Academic Freedoms, or Lack Thereof

Rashid Khalidi is a man whose brilliance, fairmindedness, and decency I can personally attest to. He is the director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University, and a highly respected scholar. Recently, in a disgraceful but unfortunately typical show of pro-Israel political muscle-flexing by the New York City government, he was banned from lecturing to city teachers.

Joyce Purnick writes about it in the New York Times:

Khalidi_rashidEarlier this month, Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein barred Rashid Khalidi, director of Columbia’s Middle East Institute, from again lecturing to city teachers enrolled in a professional development course because of “a number of things he’s said in the past,” said Michael Best, the department’s general counsel. Asked if the department had verified those purported remarks, Mr. Best did not answer directly: “He’s denied saying certain things; he has not denied saying others.”

Set against the backdrop of a simmering campus dispute over Jewish students’ charges of intimidation by pro-Palestinian teachers, the Khalidi affair has inevitably been linked to the larger controversy. “In this feeding frenzy for finding culprits, he sort of got lumped in with others, and it’s been unfair to him,” said Ari L. Goldman, dean of students at Columbia’s journalism school…

There are no known complaints about Professor Khalidi from the schoolteachers, and he has won student praise at Columbia. In fact, Charles Jacobs, who heads the pro-Israeli group that first raised complaints of intimidation in Columbia classrooms, said Professor Khalidi “was not at all criticized. Students said he was the opposite of the people they were complaining about.”

More here.

And while we are on the subject, Frank Furedi writes in Spiked:

Since the nineteenth century, the ideals of university autonomy and the liberty of those involved in higher learning to teach, research and express their views have been formally upheld in many societies. In some countries – Austria, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Spain, Sweden – academic freedom is affirmed by the constitution. This should not be seen as some eccentric, outdated right. Everyone benefits from the exercise of this freedom; it helps promote the development of science and knowledge, which benefits the whole of society.

Sadly, contemporary academia takes academic freedom for granted, and treats it as no big deal. Some seem to view it as a redundant privilege, not worth making a fuss about. One reason why academic freedom is not taken so seriously today is because attacks on it are rarely formulated in explicit and self-conscious terms. Although individual politicians sometimes criticise an individual lecturer, governments rarely attack academic freedoms as such. And yet, a closer examination of the workings of higher education suggests that academic freedom is threatened from both within and outside the university.

More here.

The Human Metabonome

Gunjan Sinha in Scientific American:

No single diet works for everyone. Some people can slurp cabbage soup for a week and lose only a few ounces, while others on the same spartan regimen lose 10 pounds. But what if you could measure your metabolism and get a prescription for a customized diet?

Metabonomics may do just that. It is one of the latest offshoots of the “-omics” revolution–after genomics (genes) and proteomics (proteins). With the understanding that some diseases such as obesity are metabolic syndromes in which multiple biochemical pathways interact to cause complex symptoms, metabolic testing offers a way to gauge health over a lifetime. What is more, metabonomic technology might identify disorders before they produce symptoms. Such testing could help people choose diet and exercise regimens that are tailored to their individual metabolic states.

More here.

The Evolution of Language, Part II

Excellent science writer Carl Zimmer in his blog, The Loom:

In my last post, I traced a debate over the evolution of language. On one side, we have Steven Pinker and his colleagues, who argue that human language is, like the eye, a complex adaptation produced over millions of years through natural selection, favoring communication between hominids. On the other side, we have Noam Chomsky, Tecumseh Fitch, and Marc Hauser, who think scientists should explore some alternative ideas about language, including one hypothesis in which practically all the building blocks of human language were already in place long before our ancestors could speak, having evolved for other functions. In the current issue of Cognition, Pinker and Ray Jackendoff of Brandeis responded to Chomsky, Fitch, and Hauser with a long, detailed counterattack. They worked their way through many features of language, from words to syntax to speech, that they argued show signs of adaptation in humans specifically for language. The idea that almost of all of the language faculty was already in place is, they argue, a weak one.

More here.

