Sunday, March 29, 2009
World's Most Alienating Airport
Prague's Franz Kafka International Named World's Most Alienating Airport
Rachel Maddow's Star Power
From Mother Jones:
If you don't know by now, Rachel Maddow is the world's most unlikely cable news talk-show host. For one thing, she doesn't watch TV. And she's young (35), is a Rhodes scholar with a PhD from Oxford, and is openly gay—an industry first. (More than one friend has told me that her ascent is some consolation for the passage of California's anti-gay-marriage Prop 8.) But her combination of lefty sensibilities, a hipster vibe, wicked smarts, and genuine good cheer has taken the entire country by storm. She's made msnbc competitive against cnn's Larry King for the first time. Existing in the space between Jim Lehrer's NewsHour and Jon Stewart's Daily Show, Maddow's hour-long show privileges reporters and actual experts over pundits, real information over blather and fake fights, and comes with healthy sides of sass and sarcasm. It's a mix she learned at the left-of-center radio network Air America, where she still broadcasts a live show each weekday. In her spare time, Maddow's writing a book on the role of politics in the US military. In her other spare time, she's an enthusiast of graphic novels and mixology.
The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning
From The Telegraph:
It is the stuff of legend. The story of the wild-eyed maverick who was attacked, vindicated and then hailed as a green visionary who could save the world. The tale of the free thinker who could teach the establishment a thing or two. There’s no better way to underline James Lovelock’s evolution to an elder statesman of science than to read the foreword to The Vanishing Face of Gaia, written by none other than Lord Rees, Order of Merit, President of the Royal Society, Astronomer Royal, and the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge: “He is a hero to many scientists – certainly to me.”
He Knew He Was Right, an authorised biography by John Gribbin and Mary Gribbin, gives a good sense of Lovelock’s inspirational, independent spirit. There are all kinds of engaging stories about the conscientious objector, the husband who sold his blood (a rare type) to support his family, the boffin who froze and reanimated hamsters, and the cannibal who augmented his impoverished wartime diet by turning waste human blood into omelettes. Lovelock has notched up many achievements during his career, notably his invention of an instrument crucial for documenting the use of the pesticide DDT and ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons, the latter providing a foundation for studies revealing risks to the atmosphere’s protective ozone layer.
Lovelock is best known for introducing the world to the seductive idea of Gaia, which says the Earth behaves as though it were an organism. The concept first reached a wide audience in 1975 in an article published in New Scientist, but was ridiculed, attacked for being teleological, even mocked as an “evil religion”.
Saturday, March 28, 2009
TOOLS OF AMERICAN MATHEMATICS TEACHING
Fernando Gouvêa in American Scientist:
Tools of American Mathematics Teaching, 1800–2000, by Peggy Aldrich Kidwell, Amy Ackerberg-Hastings and David Lindsay Roberts, is a historical survey of several of the objects that have formed, at some point during the past 200 years, the “material culture” of the American mathematics classroom. Each chapter is an essay focusing on one particular kind of object. Some treat things that are in general use, such as textbooks, blackboards and overhead projectors. Others study objects that are found almost exclusively in the mathematics classroom: protractors, blocks, beads, geometric models, slide rules, graph paper and the like. The four final essays focus on electronic technology.
In every case, we get both a close analysis of the objects themselves and a discussion of the available texts describing (and often promoting) their use.
Legalize drugs to stop violence
Jeffrey A. Miron, senior lecturer in economics at Harvard University, at CNN:
Prohibition creates violence because it drives the drug market underground. This means buyers and sellers cannot resolve their disputes with lawsuits, arbitration or advertising, so they resort to violence instead.
Violence was common in the alcohol industry when it was banned during Prohibition, but not before or after.
Violence is the norm in illicit gambling markets but not in legal ones. Violence is routine when prostitution is banned but not when it's permitted. Violence results from policies that create black markets, not from the characteristics of the good or activity in question.
The only way to reduce violence, therefore, is to legalize drugs. Fortuitously, legalization is the right policy for a slew of other reasons.
Prohibition of drugs corrupts politicians and law enforcement by putting police, prosecutors, judges and politicians in the position to threaten the profits of an illicit trade. This is why bribery, threats and kidnapping are common for prohibited industries but rare otherwise. Mexico's recent history illustrates this dramatically.
Prohibition erodes protections against unreasonable search and seizure because neither party to a drug transaction has an incentive to report the activity to the police. Thus, enforcement requires intrusive tactics such as warrantless searches or undercover buys. The victimless nature of this so-called crime also encourages police to engage in racial profiling.
