February 28, 2005
No Place to Hide
Telis Demos reviews No Place to Hide by Robert O'Harrow, in The New Republic:
To veteran Washington Post reporter Robert O'Harrow, September 11 was the tipping point in a battle for civil liberties. For decades, private companies and hush-hush government projects have been expanding and improving their ability to gather information about American citizens. When the planes hit the towers, the political will to use these capabilities was born, and since then a frightening new surveillance society has arisen, according to No Place to Hide. In anecdote after anecdote, O'Harrow details the incredible range and variety of information being collected, and how the FBI and other agencies have begun learning to put it to use. He explores new fingerprint and eye-scan technologies that the government can now match up to terrorist watch lists. He notes that the Department of Homeland Security has awarded record-setting contracts to private firms to analyze the disparate consumer data floating around, tag people who make suspicious purchases and travel arrangements, and create actionable police reports. O'Harrow recounts many instances where this information wasn't used against terrorists but rather in routine police investigations, for which the post-9/11 intelligence reforms were never intended.
The expensive pleasures of the ringtone
Sasha Frere-Jones in the New Yorker:
In 1997, your cell phone could make two kinds of sounds. It could “ring”—our anachronistic word for the electronic trill that phones produce when you receive a call—or it could play a single-line melody, like “Für Elise.” If you’ve ever heard a cell phone bleep out Beethoven without the harmony, you’ll understand that this wasn’t much of a choice. At about this time, Nokia, the Finnish cell-phone company, introduced “smart messaging,” a protocol that allowed people to send text messages to one another over their phones, and Vesa-Matti Paananen, a Finnish computer programmer, realized that it would work equally well for transmitting bits of songs. Paananen developed software called Harmonium that enabled people to program their cell phones to make musically complex sequences—melodies with rudimentary harmonic and rhythmic accompaniment—that they could forward to friends using smart messaging.
...ringtones generated four billion dollars in sales around the world in 2004...In 2004, the Korean ringtone market was three hundred and fifty million dollars, while the CD market for singles was just two hundred and fifty million...
London Calling, 25 years later
With London Calling, the Clash merged the arty daring and political sincerity of the '60s with the rage and trashy nihilism of the '70s. Pop music has been many things since, but it has never again been as artistically and commercially dominated by rock 'n' roll. Now that London Calling is 25 years old, an anniversary currently being celebrated with a handsome box set and a lot of reverential air guitar, the time has come to think of their record as the lads intended: as the headstone for the rock era.
Why were the Clash so well-positioned to take punk rock beyond punk rock?
Allah, the Army, and America’s War on Terror
Farah Stockman reviewed Pakistan’s Drift Into Extremism: Allah, the Army, and America’s War on Terror by Hassan Abbas, in the Boston Globe:
Perhaps the biggest secret Abbas reveals is how this array of politicians, one after the other, betrayed the secular vision of the founder of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, to seek legitimacy and popularity through religious parties.
Abbas, a former Pakistani police officer and one-time adviser to the Pakistani president, Pervez Musharraf, sheds light on mysteries that the vast majority of American readers have never wondered about: Why did Pakistan's army launch an attack on Kargil Heights, a rocky crag in Indian-held Kashmir, just as peace talks between the two nuclear powers were making progress?
Why did Pakistan shuffle around the army command at a crucial point in a war with India? Was the United States behind the coup against Bhutto? Why did the unruly militant group Muttahidah Quami Movement, or MQM, split apart in December 1991 ("They gave ideological reasons as the cause of the split," Abbas writes, "but the ISI," the Pakistani intelligence agency also known as the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, "was behind the split.")
Such insider stories have elevated this book to the bestseller list in India, where newspapers have carried some of its juiciest tales, but it's harder to find in Cambridge, where Abbas is a visiting scholar at Harvard Law School and a doctoral candidate at Tufts' Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
Manuscripts treated as fossils
From the BBC News:
John Cisne, writing in Science magazine, says manuscripts from the Middle Ages have a lot in common with animal populations.
For this reason, he claims, he can work out how many copies of a manuscript once existed and how regularly they were destroyed, simply by applying a biological model.
Historians have cautiously welcomed this rare link between the arts and sciences.
Paul Theroux recalls high times with Hunter S Thompson
From The Guardian:
America is a country that celebrates fakes and posturers, but Hunter S Thompson, who shot himself to death inside his walled compound, Owl Farm, in Colorado, on February 20, was the real thing. The genuine article, as he would have said; the real McCoy. He lived the life he wanted, as half outlaw, half hero, without any inhibition; broke the law when he felt it impinged upon him, was beholden to no one, shot holes in any fakery he found - either with a .44 Magnum or a breezy vocabulary; and he died the same way, at the moment of his choosing, probably in great pain from a variety of ailments - spinal injury, broken bones and psychic wounds. "Pain" in the metaphysical sense too.
drugs killed Hunter S Thompson's literary gifts
Neil McCormick in the Daily Telegraph:
His greatest period of creativity certainly commences with Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas, written in 1972. The Great Shark Hunt, published in 1979, contains his last work of any merit.
The 11 books Thompson published in the next 25 years were a patchwork of half-finished columns and poorly researched articles, the occasional flashes of brilliant prose serving only to illuminate his lack of coherent thought and the ever-dimming light of his genius. As he retreated from the front line of journalism, he became a freak show on the corner of American pop culture.
Cows are gay nymphomaniacs
Jonathan Leake in London's Sunday Times:
Once they were a byword for mindless docility. But cows have a secret mental life in which they bear grudges, nurture friendships and become excited over intellectual challenges, scientists have found.
