Friday, November 30, 2007
National Geographic Photography Contest Winners
There were several categories; here are some examples that I liked:
People. Paint-splattered Ugandan Boy:
Landscape. Santa Monica Oceanfront Houses:
Animal. Male Gorilla:
There are many more photographs here. [Thanks to Marilyn Terrell.]
Cosma's Last Words on Saletan on Race and IQ
Over at three-toed sloth:
[L]et me back up a minute to the bit about relying on "peer review and rebuttals to expose any relevant issue". There are two problems here.
One has to do with the fact that, as I said, it is really very easy to find the rebuttals showing that Rushton's papers, in particular, are a tragic waste of precious trees and disk-space. For example, in the very same issue of the very same journal as the paper by Rushton and Jensen which was one of Saletan's main sources, Richard Nisbett, one of the more important psychologists of our time, takes his turn banging his head against this particular wall. Or, again, if Saletan had been at all curious about the issue of head sizes, which seems to have impressed him so much, it would have taken about five minutes with Google Scholar to find a demonstration that this is crap. So I really have no idea what Saletan means when he claimed he relied on published rebuttals — did he think they would just crawl into his lap and sit there, meowing to be read? If I had to guess, I'd say that the most likely explanation of Saletan's writings is that he spent a few minutes with a search engine looking for hits on racial differences in intelligence, took the first few blogs and papers he found that way as The Emerging Scientific Consensus, and then stopped. But detailed inquiry into just how he managed to screw up so badly seems unprofitable.
The other problem with his supposed reliance on peer review is that he seems confused about how that institution works. I won't rehash what I've already said about it, but only remark that passing peer review is better understood as saying a paper is not obviously wrong, not obviously redundant and not obviously boring, rather than as saying it's correct, innovative and important. Even this misses a deeper problem, a possible failure mode of the scientific community. A journal's peer review is only as good as the peers it uses as reviewers. If everyone, or almost everyone, who referees for some journal is in the grip of the same mistake, then they will not catch it in papers they review, and the journal will propagate it. In fact, since journals usually recruit new referees from their published authors or people recommended by old referees, mistakes and delusions can become endemic and self-confirming in epistemic communities associated with particular journals. To give a concrete example, the community using Physica A is pretty uniformly (and demonstrably) mistaken about how to tell when something is a power-law distribution, so what that journal publishes about power laws is unreliable, and those who derive their training and information from that journal go on to propagate the errors. It would be easy to find even more extreme examples from the physical and mathematical sciences (especially, I must say, among journals published by Elsevier), but it would take too long to explain why they are wrong.
A Review of John Ashbery's Notes From the Air
Ange Mlinko examines the poetry of John Ashbery, in The Nation:
The one way Ashbery's poems may always be fruitfully read is as sheer ear candy. Just glancing through his titles will confirm this (my favorite: "Yes, Dr. Grenzmer, How May I Be of Assistance to You? What! You Say the Patient Has Escaped?"). Yet where literature is concerned, we're ardent believers in the instrumental: how else to explain why the poorest art in the world, with the least influence on American culture, is routinely made the scapegoat of all art's sins? Rock and roll halts no wars; therefore let us stone poets, goes the logic. Meanwhile, the fact that visual artists become millionaires in an art market fueled by a hedge-fund bubble fazes no one.
Caution: Ear candy may segue shockingly into the sublime, as in these lines from "Chinese Whispers":
The trees, the barren trees, have been described more than once.
Always they are taller, it seems, and the river passes them
without noticing. We, too, are taller,
our ceilings higher, our walls more tinctured
with telling frescoes, our dooryards both airier and vaguer,
according as time passes and weaves its minute deceptions in and out,
a secret thread.
Peace is a full stop.
And though we had some chance of slipping past the blockade,
now only time will consent to have anything to do with us,
for what purposes we do not know.
