Somebody Give Bill Gates and Drew Faust a Copy of Citizens Disunited

Ciara Torres-Spelliscy in Guernica:

71Eq0bxA+kL._SL1360_Robert A.G. Monks, a long-time expert on corporate governance, is not known for mincing his words, and his latest book Citizens Disunited pulls no punches. He wants big investors to start using their influence to push back. Writing about corporate political power, Monks warns that “money buys voices, ears, face time, and sit-downs, but it also buys silence.” It is the silence in service of the status quo that he interrogates throughout his short, hard-hitting tome.

While soft celebrity news has found its way onto the CNN news ticker, an underappreciated struggle for the soul of American companies has been under way. In Citizens Disunited, Monks pulls back the curtain to reveal the broad outlines of a battle that has been raging for decades, largely outside of the public’s gaze, between activist investors and the companies that they own.

As Monks, who literally wrote the book on Corporate Governance, sees it, the little guys have largely lost in their attempts to reign in executive compensation, sky high options and managerial perks like the personal use of corporate jets, money for pet projects and campaign funds—all of which are provided at shareholder expense.

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Man Booker International prize goes to (very) short-story writer Lydia Davis

Alison Flood in The Guardian:

ScreenHunter_214 May. 27 10.02The impossible-to-categorise Lydia Davis, known for the shortest of short stories, has won the Man Booker International prize ahead of fellow American Marilynne Robinson and eight other contenders from around the world.

The £60,000 award is for a body of work, and is intended to celebrate “achievement in fiction on the world stage”. Cited as “innovative and influential”, Davis becomes the biennial prize's third successive winner from North America, after fellow American Philip Roth won in 2011 –prompting a controversial walk-out from the judge Carmen Callil, partly over her disappointment in the panel's failure to choose a writer in translation – and Canadian short story writer Alice Munro took the prize in 2009.

Best known for her short stories, most of which are less than three pages long, and some of which run to just a paragraph or a sentence, Davis has been described as “the master of a literary form largely of her own invention”. “Idea for a Short Documentary Film” runs as follows: “Representatives of different food product manufacturers try to open their own packaging.” In “A Double Negative”, she writes merely that: “At a certain point in her life, she realises it is not so much that she wants to have a child as that she does not want not to have a child, or not to have had a child.”

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What F. Scott Fitzgerald’s tax returns reveal about his life and times

William J. Quirk in The American Scholar:

ScreenHunter_213 May. 27 09.57Several years ago, my colleague and friend Matthew Bruccoli, an English professor and author of books about 20th-century American writers, made a surprising request. He said he had F. Scott Fitzgerald’s income tax returns covering his working life, 1919–1940, and asked if I would like to write an article with him based on the returns. Matt was for many years a good friend of Fitzgerald’s daughter, Scottie, and in her will she had appointed him a trustee for the trust she had set up for her four children. It seemed to me such an amazing find; I asked Matt how he had obtained the returns. One day, he said, while he was helping Scottie organize things, they came across the tax returns. Scottie, saying that they wouldn’t interest anyone, was going to throw them out. Matt, who didn’t believe in throwing anything out, asked if he could take them. He sent the returns to me; Matt’s death in June of 2008 meant I would have to write the article without him.

What can be learned from Fitzgerald’s tax returns? To start with, his popular reputation as a careless spendthrift is untrue. Fitzgerald was always trying to follow conservative financial principles. Until 1937 he kept a ledger—as if he were a grocer—a meticulous record of his earnings from each short story, play, and novel he sold. The 1929 ledger recorded items as small as royalties of $5.10 from the American edition of The Great Gatsby and $0.34 from the English edition. No one could call Fitzgerald frugal, but he was always trying to save money—at least until his wife Zelda’s illness, starting in 1929, put any idea of saving out of the question. The ordinary person saves to protect against some distant rainy day. Fitzgerald had no interest in that. To him saving meant freedom to work on his novels without interruptions caused by the economic necessity of writing short stories. The short stories were his main source of revenue.

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The audacious plan to end hunger with 3-D printed food

Christopher Mims in Quartz:

ScreenHunter_212 May. 27 09.51Anjan Contractor’s 3D food printer might evoke visions of the “replicator” popularized in Star Trek, from which Captain Picard was constantly interrupting himself to order tea. And indeed Contractor’s company, Systems & Materials Research Corporation, just got a six month, $125,000 grant from NASA to create a prototype of his universal food synthesizer.

