Testing Darwin: Artificial Life

Carl Zimmer in Discover Magazine:

These are digital organisms-strings of commands-akin to computer viruses. Each organism can produce tens of thousands of copies of itself within a matter of minutes. Unlike computer viruses, however, they are made up of digital bits that can mutate in much the same way DNA mutates. A software program called Avida allows researchers to track the birth, life, and death of generation after generation of the digital organisms by scanning columns of numbers that pour down a computer screen like waterfalls.

After more than a decade of development, Avida’s digital organisms are now getting close to fulfilling the definition of biological life. “More and more of the features that biologists have said were necessary for life we can check off,” says Robert Pennock, a philosopher at Michigan State and a member of the Avida team. “Does this, does that, does this. Metabolism? Maybe not quite yet, but getting pretty close.”

One thing the digital organisms do particularly well is evolve.“ Avida is not a simulation of evolution; it is an instance of it,” Pennock says. “All the core parts of the Darwinian process are there. These things replicate, they mutate, they are competing with one another. The very process of natural selection is happening there. If that’s central to the definition of life, then these things count.”

More here. (Thanks to Atiya Khan for pointing this out.)

Origami Mathematics

Margaret Wertheim in the New York Times:

OrigamiDr. Demaine, an assistant professor of computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is the leading theoretician in the emerging field of origami mathematics, the formal study of what can be done with a folded sheet of paper. He believes the form he is holding is a hyperbolic parabaloid, a shape well known to mathematicians – or something very close to that – but he wants to be able to prove this conjecture. “It’s not easy to do,” he says.

Dr. Demaine is not a man to be easily defeated by a piece of paper. Over the past few years he has published a series of landmark results about the theory of folded structures, including solutions to the longstanding “single-cut” problem and the “carpenter’s rule” problem. These days he is applying insights he has gleaned from his studies of wrinkling and crinkling and hinging to questions in architecture, robotics and molecular biology.

Origami may seem an unusual route to a prestigious university job, but most things about Dr. Demaine defy academic norms.

More here.

Uganda: The Horror

Paul Rafaelle in Smithsonian Magazine:

Uganda_schoolNight after night, children in northern Uganda hide from the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a murderous cult that has been fighting the Ugandan government and terrorizing civilians for nearly two decades. Led by Joseph Kony, a self-styled Christian prophet believed to be in his 40s, the LRA has captured and enslaved more than 20,000 children, most under age 13, U.N. officials say. Kony and his foot soldiers have raped many of the girls—Kony has said he is trying to create a “pure” tribal nation—and brutally forced the boys to serve as guerrilla soldiers. The LRA has killed or tortured children caught trying to escape.

More here. (Thanks to Atiya Khan for bringing this to my attention.)

See also our earlier post about this issue here.

‘A Sense of the Mysterious’: A Lab of One’s Own

Sophie Harrison reviews Alan Lightman’s new collection of essays, A Sense of the Mysterious: Science and the Human Spirit, in the New York Times:

LightmanLike Oliver Sacks, Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins and countless others, Lightman is that phenomenon mistakenly believed to be rare: a scientist in love with words, one who can write clearly and appealingly about his subject for a lay readership. Science happens to be excellent training for literature; it calls for both narrative ability and a grasp of style, and it sometimes seems as though the ”arts-science divide” simply reflects the humanities’ refusal to believe that anything that originates in a lab could possibly be attractive. But if the gap between the practices has been exaggerated, there does tend to be a divide between the practitioners. In Lightman’s case the divide is more like a canyon: he is both a former astrophysicist and a novelist. About his extraordinary twin career he is modest. ”I was fortunate to make a life in both,” he says, as though he had divided his time between landscape gardening and professional Rollerblading, rather than spending two decades as a research scientist and publishing four well-regarded novels.

In this book’s first and most substantial piece, an autobiographical essay originally published in Daedalus in 2003, Lightman tries to give a sense of how he ended up with a foot in each camp. His discussion tends to description rather than explanation: possibly it hasn’t occurred to him that most people don’t automatically reach for a pencil and start calculating angles when they notice the wake from a boat. He’s too unassuming to realize he’s unusual, and so he never really accounts for his impressive talents. But if he fails to interrogate the why, he is charming on the how.

More here.