Exactly 100 years ago, Gustav Klimt's iconic portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, now enthroned in the Neue Galerie and possibly the most famous painting in New York, was exhibited in Vienna between two soulful and sinewy sculptures by the Belgian artist George Minne. Today, after a tumultuous century of world wars and totalitarian regimes, the two sculptures have turned up on the Upper East Side at the Neue Galerie. There, once again, they flank the ethereal Frau Bloch-Bauer.
more from the NY Sun here.
"I am an Israeli. I live in Jerusalem. I have a story, not yet finished, to tell." This is the opening line of David Shulman's powerful and memorable book, Dark Hope, a diary of four years of political activity in Israel and the Palestinian territories. It is a record of the author's intense involvement with a volunteer organization composed of Israeli Palestinians and Israeli Jews, called Ta'ayush, an Arabic term for "living together" or "life in common." The group was founded in October 2000, soon after the start of the second Palestinian intifada.
"This book aims," Shulman writes,
at showing something of the Israeli peace movement in action, on the basis of one individual's very limited experience.... I want to give you some sense of what it feels like to be part of this struggle and of why we do it.
Struggle with whom? Shulman explains:
Israel, like any society, has violent, sociopathic elements. What is unusual about the last four decades in Israel is that many destructive individuals have found a haven, complete with ideological legitimation, within the settlement enterprise. Here, in places like Chavat Maon, Itamar, Tapuach, and Hebron, they have, in effect, unfettered freedom to terrorize the local Palestinian population; to attack, shoot, injure, sometimes kill—all in the name of the alleged sanctity of the land and of the Jews' exclusive right to it.
His diary proceeds to show how this happens.
more from the NYRB here.
lying here grieving,
blow your nose;
get out of bed.
Pattern the day.
Remember with love.
Dance jigs of joy
in your versatile
Sing love songs,
even if off-key.
Morning pills,3 with a glass of water.
Vision new scenes.
The curtain stays up.
You're still on stage.
Why Beauty is Truth
David W. Farmer in American Scientist:
Symmetry is a fundamental concept pervading both science and culture. In popular terms, symmetry is often viewed as a kind of "balance," as when Doris Day's character in the 1951 movie On Moonlight Bay insists that if her beau kisses her on the right cheek, then he should kiss her on the left cheek too. But in mathematics, symmetry has been given a more precise meaning. In his new history of mathematical symmetry, Why Beauty Is Truth, Ian Stewart gives this definition: "A symmetry of some mathematical object is a transformation that preserves the object's structure." So a symmetrical structure looks the same before and after you do something to it. A butterfly looks the same as its mirror image. The (idealized) wheel of a car may look the same after being rotated on its axle by 90 degrees (or possibly by 72 or 120 degrees, depending on the particular design).
Although mathematical symmetry may bring to mind a regular polygon or other geometric pattern, its roots (pun unavoidable) lie in algebra, in the solutions to polynomial equations. Thus Stewart begins his account in ancient Babylon with the solution to quadratic equations. The familiar quadratic formula gives the two roots of the degree-two polynomial equation ax 2 + bx + c = 0. The Babylonians didn't have the algebraic notation to write down such a formula, but they had a recipe that was equivalent to it.
Blue Blood, Black Genes
From The Washington Post:
Several years ago, Edward Ball took possession of an ancient family desk and discovered something in a locked compartment that to him must have seemed almost predestined. He found a collection of carefully labeled and dated locks of hair from nine of his 19th-century relatives, the oldest specimen dating from 1824. Ball was uniquely qualified to explore the implications of such a trove: His 1998 book Slaves in the Family was a National Book Award-winning investigation into his white ancestors' dealings with their African slaves. Now he held in his hands the means to take that exploration a giant step further. Perhaps modern DNA analysis of his ancestors' hair could provide evidence of unsuspected liaisons, redraw the tree of genetic relationships, and deepen Ball's understanding of his family's story and his own identity.
The Genetic Strand is the tale of Ball's efforts to extract truth from these preserved hair specimens, and of what he learned about the power and pitfalls of DNA testing as a tool for exploring ancestry. The book engagingly switches back and forth between history and science, alternating anecdotes from the lives of the family members with visits to the labs of the various biologists who assist Ball with his genetic quest.
