Deep ocean trawl nets new ‘bugs’

From BBC News:Octupus

A three-week voyage of discovery in the Atlantic has returned with tiny animals which appear new to science. They include waif-like plankton with delicate translucent bodies related to jellyfish, hundreds of microscopic shrimps, and several kinds of fish. The voyage is part of the ongoing Census of Marine Life (CoML) which aims to map ocean life throughout the world. Plankton form the base of many marine food chains, and some populations are being disrupted by climatic change. Zooplankton are tiny marine animals. Many live on floating plants (phytoplankton), and many are in turn eaten by fish, mammals and crustaceans.

More here.

Deciding With Dread

From Science:Brain_18

You hate needles, but you ought to get a flu shot. So what do you choose–one injection or the possibility, months later, of 2 weeks in bed feeling terrible? These so-called intertemporal choices present a trade-off between two outcomes that might occur at different times. Now researchers have added a new insight into how people make decisions like this one: The dread that lingers before something bad–a nasty flu, say–can sway the choice. Economists study intertemporal choice to predict behavior in various scenarios, but they only recently have begun to consider whether anticipation or dread might affect decision making. Neuroscientist Gregory Berns of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, and his team, for example, have turned to brain scanning.

First, they put volunteers into a brain scanner and gave them something to dread: an electric shock to their feet. In the first part of the experiment, the 32 subjects were informed when the shock was coming and how big it would be. In the second part, they could choose between a big shock with a short time delay, or a smaller shock that they had to wait longer to experience.

Nine subjects went for more pain right away to avoid the agony of waiting.

More here.

Thomas Nagel on Bernard Williams

Nagel in the London Review of Books:

200pxbernardwilliamsBernard Williams had a very large mind. To read these three posthumously published collections of essays (there will be a fourth, on opera) is an overwhelming reminder of his incandescent and all-consuming intelligence. He brought philosophical reflection to an opulent array of subjects, with more imagination and with greater cultural and historical understanding than anyone else of his time.

The collections have been brought to publication by Williams’s widow, Patricia, in each case with the help of one of his friends, who has added an informative introduction. Some of the essays have not been published before, and most of them are not easily available, so these books are of great value. The Sense of the Past was largely planned by Williams himself before his death in 2003; In the Beginning Was the Deed treats topics he would have addressed more systematically in the book on political philosophy he planned but didn’t live to write; Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline brings together the most important essays not collected elsewhere, including the fullest statement of Williams’s conception of philosophy, its purpose and its relations to science, to history, and to human life.

In each of the collections there are some slight pieces, and some that overlap, but all three are marvellous books. While they range over many topics, they are held together by Williams’s acute sense of historical contingency and his resistance to the aspiration of so much philosophy to be timeless.

More here.  [Photo shows Williams.]

Shade’s shadow

Jeffrey Meyers in The New Criterion:

Samuel Johnson and Vladimir Nabokov seem diametrically opposed. The quintessential Englishman, the epitome of the eighteenth-century “Age of Johnson,” favored lofty abstractions, moralistic content and elaborate Latinate style. Modern readers often assume that his works are impenetrable: his criticism misguided, his poetry prosaic, his essays didactic. Nabokov, by contrast, is the embodiment of the witty, urbane, and cosmopolitan modern writer. An uprooted victim of violent revolution, a scientist and scholar, he wandered across two continents and wrote, in two languages, subtly sophisticated, exquisitely stylish, and teasingly elusive books. Yet Nabokov perceived the greatness of and was strange- ly drawn to Johnson, whose appearance, character, and writings profoundly influenced the creation of his tragi-comic masterpiece, Pale Fire (1962). Nabokov’s cunningly covert allusions to Johnson provide an intellectual context for John Shade’s life and art, make the vague outlines of his character more vivid and distinct, and add depths of interest and meaning to the novel.

More here.


A chat with the science-savvy writers behind “The Simpsons” and “Futurama.”

Joshua Roebke in Seed Magazine:

Gould_sj1When not working on what no less an expert on comedy than Stephen Hawking has called the “cleverest show on television,” six-time Emmy-winning executive producer and head writer for The Simpsons Al Jean and four-time Emmy-winning former Simpsons writer and executive producer of Futurama David X. Cohen would often meet at the homes of colleagues for their weekend math club.

Each has a serious background in science: Jean’s Harvard BS is in mathematics, and Cohen’s Harvard BS is in physics (he also has a master’s in theoretical computer science from Berkeley). Seed spoke with the two, wondering:

Of Hawking, Gould and Nobel Prize-winner Dr. Dudley Herschbach, who was your favorite scientist cameo?

