Saturday, April 30, 2005
The Adams family
A collection of anecdotes and memories from the life of Douglas Adams, the man behind "The Hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy", as told by his friends and colleagues including Terry Jones, Neil Gaiman, & Stephen Fry and brought together into one bitter-sweet article in FilmForce. (Via SlashDot)
"That he was born is just one of the many undeniable facts about the life of the late Douglas Adams – author, humorist, raconteur, speaker, and thinker (although it should be noted that, on at least one parallel Earth, Mr. Adams was born a spring-toed lemur with a predilection for grassy fields and the works of Byron – a poetic lemur whose work was not terribly springy).Another fact which comes to mind is that, of the seven novels he wrote in his all-too-brief lifetime, by far the most popular is The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and its four sequels – which make for a fine trilogy if you're somewhat numerically impaired"
Christopher Hitchens, Right-Wing Obscurantist
Alan Koenig in the Old Town Review Chronicles:
Back in October of 1991, a younger, more radical Christopher Hitchens wrote a superb essay entitled “A State within a State” for Harper’s magazine plumbing some of the more recent filthy deeds and unconstitutional crimes committed by the CIA. Hitchens favorably mentioned in passing the crusading work of a certain Senator John Kerry, who unearthed both financial links between corrupt Saudis, South American drug smugglers and the CIA (in the notorious Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI)) and investigated the links between narcotics and the Nicaraguan Contras. But that was a far different, much less courageous Senator Kerry from the one that ran for President this past November, and alas, we have a far different and much diminished Hitchens to contend with as well.
Sick of hearing about Harvard? So is everyone else--except Harvard-educated journalists.
Michael Steinberger in The Wall Street Journal:
Another academic year is drawing to a close, another year in which Harvard has generated vastly more headlines than any other American university. Most of these, of late, have concerned Lawrence Summers, Harvard's president, who famously suggested that there may be a biological explanation for the paucity of female scholars in the hard sciences. (He hasn't stopped apologizing since.) But a single controversy doesn't account for all the interest. Two recent books are decidedly unflattering to the school: Richard Bradley's "Harvard Rules" is, among other things, an assault on the entire three years of Mr. Summers's tenure, charging him with arrogance and bad manners, among much else. And in "Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class," Ross Douthat, class of 2002, describes his own Harvard education as a combination of vacuous classroom assignments, cruel social climbing and feverish networking.
Of course, a fervid interest in Harvard is nothing out of the ordinary: It is the country's most famous university, with a long claim on distinguished scholarship, political influence and high SAT scores. Most important, the media have long fawned over Harvard, treating its "brand" as pure gold. But while the school may have merited obsessive coverage in the past, it no longer does: Harvard is diminishing in importance as a factory for ideas and a breeding ground for future leaders. In all sorts of ways it is not nearly as pivotal to the life of the nation as it once was. You just wouldn't know that by reading the papers or browsing the bookstands.
Depression is a bona fide disease that damages body organs
From USA Today:
Against Depression, in bookstores May 9, puts this topic under the lens of cutting-edge science. [Peter] Kramer, a professor at Brown University, catalyzed a debate about antidepressants 12 years ago with his best seller Listening to Prozac.
Depression is a "nature and nurture" malady, as genes make some people vulnerable to illness under stress. Kramer explains how our bodies cope with stress and how inability to cope affects the bodies of depressed people. He scorns the ideas that mood disorders are just "a heavy dose of the artistic temperament" and that optimists are intellectual lightweights.
Kramer's key points echo "increasing evidence that depression has an impact on every body system and organ," says cardiac researcher Nancy Frasure-Smith of the Montreal Heart Institute and McGill University. "Over time, depression prematurely ages you," she says.
The Secret of Laughter: Magical Tales from Classical Persia
From The London Times:
Shusha Guppy is one of the most remarkable of Londoners, not merely trilingual in Persian, French and English, but genuinely tricultural, too. She has written brilliantly in both French and English, has made a reputation for herself as a singer and composer in the French cabaret style, and has been a tireless advocate of Sufi wisdom and Persian classical literature, in exile from a country that seems to be bent on destroying both.
This collection of traditional Persian tales contains two classics, one from Firdowsi’s Book of Kings and the other from Rumi’s Masnavi. The rest belong to the oral tradition of the naqal — the itinerant story-teller who would go from village to village, charming children and adults with tales that are rooted in the kindly morality of the Sufis, and which make abundant use of the magical devices of the Arabian Nights. Guppy heard these tales in her childhood, has carried the memory of them around the cities of Europe, telling them to children, embellishing them with details and wisdom of her own, and now writing them down in polished versions that are models of narrative clarity.
