July 31, 2005
To Put It Bluntly, What's the Point of Blogging?
'What makes what you write have anything more than passing meaning in a vast sea of blogs? Does it have any meaning if only, say, ten people read it, or twenty or a hundred? Does it have meaning if someone else links to it or comments on it?'
Excellent questions from a very sustained post by Bud Parr of litblog Chekhov's Mistress.
Labor leaders address the issues and the debate about organized labor
The departure of SEIU and The Teamsters from the AFL-CIO is perhaps the biggest change in organized labor since the merger of the AFL and the CIO. In The Nation, Janice Fine interviews six of organized labor's most prominent leaders about the fissures in the confederation and the challenges facing unions.
"[Andy] Stern [head of SEIU]: We have gone from a GM to a Wal-Mart economy. This can be slowed down, or, as we saw with the New Deal, we can organize unions and pass laws to soften the changes. There are a lot of factors we have less control of, but we have complete control over our own strategies and plans and the way we work with each other. That is where you have to start, with things that are in your control. If we want to reward work, we are going to need unions that have strategies, resources and the focus to be successful. I would say, right now we have unions that don't coordinate and cooperate and don't share a common strategy. We have a badly divided labor movement."
A review of Foucault and the Iranian Revolution
In The Nation, Johnathan Ree reviews Janet Afary and Kevin Anderson's Foucault and the Iranian Revolution.
"Foucault's experiment in political journalism earned him rebukes in the French press from the very beginning. Maxime Rodinson, a venerable Marxist scholar of Islam, informed him wearily that an Islamic government was bound to usher in some kind of 'archaic fascism.' And an exiled Iranian feminist claimed that Foucault's interest in 'political spirituality' was blinding him, like many other Westerners, to the inherent injustice of Islam, especially toward women. For the time being, Foucault refused to respond, but events seemed to be vindicating his critics. The Shah fled Iran in the early weeks of 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini returned in triumph and at the end of March an Islamic republic was ratified in a popular referendum: a classic case, it would seem, of a resurgence of reactionary authoritarian populism. Many of the possibilities that Foucault had canvassed were coming to nothing, and in April he published an open letter to the new Iranian Prime Minister, Mehdi Bazargan, expressing dismay at the abridgment of rights under the incoming 'government of mullahs.'
But while he remonstrated with his friends in Iran, Foucault never yielded an inch to his critics in Paris."
The Bacteria eaters
"Doctors don't know where to turn: More and more bacteria are resistant to antibiotics. The race for a substitute is already going full speed. Entrepreneurs are recruiting capital for research. Whoever is first to cross the finish line will take the whole pot - easily worth billions of dollars.
The development of resistance to antibiotics was first noted back in 1947, not long after they came into widespread use, and over the years the situation has persistently worsened...Only about 10 years ago, as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was learned in the West that at a research institute called Eliava in Tbilisi, Georgia, developed an antibiotic substitute back in the 1930s that proved effective in the treatment of infections. While the West was placing all its bets on antibiotics, the Soviet Union evidently already believed in bacteriophages - called "phages" for short."
Music Without Magic
From The Wislon Quarterly:
Schubert’s song may well be the most beautiful thank-you note anyone has ever written, but it’s also something else. It’s a credo, a statement of faith in the wondrous powers of music, and by its very nature an affirmation of those powers. But just how does our gracious Art exercise these powers? How does it comfort us, charm us, kindle our hearts? We might start our search for answers by positing two fundamentals: a fundamental pain and a fundamental quest. A fundamental pain of our human condition is loneliness. No surprise here: We’re born alone, we’re alone in our consciousness, we die alone, and, when loved ones die, we’re left alone. And pain itself, including physical pain, isolates us and makes us feel still more alone, completing a vicious circle. Our fundamental quest—by no means unrelated to our aloneness and our loneliness—is the quest for meaning, the quest to make sense of our time on earth, to make sense of time itself.
Where does music come in?
Defending the faith
From The Guardian:
Kamila Shamsie is enchanted by Tariq Ali's A Sultan in Palermo, a vivid, relevant and necessary tale of Islamic history. In A Sultan in Palermo, the fourth novel in Tariq Ali's Islam quintet, the 12th-century geographer al-Idrisi thinks back on his first encounter with the works of the Greek al-Homa (Homer). Al-Idrisi had been told by his father of the 12 calligraphers who transcribed Arabic translations of al-Homa's poetry, working under conditions of such secrecy that if they were even to reveal the nature of their work, "the executioner's scimitar, in a lightning flash, would detach head from body". But one of the calligraphers, undaunted, copied out parts of both al-Homa's poems and sent them to his family in Damascus, along with the information that the complete manuscripts were in secret compartments in the library of Palermo. Generations later, al-Idrisi finds himself in the library at Palermo and, of course, discovers the secret compartment.
July 30, 2005
God vs. Satan: Who's the better investor?
Daniel Gross in Slate:
The market is amoral and agnostic. It has no interest in your virtues or vices or God, except insofar as they help make money. But just as morality and faith have taken a larger role in all of American life, so are they also playing an increasingly prominent role in investing. For the secularly progressive, there are socially conscious mutual funds. Jews may be partial to Israel bonds. Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, which sounds like the setup for a Garrison Keillor one-liner, offers more than 20 mutual funds. Putting money to work in ways compatible with your overall worldview is clearly appealing to growing numbers of investors.
And this has produced a very odd market anomaly: Both virtue and vice seem to be increasingly effective investing strategies. God and Satan are both winning on Wall Street. In recent years, people who have invested in a particular brand of virtue—the Ave Maria Catholic Values Fund—and people who have invested in a particular brand of vice—the Vice Fund—have both handily beaten the market.
