The Brains Behind the Wheel

Greta Lorge in Stanford Magazine:

Imagine you’re driving home at night after a grueling day at work. You’re tired and preoccupied; you don’t notice when your car starts to drift out of the lane and into oncoming traffic. But fortunately, an onboard computer senses the vehicle leaving the lane and automatically pulls it back.

This “lane-keeping assistant” is the brainchild of Chris Gerdes, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering. It’s one of several projects under way at the Dynamic Design Lab on campus, where Gerdes and a cadre of graduate students tinker with the next generation of computerized cars, creating vehicles that will be safer and more fun to drive.

More here.

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BITTER BAMBOO

John Updike reviews two new novels from China, in The New Yorker:

American translation of contemporary Chinese fiction appears to be the lonely province of one man, Howard Goldblatt, the founding editor of Modern Chinese Literature and a professor currently at the University of Notre Dame. Goldblatt’s midwifery has recently given us two novels by mainland authors: “My Life as Emperor,” by Su Tong (Hyperion East; $24.95), and “Big Breasts & Wide Hips,” by Mo Yan (Arcade; $27). Mo Yan’s “Red Sorghum,” which Goldblatt translated in 1993, won considerable notice and the hopeful remark from the Chinese-American author Amy Tan that “Mo Yan’s voice will find its way into the heart of the American reader, just as Kundera and García Márquez have.” Well, that’s a tough old heart, and I’m not sure the Chinese are ready to crack it yet.

More here.

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Science and Nature censoring debate on global warming?

Robert Matthews in the Daily Telegraph:

Two of the world’s leading scientific journals have come under fire from researchers for refusing to publish papers which challenge fashionable wisdom over global warming.

A British authority on natural catastrophes who disputed whether climatologists really agree that the Earth is getting warmer because of human activity, says his work was rejected by the American publication, Science, on the flimsiest of grounds.

A separate team of climate scientists, which was regularly used by Science and the journal Nature to review papers on the progress of global warming, said it was dropped after attempting to publish its own research which raised doubts over the issue.

More here.

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Bug-eyed lens may mean slimmer camera phones

Will Knight in New Scientist:

DragonflyheadConventional camera lenses cannot be shrunk below a few millimetres in thickness before reducing the field of view. But a compound lens, made from hundreds of tiny “micro lenses”, can be made around one-tenth of the width, while retaining the same field of view and quality of image.

A prototype compound eye, consisting of scores of polymer micro-lenses has now been developed by researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Optics and Precision Engineering in Germany, Swiss company SUSS MicroOptics and the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland.

The 2-millimetre-thick prototype has 21 light-channelling components, each of which contains three separate lenses. Each individual lens points in a slightly different direction and projects part of the image on to a photo sensor. “Each channel is, in effect, a pinhole camera,” says Andreas Bräuer at the Fraunhofer Institute.

More here.

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No booze needed for beer goggles

Roxanne Khamsi in Nature:

BeerAlcohol has long been known to have a number of effects on dating behaviour: some good, some bad. Enough booze can wipe away inhibitions and act as an aphrodisiac, or it can dampen sexual performance. It can even produce what are jokingly called ‘beer goggles’, which mean you judge people as more attractive when you are drunk.

But scientists now say that whatever effect someone expects from alcohol can be produced by simple exposure to flashes of alcohol-related words on a computer screen.

More here.

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Tran Luong

Thanks to Abbas for the nice post about my Vietnam adventures. I’ll try and give a quick and not too boring or self-centered account of the events in the next few days. Until then, a little bit more about the artist we visited and who’s home was so unhappily invaded by government stooges in order to extract yours truly and the photographer Joe Pacheco.

