Animaris Rhinoceros Transport

Lakshmi Sandhana reports in Wired News:

4_f Theo Jansen wants to make “life” and he figures the best way to do it is to start from scratch.

A self-styled god, Jansen is evolving an entirely new line of animals: immense multi-legged walking critters designed to roam the Dutch coastline, feeding on gusts of wind. Over the years, successive generations of his creatures have evolved into increasingly complex animals that walk by flapping wings in response to the wind, discerning obstacles in their path through feelers and even hammering themselves into the sand on sensing an approaching storm.

A scientist-turned-artist, Jansen’s bizarre beach animals have their roots in a computer program that he designed 17 years ago in which virtual four-legged creatures raced against each other to identify survivors fit enough to reproduce. Determined to translate the evolutionary process off-screen, Jansen went to a local shop and found his own alternative to the biological cell — the humble plastic tube.

More here.

Complexity and memory

New research in complexity is offering some insights into how memory works.

“Meeting a friend you haven’t seen in years brings on a sudden surge of pleasant memories. You might even call it an avalanche.

Recent studies suggest that avalanches in your brain could actually help you to store memories. Last year, scientists at the National Institutes of Health placed slices of rat brain tissue on a microelectrode array and found that the brain cells activated each other in cascades called ‘neuronal avalanches.'”

50 Most Loathsome People in America, 2004

Continuing our love of lists, here’s one from the brilliant Buffalo Beast. Right in the middle we find:

25. Dr. Phil

Dr_philCrimes: Not a doctor. Not wise. Offers troubled souls nothing but the sweet feeling of surrendering control. Only reason for prominence is that Oprah just couldn’t support her show by herself anymore. Offers troubled simpletons meaningless slogans that resonate for a maximum of five days before they realize they already knew that shit and they still can’t stop whatever compulsive behavior got them onto his show in the first place. Is almost certainly regularly involved in some unspeakable depravity that he can’t stop and which caused him to fabricate his public persona in a frantic attempt to convince us he’s normal.

Smoking Gun: Both presidential candidates were forced to submit to his pedantic bullshit in some bizarre new soft focus emasculation ritual to get slack-jawed housewives to vote for them.

Punishment: A lifetime of guest spots on Springer.

Read the rest (some are extremely funny) here.

Architect Philip Johnson Dies at Age 98

From the Miami Herald:

Z11philip20johnson20at20buildingPhilip Johnson, the innovative architect who promoted the “glass box” skyscraper and then smashed the mold with daringly nostalgic post-modernist designs, has died. He was 98.

Johnson_1 Johnson died Tuesday night at his home in New Canaan, Conn., according to Joel S. Ehrenkranz, his lawyer. John Elderfield, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, also confirmed the death Wednesday.

Johnson’s work ranged from the severe modernism of his New Canaan home, a glass cube in the woods, to the Chippendale-topped AT&T Building in New York City, now owned by Sony.

He and his partner, John Burgee, designed the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif., an ecclesiastical greenhouse that is wider and higher than Notre Dame in Paris; the RepublicBank in Houston, a 56-story tower of pink granite stepped back in a series of Dutch gable roofs; and the Cleveland Playhouse, a complex with the feel of an 11th century town.

More here.

Johnson won the Pritzker in 1979. Here is his page at the Pritzker site, and here is more information, including pictures of some of his buildings.

The Pirelli Challenge to Commemorate the Centenary of the Discovery of Relativity

This year marks the centenary of four paper by Einstein that, well, transformed the world, to be cliched about it.  To commemorate the anniversary, Pirelli Worldwide is sponsoring the Pirelli Relativity Challenge 2005.

“[T]he Pirelli Internetional Award launches the Pirelli Relativity Challenge. An award for the best multimedia work that explains special relativity theory to the layperson.

The philosophy of the Award is that the effective communication of science is as important as the underlying science itself. This challenge seeks to promote this philosophy by simplifying and demystifying one of science’s most complex theories.”