Why do men like porn more?
Faye Flam in The Philadelphia Inquirer:
Neurobiologist and anthropologist Michael Platt of Duke University is studying differences in how the sexes respond to pictures in general. On average, his research shows, men will pay to see images of women. But you have to pay women to look at images of men!
Platt started with similar studies in monkeys. While most animals are indifferent to photos even of individuals in their own species, monkeys and apes respond to pictures much as humans do.
Rhesus macaques that Platt studied, for example, easily recognized the faces of familiar monkeys. And they liked some faces more than others, though the face wasn't always the favorite part.
Platt found that male macaques strongly preferred to look at pictures of females' rear ends and dominant males' faces. They liked them enough to pay, by sacrificing a chance to get a treat. But you had to bribe those same monkeys with treats to persuade them to look at female macaque faces or the faces of subordinate males.
Yehudi Menuhin plays Brahms Hungarian Dance No. 5
Are Aliens Among Us?
From Scientific American:
If, as many scientists believe, life can readily emerge under the right environmental conditions, it is possible that life arose on Earth more than once. Researchers are now seeking evidence of a second genesis by searching for exotic microbes that are biochemically different from all known organisms. In this image, artist Adam Questell has imagined an alien cell that carries its genetic material in twin nuclei.
Are the family clichés true?
Steve Connor in The Independent:
The difficult middle child, the spoilt only child, the wayward baby; few of us escape being labelled according to some sort of sibling stereotype. But what, really, are we to believe about the role our position in the family plays in determining our personality? Are the stereotypes true – or is the psychology of birth order just a load of hokum?
New research undertaken by scientists at the University of Oslo would suggest that there is, in fact, a good deal of truth in our family folklore. Using the IQ tests taken from the military records of 241,310 Norwegian conscripts, the scientists have found that eldest siblings are, on average, significantly "more intelligent" than second-borns. It may not seem like much, but 2.3 points on the IQ scale – the average difference between first and second siblings – could be enough to determine whether or not someone gets into a good college.
But what is equally intriguing about this study, which carries the kudos of having being published in the peer-review journal Science, is the way the scientists have tried to tease apart the possible reasons for this difference. Is it something that begins with gestation in the womb, or is it just the way siblings are reared within the family?
Thursday, November 29, 2007
In the News: Turkey Considering Prosecuting Publisher of God Delusion
In the International Herald Tribune:
A prosecutor is investigating whether to prosecute the Turkish publisher of a best-selling book by atheist writer Richard Dawkins for inciting religious hatred, reports said Wednesday.
Publisher Erol Karaaslan said Wednesday he would be questioned by an Istanbul prosecutor as part of an official investigation into "The God Delusion" written by the British expert in evolutionary biology.
The investigation follows controversy about free speech in Turkey after Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk went on trial in 2005 over comments about historic abuses in Turkey.
Karaaslan could go on trial if the prosecutor concludes the book incites religious hatred and insults religious values, and faces up to one year in prison if found guilty, Milliyet newspaper reported.
The prosecutor started the inquiry into the book after one reader complained that passages in the book were an assault on "sacred values," Karaaslan said.
More Debates on Academic Boycotts
First, the analogy between Israel-Palestine and the cases Nussbaum discusses is weak. Although Nussbaum’s strategies may work well in other contexts, they are unlikely to have an impact on the situation in Israel-Palestine...Second, I will show that boycotts are not “blunt instruments” that target institutions and all their members. Boycotts can be structured so as to censure and isolate institutions while preserving the academic freedom of individuals—whatever their political views.
So far as I can see, then, Abed’s proposal amounts to a boycott only in the sense that it asks foreign academics not to give lectures or hold conferences inside Israel. At the APA, he proposed that those invited to such conferences should ask that they be relocated to a Palestinian venue. I think that this is often a good idea, but not always. A conference on social justice could usefully be relocated, and all involved would be likely to profit from the experience of meeting in East Jerusalem or on the West Bank. By contrast, a lecture I plan to give at Hebrew University this December, in memory of a scholar who dedicated his career to rabbinical education, could not plausibly be relocated, since rabbinical education is not a topic on which Palestinian academics focus; to lecture on that topic on the West Bank would be utterly bizarre.
