Robot jockeys to ride Gulf camels

From the BBC:

_40795583_203muscatapThe United Arab Emirates says it will use robots as jockeys for camel races from next season.

The move comes after widespread international criticism of the use of young children to ride camels during the long and often hazardous races.

Officials say a prototype of the robot was successfully tested on Saturday.

Aid workers say there are up to 40,000 child jockeys working across the Gulf. Many are said to be have been kidnapped and trafficked from South Asia.

More here.  [Thanks to Alan Koenig.]

Jeffrey Sachs’s plan to eradicate world poverty

John Cassidy in The New Yorker:

Sachs_1On July 9, 1985, a thirty-year-old American economist named Jeffrey Sachs stepped off a plane in La Paz, Bolivia, high in the Andes, where the inflation rate was three thousand per cent. Prices were rising so fast that on the streets of the capital people were frantically trading bags of depreciating pesos for dollars. Sachs, one of the youngest tenured professors in the history of the Harvard economics department, had established himself as an authority on inflation and international finance, and was someone who, in his own words, “thought that I knew just about everything that needed to be known” about his subject.

It was Sachs’s self-confidence that had earned him an invitation to Latin America. A few months earlier, during a seminar at Harvard on the Bolivian crisis organized by some Latin-American students, he had interrupted the speaker, strode to the blackboard, and announced, “Here’s how it works.” When he finished scribbling equations, a voice at the back of the room said, “Well, if you’re so smart, why don’t you come down to La Paz to help us?” Sachs laughed, but the speaker, Carlos Iturralde, a Bolivian businessman who later became his country’s foreign minister, wasn’t joking. Seven weeks after Sachs arrived in La Paz, some of his recommendations were implemented, and three years of hyperinflation came to an immediate end.

More here.

The cancer prevention diet

Liz Else interviews Clare Shaw, author of Cancer: The power of food, in New Scientist:

2494_opinionAs a child in Blackpool, Clare Shaw loved fish and chips, and her mother’s good old-fashioned cooking. Her first degree was in nutrition and dietetics at the University of London. And she stayed in London for her first job at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, working in general dietetics. She joined the Royal Marsden cancer hospital in 1987, and went on to become chief dietitian there in 1992. Her book Cancer: The power of food has just been published by Hamlyn.

Has science needed some persuading of the relationship between diet and cancer?

Yes. Conclusive evidence has been very hard to get, which made them cautious about false messages or easy sound bites. As a result they have been rather behind in talking to the public.

What do you think about the quality of advice out there about food and cancer?

A lot of the information that is aimed at the general public is not necessarily based on good scientific evidence. People find it difficult to know what is reliable and what is really just someone’s idea, just spin. Lots of people think they know about diet, so they’re all jumping on the bandwagon. Often messages about healthy eating do not fit politically with what everyone wants, whether that be the food industry, government or whomever.

More here, including a short guide for better eating.

The Archivist

Paul Boutin in Slate:

Thanks to the ruthless hippies who run local politics, the Presidio’s former Army barracks are filled by nonprofits rather than condos. Search-engine wiz and dot-com multimillionaire Brewster Kahle founded the archive here in 1996 with a dream as big as the bridge: He wanted to back up the Internet. There were only 50 million or so URLs back then, so the idea only seemed half-crazy. As the Web ballooned to more than 10 billion pages, the archive’s main server farm—hidden across town in a data center beneath the city’s other big bridge—grew to hold a half-million gigabytes of compressed and indexed pages.

Kahle is less the Internet’s crazy aunt—the tycoon who can’t stand to throw anything away—than its evangelical librarian. “The history of digital materials in companies’ hands is one of … loss,” he tells me in a rushed meeting. Like it or not, the Web is the world’s library now, and Kahle doesn’t trust the guys who shelve the books. They’re obsessed with posting new pages, not preserving old ones. Every day, Kahle laments, mounds of data get purged from the Web: government documents, personal sites, corporate communications, message boards, news reports that weren’t printed on paper. For most surfers, once a page disappears from Google’s cache it no longer exists.

More here.

Editing Saul Bellow

Elisabeth Sifton in Slate:

When the Viking Press published Mr. Sammler’s Planet in the fall of 1971, I happened to be the new kid on the Viking editorial block. I guess all of us knew, and I learned quickly, that the great man liked to read proofs in-house when he could, turning up to attend to this or that when he was in New York in the peri-publication period. Since he revised his texts heavily in the late stages (sometimes with up to four sets of proofs), he was around plenty.