I find it hard to see any hopeful humane radicalism in the planned protests against the G20 summit. Symbols say it all. Protestors plan to march behind the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The Apocalypse of Saint John in the Bible inspired centuries of social protest in the middle ages. But as historian Norman Cohn demonstrated in his classic book The Pursuit of the Millennium, apocalyptic movements were irrational, violent, and slipped easily into persecution of minorities. Albrect Dürer's woodcut of the Four Horsemen may be unforgettably vivid, but it is not a manifesto for progress. The cultural roots of Nazism lie in such visceral images. This is no time to be sensationalist. Keeping calm seems like good advice. But behind my nerves is a real and troubling fact. Hopefully this isn't going to be anything like as bad as the 1930s; but some say it is, and democracy barely survived that era. Looking into the shattered glass of Weimar Germany's violent art, I feel uneasy.more from The Guardian here.
voss and the vivisector
Patrick White, the first great novelist to come out of Australia, was born in 1912, won the Nobel Prize in 1973, died in 1990 and his work promptly dropped from fashion. His style of narrative-driven psychological modernism seemed outmoded, perhaps, when the highbrow section of the literary marketplace had turned to the exuberant post-modernism of Salman Rushdie and David Foster Wallace, on the one hand, and the differently stylized realisms of Raymond Carver and Alice Munro on the other. A chapter from one of White's novels, submitted pseudonymously to a list of top publishers in 2007, was rejected by every one of them. White -- who was gay, had a gallows wit and self-consciously cast himself as an outsider, both ahead of his times and behind them -- would have seen the humor in that. He once said that he had wasted his life writing and should have stuck to "learning to cook properly."more from the LA Times here.
THE AGE OF ENTANGLEMENT
With special relativity, Albert Einstein upended the long-understood meaning of time, space and simultaneity. With general relativity, he swapped Newton’s law of gravity based on force for curved spacetime, and cosmology became a science. Just after World War I, relativity made front-page news when astronomers saw the Sun bend starlight. Overnight, Einstein became famous as no physical scientist before or since, his theory the subject of poetry, painting and architecture. Then, with the development of quantum mechanics in the 1920s, physics got really interesting. Quantum physics was a theory so powerful — and so powerfully weird — that nearly a century later, we’re still arguing about how to reconcile it with Einsteinian relativity and debating what it tells us about causality, locality and realism.more from the NY Times here.
13 Things That Don’t Make Sense
William Leith in The Telegraph:
Why, Brooks asks, can’t physicists find a theory to explain how the universe works? Well, the universe contains particles, and these particles are guided by forces. The trouble is that the experts don’t really understand most of the forces and particles. “Almost all the universe is missing,” says Brooks. “Ninety-six per cent, to put a number on it.” Brooks surmises that there must be hugely powerful forces we don’t know about – or, to use the scientific term, “dark matter”. We know this – or, at least, we think we know this – because we don’t understand how gravity works.
Don’t we? Not really. In our solar system, we know that the Earth travels around the Sun faster than, say, Neptune for a simple reason: the Earth is closer, and is therefore subject to stronger gravitational force. But look at galaxies a little further out, and the same thing does not happen. In the Coma cluster of galaxies, objects at the edge are moving faster than they should. That must be because they are being held in place by something. Dark matter, almost certainly. Which might be just another way of saying, “we don’t know”.
Adding to the list of uncertainty, Brooks asks another question: what is life? Again, scientists don’t know. There are inanimate objects. And then there are living things. “But no scientist on Earth can tell you where the fundamental difference between these two states lies.” One definition might be that living things reproduce themselves. But then, so do some non-living things, such as computer viruses. And some living things, such as mules, do not.
“Some people never worked a day in their life,
don’t know what work even means.”
–Bob Dylan, Working Man’s Blues
What Work Is
We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is--if you're
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it's someone else's brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, "No,
we're not hiring today," for any
reason he wants. You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
who's not beside you or behind or
ahead because he's home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.
Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.
How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You've never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you're too young or too dumb,
not because you're jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,
just because you don't know what work is.
New support for West Bank outpost
Tim Franks at the BBC:
A road is being built from the established settlement of Eli, near the Palestinian city of Nablus, leading east to the illegal outpost at Hayovel.
Settlement expansion is a major barrier to an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
The international community regards all settlements in the West Bank as illegal under international law.
