2 Good Ones and a Bad One

Having always been strangely moved by The Scorpions’ “Winds of Change,” and having grouped it together in my mind with Jesus Jones’ “Right Here, Right Now,” I was particularly delighted by this short piece from Hua Hsu. It also touches on the amazingly awful Billy Joel song “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” which a late night discussion among my own friends once nominated as crappiest popular song ever.

It was impossible to misread Meine’s teleology: “The world is closing in / And did you ever think / That we could be so close, like brothers?” The previous November, the Scorpions had witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall. Now it was time for the Soviet Union to implode, the secret mission of glasnost fulfilled. To Meine and his woolly comrades, it was the natural order of things—“The wind of change blows straight / Into the face of time.” Matthias Jabs followed with a lengthy guitar solo, a more direct expression of what freedom sounded like. The future was in the air, and Meine could feel it everywhere. By sheer coincidence, the Soviet Union collapsed the very next year, in August 1991.

more here.

Outlook: India

There are several very good articles in this special feature in Nature:

The classic image of India that most people can conjure has cows, beggars, small children and sari-clad women all jostling for space on crowded streets. That image still reflects reality — but with palpable differences.

Along some of those streets now are gleaming, modern buildings where men and women churn out medicines for poor countries. Many children are being immunized with affordable vaccines produced by India’s own biotechnology industry. And if the country continues to prosper as it has for the past decade, there soon may not be many beggars left.

Since 1991, when India discarded its socialist past and instituted broad reforms, its economy has been growing rapidly. By 2032, India’s economy could be larger than those of all but the United States and China, according to an estimate by the investment banking firm Goldman Sachs.

In the following pages, we look at what effect these changes have had on India’s life sciences. Indian biotechnology companies have been remarkably successful, but they have made most of their money copying patented drugs. To sustain growth, they will have to become more innovative. The same is true of basic-research institutes, which have only recently begun to be globally competitive.

More here.  [Thanks to Lara Inis.]

one of the most original and rigorous pieces of criticism in any medium I have encountered in quite some time

A.O. Scott in the New York Times:

Aristocrats184The Aristocrats” is – how shall I put it? – an essay film, a work of painstaking and penetrating scholarship, and, as such, one of the most original and rigorous pieces of criticism in any medium I have encountered in quite some time.

For those of you who have not already put down your newspaper and rushed off to buy tickets (and I hereby authorize the advertising department at ThinkFilm to plaster the previous sentence wherever it likes), perhaps I should add that “The Aristocrats” is also possibly the filthiest, vilest, most extravagantly obscene documentary ever made. Visually, it is as tame as anything on PBS or VH1’s “Behind the Music,” but there is scarcely a minute of screen time that does not contain a reference to scatology, incest, bestiality and practices for which no euphemisms or Latinate names have been invented.

More here.

Tiny embryos linked to giant dinosaurs

From MSNBC News:Embryo1

The oldest fossilized dinosaur embryos ever found reveal how the creatures grew from tiny hatchlings to become such giant land beasts. The embryos, including one that was ready to hatch before being frozen in time, had no teeth. That is further evidence that at least some dinosaurs must have tended their young, scientists said Thursday. The embryos are 190 million years old, dating from the beginning of the Jurassic Period.

More here.

Rich Little ‘Poor’ Kids

From The Village Voice:

Trust In the past generation, the increasing polarization of American incomes has created a new class: the super-rich. The number of households worth over $1 million nearly doubled between the early 1980s and the late 1990s. In 2003 two economists at the Boston College Social Welfare Research Institute reconfirmed their 1999 prediction that an astonishing $41 trillion of personal wealth, including assets like real estate, will be bequeathed from one generation to the next over the next 55 years. Just as the average boomer offspring is struggling to make a living, the children of the brightest new American success stories can’t be blamed for feeling a little inadequate when comparing their parents’ achievements with their own.

More here.

Best of worst writing is recognized

From CNN:

A man who compared a woman’s anatomy to a carburetor won an annual contest that celebrates the worst writing in the English language.

Dan McKay, a computer analyst at Microsoft Great Plains in Fargo, North Dakota, bested thousands of entrants from North Pole, Alaska to Manchester, England to triumph Wednesday in San Jose State University’s annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.

“As he stared at her ample bosom, he daydreamed of the dual Stromberg carburetors in his vintage Triumph Spitfire,” he wrote, comparing a woman’s breasts to “small knurled caps of the oil dampeners.”

The competition highlights literary achievements of the most dubious sort — terrifyingly bad sentences that take their inspiration from minor writer Edward George Earl Bulwer-Lytton, whose 1830 novel “Paul Clifford” began, “It was a dark and stormy night.”

More here.  [Thanks to Margit Oberrauch.]

Open Source . . . Beer

From the BBC:

“Students from the Information Technology University in Copenhagen is trying to help by releasing what they are calling the world’s first open source beer recipe.

It is called Vores Oel, or Our Beer, and the recipe is proving to be a worldwide hit.