Many critics have singled out Tran Luong, who was included in “Vietnam: Art Actuel,” as the artist of his generation (he was born in 1959) with the most sustained vision. Like any successful artist, he is a good politician–a particularly strenuous task in Vietnam. He has served as the director of Hanoi’s Contemporary Art Center, a modest exhibition space funded in part by the Ford Foundation, and has been able to act as a mediator between the official cultural functionaries and the more adventurous Vietnamese artists. He has had residencies at Art in General in New York and participated in artist workshops in Holland and Italy. A founding member of the Gang of Five, he originally became known for muted abstract paintings and works on paper that dealt with water imagery. As a young boy he was sent to the country many times to escape American bombs. He says that it was perhaps because the realm of ponds and rice paddies was an “alternative world from the bombed city” that he became fascinated by the underwater life that informed his early imagery.

From an article in Art in America.

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Monday Meander: Is There Online Literature Yet?

I was thrown into a quandary by a remark in the most recent Editorial of the Wilson Quarterly: “The Web, for all its marvels, hasn’t yet provided a home for the kind of focused and sustained dialogue that smaller magazines create.” This comment struck me as both curious and characteristic of a certain residual attitude of disdain for online writing that it is still possible to find in intellectual circles. Part of it, I think, is a natural tendency toward the Luddite in literary folks, particular in those over a certain age.

Some of America’s greatest magazines still treat the web browser like a second class literary citizen. Harper’s, one of the flagships of American writing, has a miserly approach to the internet. You can find many brilliant Features at Harpers.org, as well as great Readings, and fine Cartoons. They’re laid out in an incredibly weird narrow long format that seems to assume its readers use a screen the size of an ancient iMac. Another problem: I can buy a copy of Harper’s at the newsstand before they update their “Current Issue” page. The Prize Winner in the category “Worst Web Site for Best Magazine,” however, with its frames layout (making linking intolerable) and contempt for graphical prettification, has to be Dissent. Harper’s and Dissent, of course, are fine magazines and will continue to be so. Right now, the web needs them more than they need the web, although this might well change over time. The reason, I would argue, is that so much of the national conversation about ideas, culture, and politics now takes place online, via web logs and email. The Right-wing has been savvier in its approach to its message on the internet, with a far more closely connected network of sites linking to each other.

There’s an understandable negative intellectual response to the web. It’s unholy and overwhelming. I often hear in literary circles a snobbish notion of a world awash in barbarous blogorrhea. Certainly the idea of cutting out the middlemen of traditional media – editors and publishers – also means eliminating those people who can act as a writer’s best friend. (By saying, “Listen, you might want to cut this,” or, “Whoa, dude, that’s just crazy.”) The online world, as a great leveler, the ultimate Whitmanesque democratic experiment in free expression, is the central fact of its fizz. But the web is also a great proliferator of nonsense, propaganda, misleading information, and terrible writing. Here’s a site, Boring Boring, that only lists “dull things.”

So, is there online literature yet? Will there ever be? There’s some truth to the claim that many online-only journals either seem like vanity presses or else attempts by the impoverished to mimic the effects of print. But WQ is wrong if it means to suggest that there aren’t good online journals, of which I like the classy and subdued GutCult, the engaging nthposition, smallspiralnotebook, and The Drunken Boat. The most interesting example, however, is Agni, which runs an lively and excellent online parallel journal separate from but connected to its great print organ. Agni might be a model for other journals to follow, since, for established magazines and nonprofit organizations, creating parallel online journals would be an extremely cheap way to boost prestige. It’s paradoxical, however, that one of the best online journals in America would be edited by Agni’s Sven Birkerts, who has decried the death of print louder than anyone else.

One last comment. Somebody ought to start developing some ideas about what writing works best online and whether online writing will change literary production. LitBlogs are certainly changing the way that books get their word-of-mouth buzz these days. What we don’t know yet is whether new literary forms will emerge from online publishing, especially web logs. Will short fiction, for example, get shorter? Will anybody use a web log to create a great fictional persona or literary character? (This one, purporting to be the diary of Captain Morgan, the swashbuckling Rum salesman, is not exactly what I had in mind. Here is the very silly blog of the Incredible Hulk.) Will there be a great American novel that is written on a web log? Right now, the answer seems to be: “Not if there’s no money in it.”

