The Story of the Severed Head

“For too many Arab intellectuals, Saddam Hussein remains an admirable Antar. One Egyptian lawyer who has come forward to help represent Saddam at his upcoming trial has said on Iraqi television that to defend Saddam is to defend the honor and dignity of the Arabs, as if it were not possible to criticize the US occupation of Iraq while rejoicing in the overthrow of a butcher.”

Short opinion piece on Mohammed Barrada’s short story and the state of the Arab world, by Charles Paul Freund, here in the Daily Star.

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Where’s My Other Wife?

“Scientists have proposed that humans have a history of polygyny before (our sperm, for example, looks like the sperm of polygynous apes and monkeys, for example). But with these new DNA results, the Arizona researchers have made a powerful case that polygyny has been common for tens of thousands of years across the Old World. It’s possible that polygyny was an open institution for much of that time, or that secret trysts made it a reality that few would acknowledge. What’s much less possible is that monogamy has been the status quo for 50,000 years.

People are perfectly entitled to disagree over what sort of marriage is best for children or society. But if you want to bring nature or tradition into the argument, you’d better be sure you know what nature and tradition have to say on the subject.”

This is from Carl Zimmer’s blog here.

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Vitriol in Science

“When great science minds collide, the insults traded and the bile spilt has been both personal and scandalous. But all too often, the victor’s reputation is scrubbed clean by the passage of history. William Hartston rakes up some of the muck that has always been part and parcel of the nature of scientific practice, but that few of us know about.”

This is a series of five programs on squabbles in science, done by the BBC:

1. Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz
2. Joseph Priestley and Antoine Laurent Lavoisier
3. Henry Thomas De La Beche and Roderick Impey Murchison
4. Trofim Denisovitch Lysenko and Nikolai Ivanovitch Vavilov
5. Arthur Stanley Eddington and Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar

Read more and listen to the programs here.

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Ars Electronica

“Have we gotten any smarter over the past quarter century, or have instant access to information and all those wonderful technological advances made us more confused and far crazier than we were in 1979? That’s the question that scientists, hackers and artists will debate this week at Ars Electronica, the world’s largest festival of technology and art. This year’s theme is ‘Timeshift — The World in 25 Years,’ in honor of the 25th anniversary of the festival, which will be held Sept. 2-7 in Linz, Austria. The many exhibitions, symposiums and events are all intended to identify the ideas that are likely to be the driving forces in art, technology and society over the next quarter century.”

More here from Wired.

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August 31, 2004

Portraying 9/11 as a Katzenjammer Catastrophe

spiegelman184“The central image in Art Spiegelman’s new book of comics is that of the north tower’s glowing skeletal form, incandescent and ghostly in the fleeting seconds before its collapse: a searing image, witnessed by the author himself, that sunny morning of Sept. 11, 2001. It is an image that conjures up the moment when history swerved from its expected course and time seemed to stop, and an image, too, that embodies the haunting aftermath of 9/11, the afterimage that’s been burned into our collective imagination… It is a testament to Art Spiegelman’s uncompromising vision that ‘In the Shadow of No Towers’ – his account of 9/11 and its aftermath – makes no effort to contain or domesticate the surreal awfulness of that day.”

Book review here by Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times.

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Lop-sided features linked to temper

Maybe this explains my temper: “Sometimes it can be worth judging by appearances: it seems that people with less symmetrical features are likely to be more aggressive. In a study of stressful telephone conversations, those with uneven faces and bodies were more prone to angry reactions.” More here from Nature.

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The Neverending Story (in brief)

Jordan Ellenberg reviews Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity by David Foster Wallace here in Seed Magazine. If you want to get a substantive taste of the subtle intricacies of Cantorian mathematics, read this challenging but ultimately rewarding book. But you have to be willing to get used to David Foster Wallace’s eccentric and sometimes bratty prose.