Cows are also capable of feeling strong emotions such as pain, fear and even anxiety — they worry about the future. But if farmers provide the right conditions, they can also feel great happiness.
The findings have emerged from studies of farm animals that have found similar traits in pigs, goats, chickens and other livestock. They suggest that such animals may be so emotionally similar to humans that welfare laws need to be rethought.
The Age of Unreason
Will Englund in the Baltimore Sun (free registration required):
Reason has been taking a beating recently, and it's not hard to see why. If Americans are flocking to religious faith, to revealed dogma, to creationism, to a place where no one pays any heed to a logic based on if x then y, it's because reason gave us a world that hardly makes sense anymore.
Yes, I know - two centuries ago, America itself was a product of the Age of Enlightenment, and of a belief that people had it within their own power to make a better life for themselves, to throw off the shackles of superstition and build a more perfect union. And it nearly happened. Look what reason - as expressed through social, technological and scientific progress - gave birth to: the First Amendment, the Erie Canal, the cotton gin, the light bulb, the submachine gun, the income tax, the Model T Ford, the exit poll, the Edsel, the New Jersey Turnpike, the polio vaccine, the tonsillectomy, the nose job, death by lethal injection, and call waiting...
Let me ratchet this up a little. The Age of Reason may have reached its glorious acme in the late 19th century. But in some ways it started to go off the rails soon after. Reason said that humans could be bred like peas or hogs to produce a better specimen - a line of thinking that reached its logical conclusion at Auschwitz. Reason said that energy and mass are related - as the residents of Hiroshima were to learn. Reason said that history and economics were decipherable by way of the scientific method; thus Das Kapital , and thus The Gulag Archipelago.
February 27, 2005
Sabahat Ahsan, M.D., 1938-2005
The following obituary is from the Buffalo News:
Born in Muzzaffarnagar, India, she graduated from Aligarh Muslim University and Gandhi Medical College.
She emigrated to Karachi, Pakistan, in 1962 and practiced obstetrics and gynecology there and in Lahore before coming to the United States in 1971. She settled briefly in Cincinnati before coming to Buffalo in 1972. She continued to visit Pakistan annually and remained devoted to its culture.
For 23 years, she took care of indigent patients at the East Side Health Clinic in Buffalo, choosing to do that over having a private practice.
She designed her ultramodern house and much-admired garden.
A lover of the arts, Dr. Ahsan patronized many cultural institutions in Buffalo and New York City.
She was married twice - to Mohammed Kamal Pasha from 1959 to 1967 and Dr. Syed Tasnim Raza from 1971 to 1996. A son, Farooq Raza, died in 1991.
Survivors include two daughters, Samina Raza-Eglimez of Amherst and Alia Raza of New York City; a son, Asad Raza of New York City; three grandchildren; two brothers, Wahid Mohammed of Buffalo and Ahmed Mohammed of Islamabad, Pakistan; and two sisters, Wajahat Fatima and Farhat Fatima, both of Islamabad.
Obituary and death notice here.
Sabahat Ahsan was the mother of 3 Quarks Daily editor (and my nephew) S. Asad Raza. You can read a moving tribute to his mother, that Asad gave at the memorial service, here.
Christo's gates in Central Park will be taken down this weekend. Whatever one may think of them in the end, they did give us something to talk about for a while (see our earlier posts here, here, here, here, and here). Let me give the last word to Hal Foster, Townsend Martin Professor of Art at Princeton, writing in the London Review of Books:
‘The Gates’, the orange portals and banners that punctuated many of the paths in Central Park from 12 to 27 February, were greeted with great delight. People were first softened up by the numbers – 7532 portals, 5290 tons of steel, 60 miles of vinyl tubing, 116,389 miles of pleated nylon, 23 miles of trails, $21 million in costs – and then worked over by all the wacky presentations by the Bulgarian-born Christo and his French-born partner Jeanne-Claude (she of the punk-red hair). Contemporary art is big, bright, expensive and eager to please, right? So maximise these qualities, involve as many people as possible (640 paid workers to assemble the gates and 340 volunteer ‘ambassadors’ to open them), and you have a winning formula. Scale of work and size of audience will trump everything else (the hero of the piece might be the head engineer), and the piece will triumph as spectacle. If the actual location of The Gates was the park, its effective site was the global media (including the souvenir market online): that is to say, its site was everywhere.
But what if we consider the piece, perversely, in terms of the old criteria of colour and line?
More here. (Thanks to Setare Farz for bringing this article to my attention.)
In the Shiite south, Islamists and secularists struggle over Iraq’s future
George Packer in the New Yorker:
Whether the terrible violence in Iraq will grow even worse depends, in part, on the character of the country’s first democratic government. Its new leaders are already suggesting that Islam, in a rigid or sectarian cast, will not dominate Iraqi politics. This will provoke a conflict within Shiism, for Iraq has extremists of every kind, and it will not be smooth or easy, but at least it will be something other than a death struggle among Iraq’s Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds. Basra, where politics has begun to move fitfully toward a state that might someday be called normal, offers one model for a way out of the logic of civil war. “I will fight the terrorism of thoughts,” Majid al-Sary said, bringing his fist down on his desk. He was awaiting Youssef al-Emara, whose party had won the elections; they had made an appointment to continue their discussion that afternoon. “The elections showed the strength of religious ideas here. I will stay and fight those bad ideas. It’s changing from a fight against violence and explosions to a new category—thoughts.”
Interview: Breaking the barriers
Michael Bond in New Scientist:
Palestinian Moien Kanaan and Israeli Karen Avraham are on opposite sides of one of the world's most bitter conflicts, yet they are working together - under very different conditions - to uncover a genetic basis for hearing loss.