The rules:

“1. Submissions must be interactive multimedia presentations -in about five minutes- of Einstein’ Special Relativity Theory (hereinafter referred to as the “Works”), for example, a .swf animation by means of Macromedia tools. The Pirelli Internetional Award Technical Committee is available for any clarification and advise.

2. Submissions must be sent by FTP or by an e-mail attachment before March 31, 2005 to the adresses the respective links.

3. The Jury will be formed by a reknown physicist, a famous scientific journalist, an unknown young student, a representative of industry, and a representative of the net economy.

4. The only award consists in a 25,000 Euro check (more than US $ 30,000), given to the winner in occasion of the Pirelli Internetional Award Ceremony, which will be held in Rome at mid 2005. . .”

Doctor Dolittle’s Delusion

Elizabeth Svoboda reviews Doctor Dolittle’s Delusion: Animals and the Uniqueness of Human Language by Stephen R. Anderson, in the San Francisco Chronicle:

Alex, an African Grey parrot, knows what he wants and intends to get it. “Want nut!” he squawks at his scientist owner, Irene Pepperberg. Before he can get his reward, though, he has to perform a task. “What matter?” Pepperberg asks Alex, showing him a cloth ball. “Wool,” he answers correctly — he can also identify wood, plastic, metal and paper — then munches on his requested treat. Unlike some parrots with a vast capacity for mimicry, Alex has a “vocabulary” of only about 100 words, but he has an important cognitive advantage: He actually seems to know what he’s talking about. Watching Alex and Pepperberg interact, it’s easy to conclude that the parrot, like Hugh Lofting’s Gub-Gub the pig or Jip the dog, has mastered the fundamentals of human language.

Not so fast, says Stephen R. Anderson, a professor of linguistics and cognitive science at Yale University.

More here.

Isaiah Berlin’s Letters

Simon Schama reads Letters 1928-1946 by Isaiah Berlin, edited by Henry Hardy:

BerlinIf reading this glorious collection of Berlin’s letters is, predictably, a heady experience, it is also a hearty one. Not in the British sense of cheery muscularity (definitely not Berlin’s thing), but in the sense that the letters reveal an intellectual sensibility in which uncompromising analytical clarity was uniquely married to an unshakable faith in the decent instincts of humanity. Abstract ideas, free-floating in their own rarefied sphere of discourse, unmoored from historical place and moment (the philosophical fashion when he arrived in Oxford in the early 1930s), became for Berlin a kind of high intellectual aesthetics. In the hands of its nimblest practitioners, such as J.L. Austin, the performance was a marvelous thing to behold, but in the end, as Berlin realized while crossing the Atlantic in the belly of a bomber in 1944, it was play, not work. It was not, at any rate, his kind of work. So while the collection is packed with letters that place Isaiah Berlin in the same rank of modern epistolary artists as Evelyn Waugh and Kenneth Tynan, and can be enjoyed as the most delicious kind of literary and intellectual confectionery, the book is best read as a Bildungsroman of the twentieth century, the strenuous journey of an exceptional mind toward its own self-realization.

More here in The New Republic.

Improving on Google

Javed Mostafa in Scientific American:

In less than a decade, Internet search engines have completely changed how people gather information. No longer must we run to a library to look up something; rather we can pull up relevant documents with just a few clicks on a keyboard. Now that “Googling” has become synonymous with doing research, online search engines are poised for a series of upgrades that promise to further enhance how we find what we need.

More here.

Empire of the Senseless

When Donald Rumsfeld turned the phrase “Old Europe” he meant a culture more than a landmass, those quaint habits and ideals of our continental brethren–respect for international law or taste for good wine–which ought to be left behind. Ours is an empire of intolerable provincialism, small minded and close fisted at once. In the latest number of the increasingly reliable New York Review of Books, Tony Judt takes stock of the  kulterkampf:

Consider a mug of American coffee. It is found everywhere. It can be made by anyone. It is cheap—and refills are free. Being largely without flavor it can be diluted to taste. What it lacks in allure it makes up in size. It is the most democratic method ever devised for introducing caffeine into human beings. Now take a cup of Italian espresso. It requires expensive equipment. Price-to-volume ratio is outrageous, suggesting indifference to the consumer and ignorance of the market. The aesthetic satisfaction accessory to the beverage far outweighs its metabolic impact. It is not a drink; it is an artifact.