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Douglas Lenat and the Cyc Project in AI

I have become addicted to playing 20 questions at 20Q.net which Robin posted a few days ago. (Try it here, it’s really fun.) It made me think of how few attempts there have been to give computers the kind of commonsense knowledge of the real world that we take for granted, and then I thought of Douglas Lenat’s Cyc project. Lenat is a very interesting figure in AI, who has always done his own thing. I first came across Lenat‘s work as an undergraduate. He had written a simple but clever program that started with some knowledge of arithmetic, then randomly applied a handful of heuristic rules to generate theorems that it then rated on “interestingness”. Lenat described how the program quickly found many basic theorems, including coming up with the Goldbach Conjecture, then produced some new interesting theorems. Later, during the notorious “AI Winter” of the 1980s, Lenat became interested in endowing computers with the massive amounts of common sense knowledge that each of us have of the physical world. This is a project that had long been recommended by such AI luminaries as Marvin Minsky (see here and here, for example), and Lenat called it the Cyc (pronounced psych) project. For example, “Cyc knows that trees are usually outdoors, that once people die they stop buying things, and that glasses of liquid should be carried right-side up.” The information has had to be painstakingly entered using a special language based on the predicate calculus, but is becoming easier to feed data to Cyc as it learns more and more. The good thing is, it only has to be done once, then will be available to any computer than wishes to use it. In addition to a knowledge base, Cyc also contains an inference engine which allows it to deduce other facts from what it already knows. You can learn more about Cycorp, the company that Lenat heads and that is building Cyc, and about the project itself, here.

There’s a FAQ about Cyc here, and more here.

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August 30, 2004

More on Counting Crowds

“Another, more ingenious method of estimating crowd size is by examining the quantity of artifacts they leave behind. To say it less delicately, one way of counting a crowd is to weigh how much garbage it leaves behind. Since sanitation trucks are weighed electronically at the disposal site, it has always been an easy matter to measure the amount of debris left after New York’s famed ticker tape parades down the ‘canyon of heroes.'” More here.

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The Belief-O-Matic

In keeping with the previous posting, which linked to an ethics test that ranked attitudes by philosopher, there’s this, the Belief-O-Matic, which ranks your attitudes towards religion and spirituality according to its proximity to belief systems. (Via normblog.) Ironically, the three that I know best and grew up with are among the furthest from my own views: Orthodox Christianity, Roman Catholicism and Hinduism. (I am disturbed that I’m closer to New Age and Scientology than I am to Catholicism.)

1. Secular Humanism (100%)
2. Unitarian Universalism (98%)
3. Liberal Quakers (81%)
4. Nontheist (81%)
5. Mainline to Liberal Christian Protestants (74%)
6. Theravada Buddhism (67%)
7. Neo-Pagan (62%)
8. Taoism (49%)
9. Bahá’í Faith (46%)
10. New Age (44%)
11. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) (41%)
12. Reform Judaism (37%)
13. Orthodox Quaker (35%)
14. Christian Science (Church of Christ, Scientist) (33%)
15. Mahayana Buddhism (31%)
16. Mainline to Conservative Christian/Protestant (29%)
17. Sikhism (27%)
18. New Thought (26%)
19. Scientology (22%)
20. Jainism (19%)
21. Jehovah’s Witness (18%)
22. Seventh Day Adventist (15%)
23. Eastern Orthodox (12%)
24. Islam (12%)
25. Orthodox Judaism (12%)
26. Roman Catholic (12%)
27. Hinduism (7%)

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Minimalism in Art

Along the lines of Slow Art discussed by Abbas and in the thoughtful piece by Marko, minimalism in many art forms may also be seen as a reaction to the vast and insurmountable information age. In music:
“Bjork, whose seventh album, “Medulla” (Elektra), will be released this week, has made a career of subtraction. She recorded boisterous rock with the Icelandic new wave band the Sugarcubes, started a solo career with eccentric dance-floor hits and then followed through with a series of albums that have been unpredictably sumptuous or sparse. As early as her 1993 album “Debut” (Elektra), Bjork was poking holes in her music, and since then those holes have been widening into chasms. With “Medulla,” she pushes to a new extreme: most of the music is made with voices alone. While the album might seem to be a conceptual stunt, it finds gorgeous and startling new ways to extend Bjork’s longtime mission: merging the earthy and the ethereal.” This from the NY Times, Sunday, August 29th.

