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The Coldest Place in the Universe

Tom Shachtman in Smithsonian Magazine:

Phenomena_jan08_main_388Where’s the coldest spot in the universe? Not on the moon, where the temperature plunges to a mere minus 378 Fahrenheit. Not even in deepest outer space, which has an estimated background temperature of about minus 455°F. As far as scientists can tell, the lowest temperatures ever attained were recently observed right here on earth.

The record-breaking lows were among the latest feats of ultracold physics, the laboratory study of matter at temperatures so mind-bogglingly frigid that atoms and even light itself behave in highly unusual ways. Electrical resistance in some elements disappears below about minus 440°F, a phenomenon called superconductivity. At even lower temperatures, some liquefied gases become “superfluids” capable of oozing through walls solid enough to hold any other sort of liquid; they even seem to defy gravity as they creep up, over and out of their containers.

Physicists acknowledge they can never reach the coldest conceivable temperature, known as absolute zero and long ago calculated to be minus 459.67°F. To physicists, temperature is a measure of how fast atoms are moving, a reflection of their energy—and absolute zero is the point at which there is absolutely no heat energy remaining to be extracted from a substance.

More here.

The Sociopaths of the Virtual World

Julian Dibbell in Wired:

Secondlife1_fThe Albion Park section of Second Life is generally a quiet place, a haven of whispering fir trees and babbling brooks set aside for those who “need to be alone to think, or want to chat privately.” But shortly after 5 pm Eastern time on November 16, an avatar appeared in the 3-D-graphical skies above this online sanctuary and proceeded to unleash a mass of undiluted digital jackassery. The avatar, whom witnesses would describe as an African-American male clad head to toe in gleaming red battle armor, detonated a device that instantly filled the air with 30-foot-wide tumbling blue cubes and gaping cartoon mouths. For several minutes the freakish objects rained down, immobilizing nearby players with code that forced them to either log off or watch their avatars endlessly text-shout Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Get to the choppaaaaaaa!” tagline from Predator.

The incident, it turns out, was not an isolated one. The same scene, with minor variations, was unfolding simultaneously throughout the virtual geography of Second Life. Some cubes were adorned on every side with the infamous, soul-searing “goatse” image; others were covered with the grinning face of Bill Cosby proffering a Pudding Pop.

Soon after the attacks began, the governance team at San Francisco-based Linden Lab, the company that runs Second Life, identified the vandals and suspended their accounts. In the popular NorthStar hangout, players located the offending avatars and fired auto-cagers, which wrapped the attackers’ heads in big metallic boxes.

More here.

more valiant huffing on Barthelme’s behalf

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Donald Barthelme was the Stephen Sondheim of haute fiction—a dexterous assembler of witty, mordant, intricate devices that, once exploded, exposed the sawdust and stuffing of traditional forms. His stories weren’t finely rendered portrait studies in human behavior or autobiographical reveries à la Johns Updike and Cheever, but a row of boutiques showcasing his latest pranks, confections, gadgets, and Max Ernst/Monty Python–ish collages. Like Sondheim’s biting rhymes and contrapuntal duets, Barthelme’s parlor tricks and satiric ploys were accused early on of being cerebral, preeningly clever, hermetically sealed, and lacking in “heart”of supplying the clattering sound track to the cocktail party of the damned. Yet, like Sondheim, Barthelme was no simple Dr. Sardonicus, licensed cynic. His radiograms from the observation deck of his bemused detachment evidently touched depths and won converts, otherwise his work wouldn’t have inspired so many salvage operations intended to keep his name alive and his enterprise afloat. Mere smarty show-offs don’t garner this kind of affection from a younger breed of astronauts. Just as there always seems to be a Sondheim musical poised for Broadway revival (Company in 2006, Sunday in the Park with George right now), Barthelme’s bundle of greatest hits and obscure outtakes has been parceled out in a series of reprintings and repackagings since his death in 1989. He’s always poised on the verge of being majorly rediscovered without ever quite making it over the crest, despite the valiant huffing done on his behalf.

more from Bookforum here.

big pictures

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As a group, the pictures also summon up more ancient associations. They offer a counterclaim to other allusions to the Venus of Willendorf (Austria, 30,000 B.C.E.) in contemporary art. This tiny statue, with its mute pendant head and protruding belly, breasts and thighs, is thought to be a fertility deity. The sculpture plays a significant role in the quite brilliant opening chapter of Camille Paglia’s (probably deservedly maligned) book, “Sexual Personae”.