Israel disputes this, but even under Israeli law, those newer, smaller settlements - known as outposts - which have not received authorisation from the government are deemed, by the Israeli government, to be illegal.
BRAD LEITHAUSER in The New York Times:
Translated by Anne Carson
If this seems a somewhat flippant account of Agamemnon’s tragedy, as immortalized by Aeschylus in his “Oresteia” trilogy (458 B.C.), it is in keeping with the tone of Anne Carson’s new translation. Her Agamemnon is brash and slangy. When I was an undergraduate in the 1970s, the standard translation was Richmond Lattimore’s, published in 1953. Lattimore had labored mightily — perhaps too mightily — in pursuit of grandeur, achieved chiefly through high diction and a studious English reconstitution of Greek meters. Here, in a typical passage, the Chorus asks Clytemnestra about her husband’s possible return:
Is it some grace — or otherwise — that you have heard
to make you sacrifice at messages of good hope?
I should be glad to hear, but must not blame your silence.
And this is Carson’s rendering of the same passage:
So you got good news?
Tell me, unless you don’t want to.
Defenders of Carson’s approach might point out that her plainspoken delivery has the advantage of sounding like something someone might actually say. Certainly, it’s hard to imagine anybody (anybody, that is, whose existence extends beyond the enchanted, concentric rings of a theater) talking as Lattimore’s characters talk. The play opens with a night watchman, lamenting the unchanging dreariness of his task. Here is Lattimore:
I ask the gods some respite from the weariness
of this watchtime measured by years I lie awake
elbowed upon the Atreidae’s roof dogwise to mark
the grand processionals of all the stars of night. . . .
What’s lost in this combination of metrical mellifluousness and clunkiness (elbowed dogwise?) is any sense of genuine exasperation. Here is Carson, where impatience emerges like a jab in the ribs:
Gods! Free me from this grind!
It’s one long year I’m lying here watching waiting watching waiting —
propped on the roof of Atreus, chin on my paws like a dog.
I’ve peered at the congregation of the nightly stars. . . .
Friday, March 27, 2009
Let’s fight hurricanes like we’re waging a war
Graeme Wood in Good:
This enemy is the Atlantic hurricane system, and the price of its damage, in dollars spent and in lives lost, rivals that of man-made war. Hurricane Katrina, which totaled nearly $100 billion and 1,800 dead in 2005, cost only slightly less than a year of the occupation of Iraq, and killed more Americans in a day than the Iraq war claimed in over two years. Last year, Hurricane Ike claimed only 177 lives, but still wreaked $31 billion of damage.
If this enemy were human—imagine, if you can, a rogue Canadian government—we would long since have funded a massive military and civilian project to defend our border, raid enemy bases, and reduce Ottawa to puddle of hot slag. But since hurricanes are inanimate, we resign ourselves to the inevitable destruction.
We can do better.
For decades, meteorologists have studied ways to strangle hurricanes. Their efforts have not been much rewarded: colleagues shun them, tending to eschew the voodoo-meteorology involved in weather tinkering. But the anti-hurricane scientists are serious, and their efforts, while underfunded, have produced an ingenious array of new tactics.
With nationalist demagogues rising to power in both India and Israel, Pankaj Mishra examines the parallel histories of violent partition, ethnic cleansing and militant patriotism that have led both countries into a moral wilderness.
From The National:
Reverence for Adolf Hitler – who is hailed as a hero in textbooks in the Hindu nationalist-ruled state of Gujarat, while Mein Kampf remains popular at bookstores – is one of the many sinister aspects of “rising” India today. This cult of Hitler as a great “patriot” and “strategist” grew early among middle-class Hindus. MS Golwalkar, the much-revered Hindu leader and ideologue, wrote in 1938 that Nazi Germany had manifested “race pride at its highest” by purging itself of the “Semitic races” – and yet Golwalkar was also an admirer of Zionism.
This simultaneous veneration of Hitler and Israel may appear a monstrous moral contradiction to Europeans or Americans who see Israel as the homeland of Jewish victims of Nazi crimes. However, such distinctions are lost on the Hindu nationalists, who esteem Nazi Germany and Israel for their patriotic effort to cleanse their states of alien and potentially disloyal elements, and for their militaristic ethos. Many Indians and other colonised peoples hoped for Nazi Germany and Japan to at least undermine, if not defeat, the British Empire. My grandfather was among the Indians with a misplaced faith in Germany’s military capacity. He would have been horrified by the facts of the Holocaust if he had encountered them. But like so many Hindu nationalists, his main political anxiety during those years after the Second World War was whether Mother India would be partitioned into two countries; the subsequent creation of Pakistan as a separate state for Indian Muslims pushed all other historical traumas, especially those of distant Europe, out of view.
