A comic walks into a particle accelerator lab…

From The Independent:

CERN-gtThe Cern laboratory will generate a unique collision between comedy and science when the particle physics research centre in Switzerland hosts its first night of stand-up. Six scientists will test their comedy routines at a special performance staged at the Geneva home of the Large Hadron Collider on Friday night. The stand-up show will be broadcast live on the web. Sam Gregson, a University of Cambridge PhD student and Cern affiliated particle physicist who organised the Large Hadron Comedy night, said: “The evening is a great opportunity to enthuse people worldwide about the fantastic work going on at arguably the world's most important scientific facility through an exciting, vibrant and upcoming medium. The use of stand-up comedy allows scientists to engage with audiences that may not attend the usual lectures and exhibitions and helps bring cutting-edge science more into the mainstream spotlight.”

Funny (peculiar?): Jokes for scientists

1. A Higgs boson walks into a bar and asks everyone to take part in an act of penitence. “What are you doing?” asks the barman. “Giving mass.”

2. What did the proton say to the ever-grumpy electron? “Why do you have to be so negative all the time?”

3. Two atoms are walking down the street. One says to the other, “Hey! I think I lost an electron!” The other says, “Are you sure?” “Yes, I’m positive!”

4. Why are quantum physicists crap in bed? Because when they find the position, they can’t find the momentum, and when they have the momentum, they can’t find the position.

5. A Higgs boson walks into a bar. The bartender says, “What’s the matter?” The Higgs replies: “Exactly.”

More here.

Stem cells mimic human brain

From Nature:

BrainWith the right mix of nutrients and a little bit of coaxing, human stem cells derived from skin can assemble spontaneously into brain-like chunks of tissue. Researchers provide the first description and application of these ‘mini-brains’ today in Nature1. “It’s a seminal study to making a brain in a dish,” says Clive Svendsen, a neurobiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who was not involved in the study. “That’s phenomenal.” A fully formed artificial brain might still be years away, he notes, but the pea-sized neural clumps developed in this work could prove useful for researching human neurological diseases. Researchers have previously used human stem cells to grow structures resembling the eye2 and even tissue layers similar to the brain's cortex3. But in the latest advance, scientists developed bigger and more complex neural-tissue clumps by first growing the stem cells on a synthetic gel that resembled natural connective tissues found in the brain and elsewhere in the body. Then, they plopped the nascent clumps into a spinning bath to infuse the tissue with nutrients and oxygen.

“The big surprise was that it worked,” says study co-author Juergen Knoblich, a developmental biologist at the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology in Vienna. The blobs grew to resemble the brains of fetuses in the ninth week of development. Under a microscope, researchers saw discrete brain regions that seemed to interact with one another. But the overall arrangement of the different proto-brain areas varied randomly across tissue samples — amounting to no recognizable physiological structure.

More here.

Literally the Worst Definition of a Word Ever

Nicholas Clairmont in Big Think:

Shutterstock_113618773Ours is a cultural and linguistic moment obsessed with irony.

For just that reason, people need to stop using the word 'literally' to mean 'figuratively'. I am not the first to say this. Yet the point failed to sink in. Worse, prompted by the addition of the non-literal sense of 'literal' to several dictionaries, including the Oxford Enflish Dictionary Online, the usage is getting even more accepted.

The situation is also getting worse because the flames are being fanned by several reactionary articles which claim that the usage which means 'figuratively' is perfectly legitimate. They make this claim based on three lines of reasoning: That the usage is very old, that nobody actually gets confused by the two meanings, and that language evolves naturally and we must simply describe it and conform to it, rather than judge it or make prescriptions for it.

I will describe precisely why this usage is a bad thing for the language. But first, because all of the above arguments are faulty, I want to take the time to point out why:

Bad Reason 1: “Aha!” they point out. “The usage is not some horrible new invention of the millennials, it has been around for a very long time, in the dictionary since 1903, and first used in 1759!”

