Tuesday Poem

No Snow Fell On Eden

as i remember it – there was no snow,
so no thaw or tao as you say

no snowmelt drooled down the brae;
no human footfall swelled into that of a yeti
baring what it shoulda kept hidden;

no yellow ice choked bogbean;
there were no sheepskulls
in the midden –

it was no allotment, eden –
they had a hothouse,
an orangery, a mumbling monkey;

there was no cabbage-patch
of rich, roseate heads;
there was no innuendo

no sea, no snow
There was nothing funny
about a steaming bing of new manure.

There was nothing funny at all.
Black was not so sooty. No fishboat revolved redly
on an eyepopping sea.

Eve never sat up late drinking and crying.
Adam knew no-one who was dying.
That was yet to come, In The Beginning.

by Jen Hadfield
from Poetry International Web, 2015

The Shape of Things and the 2015 Abel Prize

Indexby Jonathan Kujawa

In Oslo on May 19 John Nash and Louis Nirenberg received the 2015 Abel Prize “for striking and seminal contributions to the theory of nonlinear partial differential equations and its applications to geometric analysis”. The Abel Prize is barely a decade old but has quickly became one of the most prestigious awards in mathematics. To learn more about this year's winners, visit the Abel Prize webpage here. For an insight into the personalities of the two winners, I especially recommend these short videos.

This year's prize comes with sad news. On their way home from the award ceremony, John and Alicia Nash were killed in an auto accident. You can read the New York Times obituary here.

Last year at 3QD we talked about Yakov Sinai's work in dynamical systems. By coincidence this year's winners' work is closely related to the “exotic” non-Euclidean geometries we discussed at 3QD in March. It's a good chance to dig a little deeper into these topics and get the flavor of Nash and Nuremberg's work. Like last year I should say straight off that I'm not an expert, but I'm happy to talk about some cool mathematics.

John Nash, of course, is one of the most widely known mathematicians of the twentieth century. His life story was told by Sylvia Nasar in “A Beautiful Mind”. The book was made into an award-winning film of the same name starring Russell Crowe. It tells of Nash's brilliant work as a young man and his subsequent difficulties with mental health issues. It's a dramatic story and well worth watching the film. It should go without saying, but the movie turns the drama knob up to eleven and shouldn't be taken as an accurate depiction of Nash's life. For a more nuanced version of events I recommend Nasar's book.

The movie closes with John Nash winning the Nobel prize in Economics for his work in game theory. In game theory we use mathematics to study potential strategies, outcomes, etc., when two or more players are in competition. If you only think about tic-tac-toe, chess, and other such games it first it sounds like a mathematical trifle. But once you begin to look around you see players in competition everywhere: people and corporations in the marketplace, countries in geopolitics, species in evolutionary competition, etc. Game theory is serious business!

Read more »

Transmutations of the Qasida Form and Ghalib’s Qasida for Queen Victoria

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

IMG_6168I was first inspired to write a Qasida in English when I came across Lorca’s “Casida de la Rosa” while researching the history of Al Andalus for my book-length series of poems on Muslim Spain. I also knew of Qasida poems in Urdu. For Lorca, who was a native of Granada, Andalucia, and had fallen under the spell of Andalusi history, writing a “casida” was a way to enter an erased, haunting, vivifying past whose mystique and poetic sensibility he identified with and felt the urgency to express. Lorca’s work was produced at a time, when, according to a contemporary of Lorca’s, Europe was “suffering from a withering of the ability to desire.” A recurrent word in Lorca’s poetry is “quiero” or “I desire,” and in Bly’s words, Lorca “adopted old Arab forms to help entangle that union of desire and darkness, which the ancient Arabs loved so much.”

