Tsunami uncovers ancient city in India


Three rocky structures with elaborate carvings of animals have emerged near the coastal town of Mahabalipuram, which was battered by the Dec. 26 tsunami.

As the waves receded, the force of the water removed sand deposits that had covered the structures, which appear to belong to a port city built in the seventh century, said T. Satyamurthy, a senior archaeologist with the Archaeological Survey of India.

Mahabalipuram is already well known for its ancient, intricately carved shore temples that have been declared a World Heritage site and are visited each year by thousands of Hindu pilgrims and tourists.  According to descriptions by early British travel writers, the area was also home to seven pagodas, six of which were submerged by the sea.

Read more here

The Birth of the Mind

Very good article by Gary Marcus in the Boston Review:

Marcus3In the nine-month dash from conception to birth—the flurry of dividing, specializing, and migrating cells that scientists call embryogenesis—organs such as the heart and kidney unfold in a series of ever more mature stages. In contrast to a 17th century theory known as preformationism, the organs of the body cannot be found preformed in miniature in a fertilized egg; at the moment of conception there is neither a tiny heart nor a tiny brain. Instead, the fertilized egg contains information: the three billion nucleotides of DNA that make up the human genome. That information, copied into the nucleus of every newly formed cell, guides the gradual but powerful process of successive approximation that shapes each of the body’s organs. The heart, for example, begins as a simple sheet of cell that gradually folds over to form a tube; the tube sprouts bulges, the bulges sprout further bulges, and every day the growing heart looks a bit more like an adult heart.

Even before the dawn of the modern genetic era, biologists understood that something similar was happening in the development of the brain—that the organ of thought and language was formed in much the same way as the rest of the body. The brain, too, develops in the first instance from a simple sheet of cells that gradually curls up into a tube that sprouts bulges, which over time differentiate into ever more complex shapes. Yet 2,000 years of thinking of the mind as independent from the body kept people from appreciating the significance of this seemingly obvious point.

Rest of Marcus’s article here.

And here you will find a number of reviews of Gary Marcus’s book The Birth of the Brain: How a Tiny Number of Genes Creates the Complexities of Human Thought, about which Steven Pinker writes, “A brilliantly original book that is a contribution both to popularizing science and to science itself.”

News and the Complexity Gap

The latest bizarre scandal to wash over the White House involves the administration’s credentialing of “Jeff Gannon,” a pseudonym for one James Guckert, who has now resigned from the fake news organ Talon News after being linked to gay escort services (for a good rundown, see here). As Frank Rich, who takes the trouble to analyze the issue here, puts its:

“By my count, “Jeff Gannon” is now at least the sixth “journalist” (four of whom have been unmasked so far this year) to have been a propagandist on the payroll of either the Bush administration or a barely arms-length ally like Talon News while simultaneously appearing in print or broadcast forums that purport to be real news.”

A hypothesis: one reason these strange happenings never seem to result in a loss of public confidence in George Bush is that they are too complex, too soap-operatically detailed, composed of too many infractions to be concisely described as moral lapses (compare to the simple tableau of Monica and Willie). Under Rove, the art of promulgating straightforward propaganda, by means that are enormously complicated to unravel, has led to a complexity gap. It simply requires so much less effort to imbibe the cover of the New York Post than to read several accounts of the minutiae of a scandal. Inertia wins. Rich’s solution: “fight fake with fake,” by naming Jon Stewart to replace Dan Rather as CBS anchor. An equal and opposite reaction, I suppose.

Out of the Shadows

Susan Tifft in Smithsonian Magazine:

AbeleAfter decades of obscurity, African-American architect Julian Abele is finally getting recognition for his contributions to some of 20th-century America’s most prestigious buildings.

In 1986, Duke University students protesting the school’s investments in apartheid South Africa erected shanties in front of the university chapel, a soaring spire of volcanic stone modeled after England’s Canterbury Cathedral. The protest prompted one student to complain to the school newspaper. The shacks, she wrote, violate “our rights as students to a beautiful campus.”