The idea behind the beer comes from open source software. This is software whose code is made publicly available for anyone to change and improve, provided that those changes and improvements are then shared in turn.

Perhaps the most well-known example of open source software is the Linux operating system.

Microsoft, on the other hand, creates proprietary software, meaning the company does not tend to let others see how its software works.

The Danish brewer Carlsberg takes a similar approach to beer.

Rasmus Nielsen, who runs a Copenhagen-based artist collective called Superflex, wanted to challenge the idea of ‘proprietary’ beer.”

Misperceptions of the size of Minority populations

Speaking of Andrew Gelman, Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science (the blog he runs with Samantha Cook) has an intereting post and follow ups about estimations of minority populations by ordinary people. 

Across the western world, the average estimates by people on the street of the size of minorities tend to be way off from the actual share of the population minorities make up.  For example, when Americans are asked what percentage of the population is black, the average response is usually around 25%; the actual share of blacks and African-Americans in the population is about 12%.  This tendency to overestimate the (immigrant) minority population is also found in Europe, but interestingly, the overestimate becomes larger as the size of the immigrant minority population grows smaller.


The misperceptions are clearly biased; the means of the errors of individual estimates don’t equal zero. 









See the posts and commenst for possible causes behind the misperception.  Some possible reasons suggested by the cognitive psychologist David Budescu:

This overestimation is, probably, due to a combination of several factors: (a) different definions of the target event (the judges may generalize and assume, for example, that all the children of foreign born residents are also born abroad), (b) vividness (members of of the target population stand out — looks, accent, language, clothing), (c) clustering (often they are concentrated in certain areas), (d) typically, these surveys don’t employ incentives for truthful responding (i.e. proper scoring rules), and some people may respond “strategically” by inflating their estimates to make a political point.

In The Realm of Paranoia

‘For a few days after the explosions, the atmosphere was bad on the buses. Passengers were looking into every face as they sat on a Number 30 from King’s Cross, and if the face happened to be brown, they looked to their bag or backpack. That is how fear and paranoia work: they create turbulence in your everyday passivity, and everyone was affected after the attempted bombings on 22 July in ways that won’t quickly go away. In the realm of paranoia, the second bombings were more powerful than the first, for they made it clear how very gettable we are, even in a culture of high alert.’

From the LRB’s Andrew O’Hagan on the fallout from the London bombings.

Discussing What’s the Matter with Kansas?

Over at Talking Points Memo, there’s a discussion of Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas?  Thomas Frank, the author, is participating in the debate.  The blogosphere, being what it is, has been proving to be a salon, with discussion of the book and the debate at Majikthise.

Relatedly, those who are interested in the issue of why economically poorer but culturally conservative people seem to vote for the Republicans may also be interested the research of Andrew Gellman, Boris Schor, Joseph Bafumi and David Park.  The paper is still being worked on, but their  presentation (follow the link) from the Midwest Political Science Association Conference back in April is available.  Their paper:

For decades, the Democrats have been viewed as the party of the poor with the Republicans representing the rich. In recent years, however, a reverse pattern has been seen, with Democrats showing strength in the richer “blue” states in the Northeast and West, and Republicans dominating in the “red” states in the middle of the country. Through multilevel analysis of individual-level survey data and county- and state-level demographic and electoral data, we reconcile these patterns. We find that there has indeed been a trend toward richer areas supporting the Democrats–but within states and counties, and overall, the Democrats retain the support of the poorer voters. This pattern has confused many political commentators into falsely believing that Republicans represent poorer voters than Democrats.


From Scientific American:

Nanobodies Antibodies, often described as magic bullets, are actually more like tanks: big, complicated and expensive. Tinier “nanobodies,” derived from camels and llamas, may be able to infiltrate a wider range of diseases at lower cost. That is the hope, at least, of one small start-up in Belgium. Like many biotech companies, Ablynx emerged from the confluence of a serendipitous discovery, an open window of opportunity and an unreasonable ambition. Housed on two floors in a nondescript gray laboratory on a technology campus outside the university town of Ghent, Belgium, the three-year-old company employs just 45 people, 33 of them scientists and bioengineers. It is a minimal staff with a simply stated mission: find the tiniest sliver of protein that will do the job of a full-size antibody, then turn it into a billion-dollar medicine–or better yet, into the first of a whole new class of “nanobody” drugs against cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, perhaps even Alzheimer’s disease. 

More here.


From The Edge:

Einsteingodel_1 A true Realist, a true Platonist will not stoop to choose between Beauty and Truth, he will have the tenacity to stick it through until Truth is caught shining in her own Beauty. Sure there are messy proofs, we have to bushwhack trough a wilderness of ad hoc arguments, tours de force, combinatorial jungles, false starts and the temptations of definitions ever so slightly off target. Eventually, maybe not in our own lifetime, a good proof, a clear and beautiful proof will be honed out. That, I think, is the belief of the true Platonist. What Gödel and Einstein were doing when walking together over the Institute’s grounds may have been just that; bush whacking, comparing mental notes and encouraging each other not to give up while getting all scratched and discouraged. 

