Jennifer Oullette in Gizmodo:
Wikipedia is a voluntary organization dedicated to the noble goal of decentralized knowledge creation. But as the community has evolved over time, it has wandered further and further from its early egalitarian ideals, according to a new paper published in the journal Future Internet. In fact, such systems usually end up looking a lot like 20th century bureaucracies.
Even in the brave new world of online communities, the Who had it right: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”
This may seem surprising, since there is no policing authority on Wikipedia—no established top-down means of control. The community is self-governing, relying primarily on social pressure to enforce the established core norms, according to co-author Simon DeDeo, a complexity scientist at Indiana University. He likens the earliest Wikipedia users—most of whom hailed from the ultra-nerdy Usenet culture of the 1990s—to historical figures like Rousseau, Voltaire, and Thomas Jefferson. “But what happens when a tiny Thomas Jefferson Libertarian fantasy has to grow up?” he told Gizmodo.
To find out, he and Indiana University undergraduate Bradi Heaberlin decided to examine the emergence of social hierarchy and online behavioral norms among the editors of Wikipedia.
James Ley in the Sydney Review of Books:
Many years ago, back when I was a fresh-faced postgraduate student, I was invited to lunch at the home of my aunt and uncle. It was, I seem to recall, a pleasant spring afternoon. Warm yellow sunlight was falling through the dining-room window across a well-furnished table, where I was seated beside my aunt, who spent much of the meal quizzing me about the thesis I was in the middle of writing on the work of James Joyce.
Everything was proceeding quite amiably, until I happened to declare my admiration for Molly Bloom’s celebrated soliloquy in Ulysses. Expressing myself no doubt with a certain callow enthusiasm, I began to describe the extraordinary labour that went into its composition, mentioning in passing that it was written entirely without punctuation – motivated as I was at that time by the belief that this remarkable fact was not widely known, or at any rate was not as widely known as it should be. It was at this point that another of our dining companions, an acquaintance of my uncle’s, a flushed and corpulent fellow with a pronounced squint, who had apparently made vast sums building shopping centres or something, and who signalled his good fortune by driving around in an expensive sports car, the prestigious make of which now escapes me, but which I can report was indeed red – anyway, it was at this point that my uncle’s rather well-lubricated guest leaned slowly into the sunlight, granting everyone a distinct view of the minor Pollock of exploded capillaries that bloomed across his empurpled proboscis, scanned the table with a single bleary bloodshot eye, and said in a loud and scornful voice:
What’s … the use … of that …?
Suffice to say, the afternoon began to go downhill. A frank exchange of views ensued, during which it transpired that our dining companion held eminently practical opinions on all manner of topics. These included a general disdain for the various academic disciplines that fall under the rubric ‘humanities’, an unshakeable belief in the virtues of trickle-down economics, and a strong disinclination to educate poor people.
Bill Gates in his own blog:
Last year Trevor Mundel, who runs our foundation’s global health work, suggested that I read a book called The Vital Question. I had never heard of the book or its author, a biologist at University College London named Nick Lane. A few months later, I hadn’t just read The Vital Question—I had also ordered Nick’s three other books, read two of them, and arranged to meet him in New York City.
Nick reminds me of writers like Jared Diamond, people who develop a grand theory that explains a lot about the world. He is one of those original thinkers who makes you say: More people should know about this guy’s work.
At its heart, Nick’s work is an attempt to right a scientific wrong by getting people to fully appreciate the role that energy plays in all living things. The Vital Question begins with a bang: “There is a black hole at the heart of biology.” (I wish more science books got off to such a ripping start.) “Bluntly put, we do not know why life is the way it is. All complex life on earth shares a common ancestor, a cell that arose from simple bacterial progenitors on just one occasion in 4 billion years. Was this a freak accident, or did other ‘experiments’ in the evolution of complexity fail?” Why does all complex life—every plant and animal you can see—share certain traits, like getting old and reproducing via sex? Why didn’t different types of complex life evolve? And if there is life on other planets, would it necessarily have these same traits? Or could E.T. reproduce by cloning himself?
Nick argues that we can only start to answer these questions by fully appreciating the role of energy.
