Inherit the Wind, Redux

From The Washington Post:

Wind MONKEY GIRL: Evolution, Education, Religion, and The Battle for America’s Soul By Edward Humes.

What’s in a name? For supporters of the theory of “intelligent design” (ID), a great deal. They argue that the complexity of our universe is best understood as the result of an intelligent cause rather than the undirected process of natural selection described by Charles Darwin, and they want to see this taught in public school science classes. ID is not religious, they argue; it is simply scientific. But critics of ID argue that it is merely a more sophisticated way of promoting “creation science,” which rejects evolutionary theory in favor of a literal reading of the book of Genesis and therefore promotes the teaching of religion in public schools.

In 2004, when the Dover, Penn., school board voted to require biology classes to use a supplemental textbook that promoted the theory of intelligent design rather than evolution, the conflict that erupted was about far more than semantics. As Edward Humes describes in this lively and thoughtful book, Dover — like Dayton, Tenn., during the 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial” — became a proving ground for clashing beliefs about the origins of life and constitutional questions about the separation of church and state.

More here.

Indian Film With Roots So Deep That It Defies Borders

From The New York Times:


Win or lose at the Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles, one contender — Deepa Mehta’s “Water,” a nominee for best foreign-language film — will already have scored its greatest triumph simply by existing. “Water” has been sold in 57 countries and released in 25, with close to $14 million in worldwide ticket sales. It is finally scheduled to open theatrically in India on March 9.

“It’s not simply an issue film,” said the novelist Salman Rushdie, who has championed “Water” since its inception. “What makes the film work is the insight into the characters and the psychological impact of the characters.”

Lisa Ray, the actress who said she wept unabashedly after first reading the script and who played one of the lead roles, was at her parents’ home in Toronto when she heard the news. “It was a genuine out-of-body experience,” she said of her reaction.

More here.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

From 0 to 60 to World Domination

Jon Gertner in the New York Times Magazine:

18cover395_503_1By any measure, Toyota’s performance last year, in a tepid market for car sales, was so striking, so outsize, that there seem to be few analogs, at least in the manufacturing world. A baseball team that wins 150 out of 162 games? Maybe. By late December, Toyota’s global projections for 2007 — the production of 9.34 million cars and trucks — indicated that it would soon pass G.M. as the world’s largest car company. For auto analysts, one of the more useful measures of consumer appeal is the “retail turn rate” — that is, the number of days a car sits on a dealer’s lot before it is turned over to a customer. As of November 2006, according to the Power Information Network, a division of J.D. Power & Associates that tracks such sales data, Toyota’s cars in the U.S. (including its Lexus and Scion brands) had an average turn rate of 27 days. BMW was second at 31; Honda was third at 32. Ford was at 82 and G.M. at 83. And Daimler-Chrysler was at 107. The financial markets reflected these contrasts. By year’s end, Toyota would record an annual net profit of $11.6 billion, and its market capitalization (the value of all its shares) would reach nearly $240 billion — greater than that of G.M., Ford, Daimler-Chrysler, Honda and Nissan combined.

More here.


M. F. Burnyeat in the London Review of Books:

Pythagoras_2It is hard to let go of Pythagoras. He has meant so much to so many for so long. I can with confidence say to readers of this essay: most of what you believe, or think you know, about Pythagoras is fiction, much of it deliberately contrived. Did he discover the geometrical theorem that bears his name? No. Did he ponder the harmony of the spheres? Certainly not: celestial spheres were first excogitated decades or more after Pythagoras’ death. Does he even deserve credit for his most famous accomplishment, analysing the mathematical ratios that structure musical concordances? Possibly, but there is little reason to believe the stories about his being the first to discover them, and compelling reason not to believe the oft-told story about how he did it. Allegedly, as he was passing a smithy, he heard that the sounds made by the hammers exemplified the intervals of fourth, fifth and octave, so he measured their weights and found their ratios to be respectively 4:3, 3:2, 2:1. Unfortunately for this anecdote, recently rehashed in the article on Pythagoras in Grove Music Online, the sounds made by a blow do not vary proportionately with the weight of the instrument used.