More here. [Thanks to Alan Koenig.]
Symbolic Logic: Easy and Fun
Most non-professional philosophers are deterred from attending lectures and reading books by academics who use symbolic logic. Some even claim it is an elitist attempt to make presentations deliberately inaccessible to the uninitiated. In any case, I believe it is worth studying and needn’t be a scary as it at first looks. I hope this ‘child’s guide’ to modern philosophical formalism will provide a bridge between these two groups of philosophers..
The two most intimidating symbols are ‘∃’, standing for ‘one’ or ‘some’ or ‘somebody’, and ‘∀’, standing for ‘all’ or ‘every’ or ‘everybody’. They were designed by the Italian mathematician and logician Giuseppe Peano (1858-1912) and they are usually combined with another letter or letters which stand for the statement of our choice
From The New York Times:
The current tendency to political polarization in news reporting is a consequence of changes not in underlying political opinions but in costs, specifically the falling costs of new entrants. The rise of the conservative Fox News Channel caused CNN to shift to the left. CNN was going to lose many of its conservative viewers to Fox anyway, so it made sense to increase its appeal to its remaining viewers by catering more assiduously to their political preferences.
So why do people consume news and opinion? In part it is to learn of facts that bear directly and immediately on their lives - hence the greater attention paid to local than to national and international news. They also want to be entertained, and they find scandals, violence, crime, the foibles of celebrities and the antics of the powerful all mightily entertaining. And they want to be confirmed in their beliefs by seeing them echoed and elaborated by more articulate, authoritative and prestigious voices. So they accept, and many relish, a partisan press. Forty-three percent of the respondents in the poll by the Annenberg Public Policy Center thought it ''a good thing if some news organizations have a decidedly political point of view in their coverage of the news.''
You are invited to the...
Come to our party tonight!
Place: Flux Factory
Date: July 30, 2005
Time: 9:15 pm
RSVP: In the comments area
Drinks/Dancing/DJ Dan Balis...
Plus, Amazing Live Music!
Sherlock Holmes and Pippi Longstocking Autistic?
Polly Morrice in the New York Times:
Some time ago, while trolling the Web, I came across a 30-year-old paper by William P. Sullivan, originally published in The Bulletin of the West Virginia Association of College English Teachers, that describes Melville's Bartleby as ''a high-functioning autistic adult.'' The notion struck me as far-fetched, but it certainly has had legs. A recent search using the words ''Bartleby'' and ''autism'' turned up, among other results, a 2004 Modern Language Association essay on the pale scrivener's ''autistic presence'' and a University of Iowa study guide that asks if Melville might have ''observed some of these attributes in himself.'' Bartleby even appears on a site listing literary figures with autistic traits -- along with Pippi Longstocking, Sherlock Holmes and several characters from ''Pride and Prejudice.''
What's behind the impulse to unearth autism in the classics?
It was written in the stars
"Biographies of Fred Hoyle from Simon Mitton and Jane Gregory tell the tale of a slighted genius, says Robin McKie."
From The Guardian:
Fred Hoyle died a wronged man. The cosmologist quit this world aged 86 in 2001, having done more than any other to explain how it came into existence. He did so by describing how the elements, the building blocks of our planet, were forged in cosmic furnaces across our galaxy.
For that feat, one of the greatest intellectual triumphs of modern physics, he was ignored by the Nobel Prize committee which chose to reward others who had done lesser work in this field. Thus, the scientific establishment, which claims to seek truth dispassionately, treated one of its finest proponents with contempt.
In China, Critics debate value of literature
From China View:
The five winners of this year's Mao Dun Literary Award were selected from some 156 titles nominated by publishing houses across the country.
According to He Shaojun, a member of both the first and second round review committees, about 1,000 full-length novels are published in China every year.
Though some of the nominated works were poorly printed, the list of nominees, published between 2001 and 2005, did not miss a title.
A total of 23 were then selected by a group of about 20 readers, most of whom are literature professors or editors of literature periodicals, after carefully reading all 156 works.
Then the review committee, consisting of another group of literary insiders, decided the final winners by voting on the 23 books.
Orphan works of Art and Literature
Scott Carlson in the Chronicle of Higher Education:
This week, at the urging of prominent legal scholars, academic-library organizations, technology companies such as Google and Microsoft, and many other interested parties, the U.S. Copyright Office is holding a series of hearings to determine whether copyright law should change to allow for more liberal use of orphan works.
Scholars and others weighed in earlier this year, filing comments on the issue with the copyright office in anticipation of the hearings. The American Historical Association, for example, noted that orphan works had become a problem for scholars, "hampering the historian's ability to work with the raw materials of history."
The comments reveal that even frequent adversaries on copyright issues agree that changes are needed in how the law governs orphan works. But few people agree on what those changes should be.
The Anti-Semitic Disease
Paul Johnson in Commentary:
The intensification of anti-Semitism in the Arab world over the last years and its reappearance in parts of Europe have occasioned a number of thoughtful reflections on the nature and consequences of this phenomenon, but also some misleading analyses based on doubtful premises. It is widely assumed, for example, that anti-Semitism is a form of racism or ethnic xenophobia. This is a legacy of the post-World War II period, when revelations about the horrifying scope of Hitler’s “final solution” caused widespread revulsion against all manifestations of group hatred. Since then, racism, in whatever guise it appears, has been identified as the evil to be fought.
But if anti-Semitism is a variety of racism, it is a most peculiar variety, with many unique characteristics. In my view as a historian, it is so peculiar that it deserves to be placed in a quite different category. I would call it an intellectual disease, a disease of the mind, extremely infectious and massively destructive. It is a disease to which both human individuals and entire human societies are prone.
