Getting Lucky

From Science:

Dice_160_jpg Chance favors the prepared mind” –-Louis Pasteur

Isn’t blackjack just another game of chance? Isn’t the player relying solely on the random turn of the cards? Not according to former Massachusetts Institute of Technology mathematics professor Edward O. Thorpe, who has shown that by combining several different strategies, the player can shift the advantage, ever so slightly, in his (or her) favor. Surely, the casinos will catch wind of this new gambling system and shut down all of their blackjack tables. Apparently, there’s no need. Thorpe published his findings, replete with mathematical evidence, in 1955, but hardly anybody takes the time to learn the system. It is possible to use skill to turn luck to your advantage, but not enough people bother to make it a problem for the casinos. The job market is like that, too. Then one day, I found myself at a daylong “Careers in Science” seminar.

And speaker after speaker gave variations on the same answer: It was luck. For those of us who hadn’t gotten lucky yet, it wasn’t a very satisfying answer.

So I started to look for other things these speakers had in common. I didn’t have to look far. These speakers had put as much effort into the presentation as they had into gathering the information that went into them. Even if they felt lucky, these people weren’t the type to wait for the phone to ring. Maybe they were lucky, but they also worked hard, made good decisions, and took pains to present themselves well.

More here.

Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly

In Slate, a look at Richard Linklater’s film adaptation of P. K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly.

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Who is Richard Linklater, really? In the last 15 years he’s written and directed great, meandering films about disaffected types who don’t do a whole lot of anything besides kicking back and philosophizing (Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Waking Life), but he’s also made tightly plotted movies about equally disaffected types who band together to combat a repressive social order (The Newton Boys, Fast Food Nation, even The School of Rock, and Bad News Bears). It’s as though the left and right hemispheres of Linklater’s brain have been competing! Which is, of course, precisely the problem faced by narcotics agent Bob Arctor, the protagonist of Philip K. Dick’s brilliant 1977 science-fiction novel A Scanner Darkly.

So, will Linklater’s new, rotoscoped adaptation of A Scanner Darkly, starring Keanu Reeves as Arctor, reveal once and for all which side of Linklater’s brain is the dominant one? That is, will Keanu and his drug buddies, played by Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder, and Rory Cochrane (reprising his role in Dazed and Confused), get politicized and take action against their not-too-distant-future surveillance society? Or will these slackers stay glued to their couches, enteg themselves with interminable Linklater-esque bull sessions?

The answer is: both. After all, in what sci-fi fans describe as the “phildickian” worldview, binapposites—good/evil, real/unreal—are impossible ever to untangle.

3QD’s World Cup Analyst Alex Cooley, In Withdrawal, On The Last Rounds

[Alex writes] The last few days that have comprised the second round of the World Cup might just be my favorite time in all of sports. In just four days the World Cup goes from the active involvement and global football fiesta of 32 teams to the final hardcore 8 teams that will actually challenge for the cup. It also means that in between the 2nd round and Q-finals, the first two days of football withdrawal and the unsettling prospect of actually being sober in the afternoon. I’ve taken some of the extra time to see the highly entertaining “Berlin-Tokyo, Tokyo-Berlin” exhibit at the New National Gallery (recommended if you’re in Berlin before the end of October or maybe it was just novel to visually experience something other than 22 guys running after a ball). To continue to bring the tone of 3QD down a few notches through my endless drivel, here are some further thoughts about the last few days.

So the games are for real this time which means that one moment of madness or misjudgment really does mean “its over.” I definitely sensed this nervousness among the German supporters before their 2nd round clash with Sweden, although all fears were soon dispatched after their young striker Lucas Podolski bagged a couple of goals in the first 10 minutes to send the over-hyped Swedes on their way and get the German World Cup party going again. Later that evening, the Mexicans played Argentina tough and did a much better job of tracking Argentina’s off the ball runs than any of the Euro teams. But they too fell to a moment of brilliance and a wonder goal from Maxi Rodriguez (MaxiGoooooooooool) in extra time.

Spare a thought for the Aussies, perhaps the most hard done of the unlucky 8 that were just eliminated. They played a tight and contained match against much fancied Italy and although they never looked like scoring they were comfortably looking forward to 30 minutes of extra time with a man advantage when calamity struck in the very last minute. Even more sadly, the Aussie exit means no more trips to the Uluru resort pub, our local Aussie joint in Berlin. According to one local observer, Uluru’s pre-World Cup clientele usually consisted of 3 unemployed blokes playing darts…so when a hoard of Aussies Googled the “Ozzie pub” and descended before the all important Aussie-Croatia clash the stunned owner ran out of Aussie beer 15 minutes before kickoff and had to send his mates out to buy more drink and plastic cups. He was more prepared beer-wise for the Italy game, but, alas, the loving Aussie fans had to learn the hard way: whiny Italian diving in the penalty area in additional time against minor team in knockout stages of World Cup = penalty = see you in 2010!