More here. [Photo shows Narendra Modi.]
Perfect German Board Game Redefines Genre
Andrew Curry in Wired:
In 1991, Klaus Teuber was well on his way to becoming one of the planet's hottest board game designers. Teuber (pronounced "TOY-burr"), a dental technician living with his wife and three kids in a white row house in Rossdorf, Germany, had created a game a few years earlier called Barbarossa and the Riddlemaster, a sort of ur-Cranium in which players mold figures out of modeling clay while their opponents try to guess what the sculptures represent. The game was a hit, and in 1988 it won the Spiel des Jahres prize—German board gaming's highest honor.
Winning some obscure German award may not sound impressive, but in the board game world the Spiel des Jahres is, in fact, a very, very big deal. Germans, it turns out, are absolutely nuts about board games. More are sold per capita in Germany than anywhere else on earth. The country's mainstream newspapers review board games alongside movies and books, and the annual Spiel board game convention in Essen draws more than 150,000 fans from all walks of life.
Because of this enthusiasm, board game design has become high art—and big business—in Germany. Any game aficionado will tell you that the best-designed titles in the world come from this country. In fact, the phrase German-style game is now shorthand for a breed of tight, well-designed games that resemble Monopoly the way a Porsche 911 resembles a Chevy Cobalt.
The monster inside my son
Ann Bauer in Salon:
I scan the story while standing, my coffee forgotten. Trudy Steuernagel, a faculty member in political science at Kent State, has been murdered and her 18-year-old son, Sky, has been arrested and charged with the crime, though he is profoundly disabled and can neither speak nor understand. Sky, who likes cartoons and chicken nuggets, apparently lost control and beat his mother into a coma. He was sitting in jail when she died.
This happens to be two days after my older son's 21st birthday, which we marked behind two sets of locked steel doors. I'm exhausted and hopeless and vaguely hung over because Andrew, who has autism, also has evolved from sweet, dreamy boy to something like a golem: bitter, rampaging, full of rage. It happened no matter how fiercely I loved him or how many therapies I employed.
Now, reading about this Ohio mother, there is a moment of slithering nausea and panic followed immediately by a sense of guilty relief.
I am not alone.
I turn off on the dodgy road to Shwt, which to the non-Welsh ear sounds somewhere between “shoot” and “shit.” A blind curve descends to a narrow stone bridge over a little river rippling through a grove of dwarf oaks. It’s a glorious, sun-flooded spring morning. The oaks are still leafless, but daffodils are out everywhere, the gorse is spattered with yellow blossoms, and the tits and thrushes are singing their hearts out. There’s nothing suicidal about this rolling, pastoral landscape, drenched with the sense of being inhabited for thousands of years, that I can detect. But a few years ago, a local 17-year-old boy left his car running and gassed himself here. While there has always been a lot of suicide in the lowlands of South Wales, what’s been happening lately in the county borough of Bridgend is something different and very troubling. Since January of 2007, 25 people between the ages of 15 and 28 have killed themselves within 10 miles of here, all by hanging, except for one 15-year-old, who lay down on the tracks before an oncoming train after he was teased for being gay. This isn’t just a series of unrelated, individual acts. It’s an outbreak—a localized epidemic—of a desire to leave this world that is particularly contagious to teenagers, who are impressionable and impulsive and, apparently in Bridgend, not finding many reasons for wanting to stick around. It represents, if the official statistics are to be believed, a fivefold increase in Bridgend’s young-male suicide rate in three years.more from Vanity Fair here.
literature against dessert
You are about to begin reading my new essay on the experimental literary group known as the Ouvroir de la Littérature Potentielle: The Sewing Circle of Potential Literature. Please be aware that every single fact herein is absolutely 100% true . . . I think. So relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. We must begin with some necessary backtracking, unpacking, detangling of roots; down the long trail of antecedents, back to the Nineteenth century science of imaginary solutions known as Pataphysics, which, according to Alfred Jarry, the leader of the movement, deals with “the laws which govern exceptions and will explain the universe supplementary to this one; or, less ambitiously, will describe a universe which can be—and perhaps should be—envisaged in the place of the traditional one.” For it is here that we locate the big bang responsible for the creation of the Oulipo. Pataphysicians believed in the truth of contradictions and exceptions. They did not believe in truth or other provable unprovables. They firmly believed in not believing in things, and especially believed only in facts that could not be proven to be unprovable or visa versa. They also disliked ice cream, cake, and all other desserts. Spearheaded by Jarry, these anti-dessert-eating literary explorers sliced a gash in space-time and established the first productive European avant-garde collective.more from AGNI here.