Soutine, Perhaps the Most Underrated Artist of the 20th century
Who was Soutine? Two self-portraits here, “Auto-portrait au rideau”, where the young artist peers out shyly from a swathe of coats and scarfs, and “Grotesque”, where his irregular features, bulbous nose and fleshy lips are monstrously exaggerated and blurred into a Baconian image of violent despair, share a hungry, piercing look that attests both to physical wretchedness and an exalted, truth-seeking spirituality.
It is no accident that Soutine returned repeatedly to two types in his portraits: the pâtissier and the choir boy, purveyors of earthly and holy nourishment. Of the latter, this show has the wonderful example from the Obersteg Collection, “L’Enfant du Choeur”: cassock streaky red and white, delicate as filigree but brutal in its vitality against a sonorous blue; twisted face fragile, remote, vulnerable, without sentimentality as in all Soutine’s portraits. Rather, his art has an innocent gravity, its ringing contrasts and heavy layers redolent of Old Masters and of metaphysical longing.
Hunger, seriousness, lack of irony, all were legacies of the dirt-poor Hassidic upbringing, with its ban on graven images, from which Soutine fled. Arriving in Paris, he painted a plate of herrings, an open-mouthed fish swooning between a fork and a vase of flowers, a luscious red cabbage against a white jug, with the hallucinatory fervour of a man still starving.
All About G.V. Desani's All About H. Hatter
In the NY Sun, Hua Hsu on my favorite 20th century novel in the vernacular, sort of:
Few novels open with warnings, and courageous is the writer who opens with a warning about how the 300 pages to follow never cohere into a novel, but mingle instead at the rank of a "gesture." (This cautionary note did not appear in the original edition, but it accompanied editions from the 1970s on.) It is a perfect way to enter Desani's profoundly self-aware world, one in which the language indeed gestures at its own playful impurity, its own lack of regard for etiquette. The sentences aren't instruments of the plot. Their odd juxtapositions and careful rhythms index a different story, coalescing off the page, of a brilliant writer embracing the once-pejorative identity of the mongrel-linguist with style, pride, and wit: "I write rigmarole English, staining your goodly godly tongue, maybe: but, friend, I forsook my Form, School and Head, while you stuck to yours, learning reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic." It's the language of someone who has mastered the rules, just for fun. But submit to them? As a footnote midway through the book blurts: "Don't be ridick!"
Throughout his quest, Hatterr makes frequent reference to the fine tradition of British literature. But his self-deprecating kowtowing obscures his sly disrespect for traditions and protocol. Early on, Hatterr tries to size himself up against one of the language's greatest talents. "To hell with kittens, I am not literary, I admit you that. But I tell you, man, I have seen more Life than that feller Shakespeare! Things happen to me with accents on 'em! If I were to tell all, right from the au commencement to the la terminaison of my life-story, I should like to see some honest critic pronounce me an inferior to Shakespeare!" Given the situations Hatterr will soon find himself in, it's not an unreasonable boast. And yet Hatterr's lecture swells and swells until it reaches its simple and true punch line: "If you want to remain sane, man, keep off the libido!"
the imposition of tolerance
Life within the monastery flows smoothly. The same cannot be said for what happened “outside” the walls of Visoki. The point is that the area of Decani, stronghold of the ex-commander of the UCK (The Kosovan Liberation Army) Ramush Haradinaj, now under trial in Aja for war crimes, has been the stage for a certosina work of counter-ethnic cleansing, which forced the Serbs, ground down, threatened and downtrodden, to emigrate after the bloody two-year period of ’98-’99. Visoki is like a dot in the ocean, it is a small Serbian bastion sinking right in the middle of ethnically pure and monolithic territories. This entails particular attention on the part of the Italian military of the KFOR, the NATO contingent. Our soldiers, stationed in the “Italian Village”, at the gates of Pec, guard the entrance to the monastery, minute by minute.