The final revisions were astounding. “Look at this,” said a colleague, an editor who greatly admired Bellow’s novels but disliked him personally. He was keeping an eye on the proofs of Mr. Sammler’s Planet during the brief summer absence of Bellow’s then-editor, Aaron Asher. He threw down on my desk a single long sheet from the second chapter, with scrawled lines defacing a paragraph at the top and new phrases and clauses sprouting at the end, all this in a clear, decisive hand and bright black ink. “Just read that,” he repeated. “Read it! He took a perfect sentence, the bastard, and he made it even better.” In the summer of 1973, when I was assigned to be Saul Bellow’s editor for his forthcoming books—the first was Humboldt’s Gift—I had scarcely talked to him, but he nailed me as his co-conspirator in the work to be done, and we plunged in. I kept him company while he pawed through the many drafts, options, and alternatives of a fiction that, I learned, he’d been concocting for years.

More here.

And Michiko Kakutani has a short piece on Bellow in the NYT here.

And Philip Roth had a piece in 2000 on Bellow in the New Yorker here.

four underdogs from the mean streets of Phoenix took on the best from M.I.T.

John Ballard writes about this story from Wired:

Across campus, in a second-floor windowless room, four students huddle around an odd, 3-foot-tall frame constructed of PVC pipe. They have equipped it with propellers, cameras, lights, a laser, depth detectors, pumps, an underwater microphone, and an articulated pincer. At the top sits a black, waterproof briefcase containing a nest of hacked processors, minuscule fans, and LEDs. It’s a cheap but astoundingly functional underwater robot capable of recording sonar pings and retrieving objects 50 feet below the surface. The four teenagers who built it are all undocumented Mexican immigrants who came to this country through tunnels or hidden in the backseats of cars. They live in sheds and rooms without electricity. But over three days last summer, these kids from the desert proved they are among the smartest young underwater engineers in the country.

More here.

The Spring Preview

Marie Arana for the Washington Post:

Spring is here, and books, like plants, are emerging in clumps, as if the seeds of a few notions had proliferated madly during winter. Last year saw a remarkable run of novels written as memoirs: Ha Jin’s War Trash, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, Ward Just’s An Unfinished Season. Clearly the memoir, which had so dominated nonfiction shelves during the past decade, broke free and penetrated novelists’ imaginations. This year, the dominant idea continues to be 9/11, which has fueled nonfiction books since 2001 but now spreads copiously into the realm of the novel. In his latest work, Saturday, Ian McEwan gives us a portrait of a beleaguered neurosurgeon in nervous, post-9/11 London. In Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer imagines a precocious boy whose father is lost in the conflagration of the twin towers. We will see more on this theme as the year progresses: The Writing on the Wall, by Lynne Sharon Schwartz; The Good Priest’s Son, by Reynolds Price; A Little Love Story, by Roland Merullo; Incendiary, by Chris Cleave; and many others. Here is a list of books you may find reviewed in our spring and summer pages. Look to our reviewers to tell you the rest.

NON-FICTION

Down Came the Rain: My Journey Through Postpartum Depression, by Brooke Shields (Hyperion, May). A celebrity’s bout with a syndrome that affects millions.

Embroideries, by Marjane Satrapi (Pantheon, April). From the author of the comic-strip memoir Persepolis, a foray into the private lives of Iranian women.

A Lotus Grows in the Mud, by Goldie Hawn (Putnam, May). An ugly duckling grows up to become America’s darling.

No Mountain High Enough : Raising Lance, Raising Me, by Linda Armstrong Kelly (Broadway, April). A pregnant teenager, banished from home, becomes the mother of the indefatigable Lance Armstrong.

Oh the Glory of It All, by Sean Wilsey (Penguin, May). The founding editor of McSweeney’s tells of his zany childhood among the rich and famous.

FICTION

Acts of Faith, by Philip Caputo (Knopf, May). First world meets third, in this story about relief workers trying to reverse the famine in Sudan, by the author of A Rumor of War.

Alibi, by Joseph Kanon (Holt, April). In post-World War II Venice, a war crimes investigator falls in love with an enigmatic woman and finds himself implicated in a violent murder.