Paglia describes this figurine as containing women’s essential power: that of the dark, primitive mysterious forces of procreation and destruction, of instinct and blood, rooted in the earth. Paglia says, “She isthe too-muchness of nature… She is remote as she kills and creates. She is the cloud of archaic night.”

Stubby, oversized confederates of the Venus of Willendorf are a staple of Jeff Koons production; she is embodied in the early Vacuum Cleaners, in the Rabbit, and the Puppy, among other works. By utilizing this sign, Koons argues that commercial culture furnishes society with primordial energy in order that it may be psychically healed.

more from artcritical here.

A brief history of the future

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Loneliness shadows science fiction, and is made more acute by its customary settings amid the emptiness of space, with solitary voyagers or beleaguered bands of adventurers encountering the hostilities of planets that deny the consolations of familiarity. The opening images of Walter M. Miller’s brilliant “I Made You” (1954) are typical:

It sat on the crag by night. Gaunt, frigid, wounded, it sat under the black sky and listened to the land with its feet, while only its dishlike ear moved in slow patterns that searched the surface of the land and the sky The land was silent, airless. Nothing moved, except the feeble thing that scratched in the cave.

The “feeble thing” turns out to be a man, about to be destroyed by the suffering robot that he has created.

more from the TLS here.

THURSDAY POEM

The Hippopotamus
T.S. Eliot

The broad-backed hippopotamus

Rests on his belly in the mud;

Although he seems so firm to us

He is merely flesh and blood.

Flesh and blood is weak and frail,

Susceptible to nervous shock;

While the True Church can never fail

For it is based upon a rock.

The hippo’s feeble steps may err

In compassing material ends,

While the True Church need never stir

To gather in its dividends.

The ‘potamus can never reach

The mango on the mango-tree;

But fruits of pomegranate and peach

Refresh the Church from over sea.

At mating time the hippo’s voice

Betrays inflexions hoarse and odd,

But every week we hear rejoice

The Church, at being one with God.

The hippopotamus’s day

Is passed in sleep; at night he hunts;

God works in a mysterious way—

The Church can sleep and feed at once.

I saw the ‘potamus take wing

Ascending from the damp savannas,

And quiring angels round him sing

The praise of God, in loud hosannas.

Blood of the Lamb shall wash him clean

And him shall heavenly arms enfold,

Among the saints he shall be seen

Performing on a harp of gold.

He shall be washed as white as snow,

By all the martyr’d virgins kist,

While the True Church remains below

Wrapt in the old miasmal mist.

..

..

Is There Happiness After the 40s?

Misery From Scientific American:

Closing in on 40? 50? Feel like life is passing, er, has passed you by? Maybe even left you in the dust? You’re not alone. In fact, new research shows that fellow midlifers throughout the world–or at least a significant chunk of it–share your pain. But fear not: if you endure, the study shows, things will begin looking up again, once you get over that speed bump in the road of life called (gasp!) middle age. Researchers from Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., and the University of Warwick in Coventry, England, after scouring 35 years worth of data on two million people from 80 nations, have concluded that there is, indeed, a consistent pattern in depression and happiness levels that is age-related and leaves us most blue during midlife.

According to the study, set to be published in the journal Social Science & Medicine, happiness follows a U-shaped curve: It is highest at the beginning and end of our lives and lowest in-between. The researchers found that the peak of depression for both men and women in the U.K. is around 44 years of age; in the U.S., women on average are most miserable at age 40 whereas men are when they hit 50. They found a similar pattern in 70 other countries. So what’s at the root of this depressing dip? Not sure, say authors Andrew Oswald of Warwick University and Dartmouth’s David Blanchflower, both economists. But they speculate, as Oswald put it, that “something happens deep inside humans” to bring us down rather than shattering events (such as divorce or job loss), because it tends to creep up on us over time.

