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.

Bangladesh: The Next Islamist Revolution?

“Bangladesh was supposed to be a model of democratic tolerance. But that was before militants like Bangla Bhai began their reigns of torture and the cry went up for a new Taliban.”

Elizabeth Griswold in the New York Times Magazine:

Last spring, Bangla Bhai, whose followers probably number around 10,000, decided to try an Islamist revolution in several provinces of Bangladesh that border on India. His name means ”Bangladeshi brother.” (At one point he said his real name was Azizur Rahman and more recently claimed it was Siddiqul Islam.) He has said that he acquired this nom de guerre while waging jihad in Afghanistan and that he was now going to bring about the Talibanization of his part of Bangladesh. Men were to grow beards, women to wear burkas. This was all rather new to the area, which was religiously diverse. But Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh, as Bangla Bhai’s group is called (the name means Awakened Muslim Masses of Bangladesh), was determined and violent and seemed to have enough lightly armed adherents to make its rule stick.

More here.

Projekt30: Publicly juried art exhibition

Lara_marcantonio_1_sm This is an interesting site with a lot of visually arresting art. You may vote for or against a work of art by rating it on a scale of 1 to 5, determining whether it will be including in their February show:

There are two sections:

First, a full listing of all of the submissions we recieved is available for view to all.

Second, a randomly ordered list of all artists can be voted on for you to help determine which artists graduate to the February Exhibition, slated to open February 4, 2005.

To view all of the submissions we recieved, click “view submitted work” at left.

To jury a random ordering of all artists, click “jury the exhibition” at left.

Check it out here.

Michael Chabon on Sherlock Holmes

Michael Chabon reviews The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, Volumes 1 and 2 by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, edited with a foreword and notes by Leslie S. Klinger, and with an introduction by John le Carré, in the New York Review of Books:

Sherlock One hundred and seventeen years after his first appearance in print, in the pages of Beeton’s Christmas Annual for 1887, fans and nonbelievers alike seem to feel compelled to try to explain Sherlock Holmes’s lasting appeal, marveling or shaking their heads at it, or both, as if the stories of the adventures with Dr. Watson were a system, like semaphore or the pneumatic post, that ought long since to have been superseded. Such explanations make the case, with varying success, for clever and competent plotting, or the bourgeois thirst for tidy adventure, or nostalgia for a vanished age (Victorian, or adolescent), or the Holmes–Watson dynamic (analyzed perhaps in terms of Jungian or queer theory), or the underlying and still-palpable gentlemanliness of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, or even, of all things, for the quality of the writing itself, so much higher than it ever needed to be. Inherent in these explanations, buried or explicit, among apologists and critics alike, is a feeling that maybe the fifty-six stories and four short novels that make up the so-called canon (so-called by Sherlockians, about whom more later) are not worthy of such enduring admiration.

More here.

Syed Ali Raza, 1913-2005

Dr. Azra Raza (3 Quarks editor and my sister) writes in Karachi’s largest English language daily, Dawn:

Bhayya_smiling_in_white_sherwaniSyed Ali Raza, a retired director of the ministry of foreign affairs and a devotee of scholarship, died peacefully in his sleep in Karachi on January 6. The youngest of four children of Syed Zamarrud Hussain (1876-1932) and Hashmi Begum (1885-1956), he was born in Bijnor, India, on November 29, 1913.

By the time Ali Raza was four year old, his father had relocated the family to Lucknow. There after began two decades of a life full of economic hardship, but also full of deep family bonding, motivated by the ideals of intellectual and personal enhancement.

Because of his level of comfort in several languages, Ali Raza also acquired a reputation for translations from Urdu, English, Persian and Arabic. One of his finest accomplishments is the direct translation of Hazrat Ali’s Nahjul Balagha from Arabic into English, a publication which has undergone several printings, and remains in wide circulation not only in Pakistan, Iran and the Middle East, but is also found in libraries across Europe and America.

Other books translated from Arabic into English include Aqa-i-Syed Baqar Sadr Shaheed’s Bahas Haul-ul-wilaya, Hashim Maroof Hussaini’s Al Aimmatul Isna-ashr, Mohammad Jawwad Mughannia’s Al-mazahibul Khamsa, Aqae Abdul Hussain Sharful Moosvi’s Abu Huraira, Murtaza Askari’s Muqadmate Miratul Uqool, and Aqaey Mehdi Shamsuddin’s Al-zaroof-us-siyasat-us Shooratul Hussain.

The list of his translations from Urdu into English is too long, but some of his most beloved original contributions are those done at the request of his children such as a tashreeh of Josh Malihabadi’s Wahdat-i-Insani and Hussain aur Inqilab and Allama Iqbal’s Masjid-i-Qurtuba.

Despite the infirmities of his last two years, he was intellectually fully alert till the day he died, continuing to work several hours a day, engaged in reading, writing, editing and publishing.

Read the rest in Dawn here. For a longer and more detailed version of the obituary, including a longish family history, click here.

Syed Ali Raza was, of course, among other things, my father.

