Saturday, December 31, 2005
When Darwin Meets Dickens
Nick Gillespie in TCS Daily:
One of the subtexts of this year's Modern Language Association conference -- and, truth be told, of most contemporary discussions of literary and cultural studies -- is the sense that lit-crit is in a prolonged lull. There's no question that a huge amount of interesting work is being done -- scholars of 17th-century British and Colonial American literature, for instance, are bringing to light all sorts of manuscripts and movements that are quietly revising our understanding of liberal political theory and gender roles -- and that certain fields -- postcolonial studies, say, and composition and rhetoric -- are hotter than others. But it's been years -- decades even -- since a major new way of thinking about literature has really taken the academic world by storm.
Learning from ants
One evening, while contemplating on the subject of my future article, I was rather amazed to see a cake crumb moving shakily across the floor. As I focused my eyes to get a better look at the object in question, I saw two tiny ants struggling with the crumb — which in ratio to their own size would make it equivalent to a heavy boulder being lifted by two children. It seems that these amazing insects have all the virtues that are needed by any society to function effectively.
* Ants can carry up to 10–20 times their body weight working in teams to move very heavy objects.
* Their brains are amongst the largest of the insect kingdom and it has been estimated that their brains may have the same processing power as a Macintosh II computer.
* The combined weight of ants is greater then the combined weight of all humans.
* Ants have specific duties and division of labour is the key to their successful society.
* When the situation calls for it, ants can easily adapt to a new skill or job.
* They take great care of their young and feed and teach them their skills.
* The tiny creatures are capable of organizing and executing massive group projects where they raise an army of specialized soldier ants that defend the nest.
* Ants build nests which are highly complex structures that are built in the dark and construct two tunnels from different directions that meet exactly halfway. They also build water traps to keep out the rain water.
Following are literary biographies reviewed by The New York Times Book Review since Dec. 31, 2000.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius
By LEO DAMROSCH
In this fine new biography, Leo Damrosch restores Rousseau to us in all his originality.
The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life
By TOM REISS
Tom Reiss explains how a not-so-nice Russian Jewish boy became a dagger-wielding Muslim writer.
Richard Wright: The Life and Times
By HAZEL ROWLEY
Hazel Rowley's biography of Richard Wright documents his early success and growing disaffection.
3 Quarks Daily's Best Original Essays of 2005
Okay, this is our last list for a while. Promise. As regular readers of 3QD know, in April of 2005 we started featuring original writing by our editors and guest columnists on Mondays (as opposed to links to articles elsewhere, which is what we do the rest of the week). This has turned out to be a popular idea, and we now get more traffic on Mondays than any other day of the week. In a somewhat immodest mood, and in an attempt to honor all our very talented writers, Robin and I have decided to pick the best of the Monday columns from each author this year. To avoid further charges of immodesty (or false modesty!), I have chosen one of Robin's columns, and he has chosen one of mine. Without further ado then, here they are, in alphabetical order by last name of the author (link to essay follows picture):
1. Real Sweat Shops, Virtual Gold, by Descha Daemgen
2. Down the Rabbit Hole, by Timothy Don
3. Bathroom Pastoralism, or, The Anecdote of the Can, by Tom Jacobs
4. Bite Your Tongue, Movies Turn Dumb, by Jaffer Kolb
5. Summer Lyrics, by Morgan Meis
6. Gangbanging and Notions of the Self, by Husain Naqvi
7. Benjamin Britten, by Peter Nicholson
8. Rage, by Jedediah Palmer
9. Betting on Uncertainty, by Abhay Parekh
10. The War on Cancer, by Azra Raza
11. Stevinus, Galileo, and Thought Experiments, by S. Abbas Raza
12. Optimism of the Will, by S. Asad Raza
13. Through a Pixelated Eye, by Sughra Raza
14. Early Modern Primitives, by Justin E. H. Smith
15. The Life and Times of Fridtjof Nansen, by Ker Than
16. George Orwell Hated Torture and Lies, Mr. Hitchens, by J. M. Tyree
17. Bandung and the Birth of the Third World, by Robin Varghese
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We at 3QD thank you for your liking, and sincerely wish you a HAPPY NEW YEAR!