The Almond: The Sexual Awakening of a Muslim Woman, by Nedjma (Grove, June). A young widow tells the secrets of her erotic life in this presumably autobiographical novel.

More here.

Rumours and Errours

Brian Hayes in the American Scientist:

The story begins with a loose end from my column on the Lambert W function in the March-April issue of American Scientist. I had been looking for a paper with the curious title “Rumours with general initial conditions,” by Selma Belen and C. E. M. Pearce of the University of Adelaide, published in The ANZIAM Journal, which is also known as The Australia and New Zealand Industrial and Applied Mathematics Journal.

“The stochastic theory of rumours, with interacting subpopulations of ignorants, spreaders and stiflers, began with the seminal paper of Daley and Kendall. The most striking result in the area—that if there is one spreader initially, then the proportion of the population never to hear the rumour converges almost surely to a proportion 0.203188 of the population size as the latter tends to infinity—was first signalled in that article. This result occurs also in the variant stochastic model of Maki and Thompson, although a typographic error has resulted in the value 0.238 being cited in a number of consequent papers”.

I was intrigued and a little puzzled to learn that a rumor would die out while “almost surely” leaving a fifth of the people untouched. Why wouldn’t it reach everyone eventually? And that number 0.203188, with its formidable six decimal places of precision—where did that come from? I read on far enough to get the details of the models. The premise, I discovered, is that rumor-mongering is fun only if you know the rumor and your audience doesn’t; there’s no thrill in passing on stale news. In terms of the three subpopulations, people remain spreaders of a rumor as long as they continue to meet ignorants who are eager to receive it; after that, the spreaders become stiflers, who still know the rumor but have lost interest in propagating it.

Read more here.

Ukraine: The Orange Revolution

Timothy Garton Ash and Timothy Snyder in the New York Review of Books:

20050428kyivLast autumn, Ukraine imprinted itself on the political consciousness of the world for the first time in its history. In what was christened the “orange revolution,” vast crowds wearing orange scarves gathered in subzero temperatures in Kyiv’s Independence Square to demand a fair election for president. They won. Observers have placed Ukraine’s “orange revolution” in a sequence of peaceful democratic revolutions stretching from the “velvet revolutions” of 1989 in Central Europe, through the “rose revolution” in Georgia in 2003, to what some are already calling the “cedar revolution” in Lebanon. Yet we must look beyond the news headlines to discover how and why this change has come about, and what its consequences may be.

More here.

Earth’s ‘oldest thing ever’ gets viewing

From CNN:

StoryoldobjectTo create buzz about an otherwise arcane subject, the University of Wisconsin-Madison showed off a tiny speck of zircon crystal believed to be the oldest known piece of Earth at about 4.4 billion years old.

Saturday’s daylong celebration was to be capped with “The Rock Concert” by jazz musicians who composed music to try to answer the question: What does 4.4 billion years old sound like?

“This is it — the oldest thing ever. One day only,” said Joe Skulan, director of the UW-Madison Geology Museum, where the object was displayed under police guard. “The idea of having a big celebration of something that’s so tiny — we’re playing with the obvious absurdity of it.”

More here.

Life lessons

What is the one thing everyone should learn about science? Spiked asked 250 scientists – here we bring you some of the most provocative responses:

                                                                                    

Einstein Richard Dawkins Charles Simonyi professor of the public understanding of science at the University of Oxford, and a science writer and broadcaster

I wish everyone understood Darwinian natural selection, and its enormous explanatory power, as the only known explanation of “design”. The world is divided into things that look designed, like birds and airliners; and things that do not look designed, like rocks and mountains. Things that look designed are divided into those that really are designed, like submarines and tin openers; and those that are not really designed, like sharks and hedgehogs. Darwinian natural selection, although it involves no true design at all, can produce an uncanny simulacrum of true design. An engineer would be hard put to decide whether a bird or a plane was the more aerodynamically elegant.

Susan Blackmore Science writer and broadcaster, and visiting lecturer at the University of the West of England in Bristol

Frighteningly, most people do not understand Darwin’s great insight. What people miss is the sheer inevitability of the creative process. Once you see it —copy, vary, select; copy, vary, select —you see that design by natural selection simply has to happen. This is not like Isaac Newton’s laws, or quantum physics, or any of the other great theories in science, where one can ask “why is this so?” It simply has to be the case. Then, the scary implications follow. If everyone understood evolution, then the tyranny of religious memes would be weakened, and we little humans might find a better way to live in this pointless universe.

