Meerkats Teach Pups How to Eat Risky Food

From The National Geographic:Meerkat

The behavior is the first hard evidence of active teaching by a nonhuman mammal, researchers say. Chimpanzees and other mammals have been shown to teach their young passively—babies learn by watching adults. But adult meerkats in the Kalahari Desert of southern Africa were observed devoting much time and effort to teaching pups how to handle tricky food items—a task that carried no immediate advantage for the adults. In addition to lizards, beetles, and millipedes, deadly scorpions are on the meerkats’ menu.

Some of these scorpion species have enough venom to kill a human, while others are armed with powerful pincers. Meerkats encourage their pups to practice killing and eating such risky meals by bringing the youngsters live prey, according to the study, done by researchers at the University of Cambridge in England.

More here.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

An Impala’s-Eye View of Highway History

Finn-Olaf Jones in the New York Times Book Review:

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For those of us reared on family car vacations, Jack Kerouac and every buddy road story from Lewis and Clark to “Thelma and Louise,” crossing the country is such an American ritual it’s like pledging allegiance to the flag at 65 miles per hour. Get that average speed up to a mere 110 and, thanks to the miracle of the Interstate, it’s possible to race across the continent in one day and still have time to pick up a couple of Happy Meals at the drive-through.

The Interstate highway system turned 50 this month. Robert Sullivan, chronicler of swamps, whales and rodents (as the author of “Meadowlands,” “A Whale Hunt” and “Rats”), now applies his onion-peeling skills to the evolution of this multilane leveler of mountains, deserts, rivers and regionalism.

More here.

Michael Jackson the Muslim?

Andrew O’Hagan in the London Review of Books:

Michael_jackson_leaves_neverland_for_bahSince being acquitted of child molestation charges last summer, Michael Jackson has been hanging out in Bahrain, enjoying the hospitality of the ruler’s poptastic son Sheikh Abdullah. Jackson is said to have become a Muslim (which is sure to please his critics on Good Morning America), but evidence would suggest he has yet to get the hang of Islamic custom. Not long after arriving in the famously tolerant state, he caused uproar when he entered the ladies’ loos at the Ibn Battutah Mall dressed in female headgear and positioned himself at the mirror to put on his make-up.

Jackson’s new friend has a bit of cash, and the pair have set up a record label called Two Seas Records. Sheikh Abdullah bin Hamad al-Khalifa is also the governor of Bahrain’s Southern Region, but that hasn’t prevented him finding time to write a song with Jackson’s brother Jermaine, ‘a passion-filled song that calls for world peace and global solidarity in the face of wars and disasters’. According to local correspondents, the record already has a title, ‘He Who Makes the Sky Grey’, but no release date is in sight. The king’s son has high hopes for the recording. He recently called a press conference in order to claim that the project ‘intends to bridge the gap between East and West’. Meanwhile, Jackson is in the habit of smiling widely beside his new friend. Things are going well in Bahrain. According to the Militant Islam Monitor, he is planning to build a new mosque in Manama.

More here.  [Photo is a spoof from GQ.]

Addressing the public about science and religion

Murray Peshkin in Physics Today:

I have been speaking to diverse small groups about science and religion in the context of the ongoing national debate about the teaching of evolution in our public schools. The response to my talks has been almost uniformly positive. It would be useful for other physicists to do as I have been doing.

My audiences have been service clubs such as Rotary, high-school and college students of science and science journalism, a school-based community event, a League of Women Voters chapter, a Unitarian church, and a microscopy club. They have ranged from a dozen to some 60 or 70 people. Access is a problem but not an insuperable one, since organizations have program chairs hungry for speakers, and local newspapers, especially small suburban ones, are interested in publicizing such activities.

I am not trying to convert the convinced anti-evolutionist. I am trying to inform people about the issues and their importance. That goal is important for scientists because the integrity of science teaching in our public schools is under serious attack. So far, the courts have mostly come to the rescue, but in the end public opinion will carry the day. Reasonable people need to know what science is about, especially what an established scientific theory is and how scientists know when it’s right. Nonscientists are vulnerable to arguments like “Evolution is only a theory” and “What’s the harm in teaching alternative theories as well?”

More here.

Rated X on campus

“U. of C. magazine offers erotica, photos and advice for sexually liberated students —- but don’t tell their parents.”