Cohen: I wrote the episode that Stephen Jay Gould was in, but I didn’t meet him because he was recorded in Boston. However, I heard that he passed on his compliments to me, which is definitely more than I got from him when I took his class in college.

More here.

London theater to stage “Gaddafi” … the opera

Mike Collette-White of Reuters:

2006_05_04t031215_400x450_us_arts_opera__1With a new production about Libya’s colorful leader, Muammar Gaddafi, the English National Opera boldly goes where no opera house has gone before.

“Gaddafi,” which opens in September, will feature Asian beats and rap in place of arias and romance, and the title role will be performed by a 39-year-old Irish-Indian nightclub MC called JC-001.

The opera tackles some of Libya’s most controversial moments on the world stage, including U.S. attacks on the country in 1986, the Lockerbie disaster of 1988 and the shooting of police officer Yvonne Fletcher outside Libya’s London embassy in 1984.

Little wonder its creators see the project as high risk for one of Britain’s two main opera houses.

“It’s absolutely unprecedented,” said Steve Chandra Savale of the Asian Dub Foundation, who composed the music.

“It’s totally unexpected. Some might say it’s insane,” he told Reuters. “But I like that. I don’t see that as a negative thing. The ENO has shown great vision.”

More here.

Thursday, May 4, 2006

Freedom to Write

Orhan Pamuk in the New York Review of Books:

Pamuk_1In March 1985 Arthur Miller and Harold Pinter made a trip together to Istanbul. At the time, they were perhaps the two most important names in world theater, but unfortunately, it was not a play or a literary event that brought them to Istanbul, but the ruthless limits being set on freedom of expression in Turkey at that time, and the many writers languishing in prison. In 1980 there was a coup in Turkey, and hundreds of thousands of people were thrown into prison, and as always, it was writers who were persecuted most vigorously. Whenever I’ve looked through the newspaper archives and the almanacs of that time to remind myself what it was like in those days, I soon come across the image that defines that era for most of us: men sitting in a courtroom, flanked by gendarmes, their heads shaven, frowning as their case proceeds…. There were many writers among them, and Miller and Pinter had come to Istanbul to meet with them and their families, to offer them assistance, and to bring their plight to the attention of the world. Their trip had been arranged by PEN in conjunction with the Helsinki Watch Committee. I went to the airport to meet them, because a friend of mine and I were to be their guides.

I had been proposed for this job not because I had anything to do with politics in those days, but because I was a novelist who was fluent in English, and I’d happily accepted, not just because it was a way of helping writer friends in trouble, but because it meant spending a few days in the company of two great writers.

More here.

Evolution Occurs Faster at the Equator

Ker Than (formerly of 3QD) in

Tmacaws_2Plants and animals living in warm, tropical climates evolve faster than those living in more temperate zones, a new study suggests.

The finding, detailed in the May 2 issue of the journal for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, could help explain why rainforests have such rich biodiversity compared to other parts of the planet.

A census of all the plants and animals around the world would reveal that species richness is uneven: it is highest in the tropics, the regions of Earth near the equator, and lower the closer one goes toward the planet’s poles.

To investigate the reasons for this trend, Shane Wright of the University of Auckland, New Zealand, and colleagues looked at the rate of molecular evolution for 45 tropical plants and compared it to that of related species living at more temperate latitudes.

More here.

Stephen Colbert: Buried by Truthiness

Amrita Rajan at

“Fox News,” Colbert then pointed out. “Gives you both sides of every story, the President’s side and the Vice President’s side.” But he was disappointed in the rest of them. “Over the last five years you people were so good over tax cuts, W.M.D. intelligence, the effect of global warming. We Americans didn’t want to know, and you had the courtesy not to try to find out. Those were good times, as far as we knew. But, listen, let’s review the rules. Here’s how it works. The President makes decisions, he’s the decider. The Press Secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Put them through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know, fiction.”

More here, including video of the event. And here’s another link to the video.

As Plagiarism Allegations Deepen, IvyWise Distances Itself from Kaavya

Jon Liu in the Harvard Independent:

For more Indy coverage, see KaavyaGate.

Nyet14104251741small_1On Monday evening, the Crimson reported another twist in the Kaavya Viswanathan ’08 plagiarism scandal: bloggers at DesiJournal and elsewhere discovered new suspicious similarities, this time to works by Meg Cabot and Salman Rushdie, in Viswanathan’s novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life. Hours later, the New York Times reported more passages possibly lifted from yet another author, Sophie Kinsella.