They are investigating the genes behind inherited deafness with Mary-Claire King at the University of Washington in Seattle, on a grant from the National Institutes of Health. Their collaboration is also part-funded by money from the Dan David prize, which allows a Palestinian from Bethlehem University to study in Avraham's lab in Tel Aviv.
Left at the church
Shaoni Bhattacharya in New Scientist:
Gay men employ the same strategies for navigating as women - using landmarks to find their way around - a new study suggests.
But they also use the strategies typically used by straight men, such as using compass directions and distances. In contrast, gay women read maps just like straight women, reveals the study of 80 heterosexual and homosexual men and women.
"Gay men adopt male and female strategies. Therefore their brains are a sexual mosaic," explains Qazi Rahman, a psychobiologist who led the study at the University of East London, UK.
The Lost Soldiers of Stalag IX-B
Roger Cohen in the New York Times Magazine:
On the European front in the last months of World War II, the Nazis sent 350 U.S. Army prisoners of war to work in a concentration camp in eastern Germany. First on the list were all the American Jews they could find.
Richard Dawkins Reports from the Galápagos Islands
The first of a series of three articles by Dawkins to appear in The Guardian:
I am writing this on a boat (called the Beagle, as it happens) in the Galápagos archipelago, whose most famous inhabitants are the eponymous (in Spanish) giant tortoises, and whose most famous visitor is that giant of the mind, Charles Darwin. In his account of the voyage of the original Beagle, written long before the central idea of The Origin of Species condensed out of his brain, Darwin wrote of the Galápagos Islands:
"Most of the organic productions are aboriginal creations, found nowhere else; there is even a difference between the inhabitants of the different islands; yet all show a marked relationship with those of [South] America, though separated from that continent by an open space of ocean, between 500 and 600 miles in width. The archipelago is a little world within itself ... Considering the small size of the islands, we feel the more astonished at the number of their aboriginal beings, and at their confined range ... we seem to be brought somewhat near to that great fact - that mystery of mysteries - the first appearance of new beings on this earth."
True to his pre-Darwinian education, the young Darwin was using "aboriginal creation" for what we would now call endemic species - evolved on the islands and found nowhere else. Nevertheless, Darwin already had more than a faint inkling of that great truth which, in his mighty maturity, he was to tell the world.
New Letters from Percy Bysshe Shelley, Atheist
From the BBC News:
The correspondence, written by Shelley and his friend and biographer Thomas Jefferson Hogg, was destined for a car boot sale before being identified.
The letters could fetch £30,000 when they go on sale at Christie's in June.
Shelley and Hogg were expelled from Oxford University in 1811 for writing a pamphlet about atheism.
Both men were summoned before the authorities when the article was circulated. Shelley refused to co-operate and Hogg protested.
SDSS J090745.0+24507 Leaves the Galaxy
Dennis Overbye in the New York Times:
Was it something we said?
A star has been spotted flying out of the Milky Way. And it apparently won't be back.
Astronomers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics recently clocked the star's velocity at 1.5 million miles an hour, twice as much as it needs to escape the galaxy's gravitational field, making this the first galactic runaway to be discovered.
The runaway is a blue star about three times as massive as the Sun in the constellation Hydra. It is known formally and numbingly as SDSS J090745.0+24507, based on its coordinates in the sky, but Dr. Warren Brown of the center, the leader of the team that discovered it, also refers to it simply as "the outcast."
February 26, 2005
The Strenuous Effort of Ijtihad: Who Owns Islamic Law?
David Glenn in the Chronicle of Higher Education:
...a few prominent liberal scholars are aggressively promoting a concept that they believe can nurture democracy and allow an authentic Islam to thrive in the modern world. Islam can regenerate itself, these scholars say, if it returns to the principle of ijtihad.
The Arabic term -- which literally means "strenuous effort" -- has historically referred to the practice of systematically interpreting Islamic religious texts in order to resolve difficult points of law. (In an oft-cited example, early Muslim jurists strove to interpret an ambiguously phrased Koranic verse about how long a divorced woman must wait before remarrying.) In the early centuries of Islam, ijtihad was confined to an elite set of scholars and jurists (mujtahidin) with rigorous training in the religion's texts and laws. Beginning around the 12th century, most Muslim communities restricted the practice even further: Some juridical schools declared outright that "the gates of ijtihad have been closed," while other regions limited the practice of ijtihad to questions of the family and everyday life.
Today's proponents of ijtihad take a far more expansive view. "There will be no Islamic democracy unless jurists permit the democratization of interpretation," wrote M.A. Muqtedar Khan, a professor of political science at Adrian College, in a 2003 essay. In Mr. Khan's view, political elites in the Muslim world have for centuries restricted the development of democracy and political accountability by hiding behind religious principles that they proclaim to be fixed in stone. Mr. Khan argues, in effect, for an end run around the entire traditional apparatus of Muslim jurisprudence. Believers should instead, he suggests, look directly to the Koran and to the practices of Muhammad and his companions, and use their own efforts at interpretation to build ethical communities.
A friend to some of us here at 3quarks, Tom Bissell, has garnered himself a very nice write-up indeed for his excellent new book of short stories, God Lives in St. Petersburg. Bissell co-wrote (with Jeff Alexander) what is one of the funniest and cleverest pieces in recent McSweeney's history (barring our own rather brilliant J.M.Tyree's essay about the implausability of the trash compactor in Start Wars) about Chomsky and Zinn giving their commentary to The Fellowship of the Ring. Here's a fragment:
Zinn: Of course. "The world has changed." I would argue that the main thing one learns when one watches this film is that the world hasn't changed. Not at all.
