Monday Poem


Disassembling the invisible
has its own mathematics, different rules apply,
the process has its special calculus
because the unseen is huge and impudent,
powerful and odd

When we were dumb and ignorant
the spirit wind would startle us, would frighten us,
shatter shelters, split the sky with light
—unseen, but real, we named it God

The invisible has popular cachet,
being as it is among us
in the interstices of the known
It seeps through everything

It colors the fabric of our thoughts
as ultraviolet works to build our bones
and ultrasonic whistles through the atmosphere
alerting some

it fills the trellis of our oughts
persuading us we’re not alone

by Jim Culleny

The War on Terroir

by Dwight Furrow

6a019b00fffe15970b01a73df0ad7a970d-150wiFew terms in the wine world are more controversial than “terroir”, the French word meaning “of the soil”. “Terroir” refers to the influence of soil and climate on the wine in your glass. But the meaning of “terroir” is not restricted to a technical discussion of soil structure or the influence of climate. Part of the romance of wine is that it (allegedly) expresses the particular character of a region and perhaps its people as well.

According to some “terroirists”, when we drink wine that expresses terroir, we feel connected to a particular plot of land and its unique characteristics, and by extension, its inhabitants, their struggles, achievements, and sensibility. Can't you just feel their spirit coursing through your veins on a wild alcohol ride? The most extreme terroirists claim that the influence of soil and climate can be quite literally tasted in the wine. If this strikes you as a bit of, well, the digested plant food of bovines to put it politely, you are not alone. Many in the wine business are skeptical about the existence of terroir claiming that winemakers should make the best wine they can without trying to preserve some mystical connection with the soil. But the issue is an important one because the reputation of entire wine regions rests on the alleged unique characteristics of their terroir, not to mention the fact that the skill and discernment of wine tasters often involves recognizing these characteristics.

There is confusion, however, regarding what this concept of terroir conveys. Some uses of the term simply imply that wine grapes are influenced by climate and soil so that wines from a region with broadly similar soil types and macroclimates have common characteristics discernable in the wine. This is obviously true and unobjectionable. Factors such as the ability of soil to drain or absorb water, the presence of stones that radiate heat into the vineyard, and the effects of nutrients on plant metabolism are among the important known effects of soil on vineyards. The soil and climate in Bordeaux differs from the soil and climate in Burgundy and thus they grow different grapes and make wines of quite contrasting styles that are apparent in the glass.

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Shaping Ramadan

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

The fridge is between pesto and grasshopper green; the dining table is oval. A cubist picture hangs on the wall. It changes meaning, depending on the time of the day and the way I fall into its shapes and clever shades. The fish in the painting’s octagon looks like a remote control car or a scarf sometimes, then it goes back to being a fish; the face is sometimes benign, sometimes not. On a good day, this dining room has the aura of sweet cream, parathay (fried bread) and chilled mangoes, otherwise, cabbage and beets. There is a door that opens to the foyer; I am the height of the doorknob.

S1-500x332My seat at the dining table faces the window. Here is where I practice “joining handwriting” (what “cursive” is called in Pakistan), glancing, from time to time at Sadequain’s Quranic calligraphy on the wall: a composition that has Arabic letters made to look like sailboats in which other letters nestle. It cools the room. As an adult there will be many reasons to recall this piece— its placid dignity, its nests of words from the holy book— in a world where my Muslim identity will know no nests, no dignity, where verses from the book will be twisted, desecrated by fellow-Muslims, where large populations of Muslims will be brutally punished by the enemy for the crimes of a few, or for no crime at all.

It is the month of Ramadan. I have many notebooks of summer homework to fill but the heat makes it hard to concentrate. I study the pattern of the tablecloth, the occasional lizard on the wall. The swinging door to the kitchen startles me every now and then as my brothers come running through it. They use motion to navigate the world, I, reverie. We balance each other’s energies and are most in harmony in the loquat or guava season, or in Ramadan when the family bonds over Iftaar, the meal at sundown, typically consisting of dates, lemonade or lemon barley squash, mango milkshake, pakoray (chickpea fritters), spicy fruit salad, samosay and other snacks. There is a certain aroma associated with the fasting season, owing to this traditional menu. It is the aroma of festivity and fatigue, chatter and silent meditation.

At age seven, I insist on keeping my first Ramadan fast. I’m old enough to practice a bit of self-discipline, not old enough to appreciate the full meaning of fasting (that slight detail having to do with spiritualty!). The day is immeasurably long. I stand by the window to watch the slow day wilt. I give my mother a (long and badly spelt) list of treats for iftaar. She cooks every single item and finds the misspelt list too amusing not to save for posterity. I add drawings to my menu: triangular samosay, coils of orange jalaibi, round parathay. It will be important for posterity to know the shapes and colors of Ramadan food, I imagine.

