The Social Security Scam

Paul Krugman reviews The Coming Generational Storm: What You Need to Know About America’s Economic Future by Laurence J. Kotlikoff and Scott Burns, in the New York Review of Books:

America in 2030 will be “a country whose collective population is older than that in Florida today.” It will be in “desperate trouble” because the expense of caring for all those old people will cause a fiscal crisis. The nation will be plagued by “political instability, unemployment, labor strikes, high and rising crime rates.” That’s the picture painted in The Coming Generational Storm by Laurence Kotlikoff and Scott Burns, a book that has helped to feed a rising tide of demographic alarm. But is that picture right? Yes and no.

More here.

Oldest known humans just got older

Jeff Hecht in New Scientist:

Modern humans made their appearance 35,000 years earlier than we previously thought. According to new dates for two fossils found in Ethiopia almost 40 years ago, we have been around for 195,000 years.

The skulls were discovered along the Omo River in 1967 by anthropologist Richard Leakey and his team and were originally thought to be 130,000 years old.

At the time, other researchers doubted they were older than just 100,000 years. But modern radiometric and geological techniques now show that Leakey’s date was actually an underestimate.

The scientists, led by Ian McDougall at the Australian National University in Canberra, used a different dating approach for two types of material found with the skulls. Argon/argon radiometric dating was carried out on volcanic ash layers, while the analysis of other sedimentary layers provided further data.

They found that the sediments had collected only during relatively brief eras of extremely heavy monsoons – lasting about 1000 years in a 40,000-year cycle. This allowed the team to pin down the skulls’ age to within a short interval in geological time.

More here.

Big Bang

William S. Kowinski reviews Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe by Simon Singh, in the San Francisco Chronicle:

SinghDespite its title, this book is not about the Big Bang or the origin of the universe. It is a history of some of the major discoveries, theories, personalities and controversies that contributed to the basic Big Bang explanation and its present acceptance. It is essentially a textbook on cosmology in Western science from before Copernicus, and a conservative one (in a scientific sense) at that.

Simon Singh is best known for his TV documentary (“Proof”) and best- selling book (“Fermat’s Enigma”) about Andrew Wiles, who solved one of mathematics’ most celebrated mysteries. But the former BBC TV producer earned his Ph.D. in physics, so this book’s subject is clearly close to his heart. The subtextual through-line is the story of how science works, in the real world context of personalities, professional relationships and political, economic and religious interests. For instance, while the 15th century Catholic Church was notoriously resistant to the scripture-defying idea that the Earth wasn’t the still-point center of the universe, the 20th century Pope Pius XII became a booster of the Big Bang at a time when scientists weren’t so sure, because it posited a beginning and hence (he thought) a creation and creator.

But scientists themselves can be almost as influenced by their faith in their favored models, such as the Big Bang’s main rival for much of the 20th century, the Steady State theory (the universe without beginning or end). Several eminences held onto it because it was aesthetically pleasing and philosophically elegant. Perhaps the dirty little secret least familiar to nonscientists is the degree to which science is hostage to human failings of ego, status and reward.

More here.

India: Knowledge Superpower

From New Scientist:

There’s a revolution afoot in India. Unlike any other developing nation, India is using brainpower rather than cheap physical labour or natural resources to leapfrog into the league of technologically advanced nations. Every high tech company, from Intel to Google, is coming to India to find innovators. Leading the charge is Infosys, the country’s first billion-dollar IT company.

More here.

A 3-D View of the City, Block by Block

Anne Eisenberg in the New York Times:

17nextVehicles that move slowly down the street, pausing regularly to take photographs with remote-controlled cameras, tend to make the police a bit nervous. But one trailer loaded with imaging equipment that made its way through the streets of central Philadelphia wasn’t spying – although at first, Secret Service agents had their doubts.

Both the vehicle and a plane that flew over the same area were taking authorized pictures of each building and its surroundings, at the behest of the downtown improvement district. Now the terabytes of imaging data are being used to build a three-dimensional model of central Philadelphia, down to the last cornice, mailbox and shrub.