More here. [Thanks to Sean Carroll.]
Holly Case in the Boston Review:
Last September an article on the front page of a leading Hungarian daily began, “The story of the ever-deepening refugee crisis is taking ever more unexpected turns.” A prominent Hungarian intellectual and former dissident, György Konrád, had come out in support of the efforts of the Hungarian government to build a wall to keep out newcomers and to cast them as economic opportunists rather than political refugees. In another corner of the Hungarian media, pundits were citing passages from The Final Tavern (A végső kocsma), a 2014 book by Holocaust survivor and 2002 Nobel laureate Imre Kertész, who passed away last month. In the book, Kertész was sharply critical of liberals’ welcoming attitude toward Muslim refugees and migrants. His and Konrád’s statements were registered with incredulity in the liberal press and with undisguised relish on the right.
Anyone who has followed the serpentine trajectory of Hungarian politics since the controlled collapse of state socialism in 1989 might be forgiven for throwing their hands up in confusion. For more than two and a half decades, Hungarian political life has been a story of reversals. The party of the Young Democrats (Fidesz), founded in 1988 by a few-dozen college students, has mutated from a member of the Liberal International to the torchbearer of right-wing populism in Eastern Europe. Hungarians who once described themselves as liberal, including the current prime minister and Fidesz leader Viktor Orbán, have shed the epithet. Already in 1994, Orbán favored replacing it with “free-thinking.” Twenty years later, his metamorphosis was complete when he wondered whether being part of the European Union was an obstacle to the reorganization of the state into “an illiberal nation state within the EU.”
Michael LaPointe at the Times Literary Supplement:
One literary stereotype associates long, sprawling, ambitious novels with male writers. The notion might have crystallized with the conspicuously masculine Americans of the post-war period – Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, William Styron, Philip Roth – who seemed to produce imposing tomes as self-conscious statements of seriousness. As Mailer declared inAdvertisements for Myself (1959), he would “try to hit the longest ball ever to go up into the accelerated hurricane air of our American letters”. The gender lines were barely coded: so-called “major” writers produced robust, shadow-casting books, while “minor” ones contented themselves with subjects more deserving of slender treatment. In this century, however, the finest “major” novels have more often than not been written by women. Zadie Smith, Donna Tartt, Eleanor Catton, Meg Wolitzer and Elena Ferrante are among those hitting the long balls in contemporary fiction, and with The Sport of Kings, a world-encompassing colossus second novel (All the Livingwas published in 2009), C. E. Morgan has joined their ranks.
Born into a distinguished farming family, “Kentuckians first and Virginians second and Christians third”, Henry Forge is thrust into the tumultuous mid-twentieth century, when Brown v. Board of Education is uprooting the segregated basis of Southern society. His father, John Henry, is possessed of a virulent desire to preserve tradition, and Morgan provides no softening, nostalgic touches to his depiction; he is the Atticus Finch of Go Set a Watchman, not To Kill a Mockingbird. A single page can range over the breadth of John Henry’s bigotry: “The core of femininity is a softness of resolve and mind; reason is not their strong suit . . . [but] I wouldn’t say that they’re naturally intellectually inferior, as the Negroes are”. When an African American servant is caught in an adulterous relationship with John Henry’s wife, he has occasion to back his words with deeds, and this blood guilt will haunt Henry Forge’s life long after his father is dead.
Tim Hilton at Literary Review:
Turner’s passage from boyhood in the rowdy surroundings of Maiden Lane to professional affluence was rapid. What did he think about the world in which he wished to rise? Shanes boldly reappraises and even retitles a 1793 watercolour of Windsor Castle, which Turner magically transferred to an imaginary landscape with echoes of the Avon Gorge near Bristol. He calls this work Britain at Peace. Around the royal residence we discern a factory, farmland, a canal and a pack mule that, we are told, represents commerce. The spire of a church is visible. The sky is calm. But there is no sign of the military. Such is the ideal life of our island for Turner at the age of eighteen or so – hence Shanes’s title.