The qasida can certainly be seen as a poetic tradition with desire as its central theme. The classical Arabic qasida has fifty to a hundred lines with a fixed rhyming pattern. It is divided into three main thematic components and further divided into smaller units of certain fixed metaphors, which find nuances in the hands of the particular poet using the form. The primary metaphor that constitutes the qasida is that of being in sojourn, lost in the desert, in the pursuit of the loved one whose caravan always eludes the speaker. The journey, a figurative and literal subject of the qasida, may stand for desire. The different movements in the poem signify specific places along the journey that co-relate to the poet’s emotional journey: the origins of his desire, nostalgia for past campsites, intense passion for the absent beloved, the larger map of life, the pride he takes in his tribe/caravan, how he relates to the tribe of the beloved, so on. The tone of the subsections could be laudatory, melancholic or romantic, allowing even humor and light-hearted derision of other tribes in one of the sub-sections. The imagery often tends to be abstract or symbolic, relying on the traditional, complex network of metaphors. As the ancient form of qasida developed through the centuries and across cultures, poets adapted it to suit concerns relevant to them, as in the case of the Andalusi Arabic poets that Lorca emulates.

Read more »

On the Sight of Sound

by Misha Lepetic

“I can't understand why people are frightened of new ideas.
I'm frightened of the old ones.”
~ John Cage

Howdeepisyour2003_1_1040Not long after moving to New York around 2000, I picked up an odd little side gig, as a gallery sitter at a space called Engine 27. Taking its name from the decommissioned TriBeCa firehouse which housed it, Engine 27 wasn't your usual art gallery, but rather one that focused exclusively on sound art. It achieved this by meticulously renovating the ground floor of the firehouse into a nearly perfect acoustic environment. Floors, walls and ceilings were treated with rugs and acoustic paneling. Speakers were strategically situated throughout the roughly 2000 square feet; they could be found lurking in corners, or hanging from the ceiling. If you weren't careful you might stub your toe against a subwoofer squatting on a seemingly random patch of floor. Pretty much anything that wasn't already black was painted so, and the lights were kept low. Feeding all the speakers was a basement full of amplifiers, computers and other hardware. It was, to put it mildly, a sound nerd's paradise.

Engine 27 was the brainchild of Jack Weisberg, a self-taught sound engineer who earned his nut innovating approaches to both arena-scale sound and smaller, more high-brow projects. As an example of the latter, he worked with artist-composer Max Neuhaus on the 1978 MoMA iteration of his “Underground” project, which projected sound into the Sculpture Garden from beneath a ventilation shaft. (Neuhaus' Times Square version, sponsored by the Dia Foundation, ran from 1977 to 1992, then was reincarnated ten years later, but, befitting the fragility of sound, is currently ‘temporarily unavailable due to construction'.) Jack was a curmudgeonly fellow and used to getting things done his way. This is perhaps why Engine 27 became an extraordinary space for practicing what some people call “deep listening”, which for me is just a tacit admission that we don't listen very closely to much of anything anymore.

Part of what makes good sound art so fascinating is exactly this prerequisite. Perhaps I am being overly optimistic here, though, since our culture, and especially what we consider to be ‘art', is so biased towards the visual. And for the purposes of the current argument – ie, I am sidestepping the question of what differentiates sound from music – the visual bias provides us with the dispensation of a quick scan. The people who speed-walk their way through an art museum will later on assert how great the museum was. They may even have the selfie to prove it. In some minimal way, they would be correct to say that they saw the art, but this is no different from saying that you “saw the grass” while driving down the freeway at 80mph. In this manner a viewer is entirely justified in dismissing an Ad Reinhardt painting as ‘just black' (although ‘none more black' might be more accurate). What else could he or she do, without spending the time needed to let the painting actually unfold before one's eyes, as was Reinhardt's intention?

Read more »

The “Invisible Web” Undermines Health Information Privacy

by Jalees Rehman

“The goal of privacy is not to protect some stable self from erosion but to create boundaries where this self can emerge, mutate, and stabilize. What matters here is the framework— or the procedure— rather than the outcome or the substance. Limits and constraints, in other words, can be productive— even if the entire conceit of “the Internet” suggests otherwise.