The city model can then be integrated with other information, like listings of shops and rental space, so that one day people who’d rather be in Philadelphia will be able to be there virtually, from their computers. Apartment seekers, for example, will be able to click their way through the neighborhood, taking a virtual walk and checking out the view from the windows of apartments that strike their fancy.

More here.

Harvard Rules

David Carr reviews Harvard Rules: The Struggle for the Soul of the World’s Most Powerful University by Richard Bradley, in the New York Times:

Richard Bradley’s last book, a decidedly unauthorized biography of John F. Kennedy Jr., rode a wave of controversy to become a No. 1 best seller. But that kind of notoriety seemed like a far reach for his new one, “Harvard Rules,” which hits the streets this week. A searing portrait of Lawrence H. Summers, the president of Harvard, it did not seem destined for big sales, in part because while academic politics are most notable for their low stakes, they generally have even lower public appeal.

But last month, Dr. Summers suggested that the low number of women in the sciences had something to do with genetics and gender – insert firestorm here – and suddenly a book that would not seem to have any appeal beyond Harvard Square began to take on national resonance.

Mr. Bradley’s book is landing at the precise moment when Mr. Summer’s difficulties are peaking. For 90 minutes on Tuesday night, more than 250 members of the Harvard faculty confronted Dr. Summers, with a number of them stating that he had besmirched the reputation of the university through a series of intemperate remarks and had wielded his power in unseemly ways. One attendee told The Harvard Crimson that it was “likely” the faculty would give a vote of no confidence for Dr. Summers when they meet in an emergency session Tuesday. The burgeoning crisis nicely dovetailed with the thesis of “Harvard Rules: The Struggle for the Soul of the World’s Most Powerful University” (HarperCollins, $25.95).

More here.

Venomous Birds

David Perlman in the San Francisco Chronicle:

BirdThere stood Jack Dumbacher, innocently trying to trap a gorgeous bird of paradise in the mist net he’d set up for his research in a New Guinea forest, when the net entangled a flying stranger, all vivid orange and black.

The unwanted bird clawed Dumbacher’s fingers, nipped them with its beak, and when the startled scientist put a bleeding finger to his mouth, he suddenly felt a burning, tingling sensation on his tongue and lips — which soon became briefly numb.

The bird was a hooded pitohui (pronounced PIT-a-hooey), and the encounter in Papua New Guinea 15 years ago led the ornithologist to abandon his research into birds of paradise and to follow a mysterious, deadly poison that links the birds in the highland Papuan villages to frogs in the lowland South American jungles of Colombia — and to beetles in both far-off habitats.

More here.

Back to Karachi

Some months ago, upon my return from a longish trip to the city of my birth, Karachi, I wrote here about my distress at what I described as the miserable state of that city today. My words caused pain to some who live there, and who felt my expression of disquietude as a sort of betrayal. Though my own feelings remain unchanged, I am pleased to be able to present a more sanguine reflection on Karachi from a fellow exile; one, moreover, who is a dear and old friend. Zainab Masud writes today in Karachi’s best known and largest daily, Dawn:

Again, it is the people in Karachi through who you sample the sense of gaiety and energy the city has to offer. The individuals who made my world — some family members and friends — all have something in common. Strength and sensitivity. They are brave and kind, undeniably loyal and unflinchingly optimistic. I saw them take on their challenges in life with resilience and integrity. Through my good and bad times, through happy days and heartbreak, they promised me that it would be ‘all right’. And it was. It’s the people that make a place, they say. It is.

I’m continents away now, and last night I stood by the Mississippi river watching the mist float over the waters and into the town. New Orleans lay steeped in old-world charm; through the mist we walked into the French Quarters where horse-drawn carriages trotted down the centuries old streets. A pale-faced man in a long, black coat reminded me that this was the home of the vampire.

I am far from my own home, trying, tentatively to find a new beginning. But the beauty of Karachi lies deep in my heart. Having found it after much trepidation, I cannot let it go. When the plane glides down, towards Karachi, the lights of the city sparkle with confidence. Wounded and aching after years of violence, Karachi is still dignified in it’s resilience. The energy is luminous.

Read Zainab’s full article here.