Santiago Calatrava Wins Gold

Benjamin Forgey in the Washington Post:

CalatravaIn other words, the 53-year-old Spaniard compellingly deserves the award he received yesterday at the National Building Museum from the American Institute of Architects. Calatrava is the 61st recipient of the institution’s highest honor, its Gold Medal.

Even at his age, Calatrava still deserves to be called a phenom. After all, at 53 most architects with strong personal visions are just beginning to make their presence felt. But Calatrava has accomplished so much in so short a period of time it is hard to comprehend.

He has designed opera houses, museums, stadiums, civic centers, train stations, airports and other types of buildings throughout Europe and in the United States. And bridges. With Calatrava, you cannot forget bridges.

More here.

16 Years Later, Rushdie Fatwa Still Stands

From the BBC News:

_40822239_rushdie203okokIran’s hard-line Revolutionary Guards have declared the death sentence on British author Salman Rushdie is still valid – 16 years after it was issued.

The military organisation, loyal to Iran’s supreme leader, said the order was “irrevocable”, on the eve of the anniversary of the 1989 fatwa.

The order was issued after publication of Mr Rushdie’s novel “The Satanic Verses”, condemned as blasphemous.

More here.

On a happier note, Rushdie’s new book Shalimar the Clown will be published later this year. This is from The Times:

IT IS hard to argue against the idea that, in the public mind, the fatwa on Salman Rushdie, issued after the publication of The Satanic Verses in 1988, has overshadowed his work.

What is remarkable about Rushdie, and a testament to the power of art, is that he has never appeared to stand in the darkness of that shadow. By the time of the publication of The Satanic Verses, he had already won the Booker Prize for Midnight’s Children (1981), which in 1993 was judged “the Booker of Bookers” — the best book to have won the prize in its 25-year history.

More here.

Compete last, finish first

“From song contests to figure-skating, the order of contestants biases decisions.”

Emma Marris in Nature:

Wändi Bruine de Bruin, of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, noticed that most experiments in decision science (a relatively new, interdisciplinary field that probes the mysteries of how humans make choices) present all of the options to their subjects simultaneously. But in the real world, when choosing an apartment or meeting a stream of suitors, for example, one often sees the alternatives in sequence…

Bruine de Bruin found that scores climbed as the competitions went on, with late-appearing singers and skaters getting higher marks on average.

More here.

Freedom, From Want

James Traub in the New York Times Magazine:

At a panel in Davos, someone asked former President Bill Clinton why Washington seemed so impervious to demands to increase aid. ”Because nobody will ever get beat for Congress or president for not doing it,” Clinton shot back. That may have sounded too deflating, for Clinton quickly added that in the U.S., too, ”an effective political constituency” over aid had begun to form. Conservative church groups, for example, backed President Bush’s decision in 2003 to spend $15 billion on international AIDS programs over three years. Nevertheless, Americans appear disengaged on the development agenda, just as Europeans appear to us to be disengaged on the terrorism agenda. Each side seems governed by a reciprocal parochialism.

More here.

Complicated Iran

My friend and colleague J.M. Tyree has posted a nice reference to an essay by Steven Levine and myself a few years ago about the neo-cons. (I’m getting to Iran I promise). Since then, I’ve been amazed by two things. One is the extent to which the neo-cons have shown that their commitment to American Exceptionalism subverts and destroys essentially every platitude about freedom or democracy they utter (The CPA, Abu Graib, The ICC, etc.). The second is the extent to which the traditional Left has become almost completely irrelevant to discussions about freedom and democracy around the world (The Orange Revolution, The Iraqi Purple Finger, etc.). Into that gap a new political matrix will spring, I think, and the coming years will begin to show us what it looks like.

And here’s where Iran comes in. Steven and I posited in the afore-mentioned piece that the geo-strategic vision of most neo-cons has long seen Iran as the true linchpin of all things Middle Eastern (which is probably true). Thus, it was troubling to read Seymour Hersh’s recent article about just how ham-fisted the neo-cons continue to be in imagining (fantasizing) about how American interest and virtue are supposed to coincide with respect to Iran.

All the better, then, that we continue to get smarter, richer, and more complicated pictures of what is happening inside Iran these days (which is not to apologize for or appease what continues to be a despicable and repressive regime). Christopher de Bellaigue’s new book “In the Rose Garden of Martyrs,” seems like quite a good read, especially as it is described in Pico Ayer’s review.