Even before the new round of allegations surfaced, the high-priced college-counseling firm whose CEO and founder, Katherine Cohen, introduced Viswanathan to the publishing world, was already subtly distancing itself from its most famous client. Apparently in response to articles published by the Independent and others, IvyWise made several changes to its flashy graphics- and music-enhanced web site over the weekend. The changes included adding statements categorically disavowing marketing or “packaging” college applicants, but media stories the company continues to prominently feature on the same site paint a more complex picture.

More here.  [Thanks to Jonathan Kramnick.]

Critical Moment in Darfur Peace Talks

The U.S. and the U.K. may be on the verge of finding a non-military way to end the conflict in Darfur and reverse ethnic cleansing. If they do, then Bush and Blair should be given credit for doing so.

U.S. diplomats tried on Wednesday to extract concessions from the government of Sudan that could persuade rebels from the Darfur region to sign up to a draft peace agreement designed to end three years of war.

The government has accepted the deal on security, power-sharing and wealth-sharing proposed by African Union (AU) mediators, but three Darfur rebel factions refuse to sign, citing objections on a wide range of issues.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick held a second round of talks with the government delegation on Wednesday. Zoellick arrived on Tuesday in the Nigerian capital Abuja, venue of the talks, as Washington increased pressure for a deal.

“It all comes down to a power play between Washington and Khartoum, and whether the Americans can wrangle enough out of the Sudanese so that they can then go to the rebels and say ‘here’s what we’ve got for you’,” said a Western diplomat who is closely involved in the talks.

Ikenberry Considers Our “Security Trap”

In case you missed it John Ikenberry has a twopart, lengthy post on the endemic security problems that stem from an inversion of the Westphalian order.

Bush foreign policy is failing – but it is important to come to grips with why it is failing. To be sure, it is failing because Bush stumbled into an epic disaster in Iraq. But the problems are not just about policy incompetence, ideological blindness, or high risk policy choices gone bad. I would argue that Bush foreign policy is failing – in the large sense – because it is inconsistent with the realities of a transforming international system that shapes and limits the way the United States can effectively exercise power and – more importantly — assert its authority.

Because of this, the Bush administration has run into trouble, or as I would put it, it has gotten America caught in a “security trap.” It is a security trap in the sense that as the Bush administration tries to solve the nation’s security problems by exercising its power or using force, it tends to produce resistance and backlash that leaves the country more isolated, bereft of authority, and, ultimately, insecure.

The problem is that when liberals take over the reins of foreign policy, they too will fall into this trap unless they understand the problem and devise a grand strategy that works with rather than against these evolving global realities.

What’s Wrong With a Wal-Mart Bank?

Robert Reich argues in favor of letting Wal-Mart enter the banking sector, in The American Prospect.

Most Wal-Mart watchers (including the entire U.S. financial industry) don’t believe Wal-Mart. They see this move as the Wal-Mart camel’s nose under the tent of commercial banking. First come credit-card services on Wal-Mart sales, then discounted credit-card services on other sales, then commercial deposits and loans. Presto. Before you know it, Wal-Mart is a full-service commercial bank.

I say, let Wal-Mart under the tent. Commercial banking is now one of the stodgiest and least-competitive parts of the American economy. Fees and prices are way too high. Service is lousy. The industry needs a shakeup. Have you ever had a bank give itself an interest-free “float” on your money while you waited two weeks for a check to clear? Have you ever filled out twenty-five forms to get a simple bank loan? Have you ever collected anything close to fair interest on money you keep in your checking account?

I guarantee you Wal-Mart’s low-price business model will force complacent bankers to do better.

Also bear in mind many Wal-Mart customers don’t have much money. They need cut-rate banking services. Many of these folks are excluded from mainstream banking. They don’t even have bank accounts. Wal-Mart could help them.

One Face of the Anti-Immigration Movement

Christopher Hayes profiles John Tanton, a conservationist and “progressive” who helped to create the comtemporary anti-immigration movement, in In These Times.

In 1969, Tanton started and chaired the population committee of his local Sierra Club chapter, and when Ehrlich and like-minded environmentalists founded the advocacy group Zero Population Growth (ZPG), he became one of its most active members, rising to its presidency in 1975. By then, the birthrate for Americans had declined below the replacement rate, but the American population was projected to keep growing. Tanton settled on the culprit: immigration.