Friday, December 30, 2005
The Ethics of the New Brain Science
Kathryn Schulz in The Nation:
Ultimately, though, neuroscience may raise even more troubling ethical issues, for the simple reason that it is easier to predict and control behavior by manipulating neurons than by manipulating genes. Even if all ethical and practical constraints on altering our DNA vanished tomorrow, we'd have to wait for years (or decades) to see the outcome of genetic experiments--and all the while environmental factors would confound our tinkering. Intervening on the brain, by contrast, can produce startlingly rapid results, as anyone knows who has ever downed too many margaritas or, for that matter, too many chocolate-covered coffee beans.
The 2005 Dubious Data Awards
STATS is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization dedicated to improving public understanding of science and statistics . Each December STATS issues a list of scientific studies that were mishandled by the media during the preceding year. This year’s “Dubious Data Awards” detailing the worst examples of shoddy science reporting go to:
7. Media Gorge on Obesity! - The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released a report suggesting that a little extra weight may not always be dangerous - which the media trumpeted as proof that the “food police” were dieting us to death. But some of the results were statistically insignificant, and even the CDC didn’t claim they were conclusive.
6. Toothpaste Terror! - After American researchers found that an antibacterial substance found in toothpaste can produce chloroform, the British press published panicky reports that warned of “depression, liver problems and… cancer.” After supermarkets in England began taking toothpaste off their shelves, the American Dental Association pointed out that the effect occurred only in experimental conditions that placed pure forms of the chemical in very hot and heavily chlorinated water - not the way most people brush their teeth.
Charles Elliott reviews The Naming of Names by Anna Pavord, in Literary Review:
Around two thousand years ago, a Greek doctor named Dioscorides described a plant that he considered to be medically useful. It was called 'crocodilium', he said, and it was supposed to help people who were splenetic. When boiled and drunk, it 'causes copious bleeding at the nose'. Other characteristics, apart from the shape of its roots and seeds, and the fact that it grew in 'wooded places', were unfortunately obscure.
What exactly was crocodilium? And why should anyone care? As Anna Pavord splendidly makes plain in this elegant and scholarly history of taxonomy, a science usually regarded as even dismaller than economics, such questions are far from insignificant. Exactly which plant is which, and what its relationship is to other plants, are matters central to our understanding of the world we live in. Crocodilium is a case in point, though on the whole a depressing one. The confusion surrounding it, as with so many of the plants mentioned by Dioscorides, lasted for hundreds and hundreds of years. Even when the sixteenth-century Italian botanist Luca Ghini finally managed to pin it down as being most likely a species of Eryngium (at the same time apologising for not drinking an infusion to see whether it really did make his nose bleed), he was taking only a modest step out of the chaos.
Today in Despotism, Holiday Edition
T. A. Frank in The New Republic:
The outposts of tyranny have enjoyed a tranquil holiday season, with a number expressing excitement for the new year and a few offering enthusiasm for Christmas. (Hanukkah received limited attention.) Even during the holidays, however, the patterns of daily life were able to continue: Americans were denounced, heads of state were feted, and landslide reelections were prepared. All in all, a time for rest and contemplation, as outpost leaders work to ensure that 2006 (barring violent uprising, economic meltdown, or war) will be exactly the same as 2005.
Country-by-country report here.
Should We Cure Aging?