More here.

America still works

From Prospect Magazine:

Picture Anyone who reads the serious press about the condition of the US might be excused for believing that the country is headed towards a series of deep crises. This impression is exacerbated by economic slowdown and by the presidential primaries, in which candidates announce bold plans to rescue the country from disaster. But even in more normal times there are three ubiquitous myths about America that make the country seem weaker and more chaotic than it really is. The first myth, which is mainly a conservative one, is that racial and ethnic rivalries are tearing America apart. The second myth, which is mainly a liberal one, is that America will soon be overwhelmed by religious fundamentalists. The third myth, an economic one beloved of centrists, is that the retirement of the baby boomers will bankrupt the country because of runaway social security entitlement costs.

America does, of course, have many problems, such as spiralling healthcare costs and a decline in social mobility. Yet the truth is that apart from the temporary frictions caused by current immigration from Latin America, the US is more integrated than ever. Racial and cultural diversity is in long-term decline, as a result of the success of the melting pot in merging groups through assimilation and intermarriage—and many of the country’s infamous social pathologies, from violent crime to teenage drug use, are also seeing improvements. Americans are far more religious than Europeans, but the “religious right” is concentrated among white southern Protestants. And there is no genuine long-term entitlement problem in the US. The US suffers from healthcare cost inflation, a problem that will be solved one way or another in the near future, long before it cripples the economy as a whole. And the long-term costs of social security, America’s public pension programme, could be met by moderate benefit cuts or a moderate growth in the US government share of GDP. With a linguistically united, increasingly racially mixed supermajority and a solvent system of middle-class entitlements, the US will remain first among equals for generations to come, even in a multipolar world with several great powers.

More here.

Hopeless Monsters

Carl Zimmer in his brilliant blog, The Loom:

How do new kinds of bodies evolve? It’s a question that obsesses many scientists today, as it has for decades. Yesterday, Olivia Judson, an evolutionary biologist and book author, published a blog post entitled “The Monster is Back, and It’s Hopeful,” in which she declared that these transitions can happen in sudden steps.

Screenhunter_18Even before I had finished reading Judson’s piece, I got an email from the prominent evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne grousing about it. Coyne, who teaches at the University of Chicago, is an expert on the genetics of adaptation as well as the origin of new species. He has written potent, eloquent attacks on creationism in places like the New Republic (pdf). Recently he has also begun to express skepticism about the grander claims for evolutionary developmental biology–“evo-devo” for short (see this pdf for more).

I thought it would be interesting to hear what Coyne had to say–at length. Since he does not (yet) have a blog of his own, I invited him to write a guest post for The Loom. He kindly sent in the following piece, which appears below the fold, entitled “Hopeless Monsters.” Please give Dr. Coyne a warm welcome to world of science blogging, and let him know what you think in the comment thread.

More here.

The Art Catalog

Our own Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:

Id_meis_30_ap_001The people who put together 30,000 Years of Art: The story of human creativity across time and space were no fools. They realized that the preface, introduction, and justification would either have to be infinite or non-existent. They chose the void. Two pages into the book and you’re already looking at art. No discussion about what art is, what characteristics the works share, who chose the works, why they are representative. Nothing. There’s one brief statement running in a narrow column on the first full page. It says: “From the time when human beings can first be called human, they have felt compelled to depict themselves and their world — as gods, mortals, animals or abstractions.” It’s so broad as to say everything and therefore nothing at all.

And then the book begins in earnest. If there are ideas here, they are latent in the book itself, hiding within the explanatory text for each work and in the decisions of what to include and not to include. But despite the unwillingness to address definitions, the book itself is nothing but a massive, stupefying piece of chutzpah. Here is art, from the dawn of (human) time until today. The silence, the unwillingness to address the largeness in the claim, is either a bit of coyness, astounding self-confidence, or a form of blissful ignorance.