Reflections on the Hypodermic Needle

by Gerald Dworkin

Image_previewRecently a ghastly case of capital punishment by means of lethal injection was featured in the news. A convicted murderer and rapist, Clayton Lockett, died 43 minutes after his execution began. He was described by many witnesses as writhing in pain and struggling to speak.

After administering the first drug, “We began pushing the second and third drugs in the protocol,” said Oklahoma Department of Corrections Director Robert Patton. “There was some concern at that time that the drugs were not having the effect. So the doctor observed the line and determined that the line had blown.” He said that Lockett's vein had “exploded.”

The execution process was halted, but Lockett died of a heart attack.

A somewhat bizarre aspect of the story was that Lockett had been taken for routine x-rays at 5 am that morning. When he refused to be restrained for the procedure he was tasered. I leave it as an exercise for the reader why the protocol for x-rays is in place. (1)

For me one of the features –the participation of physicians in the execution–was of particular interest since I had published an article opposing such participation in 2002. (2) In this article I began by assuming for the sake of argument that capital punishment is a legitimate mode of punishment. I did so, not because I accepted this, but because I wanted to focus on the much narrower issue of physician participation.

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A Square Peg for Every Round Hole

by Jonathan Kujawa

Mathematicians have a soft spot in their hearts for mathematical trifles. These beguiling little puzzles are more amusing than important, and also often devilishly hard. These are the sorts of math problems professional mathematicians are embarrassed to admit they spend time thinking about (but would be the first to tell you if they solved it!). Call them mathematical guilty pleasures.

Fermat's Last Theorem is such a trifle. Those old enough to remember might recall seeing it in the news twenty or so years ago. It's the theorem which says that for any natural number n greater than three, you can't find integers a, b, and c which satisfy the equation:

FermatBut, to be honest, at the end of the day people don't seriously care that it is impossible to find a, b, and c which solve, for example:


But what fun would life be if you're always serious? Let's be unserious for a moment. Fermat's Last Theorem is tantalizing. It is easy to find a, b, and c which are solutions when the n is equal to two. For example, 3, 4, and 5 work. These solutions are called Pythagorean Triples because they exactly give the three sides to a right triangle and the equation becomes the famous Pythagorean Theorem [1]. There are infinitely many Pythagorean Triples, so shouldn't there also be infinitely many solutions when n is three, four, or five? What makes two so special?

The first person to ask the question was Fermat in 1637. He wrote a note in his copy of Diophantus's Arithmetica that:

It is impossible to separate a cube into two cubes, or a fourth power into two fourth powers, or in general, any power higher than the second, into two like powers. I have discovered a truly marvelous proof of this, which this margin is too narrow to contain.

You would have to have a heart of stone to not be tempted to try a few examples after reading that.

Fermat never wrote down his proof and in all likelihood he was mistaken. Indeed, it took 300+ years for math to develop enough high powered tools to tackle his simple little challenge. It wasn't until the mid 1990s that Andrew Wiles was able to affirmatively prove Fermat's “Theorem”. And while there was a great deal of excitement about Wiles's work, the real benefit Fermat's trifle was all the high powered tools mathematicians developed while wrestling with it. They are now invaluable in number theory, cryptography, and elsewhere [2].

Let me now tell you about another enticing mathematical morsel which is still unsolved: the Square Peg Problem (SPP). The history is a bit murky, but it is generally credited to Otto Toeplitz in 1911. The SPP is the conjecture that if you draw a curve on a sheet of paper without picking up your pencil and which begins and ends at the same place, then you can find four points on the curve which form the corners of a square. Such a square is called an inscribed square.

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Malevich at the Tate Modern until 26 Oct 2014

by Sue Hubbard

021Iconic is a much overused word but there are certain artworks that have changed the course of art history. Without them what we take for granted as contemporary art might have been totally different. Picasso’s 1907 Desmoiselles D’Avignon reconfigured the human form. His chthonic women act as a metaphor for psychological insecurity and the breakdown of old certainties rather than as a description or likeness. Duchamp’s Fountain, 1917, introduced the readymade and challenged the concept of elitist craft-led art, while Andy Warhol’s early 1960s soup cans appropriated banal everyday commodities, placing them within the sanctity of the museum and gallery. But without Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square, 1915, what he called ‘a bare icon… for my time’, contemporary abstract painting, as well as contemporary architecture, sculpture and design might have taken another direction altogether. It’s rare that an artist does something completely new. But Malevich, it might be argued, did. After him, painting no longer represented the world but became an end in itself, a new reality.