This contrast can stand for the differences between America and Europe —differences nowadays asserted with increased frequency and not a little acrimony on both sides of the Atlantic. The mutual criticisms are familiar. To American commentators Europe is “stagnant.” Its workers, employers, and regulations lack the flexibility and adaptability of their US counterparts. The costs of European social welfare payments and public services are “unsustainable.” Europe’s aging and “cosseted” populations are underproductive and self-satisfied. In a globalized world, the “European social model” is a doomed mirage. This conclusion is typically drawn even by “liberal” American observers, who differ from conservative (and neoconservative) critics only in deriving no pleasure from it.

To a growing number of Europeans, however, it is America that is in trouble and the “American way of life” that cannot be sustained. The American pursuit of wealth, size, and abundance —as material surrogates for happiness —is aesthetically unpleasing and ecologically catastrophic. The American economy is built on sand (or, more precisely, other people’s money). For many Americans the promise of a better future is a fading hope. Contemporary mass culture in the US is squalid and meretricious. No wonder so many Americans turn to the church for solace.

These perceptions constitute the real Atlantic gap and they suggest that something has changed. In past decades it was conventionally assumed—whether with satisfaction or regret—that Eu-rope and America were converging upon a single “Western” model of late capitalism, with the US as usual leading the way. The logic of scale and market, of efficiency and profit, would ineluctably trump local variations and inherited cultural constraints. Americanization (or globalization—the two treated as synonymous) was inevitable. The best—indeed the only—hope for local products and practices was that they would be swept up into the global vortex and repackaged as “international” commodities for universal consumption. Thus an archetypically Italian product—caffè espresso—would travel to the US, where it would metamorphose from an elite preference into a popular commodity, and then be repackaged and sold back to Europeans by an American chain store.

But something has gone wrong with this story. It is not just that Starbucks has  encountered unexpected foreign resistance to double-decaf-mocha-skim-latte-with-cinnamon (except, revealingly, in the United Kingdom), or that politically motivated  Europeans are abjuring high-profile American commodities. It is becoming clear that  America and Europe are not way stations on a historical production line, such that  Europeans must expect to inherit or replicate the American experience after an  appropriate time lag. They are actually quite distinct places, very possibly moving in  divergent directions. There are even those—including the authors of two of the books  under review—for whom it is not Europe but rather the United States that is trapped in the past.

‘Intelligent design’ taught in Pennsylvania

From CNN:

HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania (AP) — High school students heard about “intelligent design” for the first time Tuesday in the Pennsylvania school district that attracted national attention by requiring students to be made aware of it as an alternative to the theory of evolution.

The case represents the newest chapter in a history of evolution lawsuits dating back to the Scopes Monkey Trial in Tennessee nearly 80 years ago. In Georgia, a suburban Atlanta school district plans to challenge a federal judge’s order to remove stickers in science textbooks that call evolution “a theory, not a fact.”

Stephen Jay Gould is sorely missed today.

More here.

String Theory 101

Alok Jha in The Guardian:

WittenEdward Witten is so softly spoken that his voice sometimes threatens to drift away completely. His desk is a jumble of papers and his blackboard a mess of equations. But his hushed words come straight to the point and are infused with understanding and passion.

Witten’s quiet manner belies his status. In his role as de facto scientist-in-chief of string theory, Witten, the Charles Simonyi professor of mathematical physics at the Institute of Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton, is undoubtedly the heir to Albert Einstein’s title of greatest living physicist. If Einstein were alive today, he would probably be a string theorist, engaged in a remarkable, but still very controversial, theory that claims to explain absolutely everything around us.

More here.