But Contractor, a mechanical engineer with a background in 3D printing, envisions a much more mundane—and ultimately more important—use for the technology. He sees a day when every kitchen has a 3D printer, and the earth’s 12 billion people feed themselves customized, nutritionally-appropriate meals synthesized one layer at a time, from cartridges of powder and oils they buy at the corner grocery store. Contractor’s vision would mean the end of food waste, because the powder his system will use is shelf-stable for up to 30 years, so that each cartridge, whether it contains sugars, complex carbohydrates, protein or some other basic building block, would be fully exhausted before being returned to the store.

Ubiquitous food synthesizers would also create new ways of producing the basic calories on which we all rely. Since a powder is a powder, the inputs could be anything that contain the right organic molecules. We already know that eating meat is environmentally unsustainable, so why not get all our protein from insects?

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Pulitzer Prize-winning Author Siddhartha Mukherjee Addresses 2013 Graduates

From MSKCC.Org:

Sid-02“Newspapers may bring us news of a scientific-industrial complex that is increasingly depersonalized … where terabytes of data are churned through supercomputers to generate gigabytes of information,” observed physician-scientist and writer Siddhartha Mukherjee. “But ask a real scientist and you get a profoundly different image of how real science happens.” Dr. Mukherjee, the author of The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, which won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction, delivered the Commencement address at Memorial Sloan-Kettering’s 2013 Commencement and Academic Convocation. He is an assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University and a staff cancer physician at Columbia University Medical Center. “Science,” Dr. Mukherjee asserted, “is among the most profoundly human of our activities. Far from being subsumed by the dehumanizing effects of technology, science in fact remains our last stand against it.” Invoking “the indelible image of Gregor Mendel, a monk in wire-rimmed glasses, tending his plants, stooping with paint brush and forceps, to transfer the orange dust of pollen from one flower to the next,” he described a quality he called the “tenderness” of the scientific enterprise. “It’s not a word typically used to describe science or scientists,” Dr. Mukherjee acknowledged. “It describes a certain intimacy between human beings and nature, a nourishment that must happen before investigation can begin.” Dr. Mukherjee framed his talk by asking how Mendel, working in the mid-1800s in the garden of his monastery, “stumbled upon what is arguably the most seminal discovery of modern biology: that hereditary information is transmitted from one generation to the next.” “His science began with tending,” noted Dr. Mukherjee. “The laborious cross-fertilization of seedlings … the markings of wrinkles on seeds [which] led him to findings that could not be explained by the traditional understanding of biology or inheritance. Tending generated tension until the old fulcrum of biology was snapped in two.”

“Tenderness and tension,” said Dr. Mukherjee, “the two qualities that I think define science. Tenderness has to do with the day-to-day life of a scientist… . When I witness science in action, I see this tenderness in abundance.” “On Monday morning, the graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in my laboratory rush in to see how their cells have grown over the weekend. The best of these researchers have a gardener’s instinct: Some cultures need nourishment; some need to be left alone to inhabit the corners of incubators; and yet others need to be coaxed with growth factors to flourish… . “ And then, explained Dr. Mukherjee, “out of those years of tending comes tension — that spectacular crystallizing moment when all the pieces of a puzzle come together on the verge of making complete sense.”Speaking directly to the graduates, Dr. Mukherjee offered the following counsel: “First, as you go into the world, remember to tend whatever you do. Be tender. Grow things. Put your hand and mind to work.”

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Lisa Randall’s Guide to the Galaxy

From Smithsonian:

Lisa Randall is telling me she may have a clue to the next great mystery in cosmology. We are having lunch in a restaurant at the Charles Hotel, not far from Harvard where she teaches theoretical physics, with specialties in particle physics, string theory, mathematics, astrophysics and cosmology. Randall, a slender woman, now 50, reminds one of a younger Joan Didion— light-years of consciousness behind her eyes. She is a star professor of the stars, a cosmological celebrity, and only in part because she is the first female theoretical physicist tenured at Harvard . It was really her conjecture in the late ’90s about string theory’s “extra dimensions” that gained her prominence in the field. She garnered more attention for her explication of the Higgs boson quest, and for her subsequent writings attempting to explain to the rest of us what she does and how exciting it is to do it, most recently Knocking on Heaven’s Door. And now she thinks she and her Harvard physics colleagues have found something new. What she is excited about is “dark matter,” which—along with “dark energy”—makes up the vast majority of the known universe. The current estimate is that 70 percent of the universe is dark energy and 26 percent dark matter. Which adds up to 96 percent. Meaning that what we see and know adds up to a measly 4 percent.