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May 1, 2005

The Plaza Lives!

Plaza From The New York Magazine:
Its close brush with death-by-condo has set off a flood of memories. A grand tour of the world’s most storied hotel—with Eloise and Ivana and Ringo and Liz and Truman and a mob of victorious doormen.

Alfred G. Vanderbilt III
My grandfather, the first Alfred Vanderbilt, was the Plaza’s first guest. He signed the registry “Mr. and Mrs. Vanderbilt,” but Mrs. Vanderbilt didn’t come because Mr. and Mrs. Vanderbilt were having “difficulties.” The original marketing plan of the hotel was to attract people like my grandfather. His main residence was in Newport, and this was his pied-à-terre, until he built his own hotel. His parents had a house where Bergdorf is now. The question I had was, “If Mom and Dad had 154 rooms across the street, why take an apartment at the Plaza?” And the rumor was because of the girl. He was a big equestrian and one day he was riding in Central Parkdf and he met a girl whose horse got away from her. He stayed at the Plaza so he could see her. Then she gave way to [his second wife], my grandmother, whom he also met at the Plaza. He was the most photographed man in America at the time. In 1915, he was bringing his horses to London on the Lusitania and became a hero when he went down with the ship. He gave away his life preserver to a woman who survived. He was the richest man in America, and he couldn’t swim.

The Beatles’ Invasion (1964)
Harry Benson
photographer
They had a whole wing to themselves on the fifteenth floor. I shared a room with George—a room, not a bed, you know? It was the beginning of Beatlemania. [The label] wanted to give them a real New York launching. There was a piano in the room, and they wrote songs in there. “Michelle,” I think. We’d all slip out and go to the Playboy Club, which was just down the road. They ordered room service all the time. They would get the steak and bottles of whiskey and never touch it. Or they’d just take a swig. They did it because it was a thing—they can spend money. It was very childish.

More here.

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Atomic Testing Museum Opens in Vegas

‘The other day the brand new Atomic Testing Museum opened its doors in Las Vegas. One of its managers, a retired physicist with many explosions behind him, showed me a prize exhibit – a full size mock-up of a very large bomb with a nuclear warhead. It was the T61 – still in the US arsenal.’

From Brian Barron of the BBC.

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Morgan Meis back in NYC

As I wrote earlier here, 3 Quarks Daily editor Morgan Meis was arrested in Vietnam by security forces, but has managed to make it back home in one piece. I have not spoken to him yet, but J.M. Tyree reports at the Old Town Review Chronicles:

Morgan Meis, our fellow blogger here at Chronicles, has returned to NYC from his strange and harrowing journey to Vietnam, and in one piece, I might add. As was reported below, Mr. Meis was forcibly removed from the country during a meeting with a dissident Vietnamese artist. The goons from the security services actually broke in the door during the arrest…then some 3 hours of interrogation followed before Mr. Meis was allowed to purchase a one-way ticket to Singapore and hustled aboard the plane with a quasi-military escort. These and other things, I’m sure, will be revealed by Mr. Meis himself in these pages during the coming days, but to get the full story you might have to wait for his article on his trip to come out in the Virginia Quarterly Review. Welcome back, Morgan. The freedom of the city to you.

Good to hear you’re back, Morgan.

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God is a delusion; religion is a virus…

Gordy Slack interviews Richard Dawkins in Salon [via Orange Quark]:

Dawkins_3[GS]: Once again, evolution is under attack. Are there any questions at all about its validity?