My problem is that to convince you of such deflationary truths I have to give an account which inevitably is less exciting than, for example, the following extract from Bertrand Russell’s well-known History of Western Philosophy (1946):

Pythagoras . . . was intellectually one of the most important men that ever lived, both when he was wise and when he was unwise. Mathematics, in the sense of demonstrative deductive argument, begins with him, and in him is intimately connected with a peculiar form of mysticism. The influence of mathematics on philosophy, partly owing to him, has, ever since his time, been both profound and unfortunate.

More here.

How Do We Stop Genocide When We Begin To Lose Interest After The First Victim?

From Science Daily:

GenocideFollow your intuition and act? When it comes to genocide, forget it. It doesn’t work, says a University of Oregon psychologist. The large numbers of reported deaths represent dry statistics that fail to spark emotion and feeling and thus fail to motivate actions. Even going from one to two victims, feeling and meaning begin to fade, he said.

In a session Friday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science devoted to “Numbers and Nerves,” Paul Slovic, a UO professor and president of Decision Research, a non-profit research institute in Eugene, Ore., urged a review and overhaul of the 1948 Genocide Convention, mandated by much of the world after the Holocaust in World War II. “It has obviously failed, because it has never been invoked to intervene in genocide,” Slovic said.

Slovic is studying the issue from a psychological perspective, trying to determine how people can utilize both the moral intuition that genocide is wrong and moral reasoning to reach not only genocide

an outcry but also demand intervention. “We have to understand what it is in our makeup — psychologically, socially, politically and institutionally — that has allowed genocide to go unabated for a century,” he said. “If we don’t answer that question and use the answer to change things, we will see another century of horrible atrocities around the world.”

More here.

Lust for Height

Philip Nobel in The American:

Screenhunter_04_feb_24_1555The Burj Dubai, slated to be the tallest building in the world when it’s done in 2009, is rising 160 stories or more (the final height is a secret) in the desert. It’s no anomaly. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 seem to have whetted the global appetite to build taller and taller. Most of the new mega-skyscrapers are in Asia and the Middle East, but the engineers and architects are American. Why the boom? A combination of economic imperatives and powerful egos, both national and personal. Coming soon: the fulfillment of Frank Lloyd Wright’s dream of a mile-high building.

More here.

UN Acts on Male Circumcision as Anti-HIV Weapon


The World Health Organization (WHO) and the UNAIDS Secretariat welcome the publication today in The Lancet of the detailed findings of two trials undertaken in Kenya and Uganda to determine whether male circumcision has a protective effect against acquiring HIV infection.

Funded by the US National Institutes of Health, the trials were terminated early on 12 December 2006 on the recommendation of their Data and Safety Monitoring Board. The findings of the two trials support the results of the South Africa Orange Farm Intervention Trial, funded by the French National Agency for Research on AIDS (ANRS), which were published in late 2005. Together the three studies, which enrolled more than 10,000 participants, provide compelling evidence of a 50 to 60% reduction in heterosexual HIV transmission to men.

More here.

the stuff of fairytales?

Julio Godoy at The Other News:

Islands could fall off the map: Sylt, the largest of Germany’s Frisian islands, in the North Sea, lost at least 800,000 cubic metres of sand from its beaches in the last two months, because of heavy storms and flooding that have marked the northern hemisphere autumn and winter seasons.

On the other side of the planet, in the south-western Pacific Ocean, Tuvalu, a tiny archipelago of nine atolls and reefs, with the highest point just five metres above sea level, is suffering a similar loss of land, and for the same reasons.

“Tuvalu is drowning!” is the alarm that the island’s officials have been sounding for years.

Sylt, Tuvalu and dozens of other islands, like those of the Caribbean, are the most vulnerable to the continued rise in the Earth’s average temperatures, which according to the Fourth Assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), presented Feb. 2 in Paris, could reach a 4-degree Celsius increase by 2100.

Global warming, produced by emissions of gases that cause the greenhouse effect in the Earth’s atmosphere, is making sea levels rise as polar ice melts, as well as intensifying storms and hurricanes, with stronger winds and heavier rains, taking a heavy toll on humans and the natural environment.

According to the IPCC assessment, in this century the sea level could rise 28 to 43 centimetres as a result of climate change. For the people living on Sylt, Tuvalu and similar islands, this could literally mean their disappearance from the world map.