Patricia M. Jones in the Chicago Tribune:

The emergence of college sex magazines such as the U. of C.’s — which often are supported financially by student governments as recognized student organizations — first started gaining national attention in 1999 when Vassar College students started a magazine called Squirm.

Since then, sex magazines have cropped up at elite institutions from Yale to Harvard to Boston University.

The magazines include student-friendly information on sex, provocative columns opining about sex and titillating photo essays that often focus on what else — sex — and the publications have been a hit with students.

More here.

wizard of the crow

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“African languages refused to die,” wrote Ngugi wa Thiong’o two decades ago in his seminal volume Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, evoking the vitality and defiance with which Africans have met the specter of linguistic annihilation. At the core of Ngugi’s own aesthetic lies an analogous pairing of vigor and resistance, sustained by his commitment, also declared in that book, to composing his works in African languages (specifically, Kikuyu and Kiswahili) rather than in English. More generally, he has written that “the real language of humankind” is the “language of struggle,” and in Wizard of the Crow, the satiric political allegory that is his most ambitious novel to date, the turmoil convulsing the fictional state of Aburiria is cast as a fight for the voice of the nation. “We want our voice back,” shout the demonstrators gathered to oppose Aburiria’s reigning despot, known only as the Ruler. The country’s chief antigovernment faction, the Movement for the Voice of the People, identifies itself primarily not with justice or even self-determination but with a much more fundamental power: speech.

more from Bookforum here.

das kapital as literature

Das Kapital has spawned countless texts analysing Marx’s labour theory of value or his law of the declining rate of profit, but only a handful of critics have given serious attention to Marx’s own declared ambition – in several letters to Engels – to produce a work of art. One deterrent, perhaps, is that the multilayered structure of Das Kapital evades easy categorisation. The book can be read as a vast Gothic novel whose heroes are enslaved and consumed by the monster they created (“Capital which comes into the world soiled with gore from top to toe and oozing blood from every pore”); or as a Victorian melodrama; or as a black farce (in debunking the “phantom-like objectivity” of the commodity to expose the difference between heroic appearance and inglorious reality, Marx is using one of the classic methods of comedy, stripping off the gallant knight’s armour to reveal a tubby little man in his underpants); or as a Greek tragedy (“Like Oedipus, the actors in Marx’s recounting of human history are in the grip of an inexorable necessity which unfolds itself no matter what they do,” C. Frankel writes in Marx and Contemporary Scientific Thought). Or perhaps it is a satirical utopia like the land of the Houyhnhnms in Gulliver’s Travels, where every prospect pleases and only man is vile: in Marx’s version of capitalist society, as in Jonathan Swift’s equine pseudo-paradise, the false Eden is created by reducing ordinary humans to the status of impotent, alienated Yahoos.

more from Guardian Books here.

pierre huyghe

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Tom Morton: The title of your exhibition ‘Celebration Park’ at ARC / Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and Tate Modern, London, evokes a future project, somewhere between an amusement park and an international expo or world fair. Can you tell me about it?

Pierre Huyghe: When you want to push the exhibition towards a more performative scale, you end up rethinking the conditions of its reception. ‘Celebration Park’ is an exhibition of exhibitions, and an exhibition about another exhibition to come. It starts with this idea of celebration – something to embrace, something that you experience on a time-based protocol. The temporal structure of the original world fair allowed experimental proposals, but when people started thinking of the idea of progress as embarrassing, this kind of place lost its meaning. In another way the amusement park failed as a pathetic illusion and vulgar master-plan. I’m looking for a permanent exhibition that grows as an organism, an arrangement between heterogeneity, a series of pavilions hosting an experience of a real situation, a system of representation that participates in the construction of an experience.

more from the interview at Frieze here.

Strange Times, My Dear: The Pen Anthology of Contemporary Iranian Literature

From The Atlantic Monthly:Book_10

In The Captive Mind, his brilliantly lucid reflection on totalitarianism and its temptations, Czeslaw Milosz devoted most of his essays to the problem of communism and the intellectuals. In one chapter, however, he turned aside to view another manifestation of tyranny, and also to examine the verbal and literary means by which it could be thwarted. The essay is called “Ketman.” It means the art and science of dissimulation, particularly in matters of religion. The ferocious orthodoxy of the Shia mullahs of Iran, Gobineau wrote, could be circumvented by, say, a heretical disciple of Avicenna, as long as the man was careful to make every outward show of conformity. With this done, he could begin to introduce all manner of subversive philosophy into his sermons and addresses:

Ketman fills the man who practices it with pride. Thanks to it, a believer raises himself to a permanent state of superiority over the man he deceives, be he a minister of state or a powerful king: to him who uses ketman, the other is a miserable blind man whom one shuts off from the true path whose existence he does not suspect; while you, tattered and dying of hunger, trembling externally at the feet of duped force, your eyes are filled with light, you walk in brightness before your enemies. It is an unintelligent being that you make sport of; it is a dangerous beast that you disarm. What a wealth of pleasures!