Duke sophomore Susan Cook penned an emotional rebuttal. Her great-granduncle, Philadelphia architect Julian Abele, was “a victim of apartheid in this country,” she wrote, who had conceived the Duke campus but had never seen it because of the Jim Crow laws then in force in the segregated South. She felt certain that if he were still alive, he would support the divestment rally wholeheartedly.

That an African-American had designed Duke, a whites-only institution until 1961, was news to nearly everyone, reports Susan Tifft. Although Abele’s role is made clear by documents in the university’s archives, it had never been acknowledged so publicly. The recognition was long overdue.

More here.

The Real Afghanistan

Pankaj Mishra in the New York Review of Books:

200mishraMuch of Kabul is built of mud. And when it rained before last Christmas— relieving a long and severe drought— the whole city seemed to melt. The piles of sludge on its unpaved lanes rose, as though in a slow-moving tide, until it spattered everything: the big white Land Cruisers of aid agencies and Afghan ministers, the beat-up yellow taxis, the bombed-out palaces of western Kabul and the bullet-pocked huts on steep hills, the fortified foreign embassies and UN offices, and even the high billboards exhorting Afghans, in idiosyncratic English, to “national reconciliation and peace.”

Despite the rain and cold, the bazaars were crowded. Shopkeepers representing almost all of Afghanistan’s ethnic groups—Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, and Turkmens —hawked oranges, carpets, Chinese-made windbreakers, and electronic goods, while beggars—mostly disabled children and widows in burkas— squatted beside the open sewers and tugged at the wide trousers of passing men.

It was strange to find no white faces in these crowds. Even in the modern part of Kabul, where thousands of Europeans and Americans—mostly soldiers, diplomats, aid workers, and businessmen—live, the streets were empty. Afghan guards with Kalashnikovs stood in front of the iron gates set in high concrete walls topped with barbed wire. The gates occasionally opened to reveal a new or renovated mansion, and to release or swallow a Land Cruiser with tinted windows.

More here.

Unintelligent Design

Jim Holt in the New York Times Magazine:

While there is much that is marvelous in nature, there is also much that is flawed, sloppy and downright bizarre. Some nonfunctional oddities, like the peacock’s tail or the human male’s nipples, might be attributed to a sense of whimsy on the part of the designer. Others just seem grossly inefficient. In mammals, for instance, the recurrent laryngeal nerve does not go directly from the cranium to the larynx, the way any competent engineer would have arranged it. Instead, it extends down the neck to the chest, loops around a lung ligament and then runs back up the neck to the larynx. In a giraffe, that means a 20-foot length of nerve where 1 foot would have done. If this is evidence of design, it would seem to be of the unintelligent variety.

Such disregard for economy can be found throughout the natural order. Perhaps 99 percent of the species that have existed have died out. Darwinism has no problem with this, because random variation will inevitably produce both fit and unfit individuals. But what sort of designer would have fashioned creatures so out of sync with their environments that they were doomed to extinction?

The gravest imperfections in nature, though, are moral ones. Consider how humans and other animals are intermittently tortured by pain throughout their lives, especially near the end. Our pain mechanism may have been designed to serve as a warning signal to protect our bodies from damage, but in the majority of diseases — cancer, for instance, or coronary thrombosis — the signal comes too late to do much good, and the horrible suffering that ensues is completely useless.

And why should the human reproductive system be so shoddily designed?

More here.

The Evolution of the Eye

Carl Zimmer writes in his blog, The Loom:

The eye has always had a special place in the study of evolution, and Darwin had a lot to do with that. He believed that natural selection could produce the complexity of nature, and to a nineteenth century naturalist, nothing seemed as complex as an eye, with its lens, cornea, retina, and other parts working together so exquisitely.The notion that natural selection could produce such an organ “seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree,” Darwin wrote in the Origin of Species.