The number of immigrants was still small by today’s standards but had started to creep upwards, thanks in part to a 1965 immigration bill that instituted family reunification policies and did away with 40 years of quotas that heavily favored northern Europeans. Since immigrants had higher birthrates, reducing their numbers would allow the United States to achieve the zero population growth that had seemed a pipe dream only a few years earlier.

Tanton pushed for the Sierra Club to take a strong stand to reduce immigration, but the organization balked. He didn’t have much more success with his fellow travelers at ZPG. Tanton chalks it up to fear of tackling a taboo subject, but it seems just as likely that they couldn’t see why it mattered on which side of the Rio Grande someone was born. Today, ZPG, since renamed Population Connection, takes what its current president, John Seager, calls a “global approach,” supporting female literacy, access to birth control and family-planning services in the developing world. If Tanton’s concern is the health of the planet, why doesn’t he subscribe to this view? He explains that reducing immigration will force countries like Mexico to confront their own population growth rates. “Each country,” he says, “ought to try to match its population to its resource base.”


From Lens Culture:Burtynsky_24_1

In headlong leaps toward capitalism, during the past 25 years, the lifestyles and landscapes of China have been changing beyond recognition with blinding speed. To officially signal the change to the world, in 1992, Deng Xiao Ping proclaimed, “To be rich is to be glorious!” Yet the mad rush to embrace Western ideals has — and is — creating profound consequences for the people of China and for the rest of the world

Canadian photogapher Edward Burtynsky worked through diplomatic channels to gain access to photograph many sites undergoing enormous change. With his large format camera, over the course of three years, Burtysnky has captured the vast scale and minute details of monumental transformations of a society. He documents today’s “factories for the world”; the dumping grounds for the hand-recycling of the world’s e-waste; the unprecedented migrations of millions of humans toward brand new urban environments; and the ecological footprint of Three Gorges Dam, the largest dam on the planet that forced the relocation and threatened the livelihoods of more than 1.13 million people.

More here.

New Neurons Not So Important?

From Science:Mice_2

Give a mouse more room and a few toys, and good things happen. New neurons sprout in the hippocampus, while spatial memory improves and anxiety eases. As tempting as it might be to tie the new neurons to the behavioral changes, a new study finds no link between them. The results contradict a popular assumption among scientists that new neurons in the hippocampus contribute to the cognitive boost that comes with a more stimulating environment.

The notion that two parts of the brain–the hippocampus and olfactory bulb–continue to produce new neurons into adulthood has been widely accepted since the late 1990s. But just what role those new cells play in cognitive function remains a mystery. Recent studies have found that animals housed in larger cages with opportunities for exercise and social interaction generate more new neurons in the hippocampus than do animals in more cramped quarters with no playmates. Scientists in the lab of Columbia University neurobiologist René Hen hoped to find the link between hippocampal neurogenesis and certain behaviors such as learning and memory that involve the hippocampus.

More here.

Wednesday, May 3, 2006

The Great Conservative Crackup

Jacob Heilbrunn in Washington Monthly:

JeffreyhartTo prove your conservative bona fides these days, you have to begin by denouncing conservatism. To the delight of many liberals, a flurry of conservative writers and think-tankers at places like the Cato Institute and the Nixon Center are doing just that, condemning George W. Bush for being, among other things, a “redistribution Republican” (George F. Will), a “socialist” (Andrew Sullivan), and an “impostor” (Bruce Bartlett). Now add Jeffrey Hart to the list of aggrieved accusers.

Hart, a professor of English at Dartmouth College and former speechwriter for Richard Nixon, has unimpeachable conservative credentials. He has been a regular contributor to National Review since the 1960s. His son Ben Hart was an editor at The Dartmouth Review and a leader of what the Heritage Foundation billed as a “Third Generation” of new conservatives in the early 1980s. A Burkean conservative, Jeffrey Hart has weighed in primarily on cultural issues, lamenting what he sees as the corruption of American arts and letters. But like NR founder William F. Buckley Jr. (“insurrectionists in Iraq can’t be defeated by any means that we would consent to use”), he is also a critic of the Iraq war. In a March 11, 2005, letter to The Dartmouth Review, for example, Hart took aim at Bush’s selling of the war: “You do not have to get eyesore burrowing in the archives to find astonishing patterns of deception.”

Now, in The Making of the American Conservative Mind, Hart chronicles the emergence of the right and National Review‘s role in shaping it. His story begins in the 1950s and ends with the current Bush administration. By turns dyspeptic, melancholy, and ruminative, Hart casts a surprisingly detached eye on his subject. This is a book about a path not taken. It is also one of the most important and idiosyncratic meditations in recent memory about the conservative movement.