Voltaire as a campaigner for human rights

Adam Gopnik reviews Voltaire in Exile by Ian Davidson, in the New Yorker:

It is still bracing, at a time when the extreme deference we pay to faith has made any attack on religious beliefs unacceptable, to hear Voltaire on Jesuits and Muslims alike—to hear him howl with indignation at the madness and malignance of religion—and to be reminded that that free-thinking, which inspired Twain and Mencken, has almost vanished from our world. (There is, after all, as much of Voltaire in American life as in French life. Benjamin Franklin went to him for a blessing, and got it.)

More here.

Most distant galaxy cluster yet is revealed

Maggie McKee in New Scientist:

The most distant cluster of galaxies ever found has been revealed by astronomers – and it bears an uncanny resemblance to those nearby. The technique used to discover the cluster promises further discoveries at similar distances, which would help constrain cosmological models.

The cluster of galaxies spotted by astronomers lies 9 billion light-years away. That beats the 8.5 billion light-years’ distance of the previous record holder – a jump that represents a “significant fraction of a galaxy’s lifespan”, says Christopher Mullis, at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, US, who led the team.

More here.

Letter From Iran

Afshin Molavi writes in Smithsonian Magazine:

Perhaps the most striking thing about anti-Americanism in Iran today is how little of it actually exists. Nearly three-fourths of the Iranians polled in a 2002 survey said they would like their government to restore dialogue with the United States. Though hard-line officials urge “Death to America” during Friday prayers, most Iranians seem to ignore the propaganda. “The paradox of Iran is that it just might be the most pro-American—or, perhaps, least anti-American—populace in the Muslim world,” says Karim Sadjadpour, an analyst in Tehran for the International Crisis Group, an advocacy organization for conflict resolution based in Brussels.

More here.

How many grains make a heap?

Richard Rorty reviews Philosophical Analysis in the 20th Century: Vol. I: The Dawn of Analysis, and Vol. II: The Age of Meaning, by Scott Soames, in the London Review of Books:

‘I had hoped my department would hire somebody in the history of philosophy,’ my friend lamented, ‘but my colleagues decided that we needed somebody who was contributing to the literature on vagueness.’

‘The literature on what?’ I asked.

‘Dick,’ he replied, exasperated, ‘you’re really out of it. You don’t realise: vagueness is huge.’

My friend’s judgment is confirmed by Scott Soames’s 900-page history of analytic philosophy. In an epilogue titled ‘The Era of Specialisation’, Soames cites ‘the investigation of vague predicates’ as an area of philosophical inquiry that has ‘exploded in the last thirty years’. The intensity with which such specialised inquiries are being pursued is, he says, indicative of the fact that ‘the discipline itself – philosophy as a whole – has become an aggregate of related but semi-independent investigations, very much like other academic disciplines.’

Soames welcomes this change.

More here.

And see a reply by Soames here.

Frontline’s Recent Iraq Films

The PBS documentary show Frontline has been so good lately that I look forward to it all week. Good films, but terribly saddening. Last week, in A Company of Soldiers, Frontline rode with Dog Company, the Army’s 1-B Cav Regiment, stationed in Baghdad. The film depicted a military situation that, for all the bravery and humanity of the soldiers, is dangerous, traumatic, and by all appearances largely futile. This week was The Soldier’s Heart, about the debilitating mental effects of combat trauma on returning soldiers. Taken together, the two films add up to a devastating portrait of Iraq’s affect on the soldiers. (This disturbing 60 Minutes report suggests that literally thousands of other casualties don’t even make Pentagon lists because they didn’t happen as a result of enemy fire, but that’s yet another story.) Frontline offers many of its original interviews in their unexpurgated form online, as well as the entire program available on the web after a few days have passed.