In the prosperous northern Tehran suburb of Elahiyeh, ladies who lunch visit a French-trained psychologist downtown (to talk of their adulteries, no doubt), while their teenage daughters (”matchsticks marinated in Chanel,” in Christopher de Bellaigue’s pungent words) get nose jobs, hang around the pizza parlor and perform oral sex on their boyfriends so they’ll still technically be virgins when married off to their first cousins. Occasionally the ”morals police” stop by in Land Cruisers to check handbags for condoms, but Elahiyeh honors the age-old Iranian principle of veiled surfaces and highly embroidered interiors. Indeed, when de Bellaigue and his Iranian wife invite one of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s former hoodlums to lunch — an Indian meal — the man and his wife marvel over the apartment’s interior design.

This is the Iran of only a very, very few, of course, and de Bellaigue devotes only two dashing pages to it in his impenitently stylish and arresting debut book, ”In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs.” Yet it speaks for his method of pitching us into the very heart and streets of the Iranian revolution today, its troubled consciences, and giving us so jolting a sense of ordinary lives and human losses that we can no longer see the country in simplistic, public-policy terms of ”conservatives versus reformists.” A young British journalist who writes for The Economist, de Bellaigue aims to complicate from within a world that too many of us associate only with turbaned ayatollahs and slogans of ”Death to America.” That former hoodlum, for example, introduced to us as Mr. Zarif, laid mines in the war against Iraq at 15, joined a seminary at 17 and now, playing around with screenwriting, can barely recognize the places where he sent people to their deaths. Civil wars, de Bellaigue is agile enough to see, often take place invisibly.

Forgotten Prophet of Genetics

Robert Olby reviews The Man Who Invented the Chromosome: A Life of Cyril Darlington by Oren S. Harman, in American Scientist:

Cyril Darlington was an impressive figure: Well over six feet tall with a frame to match his height, handsome and debonair, a fresh rose in his jacket lapel, Oxford’s Sherardian Professor of Botany looked the part. Although he was, in his day, one of the foremost cytologists in the world, he was also an enthusiastic student of history and a devoted gardener. He learned to garden as a child and subsequently expressed this enthusiasm in the genetic garden he created at the University of Oxford and in the historic Botanic Garden there; he also planned two arboreta (both achieved). His passion to account for history in genetic terms led him to write a mammoth book, The Evolution of Man and Society (1969).

The son of a Lancashire schoolmaster, Darlington graduated from Wye College with a London University degree and found unpaid work at the John Innes Horticultural Institute, which was directed at that time by William Bateson, an “apostle” of Mendelism. Sixteen years later Darlington became director. By the time he left in 1953 (after 30 years) to assume the chair of botany at Oxford, he had built for himself and the institute an international reputation.

More here.

Healthier in lungs, poorer in spirit

George Blecher in Spiked:

BurmasmokingpeopleBut cigarette smoking wasn’t only about good and bad; it was also about the awareness of death. (Clean-air fanatics might go much further and insist that smoking isn’t about death but murder and suicide. That feels a little overwrought to me.) Though I gave it up years ago, I still miss it, and certainly don’t hate those who continue to smoke. Partly thumbing one’s nose at death, partly flirting with it, part defiance, part acceptance – each breath of smoke was all of these, and when we smoked together in bars and clubs, at parties or at home, the consciousness of our mortality may even have coaxed us into making the most of the limited time that we knew we had.

More here.

‘In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs’: Reflections on Iran

Pico Iyer reviews Christopher de Bellaigue’s book in the New York Times:

Debellcover583In his impenitently stylish and arresting debut book, [Christopher de Bellaigue pitches] us into the very heart and streets of the Iranian revolution today, its troubled consciences, and [gives] us so jolting a sense of ordinary lives and human losses that we can no longer see the country in simplistic, public-policy terms of ‘conservatives versus reformists.’ A young British journalist who writes for The Economist, de Bellaigue aims to complicate from within a world that too many of us associate only with turbaned ayatollahs and slogans of ‘Death to America.’ …

Read the review here.