Already on several occasions Albanian nationalists have thrown mortar fire on the surrounding wall of Visoki. Problems of ethnic intolerance, of contraband (the monastery “obstructs” the way to the mountain passes which lead into Montenegro and Albania) and of extra-territoriality. This last concept represents one of the cardinals of the relationship established a few months ago by Martii Ahtisaari, ex UN special envoy for Kosovo, in charge of negotiating the future socio-political organisation of the province, formally still Serbia, according to the meaning of resolution 1244 of the UN Security Council. Ahtisaari has provided extra-territorial status for Serbian churches and monasteries, similar to those given to embassies. An instrument capable of protecting the artistic and cultural patrimony of Kosovo from Albanian rage and of guaranteeing that Serb popes can continue to spread their word, even in a foreign land (the Ahtisaari plan supports the independence of Kosovo).
more from Reset's Kosovo debate here.
the english do poetry
HERE are two opening lines:
“Give me my scallop-shell of quiet,”
“Lord, the Roman hycinths are blooming in bowls and”
The first is from Walter Raleigh’s ‘The Passionate Man’s Pilgrimage’, the second from T.S. Eliot’s ‘A Song for Simeon’. I quote them here solely because they both send a shiver down my spine. I could try to explain why – that haunting sc-sh-qw sound in the Raleigh, or the odd, unexpected stillness of the Eliot line caused, I think, by ‘in bowls’ and that hanging ‘and’ – but, in truth, my shiver comes from wells deeper than those plumbed by practical criticism. It comes from being and speaking English.
It is unfashionable to speak of national characteristics. Queasy types think it is akin to racism. But the truth is that nations are definably different. Most importantly, they differ in what they do best. No nation has produced better essayists than France, none has produced better composers that the Germans, better painters than the Italians, nor better novelists than the Russians. America invented jazz and still masters the form and, though some may dissent, her record in film is unsurpassed. And the English? The English do poetry.
more from The Liberal here.
fleming v Zemeckis
To solicit from a medievalist a review of Robert Zemeckis's Beowulf is to pick a quarrel unlikely to be evaded. The eminent Cambridge classicist Richard Bentley famously put down Alexander Pope's translation of Greek epic with a single sentence: "It is a pretty poem, Mr. Pope, but you must not call it Homer." "Pretty" is not the first adjective I would choose to describe Zemeckis's Beowulf. Fantastic, amazing, preposterous, corny from springing leaf to ripening ear, technically brilliant perhaps, enjoyable after a fashion--but "pretty," no. This Beowulf is all about the animated monsters. Grendel appears to be a very large version of Freddy Krueger made of Kevlar papier-maché. (His submerged "identity" as Crispin Glover is too faint to deserve mention.) He roars, rips, eats people head-first, then drools in probably symbolic fashion over the supine body of Robin Wright Penn. I mean, like, gross. The huge final flying dragon, wing-flapper, maiden-threatener, buttress-buster, more flame-thrower than fire-breather, is one mean worm. Years from now the film may well claim at least an honorable mention in cinematic history for its increment in the effects of animation through "motion capture." So far as more ordinary history goes, it has a lot to answer for.
more from TNR here.
wild, wild east
When I first moved to Moscow in the early 1990s, my friend Dasha gave me a gift-wrapped video. "Watch this," she said. "It was made years ago but it will help you understand our country." I assumed it was a melancholy epic by Andrei Tarkovsky, with lingering shots through rain-splattered windows, or perhaps a revolutionary classic such as Battleship Potemkin.
When I unwrapped the paper and looked at the cover, I found a man in a grubby white uniform surrounded by sand dunes. "White Sun of the Desert," said Dasha. "It's a Soviet-style cowboy film. The best one ever made."
more from The New Statesman here.