Born of Polish stock in Kiev in 1879, Malevich moved to Kursk in 1896. By the age of 27 this talented young man was living in the dynamic city of Moscow where successful merchants were collecting works by Cézanne, Gauguin, Matisse and Picasso. Malevich was to find himself – like Russia – balancing on the cultural fault line between Eastern and Western Europe. Should artists look back to traditional icon painting to create an authentic national art form or to the new movements coming from France?

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Superintelligence: We need to endow robots with human values

Clive Cookson in the Financial Times:

SuperintelligenceSince the 1950s proponents of artificial intelligence have maintained that machines thinking like people lie just a couple of decades in the future. In Superintelligence – a thought-provoking look at the past, present and above all the future of AI – Nick Bostrom, founding director of Oxford’s university’s Future of Humanity Institute, starts off by mocking the futurists.

“Two decades is a sweet spot for prognosticators of radical change: near enough to be attention-grabbing and relevant, yet far enough to make it possible that a string of breakthroughs, currently only vaguely imaginable, might by then have occurred,” he writes. He notes, too, that 20 years may be close to the typical remaining duration of a forecaster’s career, limiting “the reputational risk of a bold decision”.

Yet his book is based on the premise that AI research will sooner or later produce a computer with a general intelligence (rather than a special capability such as playing chess) that matches the human brain. While the corporate old guard such as IBM has long been interested in the field, the new generation on the US West Coast is making strides. Among the leaders, Google offers PR-led glimpses into its work, from driverless cars to neural networks that learn to recognise faces as they search for images in millions of web pages.

Approaches to AI fall into two overlapping classes. One, based on neurobiology, aims to understand and emulate the workings of the human brain. The other, based on computer science, uses the inorganic architecture of electronics and appropriate software to produce intelligence, without worrying too much how people think. Bostrom makes no judgment about which is most likely to succeed.

More here.

The Free Market is an Impossible Utopia


Henry Farrell in The Monkey Cage:

Fred Block (research professor of sociology at University of California at Davis) and Margaret Somers (professor of sociology and history at the University of Michigan) have a new book, “The Power of Market Fundamentalism: Karl Polanyi’s Critique” (Harvard University Press, 2014). The book argues that the ideas of Karl Polanyi, the author of “The Great Transformation,” a classic of 20th century political economy, are crucial if you want to understand the recession and its aftermath. I asked the authors a series of questions.

HF – Your book argues for the continued relevance of Karl Polanyi’s work, especially “The Great Transformation.” What are the ideas at the core of Polanyi’s thought?

FB & MS – Polanyi’s core thesis is that there is no such thing as a free market; there never has been, nor can there ever be. Indeed he calls the very idea of an economy independent of government and political institutions a “stark utopia”—utopian because it is unrealizable, and the effort to bring it into being is doomed to fail and will inevitably produce dystopian consequences. While markets are necessary for any functioning economy, Polanyi argues that the attempt to create a market society is fundamentally threatening to human society and the common good. In the first instance the market is simply one of many different social institutions; the second represents the effort to subject not just real commodities (computers and widgets) to market principles but virtually all of what makes social life possible, including clean air and water, education, health care, personal, legal, and social security, and the right to earn a livelihood. When these public goods and social necessities (what Polanyi calls “fictitious commodities”) are treated as if they are commodities produced for sale on the market, rather than protected rights, our social world is endangered and major crises will ensue.

Free market doctrine aims to liberate the economy from government “interference”, but Polanyi challenges the very idea that markets and governments are separate and autonomous entities. Government action is not some kind of “interference” in the autonomous sphere of economic activity; there simply is no economy without government rules and institutions. It is not just that society depends on roads, schools, a justice system, and other public goods that only government can provide. It is thatall of the key inputs into the economy—land, labor, and money—are only created and sustained through continuous government action. The employment system, the arrangements for buying and selling real estate, and the supplies of money and credit are organized and maintained through the exercise of government’s rules, regulations, and powers.

More here.

The New Science of Evolutionary Forecasting


Carl Zimmer in Quanta:

If you want to understand why evolutionary biologist have been so loathe to make predictions, read “Wonderful Life,” a 1989 book by the late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould.

The book is ostensibly about the Cambrian explosion, a flurry of evolutionary innovation that took place more than 500 million years ago. The oldest known fossils of many of today’s major animal groups date to that time. Our own lineage, the vertebrates, first made an appearance in the Cambrian explosion, for example.

But Gould had a deeper question in mind as he wrote his book. If you knew everything about life on Earth half a billion years ago, could you predict that humans would eventually evolve?