Chomsky: We should examine carefully what's being established here in the prologue. For one, the point is clearly made that the "master ring," the so-called "one ring to rule them all," is actually a rather elaborate justification for preemptive war on Mordor.
About God Lives In St. Petersburg, Pankaj Mishra writes:
"Bissell writes prose here as vivid and forceful as anything in his first book. The short story seems to be the right form for him; he artfully expresses the emotions stirred up by his own forays into the world outside America. The narrator of "Chasing the Sea" was edhy and garrulous, if always engaging. In "God Lives in St. Petersburg," Bissell reveals himself to be not only a subtle craftsman but also a mordant observer of a new generation lost in a complex world."
Understanding Pol Pot?
Could it be that because Pol Pot identified himself so thoroughly with his revolution, there was no him for us to know? Isaac Deutscher's biography of Stalin, and Alan Bullock's of Hitler, manage to ''bring alive'' tyrants whose personal lives were banal. Perhaps the problem is that Pol Pot was mediocre in almost every sphere: a failed technical student, an uninspired military leader who wasted the lives of his troops in badly planned offensives and ignored emergencies, a misguided ruler. In sum, Pol Pot would exert little claim on our attention were it not for the fact that millions died through his cruelty and incompetence. In ''Brother Number One,'' Chandler admits defeat at the outset: ''I was able to build up a consistent, but rather two-dimensional picture. . . . As a person, he defies analysis.''
Lunch with Albert
Niccolo Tucci wrote in the November 22, 1947 issue of the New Yorker about his lunch with Einstein in Princeton:
“But of course,” he replied, slightly surprised at my amazement. And so I heard, partly from him and partly from Miss Dukas, that he reads the Greeks to Maja every night for an hour or so, even if he has had a very tiring day. Empedocles, Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Thucydides receive the tribute of the most advanced and abstract modern science every night, in the calm voice of this affectionate brother who keeps his sister company.
“You know,” I said, “that is great news. Young Americans, who have an idea of the pure scientist worthy of the comics, should be told that Einstein reads the Greeks. All those who relish the idiotic and dangerous myth of the scientist as a kind of Superman, free from all bonds of responsibility, should know this and draw their conclusions from it. Many people in our day go back to the Greeks out of sheer despair. So you too, Herr Professor, have gone back to the Greeks.”
He seemed a little hurt. “But I have never gone away from them,” he said. “How can an educated person stay away from the Greeks? I have always been far more interested in them than in science.”
The End Is Near
Alex Beam in the Boston Globe:
Inventor/entrepreneur Ray Kurzweil has become the high-tech version of the cartoon character carrying the sign: "The End Is Near." With dogged consistency, the founder of eight different technology companies has been proselytizing an end-of-humantime event called the Singularity, a Buck Rogers vision of the hypothetical Christian Rapture.
Like everything, the term was first coined by mathematician John von Neumann, who spoke a half-century ago of "the ever accelerating progress of technology . . . approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race." More recently, San Diego State computer scientist Vernor Vinge has predicted that man-made "entities with greater than human intelligence" would dominate the planet.
In his forthcoming book, "The Singularity Is Near," Kurzweil calls the Singularity "the inevitable next step in the evolutionary process." Already, human activity is enhanced by technological substitutes, e.g., robotic prostheses, artificial skin, blood plasma, etc. The Singularity, which Kurzweil says will occur at mid-century, is the moment when biological material ceases to exist, and we become products of the revolution in "GNR": genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics.
Gore Vidal on James Purdy
From the New York Times Book Review:
On Purdy's latest book jackets I hail him as ''an authentic American genius''; emphasis on the two adjectives. Purdy's prose is often reminiscent of the century before last when nouns were apt to do double duty as verbs, like ''funning,'' which an editor once told Purdy was not authentic American speech even though any student of W. C. Fields's early movies knows that it is: ''I was just funning, dear,'' says Fields to the inimitable Gloria Jean. Purdy was born and raised in New England's most authentic annex, the Western Reserve, whose crown jewel is the state of Ohio, or, as Dawn Powell once sweepingly put it, ''All Americans come from Ohio originally, if only briefly.'' That was then, of course. Frontiers have since shut down, and true blue is often mistaken by twilight's last gleaming for red.
Your unconscious is making your everyday decisions
Marianne Szegedy-Maszak in U.S. News & World Report:
The snap judgment. The song that constantly runs through your head whenever you close your office door. The desire to drink Coke rather than Pepsi or to drive a Mustang rather than a Prius. The expression on your spouse's face that inexplicably makes you feel either amorous or enraged. Or how about the now incomprehensible reasons you married your spouse in the first place?
Welcome to evidence of your robust unconscious at work.
The Larry Summers Affair: Enough Already!
Michelle Cottle in The New Republic:
It's been well over a month now since Harvard's Larry Summers offered some, shall we say, controversial, theories as to the disparity in gender achievement within the upper echelons of math and science. And still the Cambridge contretemps rages, covered in excruciating detail by a salivating media. It's getting so a gal can't enjoy her morning muffin without another breathless installment in the Summers saga leaping out from the A section of The New York Times or The Washington Post: Summers apologizes for eleventh time! Harvard faculty remains offended! Remarks said to be indicative of Summers's total boorishness! Cornel West claims vindication!
Sweet Jesus, some days it's hard to believe what a pack of pathetic, self-involved losers we the media have become. Honestly. For anyone remotely interested in why much of America disdains the national media as a bunch of liberal, pointy-headed elitists out of touch with the concerns of regular folk, look no further than the bizarre media obsession with L'Affaire Larry.