July 29, 2005
Doug Harvey on UCLA's Fowler Museum of Cultural History:
The most reliable place for a fix of the unexpected, though, remains UCLA’s Fowler Museum of Cultural History, which has hosted some of my favorite shows of the last few years, including exhibits about Senegalese Sufi saint Amadou Bamba, Inuit printmaker Jessie Oonark, associative neo-pagan thought-stylist and certified madman Aby Warburg, and the deliriously postmodern hand-painted movie posters of Ghana. There were already a couple of interesting shows at the Fowler, but with the recent opening of photo-documentarian Linda Butler’s “Yangtze Remembered: The River Beneath the Lake,” I knew I had to visit — with one stop, I could rack up enough cultural antibodies to see me through a dozen shows of deliberately incompetent landscape paintings (thank you again, Laura Owens) and narcissistic Photoshop noodlings.more here.
2 Good Ones and a Bad One
Having always been strangely moved by The Scorpions' "Winds of Change," and having grouped it together in my mind with Jesus Jones' "Right Here, Right Now," I was particularly delighted by this short piece from Hua Hsu. It also touches on the amazingly awful Billy Joel song "We Didn't Start the Fire," which a late night discussion among my own friends once nominated as crappiest popular song ever.
It was impossible to misread Meine’s teleology: “The world is closing in / And did you ever think / That we could be so close, like brothers?” The previous November, the Scorpions had witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall. Now it was time for the Soviet Union to implode, the secret mission of glasnost fulfilled. To Meine and his woolly comrades, it was the natural order of things—“The wind of change blows straight / Into the face of time.” Matthias Jabs followed with a lengthy guitar solo, a more direct expression of what freedom sounded like. The future was in the air, and Meine could feel it everywhere. By sheer coincidence, the Soviet Union collapsed the very next year, in August 1991.
There are several very good articles in this special feature in Nature:
The classic image of India that most people can conjure has cows, beggars, small children and sari-clad women all jostling for space on crowded streets. That image still reflects reality — but with palpable differences.
Along some of those streets now are gleaming, modern buildings where men and women churn out medicines for poor countries. Many children are being immunized with affordable vaccines produced by India's own biotechnology industry. And if the country continues to prosper as it has for the past decade, there soon may not be many beggars left.
Since 1991, when India discarded its socialist past and instituted broad reforms, its economy has been growing rapidly. By 2032, India's economy could be larger than those of all but the United States and China, according to an estimate by the investment banking firm Goldman Sachs.
In the following pages, we look at what effect these changes have had on India's life sciences. Indian biotechnology companies have been remarkably successful, but they have made most of their money copying patented drugs. To sustain growth, they will have to become more innovative. The same is true of basic-research institutes, which have only recently begun to be globally competitive.
More here. [Thanks to Lara Inis.]
one of the most original and rigorous pieces of criticism in any medium I have encountered in quite some time
A.O. Scott in the New York Times:
"The Aristocrats" is - how shall I put it? - an essay film, a work of painstaking and penetrating scholarship, and, as such, one of the most original and rigorous pieces of criticism in any medium I have encountered in quite some time.
For those of you who have not already put down your newspaper and rushed off to buy tickets (and I hereby authorize the advertising department at ThinkFilm to plaster the previous sentence wherever it likes), perhaps I should add that "The Aristocrats" is also possibly the filthiest, vilest, most extravagantly obscene documentary ever made. Visually, it is as tame as anything on PBS or VH1's "Behind the Music," but there is scarcely a minute of screen time that does not contain a reference to scatology, incest, bestiality and practices for which no euphemisms or Latinate names have been invented.
Tiny embryos linked to giant dinosaurs
The oldest fossilized dinosaur embryos ever found reveal how the creatures grew from tiny hatchlings to become such giant land beasts. The embryos, including one that was ready to hatch before being frozen in time, had no teeth. That is further evidence that at least some dinosaurs must have tended their young, scientists said Thursday. The embryos are 190 million years old, dating from the beginning of the Jurassic Period.
Rich Little 'Poor' Kids
From The Village Voice:
In the past generation, the increasing polarization of American incomes has created a new class: the super-rich. The number of households worth over $1 million nearly doubled between the early 1980s and the late 1990s. In 2003 two economists at the Boston College Social Welfare Research Institute reconfirmed their 1999 prediction that an astonishing $41 trillion of personal wealth, including assets like real estate, will be bequeathed from one generation to the next over the next 55 years. Just as the average boomer offspring is struggling to make a living, the children of the brightest new American success stories can't be blamed for feeling a little inadequate when comparing their parents' achievements with their own.
July 28, 2005
Best of worst writing is recognized
A man who compared a woman's anatomy to a carburetor won an annual contest that celebrates the worst writing in the English language.
Dan McKay, a computer analyst at Microsoft Great Plains in Fargo, North Dakota, bested thousands of entrants from North Pole, Alaska to Manchester, England to triumph Wednesday in San Jose State University's annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.
"As he stared at her ample bosom, he daydreamed of the dual Stromberg carburetors in his vintage Triumph Spitfire," he wrote, comparing a woman's breasts to "small knurled caps of the oil dampeners."
The competition highlights literary achievements of the most dubious sort -- terrifyingly bad sentences that take their inspiration from minor writer Edward George Earl Bulwer-Lytton, whose 1830 novel "Paul Clifford" began, "It was a dark and stormy night."
More here. [Thanks to Margit Oberrauch.]
Open Source . . . Beer
"Students from the Information Technology University in Copenhagen is trying to help by releasing what they are calling the world's first open source beer recipe.
It is called Vores Oel, or Our Beer, and the recipe is proving to be a worldwide hit.
