaining a rigid shape and the other flowing to fit the contours of whatever contains it. And of all the things that slosh and pour, superfluids seem to capture the quintessence of the liquid state--running through tiny channels with no resistance and even dribbling uphill to escape from a bowl.
A superfluid solid sounds like an oxymoron, but it is precisely what researchers at Pennsylvania State University have recently witnessed. Physicists Moses Chan and Eun-Seong Kim saw the behavior in helium 4 that was compressed into solidity and chilled to near absolute zero. Although the supersolid behavior had been suggested as a theoretical possibility as long ago as 1969, its demonstration poses deep mysteries.
Bangladesh: The Next Islamist Revolution?
"Bangladesh was supposed to be a model of democratic tolerance. But that was before militants like Bangla Bhai began their reigns of torture and the cry went up for a new Taliban."
Elizabeth Griswold in the New York Times Magazine:
Last spring, Bangla Bhai, whose followers probably number around 10,000, decided to try an Islamist revolution in several provinces of Bangladesh that border on India. His name means ''Bangladeshi brother.'' (At one point he said his real name was Azizur Rahman and more recently claimed it was Siddiqul Islam.) He has said that he acquired this nom de guerre while waging jihad in Afghanistan and that he was now going to bring about the Talibanization of his part of Bangladesh. Men were to grow beards, women to wear burkas. This was all rather new to the area, which was religiously diverse. But Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh, as Bangla Bhai's group is called (the name means Awakened Muslim Masses of Bangladesh), was determined and violent and seemed to have enough lightly armed adherents to make its rule stick.
Projekt30: Publicly juried art exhibition
This is an interesting site with a lot of visually arresting art. You may vote for or against a work of art by rating it on a scale of 1 to 5, determining whether it will be including in their February show:
There are two sections:
First, a full listing of all of the submissions we recieved is available for view to all.
Second, a randomly ordered list of all artists can be voted on for you to help determine which artists graduate to the February Exhibition, slated to open February 4, 2005.
To view all of the submissions we recieved, click "view submitted work" at left.
To jury a random ordering of all artists, click "jury the exhibition" at left.
Check it out here.
Michael Chabon on Sherlock Holmes
Michael Chabon reviews The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, Volumes 1 and 2 by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, edited with a foreword and notes by Leslie S. Klinger, and with an introduction by John le Carré, in the New York Review of Books:
One hundred and seventeen years after his first appearance in print, in the pages of Beeton's Christmas Annual for 1887, fans and nonbelievers alike seem to feel compelled to try to explain Sherlock Holmes's lasting appeal, marveling or shaking their heads at it, or both, as if the stories of the adventures with Dr. Watson were a system, like semaphore or the pneumatic post, that ought long since to have been superseded. Such explanations make the case, with varying success, for clever and competent plotting, or the bourgeois thirst for tidy adventure, or nostalgia for a vanished age (Victorian, or adolescent), or the Holmes–Watson dynamic (analyzed perhaps in terms of Jungian or queer theory), or the underlying and still-palpable gentlemanliness of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, or even, of all things, for the quality of the writing itself, so much higher than it ever needed to be. Inherent in these explanations, buried or explicit, among apologists and critics alike, is a feeling that maybe the fifty-six stories and four short novels that make up the so-called canon (so-called by Sherlockians, about whom more later) are not worthy of such enduring admiration.
January 21, 2005
Syed Ali Raza, 1913-2005
Dr. Azra Raza (3 Quarks editor and my sister) writes in Karachi's largest English language daily, Dawn:
Syed Ali Raza, a retired director of the ministry of foreign affairs and a devotee of scholarship, died peacefully in his sleep in Karachi on January 6. The youngest of four children of Syed Zamarrud Hussain (1876-1932) and Hashmi Begum (1885-1956), he was born in Bijnor, India, on November 29, 1913.
By the time Ali Raza was four year old, his father had relocated the family to Lucknow. There after began two decades of a life full of economic hardship, but also full of deep family bonding, motivated by the ideals of intellectual and personal enhancement.
Because of his level of comfort in several languages, Ali Raza also acquired a reputation for translations from Urdu, English, Persian and Arabic. One of his finest accomplishments is the direct translation of Hazrat Ali's Nahjul Balagha from Arabic into English, a publication which has undergone several printings, and remains in wide circulation not only in Pakistan, Iran and the Middle East, but is also found in libraries across Europe and America.
Other books translated from Arabic into English include Aqa-i-Syed Baqar Sadr Shaheed's Bahas Haul-ul-wilaya, Hashim Maroof Hussaini's Al Aimmatul Isna-ashr, Mohammad Jawwad Mughannia's Al-mazahibul Khamsa, Aqae Abdul Hussain Sharful Moosvi's Abu Huraira, Murtaza Askari's Muqadmate Miratul Uqool, and Aqaey Mehdi Shamsuddin's Al-zaroof-us-siyasat-us Shooratul Hussain.