Of course that sorry piece of officiating looked absolutely Pierluigi Colina-like compared with the previous day’s parade of cards shown by Russian ref Ivanov in the Kung-fu movie that was Holland-Portugal. The hapless ref showed a World Cup finals record four red cards and 16 yellows but let the game slip away, providing some terrific entertainment and fine melodrama for the neutrals. Although the Portugal came out of the wrestling ring to claim the win, the real winners are the English who will now get to play the Portuguese without their first choice creative and defensive midfielders, Deco and Costinha.

Now admittedly, most of Cooley’s previous group picks were as rubbish as a Swiss penalty, but 3 of my final 4 are still alive, with only the underachieving Spanish going home early. Looking forward to the Q-finals we’ll see what Argentina and Portugal bring to the table this weekend, but there is a creeping sense of inevitability about a Germany-England final on July 9. This doesn’t necessarily mean that these are the 2 best teams (although the Germans may well be), just that by some strange atmospheric conditions the teams have completely morphed into stereotypes of each other. The Germans have been playing attacking, fearless, attractive football, making full use of their excellent wide players and dangerous overlapping runs by their fullbacks. On the other hand, this year’s England team, as a German friend noted when watching their toothless win against Ecuador, is eerily reminiscent of the German teams of the 1980s – a dysfunctional midfield with bouts of comical defending, but getting lucky with the draw and doing just enough to win each match from a set piece (all hail the right foot of Beckham!). Sorry, folks, Sven’s men have “Finalist” written all over them.

No blushes about my Ukraine pick. After getting absolutely hammered by Spain and beating Tunisia on a dodgy penalty of their own, the “Ukrainian train” is about to dispatch these Italian whiners and make Cooley look like a genius for including them in my final four.

Finally, let’s just quickly glance over my prediction that the Team NikeFIFASamba would be upset in the second round. So the Cats from Ghana couldn’t quite do it – no biggie, the moment of joy merely has been temporarily delayed. I have no doubts that the recently rejuvenated French team (or Ribery and some of his hard Parisian pals who hang around the Gare du Nord) will heroically send our Brazil packing and Ronaldo in search of more potato salad. Mark’s just got back, se we’re off for a couple of Kir Royales and in search of French jerseys.

Now, everyone, sing with me, “Allons enfants de la Patrie/Le jour de gloire est arrivé! “

Cerebroscopes and Explanations

In Seed, Paul Bloom on the dubious merit of fMRI based explanations. (Via Language Log.)

A couple of years ago, a friend asked me to be a pilot subject for one of her fMRI studies. I immediately said yes, in large part because most of the psychologists I knew had their brains scanned at one time or another, and I was feeling left out. It was a tedious experience, involving the memorization of long strings of numbers—and being inside a magnet is like being buried alive, only louder. So when I emerged from the machine an hour later, I was grouchy.

But then she took me to a screen and showed me a record of my brain at work. It made up for the hour of torment. I was entranced.

Newspapers, magazines, TV and blogs very often discuss psychology these days as a series of studies that involve some measure of neural activity, usually fMRI. The most compelling studies are those which probe the brain while the subject is made to think about something controversial, such as politics, sports teams, race, sex, corporate brands or morality. It makes for great press releases. But fMRI imagery has attained an undue influence, and we shouldn’t be seduced.

Egypt Bans The Da Vinci Code

There is soooo much that’s wrong in this story, that it’s hard to know where to begin, in Al Ahram.

“We [at the ministry] ban any book that insults any religion,” Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni told parliament last week. That the list now includes Dan Brown’s international bestseller The Da Vinci Code, translated into Arabic in 2003 and widely available since then, drew a round of applause from parliamentary members. The blockbuster film based on the book is likewise to be banned.

“The book is based on Zionist myths, and it contains insults towards Christ, insulting the Christian religion,” Coptic MP Georgette Sobhi told the People’s Assembly last week.

“Creativity is good, but not when the writer seeks to shake religious beliefs and contradict basic religious tenets,” said Bishop Piscenti of Helwan Church.

The People’s Assembly debated the book and film at the request of several Coptic MPs, who were joined by Muslim Brotherhood members.

“The Brotherhood had opposed the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed and will oppose any insult to Jesus Christ,” said Hussein Ibrahim, a Brotherhood MP.