V. S. Pritchett: Wizard of the Lower Middle

Michael Gorra reviews V. S. Pritchett: A Working Life by Jeremy Treglown, in the New York Times Book Review:

Pritchett184“A Working Life” — the subtitle is exact. Even in his 80’s, the English writer V. S. Pritchett (1900-97) would ”go fast up the four flights of steep stairs to my study . . . every day of the week, at 9 o’clock in the morning.” He would light his pipe, put a pastry board across the arms of his chair and begin to roll out the words of a review or a story. The hours until lunch would seem but ”a few minutes.” There were more words before dinner, and sometimes after it too, and every now and then he would ”go on writing in my sleep, in English mostly but often, out of vanity, in Spanish.” It was all done by hand with paper and pen, his part of it anyway. His wife, Dorothy, typed up the work of the day before, making a clean copy for him to cover with an ”ant’s colony of corrections.”

More here.

The pseudo-feminist show trial of Larry Summers

William Saletan in Slate:

Larry Summers, the president of Harvard, suggested the other day that innate differences between the sexes might help explain why relatively few women become professional scientists or engineers. For this, he has been denounced—metaphorically, of course—as a Neanderthal. Alumni are withholding donations. Professors are demanding apologies. Some want him fired.

Everyone agrees Summers’ remarks were impolitic. But were they wrong? Is it wrong to suggest that biological differences might cause more men than women to reach the academic elite in math and science?

More here.

less grammar, more play

Philip Pullman in The Guardian:

The report published this week by the University of York on its research into the teaching of grammar will hardly surprise anyone who has thought about the subject. The question being examined was whether instruction in grammar had any effect on pupils’ writing. It included the largest systematic review yet of research on this topic; and the conclusion the authors came to was that there was no evidence at all that the teaching of grammar had any beneficial effect on the quality of writing done by pupils.

More here.

Whenever you can, count

Jim Holt writes about Extreme Measures: The Dark Visions and Bright Ideas of Francis Galton by Martin Brookes, in the New Yorker:

GaltonIn the eighteen-eighties, residents of cities across Britain might have noticed an aged, bald, bewhiskered gentleman sedulously eying every girl he passed on the street while manipulating something in his pocket. What they were seeing was not lechery in action but science. Concealed in the man’s pocket was a device he called a “pricker,” which consisted of a needle mounted on a thimble and a cross-shaped piece of paper. By pricking holes in different parts of the paper, he could surreptitiously record his rating of a female passerby’s appearance, on a scale ranging from attractive to repellent. After many months of wielding his pricker and tallying the results, he drew a “beauty map” of the British Isles. London proved the epicenter of beauty, Aberdeen of its opposite.

Such research was entirely congenial to Francis Galton, a man who took as his motto “Whenever you can, count.”

More here.

What Price Relevance?

Some time ago, The Times Literary Supplement stopped taking the pulse of British intellectual life. It is testimony to their grandeur, however, that they would devote this week’s cover  to something so seemingly otiose as the appearance of a new edition of Henry Fielding’s plays. A world that cares about such things is indeed a better world than the one we have.

Here, the rather unadorned periods of Claude Rawson:

“Henry Fielding died almost exactly a quarter of a millennium ago, on October 8, 1754. He was by then best known as one of the masters of the European novel, and as a political journalist, social thinker, and magistrate. Two decades earlier, however, he had been England’s leading playwright, producing over two dozen plays in less than ten years. His dramatic career was curtailed by the Licensing Act of 1737, which his own plays helped to provoke, and which remained in force until 1968, though latterly in the cause mainly of moral rather than political censorship. His plays are now seldom produced, but Shaw called him ‘the greatest practising dramatist, with the single exception of Shakespear, produced by England between the Middle Ages and the nineteenth century’, a wording which, as is sometimes remarked, left room for Shaw himself to claim the top spot.”