Four percent! The invisible 96 percent apparently keeps the universe in gravitational equilibrium, preventing it from collapsing on itself or dissipating into virtual nothingness. But we know almost nothing else about it. The problem has been that the dark stuff doesn’t seem to interact with the 4 percent we know in such a way that gives us a clue to its nature. But Randall believes she may have found a clue. In fact, the day before we met she delivered a talk at an American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Boston in which she announced that she may have found evidence of the interaction of dark matter with our matter. A potentially sensational development for cosmologists just now setting out into the uncharted vastness of the dark matter universe.

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Sunday Poem

Saint Francis and the Sow
.
The bud
stands for all things,
even for those things that don't flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on its brow
of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing;
as Saint Francis
put his hand on the creased forehead
of the sow, and told her in words and in touch
blessings of earth on the sow,
and the sow began remembering all down her thick length,
from the earthen snout all the way
through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail,
from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine
down through the great broken heart
to the sheer blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering
from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and blowing beneath them:
the long, perfect loveliness of sow.
.
.
by Galway Kinnell
from New Selected Poems by Galway Kinnell
published by Houghton Mifflin, 2000

Commander Hadfield Shows Us What Science Communication Could Be. Visually.

From Scientific American:

C_hadfield_richatScience communication has seldom had a better champion than Canadian astronaut Commander Chris Hadfield who just returned to Earth last night. Astronauts tweeting and talking from space is not a new phenomena, and though interesting scientific experiments abound way up on the ISS, they weren’t what caught the public’s imagination this go round. It was imagery.

NASA has understood the power of imagery – still photos, animations, illustrations and video – for a long time. Engagement, real wonder and CMellow_watching_Hadfield-300x300curiosity often comes from appealing to our dominant senses. And now, with the extremely visual nature of social media, with the ability to carry the internet in our pocket, we have the most powerful visual communication medium the world has ever known. Sure, not all scientific stories have the advantage of hurtling around the Earth in space: but the next time you’re writing your science blog, preparing to do some outreach, ask yourself if your finely crafted words don’t deserve some stunning and provocative visuals. There’s plenty of places to find them, or ways to make your own.

On a personal note, to NASA and Commander Hadfield, thank you for the look in my 2 year old son’s eyes when he tried to sing along to Space Oddity last night (and made up some lyrics about helmets and big giant Jupiter). That look in his eyes, that’s what science communication should do.

More here.

Tradition of the tile

Farida M. Said in The Herald:

Sumptuous, vibrantly coloured ornamentation is a distinguishing characteristic of Islamic architecture. As the human form and figurative representation are strictly forbidden, there is a total absence of sculpture in Islamic edifices. Instead, geometric patterns and rich surface decoration reach unparalleled artistic heights with stucco, brick, marble and ceramics. Some of the earliest – and finest – displays of ceramic tiling and ornamental inscriptions are to be found in the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, built in the seventh century, hence, the oldest Islamic monument preserved in its architectural integrity; and in that masterpiece of elegance from the western extremity of the Islamic world, the al-Hambra in Granada, Spain. The use of ceramics in architecture began in earnest in Anatolia in the 13th century, at about the same time as in Seljuk Iran where specialisation in the glazed tile mosaic technique in Kashan gave ceramic tiles their Persian name, kashi, a contraction of kashani, meaning of Kashan. Then the indefatigable conqueror Emir Timur, known to the West as Tamerlane or Timur the Lame, forcibly transported master ceramists from their homeland to Samarqand. Thanks to Timur’s patronage, in a matter of three decades the drab ochre buildings of his capital were “bedecked in a dazzling livery of predominantly turquoise ceramic tile.”

The cladding of brick walls with glazed ceramic tiles in shades of azure blue, turquoise, cobalt and white soon became widespread in the Muslim world. In Ottoman Turkey, the Iznik factories evolved tiles that were never to be equalled in range and depth of tone, richness and variety of pattern, making it possible to sheet the interior of whole buildings with this gleaming decoration. In the Maghreb – Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria – floors and walls were lined with beautiful enamelled and painted earthenware tiles known as Zellij. In Iran under Safavid rule, what the Timurids had begun in Samarqand was carried on in Isfahan. Outstandingly beautiful glazed tile work produced in the haft rung or seven colour techniques sheathed the splendid palaces and majestic mosques of the country as Persian architecture reached a rare level of perfection. Surprisingly, ceramic tile work was not the favourite form of decorative art in Mughal India. Unlike the brick-built architecture of Iran, most imperial Mughal mosques and minarets, palaces and mausoleums were made of red-mauve sandstone and decorated with white marble. Thus the fabulous Taj Mahal, the epitome of Mughal art, is clad in luminous marble inlaid in the pietra dura style with precious and semi-precious stones.

