Understanding Pol Pot?

Philip Short has a new book on Pol Pot. Through some interesting arrangement of the stars, William T. Vollmann is reviewing it. As to understanding Pol Pot, Vollmann poses an interesting question:

Could it be that because Pol Pot identified himself so thoroughly with his revolution, there was no him for us to know? Isaac Deutscher’s biography of Stalin, and Alan Bullock’s of Hitler, manage to ”bring alive” tyrants whose personal lives were banal. Perhaps the problem is that Pol Pot was mediocre in almost every sphere: a failed technical student, an uninspired military leader who wasted the lives of his troops in badly planned offensives and ignored emergencies, a misguided ruler. In sum, Pol Pot would exert little claim on our attention were it not for the fact that millions died through his cruelty and incompetence. In ”Brother Number One,” Chandler admits defeat at the outset: ”I was able to build up a consistent, but rather two-dimensional picture. . . . As a person, he defies analysis.”

Lunch with Albert

Niccolo Tucci wrote in the November 22, 1947 issue of the New Yorker about his lunch with Einstein in Princeton:

Albert“You read the Greeks?” I said.

“But of course,” he replied, slightly surprised at my amazement. And so I heard, partly from him and partly from Miss Dukas, that he reads the Greeks to Maja every night for an hour or so, even if he has had a very tiring day. Empedocles, Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Thucydides receive the tribute of the most advanced and abstract modern science every night, in the calm voice of this affectionate brother who keeps his sister company.

“You know,” I said, “that is great news. Young Americans, who have an idea of the pure scientist worthy of the comics, should be told that Einstein reads the Greeks. All those who relish the idiotic and dangerous myth of the scientist as a kind of Superman, free from all bonds of responsibility, should know this and draw their conclusions from it. Many people in our day go back to the Greeks out of sheer despair. So you too, Herr Professor, have gone back to the Greeks.”

He seemed a little hurt. “But I have never gone away from them,” he said. “How can an educated person stay away from the Greeks? I have always been far more interested in them than in science.”

More here.

The End Is Near

Alex Beam in the Boston Globe:

KurzweilInventor/entrepreneur Ray Kurzweil has become the high-tech version of the cartoon character carrying the sign: “The End Is Near.” With dogged consistency, the founder of eight different technology companies has been proselytizing an end-of-humantime event called the Singularity, a Buck Rogers vision of the hypothetical Christian Rapture.

Like everything, the term was first coined by mathematician John von Neumann, who spoke a half-century ago of “the ever accelerating progress of technology . . . approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race.” More recently, San Diego State computer scientist Vernor Vinge has predicted that man-made “entities with greater than human intelligence” would dominate the planet.

In his forthcoming book, “The Singularity Is Near,” Kurzweil calls the Singularity “the inevitable next step in the evolutionary process.” Already, human activity is enhanced by technological substitutes, e.g., robotic prostheses, artificial skin, blood plasma, etc. The Singularity, which Kurzweil says will occur at mid-century, is the moment when biological material ceases to exist, and we become products of the revolution in “GNR”: genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics.

More here.

Gore Vidal on James Purdy

From the New York Times Book Review:

On Purdy’s latest book jackets I hail him as ”an authentic American genius”; emphasis on the two adjectives. Purdy’s prose is often reminiscent of the century before last when nouns were apt to do double duty as verbs, like ”funning,” which an editor once told Purdy was not authentic American speech even though any student of W. C. Fields’s early movies knows that it is: ”I was just funning, dear,” says Fields to the inimitable Gloria Jean. Purdy was born and raised in New England’s most authentic annex, the Western Reserve, whose crown jewel is the state of Ohio, or, as Dawn Powell once sweepingly put it, ”All Americans come from Ohio originally, if only briefly.” That was then, of course. Frontiers have since shut down, and true blue is often mistaken by twilight’s last gleaming for red.

More here.

Your unconscious is making your everyday decisions

Marianne Szegedy-Maszak in U.S. News & World Report:

The snap judgment. The song that constantly runs through your head whenever you close your office door. The desire to drink Coke rather than Pepsi or to drive a Mustang rather than a Prius. The expression on your spouse’s face that inexplicably makes you feel either amorous or enraged. Or how about the now incomprehensible reasons you married your spouse in the first place?

Welcome to evidence of your robust unconscious at work.

More here.

The Larry Summers Affair: Enough Already!

Michelle Cottle in The New Republic:

It’s been well over a month now since Harvard’s Larry Summers offered some, shall we say, controversial, theories as to the disparity in gender achievement within the upper echelons of math and science. And still the Cambridge contretemps rages, covered in excruciating detail by a salivating media. It’s getting so a gal can’t enjoy her morning muffin without another breathless installment in the Summers saga leaping out from the A section of The New York Times or The Washington Post: Summers apologizes for eleventh time! Harvard faculty remains offended! Remarks said to be indicative of Summers’s total boorishness! Cornel West claims vindication!