The idea behind the beer comes from open source software. This is software whose code is made publicly available for anyone to change and improve, provided that those changes and improvements are then shared in turn.
Perhaps the most well-known example of open source software is the Linux operating system.
Microsoft, on the other hand, creates proprietary software, meaning the company does not tend to let others see how its software works.
The Danish brewer Carlsberg takes a similar approach to beer.
Rasmus Nielsen, who runs a Copenhagen-based artist collective called Superflex, wanted to challenge the idea of 'proprietary' beer."
Misperceptions of the size of Minority populations
Speaking of Andrew Gelman, Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science (the blog he runs with Samantha Cook) has an intereting post and follow ups about estimations of minority populations by ordinary people.
Across the western world, the average estimates by people on the street of the size of minorities tend to be way off from the actual share of the population minorities make up. For example, when Americans are asked what percentage of the population is black, the average response is usually around 25%; the actual share of blacks and African-Americans in the population is about 12%. This tendency to overestimate the (immigrant) minority population is also found in Europe, but interestingly, the overestimate becomes larger as the size of the immigrant minority population grows smaller.
The misperceptions are clearly biased; the means of the errors of individual estimates don't equal zero.
See the posts and commenst for possible causes behind the misperception. Some possible reasons suggested by the cognitive psychologist David Budescu:
This overestimation is, probably, due to a combination of several factors: (a) different definions of the target event (the judges may generalize and assume, for example, that all the children of foreign born residents are also born abroad), (b) vividness (members of of the target population stand out -- looks, accent, language, clothing), (c) clustering (often they are concentrated in certain areas), (d) typically, these surveys don't employ incentives for truthful responding (i.e. proper scoring rules), and some people may respond "strategically" by inflating their estimates to make a political point.
In The Realm of Paranoia
'For a few days after the explosions, the atmosphere was bad on the buses. Passengers were looking into every face as they sat on a Number 30 from King’s Cross, and if the face happened to be brown, they looked to their bag or backpack. That is how fear and paranoia work: they create turbulence in your everyday passivity, and everyone was affected after the attempted bombings on 22 July in ways that won’t quickly go away. In the realm of paranoia, the second bombings were more powerful than the first, for they made it clear how very gettable we are, even in a culture of high alert.'
From the LRB's Andrew O'Hagan on the fallout from the London bombings.
Discussing What's the Matter with Kansas?
Over at Talking Points Memo, there's a discussion of Thomas Frank's What's the Matter With Kansas? Thomas Frank, the author, is participating in the debate. The blogosphere, being what it is, has been proving to be a salon, with discussion of the book and the debate at Majikthise.
Relatedly, those who are interested in the issue of why economically poorer but culturally conservative people seem to vote for the Republicans may also be interested the research of Andrew Gellman, Boris Schor, Joseph Bafumi and David Park. The paper is still being worked on, but their presentation (follow the link) from the Midwest Political Science Association Conference back in April is available. Their paper:
For decades, the Democrats have been viewed as the party of the poor with the Republicans representing the rich. In recent years, however, a reverse pattern has been seen, with Democrats showing strength in the richer "blue" states in the Northeast and West, and Republicans dominating in the "red" states in the middle of the country. Through multilevel analysis of individual-level survey data and county- and state-level demographic and electoral data, we reconcile these patterns. We find that there has indeed been a trend toward richer areas supporting the Democrats--but within states and counties, and overall, the Democrats retain the support of the poorer voters. This pattern has confused many political commentators into falsely believing that Republicans represent poorer voters than Democrats.
From Scientific American:
Antibodies, often described as magic bullets, are actually more like tanks: big, complicated and expensive. Tinier "nanobodies," derived from camels and llamas, may be able to infiltrate a wider range of diseases at lower cost. That is the hope, at least, of one small start-up in Belgium. Like many biotech companies, Ablynx emerged from the confluence of a serendipitous discovery, an open window of opportunity and an unreasonable ambition. Housed on two floors in a nondescript gray laboratory on a technology campus outside the university town of Ghent, Belgium, the three-year-old company employs just 45 people, 33 of them scientists and bioengineers. It is a minimal staff with a simply stated mission: find the tiniest sliver of protein that will do the job of a full-size antibody, then turn it into a billion-dollar medicine--or better yet, into the first of a whole new class of "nanobody" drugs against cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, perhaps even Alzheimer's disease.
GÖDEL AND THE NATURE OF MATHEMATICAL TRUTH II: A Talk with Verena Huber-Dyson
A true Realist, a true Platonist will not stoop to choose between Beauty and Truth, he will have the tenacity to stick it through until Truth is caught shining in her own Beauty. Sure there are messy proofs, we have to bushwhack trough a wilderness of ad hoc arguments, tours de force, combinatorial jungles, false starts and the temptations of definitions ever so slightly off target. Eventually, maybe not in our own lifetime, a good proof, a clear and beautiful proof will be honed out. That, I think, is the belief of the true Platonist. What Gödel and Einstein were doing when walking together over the Institute's grounds may have been just that; bush whacking, comparing mental notes and encouraging each other not to give up while getting all scratched and discouraged.
July 27, 2005
As I Lay Reading
3 Quarks Daily's own J. M. Tyree has a superb essay on Oprah's recent book club summer choice, William Faulkner, in The Nation:
While bookstores and literary supplements were studiously dumbing down their lists of summer book picks, Oprah Winfrey announced that her Book Club would be embarking on an ambitious program called "A Summer of Faulkner." Faulkner? Oprah? Really? The announcement amounted to nothing less than a sneak attack on the whole idea of beach reading--and on the intelligentsia's perception of her as the Queen of Midcult. Not that we should have been that surprised: For some time now, Oprah has been ignoring pleas for a return to contemporary fiction, instead sending the likes of Tolstoy, Steinbeck and García Márquez up the charts. Still, as a sheer challenge, Faulkner is a quantum leap up from other classics.