More here.

Wanted: Hominids for Clinical Drug Trials

Carl Zimmer in his blog, The Loom:

Authorwebphoto2_2In March, six men entered a London hospital to receive an experimental drug. The men were volunteers, and the drug–a potential treatment for arthritis and leukemia–appeared from animal tests to be safe. But within minutes of the first round of doses, there was trouble. The men complained of headaches, of intolerable heat and cold. The drug made one man’s limbs turned blue, while another’s head swelled like balloons. Doctors gave them steroids to counteract the side-effect, and managed to save their lives. But several ended up on life support for a time, and they all may suffer lifelong disruptions to their immune systems.

How could such a devastating disaster come from a trial that followed all the rules, including tests on both mice and monkeys? According to a paper published today, the drug developers might have thought twice if they had known more about our evolutionary history.

Humans suffer from a number of immune disorders that don’t bother other primates. HIV evolved from a virus that infects chimpanzees, but when chimpanzees get infected, their immune system doesn’t collapse the way ours does. Chimpanzees don’t get serious inflammation of the liver after hepatitis infecitons, and don’t seem to suffer from lupus or bronchial asthma. All of these disorders are associated with an overreaction by a group of white blood cells known as T cells. This puzzling pattern led scientists at the University of California at San Diego Medical School to see if T cells behave different in humans than in chimpanzees, and if so, why.

More here.

When gifts come back to haunt you

David Sedaris in the New Yorker:

Davidsedaris1250For the past ten years or so, I’ve made it a habit to carry a small notebook in my front pocket. The model I favor is called the Europa, and I pull it out an average of ten times a day, jotting down grocery lists, observations, and little thoughts on how to make money, or torment people. The last page is always reserved for phone numbers, and the second to last I use for gift ideas. These are not things I might give to other people, but things that they might give to me: a shoehorn, for instance—always wanted one. The same goes for a pencil case, which, on the low end, probably costs no more than a doughnut.

I’ve also got ideas in the five-hundred-to-two-thousand-dollar range, though those tend to be more specific. This nineteenth-century portrait of a dog, for example. I’m not what you’d call a dog person, far from it, but this particular one—a whippet, I think—had alarmingly big nipples, huge, like bolts screwed halfway into her belly. More interesting was that she seemed aware of it. You could see it in her eyes as she turned to face the painter. “Oh, not now,” she appeared to be saying. “Have you no decency?”

More here.

Frenzied reporting of supposed pyramids in the Balkans ignores the truth and embraces the fantastic

Mark Rose in Archaeology:

The world’s oldest and largest pyramid found in Bosnia? It sounds incredible. The story has swept the media, from the Associated Press and the BBC, from papers and websites in the U.S. to those in India and Australia. Too bad that it is not a credible story at all. In fact, it is impossible. Who is the “archaeologist” who has taken the media for a ride? Why did the media not check the story more carefully? ARCHAEOLOGY will address these questions in depth in our next issue, July/August, but for now let’s at least put the lie to the claims emanating from Visoko, the town 20 miles northwest of Sarajevo where the “Bosnian Pyramid of the Sun” is located.

Semir (Sam) Osmanagic, a Houston-based Bosnian-American contractor first saw the hills he believes to be pyramids last spring. He is now digging the largest of them and plans to continue the work through November, promoting it as the largest archaeological project underway in Europe. (His call for volunteers even slipped into the Archaeological Institute of America’s online listing of excavation opportunities briefly before being yanked.) He claims it is one of five pyramids in the area (along with what he calls the pyramids of the Moon, Earth, and Dragon, plus another that hasn’t been named in any account I’ve seen). These, he says, resemble the 1,800-year-old pyramids at Teotihuacan, just north of Mexico City. Osmanagic maintains that the largest is bigger than the pyramid of Khufu at Giza, and that the Bosnian pyramids date to 12,000 B.C.

Construction of massive pyramids in Bosnia at that period is not believable. Curtis Runnels, a specialist in the prehistory of Greece and the Balkans at Boston University, notes that “Between 27,000 and 12,000 years ago, the Balkans were locked in the last Glacial maximum, a period of very cold and dry climate with glaciers in some of the mountain ranges. The only occupants were Upper Paleolithic hunters and gatherers who left behind open-air camp sites and traces of occupation in caves. These remains consist of simple stone tools, hearths, and remains of animals and plants that were consumed for food. These people did not have the tools or skills to engage in the construction of monumental architecture.”

More here.