"The knowledge that every ambition is doomed to frustration at the hands of a skeleton has never prevented the majority of human beings from behaving as though death were no more than an unfounded rumor." - Aldous Huxley
Myth #1: Aging is natural and so we shouldn't fight it: First of all, aging is not universal. A number of complex species such as lobsters, rockfishes, some tortoises, etc. do not appear to age. Therefore, aging is not a prerequisite to life. Aging is neither inevitable nor universal. Secondly, humankind is, in a sense, a struggle against nature. We have antibiotics and vaccines because we don't want to be sick, which would be the natural outcome for many of us. If we were to follow Nature's will, many of us wouldn't be here and wouldn't be reading these lines, on a monitor, over the Internet.
Myth #2: What's the point of extending life if we are old: This is a common misconception about research on the biology of aging. The ultimate goal of my work and that of many biogerontologists is to preserve health and life. Yet we aim not just to make elderly people live longer but to diminish, not extend, age-related debilitation (also see de Grey et al., 2002). What we want is to find ways to extend healthy life span by postponing disease and eventually eradicate all forms of age-related involution. In other words, to find a cure for aging, an intervention that permits us to avoid aging and all pathologies associated with it. Instead of improving the quality of life of the elderly, I want to avoid having elderly patients in the first place. People would still die from accidents, infectious diseases, etc. After all, children and teenagers die too even though they are not yet aged.
My calculations for a cure for aging yield an average longevity of 1,200 years. This is assuming one would be forever young in body and mind.
Guppies have menopause, too
For female guppies, there’s more to life than making babies. A new study finds that guppies experience menopause just like humans and other animals. The study is the first demonstration of menopause in fish and raises the question of why some female animals live beyond their fertile years at all. It was previously thought that fish don’t experience menopause because they produce eggs throughout their entire lives. Birds and mammals, in contrast, have a finite number of eggs that they are born with.
Guppies typically reproduce about every 30 days and lay eggs approximately 20 times throughout their lives. The researchers found that as female guppies aged, they began to skip litters or even stop reproducing for extended periods of time, effectively ceasing to reproduce after a certain age. In other words, the guppies were going through a fish version of menopause.
Thursday, December 29, 2005
Gabriel García Márquez on meeting Bill Clinton
From Salon (via Sean Carroll of Cosmic Variance):
"Better to read 'Don Quixote,'" I said to him. "Everything's in there." Now, the 'Quixote' is a book that is not read nearly as much as is claimed, although very few will admit to not having read it. With two or three quotes, Clinton showed that he knew it very well indeed. Responding, he asked us what our favorite books were. Styron said his was "Huckleberry Finn."
I would have said "Oedipus Rex," which has been my bed table book for the last 20 years, but I named "The Count of Monte Cristo," mainly for reasons of technique, which I had some trouble explaining.
Clinton said his was the "Meditations of Marcus Aurelius," and Carlos Fuentes stuck loyally to "Absalom, Absalom," Faulkner's stellar novel, no question, although others would choose "Light in August" for purely personal reasons. Clinton, in homage to Faulkner, got to his feet and, pacing around the table, recited from memory Benji's monologue, the most thrilling passage, and perhaps the most hermetic, from "The Sound and the Fury."
I once wrote President Clinton about the books that most influenced his growing up and as president. He wrote back and included a list of 21 books that he felt really had an impact on him. They included:
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker
Lincoln by David Donald
One Hundred Years of Solitude by G.G. Marquez
Politics as a Vocation by Max Weber
The Evolution of Civilizations by Carroll Quigley
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-1963 by Taylor Branch
Living History by Hillary Clinton
The Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
The Way of the World: From the Dawn of Civilzations to the Eve of the 21st Century by David Fromkin
The Cure at Troy: A Version of Sophocles’s Philoctetes by Seamus Heaney
King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Herois in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild
The Imitation of Christ by Thomas Kempis
Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics by Reinhold Niebuhr
Home to Catalonia by George Orwell
The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron
You Can’t Go Home Again by Thomas Wolfe
Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny by Robert Wright
The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats by W.B. Yeats
Thanks for sharing this list, Cameron!
Jason Kottke's Best Links of 2005
Banksy Hits New York's Most Famous Museums. The installation of unauthorized art into some of the top museums in NYC.