Whatever we think of this interpretation, it is certain that Turner was a fine artist of peace or, often, of peace threatened. Such is the theme of many of his landscapes. However, his marine paintings tell us that the deepest conflicts are not with national enemies but with the sea itself, in which frail boats are helpless when faced with the high waves of storm. Turner was the first marine painter to depict the waters as heavenly or demonic.
When did he first excel as a mature artist? Perhaps with the magnificent Battle of Trafalgar of 1808, which treats that conflict as though it were a clash of metaphysical forces. Turner was then in his early thirties, yet painted like an old master.
Vinson Cunningham at The New Yorker:
What a concept, genius. Especially in an age like ours—secular, rational, disenchanted. No one, perhaps, was more suited to exploit the idea of genius-as-enigma than Prince Rogers Nelson, who died on Thursday at his Paisley Park compound, outside Minneapolis, at the age of fifty-seven. Prince played impenetrability like a guitar. To think about him was to ask a series of questions: Why purple? Whence the glyph? Did he really love spaghetti and orange juice? What was up with the retinue of light-skinned, long-legged women, who were visually identical to one another and to him? Vis-à-vis sex and sexuality and gender: what, if anything, was he trying to say? Such was the depth of Prince’s mystique that any story about him was interesting, as proved, hilariously, by the “Chappelle’s Show” sketch in which Charlie Murphy (Eddie’s brother) describes a night of pickup basketball (“shirts versus blouses”) and pancakes at Prince’s. Even his diminutive size served as a kind of metaphor: he was energy compressed. One imagined his bones as birdlike; he might’ve up and flown away on a whim.
But there’s a way in which the notion of the special person, landed from nowhere, does the artist an injustice. It steers us away from the specifics of Prince’s achievement. He was his generation’s most startling and dramatic guitarist, guiding his solos through a landscape of varied terrains: first rocky, dissonant bends, then long, plainlike notes, sustained like breaths. He’d often finish them by repeating an anthemic, singable melody, altered minutely until its intensity helped it lift off.
Alistair Leithead in BBC News:
Bloated and eerily upright the large adult elephant was still standing where it had been killed – just next to the stream – its face hacked off. It had been fleeing the carnage in the mud 100m or so away, where the remains of four other adults and one young elephant lay fallen and disfigured, their tusks and trunks all taken for ivory and meat. Like a macabre statue, this faceless animal stood as a landmark to the horrors of poaching, of the ivory trade, and of the mass slaughter of the last remaining elephants in central Africa. The pilot of the light aircraft was out on a regular reconnaissance mission when circling vultures drew him to the scene. The armed rangers on patrol nearby hadn't heard the shots, so it was the scavengers feasting on the carcasses that had raised the alarm.
Garamba, in the north-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, is one of the oldest national parks in Africa, designated in 1938. It covers 14,000 sq km (5,500 sq miles) dominated by savannah grasses, which when green and lush can reach 3m in height, enveloping the elephants and concealing them even from the air. It's tough going on foot with the criss-crossing streams that feed the great Congo River, punctuated by papyrus marsh, forest and scrub. The park was made a World Heritage Site in 1980 for its rare Northern White Rhinos, and with 22,000 elephants back then, they never seemed in danger. But the last rhino was seen some years ago. Poaching has wiped them out, and now with 95% of the elephants gone, and the killing continuing week after week, these giants are going the same way.
It's not a good neighbourhood for conservation.
Scientists in Spain on Wednesday they had created human sperm from skin cells, a medical feat which could eventually lead to a treatment for infertility. The researchers said they were working to find a solution for the roughly 15 percent of couples worldwide who are unable to have children and whose only option is to use donated sperm or eggs. “What to do when someone who wants to have a child lacks gametes (eggs or sperm)?” asked Carlos Simon, the scientific director of the Valencian Infertility Institute, Spain's first medical institution fully dedicated to assisted reproduction. “This is the problem we want to address: to be able to create gametes in people who do not have them.”