I can’t wait to hear “Medulla”.

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An ethical question raised by Mark Thatcher’s exploits

Richard Ingram at the Observer finds an intriguing political and ethical question in the story of Margaret Thatcher’s son Sir Mark Thatcher and his attempted coup d’etat against the thuggish government of President Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea.

“Listeners to the BBC’s Today programme voted last week that philosophy should be taught in schools. They might usefully begin by considering whether there is any moral distinction to be drawn between Sir Mark Thatcher and the Prime Minister, Tony Blair.

As far as one can see, both men had precisely similar aims – i.e., to rid the world of an evil dictator who was causing his subjects a great deal of misery. In the case of Saddam Hussein, Blair insists that he did the right thing when he and his friend, George Bush, overthrew the tyrant.

Sir Mark, who was arrested, has yet to give the world the justification for his alleged role in the attempted coup in Equatorial Guinea. But perhaps he, too, would maintain that the world would be a better place without President Teodoro Obiang, a man who, like Saddam, has a contempt for civil rights and a liking for torture and execution.”

Daniel Davies at Crooked Timber puts it plainly. “The serious issue raised by this [Ingram’s] joke is, if we accept the logic of the ‘strong version’ of humanitarian intervention, then why should we also say that it is only the job of states to carry out such interventions? Since, ex hypothesi, any special position for states is ruled out by the strong pro-war internationalist liberal stance, why shouldn’t groups of private individuals take action? For example, Harry’s Place has five main contributors, each of whom could probably raise about $200,000 if they took out a second mortgage; maybe they should be ringing up Executive Outcomes and getting a few estimates in on smallish African states. Why leave this to the government?”

Certainly, the non-Spanish volunteers who fought against Franco in the Spanish Civil War didn’t leave it to government and are largely seen as heroes for not having done so. (To the extent that it was left to government, in the form of Soviet support for the Spanish Republic, it was a disaster. Enough betrayal and authoritarianism to disillusion thousands of members of the left and disabuse many more of the Soviet illusion.) And until we (here in this part of the world) realized that they were crazy, the foreign mujahadeen fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan were given more accoladdes than one thought imaginable for politicized reactionary Islamists.

My own guess is that the fact that there’s not really an “A” for effort in politics leaves the outcomes as the basis of assessment for the most part. If Mark Thatcher had managed to get rid of Teodoro Obiang and the population of Equatorial Guniea consequently had been grateful, the act would’ve validated itself. But I’m not sure.

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Slow Art

Some time ago, our own Marko Ahtisaari wrote a beautiful medidative piece on what he has come to call “Slow Art”.

“Slowness can only be experienced in media – be it live or recorded music, film, video, theatre, dance – where one of the measurable dimensions of the artwork itself is time. This is what slowness means, that less is happening in some set period of time.”

It is a short piece and worth reading. Look at it here.

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The Green Monster

“Recent research on jealousy has been predominantly inspired by an evolutionary psychological analysis of sex-specific differences in the responses to a mate’s sexual and emotional infidelity. According to this analysis, a woman’s sexual infidelity could reduce a man’s reproductive success because of the ensuing risk of inadvertently losing an opportunity to reproduce and of investing limited paternal resources for the benefit of genetically unrelated offspring. A woman’s reproductive success, in contrast, is endangered if she loses a male’s resources and assistance in raising her offspring. A man’s mere sexual infidelity does not necessarily imply the risk of losing his paternal investment. Rather, this resource threat arises if he develops a deep emotional attachment to another mate. As a consequence of these sex-specific reproductive threats, the male jealousy mechanism (JM) is hypothesized to be particularly concerned with a mate’s sexual infidelity, whereas the female JM is hypothesized to be particularly concerned with a mate’s emotional infidelity.”