Yeah, yeah. The guy is president of the most prestigious university in the country. And whatever your thoughts on "nature v. nurture," you've got to wonder what in the hell possessed Summers to plunge into this minefield, period, much less in the presence of a gaggle of academics--a famously touchy, politically correct, self-important lot. Even so, why couldn't we have simply chewed over the juicier points of this issue for, say, two or maybe even three weeks and then moved on?
I'll tell you why.
Prehistoric 'Bear-Dog' Fossil Unearthed
Scientists are marveling at a fossil find in California's San Joaquin Valley that has produced the remains of a never-before-seen badger-like creature and a monstrous predator that looks like a cross between a bear and a pit bull.
Among the discoveries was the skull of an animal that appears to be an entirely new genus within the same family as otters, skunks and weasels.
"It just blew me out of my mind," Xiaoming Wang, associate curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, said after seeing the fossil of the badger-like animal. "It looks like it was very ferocious."
If you liked the "Anti-Christo" post, you should check this out:
Gift to the City — is it Art or for the Birds? "The Crackers" is as much a public happening as it is a tasty snack, defying the domino theory. Peanut butter or cheddar cheese. They poured their hearts and souls into the project for over 26 minutes. It required three dozen crackers and spanned over nearly 23 inches along a footbridge in the park at a cost (borne exclusively by the artists) of $2.50. Is it art? You decide. The installation was completed with no permits or bureaucracy, and fed to the ducks after about a half hour. "The Crackers" is entirely for profit.
February 25, 2005
Reviews: Top Science Books of the Year
String theory, lobster sex, climate catastrophe, the beauty of life beneath the Antarctic ice: Discover digs through the great stacks of science books published in 2004 and selects 20 of the best by Josie Glausiusz:
Michio Kaku (W. W. Norton, $22.95). Seamlessly weaving together Einstein’s life and science, Kaku presents an engaging biography of the man and his theories, which were framed around questions a child might ask and duly gave rise to the great discoveries of modern physics, from gravity waves to black holes.
Edited by John Brockman (Pantheon Books, $23.95). Neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux first encountered the brain’s “soft mushy mass” while extracting bullets from cows’ brains in his father’s butcher shop. Ethnographer Sherry Turkle imagined herself at age 8 as a daring Nancy Drew on roller skates. Physicist Lee Smolin found solace from heartbreak in Einstein’s autobiographical notes. In an eclectic collection of essays, 27 scientists recall the early influences that funneled them into their careers.
Thomas Blass (Basic Books, $26). By turns both moving and chilling, Blass’s biography profiles psychologist Stanley Milgram, who conducted the notorious 1960s obedience experiments in which compliant subjects inflicted what seemed to be electric shocks on a screaming victim (in fact an actor) on orders from an authority figure.
Eric Lax (Henry Holt, $25). Alexander Fleming discovered the antibacterial qualities of what he called “mould juice,” but the paper he published in 1929 went unnoticed for nearly 10 years. Lax pays a long-overdue tribute to three scientists—Howard Florey, Ernst Chain, and Norman Heatley—who in 1940s Britain raced to create a usable drug from mold—penicillin—and produce it in quantities large enough to treat soldiers suffering from gangrene and other infected war wounds.
For a complete list, click here.
A Galaxy with No Stars
Mark Peplow in Nature:
A galaxy that is made almost entirely of dark matter has been discovered. It's the first galaxy found to have no stars at all, but it fits well with predictions made by astrophysicists about where the Universe's missing mass should be.
"We've thrown as many tests at it as we can, and it looks like a dark galaxy," says Robert Minchin from Cardiff University, UK, one of an international team of astronomers that made the find.
Dark matter betrays its presence by its gravitational pull: without dark matter to hold them together, rapidly rotating galaxies would simply fly apart. Scientists estimate that dark matter must be five times more abundant than normal matter in our Universe. It is likely to be made of relatively large subatomic particles that rarely interact with their surroundings, although these particles have never been identified.
Letter from Baghdad: Tales from a Broken Lab
Christopher Allbritton in Seed Magazine:
Dr. ’Asaam al-Raawi, a sedimentary geologist at Baghdad University, sweeps his hand across a set of dog-eared journals, the arc of his gesture revealing a bare laboratory with a few slices of rock samples strewn around, a sagging chair, a dripping sink. The room is long and narrow. There’s barely enough space for a colleague, carrying a tray of glasses filled to their chipped rims, to squeeze past al-Raawi. Returning to his meager collection of journals and books, al-Raawi gestures in frustration.
“I am a university professor,” he says. “I need books!”
We sit and sweat as he tells me what has come of his work in the closed-off laboratories and classrooms of Baghdad University. Perspiration rolls from his bald pate into his close-cropped white beard as he flicks a set of prayer beads back and forth and tells me how his life’s work has come to this.
Science Goes Tabloid
Iain Murray writes in the National Review:
In the United Kingdom, most of the respected broadsheet newspapers have cut costs and increased circulation by adding a tabloid edition. Some argue that this downsizing has led to a dumbing down of the papers' content. But, in both Britain and America, it is not just the news industry that is shifting to a more sensationalistic attitude. Some scientific journals are abandoning scientific neutrality in favor of policy stances and headline-grabbing scare stories, favoring style over substance.
Treating evolutionary psychology as a sledgehammer
Via Lindsay Beyerstein, Chris at Mixing Memory has a piece responding to another by Will Wilkinson. Wilkinson's piece for Cato tries to examine what evolutionary psychology tells us about politics and economics.
As one who is tired of the endless stream of just-so evolutionary psychology stories that pop up in popular discussions, I was pleased by Chris' rejoinder. But judge for your self.