Sweet Jesus, some days it’s hard to believe what a pack of pathetic, self-involved losers we the media have become. Honestly. For anyone remotely interested in why much of America disdains the national media as a bunch of liberal, pointy-headed elitists out of touch with the concerns of regular folk, look no further than the bizarre media obsession with L’Affaire Larry.

Yeah, yeah. The guy is president of the most prestigious university in the country. And whatever your thoughts on “nature v. nurture,” you’ve got to wonder what in the hell possessed Summers to plunge into this minefield, period, much less in the presence of a gaggle of academics–a famously touchy, politically correct, self-important lot. Even so, why couldn’t we have simply chewed over the juicier points of this issue for, say, two or maybe even three weeks and then moved on?

I’ll tell you why.

More here.

Prehistoric ‘Bear-Dog’ Fossil Unearthed

From Wired:

Scientists are marveling at a fossil find in California’s San Joaquin Valley that has produced the remains of a never-before-seen badger-like creature and a monstrous predator that looks like a cross between a bear and a pit bull.

Among the discoveries was the skull of an animal that appears to be an entirely new genus within the same family as otters, skunks and weasels.

“It just blew me out of my mind,” Xiaoming Wang, associate curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, said after seeing the fossil of the badger-like animal. “It looks like it was very ferocious.”

More here.

The Crackers

If you liked the “Anti-Christo” post, you should check this out:

The_crackersGift to the City — is it Art or for the Birds? “The Crackers” is as much a public happening as it is a tasty snack, defying the domino theory. Peanut butter or cheddar cheese. They poured their hearts and souls into the project for over 26 minutes. It required three dozen crackers and spanned over nearly 23 inches along a footbridge in the park at a cost (borne exclusively by the artists) of $2.50. Is it art? You decide. The installation was completed with no permits or bureaucracy, and fed to the ducks after about a half hour. “The Crackers” is entirely for profit.

More here.

Reviews: Top Science Books of the Year

String theory, lobster sex, climate catastrophe, the beauty of life beneath the Antarctic ice: Discover digs through the great stacks of science books published in 2004 and selects 20 of the best by Josie Glausiusz:

Einstein's CosmosEinstein’s Cosmos: How Albert Einsteins Vision Transformed Our Understanding of Space and Time

Michio Kaku (W. W. Norton, $22.95). Seamlessly weaving together Einstein’s life and science, Kaku presents an engaging biography of the man and his theories, which were framed around questions a child might ask and duly gave rise to the great discoveries of modern physics, from gravity waves to black holes.

Curious Minds: How a Child Becomes a Scientist
Curious Minds: How a Child Becomes a Scientist

Edited by John Brockman (Pantheon Books, $23.95). Neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux first encountered the brain’s “soft mushy mass” while extracting bullets from cows’ brains in his father’s butcher shop. Ethnographer Sherry Turkle imagined herself at age 8 as a daring Nancy Drew on roller skates. Physicist Lee Smolin found solace from heartbreak in Einstein’s autobiographical notes. In an eclectic collection of essays, 27 scientists recall the early influences that funneled them into their careers.

The Man Who Shocked the World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram
The Man Who Shocked the World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram

Thomas Blass (Basic Books, $26). By turns both moving and chilling, Blass’s biography profiles psychologist Stanley Milgram, who conducted the notorious 1960s obedience experiments in which compliant subjects inflicted what seemed to be electric shocks on a screaming victim (in fact an actor) on orders from an authority figure.

The Mold in Dr. Florey's Coat: The Story of the Penicillin Miracle
The Mold in Dr. Florey’s Coat: The Story of the Penicillin Miracle

Eric Lax (Henry Holt, $25). Alexander Fleming discovered the antibacterial qualities of what he called “mould juice,” but the paper he published in 1929 went unnoticed for nearly 10 years. Lax pays a long-overdue tribute to three scientists—Howard Florey, Ernst Chain, and Norman Heatley—who in 1940s Britain raced to create a usable drug from mold—penicillin—and produce it in quantities large enough to treat soldiers suffering from gangrene and other infected war wounds.

For a complete list, click here.

A Galaxy with No Stars

Mark Peplow in Nature:

Dark_1A galaxy that is made almost entirely of dark matter has been discovered. It’s the first galaxy found to have no stars at all, but it fits well with predictions made by astrophysicists about where the Universe’s missing mass should be.