By proposing to read not one but three works by a dead white male whose prose laid siege to the conventions of narrative fiction, and whose furiously lyrical exploration of race and the American South still manages to unsettle readers, Oprah is taking a major gamble on her audience's attention span and political sensitivities. Once again, she has proved she is a more serious reader than many people--that is, anybody besides her millions of fans--reckoned. The woman Forbes magazine recently dubbed the most powerful celebrity in America seems intent on using some of her cultural capital for the brave if improbable purpose of a Faulkner revival--a project that reflects her belief in uplift through education.
Beards and scarves aren't Muslim. They're simply adverts for al-Qaeda
From The London Times:
Muslims everywhere need to get to grips with a phenomenon that threatens all Muslim countries and Islamic communities in the West. The first is to discard the notion that anyone who is not a Muslim is an “infidel” and thus not a proper human being. Next, it is important to reject the belief that, since the goal of converting mankind to Islam is a noble one, any means to do so are justified. Since there is no power of excommunication in Islam the terrorists cannot be formally banned from the community. But the community can distance itself from them in accordance with the Islamic principle of al-bara’a (self-exoneration). This means that a Muslim must publicly dissociate himself from acts committed by other Muslims that he regards as sinful. One way of doing this would be to organise a day of bara’a in all British mosques — and hopefully in mosques throughout the world — to declare that terrorism has no place in Islam.
Muslims could also help by stopping the use of their bodies as advertising space for al-Qaeda. Muslim women should cast aside the so-called hijab, which has nothing to do with Islam and everything to do with tribal wear on the Arabian peninsula. The hijab was reinvented in the 1970s as a symbol of militancy, and is now a visual prop of terrorism. If some women have been hoodwinked into believing that they cannot be Muslims without covering their hair, they could at least use headgears other than black (the colour of al-Qaeda) or white (the colour of the Taleban). Green headgear would be less offensive, if only because green is the colour of the House of Hashem, the family of the Prophet. (Taliban Flag shown in picture).
Mindful of Symbols
From Scientific American:
What most distinguishes humans from other creatures is our ability to create and manipulate a wide variety of symbolic representations. This capacity enables us to transmit information from one generation to another, making culture possible, and to learn vast amounts without having direct experience--we all know about dinosaurs despite never having met one. Because of the fundamental role of symbolization in almost everything we do, perhaps no aspect of human development is more important than becoming symbol-minded. The first type of symbolic object infants and young children master is pictures. No symbols seem simpler to adults, but my colleagues and I have discovered that infants initially find pictures perplexing. The problem stems from the duality inherent in all symbolic objects: they are real in and of themselves and, at the same time, representations of something else. To understand them, the viewer must achieve dual representation: he or she must mentally represent the object as well as the relation between it and what it stands for.
The coming Saudi oil shock and the world economy
John Gray reviews Twilight in the Desert: the coming Saudi oil shock and the world economy by Matthew R Simmons, in The New Statesman:
Matthew R Simmons is convinced that Saudi oil production is near its peak, or indeed may have passed it, a development with awesome implications. Simmons, a veteran oil finance insider who has been an important adviser to the Bush administration, has done a huge amount of research and bases his conclusions on carefully sifted evidence, not large theories. Yet his view is consistent with the theory of M King Hubbert, a Shell geophysicist who argued in 1956 that production rates for oil and other fossil fuels exhibit a bell curve: when roughly half the oil has been extracted, production declines. No one took much notice of Hubbert at the time, but he predicted that oil production in the continental United States would peak and start declining in the late 1960s or early 1970s - as it did. Since then a number of large oilfields have also peaked, including the North Sea in 1999. When oil peaks it does not run out - there is usually a slow decline that can be spun out by new technologies - but the unavoidable result is falling production.
Could we be near a global oil peak? Simmons believes that point may already have passed and warns that the idea that technology can arrest the decline may be a delusion. In his view, Saudi oil production has been boosted by the use of technologies which actually reduce the future supply of recoverable oil. The impli-cation is that Saudi production has peaked, and with it global oil production, at a time when demand is rising inexorably.
Did bitter tasters do better?
Ishani Ganguly in The Scientist:
An improved ability to distinguish the bitter taste of natural toxins in foods may have made a difference in the survival of early humans as they radiated out of Africa, according to a genetic analysis by researchers led by a group at University College London, appearing in the July 26 issue of Current Biology. The new study suggests that a particular allele for the G protein-coupled taste receptor TAS2R16-which mediates the response to bitter cyanogenic glycosides found in many food plants-has been favored by human evolution.
"There is a general understanding that higher primates and humans in particular are losing some of their sensory capabilities because we have replaced sensory perception with other means of protecting ourselves-cooking food, for instance, or even changing diet," said coauthor Nicole Soranzo.
However, these results suggest that there is more to the evolutionary story, said John Glendinning, of Barnard College in New York, who did not participate in the study. "This is the first study that's really looked seriously at the functional consequences of one of these [receptors] as it relates to bitter taste ecology," Glendinning told The Scientist.
A Better Pill To Swallow?
"The debut of an oral contraceptive for women helped fuel a sexual revolution in the 1960s. Will the birth of a male pill once again change our understanding of gender roles?"
Kimberly Roots in Science & Spirit:
“Historically, of course, before the advent of the pill in 1960, it had been the male responsibility to buy condoms,” says University of Chicago sociologist Edward O. Laumann, who is arguably sex researcher Alfred Kinsey’s most prominent intellectual heir. “The balance of decision-making authority over that sort of thing has shifted pretty definitively to the woman and to having control over her own body.”