"There is something about evolutionary psychology (EP) that makes it very attractive to non-psychologists (and to undergraduate psych majors -- you should see them rushing to register for EP courses). I've never been entirely sure what it is about EP that makes non-experts find it so fascinating, and more often than not, swallow it's claims without hesitation. Perhaps it's the simplicity and intuitiveness of many of the explanations. Cheating is bad, and harmful, therefore it is adaptive for us to have evolved a mechanism for detecting it. That's pretty simple and intuitive, right? Of course, this is one of the many reasons that most psychologists don't seem to find EP very attractive. The explanations generally rely on little more than intuition bolstered by sketchy, usually non-experimentally derived data. A careful review of the EP literature would give a scientist little confidence in its claims. However, there are plenty of non-psychologists who are happy to read some trade books on EP, and treat it as gospel. Doing so leads them to come up with all sorts of nonsensical arguments about human behavior."
A Response to Rushdie
Racial hatred is increasingly being recoded in religious terms, and frankly I don’t think it is our 'ideas' that are at issue much of the time. Committed atheists are subjected to Islamophobia along with devout believers on the basis of their Arabic names or 'middle-eastern appearance'.
Nor is religious identity simply about our 'ideas' in any abstract sense. It’s about the community to which we belong, our families, the significance of certain days, places, or events. People may associate us with a particular religion not only because of our beliefs, but also because of our names, style of dress, physical appearance, even our diet – signifiers as shallow as any racial marker. My young pink and white daughter is already highly aware of the anti-Islamic prejudice that confronts her, prejudice which has nothing to do with who she is or what she thinks. I want my daughter to be legally protected against religious hate, as I am protected against racial hate.
Moshe Dayan on Vietnam and the Implications for Iraq
Also in the Boston Review, Martin van Creveld revisits Moshe Dayan's observations on the Vietnam War, and asks what lessons it offers for Iraq.
Today comparisons between Vietnam and Iraq are fashionable. Some people emphasize the differences between the two, claiming that the former was essentially a conventional war. I disagree. Based on Dayan’s account, I would argue that the similarities are more important than the differences.
First, according to Dayan, the most significant operational problem the American forces were facing in Vietnam was lack of intelligence—the inability to distinguish the enemy from either the physical surroundings or the civilian population. . .In its absence, most of the blows they delivered—including no fewer than six million tons of bombs—missed their targets. Their only effect was to disperse the enemy into the civilian population. Worst of all, lack of accurate intelligence meant that the Americans kept hitting noncombatants by mistake. They thus drove huge segments of the population straight into the arms of the Viet Cong; nothing is more conducive to hatred than the sight of relatives and friends being killed.
. . .
The third of Dayan’s observations, and the most relevant to a comparison with the current war in Iraq, is that the Americans found themselves in the unfortunate position of beating down the weak. As Dayan wrote, 'Any comparison between the two armies was astonishing. On the one hand there was the American army, complete with helicopters, an air force, armor, electronic communications, artillery, and mind-boggling riches; to say nothing of ammunition, fuel, spare parts, and equipment of all kinds. On the other there were the [North Vietnamese troops], who had been walking on foot for four months, carrying some artillery rounds on their backs and using a tin spoon to eat a little ground rice from a tin plate.'
Eqbal Ahmad used to call describe the last lesson as "the defeat by human beings of the collective presumptions of technology", which I always found poetic. I'm not convinced of every point of the analogy, especially the last one, but it's worth considering.
'It's funny and sad and cruel and awful. It makes David Sedaris seem a little lightweight. It makes David Foster Wallace seem a little out of touch. It makes Rick Moody seem, well, unnecessarily Moody. It makes one laugh out loud while pondering the ways in which all lives, invariably, go wrong.'
A review of Huntington's Who Are We? The Challenges to America's National Identity
In the new Boston Review, a review of Samuel Huntington's latest, er, musings.
The end of the Cold War left the United States without a common enemy. Its elites have become liberal multicultural cosmopolitans. 'Overall,' Samuel Huntington tells us, 'American elites are not only less nationalistic but are also more liberal than the American public.' Indeed, only 22 percent of the American public self-identifies as liberal, whereas a whopping 91 percent of leaders of public-interest groups are liberals. True, Huntington’s statistics also show that only 14 percent of American business elites and nine percent of the military elites are liberals, but let’s not split hairs: if you add them all up, “elites” are liberal.
And there is an even more urgent cause for alarm, a more pressing challenge to America’s national identity: the current 'Hispanic' invasion.
. . .
This is because Mexican immigration is different from any other: it is more persistent, more regionally concentrated, less committed to education and more attached to its native culture and values. The net effect of these factors is disturbing: 'In the late twentieth century, developments occurred that, if continued, could change America into a cultural bifurcated Anglo-Hispanic society with two national languages.'
Liberal elitists like Bill Clinton may ask you to believe that the United States cannot break apart into two cultures, that it is and always was a nation of immigrants, a mosaic of cultures. It is no such thing.”
The Sidney Morgenbesser Memorial Fund
Given the care, comfort and creative discomfort that he gave students (this one included), this seems a fitting tribute to Sidney Morgenbesser.
The Sidney Morgenbesser Memorial Fund
In cooperation with the Columbia College Office of Development, the Philosophy Department is establishing a Fund in Sidney's honor to support scholarship students at Columbia College or, if possible, a faculty position at Columbia.
The amount required permanently to endow a scholarship fund is $50,000; additional scholarships could be funded at the same amount. Faculty positions require much more substantial amounts.
At the end of a five year period, the Department, the Development office, and Sidney's friends and family will determine whether the Fund can best be used to support student scholarships or a faculty position.