Gould thought not. He even doubted that scientists could safely predict that any vertebrates would still be on the planet today. How could they, he argued, when life is constantly buffeted by random evolutionary gusts? Natural selection depends on unpredictable mutations, and once a species emerges, its fate can be influenced by all sorts of forces, from viral outbreaks to continental drift, volcanic eruptions and asteroid impacts. Our continued existence, Gould wrote, is the result of a thousand happy accidents.

To illustrate his argument, Gould had his readers imagine an experiment he called “replaying life’s tape.” “You press the rewind button and, making sure you thoroughly erase everything that actually happened, go back to any time and place in the past,” he wrote. “Then let the tape run again and see if the repetition looks at all like the original.” Gould wagered that it wouldn’t.

Although Gould only offered it as a thought experiment, the notion of replaying the tape of life has endured. That’s because nature sometimes runs experiments that capture the spirit of his proposal.

For an experiment to be predictable, it has to be repeatable. If the initial conditions are the same, the final conditions should also be the same. For example, a marble placed at the edge of a bowl and released will end up at the bottom of the bowl no matter how many times the action is repeated.'

Biologists have found cases in which evolution has, in effect, run the same experiment several times over. And in some cases the results of those natural experiments have turned out very similar each time. In other words, evolution has been predictable.

More here.

This Man Wants to Genetically Engineer Trees to Save the World


Annalee Newitz in io9:

The poplar tree's genome has been sequenced and it has 42 thousand genes — roughly twice the number as a human. It turns out that this is typical for a perennial plant like the poplar. Though we animals think of ourselves as far more sophisticated than plants, Tuskan explained that trees have to be a lot tougher and more resilient than the typical animal. He explained:

Humans or mice or elephants can move. If it's cold they can go underground or build shelter. Perennial plants have to stand there and take it for thousands of years in some cases — they have to be equipped biochemically for a drought, ready for heat or cold, ready for an insect attack. I think that's part of why plants have larger arrays of genes — that's their way of surviving.

Out of all these genes, only a handful may turn out to be useful for industry. “Half of the genes have no known function,” Tuskan said, “and with lignin it's probably somewhere between a dozen and three or four dozen genes that will turn out to be important.”

A lot of what Tuskan's lab does with poplars is an effort to link the behavior of specific genes to physical traits in the tree. This kind of analysis is called a genome-wide association study or GWAS, which everybody in the field pronounces “gee wass,” like J-Lo for genome geeks. “Basically it's figuring out the genome's relationship to the phenotype,” said Tuskan.

He and his colleagues have already had some success isolating genes that control various aspects of the tree's metabolism. In one case, they were able to start and stop the growth of a symbiotic fungus in poplar tree roots. Ultimately, Tuskan would like to have genetic switches that control many aspects of the poplar's development. Farmers could do things like grow a tree that's designed to have more lignin or less, depending on what the market demands.

More here.

A YouTube Video Is Doctor’s Secret Weapon Against Back Pain

John Henning Schumann in NPR:

Backpainfinal_wide-6219cfc3135de4e9e2c033c2f3b4ecb7ef46870f-s40-c85A woman in her late 20s came to see me recently because her back hurt. She works at a child care center in town where she picks up babies and small children all day long. She felt a twinge in her lower back when hoisting a fussy kid. The pain was bad enough that she went home from work early and was laid out on the couch until she came to see me the next day. In my office she told me she had “done some damage” to her back. She was worried. She didn't want to end up like her father, who'd left his factory job in his mid-50s on disability after suffering what she called permanent damage to his back. Back pain is common. I see someone with back pain almost every day. Nearly all of us have at least one episode in our lives, and two-thirds of us will have it repeatedly. If you've somehow lived into your 40s and never suffered low back pain, congratulations! You're what doctors like me call an outlier. In my patient's case, I was confident that her back pain wasn't serious. A minor injury was the clear cause. And nearly all back pain like hers from a simple mechanical strain gets better on its own. I wanted to reassure her. I told her to go about her daily life. Keep exercising, but try to take it just a little bit easy until she felt better. At a minimum, I said, she should be walking 30 minutes a day. Also, try some ibuprofen, which helps with inflammation and doesn't require a prescription. But she wasn't buying it. “Don't I need an MRI, or at least an X-ray?” she asked. “My father had three herniated discs and wound up with two back operations. He still never has a day without at least some pain.” I upped the ante. I told her I could refer her to physical therapy, one of the few things shown to be truly helpful for low back pain. No dice. She insisted on an MRI just to be sure. A test like that wasn't warranted, in my opinion, because it would neither change her treatment nor the course of this first-ever bout of back pain. She would just get better.