A.S. Byatt ruminates
Thomas Pavel once gave a splendid paper on the changes in the presentation of human nature during the history of the novel. In the beginning, he said, characters had immortal souls, and their actions took place in a battle between good and evil for the salvation or damnation of these souls. In later sentimental novels, souls had been replaced by hearts; what mattered was romantic love, and the recognition of other selves. Later still, he said, the heart had been replaced by the psyche – a system of unconscious drives, revealed in dreams, not clear to the characters, though controlled by the author, who like the analyst, understood the forms of energy and action. Iris Murdoch felt that humans – including those of her characters who were philosophers and psychoanalysts – had not understood the shift in the moral world that had come about with the absconding of God, the vanishing of external, metaphysical moral authority. Her analysts tend to be daemonic, manipulating what she described as a “system” and a “mechanism” of sadomasochism.
more from the TLS here.
The Secret to Raising Smart Kids
From Scientific American:
Hint: Don't tell your kids that they are. More than three decades of research shows that a focus on effort—not on intelligence or ability—is key to success in school and in life
- Many people assume that superior intelligence or ability is a key to success. But more than three decades of research shows that an overemphasis on intellect or talent—and the implication that such traits are innate and fixed—leaves people vulnerable to failure, fearful of challenges and unmotivated to learn.
- Teaching people to have a “growth mind-set,” which encourages a focus on effort rather than on intelligence or talent, produces high achievers in school and in life.
- Parents and teachers can engender a growth mind-set in children by praising them for their effort or persistence (rather than for their intelligence), by telling success stories that emphasize hard work and love of learning, and by teaching them about the brain as a learning machine.
Red wine mimic can fight diabetes
An extract of red wine, resveratrol, is known to temper the damage done by fatty diets, helping to extend healthy life and battle fat-related disease. But tests in mice have suggested that gallons of vino or a super-sized pill would be necessary for humans to stand a chance of getting the same benefits. Now scientists have discovered several chemicals that mimic resveratrol but have positive effects at more modest doses. The drugs have already been shown to do as well as another type 2 diabetes treatment in rodent tests of the disease, and will soon be tested in people. The drugs could be an alternative to diabetes treatments such as Avandia (rosiglitazone) that lower blood sugar but have caused heart problems for some.
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
Also on Blake's 250th, Terry Eagleton on What Blake Has to Teach Us About Politics
In the Guardian:
Blake grew up in a lower-middle-class Christian milieu. But the culture from which Blake sprang was one of the most precious Britain has produced, in which Jacobin artisans and Republican booksellers rubbed shoulders with Dissenting preachers and occult philosophers; the country was effectively a police state, ridden with spies and hunger rioters. Brown's Britain is not yet a police state, but its technologies of spying and surveillance surpass the wildest dreams of the autocrats of Blake's day. Blake himself was tried for sedition and acquitted, having allegedly cried in public: "Damn the king and his country!" Today whole sectors of the labour movement bow the knee to monarchy, or at least tolerate it as a minor irritant. The history of labour from Blake to Brown is, among other things, how dissent became domesticated.
Blake's politics were not just a matter of wishful thinking, as so many radical schemes are today. Across the Atlantic one great anti-colonial revolution had held out the promise of liberty, and to the poet's delight another had broken out in the streets of Paris. Together they promised to bring an end to the rule of state and church - "the Beast and the Whore", as Blake knew them. Most of our own writers, however, seem to know little of politics beyond the value of individual liberties.
On William Blake's 250th, A Poem
Today is the 250th birthday of William Blake, one the greatest poets in the English language. So on this occassion, "Hear The Voice":
[H/t: Maeve Adams]
HEAR the voice of the Bard,
Who present, past, and future, sees;
Whose ears have heard
The Holy Word
That walk'd among the ancient trees;
Calling the lapsèd soul,
And weeping in the evening dew;
That might control
The starry pole,
And fallen, fallen light renew!
'O Earth, O Earth, return!
Arise from out the dewy grass!
Night is worn,
And the morn
Rises from the slumbrous mass.
'Turn away no more;
Why wilt thou turn away?
The starry floor,
The watery shore,
Is given thee till the break of day.'