For Darwin, the key word in that line was seems. He realized that if you look at the different sort of eyes out in the natural world, and consider the ways in which they could have evolved, the absurdity disappears. The objection that the human eye couldn’t possibly have evolved, he wrote, “can hardly be considered real.”

The more scientists study the eye, the more they recognize that Darwin was right.

More here.

Literary Sport

Sarah Boxer in the New York Times:

The First Annual TMN Tournament of Books, presented by The Morning News (TMN), a daily online magazine (themorningnews.org/tob), and Powells.com, an online bookstore, is under way. The writers aren’t hacks and they aren’t in a stadium. The fans don’t roar and they don’t judge. But the Web tournament is set up exactly like an N.C.A.A. basketball tournament, with ladders, seeds and head-to-head contests.

Round after round, novels from 2004 are pitted against each other until only one of the original 16 is standing. The champion will be announced on Feb. 28. At that point its author may receive a live rooster, which has a cryptic connection to the brother of the writer David Sedaris.

More here.

Revenge of the Right Brain

Daniel H. Pink in Wired:

The future no longer belongs to people who can reason with computer-like logic, speed, and precision. It belongs to a different kind of person with a different kind of mind. Today – amid the uncertainties of an economy that has gone from boom to bust to blah – there’s a metaphor that explains what’s going on. And it’s right inside our heads.

Scientists have long known that a neurological Mason-Dixon line cleaves our brains into two regions – the left and right hemispheres. But in the last 10 years, thanks in part to advances in functional magnetic resonance imaging, researchers have begun to identify more precisely how the two sides divide responsibilities. The left hemisphere handles sequence, literalness, and analysis. The right hemisphere, meanwhile, takes care of context, emotional expression, and synthesis. Of course, the human brain, with its 100 billion cells forging 1 quadrillion connections, is breathtakingly complex. The two hemispheres work in concert, and we enlist both sides for nearly everything we do. But the structure of our brains can help explain the contours of our times.

Until recently, the abilities that led to success in school, work, and business were characteristic of the left hemisphere. They were the sorts of linear, logical, analytical talents measured by SATs and deployed by CPAs. Today, those capabilities are still necessary. But they’re no longer sufficient. In a world upended by outsourcing, deluged with data, and choked with choices, the abilities that matter most are now closer in spirit to the specialties of the right hemisphere – artistry, empathy, seeing the big picture, and pursuing the transcendent.

More here.

Ba Humbugi! Let’s Nameus That Speciesus

Henry Fountain in the New York Times:

Scientists may be serious people, engaged in the pursuit of objective truth. But when it comes to naming species, they often let their hair down.

So the insect world has Heerz tooya, Apopyllus now and Pieza pi and Pieza rhea, among thousands of puns and other oddities. (In science, all creatures are binomial, with a capitalized genus name followed by a lower-case species name.) The oceans are home to Ittibittium, a genus of mollusks that are smaller than those named Bittium. There are species named for body parts and bodily functions, for celebrities, painters and writers, for cartoon characters and favorite sports. For those who find it to be all too much, there is even Ba humbugi, a snail from Fiji.

More here.

The Anti-Christo

Sarah Boxer in the New York Times:

19gatesCambridge, Mass., Feb. 18 – You’ve seen Christo’s “Gates” in Central Park. But what about Hargo’s “Gates” in Somerville, Mass.? Sure, Hargo is unabashedly riding on the coattails of Christo and Jeanne-Claude. But it did take him some time to make his gates: 0.002 years, he estimates. That’s a good chunk of a day. You may as well take a look:

Just who is Hargo? Is he some kind of genius wrapper? His name is Geoff Hargadon, he is 50 and, in a telephone interview, he would only say, enigmatically, “Art is not my profession.” His last installation was a studio full of discarded ATM receipts. The show was called “Balance.” It was about “people, privacy and money,” he said, adding: “You want to know how much people have? Here it is.”