The list of his translations from Urdu into English is too long, but some of his most beloved original contributions are those done at the request of his children such as a tashreeh of Josh Malihabadi's Wahdat-i-Insani and Hussain aur Inqilab and Allama Iqbal's Masjid-i-Qurtuba.
Despite the infirmities of his last two years, he was intellectually fully alert till the day he died, continuing to work several hours a day, engaged in reading, writing, editing and publishing.
Syed Ali Raza was, of course, among other things, my father.
We wish a happy birthday to Don Quixote, who turned 400 this past Sunday. It is commonly observed that, after the Bible, Cervantes's masterpiece is the world's most translated and printed book. Yet, the importance and influence of the novel can hardly be estimated by so crudely quantitative a measure. Quixote brought about a new way of representing the world. Gone is the world of the romance, with its knight errantry and haunted landscapes. In its place is the ordinary world of mere mortals, with common longings and secular destinies. Quixote understood his life as a story. We do much the same thing, but our stories are more earthbound. Such is what it means to live in modernity, thanks in no small part to Cervantes.
"At that instant, a breeze of wind springing up, the great sails began to turn; which being perceived by Don Quixote, 'Tho' you wild, said he, ' more arms than ever belonged to the giant Briareus, we will make you pay for your insolence'. So saying, and heartily recommending himself to his lady Dulcinea, whom he implored to succour him in this emergency, bracing on his target, and setting his lance in the rest, he put his Rocinante to full speed, and assaulting the nearest windmill, thrust it into one of the sails, which was driven about by the wind with so much fury, that the lance was splintered to pieces, and both knight and steed whirled aloft, and overthrown in very bad plight upon the plain."
January 20, 2005
Village doctors and Tsumani relief efforts
This piece in The New York Times details one indigenous disaster relief effort in Sri Lanka.
"While foreign aid groups are helping, officials of the World Health Organization said in interviews that much of the organizing and the real work is being done by Sri Lankans themselves. The country is not rich, but it has a well-organized public health system, and medical officers like Dr. Sameem - he is one of 214 - have been running the day-to-day business of looking after health in the camps. Many, like Dr. Sameem, are local doctors in villages and small towns who have been suddenly thrust into the forefront of coping with this disaster and warding off epidemics.
Dr. Sameem has guided foreign medical teams to the areas in his region that need help most, and talked an aid group into providing a car to get his staff to the camps. (They initially turned him down.) He has deployed nurses, midwives, doctors and health inspectors to the camps to check on sanitary conditions, spray pesticides, disinfect wells, look for signs of disease, treat the sick and report their findings to the Ministry of Health."
Pinker on Larry Summers' and the Underrepresentation of women in math and sciences
Larry Summers' suggestion that differences in apptitude between men and women could partly explain why women are underrepresented in math and sciences has predictably sparked a controversy--something that seems to happen to Summers all the time. Steven Pinker offers some thoughts on the issue here.
"First, let’s be clear what the hypothesis is . . . the statistical distributions of men’s and women’s quantitative and spatial abilities are not identical—that the average for men may be a bit higher than the average for women, and that the variance for men might be a bit higher than the variance for women (both implying that there would be a slightly higher proportion of men at the high end of the scale). It does not mean that all men are better at quantitative abilities than all women! That’s why it would be immoral and illogical to discriminate against individual women even if it were shown that some of the statistidcal differences were innate.
Second, the hypothesis is that differences in abilities might be one out of several factors that explain differences in the statistical representation of men and women in various professions. It does not mean that it is the only factor.
. . .
Look, the truth cannot be offensive. Perhaps the hypothesis is wrong, but how would we ever find out whether it is wrong if it is 'offensive' even to consider it?"
January 19, 2005
We are happy to see the publication this week of Daryl Hines' new and much anticipated verse translation of Hesiod's Works and Days (Chicago, 2005). Hesiod's erotic and mythic pastorals strike a timely balance to his more epical and well-known contemporary Homer. For an age as weary of battle as ours, Hesiod seems newly relevant. Here is the creation of Pandora, vividly rendered as a punishment to our distant patron Prometheus:
Then cloud-gathering Zeus to Prometheus said in his anger:
"Iapetus's brat, since you're so much smarter than anyone else, you're
Happy to outwit me, and rejoice in the fire you have stolen—
For yourself a calamity, also for men of the future.
For I shall give them a bad thing, too, in exchange for this fire, which
Heartily all may delight in, embracing a homegrown evil."
Speaking, the father of gods and of mankind exploded in laughter.