Clay Risen writes in The New Republic:

In film, if you win the Golden Globe, you’re automatically the odds-on favorite to win the Oscar. When it comes to the two largest architecture awards, however, it’s just the opposite–those who win the Aga Khan, a triennial series of awards last given in November 2004, rarely have a shot at the Pritzker Prize, announced each spring. And those who win the Pritzker are rarely the sort who could win the Aga Khan.

That’s because the two awards take radically different approaches to recognizing architectural excellence. The Aga Khan is awarded to works of architecture; the Pritzker to architects. The Aga Khan goes to a variety of projects in different categories; there is only one Pritzker. The Aga Khan recognizes everyone involved in a particular effort–contractors, engineers, and surveyors; only architects are eligible for the Pritzker. The Aga Khan committee prizes social contribution; the Pritzker’s looks more heavily to design quality.

Their public reception differs as well.

More here.


Floyd Norris reviews John Kenneth Galbraith: His Life, His Politics, His Economics by Richard Parker, in the New York Times:

Mr. Galbraith, 96, leaves no Galbraithian school of economists, although Mr. Parker quotes Amartya Sen, the Indian economist and Nobel Prize winner, as saying his work will endure. Reading “The Affluent Society” now, Mr. Sen said, is “like reading ‘Hamlet’ and deciding it is full of quotations.”

“You realize,” he continued, “where they came from.”

More here.

Who will try the criminals of Darfur?

Marisa Katz in The New Republic:

There are echoes of Bosnia and Rwanda in the proposals for a war-crimes tribunal for Darfur. The members of the Security Council–including the United States–have been reluctant to volunteer their own troops, expand the size or mandate of the small contingent of African Union cease-fire monitors now on the ground, or do anything more than threaten to consider sanctions. Talk of a war crimes tribunal, however, allows the appearance of moral concern while avoiding the messy politics of intervention. It is a way for the great powers to assuage their guilt as they stand by and do little else.

More here.


Alex Ross on Osmo Vänskä, the latest Finnish phenomenon, in the New Yorker:

Osmo_vanskaOn a recent night in Minneapolis, as the temperature plunged toward sixteen below zero, an unlikely midwinter carnival took place in Orchestra Hall. The Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä, who became the music director of the Minnesota Orchestra in 2003, had decided to present a symphony by his countryman Kalevi Aho, and the orchestra chose to spotlight rather than hush up this contemporary intrusion into the gated community of “great composers.” A folk ensemble sang Finnish songs in the lobby. Finnish arts and crafts were for sale alongside characteristic pastries, including homemade snickerdoodles, which I enjoyed too much to question whether they were really Finnish. The hubbub drew in curious passersby. A couple walked up to the ticket window and asked, “What kinda show ya got tonight?” The cashier answered, “We’ve got some Mozart and some”—she paused—“Aho.” The couple blanched. “But Osmo is here,” she added. That closed the deal.

Vänskä is hugely popular in Minnesota, and this concert showed why.

More here.

Extremes: The Badwater Ultramarathon

Adeline Goss in Seed Magazine:

First, the numbers: It is 10 a.m. here at the Badwater salt flats, and it’s 115 degrees in the shade. At 282 feet below sea level, this is the lowest and hottest spot in the Western Hemisphere. There is a wavering road stretching 135 miles toward the 8,300-foot-high portal to Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United States. Forming a line across the road, grinning and cheering, are 24 runners, aged 32 to 62. While their body temperatures cling to a normal 98.6 degrees, the pavement creeps up to 200, melting the rubber soles under their feet.

This is the Badwater Ultramarathon, the most demanding and extreme running race in the world. For three days, Badwater runners try to jog—though many walk, and some report having crawled—through Nevada’s Death Valley, up its precipitous walls and over three mountain ranges to the finish line. They try to make their way nonstop, without aid stations, sleep, or IVs; instead, they are trailed by personal crewmembers, medical staff, and the well-loved Ice Man. “If you were to set up aid stations,” says race director Chris Kostman, “first of all, the people in the aid stations would die.”

Something about the runners defies this logic of the desert. This race is largely a test of will; but in a place like Death Valley, the will must first cater to the body. The resulting struggle—between resilient minds and near-death bodies—brings teams of researchers to Badwater each year.