The applause did not extend to cultural and human right circles, which saw the decision to ban the book and the film as politically motivated, and dealing a blow to freedom of expression and creativity.

SEX COLLECTORS

Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post:

Geoff Nicholson is an Anglo-American novelist — he lives in London and Los Angeles — whose subjects often have been “obsession, sex, and the relationships between people and things,” so perhaps it stands to reason that he is the first writer to devote an entire book to the subject of people who collect “any type of object or artifact that is primarily sexual.” Or at least the first writer to do so in public, since heaven knows what lurid volumes may be hidden away in some secret library of erotica. In any case, collecting matters of a sexual nature certainly dovetails with his favorite themes, so you won’t be surprised to learn that he has risen to the task.

Sex Collectors is mainly a lark, irreverent and amusing, but it’s thoughtful, too, on matters such as sexual obsession, the urge to collect, art versus pornography. Nicholson understands that collecting often is far more than a hobby, and he cites “plenty of psychologists, not least Freud . . . who’ll tell you that collecting is an anal compulsion,” though with regard to the subject at hand “anal” may not be exactly the right word.

More here.

National Security, European Data Privacy and the Case of SWIFT

The revelation that SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication), which routes trillions of dollars between banks every day, was sharing it records of financial transfers with the CIA, in possible contravention of European law, may be building up to become a storm. The story first broke in the New York Times. Scott Martens over at A Fistful of Euros, a day after the NYT article:

I’ve been surprised at the lack of uproar over the discovery that the CIA has been data mining SWIFT transfer archives. I suppose it’s because this is far from the first troubling secret breech of the right to privacy by the Bush administration, and most people – the ones that don’t have large sums of money – generally don’t have any banking privacy anyway. But this new secret program touches a core Bush constituency: white-collar criminals. If Bush is able to secretly monitor transactions in the name of anti-terrorism, a future Democratic government might be able to use it against money laundering and accounting fraud. That’s surely something the Republican Party could never stand for.

SWIFT is headquartered in Belgium, but operates computer centres both in the US and the EU, so the company probably was not in a position to refuse the government’s request. According to page 4 of the original NY Times article: “Intelligence officials were so eager to use the Swift data that they discussed having the C.I.A. covertly gain access to the system, several officials involved in the talks said.” If they were prepared to break in to get the data, there was little to be gained by the firm taking a stand.

Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber also weighs in:

I’ve been waiting for the other shoe to drop on this for the last few days, and it finally has. Privacy International has filed complaints with umpteen European and non-European data regulators that SWIFT has illicitly shared European citizens’ financial data with US authorities. This could have some very interesting consequences. Now bear in mind as you read the below analysis that I am not a lawyer. I have, however, spent a lot of time over the last six years working on and writing about privacy issues in the EU-US relationship, so I do have a good grasp of the political issues involved.

The key issue here is whether or not SWIFT (which is a sort of transactional clearing house, based in Belgium) did or didn’t break European law in providing information to US authorities. Cue background explanation of how complicated the implementation of EU privacy law is. European privacy is (with exceptions: see below) governed by the so-called Data Protection Directive, which, like all EU directives is supposed to be implemented in national legislation.

Predictably, the Weekly Standard deems the NYT a national security threat and is calling for its prosecution for publishing the story.

THUS ATE ZARATHUSTRA

Woody Allen in The New Yorker:

Woody_allenThere’s nothing like the discovery of an unknown work by a great thinker to set the intellectual community atwitter and cause academics to dart about like those things one sees when looking at a drop of water under a microscope. On a recent trip to Heidelberg to procure some rare nineteenth-century duelling scars, I happened upon just such a treasure. Who would have thought that “Friedrich Nietzsche’s Diet Book” existed? While its authenticity might appear to be a soupçon dicey to the niggling, most who have studied the work agree that no other Western thinker has come so close to reconciling Plato with Pritikin. Selections follow.

Fat itself is a substance or essence of a substance or mode of that essence. The big problem sets in when it accumulates on your hips. Among the pre-Socratics, it was Zeno who held that weight was an illusion and that no matter how much a man ate he would always be only half as fat as the man who never does push-ups. The quest for an ideal body obsessed the Athenians, and in a lost play by Aeschylus Clytemnestra breaks her vow never to snack between meals and tears out her eyes when she realizes she no longer fits into her bathing suit.

More here.

Shutting Down Science

In Scientific American:

In January 2001 the New England Journal of Medicine published a study showing that reducing salt in the diet could lower blood pressure, even in people without hypertension. The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, which funded the study, quickly posted a press release on its Web site announcing the findings.