More here.

numbers as colorful figures

Richard Johnson interviews Daniel Tammet in The Guardian:

Danielportrait Daniel Tammet is an autistic savant. He can perform mind-boggling mathematical calculations at breakneck speeds. But unlike other savants, who can perform similar feats, Tammet can describe how he does it. He speaks seven languages and is even devising his own language. Now scientists are asking whether his exceptional abilities are the key to unlock the secrets of autism.

Daniel Tammet is talking. As he talks, he studies my shirt and counts the stitches. Ever since the age of three, when he suffered an epileptic fit, Tammet has been obsessed with counting. Now he is 26, and a mathematical genius who can figure out cube roots quicker than a calculator and recall pi to 22,514 decimal places. He also happens to be autistic, which is why he can’t drive a car, wire a plug, or tell right from left. He lives with extraordinary ability and disability. Tammet is calculating 377 multiplied by 795. Actually, he isn’t “calculating”: there is nothing conscious about what he is doing. He arrives at the answer instantly. Since his epileptic fit, he has been able to see numbers as shapes, colours and textures. The number two, for instance, is a motion, and five is a clap of thunder. “When I multiply numbers together, I see two shapes. The image starts to change and evolve, and a third shape emerges. That’s the answer. It’s mental imagery. It’s like maths without having to think.”

Tammet is a “savant”, an individual with an astonishing, extraordinary mental ability. An estimated 10% of the autistic population – and an estimated 1% of the non-autistic population – have savant abilities, but no one knows exactly why. A number of scientists now hope that Tammet might help us to understand better. Professor Allan Snyder, from the Centre for the Mind at the Australian National University in Canberra, explains why Tammet is of particular, and international, scientific interest. “Savants can’t usually tell us how they do what they do,” says Snyder. “It just comes to them. Daniel can. He describes what he sees in his head. That’s why he’s exciting. He could be the Rosetta Stone.”

More here.

Tammet’s website including blurbs about his book “Born on a Blue Day” here.

Reviewing “Reality”: New York Times columnist Frank Rich views political life through a theatrical lens

From Harvard Magazine:

Rich President George W. Bush emerged from a navy jet that had just landed on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003. Swathed in flight gear, he cradled a helmet under his arm and told the press that he had flown the plane, and “I miss flying, I can tell you that.” Hours later, he reappeared on deck wearing a business suit and spoke beneath a huge banner reading Mission Accomplished.

Image wins out over reality more and more in the battle for attention and belief. Virtually every public event now arrives filtered through a lens, laptop computer, or recording device, and hence nearly all our daily news has been “produced” and woven into some kind of narrative. Old-fashioned, relatively unmediated reality at times appears obsolete. In this environment, Rich’s New York Times columns attempt to redress the balance as he rips holes in the scenery of the image manipulators to reveal stagehands frantically hauling on ropes, and drags unwelcome truths onstage.

More here.

Being a Muslim American

Reza Aslan in The Washington Post:

Book_19 AMERICAN ISLAM: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion By Paul M. Barrett

Paul M. Barrett’s well wrought and engaging new book, American Islam, seeks to change perceptions by providing an intimate group portrait of Muslim Americans as they struggle to combat the threats, prejudices and stereotypes that have dogged them since 9/11. Barrett, a longtime Wall Street Journal reporter who’s now at BusinessWeek, uses his journalistic skills to insinuate himself into the lives of his subjects — no easy task in a time of heightened suspicions. The book traces the lives of seven American Muslims, from the wily Dearborn, Mich., publisher and political activist Osama Siblani to the energetic journalist and Islamic feminist Asra Nomani, whose crusade to tear down the wall of separation between men and women in her Morgantown, W.Va., mosque made her a media superstar in the United States and, to her surprise, a scourge in her own community.

While it is dispiriting to read about the bungling overzealousness of a government that has more often treated American Muslims as part of the problem of Islamic extremism than as part of the solution, there is nevertheless something oddly hopeful in Hussayen’s unflinching faith that the rights and freedoms for which the United States has for centuries been admired throughout the world would ultimately protect him from harm. Perhaps generations from now, when the war on terror has become little more than a somber footnote in our nation’s great history, that may once again be true.

As Muslims say, “Inshallah.” God willing. ?

More here. (Thanks to Krusty for the correction).