[RD]: It’s often said that because evolution happened in the past, and we didn’t see it happen, there is no direct evidence for it. That of course is nonsense. It’s rather like a detective coming on the scene of a crime, obviously after the crime has been committed, and working out what must have happened by looking at the clues that remain. In the story of evolution, the clues are a billion-fold. There are clues from the distribution of DNA codes throughout the animal and plant kingdoms, of protein sequences, of morphological characters that have been analyzed in great detail. Everything fits with the idea that we have here a simple branching tree. The distribution of species on islands and continents throughout the world is exactly what you’d expect if evolution was a fact. The distribution of fossils in space and in time are exactly what you would expect if evolution were a fact. There are millions of facts all pointing in the same direction and no facts pointing in the wrong direction.

More here.

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On Beauty

Rochelle Gurstein in The New Republic:

I began to wonder if the gentle, low-keyed pleasures of gardens might simply fall below the notice of most people living today. “Could whole ways of being in the world simply disappear?” I asked my husband. Which made him think of the reams of drawings and watercolors of weather-horizons, clouds, sunsets, dawns, trees, shrubs, flowers, vines, and grasses, that were once the living embodiment of the attentive eye and sensitive hand of practiced and amateur artists alike. Constable’s aerial views of the lumimous atmosphere of clouds immediately came to mind as did Ruskin’s painstaking, delicate renderings of herbs, mosses, and feathers. Sunday photographers were out in full force that glorious spring afternoon, but their mechanical and instantaneous interactions with nature made the slow and absorbing pleasures of attentive looking, which had long been the province of Sunday painters, obsolete. And what, we wondered, was happening to the senses and sensibility of that new breed of frenetic observers who go through the world snapping pictures with their cellphones while hooked up to an iPod soundtrack of their own making?

More here.

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Connecting In Chaos: Joi Ito Interview

R. U. Sirius interviews Joi Ito in Neofiles:

KeynotejoiJoi (Joichi) Ito is one of this planet’s most prodigious and popular networker. A genial Japanese/Canadian/American (born in Japan, moved to Canada, then moved to Michigan at the age of 4), Ito is a living representative of the notion of hybrid vigor. He worked as a DJ in Chicago, and worked with Sean Penn on the film Indian Runner. In the early ’90s, he collaborated with Timothy Leary, Mondo 2000 and others to bring the cyberpunk and rave memes to Japan.

Since the early ’90s, Ito has had his hand in so many digital technology and culture projects that we could fill a page discussing them.

More here.  [via Joi Ito’s Web.]

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Abduction, Often Violent, a Kyrgyz Wedding Rite

Craig S. Smith in the New York Times:

When Ainur Tairova realized she was on her way to her wedding, she started choking the driver.

Her marriage was intended to be to a man she had met only the day before, and briefly at that. Several of his friends had duped her into getting into a car; they picked up the would-be groom and then headed for his home.

Once there, she knew, her chances of leaving before nightfall would be slim, and by daybreak, according to local custom, she would have to submit to being his wife or leave as a tainted woman.

More here.

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Harold Bloom on Hans Christian Anderson

From the Wall Street Journal:

HansOne of Andersen’s weirdest and greatest gifts is that his stories live in an animistic cosmos, in which there are no mere objects whatsoever. Every tree, bush, animal, artifact, or item of clothing has an anxious soul, a voice, sexual desires, need for status, and a terror at the prospect of annihilation. Andersen’s episodes of alternating grandiosity and depression are very much at variance with this created world, where mermaids and ice maidens, swans and storks, ducklings and fir trees, collars and garters, snowmen and wood nymphs, witches and toothaches, all possess consciousness as capacious, cruel, and desperate for survival as our own.

Ostensibly a Christian, Andersen from the start was a narcissistic pagan who worshipped Fate, she being for him a sadistic goddess we could name as Nemesis. His genius is deeply founded upon an ancient animism, older than “The Arabian Nights.”

More here.

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How the Human Mind Shapes Myth

Michael Shermer reviews When They Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth by Elizabeth Wayland Barber and Paul T. Barber, in American Scientist:

As the publisher of Skeptic magazine and as the monthly “Skeptic” columnist for Scientific American, I am frequently thrust into the job of myth busting, an intellectualized version of what the irrepressible pair Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman do each week on the Discovery Channel’s popular television series MythBusters. I’ve found that it’s wise to proceed with caution, however, because one person’s myth may be another’s true belief, and some myths may actually be true.