This point tends to be the primary data used to make the non-literal use of 'literally' look legitimate to detractors. Why the hell does this matter to anyone?

More here.

Is America Addicted to War?

Stephen M. Walt in Foreign Policy:

110404_Walt1_110926593nIt remains to be seen whether this latest lurch into war will pay off or not, and whether the United States and its allies will have saved lives or squandered them. But the real question we should be asking is: Why does this keep happening? Why do such different presidents keep doing such similar things? How can an electorate that seemed sick of war in 2008 watch passively while one war escalates in 2009 and another one gets launched in 2011? How can two political parties that are locked in a nasty partisan fight over every nickel in the government budget sit blithely by and watch a president start running up a $100 million per day tab in this latest adventure? What is going on here?

Here are my Top 5 Reasons Why America Keeps Fighting Foolish Wars:

1. Because We Can.
The most obvious reason that the United States keeps doing these things is the fact that it has a remarkably powerful military, especially when facing a minor power like Libya. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, when you've got hundreds of planes, smart bombs, and cruise missiles, the whole world looks like a target set. So when some thorny problem arises somewhere in the world, it's hard to resist the temptation to “do something!”

More here.

Q & A with Shadab Zeest Hashmi

Soniah Kamal at her website:

ShadabZHashmi-198x300Can you tell us a little about your writing/revision process?

I write on an empty stomach. The first draft is hand-written in a slim notebook that I keep with me. I like to take a break before revising, so I have some distance from the work and I can be super-critical. I revise on the computer and I revise multiple times, typically with tea and almonds.

Any advice for a beginning writer?

Read a rich variety of works. Don’t ignore the voices in your head—they’ll never say anything unimportant to an artist. Be kind to yourself when writing and harsh when editing. I believe that “there is no great writing, only great rewriting.”

A favorite essay/memoir/short story on the topic of identity and borders?

Manto’s short story “Toba Tek Singh” is a classic. NovelsAli and Nino by Kurban Said and People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks explore identity in poignant ways. I find Ibtisam Barakat’sTasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood to be one of the most moving, beautiful memoirs dealing with identity and borders.

Your favorite social media tool?


More here.

the berlin story


Berlin’s image as an outpost of America within Germany was established long before the 1920s. Mass spectator sport in the form of six-day cycle races antedated the war; the first such event was held in New York in 1896, and they were introduced into Berlin in 1909. In Georg Kaiser’s Expressionist drama Von morgens bis mitternachts (From Morning to Midnight, probably written in 1912), the mass excitement aroused by a cycle race leads the protagonist briefly to hope that such collective feeling can form the basis for a new society. The editors take a gloomier view, seeing in such large-scale sporting events the prototype for the mass spectacles organized under the Third Reich; the Berlin Olympics of 1936 come readily to mind. The narrative that emerges from the extracts assembled by Frisby and Boyd Whyte inevitably terminates in the Third Reich. Hitler’s state did not reject the modernity typified by Berlin, but adapted and redirected it. For example, the factory of the Borsig engineering company in Tegel was used to produce anti-aircraft guns instead of locomotives. Light effects like those at Karstadt were further developed so that Mussolini, paying a state visit in 1937, was greeted as he drove along Unter den Linden by the semblance of hundreds of golden eagles.

more from Ritchie Robertson at the TLS here.


Chris Ware1

SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS, 1990. A lady named Clara lies dying in a nursing home. As she declines, she has strange dreams and hallucinations. Fragments of her life come back to her in snatches. She sees herself in her old house in Omaha, Nebraska. All the furniture is gone. She sees rain falling through a hatch in the ceiling and freezing into icicles. One day she sees a newspaper unroll on a screen above her, and all the news is of tiny fleeting moments—someone finding a penny, or doing the dishes, or picking up a coaster from a table. “I thought there was something so strangely beautiful about that,” Chris Ware says. “There’s no telling what one will remember. It makes no sense, but there will be these moments that glow in our memories.” Clara was his grandmother, and he has been thinking about this ever since. Ware is America’s most subtle and original graphic novelist, but for the sake of simplicity he often calls himself a cartoonist.

more from Simon Willis at More Intelligent Life here.