We may be on the brink of another shift. Earlier this year, researchers at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and a Norwegian biotechnology company called SpermaTech announced they are close to developing a male contraceptive pill. If the project—or any of a number of other male contraceptive research efforts currently under way around the world—is successful, men may have their first real chance in forty-five years at having a voice in the reproductive rights discussion. The question is: Do they want one?
Sociologists familiar with the situation say wide acceptance of a male pill would come only after a serious overhaul of the way both women and men think about male identity.
The Eisenman Principle
David Dudley in Cornell Alumni Magazine:
If you're looking for architectural anxiety, Eisenman is your man. Since his arrival on the stage in the 1960s as one of a league of loosely affiliated American followers of Le Corbusier known as the "New York Five" (the others were Meier, Michael Graves, Charles Gwathmey, and John Hedjuk), Eisenman has been all but synonymous with a heady theory-driven audacity that tends to leave both admirers and critics baffled. He designed a deviously unlivable house based on the linguistic principles of Noam Chomsky, collaborated with Jacques Derrida in an effort to find an architectural equivalent to the French philosopher's theory of deconstruction, and generally pushed the practical envelope of what the discipline was capable of. "Peter had a lot to do with turning architecture into an intellectual pursuit," says his friend Phyllis Bronfman Lambert '48, founder of the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal. "His influence was enormous. If he hadn't come along, I don't know where we'd be."
The Drama of Iraq, While It Still Rages
Alessandra Stanley in the New York Times:
Timing is the questionable element in "Over There," Steven Bochco's 13-episode series about soldiers fighting in Iraq. It is not only the first television drama about the conflict, but also the first American television series that has tried to process a war as entertainment while it was still being fought.
School shootings, presidential scandals and even abuse of Iraqi prisoners are now routinely sifted into "Law & Order" subplots; viewers have become just as inured to the fictionalization of real life on so-called reality television. But even in our hyperaccelerated media culture, "Over There" is fast work.
And that is both troubling and comforting. "Over There," which begins tonight on FX, is a slick, compelling and very violent distillation of the latest news reports and old war movies and television shows. That alone could make it seem like a show business atrocity, a commercial abuse of a raw and unresolved national calamity.
Except that exploitation is not necessarily a bad thing.
July 26, 2005
Should Roe Go?
Katha Politt in The Nation:
Should prochoicers just give up and let Roe go? With the resignation of Sandra Day O'Connor, more people are asking that question. Democratic Party insiders quietly wonder if abandoning abortion rights would win back white Catholics and evangelicals. A chorus of pundits--among them David Brooks in the New York Times and the Washington Post's Benjamin Wittes writing in The Atlantic--argue that Roe's unforeseen consequences exact too high a price: on democracy, on public discourse, even, paradoxically, on abortion rights. By the early 1970s, this argument goes, public opinion was moving toward relaxing abortion bans legislatively--New York got rid of its ban in 1970, and one-third of states had begun to liberalize their abortion laws by 1973. By suddenly handing total victory to one side, Roe fueled a mighty backlash (and lulled prochoicers into relying on the courts instead of cultivating a popular mandate). In 1993 Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg caused a flurry when she seemed to endorse this view: Roe, she declared in a speech, had "halted a political process that was moving in a reform direction and...prolonged divisiveness and deferred stable settlement of the issue." It's not an insane idea, even if most of its proponents (a) are men; (b) think Roe went too far; and (c) want abortion off the table because they are tired of thinking about it.
Trick Allows Scrutiny of Pluto's Moon
Michael Schirber at Space.com:
Near midnight of July 11, several telescopes in Chile caught a rare and wonderful sight: the shadow of Pluto’s moon, Charon, as it passed in front of -- or occulted -- a distant star.
The observations, now being analyzed, may pin down the size of the moon and whether or not it has an atmosphere. Preliminary indications from one group seem to suggest little or no gaseous envelope.
Charon blocked the light of the relatively faint star C313.2, casting a shadow that was roughly the same size as the moon itself -- around 630 miles wide. A previous occultation by Charon of a different background star was observed in 1980, but only one telescope -- with limited precision -- managed to observe that event.
To have eight major telescopes and three separate astronomy teams recording this most recent alignment is considered very fortuitous -- especially since a year ago no one knew that this shadowy event would happen at all.
A Long Time Coming
Christopher Orr in The New Republic:
A Very Long Engagement is all that its title promises. At two and a quarter hours, it is the longest film yet by French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet; happily, it is also the most engaging, a stylish and satisfying epic of love and war, hope and memory.
After an early career of directing shorts and commercials, in 1991 Jeunet and partner Marc Caro broke into feature films with the post-apocalyptic black comedy Delicatessen. This was followed by City of Lost Children, another meticulously designed dystopian nightmare. Jeunet and Caro then went their separate ways, with Jeunet pinballing from the embarrassment of Alien: Resurrection to the redemption of Amélie. Throughout this period, it was easy to view Jeunet as essentially a technical director, a kind of Gallic Tim Burton, with a gift for visual dreamscapes but an uneven knack for storytelling. Even in Amélie, his most successful film, the breathless whimsy and directorial gimmickry that made the first hour such a delight began wearing thin well before the film was over.
Well, what is synaesthesia? Everybody knows the word ‘anesthesia’ which means no sensation.
Synaesthesia means joined sensation, where two or more of the senses are hooked together, so that my voice for example is not only something that they hear but also something that they see or taste or touch.