The result of their research, which was carried out with Stanford University in the United States, was published Tuesday in Scientific Reports, the online journal of Nature. They were inspired by the work of Japan's Shinya Yamanaka and Britain's John Gordon who in 2012 shared a Nobel prize for the discovery that adult cells can be transformed back into embryo-like stem cells. Simon and his team managed to reprogramme mature skin cells by introducing a cocktail of genes needed to create gametes. Within a month the skin cell was transformed to become a germ cell, which can develop into sperm or an egg, but it did not have the ability to fertilise, they found. “This is a sperm but it needs a further maturation phase to become a gamete. This is just the beginning,” Simon said. It is a step further than that reached by Chinese researchers who earlier this year announced they had created mice from artificial sperm.
Andrew Flowers in FiveThirtyEight:
Daniel Straub remembers the night he got hooked on basic income. He had invited Götz Werner, a billionaire owner of a German drugstore chain, to give an independent talk in Zurich, where Straub was working as a project manager for a think tank. He had read an article about the radical proposal to unconditionally guarantee citizens an income and spent a few years casually researching the idea. Straub had heard Werner was a good speaker on the topic, and that night in 2009 he was indeed excellent at connecting with the audience, a sold-out house of 200. “It was a very intense evening; people were paying attention,” Straub recalled.
Werner posed a pair of simple questions to the crowd: What do you really want to do with your life? Are you doing what you really want to do? Whatever the answers, he suggested basic income was the means to achieve those goals. The idea is as simple as it is radical: Rather than concern itself with managing myriad social welfare and unemployment insurance programs, the government would instead regularly cut a no-strings-attached check to each citizen. No conditions. No questions. Everyone, rich or poor, employed or out of work would get the same amount of money. This arrangement would provide a path toward a new way of living: If people no longer had to worry about making ends meet, they could pursue the lives they want to live.
Straub had studied business, international policy and psychology at school and spent years working for IBM, the International Red Cross and a Montessori school. Basic income “struck a nerve,” he said. “People are burned out more than ever. You come to Switzerland and talk to people, they aren’t happy. They fear for their jobs. There is a gap between the economic possibility in this country and the quality of life.”
After Werner’s talk, Straub quit his job at the think tank and began to campaign for a basic income full time.
The researcher claiming a cold fusion breakthrough is in the midst of a $100 million lawsuit, all while others race to duplicate his efforts, trying to prove that this time it's not all smoke and mirrors.
David Hambling in Popular Mechanics:
The name “cold fusion” is so toxic the researchers who work on it nowadays don't even call it that. After years of being rejected by the scientific mainstream over false claims and outsized hype, they've taking to calling their field low-energy nuclear reactions (LENR). But whatever you call this field, something strange has been happening in the last few years, with reputable companies like Toyota and Nissan openly sponsoring LENR research and other big players have taken an interest (even if they've preferred to avoid the toxic label).
Now, it's about to come to a head.
Much of the interest is focused on a nickel-hydrogen process, and in particular the extravagant claims Italian inventor Andrea Rossi has made about his Energy Catalyser, or E-Cat, which he was been working on since 2007. Rossi's invention is basically a cylinder the size of a wine bottle, filled with powdered nickel and hydrogen, which generates vast amounts of heat by an unspecified reaction. (Rossi, of course, won't tell the world how E-Cat works. Here's one “best guess” at the physics.) Earlier experiments with nickel-hydrogen claimed to create barely measurable fractions of a watt of excess heat. Rossi, meanwhile, claims to produce hundreds or thousands of watts. If this were true, it could be the key to the limitless, cheap, clean energy cold fusion backers have always promised.
John Baez at his website:
A simple method for rating potentially revolutionary contributions to physics:
- A -5 point starting credit.
- 1 point for every statement that is widely agreed on to be false.
- 2 points for every statement that is clearly vacuous.
- 3 points for every statement that is logically inconsistent.
- 5 points for each such statement that is adhered to despite careful correction.
- 5 points for using a thought experiment that contradicts the results of a widely accepted real experiment.
- 5 points for each word in all capital letters (except for those with defective keyboards).
- 5 points for each mention of “Einstien”, “Hawkins” or “Feynmann”.
- 10 points for each claim that quantum mechanics is fundamentally misguided (without good evidence).
- 10 points for pointing out that you have gone to school, as if this were evidence of sanity.