All quiet on the euro front?


What will become of the EU countries outside a more tightly co-ordinated Eurozone? In Au Revoir, Europe: What if Britain Left the EU? David Charter, a Times journalist, argues that the combined dynamics of growing Euroscepticism in the UK and increasing integration in the Eurozone mean that London will either have to negotiate a form of second-tier membership – some have proposed making a virtue of a looser outer ring, which could include Turkey and the Balkan states as well as Britain – or quit the EU altogether. One can see why many in Europe might welcome that possibility. Britain has loyally fulfilled De Gaulle’s prediction that it would serve as a Trojan horse for US interests in Europe. Cameron has lately spared no efforts in defending London’s derivative traders – mostly subsidiaries of US banks – from EU regulation, let alone taxes, while backing savage austerity programmes and urging Germany to step up to the mark. Charter’s history of the UK’s relationship with Europe is a useful reminder that much of what people loathe about the EU has been the result of British intervention. Polls say a majority would favour a single market – Thatcher’s dream – without the mass of EU regulations, but the latter are a precondition for the former. By the 1980s, every advanced industrial economy had built up its own web of health and safety rules, not without reason: specifications for product labelling; safety requirements for electrical appliances; protocols for food standards and abattoir inspection agencies; restrictions on toxic substances, such as lead paint on children’s toys.

more from Susan Watkins at the LRB here.

Leaders Are Born, Not Made

Shinnosuke Nakayama in Scientific American:

Leaders-are-born-not-made-fish-study-finds_1In humans, leaders generally show higher scores in certain personality traits, notably extraversion. Similarly, in animals, bolder and more active individuals tend to be found as leaders. Evolutionary theories suggest that boldness and leadership can coevolve through positive feedback. Individuals who force their preferences on others are more likely to be followed, which in turn encourages these individuals to initiate more often. This feedback results in distinct social roles for leaders and followers within a group, as shown by several experimental studies. It would therefore seem that leaders and followers are born through natural selection, and that you have no chance of becoming a leader if you are born a follower. But our work with stickleback fish suggests that while followers may not have what it takes to lead, leaders can learn to follow. In our paper, we tested the nature of leaders and followers using pairs of fish. Sticklebacks are well known for showing individual differences in boldness, such as when foraging. When they emerge from safe cover to a risky foraging area, the bolder fish are more likely to initiate collective movement, while the shyer animals tend to follow.

We forced the pairs of fish to take opposite roles to see if they could switch with a little training. The shy fish was rewarded with a small amount of food every time it initiated collective movement, regardless of whether it was followed by the bolder partner or not. The bolder fish was also rewarded every time it followed the shyer member, but not when it emerged from safe cover by itself. In this way, we trained pairs to swap their natural roles and compared their behavior to the pairs that assume their natural roles. Our prediction was that bold individuals would perform poorly when forced to become followers, because they are less responsive to the behavior of others in their natural role, while shy individuals would adopt the role of leader more easily. However, the results were completely opposite: for both bold and shy individuals, the tendency to lead is much less flexible than the tendency to follow. The bold fish readily adapted to following but the shy fish could not be trained to lead, even when it learnt to stop following the other fish.

More here.

Saluting a Dream, and Adapting It for a New Era

From The New York Times:

President Obama stepped into the space on Wednesday where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once stood, summoning his iconic dream of a colorblind society in a celebration of a half-century of progress and a call to arms for the next generation. On a day of overcast skies and misty rain, tens of thousands of Americans — black, white and every shade in between — returned to the site of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech to listen to the nation’s first black president pay tribute to the pioneers who paved the way for his own ascension to the heights of American government. “Because they kept marching, America changed,” the president said as Dr. King’s family watched. “Because they marched, a civil rights law was passed. Because they marched, a voting rights law was signed. Because they marched, doors of opportunity and education swung open so their daughters and sons could finally imagine a life for themselves beyond washing somebody else’s laundry or shining somebody else’s shoes.