The most common form of synaesthesia is colored letters and numbers. That is, joining color to integers. That accounts for about two-thirds of cases. The next big group would be sight and sound synaesthesia, or what is called colored hearing. In this, voices, music, environmental sounds will make people see colored photisms—these are shapes that arise, they change and metamorphose a little bit and fade away. Think of it as a little bit like fireworks. So they have a location and space they move around. And they enjoy it very much. There is almost a eureka sensation with this. They can’t imagine what listening to music is like for the rest of us. Of how do we remember people’s names or phone numbers if there is no color there to help us?
The Science of Lance Armstrong: Born, and Built, to Win
From The National Geographic:
His oversized heart can beat over 200 times a minute and thus pump an extraordinarily large volume of blood and oxygen to his legs. His VO2 max—the maximum amount of oxygen his lungs can take in, an important measurement for an endurance athlete—is extremely high. Early in his career Armstrong showed only average muscle efficiency—the percentage of chemical energy that the muscles are able to harness to produce power. Higher muscle efficiency means greater production of power. From 1992 to 1999, the year of his first Tour de France win, Armstrong was able to increase his muscle efficiency by 8 percent through hard and dedicated training. Coyle says Armstrong is the only human who has been shown to change his muscle efficiency.
A New Face: A Bold Surgeon, an Untried Surgery
From The New York Times:
In an emergency room at a Finnish hospital, a man sprawled unconscious on an operating table as surgeons labored to reattach the hand he had lost hours earlier while chopping wood. Thirty years later, microsurgery is a commonplace marvel, and as director of plastic surgery research at the Cleveland Clinic, Dr. Maria Siemionow, 55, is a leading practitioner.
But the career that began in a Helsinki hospital has brought her, and her profession, to an extraordinary moment. A team led by Dr. Siemionow is planning to undertake what may be the most shocking medical procedure to occur in decades: a face transplant.
The World Is Round
John Gray reviews The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century by Thomas L. Friedman, in the New York Review of Books:
The centrally planned economies that were constructed to embody Marx's vision of communism have nearly all been swept away, and the mass political movements that Marxism once inspired are no more. Yet Marx's view of globalization lives on, and nowhere more vigorously than in the writings of Thomas Friedman. Like Marx, Friedman believe that globalization is in the end compatible with only one economic system; and like Marx he believes that this system enables humanity to leave war, tyranny, and poverty behind.
The arrogant adventurer
David Ewing-Duncan in The Guardian:
He became the first life form on Earth to possess this self-knowledge when in April 2002 he confirmed what many had already suspected: that the human genome sequenced by Venter's former company, Celera, largely comprised Venter's own DNA. An act of supreme ego, it flouted one of the prime directives of modern science: that a healthy ambition is fine, even desirable, but only if a person doesn't tout his own greatness and shows the proper awe and sensibility about the scientific enterprise.
No matter what people think of Craig Venter, he shook things up mightily during the race to sequence the human genome. He had, and continues to have, outrageous ideas that the scientific establishment frequently proclaims are unworkable. Yet Venter has succeeded, drawing on a potent arrogance and self-confidence that have transformed this previously obscure researcher into possibly the best-known molecular biologist in the world after Watson and Crick.
Every dictatorship is aggravated by great literature
Penar Musaraj in The Globe and Mail:
Though Ismail Kadare has been lauded for years as a leading figure in contemporary world literature, news of him winning the first ever Man Booker International Prize recently was a surprise to many in literary circles.
In a competition with a shortlist that included Margaret Atwood, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Philip Roth, Milan Kundera, Gunter Grass and John Updike, the Albanian writer was given odds of 100 to 1 by The Complete Review, a quarterly literary publication.
Kadare was stunned to find out he was the jury's choice. "I heard of [the prize] through my editor, and I told him: 'Are you sure?' . . . because I have been on the Nobel shortlist of at most three or four authors, a dozen times, but never made it through," Kadare says, adding he was getting used to being so close to the ultimate stamp of approval, the Nobel Prize for literature.
At 69, Kadare is Albania's most beloved literary export and one of the central cultural figures in the recently troubled Balkan region -- but unlike many other Eastern Europeans writing under socialist regimes, he was no dissident.
Beethoven (1.4m) beats Bono (20,000) in battle of the internet downloads
Charlotte Higgins in The Guardian:
Forget Coldplay and James Blunt. Forget even Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which, in the version performed at Live8 by Sir Paul McCartney and U2, has become the fastest online-selling song ever. Beethoven has routed the lot of them.
Final figures from the BBC show that the complete Beethoven symphonies on its website were downloaded 1.4m times, with individual works downloaded between 89,000 and 220,000 times. The works were each available for a week, in two tranches, in June.
Sgt Pepper could well end up as the best-selling online track of all time. But its sales figure of just 20,000 online in the two weeks since it has been available contrasts poorly with the admittedly free Beethoven symphonies. (Sgt Pepper cost 79p on the iTunes website.)
July 25, 2005
Blood vessel drugs halt cancer growth
From The Harvard Gazette:
Nobody believed Judah Folkman when, in the 1960s, he claimed that the growth of cancers could be stopped, even reversed, by blocking the tiny vessels that feed them blood. Over the years, however, he has survived peer rejection of his theory, and gone on to develop drugs that did what he predicted they would do. In 1998, endostatin, one of several anti-blood-vessel growth drugs developed in his lab, was hyped by the media as a "cure" for many different cancers. A scant seven years later, Fortune magazine derided it as a "failure." Both statements turn out to be high exaggerations.
A related drug, called Avastin, was approved for use in the United States in February 2004. Since then, 27 other countries have OK'd it for treating colon cancer. Avastin is also being tested on patients with kidney, breast, and ovarian cancers. In addition, another blood-vessel-growth blocker, Tarceva, has been approved for treatment of lung cancer in the United States.