Donald C. Haggis reviews Archaeological Perspectives on Political Economies, edited by Gary M. Feinman and Linda M. Nicholas, in American Scientist:
Social scientists who study ancient societies now commonly use the term political economy to emphasize that economic systems fundamentally involve social and political relations. Even though archaeologists have long understood that the main developmental thresholds of sociopolitical complexity—such as the emergence of chiefdoms, cities and states—can be related to changes in economic behavior, we have only recently begun to grapple with the real complexities of integrated political and economic systems. The research questions emerging from the analysis of political economies are still derived from material patterns in the archaeological record: How was the agricultural landscape managed? How was food produced and redistributed? How were raw materials acquired and worked to produce goods for local use and consumption or exchange? And in what cultural context?
Amos Oz Awarded Goethe Prize
From the AFP:
Oz, a peace activist, was honoured for his literary work and impressive moral responsibility, according to Petra Roth, mayor of Frankfurt and president of the jury awarding the prize.
Dr. Amir Syed in Dawn.
Turmeric, an indispensable ingredient in spicy dishes of South Asia, has been used for generations to enhance the flavour of curries and giving them the characteristic golden colour. Besides its role as a food additive, the herb has found extensive application as an anti-inflammatory agent and as an anti-oxidative in the Ayurvedic and Unani systems of medicine. Recently, The Journal of Biological Chemistry reported some surprising findings about turmeric. Curcumin, chemically a polyphenol, is the active ingredient present in turmeric root powder which gives the herb its characteristic yellow colour. Investigators at the University of California, Los Angles, who studied curcumin’s activity in mice, found that it was highly effective against Alzheimer’s disease (AD). They were so impressed with their findings that they expect curcumin to eventually emerge as one of the most effective treatments for this devastating disease.
'The World Is Flat': The Wealth of Yet More Nations
Terrorism remains a threat, and we will all continue to be fascinated by upheavals in Lebanon, events in Iran and reforms in Egypt. But ultimately these trends are unlikely to shape the world's future. The countries of the Middle East have been losers in the age of globalization, out of step in an age of free markets, free trade and democratic politics. The world's future -- the big picture -- is more likely to be shaped by the winners of this era. And if the United States thought it was difficult to deal with the losers, the winners present an even thornier set of challenges. This is the implication of the New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman's excellent new book, ''The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century.''
Also, here's Fareed Zakaria's Martini recipe. [Thanks Sean!]
Friday, April 29, 2005
Intelligent design: Who has designs on your students' minds?
For a cold Tuesday night in March, the turnout is surprisingly good. Twenty or so fresh-faced college students are gathered together in a room in the student union at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, the state's largest public university. They are there for the first meeting of Salvador Cordova's Intelligent Design and Evolution Awareness (IDEA) club. "I have a great deal of respect for the scientific method," Cordova tells his attentive audience as he outlines the case for intelligent design. Broadly speaking, he says, the concept is that a divine hand has shaped the course of evolution. The arguments are familiar ones to both advocates and opponents of the idea: some biological systems are too complex, periodic explosions in the fossil record too large, and differences between species too great to be explained by natural selection alone. Cordova — who holds three degrees from the university, the most recent one in mathematics — argues that the development of life on Earth would be described better if an intelligent creator is added to the mix.
Most scientists overwhelmingly reject the concept of intelligent design. "To me it doesn't deserve any attention, because it doesn't make any sense," says Bruce Alberts, a microbiologist and president of the National Academy of Sciences. "Its proponents say that scientific knowledge is incomplete and that there's no way to bridge the gap except for an intelligent designer, which is sort of saying that science should stop trying to find explanations for things."
Morgan Meis forcibly ejected from Vietnam
3 Quarks Daily editor Morgan Meis went to Vietnam with his new bride Stefany Anne Golberg for their honeymoon last year. As is usual with Morgan, he took an obsessive interest in the country, its history, literature, cuisine, and, of course, its vexed relations and encounters with the United States. He travelled widely while there, and read deeply when he returned. He even did some posts at 3QD about Vietnam here, and here.
Recently, Morgan and Tom Bissell were commissioned by the Virginia Quarterly Review to travel to Vietnam to cover the celebrations marking the 30th anniversary of the reunification of North and South Vietnam (the fall of Saigon), along with a photographer. They left a week ago, and Morgan posted this at The Old Town Review Chronicles four days ago:
I spoke with the young Vietnamese about the American War. "I've heard about this war," a young woman said, "it seems like it was very terrible." "Yes," said another, "there was a documentary about it a few days ago. Those must have been difficult times."
So much for presuppositions. Perhaps the final and sweetest revenge is that they've moved on more than we have.
The next thing I heard was a hair-raising email that Stefany forwarded, in which he says:
It's a long story but we made it out of Vietnam. Because they were going to potentially detain us indefinitely and God knows what if we didn't get out right away we were forced to fly to Singapore under constant guard from the secret police. I am very mentally exhausted and was very scared for awhile. Now I'm in Singapore with no way to get home. I'm trying to figure things out from here.