“Because they marched,” he added, “city councils changed and state legislatures changed and Congress changed and, yes, eventually, the White House changed.” The symbolic journey from Dr. King to Mr. Obama on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial animated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom more than any oratory. While Mr. Obama’s line about the White House changing was his only reference to his unique place in history, the power of his presence was lost on no one.

More here.

Thursday Poem

White Spine

Liar, I thought, kneeling with the others,
how can He love me and hate what I am?
The dome of St. Peter's shone yellowish
gold, like butter and eggs. My God, I prayed
anyhow, as if made in the image
and likeness of Him. Nearby, a handsome
priest looked at me like a stone; I looked back,
not desiring to go it alone.
The college of cardinals wore punitive red.
The white spine waved to me from his white throne.
Being in a place not my own, much less
myself, I climbed out, a beast in a crib.
Somewhere a terrorist rolled a cigarette.
Reason, not faith, would change him.

by Henri Cole
from The Visible Man
Knopf, 1998

Philosophy as a Humanist Discipline: The Legacy of Isaiah Berlin, Stuart Hampshire, and Bernard Williams


Over at the NYRB, recording of the five panels of the following event:

On June 22, 2013, at Wadham College, Oxford, The New York Review held a free conference to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary and to honor the lives, work, and legacy of Isaiah Berlin, Stuart Hampshire and Bernard Williams. Cosponsored by The New York Review of Books Foundation, Fritt Ord, All Souls College, The Europaeum, Wadham College, and Wolfson College, the conference included remarks by Avishai Margalit, Alan Ryan, Mary Warnock, John Gray, Helena Kennedy, Mark Lilla, Naomi Eilan, Edward Skidelsky, Jerome Bruner, Samuel Scheffler, Jeremy Waldron, Timothy Garton Ash, and Marc Stears. The sessions were chaired by Robert Silvers, John Vickers, Hermione Lee, and Ken Macdonald.

In Place of Thought


Teju Cole over at the New Yorker's blog Page Turner:

In 1913, a compilation of Gustave Flaubert’s satirical definitions was posthumously published as “Le Dictionnaire des Idées Reçues” (“The Dictionary of Received Ideas”). Flaubert hated cliché, a hatred that expressed itself not only in the pristine prose of “Madame Bovary” but also in his letters and notes on the thoughtless platitudes of the day. “The Dictionary of Received Ideas” is a complaint against automatic thinking. What galls Flaubert most is the inevitability, given an action, of a certain standard reaction. We could learn from his impatience: there are too many standard formulations in our language. They stand in place of thought, but we proclaim them each time—due to laziness, prejudice, or hypocrisy—as though they were fresh insight.

Flaubert’s “Dictionary” inspired me to try something similar, over the course of a few hours, on Twitter. I think, also, there was the influence of Ambrose Bierce and his cynical “Devil’s Dictionary,” Samuel Johnson’s mostly serious but occasionally coruscating “Dictionary of the English Language,” and Gelett Burgess’s now-forgotten send-up of platitudes, “Are You a Bromide?” What the entries in these books have in common, in addition to compression and wit, is an intolerance of stupidity. As I wrote my modern cognates, I was struck at how close some of them came to the uninterrogated platitudes in my own head. Stupidity stalks us all.

AFRICA. A country. Poor but happy. Rising.

ALMOND. All eyes are almond-shaped.

AMERICAN. With the prefix “all,” a blonde.

ARTICULATE. Say “you’re very articulate” to young blacks, and then ask where they are from.

ARTISAN. A carpenter, in Brooklyn.

ATHEISM. Deranged cult of violent fanatics.

AUSTRALIANS. Extremely fit. Immune to pain. If you meet one, say “Foster’s.” The whole country is nothing but beaches.

BLUE. The color of purity. Countless mysterious ads are devoted to pads and liners that absorb blue liquid.

BRAVE. Doomed.