Dot-Con Job. A Seattle Times investigation into InfoSpace, a high-flying dot com that bilked investors out of millions.
13 things that do not make sense. A list of open scientific questions.
Life on the Scales. About the quarter-power scaling laws.
More here. And here are the runners up:
Bad to the Last Drop. On bottled water.
Not a Word. About intentional fake words in dictionaries.
Redemption. The NY Yankees and redemption.
My Outsourced Life. A.J. Jacobs outsources his life to India.
More here. [NOTE: the penultimate link is to an essay by Jed Palmer at 3QD!]
What I heard about Iraq in 2005
Eliot Weinberger in the London Review of Books:
In 2005 I heard that Coalition forces were camped in the ruins of Babylon. I heard that bulldozers had dug trenches through the site and cleared areas for helicopter landing pads and parking lots, that thousands of sandbags had been filled with dirt and archaeological fragments, that a 2600-year-old brick pavement had been crushed by tanks, and that the moulded bricks of dragons had been gouged out from the Ishtar Gate by soldiers collecting souvenirs. I heard that the ruins of the Sumerian cities of Umma, Umm al-Akareb, Larsa and Tello were completely destroyed and were now landscapes of craters.
I heard that the US was planning an embassy in Baghdad that would cost $1.5 billion, as expensive as the Freedom Tower at Ground Zero, the proposed tallest building in the world.
I saw a headline in the Los Angeles Times that read: ‘After Levelling City, US Tries to Build Trust.’
I heard that military personnel were now carrying ‘talking point’ cards with phrases such as: ‘We are a values-based, people-focused team that strives to uphold the dignity and respect of all.’
I heard that 47 per cent of Americans believed that Saddam Hussein helped plan 9/11 and 44 per cent believed that the hijackers were Iraqi; 61 per cent thought that Saddam had been a serious threat to the US and 76 per cent said the Iraqis were now better off.
Much more here.
Why does genocide in Darfur continue?
Eric Reeves in The New Republic:
One reason is that there is no real international pressure on the architects of the genocide--the National Islamic Front security cabal in Khartoum--to bring the killing to a halt. On the contrary, as the genocide enters its fourth year, the international community continues to defer to Khartoum, or even to suggest disingenuously that the regime has somehow reformed itself. Either way, the clear implication is that the lives of Darfur's civilians are not worth the diplomatic price of confronting Sudan's brutal leaders.
There is no more appalling illustration of this phenomenon than recent announcements by the African Union and the Arab League that both groups will hold their upcoming summits in Khartoum. These summits will represent symbolic triumphs for Sudan's genocidaires. And they will reinforce in very public fashion what Khartoum already knows: that none of its neighbors really cares what it does in Darfur.
Dinosaurs vs. Darwin
Jesse Walker in Reason Online:
The Los Angeles Times reports that creationists have been buying roadside dinosaur parks around the country and turning them into anti-evolution museums. Visit the Cabazon Dinosaurs today, and you can pick up Darwin-bashing literature at the gift shop; at similar attractions you’ll see the evidence, such as it is, that dinosaurs lived in the Garden of Eden and were transformed from vegetarians to carnivores by man’s original sin. “Go to Disneyland, they teach evolution,” the evangelist Kent Hovind of Pensacola’s Dinosaur Adventure Land complains to the Times. “It’s subtle—signs that say, ‘Millions of years ago.’ This is a golden opportunity to get our point across.”
A Cabinet of Mathematical Curiosities
Ivars Peterson in Science News Online:
In recent times, mathematicians have demonstrated the usefulness of computer graphics for visualizing geometric forms. With a remarkable ability to convert equations into colorful, evocative images on a screen, computers now play an important role in communicating ideas, discovering patterns, and suggesting new conjectures worth testing.
Standard computer graphics by itself, however, doesn't do justice to three-dimensional forms. Fortunately, new technologies have made it possible to create 3D models of geometric shapes, magically transforming equations into elegant, intriguing miniatures.