Like Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Hargo used recyclable materials for “The Somerville Gates.” Unlike them, he accepts donations to defray the cost of his installation, which was $3.50. The mayor of Somerville did not come to the unveiling, on Valentine’s Day.

More here. (Thanks to Anna Hall, Alia Raza, and Husain Naqvi for sending this along.)

Sontag from the Grave

Just before she died, Sontag wrote an introduction to Halldor Laxness’ novel “Under the Glass.” It’s published in this week’s NY Times Book Review. It is a nice, if somewhat melancholy reminder that we lost one of the most talented critics of a generation when Sontag died. She could never say a little without saying a lot. In this case, the discussion of one novel becomes a reflection on the imagination itself.

“The long prose fiction called the novel, for want of a better name, has yet to shake off the mandate of its own normality as promulgated in the 19th century: to tell a story peopled by characters whose options and destinies are those of ordinary, so-called real life. Narratives that develop from this artificial norm and tell other kinds of stories, or appear not to tell much of a story at all, draw on traditions that are more venerable than those of the 19th century, but still, to this day seem innovative or ultraliterary or bizarre . . . “

The Ennobler

You may remember Marv Levy as the coach of the Buffalo Bills teams that went to an unprecedented four consecutive Super Bowls, inspiring them with pregame aphorisms such as his famous coinage, “Where else would you rather be than right here, right now?” You may not be aware of his unorthodoxies, at least relative to the National Football League: a vegetarian with a Master’s in English History from Harvard and a penchant for WWI and II allusions in motivating his players, Levy the teacher-coach instilled a team spirit of honorable toughness. (Upon the Bills clinching a playoff spot in 1988, causing joyous fans to tear down the goalposts, Levy remarked to his players: “We’ve liberated Paris, but we’re 600 miles from Berlin.”) His autobiography, just published, contains a large dose of his straight talk and careful thinking, and some pretty corny old-guy humor. It also displays the noble attitude that, absorbed by his players, made the Bills for a long time the most resilient and battle-ready outfit in football.

Newspapers: Bush’s Lapdogs, Creeping Socialists, or Both?

Nicholas Lemann in The New Yorker explores the troubles of the mainstream media, denounced as hopelessly biased by both left and right:

“Conservatives are relativists when it comes to the press. In their view, nothing is neutral: there is no disinterested version of the news; everything reflects politics and relationships to power and cultural perspective. If mainstream journalists find it annoying that conservatives think of them as unalterably hostile, they find it just as annoying that liberals think of them as the friend who keeps letting them down. Mainstream journalists want to think that the public is aware of—and respects—the boundaries that separate real journalism from entertainment, and opinion, and propaganda, and marketing. If, instead, the public not only enjoys the quasi-journalistic pleasures that lie outside the boundaries, but also doesn’t accept that what’s inside really is distinct and superior—well, that would sting.”

Assess risks, don’t quiver before them

Peter Preston reviews Fear: A Cultural History by Joanna Bourke, in The Guardian:

Joanna Bourke, graceful, shrewd, brilliantly compendious in research, has written a history as topical as your morning newspaper and as relevant as the Home Secretary’s last dodgy announcement in the Commons. Time and again, putting American and British experiences together, she raises a wry, cool eyebrow at the hyperbole of hysteria. She assesses risk rather than quavers before it. She puts fear in its proper place – as part of our pattern of life.

More here.

The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick

Teller (yes, the quiet half of Penn and Teller) reviews The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick: How a Spectacular Hoax Became History by Peter Lamont, in the New York Times:

Rope_trickWhen John Elbert Wilkie died in 1934, he was remembered for his 14 years as a controversial director of the Secret Service, during which he acquired a reputation for forgery and skullduggery, and for masterly manipulation of the press. But not a single obituary cited his greatest contribution to the world: Wilkie was the inventor of the legendary Indian Rope Trick. Not the actual feat, of course; it does not and never did exist. In 1890, Wilkie, a young reporter for The Chicago Tribune, fabricated the legend that the world has embraced from that day to this as an ancient feat of Indian street magic.