To convince her of this, I had to resort to my secret weapon: I showed her an 11-minute educational video created by Dr. Mike Evans of Toronto. You may be familiar with Evans' work, even if you've never heard of him. He's the man behind the famous “23 1/2 Hours” whiteboard video that says the single-best move for health is being active for a half-hour or so a day. The video became a viral Internet sensation, racking up millions of page views, and even a shoutout on the hit TV show Orange Is the New Black. Evans is passionate about making complex medical ideas simple. He and his team have made more than a dozen whiteboard videos on health topics including how to deal with stress, acne, quitting smoking and even flatulence.

More here.

What is wisdom? It does not automatically come with age

Julian Baggini and Antonia Macaro in FT Magazine:

WiseWhen people are asked what they’d like in life they typically respond that they want to be happy. Wisdom, which we might think of as a remote and highfalutin concept, is not such a popular answer. But, in practice, happiness is flimsy, relatively unpredictable and best thought of as something that may visit us if we create the right environment for it. A practical, everyday sort of wisdom – the ability to make good choices and judgments in life – is the stuff we need to negotiate life’s sharp bends. There are many lists that attempt to reduce wisdom to its core ingredients. Perhaps it’s unwise to try and come up with the definitive recipe but some skills and attitudes seem especially crucial. Being wise is about knowing what’s important; having sufficient insight into how we and others tick; having a handle on negative moods and emotions instead of being controlled by them; having an attitude of curiosity and a love of learning; understanding we’re all in the same boat and therefore being compassionate towards ourselves and others.

One of the most important skills is captured in the serenity prayer, which says that wisdom is knowing the difference between what can and can’t be changed. This requires performing a balancing act between striving to maximise our potential and accepting our limitations. So we enjoy life while appreciating its fragility; we make decisions in an inescapable state of uncertainty, knowing we’ll often get it wrong; and we accept we’re the product of our circumstances and have limited but crucial opportunity for self-improvement. Wisdom is not something that automatically comes with the passing years. While older people may be better able to put things in perspective than their younger counterparts, many never put their life experience to good use. Luckily, some of the skills that make us wise can be cultivated, so it’s up to us to make what effort we can to ensure that our experience bears fruit.

More here.

Gabriel Chevallier’s ‘Fear’

0720-bks-Keneally-master495Thomas Keneally at the New York Times:

In the era before cheap air travel, those in the English-speaking world who wanted to taste authentic French village life read Gabriel Chevallier’s gently satirical novels, published between the mid-1930s and the early 1960s. “Clochemerle” and “Clochemerle-Babylon” were deft, wise and celebratory in what people thought of as the French style. On the town of Cloche­merle, in the Beaujolais region, the issues of French politics, class difference and coming or past collaboration with fascism lay more lightly than did eccentricity, pride in local wine, cooking and love.

So “Fear,” never previously published in the United States, is at first acquaintance a shock. Here national rhetoric is not directed for or against the building of a municipal restroom, as in ­“Clochemerle.” Instead it shreds the bodies of young men. This unadorned yet memorable novel is one of a number of savagely frank novel-memoirs of the war that appeared throughout Western Europe within a year of one another. Frederic Manning’s “The Middle Parts of Fortune” shook English readers in 1929. In the same year, Erich Maria Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” seemed treasonous to the fascists of Germany.

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Bernard Malamud’s anomaly: ‘The Natural’

Thenatural-243x366Max Ross at the LA Review of Books:

THE NATURAL might be considered an anomaly within Bernard Malamud’s oeuvre if it didn’t so closely resemble nearly everything else within Bernard Malamud’s oeuvre.

Actually, it’s considered an anomaly, anyway.

Earlier this year, the Library of America published two volumes containing all of Malamud’s work up through the 1960s. (A third volume, with the rest, is said to be on its way.) His novels and stories have subsequently received a fair amount of press. Conspicuously, The Natural, his first novel, hasn’t — in some cases, it’s been mentioned only so it can be dismissed. “The reviewer has not read and is not likely ever to read The Natural, a baseball novel said to incorporate a mythical theme,” Cynthia Ozick wrote in TheNew York Times in March. “Myth may be myth, but baseball is baseball, so nevermind.” In his survey of Malamud’s work for Harper’s, Joshua Cohen dedicated to The Natural fewer than 10 words — it “concerns baseball, a.k.a. frustration” — before moving on to discuss the author’s more discussed narratives.[1] Likewise James Campbell, in The Wall Street Journal, cast it aside; he called The Natural “[Malamud’s] anomalous debut novel,” and quickly noted: “The two books that followed are probably his best.”

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