"Many mathematicians consider models valuable for building intuition and for communicating mathematical ideas to students and to the public," George W. Hart of SUNY at Stony Brook writes in the current issue of the Mathematical Intelligencer. "Nothing can substitute for the visual and tactile pleasure of handling a model, spinning it in one's hand, comparing it to another model in the other hand."
The Philosophy of Philosophy
Adam Kirsch reviews The Courtier and the Heretic by Matthew Stewart, in the New York Sun:
"It has gradually become clear to me what every great philosophy has hitherto been," Nietzsche wrote in "Beyond Good and Evil": "a confession on the part of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir." In "The Courtier and the Heretic" (W.W. Norton, 320 pages, $25.95), Matthew Stewart takes Nietzsche's principle to its logical conclusion. If what really matters about a philosophy is the personal experience behind it, then it makes sense to be curious about that experience. What private and public events, what cultural and religious influences, made a thinker think the way he did? In this double study of Spinoza and Leibniz, accordingly, Mr. Stewart focuses less on their philosophy than on what he calls their "philosophy of philosophy," examining how their utterly different lives defined the purpose and style of their work.
Mr. Stewart's decision to pair Spinoza and Leibniz allows his biographical method to shine. These two men, who met only once over a few days in 1676, divided the empire of European thought between them, and they could not have ruled their provinces more differently.
More here. [Leibniz on left, Spinoza on right.]
Artist gives data a global dimension
Matt Bradley in the Christian Science Monitor:
Frustrated by what he sees as the news media's sensationalist perspectives and art's sometimes idealistic and impractical approach to effecting social change, Mr. Günther was prompted to devise an innovative medium to remedy his disenchantment.
The result is "World Processor," a series of custom-made acrylic globes with individually manipulated surfaces that convey a diverse range of information and data in a colorful way. The project combines elements of journalism and art to provide a thought-provoking perspective on global issues ranging from nuclear testing sites to international trade.
More here. [On the globe shown, TV ownership in a nation is indicated by the size of the screen.]
Mehreen Jabbar Unplugged
Mehreen Jabbar is a Pakistani woman filmmaker, director, who moved to New York from Karachi. Much of Mehreen’s work has focused on the everyday lives of average Pakistani women and the conflicts they experience from day to day. While other directors have created fine plays which are obvious in their attempts to raise awareness of women's rights, Mehreen enjoys the challenge of applying subtlety to get her message across. Her tele-film, “Putli Ghar”’ (Puppet House), is an example of such work. It is a story of two young couples living in the same building. The film focuses on the friendship that develops between the two wives; one, a naïve newlywed, and the other, who has been married for a while, more set in her ways, and enjoys making puppets. As the friendship between the two women grows, the bizarre relationship between the puppet maker and her husband is slowly revealed to the naïve friend resulting in adverse effects on her own relationship with her husband. Another tele-film “Farar” (Escape) is about three friends, a widow, a working woman, and a third woman who is a student of classical dance. The play shows the struggle of each woman to sort out her life and find a unique identity for herself.
2005: a year in books
Confounding all expectations, the Booker judges leave Ian McEwan off the shortlist but Zadie Smith, who does win a coveted place, vents some spleen about an England populated by "aspirational arseholes" in an American magazine. Penguin later issues a statement in which Smith professes her deep love for her home country.
The Man Booker international prize announces an inaugral shortlist of literary big-hitters, including Saul Bellow, Doris Lessing and Gunter Grass. The news from the libraries is that Jacqueline Wilson is, once again, the most borrowed author, and there's further good news for the Tracy Beaker author: her publisher, Random House, announce that they have sold 20m of her titles. Finally, the prize for oddity of the month goes to the story that Hemingway's former neighbours want to buy the house in which he shot himself in order to move it down the road.