How did a silly newspaper hoax become a lasting icon of mystery? The answer, Peter Lamont tells us in his wry and thoughtful ”Rise of the Indian Rope Trick,” is that Wilkie’s article appeared at the perfect moment to feed the needs and prejudices of modern Western culture. India was the jewel of the British Empire, and to justify colonial rule, the British had convinced themselves the conquered were superstitious savages who needed white men’s guidance in the form of exploitation, conversion and death. The prime symbol of Indian benightedness was the fakir, whose childish tricks — as the British imagined — frightened his ignorant countrymen but could never fool a Westerner.

When you’re certain you cannot be fooled, you become easy to fool. Indian street magicians have a repertory of earthy, violent tricks designed for performance outdoors — very different from polite Victorian parlor and stage magic. So when well-fed British conquerors saw a starving fakir do a trick they couldn’t fathom, they reasoned thus: We know the natives are too primitive to fool us; therefore, what we are witnessing must be genuine magic.

More here.

Nonexercise activity thermogenesis

Katherine Hobson in U.S. News & World Report:

Fidgeting is not enough. That’s the message from the author of the much-buzzed-about recent study that threatened to turn us into a nation of obsessive toe tappers and knuckle crackers, all with the aim of burning calories. “Nonexercise activity thermogenesis,” a fancy term for exercise accumulated as part of your daily routine, actually involves a bit more. Standing up. Putting one foot in front of the other. In other words, walking (the “wiggling” in the press release got people focused on fidgeting their way to skinniness).

James Levine, the Mayo Clinic endocrinologist who conducted the study, is the poster child for NEAT. He hates the gym. “I walk in and immediately walk out,” he says, speaking by phone from his office. There is a slight whirring on the line. It’s his treadmill. Levine so believes in the power of NEAT that he has mounted his computer over his inexpensive treadmill. He ambulates at about 0.7 mph all day. He types. He drinks coffee. He has meetings (there’s another treadmill in the office for guests). He does step off to write letters by hand. At 5 foot 9 and 155 pounds, he says he doesn’t watch what he eats.

More here.

Interactive Viral Advertising Campaigns

Nat Ives in the New York Times:

As more Americans become comfortable with the Web, though, major marketers are increasingly asking agencies to produce elaborate, interactive online campaigns – even for grocery store goods that hardly anyone researches or buys online.

One of the shiniest lures online is the developing field of viral advertising, in which companies try to create messages so compelling, funny or suggestive that consumers spontaneously share them with friends, often through e-mail or cellphone text messages. The goal is the exponential spread of ads that are endorsed by consumers’ own friends.

More here.

Ayatollahs: Sex change okay, homosexuality not so okay

From the Seattle Times:

In the Islamic Republic of Iran, gay male sex still carries the death penalty and lesbians are lashed, but hundreds of people are having their gender changed legally, bolstered by the blessings of members of the ruling Shiite clergy.

“Approval of gender changes doesn’t mean approval of homosexuality. We’re against homosexuality,” says Mohammed Mahdi Kariminia, a cleric in the holy city of Qom and one of Iran’s foremost proponents of using hormones and surgery to change sex. “But we have said that if homosexuals want to change their gender, this way is open to them.”

No Muslim society has tackled the question with the open-mindedness of Shiite Iran. That’s probably because the father of the revolution himself, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, penned the groundbreaking “fatwas” that approved gender reassignment four decades ago.

Khomeini reasoned that if men or women wished so intensely to change their sex, to the point that they believed they were trapped inside the wrong body, then they should be permitted to transform that body and relieve their misery. His opinion had more to do with what isn’t in the Quran than what is. Sex change isn’t mentioned, Khomeini’s thinking went, and so there are no grounds to consider it banned.

More here.