Milosz immediately saw the application of this to the double life that was being lived by so many writers and intellectuals under Stalin’s imperium. The Soviet regime to some extent “needed” culture, but also needed to contain it. Milosz was not to foresee that this state of affairs — deemed “Absurdistan” by one Czech author — would one day satirize itself out of existence.

More here.

Mind Over Matter

From Science:

Mind_2 Using an array of hair-thin electrodes implanted in his brain, a 25-year-old quadriplegic man was able to operate a computer, open and close a prosthetic hand, and manipulate a robotic arm just by thinking about it, according to a new study. Such a brain-computer interface may one day help restore movement and communication to people paralyzed from spinal cord injuries, strokes, and disorders such as muscular dystrophy and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

Researchers have previously inserted single electrodes into paralyzed people, providing them with limited computer cursor control. They’ve also put more complicated electrode arrays into monkeys. But no one had ever put a large number of microelectrodes into a paralyzed person; indeed, no one knew whether neurons in the motor cortex, the brain region primarily responsible for movement control, would still produce decipherable signals after years of disuse.

More here.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Negroes, communists and Moslems

Peter Kiefer in the New York Times:

Italy’s interior minister, Giuliano Amato, said today that a number of swastikas were daubed on the walls of Rome’s Jewish quarter during the postgame festivities. “As an Italian I feel ashamed, and as interior minister I am alarmed by such things,” Mr. Amato reportedly said during a visit to Rome’s main synagogue.

And a number of Italian politicians and the French ambassador to Italy issued a strong rebuke to remarks made by Roberto Calderoli, the former minister of reform and a member of the right-wing Northern League party.

After the Cup victory he said that the Italians had vanquished a French team that was comprised of “Negroes, communists and Moslems.” Italian soccer is no stranger to extremist politics. Italian football matches are often used as a platform for far-right fans to express racist sentiments.

More here.

Israel’s Gaza Offensive

Marwan Bishara in The Nation:

GazaThe Olmert government bases its campaign against Palestinian civilian infrastructure on three fallacies: that Israel does not initiate violence but retaliates to protect its citizens–in this case a captured soldier; that its response is measured and not meant to harm the broader population; and that it does not negotiate with those it deems terrorists.

But Israel’s offensive did not start last week. The three-month-old Israeli government is responsible for the killing eighty or more Palestinians, some of whom were children, in attacks aimed at carrying out illegal extrajudicial assassinations and other punishments. Hamas has maintained a one-sided cease-fire for the past sixteen months, but continued Israeli attacks made Palestinian retaliation only a question of time.

More here.

The fraud of primitive authenticity

Spengler in the Asia Times:

Two billion war deaths would have occurred in the 20th century if modern societies suffered the same casualty rate as primitive peoples, according to anthropologist Lawrence H Keeley, who calculates that two-thirds of them were at war continuously, typically losing half of a percent of its population to war each year.

This and other noteworthy prehistoric factoids can be found in Nicholas Wade’s Before the Dawn, a survey of genetic, linguistic and archeological research on early man…

Why, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, does popular culture portray primitives as peace-loving folk living in harmony with nature, as opposed to rapacious and brutal civilization? Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, which attributes civilization to mere geographical accident, made a best-seller out of a mendacious apology for the failure of primitive society. Wade reports research that refutes Diamond on a dozen counts, but his book never will reach the vast audience that takes comfort in Diamond’s pulp science.

Why is it that the modern public revels in a demonstrably false portrait of primitive life?

More here.

The Problem With Poker Odds

For those of you who may not have seen this, Sean Carroll in Cosmic Variance asked a poker question a little while ago.