I have just spoken to Stefany, and Morgan seems to be out of danger, and just trying to make his way home. We wish him a safe passage back. Here is the Monday Musing column Morgan did for 3QD just before leaving.
Ed Witten, the Filibusterer
Some have called Ed Witten the smartest man alive today. He is often compared to Einstein, and is by far the most famous string theorist around. Sean Carrol of Preposterous Universe reports (via Not Even Wrong):
Princeton professors stage "filibuster" against the anti-filibuster machinations of alumus Bill Frist. Two of the filibusterers are physicists Chiara Nappi and Ed Witten, the latter of whom regaled the crowd by reading selections from Griffith's Introduction to Elementary Particles. Couldn't he have just given an introductory lecture on twistors and string theory?
Thomas Powers reviews three recent books on the American intelligence effort, in the New York Review of Books:
"Chatter" seems too casual a word for what is arguably the most important single product of the mammoth American cyber-industrial establishment which gathers "communications intelligence." Intelligence professionals use "chatter" to describe the miscellany they acquire of the personal and operational communications of "persons of interest," another term of art meaning people who may know or be planning something the United States wants or needs to know about.
If you could teach the world just one thing...
2005 - announced as Einstein Year - marks the centenary of the publication of Albert Einstein's equation E = mc2. To mark this occasion, Sandy Starr at spiked and science communicator Alom Shaha have conducted a survey of over 250 renowned scientists, science communicators, and educators - including 11 Nobel laureates - asking what they would teach the world about science and why, if they could pick just one thing. Alom Shaha, who conceived the survey, has made four accompanying films in which interviewees talk through their responses...
Colin Berry, Paul Davies, Richard Dawkins, K Eric Drexler, Susan Haack, Matt Ridley, Simon Singh, John Stachel, John Sulston, and Raymond Tallis
The science of evacuation
Amanda Ripley in Time:
Most of the people who died on 9/11 had no choice. They were above the impact zone of the planes and could not find a way out. But investigators are only now beginning to understand the actions and psychology of the thousands who had a chance to escape. The people who made it out of the World Trade Center, for example, waited an average of 6 min. before heading downstairs, according to a new National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) study drawn from interviews with nearly 900 survivors. But the range was enormous. Why did certain people leave immediately while others lingered for as long as half an hour?
Harper Lee surfaces...
Billy Heller in the New York Post:
Lee won a Pulitzer and the book became an Oscar-winning film starring Gregory Peck as bigotry-battling lawyer Atticus Finch.
Then Lee practically disappeared. She never wrote another book, and she gave her last interview in 1964.
But like her reclusive character Boo Radley, Lee recently emerged to perform an act of kindness.
The author signed a first edition of her book that will be sold to raise money for the seriously ill son of Cookeville, Tenn., police chief Bob Terry.
Clairvoyant lunacy and obstinate romanticism
Julian Evans in Prospect Magazine:
In all the battles for the Enlightenment, one combatant's name is rarely mentioned. Don Quixote de la Mancha, icon of everything in humanity that is calamitously idealistic, is renowned for qualities other than rationalist courage: for kindness and foolishness; for unintended comedy and a refusal to be disenchanted; for clairvoyant lunacy and obstinate romanticism in a rotten, factual world. He rides out with Sancho Panza from his village in la Mancha to discover that the world is not as he has read about it in books of chivalry and, impervious to ridicule or failure, for 124 chapters seeks to live up to the pastoral ideal of the knight errant, that fiction of the good man. Only in the 126th and final chapter does he acknowledge the "absurdities and deceptions" of the books that inspired him and then, in an ending of unbearable sadness, finally renounces his world of fantasy, returns to his senses, and dies.
Thursday, April 28, 2005
The Examined Life: The Z-Team
TWO WEEKS AGO, in an item about the New York Press's roster of the "50 Most Loathsome New Yorkers," I asked readers to nominate Bostonians for a list of our own. The Top 10 "most loathsome" Bostonians, according to readers, are – in descending order – Mitt Romney ("Fake Bostonian"), Ben Affleck ("No-talent actor mooching off his Boston roots"), Cardinal Bernard Law (in absentia), Tom Finneran, John Kerry, Ted Kennedy, Tom Menino, WRKO's Howie Carr, Big Dig overseer Matthew J. Amorello, and WTKK's Mike Barnicle. These worthies are followed closely by WEEI's Gerry Callahan; Johnny Damon (as author, not athlete); William Bulger (whose brother Whitey tied for 50th place with Jay Leno and "Fever Pitch" star Jimmy Fallon – "Take off the Sox gear you phony"); Curt Schilling ("It's like the entire city of Boston can't make a decision until they get Schilling's input"); and, tied for 15th place, a lineup of grating furniture-store spokespersons: Bob of Bob's Discount Furniture, Eliot and Barry of Jordan's, and Bernie and Phyl of Bernie & Phyl's ("GO AWAY").