More here.

As I Lay Reading

3 Quarks Daily‘s own J. M. Tyree has a superb essay on Oprah’s recent book club summer choice, William Faulkner, in The Nation:

Tyree202While bookstores and literary supplements were studiously dumbing down their lists of summer book picks, Oprah Winfrey announced that her Book Club would be embarking on an ambitious program called “A Summer of Faulkner.” Faulkner? Oprah? Really? The announcement amounted to nothing less than a sneak attack on the whole idea of beach reading–and on the intelligentsia’s perception of her as the Queen of Midcult. Not that we should have been that surprised: For some time now, Oprah has been ignoring pleas for a return to contemporary fiction, instead sending the likes of Tolstoy, Steinbeck and García Márquez up the charts. Still, as a sheer challenge, Faulkner is a quantum leap up from other classics.

By proposing to read not one but three works by a dead white male whose prose laid siege to the conventions of narrative fiction, and whose furiously lyrical exploration of race and the American South still manages to unsettle readers, Oprah is taking a major gamble on her audience’s attention span and political sensitivities. Once again, she has proved she is a more serious reader than many people–that is, anybody besides her millions of fans–reckoned. The woman Forbes magazine recently dubbed the most powerful celebrity in America seems intent on using some of her cultural capital for the brave if improbable purpose of a Faulkner revival–a project that reflects her belief in uplift through education.

More here.

Beards and scarves aren’t Muslim. They’re simply adverts for al-Qaeda

From The London Times:

Talibanflag Muslims everywhere need to get to grips with a phenomenon that threatens all Muslim countries and Islamic communities in the West. The first is to discard the notion that anyone who is not a Muslim is an “infidel” and thus not a proper human being. Next, it is important to reject the belief that, since the goal of converting mankind to Islam is a noble one, any means to do so are justified. Since there is no power of excommunication in Islam the terrorists cannot be formally banned from the community. But the community can distance itself from them in accordance with the Islamic principle of al-bara’a (self-exoneration). This means that a Muslim must publicly dissociate himself from acts committed by other Muslims that he regards as sinful. One way of doing this would be to organise a day of bara’a in all British mosques — and hopefully in mosques throughout the world — to declare that terrorism has no place in Islam.

Muslims could also help by stopping the use of their bodies as advertising space for al-Qaeda. Muslim women should cast aside the so-called hijab, which has nothing to do with Islam and everything to do with tribal wear on the Arabian peninsula. The hijab was reinvented in the 1970s as a symbol of militancy, and is now a visual prop of terrorism. If some women have been hoodwinked into believing that they cannot be Muslims without covering their hair, they could at least use headgears other than black (the colour of al-Qaeda) or white (the colour of the Taleban). Green headgear would be less offensive, if only because green is the colour of the House of Hashem, the family of the Prophet. (Taliban Flag shown in picture).

More here.

Mindful of Symbols

From Scientific American:

Symbol What most distinguishes humans from other creatures is our ability to create and manipulate a wide variety of symbolic representations. This capacity enables us to transmit information from one generation to another, making culture possible, and to learn vast amounts without having direct experience–we all know about dinosaurs despite never having met one. Because of the fundamental role of symbolization in almost everything we do, perhaps no aspect of human development is more important than becoming symbol-minded. The first type of symbolic object infants and young children master is pictures. No symbols seem simpler to adults, but my colleagues and I have discovered that infants initially find pictures perplexing. The problem stems from the duality inherent in all symbolic objects: they are real in and of themselves and, at the same time, representations of something else. To understand them, the viewer must achieve dual representation: he or she must mentally represent the object as well as the relation between it and what it stands for.

More here.

The coming Saudi oil shock and the world economy

John Gray reviews Twilight in the Desert: the coming Saudi oil shock and the world economy by Matthew R Simmons, in The New Statesman:

Sl_sunsets_84aMatthew R Simmons is convinced that Saudi oil production is near its peak, or indeed may have passed it, a development with awesome implications. Simmons, a veteran oil finance insider who has been an important adviser to the Bush administration, has done a huge amount of research and bases his conclusions on carefully sifted evidence, not large theories. Yet his view is consistent with the theory of M King Hubbert, a Shell geophysicist who argued in 1956 that production rates for oil and other fossil fuels exhibit a bell curve: when roughly half the oil has been extracted, production declines. No one took much notice of Hubbert at the time, but he predicted that oil production in the continental United States would peak and start declining in the late 1960s or early 1970s – as it did. Since then a number of large oilfields have also peaked, including the North Sea in 1999. When oil peaks it does not run out – there is usually a slow decline that can be spun out by new technologies – but the unavoidable result is falling production.

Could we be near a global oil peak? Simmons believes that point may already have passed and warns that the idea that technology can arrest the decline may be a delusion. In his view, Saudi oil production has been boosted by the use of technologies which actually reduce the future supply of recoverable oil. The impli-cation is that Saudi production has peaked, and with it global oil production, at a time when demand is rising inexorably.

More here.