Evgeny Morozov inTo Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism

We cherish privacy in health matters because our health has such a profound impact on how we interact with other humans. If you are diagnosed with an illness, it should be your right to decide when and with whom you share this piece of information. Perhaps you want to hold off on telling your loved ones because you are worried about how it might affect them. Maybe you do not want your employer to know about your diagnosis because it could get you fired. And if your bank finds out, they could deny you a mortgage loan. These and many other reasons have resulted in laws and regulations that protect our personal health information. Family members, employers and insurances have no access to your health data unless you specifically authorize it. Even healthcare providers from two different medical institutions cannot share your medical information unless they can document your consent. Fingerprint-279759_1280

The recent study “Privacy Implications of Health Information Seeking on the Web” conducted by Tim Libert at the Annenberg School for Communication (University of Pennsylvania) shows that we have a for more nonchalant attitude regarding health privacy when it comes to personal health information on the internet. Libert analyzed 80,142 health-related webpages that users might come across while performing online searches for common diseases. For example, if a user uses Google to search for information on HIV, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) webpage on HIV/AIDS (http://www.cdc.gov/hiv/) is one of the top hits and users will likely click on it. The information provided by the CDC will likely provide solid advice based on scientific results but Libert was more interested in investigating whether visits to the CDC website were being tracked. He found that by visiting the CDC website, information of the visit is relayed to third-party corporate entities such as Google, Facebook and Twitter. The webpage contains “Share” or “Like” buttons which is why the URL of the visited webpage (which contains the word “HIV”) is passed on to them – even if the user does not explicitly click on the buttons.

Read more »

This Artificial Intelligence Pioneer Has a Few Concerns

Natalie Wolchover in Wired:

ScreenHunter_1198 May. 25 06.24IN JANUARY, THE British-American computer scientist Stuart Russell drafted and became the first signatory of an open letter calling for researchers to look beyond the goal of merely making artificial intelligence more powerful. “We recommend expanded research aimed at ensuring that increasingly capable AI systems are robust and beneficial,” the letter states. “Our AI systems must do what we want them to do.” Thousands of people have since signed the letter, including leading artificial intelligence researchers at Google, Facebook, Microsoft and other industry hubs along with top computer scientists, physicists and philosophers around the world. By the end of March, about 300 research groups had applied to pursue new research into “keeping artificial intelligence beneficial” with funds contributed by the letter’s 37th signatory, the inventor-entrepreneur Elon Musk.

Russell, 53, a professor of computer science and founder of the Center for Intelligent Systems at the University of California, Berkeley, has long been contemplating the power and perils of thinking machines. He is the author of more than 200 papers as well as the field’s standard textbook, Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach (with Peter Norvig, head of research at Google). But increasingly rapid advances in artificial intelligence have given Russell’s longstanding concerns heightened urgency.

Recently, he says, artificial intelligence has made major strides, partly on the strength of neuro-inspired learning algorithms. These are used in Facebook’s face-recognition software, smartphone personal assistants and Google’s self-driving cars. In a bombshell resultreported recently in Nature, a simulated network of artificial neurons learned to play Atari video games better than humans in a matter of hours given only data representing the screen and the goal of increasing the score at the top—but no preprogrammed knowledge of aliens, bullets, left, right, up or down. “If your newborn baby did that you would think it was possessed,” Russell said.

More here.

A Commencement Address


Joseph Brodsky (who would've been 75 today) in the NYRB:

No matter how daring or cautious you may choose to be, in the course of your life you are bound to come into direct physical contact with what’s known as Evil. I mean here not a property of the gothic novel but, to say the least, a palpable social reality that you in no way can control. No amount of good nature or cunning calculations will prevent this encounter. In fact, the more calculating, the more cautious you are, the greater is the likelihood of this rendezvous, the harder its impact. Such is the structure of life that what we regard as Evil is capable of a fairly ubiquitous presence if only because it tends to appear in the guise of good. You never see it crossing your threshold announcing itself: “Hi, I’m Evil!” That, of course, indicates its secondary nature, but the comfort one may derive from this observation gets dulled by its frequency.