Then he commanded Hephaestus, the world-famed craftsman, as soon as
Possible to mix water and earth, and infuse in it human
Speech, also strength, and to make it look like a goddess, and give it
Likewise a girl-like form that was pretty and lovesome. Athena
Would instruct her in handwork and weaving of intricate fabrics;
Furthermore, gold Aphrodite should drip charm over her head to
Cause heartsore longing, emotional anguish exhausting the body.
Zeus gave instructions to Hermes, the sure guide, slayer of Argus,
To put in her the heart of a bitch and a devious nature.
Then did the famed lame god manufacture at once from the earth a
Fair simulacrum of one shy maiden, according to Zeus's will.
Next to her skin did the godlike Graces and gracious Persuasion
Carefully place gold necklaces; round her adorable head the
Hours who are gorgeously coiffed wove garlands of beautiful spring flowers.
Hermes, our sure guide, slayer of Argus, contrived in her breast
Lies and misleadingly false words joined to a devious nature,
At the behest of the deep-voiced thunderer, Zeus; and the herald
God of the gods then gave her a voice. And he called her Pandora,
Seeing how all who inhabit lofty Olympus had given
Something to pretty Pandora, that giant bane to industrious mankind.
Watching Hotel Congo in 2014?
Michael Kavanagh writes a disturbing piece some weeks ago about the crisis in Congo. It concludes:
"When will the world pay attention?" is the question the IRC poses in its report. It would be nice to answer by saying, "There's always hope." But instead I find myself thinking of a quote from Hotel Rwanda's Col. Oliver, Nick Nolte's Romeo Dallaire-inspired character. In the first weeks of the genocide, when Rusesabagina suggests that the international peacekeepers will fly into Rwanda and save them, the colonel rebukes him: "We think you're dirt," he says. "You're not even a nigger. You're an African."
This was the conclusion many Rwandans came to after 1994. Looking at the situation in eastern Congo 10 years later, there's still little to disabuse them of this notion.
The human catastrophe of Eastern Congo is, for visitors, a bundle of numbness and raw nerves. In September, at the invitation of a British think-tank, I visited the unstable region to assess the causes of ongoing violence against civilians. With close to 15,000 peacekeepers on the ground, a transitional government anticipating national elections in six months, and well-funded efforts to disarm, demobilize and reintegrate combatants into civilian life—the “DDR process”—why are civilians still being killed with such impunity? Scores of interviews with humanitarian actors, UN staff, and Congolese revealed the usual suspects: predatory governance, uncontrolled armed groups, endemic impunity, and the inaccessibility of civilian populations due to ongoing combat.
None of these factors is particularly well understood by outsiders; this opacity keeps the “heart of darkness” myth alive. For insiders, Africa remains a Dark Continent by sole virtue of its ability to generate degrees of suffering that surpass human comprehension. Unfettered anarchy it is not. Recent African crises have birthed a new truism: “If it looks like anarchy, then you don’t understand what you see.” Eastern Congo fits the adage well: “chaos” and “senseless tragedy” are the inevitable, indelible impressions etched on any visitor’s memory. But behind the barrage of extreme scarcity, mute agony, and feverish suspicion is a clear pursuit of economic interest, a highly dexterous application of disorder as political instrument.
A brief history of the memo
Like many, I'm taken by histories of things like footnotes, the number zero, small and convenient things which I largely related to functionally. In the most recent Critical Inquiry, John Guillory has a piece on the memo and its place in modernity.
"The genre of the memo has attracted little attention as an object of study, because it would seem to lack the features of what in literary theory we like to call a 'text.' Individual memos are less representative of the genre in the very proportion that they are more interesting as texts. But the ubiquity of the memo belies its triviality, and raises questions about writing in modernity that cannot be answered by asking these questions only of figures such as Joyce, Freud, Darwin, or Heisenberg. We can begin to enrich the interpretive context of the memo by referring it to the theme of bureaucracy , a subject of longstanding sociological interest. Unsurprisingly, Weber observes in his great work, Economy and Society , that 'the management of the modern office is based upon written documents ('the files'),' and that this form of writing is necessarily connected to the very idea of the office or 'bureau,' as the spatial means of organizing scribal labor.
. . .
[T]he memo emerged as a result of a new kind of managerial practice, and not as a development of rhetorical theory . On the contrary, the invention of the memo entailed a deliberate forgetting of rhetoric, an act of oblivion. The memorandum was not an evolution of the business letter but a new genre of writing. The term 'memorandum' in this new generic sense began to be used in the later 1870s and early 1880s, although it did not become common until the 1920s, by which time the form of the memo was in widespread use. ('Memo,' 497). The idea of the memorandum as a 'note to oneself' precisely captures the situation of internal communication within an organization. Hence [JoAnne] Yates speaks of the memo as constituting an 'organizational' memory."