More here.

How biopolitics could reshape our understanding of left and right

Allyssa Ford in Utne Magazine:

Didn’t think it was possible for the left to be anymore splintered? Welcome to the world of biopolitics, a fledgling political movement that promises to make mortal enemies out of one-time allies — such as back-to-nature environmentalists and technophile lefties — and close friends of traditional foes, such as anti-GMO activists and evangelicals.

Biopolitics, a term coined by Trinity College professor James Hughes, places pro-technology transhumanists on one pole and people who are suspicious of technology on the other. According to Hughes, transhumanists are members of “an emergent philosophical movement which says that humans can and should become more than human through technological enhancements.” The term transhuman is shorthand for transitional human — people who are in the process of becoming “posthuman” or “cyborgs.”

It may sound like a movement founded by people who argue over Star Trek minutia on the Internet, but transhumanists are far more complex and organized than one might imagine. They got their start in the early 1980s as a small band of libertarian technophiles who advocated for any advancement that could extend human life indefinitely or eliminate disease and disability. Their members were some of the first to sign up to be cryogenically frozen, for example.

More here.

The Gates Made Us Physically Sick!

Margit_with_the_gatesEarlier this afternoon, my friend Shabbir Kazmi, my wife Margit, and I met at Strawberry Fields to begin an arty excursion through The Gates in Central Park. The weather was beautiful. Shabby bought and ate a hot dog from a street vendor. The Gates looked inviting enough (though they are quite huge and imposing, maybe 15 feet tall–much bigger than they look in photographs) and we entered… After wandering southward through the saffron tunnels (the gates are so close together that the paths do feel tunnel-like, especially as you are walking on them) for a bit, my wife had the bright idea that there might be a good overview of some of The Gates from the roofgarden at the Metropolitan Museum, so now we headed north and east to 84th street through more of the orangeness. At some point, after a mile or so of The Gates, Shabby started feeling quite dizzy and started walking off the path. Five minutes later, I suddenly felt nauseous (I am not making this up!), and soon after, Margit also fell victim to the emetic vertigo of The Gates. We made a mad dash across the lawn, staying as far from The Gates as possible (it was like being in a horror movie!), to 5th Avenue, and finally breathed free again on the sidewalk there, carefully keeping our backs to Christo’s creation, lest it overcome us, even at a distance!

Make of this what you will. There are some other people’s reactions here.

Arts and Snots

I despise the snottiness and Byzantine pseudo-academic lingo of the art world as much as anyone, I swear I do. I have nothing condescending to say about The Gates. In fact, I think they are marvelous. I read October sometimes, admittedly, but it pains me. Still, the art world is right sometimes. . . .

Some popular art sucks. “The Dancing Butler” by Jack Vettriano is cheesy and the fact that it goes down as being the most expensive Scottish painting sold to date is a slap (even if a small one) in the face of the Scottish Enlightenment. That sounds harsh but, damn it, it’s true. The art world has done well by ostracizing Mr. Vettriano. Populism has its limits.

I would rather be forced to read an entire decade of October magazines (just not the 80s please) than read another sentence along the likes of a Mr. Garrick Saito’s odd and depressing encomium to the forgettable Vettriano:

The Singing Butler has a unique charm, elegance and romanticism that are uniquely Vettriano. People who view this image feel like they are in another world, a world they aspire to be in. It is a world that has no worries, no problems and is the ultimate romantic spot on the planet. Dancing along the beach in a tuxedo and an elegant evening gown, the couple pictured are sheltered from any possibility of rain by a bowler hatted, tuxedo dressed butler holding an umbrella, who serenades them as they dance. This is what the good life is about. Despite the windy and near-rainy conditions, a maid stands by the butler, also holding an umbrella, just in case drizzle turns to rain. You do not see the couple’s faces, but you know what their eyes are saying. They are in love. It’s an unbelievably moving piece.

Yikes, there is no question in my mind that the youth ought to be protected from such opinions. Two further points in the case that Vettiano is dangerous to young and old aesthetiphiles alike.

One, just look at some of his paintings.

Two, just look at him.