The Salt Institute, an industry group, was stung by the study’s results. Unable to challenge the data on scientific grounds, the institute found another way to attack them. It filed a petition under the Data Quality Act–a law ironically intended to ensure that regulations are based on solid science–arguing that the findings did not meet the act’s standards and that the heart institute had therefore broken the law by posting them…

It was the first time the right to petition in court under the Data Quality Act was challenged, but it will most likely not be the last. Nobody keeps an exact tally, but something like 100 Data Quality Act petitions have been filed with dozens of different government agencies. Most have been initiated by industry groups, disputing scientific reports that could lead to tougher regulations. If subsequent petitions are accepted by the courts, the litigation could tie up government reports indefinitely, long before their data could lead to any government action.

The Great Rising, or Mutiny, of 1857

“As we enter the 150th anniversary of 1857, William Dalrymple casts a new look at one of Indian history’s most enigmatic episodes, and its aftermath.”

William Dalrymple in Outlook India:

In June 1858, the Times correspondent William Howard Russell—a man now famous as the father of war journalism—arrived in the ruins of Delhi, recently recaptured by the British from the rebels after one of the bloodiest sieges in Indian history. Skeletons still littered the streets, and the domes and minars of the city were riddled with shell holes; but the walls of the Red Fort, the great palace of the Mughals, still looked magnificent: “I have seldom seen a nobler mural aspect,” wrote Russell in his diary, “and the great space of bright red walls put me in mind of (the) finest part of Windsor Castle.” Russell’s ultimate destination was, however, rather less imposing. Along a dark, dingy back passage of the fort, Shah_zafar_1Russell was led to the cell of a frail 83-year-old man who was accused by the British of being one of the masterminds of the Great Rising, or Mutiny, of 1857, the most serious armed act of resistance to Western imperialism ever to be mounted anywhere in the world. “He was a dim, wandering-eyed, dreamy old man with a feeble hanging nether lip and toothless gums,” wrote a surprised Russell. “Not a word came from his lips; in silence he sat day and night with his eyes cast on the ground, and as though utterly oblivious of the conditions in which he was placed…. His eyes had the dull, filmy look of very old age…. Some heard him quoting verses of his own composition, writing poetry on a wall with a burned stick.”

The prisoner was Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor, direct descendant of Genghis Khan and Tamburlane, of Akbar, Jehangir and Shah Jehan.

More here.

The Perils of “Blogofascism”, or How TNR Moved To The Ridiculous

The New Republic is increasingly silly. In The American Prospect, Matthew Yglesias takes the piss out of culture critic Lee Siegel’s alarms of “blogofascism”.

As Ron Rosenbaum explained in a classic January 2002 New York Observer article, Hitchens was, along with Andrew Sullivan, a George Orwell for our times. Coining the term “Islamofascism” was a “brilliant stroke . . . devastatingly effective in describing who the terrorists, the al-Qaeda/Taliban nexus, really are.” Yes, yes. Paul Berman did us the further favor, in his book Terror and Liberalism, of revealing that, despite appearances, not only were Islamic jihadists the same as Nazis, but both were also the same as secular nationalist Baathists. For that matter, despite decades of superficial rivalry, Syrian Baathism was the same as Iraqi Baathism. And, of course, as Hannah Arendt taught us long ago, if something is the same as fascism (as many things are these days) then it’s also the same as Communism.

This was all very enlightening, needless to say. But the threats of the past are now obsolete — since the liberation of Iraq, neither Islamofascism nor Baathofascism nor even Naziofascism need trouble us much.

The world, then, has recently been dangerously lacking in “-ofascist” (or perhaps O’Fascist, like in Ireland) threats. Thankfully, New Republic culture critic Lee Siegel has now uncovered the most insidious threat of all: Bloggers. “The blogosphere,” he told us last week, “radiates democracy’s dream of full participation” but is, in fact, “hard fascism with a Microsoft face.” Some thought Siegel was engaging in a little ill-advised overstatement. But no. The bold truth-teller was all-too-serious, as he revealed in his follow-up post, “The Origins of Blogofascism” — a work of Arendt-ian import, if not quite scale and scope.

CONSTRUCTIVE BIOLOGY

From The Edge:Church200 

“Constructive biology?” Think of the cell as operating system, and engineers taking the place of traditional biologists in retooling stripped down components of cells (bio-bricks) in much the vein as in the late 70s when electrical engineers were working their way to the first personal computer by assembling circuit boards, hard drives, monitors, etc. It’s not an accident that the phrase “bio-hackers” is in the conversation, as this new crowd has a lot in common with the computer engineers who were around the homebrew computer club of the ’70s leading the development of the personal computer.