Our Novel

We wish a happy birthday to Don Quixote, who turned 400 this past Sunday. It is commonly observed that, after the Bible, Cervantes’s masterpiece is the world’s most translated and printed book. Yet, the importance and influence of the novel can hardly be estimated by so crudely quantitative a measure. Quixote brought about a new way of representing the world. Gone is the world of the romance, with its knight errantry and haunted landscapes. In its place is the ordinary world of mere mortals, with common longings and secular destinies. Quixote understood his life as a story. We do much the same thing, but our stories are more earthbound. Such is what it means to live in modernity, thanks in no small part to Cervantes.

“At that instant, a breeze of wind springing up, the great sails began to turn; which being perceived by Don Quixote, ‘Tho’ you wild, said he, ‘ more arms than ever belonged to the giant Briareus, we will make you pay for your insolence’. So saying, and heartily recommending himself to his lady Dulcinea, whom he implored to succour him in this emergency, bracing on his target, and setting his lance in the rest, he put his Rocinante to full speed, and assaulting the nearest windmill, thrust it into one of the sails, which was driven about by the wind with so much fury, that the lance was splintered to pieces, and both knight and steed whirled aloft, and overthrown in very bad plight upon the plain.”

Village doctors and Tsumani relief efforts

This piece in The New York Times details one indigenous disaster relief effort in Sri Lanka. 

“While foreign aid groups are helping, officials of the World Health Organization said in interviews that much of the organizing and the real work is being done by Sri Lankans themselves. The country is not rich, but it has a well-organized public health system, and medical officers like Dr. Sameem – he is one of 214 – have been running the day-to-day business of looking after health in the camps. Many, like Dr. Sameem, are local doctors in villages and small towns who have been suddenly thrust into the forefront of coping with this disaster and warding off epidemics.

Dr. Sameem has guided foreign medical teams to the areas in his region that need help most, and talked an aid group into providing a car to get his staff to the camps. (They initially turned him down.) He has deployed nurses, midwives, doctors and health inspectors to the camps to check on sanitary conditions, spray pesticides, disinfect wells, look for signs of disease, treat the sick and report their findings to the Ministry of Health.”

Pinker on Larry Summers’ and the Underrepresentation of women in math and sciences

Larry Summers’ suggestion that differences in apptitude between men and women could partly explain why women are underrepresented in math and sciences has predictably sparked a controversy–something that seems to happen to Summers all the time.  Steven Pinker offers some thoughts on the issue here.

“First, let’s be clear what the hypothesis is . . . the statistical distributions of men’s and women’s quantitative and spatial abilities are not identical—that the average for men may be a bit higher than the average for women, and that the variance for men might be a bit higher than the variance for women (both implying that there would be a slightly higher proportion of men at the high end of the scale). It does not mean that all men are better at quantitative abilities than all women! That’s why it would be immoral and illogical to discriminate against individual women even if it were shown that some of the statistidcal differences were innate.

Second, the hypothesis is that differences in abilities might be one out of several factors that explain differences in the statistical representation of men and women in various professions. It does not mean that it is the only factor.

. . .

Look, the truth cannot be offensive. Perhaps the hypothesis is wrong, but how would we ever find out whether it is wrong if it is ‘offensive’ even to consider it?”

Distant Warblings

We are happy to see the publication this week of Daryl Hines’ new and much anticipated verse translation of Hesiod’s Works and Days (Chicago, 2005). Hesiod’s erotic and mythic pastorals strike a timely balance to his more epical and well-known contemporary Homer. For an age as weary of battle as ours, Hesiod seems newly relevant. Here is the creation of Pandora, vividly rendered as a punishment to our distant patron Prometheus:

Then cloud-gathering Zeus to Prometheus said in his anger:
“Iapetus’s brat, since you’re so much smarter than anyone else, you’re
Happy to outwit me, and rejoice in the fire you have stolen—
For yourself a calamity, also for men of the future.
For I shall give them a bad thing, too, in exchange for this fire, which
Heartily all may delight in, embracing a homegrown evil.”
Speaking, the father of gods and of mankind exploded in laughter.
Then he commanded Hephaestus, the world-famed craftsman, as soon as
Possible to mix water and earth, and infuse in it human
Speech, also strength, and to make it look like a goddess, and give it
Likewise a girl-like form that was pretty and lovesome. Athena
Would instruct her in handwork and weaving of intricate fabrics;
Furthermore, gold Aphrodite should drip charm over her head to
Cause heartsore longing, emotional anguish exhausting the body.
Zeus gave instructions to Hermes, the sure guide, slayer of Argus,
To put in her the heart of a bitch and a devious nature.
Then did the famed lame god manufacture at once from the earth a
Fair simulacrum of one shy maiden, according to Zeus’s will.
Next to her skin did the godlike Graces and gracious Persuasion
Carefully place gold necklaces; round her adorable head the
Hours who are gorgeously coiffed wove garlands of beautiful spring flowers.
Hermes, our sure guide, slayer of Argus, contrived in her breast
Lies and misleadingly false words joined to a devious nature,
At the behest of the deep-voiced thunderer, Zeus; and the herald
God of the gods then gave her a voice. And he called her Pandora,
Seeing how all who inhabit lofty Olympus had given
Something to pretty Pandora, that giant bane to industrious mankind.