I Am Not a Jackass

An essay by A.J. Jacobs in the New York Times Book Review about the review his book received there:

Jacobs But nothing — absolutely nothing — was as strange as the review I received in these very pages. This was no ordinary write-up. After a blissful monthlong honeymoon with the critics, my book — called ”The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World,” a lighthearted account of the year I spent reading the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica — got one of the most mean-spirited reviews in the 154-year history of The New York Times. The writer — a humorist named Joe Queenan — seemed genuinely angry with me, as if I had transported his niece across state lines. He called me a simpleton. He said I was so dumb, I wasn’t even ”the smartest person at Entertainment Weekly” (the magazine where I used to work). He referred to me as a ”jackass.” A jackass. In The New York Times Book Review. I flipped around to the other reviews. Did they call Philip Roth a doofus? Did they call Gish Jen a nitwit? No, just me. A jackass. The review was so vicious it was written up in The Village Voice, on several blogs and, oddly enough, in Women’s Wear Daily. Yes, when your book review is mentioned next to articles about taffeta, you know it’s bad.

More here.

The heart healer

Pekka_puska “Pekka Puska was born in Vaasa, northern Finland, in 1945. He was director of the North Karelia Project in eastern Finland from 1972 to 1997. Between 2001 and 2003 he was director of the department of non-communicable disease prevention at the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland. He has a PhD in epidemiology and has published more than 400 scientific papers. He has also served as a member of the Finnish parliament. He is married with two young children.”

Pelle Neroth interviews Puska in New Scientist:

Did all this effort pay off?

Between 1972 and 1997, when the North Karelia project ended, the number of deaths from coronary heart disease dropped by 82 per cent. Life expectancy among men went up eight years, from 65 to 73. Blood cholesterol in the population dropped 20 per cent. It was like putting the whole population on cholesterol-reducing drugs. The consumption of fruit and vegetables went from the lowest in Europe to the highest in northern Europe. In 1972, 90 per cent of the population put butter on their bread; now only 7 per cent do. Salt consumption halved. Smoking went down drastically among men, though it increased among women. In Finland as a whole, between 1969 and 2002 deaths from chronic heart disease dropped by 76 per cent among men aged 35 to 64. People used to come up to me and shake my hand and say, “Thank you Dr Puska, you have saved my life.” It amused me. Perhaps health experts are the modern priests.

More here.

Death of a playwright: Arthur Miller 1915-2005

Xan Brooks in The Guardian:

MillerredArthur Miller, a giant of American drama for nearly 60 years, is dead. According to reports, the 89-year-old playwright passed away at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut. He had been suffering from cancer, pneumonia and a heart condition.

The son of Polish-Jewish immigrants, Miller’s comfortable middle-class New York childhood was shattered when his father lost his fortune during the Great Depression. The experience would later form the basis of his breakthrough play, 1949’s Death of a Salesman, a savage assault on the American dream. “He had the wrong dreams,” Biff says of his father, the hapless, desperate Willy Loman. “All, all wrong.”

More here.

And the New York Times has this by Marilyn Berger (and a bunch of other stuff):

…his reputation rests on a handful of his best-known plays, the dramas of guilt and betrayal and redemption that continue to be revived frequently at theaters all over the world. These dramas of social conscience were drawn from life and informed by the Great Depression, the event that he believed had had a more profound impact on the nation than any other in American history, except possibly the Civil War.

“In play after play,” the drama critic Mel Gussow wrote in The New York Times, “he holds man responsible for his and for his neighbor’s actions.”

More here.

And Harold Pinter had this to say at BBC News:

He had a wonderful kind of velocity about him. He was as tough as a rock, really. He looked like a bit of a rock too. That was one of the other things that made him remarkable – his actual physical presence was quite formidable.

This certainly embodied itself when we both went to Turkey together for this memorable trip in which we were nearly arrested and there was a military decree out for our arrest in Istanbul.

We just managed to get away by the skin of our teeth. They didn’t like us at all over there because we were very independent and he was a landmark, he was a leader, and I was extremely attached to him.

I’m pretty convinced he was writing until the day of his death. He was born with the pen in his hand.

More here.

Cell: Supercomputer on a Chip

Will Knight in New Scientist:

Details of a novel microprocessor design that could supercharge many computing applications were released at an industry conference in California, US, on Monday.

The microprocessor architecture – known as Cell – will appear in the Playstation3 games console, scheduled for release in 2006. But experts say it could ultimately find its way into many home entertainment devices, high-end computers and even supercomputers.

Details of the chip were disclosed at the International Solid State Circuits Conference in San Francisco, stirring debate over the possible implications for the computer industry.