Butterfly unlocks evolution secret
Given our planet's rich biodiversity, "speciation" clearly happens regularly, but scientists cannot quite pinpoint the driving forces behind it. Now, researchers studying a family of butterflies think they have witnessed a subtle process, which could be forcing a wedge between newly formed species. The team, from Harvard University, US, discovered that closely related species living in the same geographical space displayed unusually distinct wing markings.
These wing colours apparently evolved as a sort of "team strip", allowing butterflies to easily identify the species of a potential mate.
Monday Musing: Babel
Babel. Whenever I say the word it's electric. My fingers tingle. Babel goes to the very heart of things. Babel is at the center of the human experience. As Aristotle once mentioned, perceptively, human beings are the social animal. Humans, therefore, go together with cities in a rather essential way. For cities are 'socialness' mapped out, put into play, thrown down on a grid. And they are things you have to build. Humankind: the social animal, the builder.
And in every act of building there is a glimmer of hubris built in too. To build is to take up a little cry against the given, against conditions handed down, meted out, fated. Every act of building is a small fist raised up in defiance of the Gods, or Nature, or the immutable Laws.
That's precisely how the Hebrews saw it and it's why we have that remarkable passage from the Old Testament.
They said to each other, "Come, let's make bricks and bake them thoroughly." They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth."
But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building. The LORD said, "If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other."
So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel [c] —because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.
What an amazing, utterly stupendous passage. What a terrifying and beautiful idea. And in turns out, in fact, that the story is based in historical fact. There really was a Tower of Babel. It was probably Etemenanki that the Hebrews were referring to, and Etemenanki was the product of the amazing Babylonian/Assyrian empire which, itself, birthed what are almost surely the first urban landscapes human hands and minds devised. We're talking the Cradle of Civilization here. The Tigris and Euphrates. The great ur-cities like, well, Ur, Nippur, Sippar, and Babylon. The more the archeologists and historians work the more it is clear that the Near East is where it's at. Greece, Rome, Istanbul, Paris, New York. It all starts at Babel.
In order to manage things with their complex empire and international trade, the Assyrians started playing around with symbols and a few centuries later they had definitively invented writing. It all came out of cities; managing them, trading stuff with other people, fighting within and between them.
Cosmopolitanism is nothing new. It's a product of the dumb daily shit of cities. The scholar Gwendolyn Leick writes that: "The most remarkable innovation in Mesoppotamian civilization is urbanism. The idea of the city as heterogeneous, complex, messy, constantly changing but ultimately viable concept for human society was a Mesopotamian invention." Complexity emerges from cities like viral infections. Weird things, idiotic religions, Byzantine political arrangements, the polymorphous perversity of social interaction. The messy stink of the city is like a festering laboratory of human possibility.
The ancient Hebrews were enslaved at Babylon and in no great mood to sing the praises of Babel. 'Wickedness', they said, and who can blame them? But that's not the point. The point is that they got the essence of it right. To be able to make a thing like Babel was to announce a kind of arrival. It was to put the Gods on notice, even if unintentionally. It's the same thing captured so wonderfully by the Greeks in the Prometheus myth. Oh shit, realizes Zeus, give them fire and we're screwed. They won't need us anymore. We'll be written out of the cosmic loop. We're only a step or two away from the oblivion of the intermundi, complete irrelevance.
Historically, of course, the Babylonians had no such intentions. They built the tower in honor of their own gods. They were thinking of Marduk and their religious pantheon. But the Hebrews, from the outside, saw the problem more clearly, even in their disdain. They saw that the Babylonians were reaching out for something a little more than they bargained for. They were trying to achieve a sort of cosmic autonomy. As punishment, the Hebrews imagined an enormous diaspora, and profusion and multiplying of languages. A Great Babeling. And in a way, they were right about that too. A vast network of cities and civilizational overlaps and urban places with their own languages and customs and cultures now covers the earth. But its founding moment, insofar as every activity is also an idea, has a name. Babel.
Coming soon . . . an explanation of how Babel is related to my obsession with Earth and Land art. This leads to what I see as Flux Factory's (the art collective of which I'm a founding member) great future project, which will both destroy and redeem us. It will be called Babel: A Monument to Hubris.
July 24, 2005
Hilary Spurling in the New York Review of Books:
By the start of the twentieth century Matisse was well on the way to inventing a new, disturbing, and at that stage virtually incomprehensible visual language. He was a familiar figure, loping about the streets of Montparnasse in a black sheepskin coat turned wrong side out—some said it looked more like a wolfskin—clutching a roll of crazy paintings no other artist could make head or tail of. But almost from one day to the next Matisse drew back from the brink of modernity and started turning out relatively conventional figure and flower pieces. This regression took place in 1902–1903, a phase often referred to by art historians following Barr as Matisse's Dark Period. His behavior suggested on its face a character of bourgeois timidity: someone who, having stumbled on a potentially disruptive discovery, failed to follow it up because he lacked the courage of his convictions.
In fact, Matisse turned out to have been caught up without warning in a major political and financial fraud, the Humbert Affair, a scheme carried out by one of the Third Republic's best-known power couples, Frédéric and Thérèse Humbert. The affair rocked France in 1902–1903, causing a trail of bankruptcies, suicides, and bank failures, even threatening at its height to bring down the government. By the time the scandal broke in May 1902, the villains had fled, leaving as scapegoats their housekeeper and her husband, an unsuspecting couple who had for years provided the Humberts with an innocent front. Their name was Parayre, and Matisse had married their daughter. Their public exposure, followed by the arrest and trial of his father-in-law, left Matisse as the sole breadwinner for an extended family of seven. This is why he switched to painting canvases that were at least potentially saleable.
More here. [For Jack Barth.]