Columbia College Office of Development
475 Riverside Drive
New York, NY, 10115
February 23, 2005
A Michelin Guide to New York Hotels and Restaurants
Michelin (the restuarant guide, not the tires) is coming to New York.
"NEW YORK restaurants, already on constant lookout for the critics, both professional and amateur, now have to contend with another group of reviewers: Michelin inspectors.
For the last five months these gastronomic undercover agents have been working on the Michelin Guide to New York City, the company's first hotel and restaurant ratings outside Europe. Michelin's green sightseeing guides have covered the United States since 1968.
This evening at Gotham Hall in Midtown, Édouard Michelin, the chairman of the French tire company that bears his name, is expected to announce plans for the 2006 New York guide. The book, to go on sale Nov. 15, will rate 500 restaurants in the five boroughs and 50 Manhattan hotels."
Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate revisited
It's the 25th anniversary of Michael Cimino's Heaven Gate, the film that bankrupted United Artists (which was saved by the Bond film For Your Eyes Only). A piece in The Guardian suggests that it still evokes controversy.
[W]hen the film was first released in New York, he became a nationwide object of scorn. Vincent Canby's review in the New York Times set the tone: "Heaven's Gate fails so completely," he wrote, "that you might suspect Mr Cimino sold his soul to the Devil to obtain the success of The Deer Hunter, and the Devil has just come around to collect." Stung by the reviews, Cimino withdrew his film from circulation. He re-edited it, shortening it by 70 minutes, but it still did lousy business.
Can the elections also deliver peace in Afghanistan
Following up on yesterday's post on Ba'athist insurgents negotiating on ending the fighting, via Norman Geras comes this story of a Taleban commander (well, now former commander) trying to get remnants of the Taleban to lay down their arms in exchange for amnesty.
"[Abdul Salam, aka Mullah Rockety] is [now] a supporter of President Hamid Karzai and is tempting diehard Taliban fighters to accept an amnesty offer and reconcile themselves to Afghanistan's first directly elected leader.
'The Taliban has lost its morale,' he said, speaking by satellite phone from the heartlands of Zabul province, a Taliban redoubt.
'But you have to go and find the Taliban and call to them and ask them directly. If they believe they will be secure and safe they will come down from the mountains.'
After the Taliban's three-year struggle against a superior US force, there is growing optimism among the Americans and Afghan government that the end is close."
Nicholas Kristof has perhaps done more than any other single individual in the Western media (through his op-ed forum at the NY Times) to bring attention to what is happening in Darfur. Today he continues that crusade with four photos and another call for action.
During past genocides against Armenians, Jews and Cambodians, it was possible to claim that we didn't fully know what was going on. This time, President Bush, Congress and the European Parliament have already declared genocide to be under way. And we have photos.
This time, we have no excuse.
Bigger brains aren’t always better
"Nearly 3 million years ago, our ancestors had brains about as big as modern chimps. Since then the brain that would become human grew steadily, tripling in size. But this extra cranium capacity may not have resulted in smarter hominids.
"Archaeology has found that brain size grew gradually, but cleverness took steps," said William Calvin, a neurobiologist from the University of Washington.
The most dramatic of these steps is referred to by some as the Mind’s Big Bang. It occurred between 50,000 and 70,000 years ago. This burst of creativity resulted in bone tools, including sewing needles and throwing sticks. There was also a flourishing of portable art, such as necklaces and pendants, as well as cave paintings.
"There was nothing like this before," Calvin said here Friday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
It is hard to explain the Mind’s Big Bang with a jump in skull size, seeing as Homo sapiens with modern-sized brains had already been around for 100,000 years or more before the tool and art revolution occurred.
"The big brain was perhaps necessary for the creative explosion at 70,000 years ago, but it sure wasn’t sufficient by itself," Calvin said.
So what was a larger brain good for? What was the evolutionary advantage that propelled our family tree to make more room between the ears?
The social psychologist Robin Dunbar has even suggested that the higher memory capacity in a bigger brain could have helped early hominids identify freeloaders who were not pulling their weight for the community.
But none of these subtle advances, according to Calvin, led to the emergence of behaviorally modern humans.
"If you can’t speak sentences of more than two to three words at a time without them all blending together like a summer drink, you likely cannot think complicated thoughts either," he said.
Increasing sentence length or doing multistage planning requires an understanding of structure. Moreover, it is structural creativity that led to advances in tools and art.This structure may have developed in early human language and thought through trial and error.
"We invent new levels on the fly," Calvin said.
A lot of this invention might be nonsensical, but occasionally an innovative adult might have tried out a new word or syntax, and a child heard it and began incorporating it into his or her language.
"Then long-sentence language can spread like a contagious disease, as more kids hear structured sentences and grow up to become super adults," Calvin explained.
The incorporation of more and more complexity is attributable to a combination of culture and genes.
"Behavior invents, and then little genetic changes come along that improve it," Calvin said.
He wonders if we might be headed into a second big bang of the mind. With "better-informed education" based on empirical methods, Calvin postulated that we might see a creative flourishing in the coming century, comparable to the advances made in medicine of the past century."
Do launch the Interactive Roadmap to the Brain for fun and read more here.
February 22, 2005
On vegan and vegetarian parents
From The Guardian,
"Prof Allen conducted a study of impoverished children in Kenya, and found that adding as little as two spoonfuls of meat a day to their starch-based diets dramatically improved muscle development and mental skills.
. . .
Prof Allen was especially critical of parents who imposed a vegan lifestyle on their children, denying them milk, cheese, eggs and butter, as well as meat. 'There's absolutely no question that it's unethical for parents to bring up their children as strict vegans,' she said.
. . .