Jef Raskin, 1943-2005

The bottom of Google’s homepage today, just below its copyright, contains:

©2005 Google – Searching 8,058,044,651 web pages

In memoriam, Jef Raskin 1943-2005

As for who he is, there’s this,

Jef Raskin, a mathematician,  orchestral soloist and composer, professor, bicycle racer, model airplane designer, and pioneer in the field of human-computer interactions, died peacefully at home in California on February 26th, 2005 surrounded by his family and loved ones. He had recently been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Jef created the Macintosh computer as employee number 31 at Apple in the early 1980s, revolutionizing computer interface design. Jef invented “click and drag” and many other methods now taken for granted by computer users. He named the Macintosh project after his favorite variety of apple, the McIntosh, modifying the spelling for copyright purposes. Jef’s article “Holes in the Histories” <> addresses popular misconceptions about the Macintosh Project. Jef strongly believed that computers should make tasks easy for people, not the other way around. For twenty-five more years, his work focused on improving interfaces, culminating in his book, The Humane Interface (Addison-Wesley, 2000). Jef created the Raskin Center for Humane Interfaces (RCHI), <> which will soon release a preview of Archy, a culmination and exemplar of his design principles. Archy redesigns the basic building blocks of computing to demonstrate  an entirely new paradigm for computer use. RCHI will continue under the technical leadership of Jef’s son, Aza Raskin.

Norbert Wiener: A Brilliant Mind and an Anguished Life

Cornelia Dean reviews Dark Hero of the Information Age: In Search of Norbert Wiener, the Father of Cybernetics by Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman, in the New York Times:

WienerIt is hardly the greatest scientific mystery of the 20th century, but it is a riddle just the same: why did Norbert Wiener – gray eminence of gray matter, inventor of cybernetics, founding theorist of the information age – abandon his closest young colleagues just as they were about to embark on an exciting new collaboration on the workings of the brain?

Historians of science, and even some of Wiener’s associates, have long puzzled over this question. Now Ms. Conway and Mr. Siegelman offer an answer. In their new biography, they tell a tale of jealousy, false accusations of sexual misconduct and twisted family relations…

By the time he was 14 he had a diploma from Tufts and by 18 he had earned a doctorate in mathematical philosophy from Harvard. One newspaper called him “the most remarkable boy in the world.”

But these achievements came at a cost.

More here.

The Next Einstein? Applicants Welcome

Dennis Overbye in the New York Times:

Alberteinstein_2 “Einstein solved problems that people weren’t even asking or appreciating were problems,” said Dr. Edward Witten of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., Einstein’s stomping grounds for the last 32 years of his life. “It could be there are big questions nobody is asking, but there are so many more people in physics it’s less likely big questions could go unasked.”

But you never know.

“One thing about Einstein is he was a surprise,” said Dr. Witten, chuckling…

More here.


David Roth in The New Republic:

This is Ego Trip‘s second project on VH1. Last February’s “Ego Trip Presents TV’s Illest Minority Moments” was little-promoted and little-seen–but this time the group’s show has received some critical attention, including a bemused profile of the Ego Trip editorial board in The New York Times. “Race-o-Rama”‘s three one-hour episodes each offer an honest, unsettling, and hilarious crash course in the Ego Trip aesthetic. This is unmistakably a hip-hop aesthetic, and at home with the contradictions inherent in that. It is outrageous and serious-minded, bitterly angry and bitterly amused, crudely race-baiting and oddly inclusive, authentically street and equally steeped in college-kid hyper-irony. In short, “Race-o-Rama” represents the way that thoughtful young people (of all races) talk about race in 2005.

More here.

Female eggs grown in male testes

Helen Pearson writes in Nature:

EggTo say that eggs grow only in females and sperm grow only in males seems a pretty uncontroversial statement. But Japanese researchers have shown that it’s not as simple as that, by nurturing female eggs in the testes of male mice.

In a growing mouse embryo, the cells that will become the testes or ovaries, known as germ cells, start out the same in both sexes. In males, a gene on the Y chromosome called Sry switches on about halfway through gestation and prompts these undecided cells to develop into testes containing sperm. Females lack Sry and, by default, develop ovaries and eggs.

But what happens if you have a female germ cell surrounded by male cells? Will it be influenced by the male signals around it and become a sperm, or will it follow its own genetic path and become an egg?

More here.

Wife talks about Hunter S Thompson

Dan Elliott of the Associated Press:

Days after losing her husband, Anita Thompson talks calmly, if sometimes tearfully, about the moment he swept her off her feet, the brilliance she saw in his writing, her plans to keep alive his legacy and the love letters he wrote her that help ease the pangs of grief and regret.

More here.