Read more here.

‘Malraux’: One Man’s Fate

Christopher Hitchens reviews Olivier Todd’s newest biography, ”Malraux: A Life” in The New York Times:

Malraux184 ISAIAH BERLIN once described someone whom I will not name as ”that very rare thing: a perfect charlatan.” Admit that this ostensibly lethal criticism contains a note of reluctant admiration, and you have the tone of Olivier Todd’s newest biography, ”Malraux: A Life” (which has been translated from the French by Joseph West). André Malraux was one of the most prolific self-inventors of the 20th century, and it is ”the Malrucian legend,” as much as the life itself, that is Todd’s subject.

And in the end:

The end was not glorious. Malraux’s facial tic was accompanied by a black dog of depression, and he became dependent first on alcohol and then on a succession of medications. His family life deteriorated horribly. When the end came, in November 1976, two sprays of red flowers were delivered to the cemetery. One was from the French Communist Party, which he had fawned upon in the 1930’s and turned upon in the 1940’s. The other was from the restaurant Lasserre: grand scene of many of his dinner-table revolutions. On his bedside table, after his death, it was found that he had scrawled the words: ”It should have been otherwise.” A more apt, if lenient, epitaph might be located in ”La Condition Humaine”: ”Ce n’était ni vrai ni faux, c’était vécu.” ”It was neither true nor false, but what was experienced”.

Read more here.

Decoding the Cambrian Radiation

Derek E.G. Briggs in American Scientist:

The recent surge in interest in the origins of multicellular animals (metazoans) is fueled by new evidence from three major sources: molecular sequencing, the study of evolutionary development and the discovery of exceptionally preserved fossils of Precambrian and Cambrian age, particularly from China. Genetic sequences provide a means of analyzing how the major animal groups are related and of estimating their time of origin (using the molecular clock)—a means that is independent of morphological data and the record of evolutionary events the fossils reveal. The study of developmental processes in an evolutionary framework (“evo-devo”) provides the link between genetics and morphology. These new approaches have prompted molecular biologists to join forces with paleontologists to focus on the sequence of events leading to the origin of body plans before and during the Cambrian Period (543 to 500 million years ago).

Few if any authors can embrace these fields with the experience and authority of James W. Valentine, professor emeritus of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley, who has been publishing novel and provocative ideas on the origin and nature of phyla for more than 30 years. His most recent book, On the Origin of Phyla, is an homage to the greatest biologist who ever lived by one of the greatest living paleobiologists.

More here.

Hooray for the Man-eaters

Karen Durbin reviews “Fat Girl” by Judith Moore in New York Magazine:

In the battle of the big babe versus the anorexic boygirl, women can’t win for losing. In one of the strongest passages in Fat Girl, Moore fuses the emotional and physical hungers, grinding and voracious, that impelled her when young to slip into the empty houses of people who had shown her kindness and touch their things and eat their food. In doing so, she defines not just her own fat-fear and loathing, but the culture’s: “I believed that inside every fat person was a hole the size of the world; I believed that every fat person wanted to fill that hole by eating the world. It wasn’t enough to eat food. You had to swallow air, you had to chew up everyone who got near you. No wonder, I thought, that nobody liked me or liked me all that much.”

Alley’s lusty, vulgar exuberance feels like the antidote to Fat Girl’s pain. Fat Actress is a revenge comedy, which is why satire suits it and whimsy doesn’t. The form has antecedents—just about everything Mae West did, for example.

Read more here.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel really is chilling

Margaret Atwood reviews Never Let Me Go by Ishiguro, in Slate:

050331_kazuoishiguro_fnlNever Let Me Go is the sixth novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, who won the Booker Prize in 1989 for his chilling rendition of a bootlickingly devoted but morally blank English butler, The Remains of the Day. It’s a thoughtful, crafty, and finally very disquieting look at the effects of dehumanization on any group that’s subject to it. In Ishiguro’s subtle hands, these effects are far from obvious. There’s no Them-Bad, Us-Good preaching; rather there’s the feeling that as the expectations of such a group are diminished, so is its ability to think outside the box it has been shut up in. The reader reaches the end of the book wondering exactly where the walls of his or her own invisible box begin and end.

More here.