The issue is looked at in greater depth in this experimental study reported in Evolutionary Psychology.

Incidentally, the best literary treatment of male jealousy I have read yet is in “The Kreutzer Sonata” by Leo Tolstoy, which you can read here.

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Lost your luggage? Buy someone else’s stuff…

Fed up with philosophers’ obsession with the ontological status of various objects, real and abstract, Daniel Dennett once asked in what sense the “lost-sock center of the world” exists. (Somewhat like the center of gravity of an object.) Though the L-SC remains a thought experiment, there is, in Scottsdale, Arizona, a place where all the lost and unclaimed luggage from all of the U.S. airlines accumulates. And they sell off the stuff. If you’re the sort of person who is addicted to Ebay, you might want to hunt for bargains here.

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August 29, 2004

Tennis Style Wars

New York City’s best sporting event, the U. S. Open tennis tournament in Flushing Meadows, Queens, begins tomorrow (here are the draws; here’s the daily order of play). This is the year’s final Grand Slam, on the fairest surface (clay is slowest, grass is fastest), so it determines who’s on top to a greater degree than Wimbledon. People complain contradictorily about the state of the game today, some claiming it’s all serving, others saying not enough net play, others that there aren’t enough Americans(!). Don’t believe the hype: the top men’s players show a wonderful variety of styles, strategies, and personalities, and none depend on power alone. Most of the press (what little there has been due to the RNC and the Olympics) has concerned the smooth-operating artist-genius and world number one, Roger Federer; the defending champion and tennis’s most powerful player, Andy Roddick; and the most beloved player in history, the incomparable Andre Agassi (I would love to see him win; to do so he’ll probably have to defeat Federer in the quarterfinal). Still, a couple of other names bear mentioning: Lleyton Hewitt, whose saw-toothed passion compensates for his slight build, is playing as well as he ever has – he’ll likely meet Roddick in the semifinal. Nicholas Kiefer, long ago Boris Becker’s protege, has lately begun playing a similarly tenacious style to excellent effect. And the overzealous, ball-crushing Chilean Fernando Gonzalez arrives at the site of his best previous results carrying an Olympic bronze medal. Injuries and the waning interest of Serena Williams have taken some of the luster from women’s side, especially compared to the late nineties when it was more entertaining than the men’s. Lindsay Davenport is on a heavy roll, but Justine Henin-Hardenne (of the superb backhand and fierce mien) is back from a long layoff and either Williams is talented enough to win. I don’t think any of the Russian brigade can hack New York just yet; my sleeper for the women is France’s unintimidated Tatiana Golovin. If you want to attend, get a grounds pass during the first week and you’ll see amazing stuff all day from courtside.

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August 27, 2004

Time to Go Nuclear

“This is a leap in thinking that distinguished scientists are already taking – from Sir David King, chief scientific adviser to the government, to James Lovelock, guru of Gaia and arch-environmentalist. Both started out from an anti-nuclear bias but, on the basis of empirical scientific evidence, arrived at the same conclusion. In the age of global warming, opposition to nuclear power is a cop-out rather than a rational or responsible position.”

From this week’s Observer. Outraged comments can be posted in the comments section.

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Booker longlist announced today

“The judging panel of the Man Booker prize for fiction, one of the literary world’s most prestigious and lucrative awards, today announced its longlist for 2004. The 22 books that made it onto the longlist were chosen from a pool of 132 entries. The most distinguishing feature of this year’s lengthy longlist, which otherwise contained few great shocks, was the number of first-time novelists featuring in it – six out of 22.”

Sarah Crown writes more here in The Guardian.

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