A prudent thing to do, therefore, would be to subject your notions of good to the closest possible scrutiny, to go, so to speak, through your entire wardrobe checking which of your clothes may fit a stranger. That, of course, may turn into a full-time occupation, and well it should. You’ll be surprised how many things you considered your own and good can easily fit, without much adjustment, your enemy. You may even start to wonder whether he is not your mirror image, for the most interesting thing about Evil is that it is wholly human. To put it mildly, nothing can be turned and worn inside out with greater ease than one’s notion of social justice, public conscience, a better future, etc. One of the surest signs of danger here is the number of those who share your views, not so much because unanimity has a knack of degenerating into uniformity as because of the probability—implicit in great numbers—that noble sentiment is being faked.

By the same token, the surest defense against Evil is extreme individualism, originality of thinking, whimsicality, even—if you will—eccentricity. That is, something that can’t be feigned, faked, imitated; something even a seasoned impostor couldn’t be happy with. Something, in other words, that can’t be shared, like your own skin—not even by a minority. Evil is a sucker for solidity. It always goes for big numbers, for confident granite, for ideological purity, for drilled armies and balanced sheets. Its proclivity for such things has to do presumably with its innate insecurity, but this realization, again, is of small comfort when Evil triumphs.

Which it does: in so many parts of the world and inside ourselves. Given its volume and intensity, given, especially, the fatigue of those who oppose it, Evil today may be regarded not as an ethical category but as a physical phenomenon no longer measured in particles but mapped geographically. Therefore the reason I am talking to you about all this has nothing to do with your being young, fresh, and facing a clean slate. No, the slate is dark with dirt and it’s hard to believe in either your ability or your will to clean it. The purpose of my talk is simply to suggest to you a mode of resistance which may come in handy to you one day; a mode that may help you to emerge from the encounter with Evil perhaps less soiled if not necessarily more triumphant than your precursors. What I have in mind, of course, is the famous business of turning the other cheek.

More here.

John Nash Dies at 86


Erica Goode in the NYT (image John F. Nash Jr. at his graduation from Princeton in 1950. Credit Courtesy of Martha Nash Legg):

Dr. Nash was widely regarded as one of the great mathematicians of the 20th century, known for the originality of his thinking and for his fearlessness in wrestling down problems so difficult few others dared tackle them. A one-sentence letter written in support of his application to Princeton’s doctoral program in math said simply, “This man is a genius.”

“John’s remarkable achievements inspired generations of mathematicians, economists and scientists,’’ the president of Princeton, Christopher L. Eisgruber, said, “and the story of his life with Alicia moved millions of readers and moviegoers who marveled at their courage in the face of daunting challenges.”

Russell Crowe, who portrayed Dr. Nash in “A Beautiful Mind,” tweeted that he was “stunned,” by his death. “An amazing partnership,” he wrote. “Beautiful minds, beautiful hearts.”

Dr. Nash’s theory of noncooperative games, published in 1950 and known as Nash equilibrium, provided a conceptually simple but powerful mathematical tool for analyzing a wide range of competitive situations, from corporate rivalries to legislative decision making. Dr. Nash’s approach is now pervasive in economics and throughout the social sciences and is applied routinely in other fields, like evolutionary biology.

Harold W. Kuhn, an emeritus professor of mathematics at Princeton and a longtime friend and colleague of Dr. Nash’s who died in 2014, said, “I think honestly that there have been really not that many great ideas in the 20th century in economics and maybe, among the top 10, his equilibrium would be among them.” An economist, Roger Myerson of the University of Chicago, went further, comparing the impact of Nash equilibrium on economics “to that of the discovery of the DNA double helix in the biological sciences.”

More here.

How Pragmatism Reconciles Quantum Mechanics with Relativity etc.


Richard Marshall interviews Richard Healey in 3:AM Magazine:

3:AM: So does your pragmatism at work in these two cases mean that we should think of quantum mechanics as a realist or an instrumentalist theory or is it a middle way?

RH: Too often contemporary philosophers apply the terms ‘realism’ and ‘instrumentalism’ loosely in evaluating a position, as in the presumptive insult “Oh, that’s just instrumentalism!” Each term may be understood in many ways, and applied to many different kinds of things (theories, entities, structures, interpretations, languages, ….). I once characterized my pragmatist view of quantum mechanics as presenting a middle way between realism and instrumentalism. But by adopting one rather than another use of the terms ‘realism’ and ‘instrumentalism’ one can pigeon hole my view under either label.