“We’ve thrown as many tests at it as we can, and it looks like a dark galaxy,” says Robert Minchin from Cardiff University, UK, one of an international team of astronomers that made the find.

Dark matter betrays its presence by its gravitational pull: without dark matter to hold them together, rapidly rotating galaxies would simply fly apart. Scientists estimate that dark matter must be five times more abundant than normal matter in our Universe. It is likely to be made of relatively large subatomic particles that rarely interact with their surroundings, although these particles have never been identified.

More here.

Letter from Baghdad: Tales from a Broken Lab

Christopher Allbritton in Seed Magazine:

Dr. ’Asaam al-Raawi, a sedimentary geologist at Baghdad University, sweeps his hand across a set of dog-eared journals, the arc of his gesture revealing a bare laboratory with a few slices of rock samples strewn around, a sagging chair, a dripping sink. The room is long and narrow. There’s barely enough space for a colleague, carrying a tray of glasses filled to their chipped rims, to squeeze past al-Raawi. Returning to his meager collection of journals and books, al-Raawi gestures in frustration.

“I am a university professor,” he says. “I need books!”

We sit and sweat as he tells me what has come of his work in the closed-off laboratories and classrooms of Baghdad University. Perspiration rolls from his bald pate into his close-cropped white beard as he flicks a set of prayer beads back and forth and tells me how his life’s work has come to this.

More here.

Science Goes Tabloid

Iain Murray writes in the National Review:

In the United Kingdom, most of the respected broadsheet newspapers have cut costs and increased circulation by adding a tabloid edition. Some argue that this downsizing has led to a dumbing down of the papers’ content. But, in both Britain and America, it is not just the news industry that is shifting to a more sensationalistic attitude. Some scientific journals are abandoning scientific neutrality in favor of policy stances and headline-grabbing scare stories, favoring style over substance.

More here.

Treating evolutionary psychology as a sledgehammer

Via Lindsay Beyerstein, Chris at Mixing Memory has a piece responding to another by Will Wilkinson.  Wilkinson’s piece for Cato tries to examine what evolutionary psychology tells us about politics and economics. 

As one who is tired of the endless stream of just-so evolutionary psychology stories that pop up in popular discussions, I was pleased by Chris’ rejoinder.  But judge for your self.

“There is something about evolutionary psychology (EP) that makes it very attractive to non-psychologists (and to undergraduate psych majors — you should see them rushing to register for EP courses). I’ve never been entirely sure what it is about EP that makes non-experts find it so fascinating, and more often than not, swallow it’s claims without hesitation. Perhaps it’s the simplicity and intuitiveness of many of the explanations. Cheating is bad, and harmful, therefore it is adaptive for us to have evolved a mechanism for detecting it. That’s pretty simple and intuitive, right? Of course, this is one of the many reasons that most psychologists don’t seem to find EP very attractive. The explanations generally rely on little more than intuition bolstered by sketchy, usually non-experimentally derived data. A careful review of the EP literature would give a scientist little confidence in its claims. However, there are plenty of non-psychologists who are happy to read some trade books on EP, and treat it as gospel. Doing so leads them to come up with all sorts of nonsensical arguments about human behavior.” 

A Response to Rushdie

Speaking of free speech in a time of war, Shakira Hussein responds to Salman Rushdie’s take on the proposed anti-religous hate speech law in OpenDemocracy.

Racial hatred is increasingly being recoded in religious terms, and frankly I don’t think it is our ‘ideas’ that are at issue much of the time. Committed atheists are subjected to Islamophobia along with devout believers on the basis of their Arabic names or ‘middle-eastern appearance’.

Nor is religious identity simply about our ‘ideas’ in any abstract sense. It’s about the community to which we belong, our families, the significance of certain days, places, or events. People may associate us with a particular religion not only because of our beliefs, but also because of our names, style of dress, physical appearance, even our diet – signifiers as shallow as any racial marker. My young pink and white daughter is already highly aware of the anti-Islamic prejudice that confronts her, prejudice which has nothing to do with who she is or what she thinks. I want my daughter to be legally protected against religious hate, as I am protected against racial hate.

Moshe Dayan on Vietnam and the Implications for Iraq

Also in the Boston Review, Martin van Creveld revisits Moshe Dayan’s observations on the Vietnam War, and asks what lessons it offers for Iraq.

Today comparisons between Vietnam and Iraq are fashionable. Some people emphasize the differences between the two, claiming that the former was essentially a conventional war. I disagree. Based on Dayan’s account, I would argue that the similarities are more important than the differences.