Above all, however, it is in their style and technical organization that the novels draw most deeply on the plays. The keen sense of the well-shaped, tightly ordered narrative, with firm plot-resolution, for which Tom Jones is especially celebrated, is a remarkable application of playwriting disciplines to a work of panoramic scope and untheatrical length, and the novels show many local signs of theatrical organization: chapters or episodes framed as set pieces, analogous in shape and length to a scene in a play, comic misunderstandings, reversals and well-timed coincidences, conversations heard at cross purposes. They also show an alert ear for dialogue of a stylized and typifying kind, designed to bring out the cant of social groups or the character – revealing accents of wicked or foolish types, and showing marked traces of the dramatic genres Fielding practised: the manically aphoristic repartee of Restoration wit-comedy, the quick-time exchanges of farce, the bumptious precisions of comic opera, the stage-rustic speech of Squire Western.”

The virus hunter

From New Scientist:

Osterhaus_1How do some people find what everyone else has missed? Is it hard work, instinct, luck, breaking the rules – or something extra? Albert Osterhaus isn’t sure. But he has a big reputation, with major credits for SARS, bird flu and seal distemper and his methods can be “unconventional”.

Albert Osterhaus qualified as a vet, but quickly tired of neutering cats. He moved into research, and graduated from Utrecht University in 1978 with a PhD in virology. His reputation as a virus collector was founded at the Netherlands’ National Institute for Public Health and Environment, where he was responsible for ensuring that vaccines produced in kidney cells of monkeys and rabbits were clear of extraneous viruses. This gave him the opportunity to work on a range of animal viruses, eventually producing ground-breaking research. Now he heads a 100-strong lab at Erasmus University,Rotterdam, owns two biotech companies, and is part of numerous global collaborations.

Read Diane Martindale’s interview of Osterhaus here.

The economics of happiness

From a review of Happiness: Lessons from a New Science by Richard Layard, in The Economist:

For the past half-century, those lucky enough to have been born in a rich country have had every prospect of growing richer. On average, incomes in Britain, America and Japan, adjusted for inflation, have easily doubled over that time. On top of this come the benefits of longer lives of better quality, thanks to advances in medicine and to a plethora of consumer goodies making living easier and more enjoyable. You might, even, expect folk to be a great deal happier today than in the 1950s.

You would be wrong, according to many surveys taken in rich countries. These tend to show that, once a country has lifted itself out of poverty, further rises in income seem not to create a meaningful rise in the proportion of people who count themselves as happy. Since the 1950s, for example, the proportion of Americans who tell pollsters that they are “very happy” has stayed constant at around 30%, while the proportion who say that they are “not very happy” has barely fallen. Explaining this paradox, and offering suggestions for increasing the supply of happiness, is the aim of a new book by Richard Layard, a professor of economics at the London School of Economics and a Labour peer.

More here.

Turtles Can Fly

Marie Valla in Newsweek:

050121_turtlesfilm_hdKurdish-Iranian filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi discusses his new movie—the first filmed in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein—and the cruel world of Iraqi children:

“Turtles Can Fly,” the first feature film set in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein, could be Bahman Ghobadi’s ticket to the Oscars. The Kurdish-Iranian director’s third film bittersweetly chronicles the life of a village waiting for war to erupt. While adults watch events unfold on American cable-news channels, children try to make a few bucks collecting land mines. Their self-proclaimed leader, a boy called Satellite, falls in love with the enigmatic and ever-escaping Agrin, who flees the brutality of war with her armless brother and a blind toddler in tow. But tragedy, it turns out, isn’t so easily outrun.

Read the interview here.

A Glimpse of Supersolid

Graham P. Collins in Scientific American:

Solids and liquids could hardly seem more different, one maintaining a rigid shape and the other flowing to fit the contours of whatever contains it. And of all the things that slosh and pour, superfluids seem to capture the quintessence of the liquid state–running through tiny channels with no resistance and even dribbling uphill to escape from a bowl.

A superfluid solid sounds like an oxymoron, but it is precisely what researchers at Pennsylvania State University have recently witnessed. Physicists Moses Chan and Eun-Seong Kim saw the behavior in helium 4 that was compressed into solidity and chilled to near absolute zero. Although the supersolid behavior had been suggested as a theoretical possibility as long ago as 1969, its demonstration poses deep mysteries.

More here.