[C]onsider the following three possible pairs of hole cards [in a game of Texas Hold’em]:

Jack-10 suited (e.g., a Jack of diamonds and a 10 of diamonds)

Ace-7 unsuited (e.g., an Ace of spades and a 7 of clubs)

Pair of sixes

The quiz is extremely simple, and should be easy for experts: assuming you don’t know what anyone else has, or yet what the board cards will be, which possibility is most likely to win at the end of the hand?

The answer:

Note that this is not really a poker-strategy question, it’s just a math question. There is a separate issue, which is “which is the best starting hand”, or for that matter “how should you play each hand?” — we’ll get to that later. But this is just a math problem — which is most likely to win if you choose to stay in the pot all the way to the showdown?

The answer, to nobody’s suprise, is: it depends! It does not depend on your position, or whether the betting is limit or no-limit — those might affect your strategy along the way, but at the end of the hand it’s just a matter of who has the best cards. What it does depend on is how many people you are playing against. The absolute probability that you will win obviously goes down if you are playing against more opponents with randomly-chosen cards, just because there are more ways they could beat you. But, much more interestingly, the ordering of which hand is best also changes.

Train Bombings in Mumbai

The news of the attack in Mumbai is just coming in. In The Hindu:

At least 105 people were killed and 230 injured in a string of seven terror blasts in first class compartments of suburban trains around 6PM during the peak hour traffic here today.

As the blasts ripped apart train compartments, mangled bodies of passengers were hurled out and survivors, many of them bleeding profusely, jostled to come out leading to chaotic scenes.

Maharashtra Chief Secretary D K Shankaran put the figure of dead at 105 and the injured at around 230.

The blasts occurred between 6 Pm and 6.30 PM at Mahim, Bandra, Matunga, Borivili, Mira Road, Jogeshwari and Khar when people from offices were returning home.

Hospital authorities in the city have confirmed arrival of over 100 bodies by 8:30 pm. A large of injured people, including commuters of the blasts-hit trains were admitted to various government and private hospitals in various parts of the city.

Syd Barrett, 1946-2006

I was never a big Pink Floyd fan, but they and Syd Barrett were icons of an era. Syd Barrett, who has long been a recluse, has died. In the Guardian:

Syd Barrett, the former lead singer of Pink Floyd and one of the key figures of the 60s, has died at the Cambridgeshire home to which he retreated as a recluse more than 30 years ago.

The Guardian has learned that the singer, 60, who suffered from a psychedelic-drug induced breakdown while at the peak of his career, died last Friday from cancer.

His brother Alan confirmed his death, saying only: “He died peacefully at home. There will be a private family funeral in the next few days.”

Born Roger Keith Barrett in Cambridge in 1946, he acquired the nickname Syd aged 15. He left Pink Floyd in 1968, just as the band was about to achieve worldwide recognition, and lived in the basement of his mother Winfred’s semi-detached house, where he boarded up the windows to keep out the eyes of both the press and fans.

lank, fleet, and nimble

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One of the hardest things about writing on what might be called a ‘special interest’ must be convincing potential readers that you are not going to preach at them. Rest assured. Tristram Stuart doesn’t preach. What he does do is try to make us think about what we eat, and why, and what effect our choice of diet has on ourselves, the animal world, and the ecology of the planet. And, in spite of his misleading subtitle, he succeeds triumphantly. “Radical Vegetarians and the Discovery of India” suggests a claim to spectacular achievement on the part of a fringe group trying to enhance its credentials. In fact The Bloodless Revolution is a scholarly, wide-ranging and utterly absorbing history of vegetarianism.

more from Literary Review here.

‘Lab-made sperm’ fertility hope

From BBC News:

Mice_5 Scientists have proved for the first time that sperm grown from embryonic stem cells can be used to produce offspring. The discovery in mice could ultimately help couples affected by male fertility problems to conceive. And by understanding embryo developmental processes better, a host of other diseases might be treated using stem cells, they say. The study is published in the journal Developmental Cell. The experiment was carried out using mice and produced seven babies, six of which lived to adulthood. However, the mice showed abnormal patterns of growth, and other problems, such as difficulty breathing.

Stem cells are special because they have the potential to develop into any tissue in the body. Professor Karim Nayernia and colleagues at the Georg-August University in Göttingen, Germany, took stem cells from a mouse embryo that was only a few days old and grew these cells in the laboratory. Using a specialised sorting instrument they were able to isolate some stem cells that had begun to develop as sperm.

More here.