Friday, February 23, 2007

the surging tide of 1980s excess


The nine minutes of Simon Martin’s compelling, memorable film Carlton (2006) are devoted to a cultural philosophical meditation upon the Carlton cabinet, designed by Ettore Sottsass in 1981, and a founding example of the work made by the radical design group Memphis, established in Milan that same year. Outlandish, mischievous, heroically quirky – riding a perilous back-curve between supreme aesthetic poise and assuredly knowing kitsch – Memphis design was as much the articulation of an anti-historicist mission statement as it was a deft-footed style surf on the surging tides of 1980s excess.

more from Frieze here.

the communicativeness of our nature


Samuel Taylor Coleridge made quite a splash with his first book, a small volume of Poems on Various Subjects printed and published in Bristol in the spring of 1796. He was a young man, 23 years of age, well-known in the Bristol area as a lecturer and dissenting lay preacher, and notorious as a political radical, or–to use the language of the time–a “democrat” and “liberty man.” He now took the opportunity to expatiate in verse on his commitment to “equality,” his “joy” at the blood-red French Revolution, his longing to live in a community without “individual property” and his hopes of moving to America with his democratic friends to “follow the sweet dream,/Where Susquehannah pours his untam’d stream.” He compounded the provocation with a long philosophical poem in which his energetic Christianity was harnessed to the heretical themes of Unitarianism and pantheism and further onslaughts on private ownership as the root of all evil. But what really stirred up Coleridge’s readers, at a time when poetry was debated with as much passion as politics or religion, was his peculiar literary style.

more from The Nation here (via TPM).

hawkinson on the move


In spite of the intervening dry spell, the new work is of a kind with classic Hawkinsonia — obsessively realized misunderstandings that resonate with spiritual, psychological and phenomenological depth. He shows me a predictably amazing array of works in progress for the New York show: a sensory homunculus buckskin outfit for a sensory homunculus scout, a giant woven bamboo sculpture of a Klein bottle that he’s considering mounting on a multiaxle rotational motor “like a giant three-dimensional screen saver,” a 12-foot quilted topological map of the sole of his foot, and a half-dozen more. Chances are these works won’t be seen in L.A. until his next retrospective, but the Getty works are at least as impressive.

more from the LA Weekly here.

Behind the Sunni-Shi’ite Divide

Bobby Ghosh in Time Magazine:

It has come to this: the hatred between Iraq’s warring sects is now so toxic, it contaminates even the memory of a shining moment of goodwill. On Aug. 31, 2005, a stampede among Shi’ite pilgrims on a bridge over the Tigris River in Baghdad led to hundreds jumping into the water in panic. Several young men in Adhamiya, the Sunni neighborhood on the eastern bank, dived in to help. One of them, Othman al-Obeidi, 25, rescued six people before his limbs gave out from exhaustion and he himself drowned. Nearly 1,000 pilgrims died that afternoon, but community leaders in the Shi’ite district of Khadamiya, on the western bank, lauded the “martyrdom” of al-Obeidi and the bravery of his friends. Adhamiya residents, for their part, held up al-Obeidi’s sacrifice as proof that Sunnis bore no ill will toward their Shi’ite neighbors across the river.

Eighteen months on, one of the men who jumped into the river to help the Shi’ites says al-Obeidi “wasted his life for those animals.” Hamza Muslawi refuses to talk about how many he himself saved, saying it fills him with shame. “If I see a Shi’ite child about to drown in the Tigris now,” says the carpenter, “I will not reach my hand out to save him.”

More here.

The 200th Anniversary of the Slave Trade Act

March 25th will mark the 200th anniversary of “An Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade”, which, as the title suggets, abolished the slave trade in the British Empire. In the Economist (via Normblog):

In its tactics, boycotts, moral zeal, lobbying, research and its use of images, the British campaign was a template for many later ones—against slavery in the Belgian Congo in the late 19th century; against apartheid in South Africa; and against segregation in the American south.

For all the fervour of its opponents, the slave trade would not have collapsed without rebellions by the victims. The most important was in 1791 on St Domingue. Within two months the slaves had taken control of the island, led by the remarkable Toussaint L’Ouverture. His guerrillas saw off the two greatest imperial armies of the day, the French and British; this led to the establishment of the republic of Haiti in 1804 and to the emancipation of about 500,000 slaves. It was clear that European armies would find it hard to contain many more uprisings, a point proved again on the British islands of Grenada and Barbados. Samuel Sharpe’s uprising on Jamaica in 1831 was put down at great cost; the British feared that if slavery continued, they would lose some colonies altogether. So in 1833 slavery was abolished throughout their empire.