In this pragmatist view, quantum probabilities do not apply only to results of measurements. This distinguishes the view from any Copenhagen-style instrumentalism according to which the Born rule assigns probabilities only to possible outcomes of measurements, and so has nothing to say about unmeasured systems. An agent may use quantum mechanics to adjust her credences concerning what happened to the nucleus of an atom long ago on an uninhabited planet orbiting a star in a galaxy far away, provided only that she takes this to have happened in circumstances when that nucleus’s quantum state suffered suitable environmental decoherence.

According to one standard usage, instrumentalism in the philosophy of science is the view that a theory is merely a tool for systematizing and predicting our observations. For the instrumentalist, nothing a theory supposedly says about unobservable structures lying behind but responsible for our observations should be considered significant. Moreover, instrumentalists characteristically explain this alleged lack of significance in semantic or epistemic terms: claims about unobservables are meaningless, reducible to statements about observables, eliminable from a theory without loss of content, false, or (at best) epistemically optional even for one who accepts the theory. My pragmatist view makes no use of any distinction between observable and unobservable structures, so to call it instrumentalist conflicts with this standard usage.

In this view, quantum mechanics does not posit novel, unobservable structures corresponding to quantum states, observables, and quantum probabilities; these are not physical structures at all. Nevertheless, claims about them in quantum mechanics are often perfectly significant, and many are true. This pragmatist view does not seek to undercut the semantic or epistemic status of such claims, but to enrich our understanding of their non-representational function within the theory and to show how they acquire the content they have.

More here.

The Destruction of Art and Antiquities in Our Time


Frederick Bohrer reviews Catastrophe!: The Looting and Destruction of Iraq’s Past edited by Geoff Emberling and Katharyn Hanson, in the LA Review of Books:

It should surprise no one that the threat to antiquities today — worldwide — is far greater from projects for dams, airports, parking lots, and the rest of the activities of modernization than targeted wholesale devastation. I mention this because I think it offers a way to specify what, qualitatively, is the nature of the issue raised by ISIS’s actions. The effects of modernization parallel what Rob Nixon, in another context, calls “slow violence”: a gradual but devastating change effected almost invisibly on daily life. By contrast, ISIS purveys a sort of “fast violence”: shocking, theatrical, and easily commodified to the Western (addled, distracted) TV viewer, and highly useful for its own recruiting as well. I turn to the video evidence itself below. But it must first be noted that many Iraqi archaeological sites have already been devastated by slow violence as well, and one that cannot be conveniently relegated to Islamic extremism: looting.

In 2008 the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago mounted Catastrophe!: The Looting and Destruction of Iraq’s Past, an exhibition and accompanying catalog (the best of its kind) that describes and pictures in horrifying detail the devastations to archaeological sites caused by hordes of looters, large and small. Just its cover photograph is enough to make one cringe, showing looters in 2004 actively digging at the site of the ancient city of Isin, now a blasted wasteland of hundreds of holes in the earth. As is well known, a rapacious worldwide antiquities market, unconcerned with ethics, fuels this looting; governments meanwhile rarely enforce existing laws. This market is one of the largest sources of funding for ISIS itself — another way besides television in which the organization cynically uses global norms for its own purposes. Under the economic sanctions first imposed in 1990, civil conditions in Iraq have been extraordinarily difficult and unemployment high. Looting is one of the few moneymaking opportunities available to local populations (much like drug production in Afghanistan). Thus a CNN correspondent casually mentions that the threat to antiquities also involves “ordinary people just desperate to make a living.” A prominent archaeologist of Iraq told me long ago that deprivation and economic inequality drive farmers to plow up their fields in search of artifacts, as they have little access to seeds, farm equipment, and other necessities.

More here.