Central to this move to engineer biology, to synthesize life, is Harvard researcher George Church. “Today I am involved in a number of synthesis and sequencing endeavors,” he says. “First, the BioFab group works together on ‘constructive biology’, which has a number of tightly overlapping parts of a Venn diagram.”

More here.

With Food Line, Ali Makes Obesity an Opponent

From The New York Times:

Ali190 In a delicate dance of legend, marketing and money, Mr. Ali plans to introduce reduced-calorie foods and beverages for young adults, evoking his status as a three-time heavyweight boxing champion and American icon. The first products to roll out in convenience stores early next year will be packaged snacks with names like Rumble, Shuffle and Jabs — fruit-laden rolls and finger foods baked into vaguely signature shapes like boxing gloves and punching bags. Some flavors, like barbecued chicken and Buffalo wings, are a twist on snack classics, while others, like sweet corn and cole slaw, evoke the farmer’s market.

The new line has the lofty aim of fighting youth obesity, with no snack containing more than 150 calories. Each is fortified with vitamins and fiber, said Edward Rapp, a senior member of Mr. Ali’s new company, GOAT Food and Beverage (GOAT being an acronym for — what else? — Greatest of All Time).

More here.

The Promise of the Coming Finnish Presidency of the EU

Speaking of Halliday, he sees much promise in Finland’s coming presidency of the EU, in openDemocracy.

Finland is also intent on using the EU presidency to promote more active dialogue with the Muslim world and with the middle east. The country’s long association with UN peace-keeping and diplomacy in conflict-zones is an asset here. Martti Ahtisaari is only the most prominent current figure in this regard; the former Finnish president (1994-2000) has applied experience gained in Namibia and Kosovo to his Crisis Management Initiative, which specialises in conflict-prevention, state-building and human-security projects.

The Finns are worried by the tensions between Europe and the Muslim world over Iraq and Iran, which (as with the Danish cartoon crisis) have a “domestic” as well as foreign-policy dimension: the presence of large migrant communities across western Europe means that even countries of the Baltic region are no longer insulated from the shockwaves of conflict in or relating to the middle east.

CURZIO MALAPARTE

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In October 1980, the Czech astronomer Z. Vávrová of the Klet’ Observatory at Ceske Budejovice discovered Planet Number 03479, a celestial body the size of a large asteroid, in the nether reaches of the cosmos. The astronomer named it after his favorite writer, Curzio Malaparte. A literary homage drifting in outer space would have appealed to a writer who inhabited an unclassifiable planet of his own, a writer known for ingenious deceptions, morbid hilarity, and what one might call heartfelt insincerity.

However engaged he became in the splendors and miseries of the sad century he lived in, Malaparte carried himself with an air of antic dignity, an almost posthumous detachment redolent of a cosmic private joke. He embraced ideas with the grip of an octopus and abandoned them as casually as Kleenex.

more from Bookforum here.

fred halliday and why the new left review is right

Danny Postel: What exactly were you saying?

Fred Halliday: My view is that the kind of position which the New Left Review and Tariq have adopted in terms of the conflict in the Middle East is an extremely reactionary, right-wing one. It starts with Afghanistan. To my mind, Afghanistan is central to the history of the Left, and to the history of the world, since the 1980s. It is to the early 21st century, to the years we’re now living through, what the Spanish Civil War was to Europe in the mid and late 20th century. It was the kitchen in which the contradictions of the contemporary world, and many of the violent evils of the century, were cooked and then spread out. Just as Italian and German fascism trained in Spain for the broader conquest of Europe and the Mediterranean,the militant jihadi Islamists, of whom bin Laden was a part, received their training, their primal experiences, in Afghanistan. They have been carrying out this broad jihad across the Middle East and elsewhere ever since, including, of course, the attacks of September 11th. You cannot understand this unless you go back to Afghanistan in the 1980s.

But who was responsible? Pakistani intelligence, Saudi Arabia and the United States. Read Bob Woodward’s book on Casey, The Veil, or Steven Cole’s book on Afghanistan, Ghost Wars. The U.S. was deeply implicated. My view is that anybody who could not see that issue then, or in retrospect, is objectively on the Right. And I think Tariq is objectively on the Right. He’s colluded with the most reactionary forces in the region, first in Afghanistan and now in Iraq. He has given his rhetorical support to the Sunni insurgency in Iraq—who have no interest in democracy or in progress for the people of Iraq whatsoever, whether it’s the Baathists, with their record of 30 years of dictatorship, or the foreign Sunnis with their own authoritarian project. The position of the New Left Review is that the future of humanity lies in the back streets of Fallujah.

more from Salmagundi here.