More here.

Daniel Dennett: ‘You can make Aristotle look like a flaming idiot’

Julian Baginni in The Guardian:

ScreenHunter_211 May. 25 20.06Big thinkers make for big targets and they don't come much bigger, physically and intellectually, than Daniel Dennett. The tall, 71-year-old philosopher looks every inch the enthusiastic sailor he is, with his white beard and broad torso. With his mild-mannered, avuncular confidence, he comes across a man who could calmly fend off an assault or two. That's just as well, since as a leading cheerleader for Darwin and atheism, he is as much a bete noire for their opponents as a hero for their advocates.

Dennett is in London from his native Massachusetts talking to me about his latest book, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking. It's a kind of greatest hits collection, pieced together from mainly previously published work to present both a summation of his central ideas about meaning, consciousness, evolution and free will, and to share some of the philosophical tools he has used to craft them. “After half a century in the field I've got some tricks of the trade which I'd like to talk about,” he says.

His critics agree, to the extent that they see him as a clever philosophical trickster. Yet time and again it seems the best way to understand Dennett is to understand why so many criticisms miss their targets.

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Dear Guardian: You’ve Been Played

Jennifer Oullette in her blog at Scientific American:

A number of people have been privately asking me about the recent Guardian article (and accompanying Op-Ed by Oxford mathematician Marcus du Sautoy) gushing over a supposedly revolutionary new unified theory of physics by a man who officially left academia 20 years ago. Or, as I’ve taken to calling it, Eric Weinstein’s Amazing New Theory That Solves Every Puzzling Conundrum in Theoretical Physics Only He Hasn’t Written An Actual Paper Yet So Physicists Can’t Check All Those Hard Mathematical Details But Trust Us, It’s Gonna Be Awesome!

Skeptical-cat-is-fraught-with-skepticism-300x225Ahem. First, a couple of caveats. I’ve met Weinstein. He’s a nice guy. He’s wicked smart. He knows way more math than I ever will (which admittedly is not saying much). I don’t doubt his sincerity, or that of some of his supporters, which apparently includes Berkeley mathematician Edward Frenkel. And while I doubt his grandiose claims will be borne out once all the details emerge, he deserves to have those ideas heard, debated and evaluated (once there’s an actual paper) by his peers. But that’s so far above my pay grade, it’s a task best left to the professional physicists, who I’m sure are sharpening their knives as I type. (“Fresh meat!”)

No, my beef is with the Guardian for running the article in the first place. Seriously: why was it even written? Strip away all the purple prose and you’ve got a guy who’s been out of the field for 20 years, but still doing some dabbling on the side, who has an intriguing new idea that a couple of math professors think is promising, so he got invited to give a colloquium at Oxford by his old grad school buddy. Oh, and there’s no technical paper yet — not even a rough draft on the arxiv — so his ideas can’t even be appropriately evaluated by actual working physicists. How, exactly, does that qualify as newsworthy? Was your bullshit detector not working that day?

I’ll tell you what happened: the Guardianwas seduced by the narrative offered by a man who, in his dual post as Simonyi professor for the public understanding of science, has proved himself to be highly adept at manipulating the media. It pains me to say this, since this is my field we’re talking about, but the Guardian got played, plain and simple.

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Why Is Iceland a Portal to the Moon?

Justin E. H. Smith in Berfrois:

Iceland1There is a trite and obvious thing to say about Iceland, and that is that it looks like the moon. Descending into the Keflavik lava fields the other day, on an Icelandair flight from Paris, I was permitted to feel annoyed and a bit superior when I overheard the virgin French tourists behind me exclaiming as they gawked at the land below: Mais il n’y a rien là! By ‘nothing’ I thought perhaps they had meant ‘no Michelin stars’, but then one of them added, as if on cue: C’est comme la lune! Yet if there is an association between the earth’s only satellite and this basalt outcropping of the mid-Atlantic range that is too obvious to mention, there is another that remains to this day far too occult, and that is as deserving of notice as the other is of suppression.

More here.