Infidelity Lurks in Your Genes

Richard Friedman in The New York Times:

AFFAIR-blog427AMERICANS disapprove of marital infidelity. Ninety-one percent of them find it morally wrong, more than the number that reject polygamy, human cloning or suicide, according to a 2013 Gallup poll. Yet the number of Americans who actually cheat on their partners is rather substantial: Over the past two decades, the rate of infidelity has been pretty constant at around 21 percent for married men, and between 10 to 15 percent for married women, according to the General Social Survey at the University of Chicago’s independent research organization, NORC. We are accustomed to thinking of sexual infidelity as a symptom of an unhappy relationship, a moral flaw or a sign of deteriorating social values. When I was trained as a psychiatrist we were told to look for various emotional and developmental factors — like a history of unstable relationships or a philandering parent — to explain infidelity. But during my career, many of the questions we asked patients were found to be insufficient because for so much behavior, it turns out that genes, gene expression and hormones matter a lot. Now that even appears to be the case for infidelity.

We have long known that men have a genetic, evolutionary impulse to cheat, because that increases the odds of having more of their offspring in the world. But now there is intriguing new research showing that some women, too, are biologically inclined to wander, although not for clear evolutionary benefits. Women who carry certain variants of the vasopressin receptor gene are much more likely to engage in “extra pair bonding,” the scientific euphemism for sexual infidelity.

More here.

Remembering the Armenians

Tom Payne in The Telegraph:

Armenia2_3314581bFrom early 1915, under the “fog of war”, Armenians began to disappear from the Ottoman Empire. It could happen in a number of ways. Sometimes it was a matter of destroying villages and rounding up the inhabitants. Their murderers, Turks or Kurds, were as likely to use bayonets, swords or axes as guns, because they wanted to save bullets. Many left their homes on forced marches, to be attacked by killers, frequently thrown into the Euphrates, the women raped. Those who survived ended up in the Syrian Desert, around or in the town of Der Zor, where they were murdered or starved to death. A German witness noted: “Their stomachs, weakened by months of hunger, are no longer able to absorb any food … If you give them bread, they put it aside indifferently. They lie there quietly and wait for death.” It is impossible to say how many died. Figures begin at 600,000. Even the Ottoman government of 1919 acknowledged that 800,000 were killed. A million is probable, a million and a half possible. One problem in calculating the death toll is that some really did disappear. The slaughterers thought little of killing children, and one commander, Cevdet Bey, bragged before an attack, “I won’t leave one, not one so high,” while holding his hand below knee-height. But at other times children were taken and offered to local Muslims. Even now there are people discovering that their grandparents were survivors of the genocide.

Genocide. To study the numbers, and to hear commanders barking and repeating the orders “Burn, destroy, kill” is to think, what other word is there? And yet the rows continue to impede understanding between Turks and Armenians, and even among Armenians themselves. Those who left their homelands lobby for recognition that what happened was genocide. Those in the now-independent Republic of Armenia are more pragmatic – if they stop asking the Turks to use what negotiators have to call “the G-word”, then maybe the Turks will be calmer about Armenian claims on parts of Azerbaijan. Meanwhile, Turks don’t want to use the G-word because if they do, they fear having to give parts of Turkey to the Armenians.

More here.

For an Octopus, Seeing the Light Doesn’t Require Eyes

Carl Zimmer in the New York Times:

20OCTOPUS-blog427Octopuses, squid and cuttlefish — a group of mollusks known as cephalopods — are the ocean’schampions of camouflage.

Octopuses can mimic the color and texture of a rock or a piece of coral. Squid can give their skin a glittering sheen to match the water they are swimming in. Cuttlefish will even cloak themselves in black and white squares should a devious scientist put a checkerboard in their aquarium.

Cephalopods can perform these spectacles thanks to a dense fabric of specialized cells in their skin. But before a cephalopod can take on a new disguise, it needs to perceive the background that it is going to blend into.

Cephalopods have large, powerful eyes to take in their surroundings. But two new studies in The Journal Experimental Biology suggest that they have another way to perceive light: their skin.

It’s possible that these animals have, in effect, evolved a body-wide eye.

More here.