Wednesday, December 28, 2005
I will alarm islamic owls
Alex Lencicki at Brokentype:
My coworker Francis wrote a book called the Holy Tango of Literature. In it, he made anagrams of the names of famous poets, and then wrote poems based on the anagrams in the poet's style. The book includes Emily Dickenson’s "Skinny Domicile", Alfred Lord Tennyson’s "Errol Flynn’s not Dead", and William Shakespeare’s "Is Sperm Like a Whale?"
Here’s William Carlos Williams
I WILL ALARM ISLAMIC OWLS
I will be alarming
the Islamic owls
that are in
you warned me
are very jittery
and susceptible to loud noises
they see so well in the dark
and so dedicated to Allah.
Which is several grades of awesome.
The Haifa International Film Festival
Kenneth Brown reports on the 21st Haifa International Film Festival, in Le Monde Diplomatique (English ed.).
Haifa is Israel’s only remaining large, mixed, Jewish-Palestinian city. Of its population of 250,000 at least 10% are Arabs; the figure jumps to 30% for students at the University of Haifa. (Of Israel’s overall population of 6.7 million, about 1.3 million are Arabs, 19.4% of the total.) Haifa prides itself on this coexistence, real or imagined, between Arab and Jew. The novelist Emile Habibi (1), the city’s best-known Palestinian, believed the Arabs who remained in Haifa after the war of 1948 could live with Jews in relative tranquillity provided they stayed in their place: that place is geographically and symbolically at the city’s lowest level. Habibi, who died in his beloved city in May 1996, left his mark indelibly on the consciousness of Palestinian and Jewish Israelis. Engraved on his tombstone are the words “Still in Haifa”. A cunning, sad, brilliant writer, he received the Israeli prize for his literary work in 1992. He gave the prize money to the child victims of the first intifada.
At the time of this year’s film festival, Haifa was also celebrating the centenary of the Hijaz railway opened by the Ottoman emperor. The railway ran to Damascus and on to Mecca. It was meant to transport wheat and barley from the interior of Syria to Haifa and, in the other direction, pilgrims arriving by ship from the Maghreb, bound for Mecca, south to the Hijaz. The railway marked the beginnings of the transformation of a small Ottoman town into a modern city.
Top Ten News Photos of 2005
From National Geographic:
Gas Thief Escapes on Tricycle:
Speeding from the scene of the crime, a Chinese boy tows a floating plastic bag of stolen natural gas in early August. Flouting a government ban, farmers around the central Chinese town of Pucheng frequently filch gas from the local oil field.
Top Science Stories of 2005
From Scientific American:
2005 has been a year of tempests both literal and figurative. Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma led a record pack of devastating storms; the issue of whether to teach intelligent design in the classroom went to trial; the decision about whether to make "Plan B" emergency contraception available over the counter was postponed; a celebrated stem cell researcher was revealed as a fraud; and the threat of avian flu loomed large.
But there were exhilarating developments as well. Long believed extinct, the ivory-billed woodpecker was detected in the Big Woods of Arkansas; astronomers discovered a tenth planet in our solar system--complete with its own moon; physicists created a new state of matter using quarks and gluons; and the genome of our closest living relative, the chimpanzee, was sequenced.
From a review of The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Philosophy in The Economist:
Close behind the news headlines lurk abstract puzzles. Freedom and democracy are offered up as justifications for war, yet they themselves are rarely explained or justified. People argue passionately about abortion, uncertain where law and morals meet or what anchors moral convictions. A judge in Dover, Pennsylvania, faced by Christian zealots claiming that evolution is “just a theory”, asks experts to explain what makes theories scientific.
Puzzles are all very well. But arguments have to end. When arguments themselves turn on contentious principles—majority rule, moral truth, science against faith—philosophy will not go away. Shut the door, and back it comes through the window. Philosophy, once readmitted, then turns a characteristic trick. It makes you think how you should be arguing about those principles and tries to make plain what should count as good and bad reasons. It guarantees no answers but does offer the wherewithal to recognise genuine answers when they appear.