First, according to Dayan, the most significant operational problem the American forces were facing in Vietnam was lack of intelligence—the inability to distinguish the enemy from either the physical surroundings or the civilian population. . .In its absence, most of the blows they delivered—including no fewer than six million tons of bombs—missed their targets. Their only effect was to disperse the enemy into the civilian population. Worst of all, lack of accurate intelligence meant that the Americans kept hitting noncombatants by mistake. They thus drove huge segments of the population straight into the arms of the Viet Cong; nothing is more conducive to hatred than the sight of relatives and friends being killed.

. . .

The third of Dayan’s observations, and the most relevant to a comparison with the current war in Iraq, is that the Americans found themselves in the unfortunate position of beating down the weak. As Dayan wrote, ‘Any comparison between the two armies was astonishing. On the one hand there was the American army, complete with helicopters, an air force, armor, electronic communications, artillery, and mind-boggling riches; to say nothing of ammunition, fuel, spare parts, and equipment of all kinds. On the other there were the [North Vietnamese troops], who had been walking on foot for four months, carrying some artillery rounds on their backs and using a tin spoon to eat a little ground rice from a tin plate.’

Eqbal Ahmad used to call describe the last lesson as “the defeat by human beings of the collective presumptions of technology”, which I always found poetic.  I’m not convinced of every point of the analogy, especially the last one, but it’s worth considering.

A review of Huntington’s Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity

In the new Boston Review, a review of Samuel Huntington’s latest, er, musings.

The end of the Cold War left the United States without a common enemy. Its elites have become liberal multicultural cosmopolitans. ‘Overall,’ Samuel Huntington tells us, ‘American elites are not only less nationalistic but are also more liberal than the American public.’ Indeed, only 22 percent of the American public self-identifies as liberal, whereas a whopping 91 percent of leaders of public-interest groups are liberals. True, Huntington’s statistics also show that only 14 percent of American business elites and nine percent of the military elites are liberals, but let’s not split hairs: if you add them all up, “elites” are liberal.

And there is an even more urgent cause for alarm, a more pressing challenge to America’s national identity: the current ‘Hispanic’ invasion.

. . .

This is because Mexican immigration is different from any other: it is more persistent, more regionally concentrated, less committed to education and more attached to its native culture and values. The net effect of these factors is disturbing: ‘In the late twentieth century, developments occurred that, if continued, could change America into a cultural bifurcated Anglo-Hispanic society with two national languages.’

Liberal elitists like Bill Clinton may ask you to believe that the United States cannot break apart into two cultures, that it is and always was a nation of immigrants, a mosaic of cultures. It is no such thing.”

The Sidney Morgenbesser Memorial Fund

Given the care, comfort and creative discomfort that he gave students (this one included), this seems a fitting tribute to Sidney Morgenbesser.

The Sidney Morgenbesser Memorial Fund

In cooperation with the Columbia College Office of Development, the Philosophy Department is establishing a Fund in Sidney’s honor to support scholarship students at Columbia College or, if possible, a faculty position at Columbia.

The amount required permanently to endow a scholarship fund is $50,000; additional scholarships could be funded at the same amount. Faculty positions require much more substantial amounts.

At the end of a five year period, the Department, the Development office, and Sidney’s friends and family will determine whether the Fund can best be used to support student scholarships or a faculty position.

Columbia College Office of Development
475 Riverside Drive
Suite 917
New York, NY, 10115

A Michelin Guide to New York Hotels and Restaurants

Michelin (the restuarant guide, not the tires) is coming to New York.Michelin

“NEW YORK restaurants, already on constant lookout for the critics, both professional and amateur, now have to contend with another group of reviewers: Michelin inspectors.

For the last five months these gastronomic undercover agents have been working on the Michelin Guide to New York City, the company’s first hotel and restaurant ratings outside Europe. Michelin’s green sightseeing guides have covered the United States since 1968.

This evening at Gotham Hall in Midtown, Édouard Michelin, the chairman of the French tire company that bears his name, is expected to announce plans for the 2006 New York guide. The book, to go on sale Nov. 15, will rate 500 restaurants in the five boroughs and 50 Manhattan hotels.”

Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate revisited

Heavens_gate_picIt’s the 25th anniversary of Michael Cimino’s Heaven Gate, the film that bankrupted United Artists (which was saved by the Bond film For Your Eyes Only).  A piece in The Guardian suggests that it still evokes controversy.

[W]hen the film was first released in New York, he became a nationwide object of scorn. Vincent Canby’s review in the New York Times set the tone: “Heaven’s Gate fails so completely,” he wrote, “that you might suspect Mr Cimino sold his soul to the Devil to obtain the success of The Deer Hunter, and the Devil has just come around to collect.” Stung by the reviews, Cimino withdrew his film from circulation. He re-edited it, shortening it by 70 minutes, but it still did lousy business.