the kindly ones
It comes as no surprise that a book that is preoccupied with giving a persuasive account of what it would be like to be an ostensibly civilized person who ends up doing unimaginably uncivilized things should, for the most part, have been enthusiastically embraced and, to a far lesser extent, vigorously resisted in a country that has such a tortured historic relationship to questions of collaboration and resistance. For the same reason, perhaps, you're not surprised to learn that the most violent criticism of the "monstrous" book's "kitsch" and "pornography of violence" has come from Germany and Israel: the countries, that is to say, of the perpetrators and the victims. The critic of Die Zeit bitterly asked why she shouldmore from the NYRB here.read a book written by an educated idiot who writes badly, is haunted by sexual perversities and abandoned himself to racist ideology and an archaic belief in fate? I am afraid that I have yet to find the answer.The answer to that impatient question surely has something to do with the novel's large ambitions, which precisely address the question of why we would be interested in how an educated person could abandon himself to racist ideology, and what the ramifications of that abandonment might look like. Some of these ambitions are brilliantly realized; others much less so. But all of them make Littell's book a serious one, deserving of serious treatment.
An Author Peers at Reagan, and the Brink
From The Washington Post:
James Mann got interested in writing about Ronald Reagan when he discovered that, while Reagan was president, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld used to sneak off to undisclosed locations to prepare for Armageddon. A longtime Los Angeles Times reporter, Mann left the paper in 2001 to write books full time. First up was "Rise of the Vulcans," a historical portrait of President George W. Bush's foreign policy team. Mann spent a couple of years asking Washington notables what they knew about Cheney, Rumsfeld and his other subjects.
"One guy said, 'Oh, well, I took part in these exercises with this guy,' " Mann recalls. "It took a while to find out what the exercises were." It turned out, as Mann revealed in "Vulcans," that Cheney and Rumsfeld were part of a highly classified program "nowhere authorized in the U.S. Constitution or federal law." It was designed "to keep the federal government running during and after a nuclear war with the Soviet Union."
Rumsfeld was in the private sector at the time. Cheney was in Congress. But both had done stints as White House chief of staff, and now, as part of a small group of "team leaders" designated by Reagan, they had been tapped to help run a replacement government should the president die in a nuclear strike. They would vanish for days to rehearse, hooking up with "a convoy of lead-lined trucks carrying sophisticated communication equipment." Even their wives didn't know what was going on.
Russian Mathematician Wins Abel Prize
A Russian-born mathematician whose work has influenced fields from physics to biology has won this year's Abel Prize, the math field's counterpart to the Nobel. The $950,000 prize, first awarded in 2003 by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, goes to Mikhail Gromov of the Institut des Hautes Études Scientifiques (IHES) in Bures-sur-Yvette, France.
Gromov, 65, won the award "for his revolutionary contributions to geometry," says Abel Committee Chair Kristian Seip. The mathematician, who also holds a position at the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences in New York City, is credited with making advances in the fields of symplectic and Riemannian geometry, which are closely tied to areas of mathematical physics such as general relativity and string theory. He is also credited with founding the modern study of "geometric group theory," which injects notions of distance and curvature into the study of finite algebraic structures. Gromov's work "has had a tremendous impact on geometry and has reached from there into major applications in analysis and algebra," says George Andrews, president of the American Mathematical Society in Providence. "One cannot imagine a more worthy recipient."
At the Wailing Wall
I figure I have to come here with my kids,
though I’m always ill at ease in holy places—
the wars, for one thing—and it’s the substanceless
that sets me going: the holy words.
Though I do write a note – my girls’ sound future
(there’s an evil eye out there; you never know)
and then pick up a broken-backed siddur,
the first of many motions to go through.
Let’s get them over with. I hate this women’s section
almost as much as that one full of men
wrapped in tallises, eyes closed, showing off.
But here I am, reciting the amida anyway.
Surprising things can happen when you start to pray;
we’ll see if any angels call my bluff.