Enron’s Selfish Genes

Last night I saw the excellent new documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. (My tangential remarks on it are here.) One strange point of interest is that Jeffrey Skilling, the architect of Enron’s massive fraud, was a huge fan of Richard Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene. Something tells me he might have misunderstood the book. But, to be perfectly frank, I’ve run into a lot of people who misread that book, and…they always seem to be men trying to justify their own bad behavior. Surely this isn’t what Dawkins had in mind.

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Little Boy, Big Apple

Js_7540_large Andrew Yang visits an exhibition of vintage Japanese  toys, curated by artist Takashi Murakami and writes about it for Metropolis magazine:

” In the years after Japan was defeated in World War II, the country went into a state of numbing shock. The atomic bombs dropped on Japan not only obliterated entire cities and wiped out generations of people, but also left the country’s citizens questioning their identity and culture. Some of the creative results of this post-war reflection are chronicled in Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture. Curated by pop-cult arbiter Takashi Murakami, the exhibit, which features work by 21 postwar Japanese artists, is on view through July 24 at New York’s Japan Society. Many of the pieces in the show are in the form of animated cartoons, comic books, and advertisements, rendered in the wildly popular Neo-Pop, anime, and manga styles.”

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Yale and India

Ajay Gandhi in Economic and Political Weekly:

From January 2 to 8, 2005, Yale University’s president Richard Levin visited India. This unprecedented visit by the head of an elite American university signalled, in Levin’s words, that India was finally “emerging as a global economic and political power”. In between visits to the Indian prime minister and the chiefs of powerful Indian companies such as Infosys and Reliance Industries, Levin found time to lecture on Yale’s vision of ‘university citizenship’. Levin propounded with missionary zeal a notion of the ‘global university’ standing for ‘transcendent principles’ and embodying a ‘noble mission’. In so doing, he was continuing a tradition stretching back to Yale’s inception, whereby lofty rhetoric has disguised powerful self-interest.

Levin’s university is named after Elihu Yale, a fervid Anglican who served in the British East India Company (EIC) between 1670 and 1699 and was governor of Fort St George at Madras from 1687 to 1692. Yale’s history of support for missionary activities in the East Indies and Americas inspired a group of American Puritans in Connecticut to seek patronage for a college. His responsiveness culminated in a donation in 1718 towards the construction of the university’s first building, forever stamping it with his name. During his time in India, Levin noted Yale University’s commitment to educating ‘distinguished leaders’, and its focus on the “transparency and accountability of public and private institutions”. Curiously, Levin failed to mention Elihu Yale’s own record of leadership and accountability while in Madras. Yale’s governorship of Fort St George was marked not only by oppressive taxation and cruel punishments, but also by using the EIC’s power and money for personal gain, culminating in his dismissal in 1692.

More here. Thanks to my friend C.M. Naim for this article.

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Sudan, Caputo, etc.

Kristof writes in the NY Times today that the Bush administration has now backed away from its activism regarding Sudan.

Finally, finally, finally, President Bush is showing a little muscle on the issue of genocide in Darfur.

Is the muscle being used to stop the genocide of hundreds of thousands of villagers? MugphilipcaputoNo, tragically, it’s to stop Congress from taking action.

Lousy.

From the fiction angle, Philip Caputo, whose Vietnam memoir A Rumor of War is a true classic, just published a new novel Acts of Faith that takes Sudan’s civil war as its setting. Reviews of the book can be found here, here, and here.

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The Other 1905 Revolution

Joshua Foer reviews two books about Einstein, in The Nation:

In his 1902 book Science and Hypothesis, the French mathematician and physicist Henri Poincaré surveyed the landscape of modern physics and found three fundamental conundrums bedeviling his field: the chaotic zigzagging of small particles suspended in liquid, known as Brownian motion; the curious fact that metals emit electrons when exposed to ultraviolet light, known as the photoelectric effect; and science’s failure to detect the ether, the invisible medium through which light waves were thought to propagate. In 1904 a 25-year-old Bern patent clerk named Albert Einstein read Poincaré’s book. Nothing the young physicist had done with his life until that point foreshadowed the cerebral explosion he was about to unleash. A year later, he had solved all three of Poincaré’s problems.

“A storm broke loose in my mind,” Einstein would later say of 1905, the annus mirabilis, which John S. Rigden calls “the most productive six months any scientist ever enjoyed.” Between March and September, he published five seminal papers, each of which transformed physics. Three were Nobel Prize material; another, his thesis dissertation, remains one of the most cited scientific papers ever; and the fifth, a three-page afterthought, derived the only mathematical equation you’re likely to find on a pair of boxer shorts, E = mc2.

More here.

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Ugly Children May Get Parental Short Shrift

Nicholas Bakalar in the New York Times:

Ugly583Parents would certainly deny it, but Canadian researchers have made a startling assertion: parents take better care of pretty children than they do ugly ones.

Researchers at the University of Alberta carefully observed how parents treated their children during trips to the supermarket. They found that physical attractiveness made a big difference.

The researchers noted if the parents belted their youngsters into the grocery cart seat, how often the parents’ attention lapsed and the number of times the children were allowed to engage in potentially dangerous activities like standing up in the shopping cart. They also rated each child’s physical attractiveness on a 10-point scale.

More here.

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May 2, 2005

Girl, 13, argues right to abortion

John Coté in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel (via Bitch, Ph.D.):

“Why can’t I make my own decision?” That was the blunt question to a judge from a pregnant 13-year-old girl ensnared in a Palm Beach County court fight over whether she can have an abortion.

“I don’t know,” Circuit Judge Ronald Alvarez replied, according to a recording of the closed hearing obtained Friday.

“You don’t know?” replied the girl, who is a ward of the state. “Aren’t you the judge?”

Against a backdrop of state and federal efforts to pass a parental notification law for teen abortions, the exchange was typical of L.G.’s pluck as she argued that she had the right and capability to make her own decision, despite a move by the Department of Children & Families to seek a judge’s permission for her abortion.

More here.

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The hustler

Andrew Brown in The Guardian:

Brockmmccabe128_2 [Brockman is] an impresario and promoter of scientific ideas who is changing the way that all educated people think about the world. Richard Dawkins, his friend and client, says, “his Edge web site has been well described as an online salon, for scientists and for other intellectuals who care about science. John Brockman may have the most enviable address book in the English-speaking world, and he uses it to promote science and scientific literature in a way that nobody else does.” … …

Anyone today who thinks that scientists are the unacknowledged legislators of the world has been influenced by Brockman’s taste. As well as Dawkins, he represents Daniel Dennett, Jared Diamond, and Sir Martin Rees, as well as three Nobel prize winners and almost all the other famous popular scientists. His old friend Stewart Brand, the publisher of the Whole Earth Catalog and later the promoter of the Clock of the Long Now, which is intended to run for 10,000 years, says: “It’s so easy to think the guy’s just a high-class pimp that it’s quite easy to ignore the impact on the intellectual culture of the west that John has enabled by getting his artist and scientist friends out to the world. There is a whole cohort of intellectuals who are interacting with each other and would not [be able to] without John.”

More here.

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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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