Developed jointly by IBM, Sony and Toshiba, the microprocessor is fundamentally different from the chips that power most computers today. It incorporates eight separate processing cores, or “synergistic processing elements”, which are capable of communicating with one another at high-speed. A standard chip has single, larger processor.

More here.

Criticizing Christo

A day before Christo’s project “The Gates” opens in Central Park, the critics are already doing, well, what they do. Jed Perl in The New Republic:

If Christo and Jeanne-Claude did not exist, somebody would have to invent them. The husband-and-wife team whose latest project, “The Gates,” opens in New York’s Central Park on Saturday, are the hardworking, irrepressible promoters of a series of avant-garde-meets-pop-culture happenings that sweep people right off their feet. This fusion phenomenon, with its mix of modernist obscurantism and feel-good communalism, is bohemianism for the masses. There isn’t much of anything left once you’ve stripped these fun-with-fabric extravaganzas of all their logistical complexities. But the sheer bravado of Christo and Jeanne-Claude–who have wrapped buildings and coastlines–can pass for visionary power right now, when so many people are unclear as to where cultural experiences end and life-style choices begin. The acres of saffron cloth that Christo and Jeanne-Claude are unfurling across Central Park are a fashion statement, nothing more. It’s public art for the cocooning generation. It’s aestheticism lite.

More here.

Central Park, gated & unfurled

Gates “On February 12 (weather permitting), celebrated artists, Christo and Jeanne-Claude will unfurl the fabric panels for THE GATES, CENTRAL PARK, NEW YORK CITY, 1979-2005. On view for only 16 days, the 7,500 gates will transform Central Park by following the edges of 23 miles of walkways and footpaths from 59 th street to 110 th street. Saffron-colored fabric panels will hang seven feet above the ground, blowing in the wind and delighting the public walking beneath with a warm glow of translucent color. The gates will seem like a golden river appearing and disappearing through the bare branches of the trees. The exhibit is free for all New Yorkers and visitors to enjoy and will not interfere with normal Park activity.”

From an article included in complete multi-media coverage of the Gates, New York’s largest ever public art event, here:

“It is one thing to guard a Fabergé egg or the Mona Lisa. Any experienced security expert can list the basic tactics: velvet ropes, glass display cases and infrared beams. But how to protect art made up of 7,500 gates sprawled over 23 miles of trail in an 843-acre park whose entrances are never fully closed, even at night?”

Peter Blank discusses Christo and his wife Jeanne-Claude in a Stanford Presidential Lecture in the Humanities and Arts:           Christo_jc

“Individual aspects of the Christos’ art may be linked to any number of artistic precursors, yet in its totality their work is truly unique. Their oeuvre has been approached critically via its resonance with Constructivism, Nouveau Rèalisme, happenings, conceptual art, land art, and the tradition of draped figures in art, especially those of Giotto and Rodin. Yet any single point of entry must be left behind if one is to fully appreciate the Christos’ unparalleled achievements.”

And here is the website where you can order your own hand signed art prints of the Central Park Gates projects, as well as other “Gates” memorabilia. All proceeds benefit the organization “Nurture New York’s Nature”. And the “official” Gates website.

Letting the Masses Decide?

On the gossipy, weird, and telling side, here’s Michael Totten’s account of a conversation between Hitchens, some Iraqis, and himself.

Christopher Hitchens said to Ghassan Atiyyah: ‘If the Iraqis were to elect either a Sunni or Shia Taliban, we would not let them take power.’ And of course he was right. We didn’t invade Iraq so we could midwife the birth of yet another despicable tyranny. ‘One man, one vote, one time’ isn’t anything remotely like a democracy.

But Atiyyah would have none of that. He exploded in furious rage. ‘So you’re my colonial master now, eh?!’ You have to understand – this man’s voice really carries.

Suddenly, Atiyyah did have defenders at the table. I could see that coming in the shocked expressions on the faces of the other Iraqis when they heard what Hitchens said. Ahman al Rikaby, intriguingly, was an exception. He just looked at Atiyyah with a cold and sober stoicism. But Hitchens had a defender, too. He had me.

‘I agree with Christopher,’ I said. ‘We didn’t invade Iraq to let it turn into another Iran.’ I knew damn well all the Iraqis at the table were staunch opponents of religious fascism. This shouldn’t have been a point of contention. But, boy, was it ever.

‘Who the hell are you?’ Atiyyah said to Hitchens as if I weren’t the last one to speak.”