However, the British Dietetic Association said the study looked at impoverished, rural children with a poor background diet low in essential nutrients such as zinc, B12 and iron, and its findings were not applicable to vegan children in the developed world."
Now assuming this is true, why doesn't the ethical quandry hold for parents who don't force their children to exercise, etc.?
Segments of the Iraqi insurgency seem willing to negotiate
This report in Time suggests that there may be even more positive fallout from the Iraqi elections (in addition to the elections themselves).
"The secret meeting is taking place in the bowels of a facility in Baghdad, a cavernous, heavily guarded building in the U.S.-controlled green zone. The Iraqi negotiator, a middle-aged former member of Saddam Hussein's regime and the senior representative of the self-described nationalist insurgency, sits on one side of the table. He is here to talk to two members of the U.S. military. One of them, an officer, takes notes during the meeting. The other, dressed in civilian clothes, listens as the Iraqi outlines a list of demands the U.S. must satisfy before the insurgents stop fighting. . . The discussion does not go beyond generalities, but both sides know what's behind the coded language.
The Iraqi's very presence conveys a message: Members of the insurgency are open to negotiating an end to their struggle with the U.S. 'We are ready,' he says before leaving, 'to work with you.'
In that guarded pledge may lie the first sign that after nearly two years of fighting, parts of the insurgency in Iraq are prepared to talk and move toward putting away their arms--and the U.S. is willing to listen."
Star in a Jar, again a controversial claim regarding nuclear fusion
The quest for a practically limitless source of energy through fusion continues unabated even though talks between the Japanese and the European on the administrative structure, contracting and location of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project are bogged down.
"Rusi Taleyarkhan claims to have achieved it [nuclear fusion] using simple sound waves. His breakthrough is based on something called sonoluminescence. It is a process that transforms sound waves into flashes of light, focusing the sound energy into a tiny flickering hot spot inside a bubble.
It has been nicknamed 'the star in a jar' by researchers in the field.
The star in a jar effortlessly reaches temperatures of tens of thousands of degrees, which is hotter than the surface of the Sun. It was able to do all this by simply focusing the energy of the sound wave into a tiny hot spot.
. . .
But there was one major criticism of Rusi Taleyarkhan's work."
A new blog sponsored by the United Nations Foundation,
UN Dispatch is a blog intended to promote thoughtful discussion about the UN, and to provide an outlet for important news and views on the UN. It is administered by Peter Daou, author of the Daou Report, and will feature frequent posts from knowledgeable guest contributors.
Empire as Cultural Hegemony
How culturally hegemonic was the project of Empire for the British? A new book tries to answer.
"As everyone knows (everyone, at least, whose knowledge is derived from paperback history books and the BBC), Britain in the 19th and early 20th centuries was an imperial power with an imperialist culture. The British were taught imperial history at schools, they read imperial news in the newspapers, they devoured novels with imperialist themes, and so on. The upper classes were educated to run the Empire; the lower classes, to take pride in it.
There is now an entire academic industry devoted to tracing this all-pervading imperialism through every aspect of 19th-century life: masculinity, tea-drinking, zoo-keeping, you name it. So confident are modern writers in the omnipresence of imperialism that specific references to the Empire are not in fact required: thus one modern art critic has identified an imperialist theme in Constable's painting Hadleigh Castle on the grounds that the Thames Estuary (shown in the background) 'represents' British expansion into the rest of the world.
. . .
Bernard Porter, Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Newcastle, takes Seeley's remark as the starting-point for a wide-ranging investigation of what the British really thought about their Empire. And to anyone brought up on the paperback-BBC view, the evidence he has accumulated will be truly startling."
How the Ward Churchill Affair Unfolded
The self-obsession of the blogosphere is something I'm fascinated by. I watched but did not post on the Ward Churchill controversy. (What can you really say about someone who would suggest that the 9/11 victims in the World Trade Center were "little Eichmann's", except that they are insane, opportunistic, and/or morally decrepit?) I take it for granted that there are insane, opportunistic, and morally decrepit people out there who hold ridiculous views and offensive opinions and will express them. Call it a side effect of diversity and openness. But I was amazed at how the rantings of an obscure academic aimed at whatever pseudo-lefty self-righteousness crowd and made quite sometime ago became a national issue. The Chronicle has this account of the Ward Chruchill affair.
"In the Internet age, that report in the Syracuse newspaper quickly reached far beyond upstate New York. A link to the article was posted on Little Green Footballs, a widely read conservative Weblog, at 9:40 a.m. Eastern time.
Eleven minutes later a reader posted a comment, saying Mr. Churchill deserved to be shot in the face. And then just before 10 a.m., a different reader provided the professor's e-mail address. Before 11 a.m., another reader announced she had just called the Colorado governor and had written letters to The Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News. She followed up a few minutes later with contact information for the newspapers so that others could do the same.
Linking to a simple article from Syracuse had unleashed the power of hundreds of individuals, all using Google to add little bits of information. Within hours, 500 comments about the matter had been posted on Little Green Footballs alone. Readers linked to old news releases regarding squabbles between Mr. Churchill and the American Indian Movement. They linked to Hamilton news releases about alumni who were killed in the attacks. Someone requested the name of a September 11 widow from Colorado who might have political clout."
Frozen Sea under surface of Mars
'A huge, frozen sea lies just below the surface of Mars, a team of European scientists has announced. The team think a catastrophic event flooded the landscape five million years ago and then froze out. They tell a forthcoming edition of Nature magazine that sediments covered the ice, locking it in place. Large reserves of water-ice are known to be held at the poles on Mars but if this discovery is confirmed by follow-up observations, it would be a first for a region at such a low latitude.'