Marcelo Gleiser at The New Atlantis:
If the universe appears to lack any ultimate design and we are just a coalescence of matter, temporarily assembled by contingency and soon to dissolve into nothingness, how are we to find meaning? We are back to the Copernican angst. In the almost five hundred years since Copernicus published his landmark treatise on the heavenly spheres, we have learned much about the universe and about our seemingly insignificant place within it. We live on a small planet around a small star, in an average-sized galaxy among hundreds of billions of other galaxies, in an expanding universe made mostly of dark matter and dark energy — mysterious ingredients of yet unknown composition. The stuff that we are made of — electrons, protons, and neutrons — comprises a small fraction of what fills the universe. On the face of it, science appears to decree our insignificance; the more we learn about the universe, the more insignificant we seem.
However, this way of looking at things is misleading. Our significance should not be measured by our size relative to the rest of the cosmos, but rather by how different we are from everything else in it. As with precious gems and metals, it is our rarity that makes us special, and one way to express what is rare about us is that we have enough self-awareness to ask questions about our origins and place in the cosmos. The emergence of higher intelligence necessary to ask such questions entails that the universe has changed in profound ways over the course of its existence. Stars had to burn for a long time in order to fuse hydrogen into carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and other heavier chemical elements; planets and moons had to have relatively stable orbits, and other geophysical conditions were needed to support the complex biochemistry of life’s metabolic and reproductive functions. And it took time for intelligent, self-aware creatures to develop through the workings of evolution.
Brett Gamboa at The New Criterion:
Translation, then, or too much cutting of the plays, can still preserve plenty of similar examples—it is impossible, really, to rid the plays of them—but it will inevitably make the whole less coherent. The extreme paradox of Shakespeare’s canon is that the plays achieve their coherence by dizzying patterns of phonic and ideational coherence, but also by their insistent attempts to disorient and destabilize audiences. Space won’t permit many examples, but consider a brief example from just one other play—King Lear. Lear begins with Gloucester in conversation with the Earl of Kent, Gloucester peppering the dialogue with jokes made in poor taste about the fun he had engendering his bastard son, Edmund, while Edmund looks on and patiently endures the humiliation. When Lear and his daughters arrive, two are effusive in their love for Lear and one is priggish and aloof. Of course, the caddish Gloucester and the priggish daughter, Cordelia, turn out to be two of the most wronged and sympathetic figures in Western literature, and the admirably restrained Edmund—any other play’s Hamlet or Posthumus—is revealed to be a pure villain. Still, an audience can never wholly divorce itself from its initial impressions, which attach and morph as the characters change. This is a mainspring of Shakespeare’s art. It’s why his characters are both so endearing and so frustrating, often simultaneously. It’s why Portia is handsome, clever, rich, and anti-Semitic, and why Shylock is both a demon and a far better examplar of love and loyalty than can be found in The Merchant of Venice’s portrait of Christendom.
The inconsistencies and contradictions that help grant the characters their attractions are mirrored by similar inconsistencies and contradictions in the language, and their removal would deprive audiences of something essential to the plays. The osf plan for translation calls upon the playwrights they commissioned first, “to do no harm,” and second, to “put the same kind of pressure on the language as Shakespeare put on his.” But translators (and directors) may do considerable harm when doing what seems the most reasonable thing—introducing clarity where Shakespeare left things uncertain.
James Meek at The London Review of Books:
The peculiarity of the railways in the country that invented them is that everyone involved can claim to be playing a heritage role, whatever they do. Modernity at its most destructive and ruthless was as essential a characteristic of the railways in the 1830s as engineering flair and craftsmanship, and capitalism at its most exploitative and greedy was a greater driver of the initial rapid growth of the network than abstract concern for progress or the good of society. I simplified the story of the Ordsall Chord. A nuance: the leader of the campaign to stop it being built as planned, Mark Whitby, former president of the Institution of Civil Engineers, proposes an alternative route that would retain the historic station’s access to the rail network and keep intact more of the structures designed by George Stephenson, the engineer who built the Liverpool & Manchester. But Whitby’s route, apart from costing £20 million more, would run through, and interfere with, a project on a long-derelict piece of land, Middlewood Locks, where the state-owned Beijing Construction and Engineering Group is about to begin building a dense block-scape of shops and offices on behalf of a larger group of investors from Britain, China and Singapore. (If railways are the thread that will sew the disparate limbs together, Chinese investment is the electricity with which George Osborne – the chancellor who promised a Northern Powerhouse – hopes the assembled body might be jolted into life.)