I prefer to think that it’s a piece of coyness.

More here.

not a “contrast gainer”

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So occupied is “God’s Crucible” with every twist and turn of military and political history, in fact, that Mr. Lewis’s would-be controversial interpretation, and his lessons for the present, are mostly forgotten. They surface only in the form of occasional valentines to the Spain of the Umayyads — whose “ethos of storied tolerance and mutuality…might have served as a model for the continent” — and corresponding insults to Carolingian Christendom — “an economically retarded, balkanized, fratricidal Europe that, in defining itself in opposition to Islam, made virtues out of religious persecution, cultural particularism, and hereditary aristocracy.”

The problem with such verdicts is not just that they are unconvincingly reductive, but that they are clichés. If Western readers know anything about Muslim history, it is that Golden Age Spain was a golden age. That this moment of relative tolerance and prosperity coincided with the Dark Ages in Western Europe helps to make it what Saul Bellow called a “contrast gainer.”

more from the NY Sun here.

courbet: the savage life

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In 1854 Gustave Courbet sent his patron and friend the rich philanthropist Alfred Bruyas a self-portrait, accompanying it with a letter:

It is the portrait of a fanatic, an ascetic. It is the portrait of a man who, disillusioned by the nonsense that made up his education, seeks to live by his own principles. I have done a good many self-portraits in my life, as my attitude gradually changed. One could say that I have written my autobiography.

This statement was somewhat premature (he was only forty-five at the time), but it is true that he was fascinated by his own appearance and some twenty self-portraits are extant. In the 1860s, when Emile Zola was trying to sum up Courbet’s achievement, he wrote that he saw him as “simply a personality.” Certainly Courbet made much of his own personality, and the revolution that he effected owed more than a little to the vividness of his presence and to the myth that he very soon succeeded in building up around himself.

more from the NYRB here.

free bob avakian?

Avakian

IT WAS HARD to miss, splashed recently across a full page of The New York Review of Books: an advertisement featuring the boldface words, “Dangerous times demand courageous voices. Bob Avakian is such a voice.” …

Some of the signatories were regulars on left-wing petitions, but even for people often associated with radical causes, signing a pro-Avakian ad seemed bizarre. Did they not know what he stands for – or did they just not care?

Avakian is the chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, a tiny Maoist organization whose most visible activity is running several branches of a store called Revolution Books. (There’s a branch on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge.) Through the bookstores, the party’s website and newspaper, and his prolific pamphleteering, Avakian has advanced his views: Mao Zedong’s China was “wondrous,” according to Avakian’s autobiography, and, despite the show trials, mass purges, and other acts of tyranny that Avakian acknowledges, Joseph Stalin had “an overall positive historical role.”

more from The Boston Globe here.

Wednesday Bonus Poem

I was feeling grouchy about some comments at 3QD and then I read this:

A Cat in an Empty Apartment
Wislawa Szymborska

Dying–you wouldn’t do that to a cat.
For what is a cat to do
in an empty apartment?
Climb up the walls?
Brush up against the furniture?
Nothing here seems changed,
and yet something has changed.
Nothing has been moved,
and yet there’s more room.
And in the evenings the lamp is not on.

One hears footsteps on the stairs,
but they’re not the same.
Neither is the hand
that puts a fish on the plate.

Something here isn’t starting
at its usual time.
Something here isn’t happening
as it should.
Somebody has been here and has been,
and then has suddenly disappeared
and now is stubbornly absent.

Frederica_krueger_the_beautifulAll the closets have been scanned
and all the shelves run through.
Slipping under the carpet and checking came to nothing.
The rule has even been broken and all the papers scattered.
What else is there to do?
Sleep and wait.

Just let him come back,
let him show up.
Then he’ll find out
that you don’t do that to a cat.
Going toward him
faking reluctance,
slowly,
on very offended paws.
And no jumping, purring at first.

[Thanks to Jim Culleny and the lovely Frederica Krueger.]