Just what do we mean by myth, anyway?

More here.

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Voters empowered by internet swap shop

Celeste Biever in New Scientist:

“Every time I vote Labour, I know I am voting for someone who is going to lose,” says Martin Allison, a teacher from Guildford, Surrey, where the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties vie for power, but Labour has hardly any support. So in the UK’s general election on 5 May, he and his wife Christine will do something different – they will swap their votes on the internet.

“It’s an ingenious way of getting better value for your vote,” says Essex teacher Jason Buckley, who set up the anti-Conservative www.tacticalvoter.net, one of several vote-swapping websites, before the 2001 general election. This online political matchmaking has its roots in the US. But ironically, while it has failed to make much of an impression there, it has already had an impact in British elections and could well do again next week.

More here.

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April 30, 2005

The Adams family

A collection of anecdotes and memories from the life of Douglas Adams, the man behind “The Hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy”, as told by his friends and colleagues including Terry Jones, Neil Gaiman, & Stephen Fry and brought together into one bitter-sweet article in FilmForce. (Via SlashDot)

“That he was born is just one of the many undeniable facts about the life of the late Douglas Adams – author, humorist, raconteur, speaker, and thinker (although it should be noted that, on at least one parallel Earth, Mr. Adams was born a spring-toed lemur with a predilection for grassy fields and the works of Byron – a poetic lemur whose work was not terribly springy).

Another fact which comes to mind is that, of the seven novels he wrote in his all-too-brief lifetime, by far the most popular is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and its four sequels – which make for a fine trilogy if you’re somewhat numerically impaired”
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Christopher Hitchens, Right-Wing Obscurantist

Alan Koenig in the Old Town Review Chronicles:

Back in October of 1991, a younger, more radical Christopher Hitchens wrote a superb essay entitled “A State within a State” for Harper’s magazine plumbing some of the more recent filthy deeds and unconstitutional crimes committed by the CIA. Hitchens favorably mentioned in passing the crusading work of a certain Senator John Kerry, who unearthed both financial links between corrupt Saudis, South American drug smugglers and the CIA (in the notorious Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI)) and investigated the links between narcotics and the Nicaraguan Contras. But that was a far different, much less courageous Senator Kerry from the one that ran for President this past November, and alas, we have a far different and much diminished Hitchens to contend with as well.

More here.

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Sick of hearing about Harvard? So is everyone else–except Harvard-educated journalists.

Michael Steinberger in The Wall Street Journal:

Harvard Another academic year is drawing to a close, another year in which Harvard has generated vastly more headlines than any other American university. Most of these, of late, have concerned Lawrence Summers, Harvard’s president, who famously suggested that there may be a biological explanation for the paucity of female scholars in the hard sciences. (He hasn’t stopped apologizing since.) But a single controversy doesn’t account for all the interest. Two recent books are decidedly unflattering to the school: Richard Bradley’s “Harvard Rules” is, among other things, an assault on the entire three years of Mr. Summers’s tenure, charging him with arrogance and bad manners, among much else. And in “Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class,” Ross Douthat, class of 2002, describes his own Harvard education as a combination of vacuous classroom assignments, cruel social climbing and feverish networking.

Of course, a fervid interest in Harvard is nothing out of the ordinary: It is the country’s most famous university, with a long claim on distinguished scholarship, political influence and high SAT scores. Most important, the media have long fawned over Harvard, treating its “brand” as pure gold. But while the school may have merited obsessive coverage in the past, it no longer does: Harvard is diminishing in importance as a factory for ideas and a breeding ground for future leaders. In all sorts of ways it is not nearly as pivotal to the life of the nation as it once was. You just wouldn’t know that by reading the papers or browsing the bookstands.

More here.

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