Turtles All The Way Down
The anonymous 3QD reader who wrote "I love you and would like your hand(s) in marriage" as a response in our reader survey, has outed herself: it is Nell Grey of Pigeon Post Pictures. Nell Grey and Walker Errant are making what seems a fascinating documentary film called Turtles All The Way Down. From their website:
One year ago, we met Richard Ogust, a writer sharing his Manhattan penthouse with 1200 threatened and endangered turtles and tortoises. He was in the middle of a swarm of media attention. CNN, CBS, NBC, the Discovery Channel and others around the world were all shining their spotlights on "the crazy turtle guy of New York City." But after the reporters left, the articles had been published and the programs had aired, Richard explained to us that the real story hadn't been told.
Turtles All The Way Down tells a story not about eccentricity, but about devotion. It is a story inspired by an appalling but little known fact: that we are on the brink of losing a group of animals that have survived the ecological instability of the last 200 million years, including the great extinction that eliminated the dinosaurs.
More on the film here. And Nell, if I weren't happily married, I would certainly have accepted your proposal.
Scientists make bacteria behave like computers
Bacteria have been programmed to behave like computers, assembling themselves into complex shapes based on instructions stuffed in to their genes. The work was led by Ron Weiss, an assistant professor of electrical engineering and molecular biology at Princeton University. The research could lead to smart biological devices that could detect hazardous substances or bioterrorism chemicals, scientists say. Eventually, the process might be used to direct the construction of useful devices or the growth of new tissue, perhaps restoring function to a severed spinal cord.
The study is detailed in April 28 issue of the journal Nature.
Sugar coating improves anticancer treatment
A coating of sugar could help nanoparticles deliver molecules to fight widespread tumours, according to research on mice. The team's nanoparticles, which contain gene-silencing molecules that can inhibit cancerous growth, are designed to be injected into the bloodstream and taken up primarily by tumour cells. The nanoparticles also manage not to create troublesome reactions from the immune system. The nanoparticles, which are small enough to pass through blood vessels into the surrounding tissue, are taken up by cancerous cells because they carry a molecular tag that binds to receptors found on tumours. The agent consists of small interfering RNA (siRNA). When the agent is taken up by a tumor cell, it inhibits expression of the tumour-growth gene, and the cell stops multiplying. Other attempts to carry siRNA to tumours have used nanoparticles made of lipids. But in some mouse studies, these particles provoked an immune response, which would make the approach difficult to use in humans.
Harlem Open Artist Studio Tour
Zeina Nadine Assaf is a very talented young NYC artist. She wrote to tell me about H.O.A.S.T., which she is taking part in this weekend. Do try to make it there:
The Harlem Open Artist Studio Tour (H.O.A.S.T.) is a community-based arts organization that was established in 2004. Our mission is to foster artistic expression by uniting and promoting the visual artists of Harlem and to strengthen the community by stimulating awareness of the contemporary arts movement.
Our first project is the 1st Annual Harlem Open Artist Studio Tour – a two-day event that will accomplish our objectives by bringing the public into visual artists’ studios in historic Harlem on 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., Saturday, April 30 and 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m., Sunday, May 1, 2005. This event stands as a tribute to the art and culture that flourish in Harlem today.
Saturday, April 30, from 11:30 - 4pm, and Sunday, May 1, from 1-5pm
At La Negrita, 999 Columbus Avenue, at the Northeast corner of 109th Street
Alessandro Petty writes for Domus Magazine (subscription needed) about Cairo's growing cemetery population, only he is talking about living people:
"Contrary to modern urban-planning principles, the dictates of Islam, public hygiene rules and social conventions, people continue to live in Cairo’s cemeteries. This is a practice rooted in the funeral ceremonies of the Pharaohs and the religious beliefs of the Copts. The cemetery is a place of contemplation for the Sufis, a place of exile for impoverished nobles, a caravansary for pilgrims on route to Mecca and first homes for families newly arrived in the city from the countryside. "
The Seeds of Civilization
Michael Balter in Smithsonian Magazine:
Archaeologists believe a 9,500-year-old Neolithic site in central Turkey may help solve the mystery of why humans first settled down in communities.
Gene mutation slashes need for sleep
Alison Motluk in New Scientist:
Some mutant flies can get by on 30% less sleep than their normal counterparts, thanks to a single mutation in one gene.
The finding is important because it suggests the amount of sleep needed may be largely controlled by one gene, which may shed light on human sleep needs, says Chiara Cirelli at the University of Wisconsin, US. “This isn’t some obscure fly gene - there’s a homologue in mammals and humans.”