And Christopher Hitchens had this reminiscence of Thompson at Slate:

And there, at the very fringe of habitation, was Owl Farm and its genial proprietor, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. Once inside these well-armed precincts, I could drink and smoke and ingest any damn thing I liked. I finished a fairly long evening by doing some friendly target-practice, with laser-guided high-velocity rifles, in the company of my host. An empty bottle didn’t stand any more of a chance outside than a full one would have had within.

More here.

Come Together, Right Now

Steven Johnson in Discover Magazine:

Chances are, whether you’re aware of it or not, you’ve participated in a spontaneous mass audience on the World Wide Web. Someone somewhere decides to share something that catches your interest: a home video, say, of the tsunami taking out a beach resort. At first that sort of offering gathers an audience slowly. A few people send a link to friends, but soon the links become part of a positive feedback loop, and before long big media news sites have noticed the file, and the initial cluster of visitors becomes a swarm…

There’s a catch. Buzz about a new video clip spreads in a distributed way, but the process of viewing the clip remains defiantly centralized. The millions of people who heard about a tsunami video got word of it from thousands of different sources, but they all descended on a single Web server that hosted it. And when a million people all try to request a file from a server ill-prepared for the traffic, the result is like a thousand people showing up to take a ferry designed to hold a hundred passengers: Either most of the visitors get turned away, or the ferry sinks…

For some time now, there has been an ad hoc means of dealing with logjams created by spontaneous mass audiences—mirror sites containing copies of the original file. So when someone spreads news of a hot link, they typically offer a supplementary list of mirror sites in case the original is down. The idea is to manage the swarm by dispersing it.

An even better idea has emerged recently. Instead of creating mirror sites, some Webheads create a so-called torrent when a file is in great demand. That enables others to download the file using BitTorrent, a small but elegant program that actively encourages swarm formation and has a paradoxical effect. The more popular the file, the easier it becomes to download.

More here.

The Soviet Spy’s Guide to London

Whatever you do, don’t forget your smart luggage – and never, ever meet in smart West End hotels. That was the top secret advice to would-be communist spies in a previously unseen handbook on surviving in 1930s London. The alternative tourist guide to London, compiled to aid infiltration into the UK, has been revealed amid hundreds of MI5 documents published at the National Archives.”

From a terrific BBC report.

Cloaking Device

Philip Ball reports in Nature:

Andrea Alù and Nader Engheta of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia say that a ‘plasmonic cover’ could render objects “nearly invisible to an observer”. Their idea remains just a proposal at this stage, but it doesn’t obviously violate any laws of physics.

“The concept is an interesting one, with several important potential applications,” says John Pendry, a physicist at Imperial College in London, UK. “It could find uses in stealth technology and camouflage.”

The key to the concept is to reduce light scattering. We see objects because light bounces off them; if this scattering of light could be prevented (and if the objects didn’t absorb any light) they would become invisible. Alù and Engheta’s plasmonic screen suppresses scattering by resonating in tune with the illuminating light.

More here.

Born to Believe: The Neural Basis of Religion

Ian Sample reports in The Guardian:

At the University of California in San Diego, neuroscientist VS Ramachandran noticed that a disproportionate number of patients – around a quarter – with a condition called temporal lobe epilepsy reported having deeply moving religious experiences. “They’d tell me they felt a presence or suddenly felt they got the meaning of the whole cosmos. And these could be life-changing experiences,” says Ramachandran. The feelings always came during seizures, even if the seizures were so mild, they could only be detected by sensitive electroencephalograms (EEGs). Between the seizures, some patients became preoccupied with thoughts about God.

Ramachandran drew up three explanations he thought might explain why the patients with epilepsy seemed so spiritual. First, he considered that the upwelling of emotion caused by the seizure might simply overwhelm, and patients made sense of it by believing that something extremely spiritual was going on. Second, the seizure might prompt the left hemisphere to make up yarns to account for seemingly inexplicable emotions. The ability of the brain’s left hemisphere to “confabulate” like this is well known to neuroscientists. Third, he wondered whether seizures disrupted the function of part of the brain called the amygdala which, among other tasks, helps us focus on what is significant while allowing us to ignore the trivial.

Ramachandran decided to test a couple of patients using what is called the galvanic skin response.

More here.