Britain was not the first to outlaw the slave trade in its territory; the Danes had done so in 1803, the French temporarily in 1794 and several northern American states had also done so before 1807. But as Britain was the big sea power of the day, it alone could enforce abolition throughout the world, as its navy resolutely tried to do for the rest of the 19th century. Other European nations, notably the Portuguese, persisted with the trade into the 1860s.

Robots hold key to evolution of language

Roger Highfield in The Telegraph:

Screenhunter_03_feb_23_1250They may look like toys, but these robots have helped to back one theory of the origins of language.

Sometime between seven million years ago, when we shared our last common ancestor with chimps, and 150,000 years ago, when anatomically modern humans emerged, true language came into being.

One idea of how it emerged from the “primordial soup” of communication in the animal kingdom, whether primitive signalling between cells, the dance of bees, territorial calls and birdsong, goes as follows.

Early humans had a few specific utterances, from howls to grunts, that became associated with specific objects. Crucially, these associations formed when information transfer was beneficial for both speaker and listener. And in this way, the evolution of cooperation was crucial for language to evolve.

But this theory has been impossible to prove, given the lack of time machines or lack of fossil evidence of ancient tongues.

Now backing for the role of cooperation has come from experiments with robots – both real and virtual – that possess evolving software. The study is described today by a group including Dario Floreano of Ecole Polytechnique of the Fédérale de Lausanne, in Switzerland, and Laurent Keller of the University of Lausanne, in the journal Current Biology.

More here.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, It Seems, Never Met Lewis Lapham

Gary Shapiro in The New York Sun:

Lewislapha_count_4864096_400F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that there are no second acts in American lives, but he never met Lewis Lapham.

In September, the silver-haired septuagenarian former editor of Harper’s Magazine is set to launch Lapham’s Quarterly, a journal of history.

With a patrician demeanor and cigarette often in hand, Mr. Lapham has for decades punctured pomposity with wry observations on American society. An editor at Verso, Tom Penn, described his crystalline prose as “rapierlike.”

In a glass-enclosed office on Irving Place, Mr. Lapham sits in a gray scarf and immaculately tailored suit, leaning over a desk, writing in longhand on a legal-size notepad — no computer.

His journal will examine current topics from numerous historical perspectives. With a sheaf of historical texts alongside reflection by contemporary essayists, each issue will, according the Web site, open “the doors of history behind the events in the news” and be a bulwark against “the general state of amnesia.” In the office lay paperback copies of Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey.”

This is fitting, as the first issue is about war.

More here.

Folding Under Pressure

A couple of days ago I posted an article from The New Yorker about Robert J. Lang and his amazing origami. Now Jason Kottke has dug deeper and found more cool stuff:

Lang’s creations are truly astounding, almost to the point of being magical, because the comparison of the finished product to a flat, uncut sheet of paper is so dissonant. Here are two views of one of Lang’s signature “bugs”, a 7″ silverfish he folded in 2004. The folding pattern is followed by the completed product:


In 1987, Lang folded a 15″ long cuckoo clock out of a single sheet of paper. The clock, which “made Lang a sensation in the origami world”, took him three months to design and six hours to fold. These days, he uses a computer program he wrote called TreeMaker to design his creations and a laser cutter borrowed from Squid Labs to gently score the paper for quicker & easier folding.

Squid Labs is responsible for a site called Instructables, which allows people to share step-by-step instructions for how to do just about anything, from broiled peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to origami. Lang doesn’t seem to have any instructions for his designs up on Instructables, but he shares the site’s open source and collaborative spirit…crease patterns for many of his most complex creations are available on his site and TreeMaker and ReferenceFinder are free to download (with the source code released under the GPL).

(Speaking of Instructables, here’s an easy way to get started with origami. Just grab that stack of Post-It Notes sitting on your desk (the square ones, not the letterbox ones), peel the top one off, and follow these simple instructions to make a little box out of it. It’ll take you 5 minutes…here’s mine that I did this morning.)

More here.