Those whose priority in 2016 is the preservation of George Stephenson’s walls and bridges no doubt love railways. But paradoxically they are re-enacting the role of Victorian opponents of the intrusion of railways into spaces where they had previously been completely absent, preservationists like John Ruskin and William Wordsworth (‘Is then no nook of English ground secure/From rash assault?’). The agents of Network Rail, who are building the Ordsall Chord, can and do portray themselves playing the Stephenson role.
Spencer Lenfield in Harvard Magazine:
“These days too many of us think that to say two things are ‘equal’ is to say that they are ‘the same,’” writes Allen. But this is untrue: “To be ‘the same’ is to be ‘identical.’ But to be ‘equal’ is to have an equivalent degree of some specific quality.” Allen sees in the Declaration a careful case that the specific quality in question—what she calls “the fundamental feature of human equality”—is the ability to judge what makes one happy. We are all equal in our ability to judge our own happiness. It is only on top of thisbasic premise that the founders were able to build their argument for independence: we are free to decide what government we want to have because government is a means to securing happiness—the happiness which each of us is equally well qualified to judge.
Our Declaration was praised by magazines as ideologically different as Dissent and National Review, and colleagues have responded to it as a serious work of political thought. But Allen didn’t write it to intervene in academic political philosophy. Instead, it grew out of her experience teaching the Declaration in night classes at the University of Chicago to people with busy lives, children, sometimes multiple jobs. The experience revealed to her that the Declaration, read carefully, does philosophy in ordinary (if old-fashioned and highly rhetorical) language, laying the conceptual groundwork for the democracy to come. Moreover, she realized, anyone with sufficient patience and desire could read it. “I wanted [my students] to understand that democratic power belonged to them, too, that they had its sources inside themselves,” she writes. “I wanted to animate the Declaration, to bring it to life for them, and perhaps even bring them through it into a different kind of life—as citizens, as thinkers, as political deliberators and decision makers.”
Heidi Ledford in Nature:
It is precision medicine taken to the extreme: cancer-fighting vaccines that are custom designed for each patient according to the mutations in their individual tumours. With early clinical trials showing promise, that extreme could one day become commonplace — but only if drug developers can scale up and speed up the production of their tailored medicines.
The topic was front and centre at the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) annual meeting in New Orleans, Louisiana, on 16–20 April. Researchers there described early data from clinical trials suggesting that personalized vaccines can trigger immune responses against cancer cells. Investors seem optimistic that those results will translate into benefits for patients; over the past year, venture capitalists have pumped cash into biotechnology start-ups that are pursuing the approach. But some researchers worry that the excitement is too much, too soon for an approach that still faces many technical challenges. “What I do really puzzle at is the level of what I would call irrational exuberance,” says Drew Pardoll, a cancer immunologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.
Ezra Pound’s Proposition
Beauty is sexual, and sexuality
Is the fertility of the earth and the fertility
Of the earth is economics. Though he is no recommendation
For poets on the subject of finance,
I thought of him in the thick heat
Of the Bangkok night. Not more than fourteen, she saunters up to you
Outside the Shangri-la Hotel
And says, in plausible English,
“How about a party, big guy?”
Here is more or less how it works:
The World Bank arranges the credit and the dam
Floods three hundred villages, and the villagers find their way
To the city where their daughters melt into the teeming streets,
And the dam’s great turbines, beautifully tooled
In Lund or Dresden or Detroit, financed
By Lazeres Freres in Paris or the Morgan Bank in New York,
Enabled by judicious gifts from Bechtel of San Francisco
Or Halliburton of Houston to the local political elite,
Spun by the force of rushing water,
Have become hives of shimmering silver
And, down river, they throw that bluish throb of light
Across her cheekbones and her lovely skin.
by Robert Hass
from Time and Materials
Ecco Press, 2007