Lucre and altruism are in the makeup of biotech scientists

Rebecca Maksel reviews The Geneticist Who Played Hoops With My DNA And Other Masterminds From the Frontiers of Biotech by David Ewing Duncan, in the San Francisco Chronicle:

The legend of the chimera (a creature said to bear the head of a lion and the body of a goat, with a dragon’s tail tacked on) has long fascinated humans. Its modern-day equivalent — organisms composed of two or more genetically distinct tissues — captivates conservatives and liberals alike. In his new book, “The Geneticist Who Play Hoops with My DNA,” Duncan profiles seven scientists on the cutting edge of biotechnology, today’s most controversial science.

Duncan, who has written on such diverse topics as the development of the Gregorian calendar and the history of Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto, turns his discerning eye toward the role of personality in science, concluding that individual scientists — and their reputations — are driving the current era of biological discovery as much as the knowledge itself.

And the scientists profiled are an unruly lot, some motivated as much by thoughts of fame as by the desire for knowledge.

More here.

Show me the way to go, Holmes

Julian Barnes’s wonderfully executed Arthur & George recounts Conan Doyle’s own detective adventure.”

Tim Adams in The Guardian:

Barnes150Julian Barnes has always fancied a detective yarn. In the 1980s, he used to have a go at them himself, under the pseudonym of Dan Kavanagh, who wrote calculatedly hard-boiled tales about Duffy, a bisexual ex-cop on the trail of vice and murder in Soho. At the time, Barnes used to explain this sideline by saying it came from a different part of his head from the grown-up cleverness of Flaubert’s Parrot or A History of the World in 10½ Chapters; it was a holiday job.

For Arthur & George, you might say that the author has combined for the first time those two halves of his brain, taken his rigour on vacation. With characteristically engaging intelligence, he has climbed into the mind of the most celebrated detective writer of all, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and set off on an adventure.

More here.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Damselfly Mating Game Turns Some Males Gay

From The National Geographic:

Fly_1 Disguises used by female damselflies to avoid unwanted sexual advances can cause males to seek out their own sex, a new study suggests. Belgian researchers investigated why male damselflies often try to mate with each other. The scientists say the reason could lie with females that adopt a range of appearances to throw potential mates off their scent. In an evolutionary battle of the sexes, males become attracted to a range of different looks, with some actually preferring a more masculine appearance.

More here.

The Passions of Robert Lowell

From The New York Times:Lowell

BY the time he died in 1977, expiring at the age of 60 in the back seat of a taxi on his way into New York City from Kennedy Airport, Robert Lowell had turned himself inside out in literature. Socially well connected and classically educated, with the bearing and voice of a disheveled senator, the highborn Bostonian wasn’t well and hadn’t been for years, but despite an exhausting life of marital blowups, manic-depressive breakdowns, political controversy and punishing hard work, he’d managed to invent along the way what came to be known as confessional poetry, a sort of orderly bleeding onto the page that in Lowell’s case combined erudition, anguish and mundane detail for an effect of aching, lurid uplift. The poems of his later, most distinctive period, which began with the publication of ”Life Studies” in 1959, inspired a long dominant mode whose best-known practitioners included two of his students, Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. Lowell’s poems proved that if writing is a form of therapy, it’s a uniquely unsuccessful one, at least in medical terms, and that insights into the larger human predicament don’t guarantee their author a good night’s sleep, a stable marriage or a dignified passing. Winning Pulitzer Prizes and the like is no balm either. Nothing (even lithium, it seemed) could halt Lowell’s slide into miserable ill health and psychological chaos.

More here.

Gaddis, Gaddis, Gaddis

The good people at the Gaddis Annotations Project were kind enough to offer to post my New England Review essay, “Henry Thoreau, William Gaddis, and the buried history of an epigraph,” over in the interpretative essays section of their fabulous Gaddis site. I’m not just plugging the Gaddis Annotations site because they’ve posted my work – for anybody who’s interested in Gaddis, especially for those reading his work for the first time, the site is an invaluable resource for tracking down WG’s sometimes obscure references. The site is edited by Ron Dulin and Victoria Harding, and includes Steven Moore’s Reader’s Guide to William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, as well as his informal notes (and those of other readers) on Gaddis’s other novels. For more on Gaddis, try the defunct Gaddis Drinking Club – GDCer Bud Parr’s more recent work can be seen at the fine lit blog Chekhov’s Mistress.

Tsunami: Six Months On

From John Aglionby at The Observer.

Before the Boxing Day tsunami I’d never met anyone who had suffered so much that they had effectively lost their identity. In regular trips to the devastated regions in the last six months I’ve met thousands of such ‘ghosts’; once proud people reduced to bedraggled, grieving bodies dressed in donated clothes and kept alive by the world’s largesse.

It is only when one considers what it takes to rebuild someone’s identity that one gets a sense of the size of the reconstruction task in Aceh and North Sumatra, the Indonesian provinces that bore the brunt of the 26 December earthquake and tsunami.

Effigy Tumuli

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I’ve become more and more obsessed with the Earthworks movement in art. Michael Heizer, whose City was profiled by Michael Kimmelman at the Times a few weeks ago and linked here at 3Quarks, has been one of its most important practitioners.

Another of his projects, Effigy Tumuli, is one of the largest sculptures in the world. It’s at the Buffalo Rock State Park in Illinois. It’s based on the ancient Mound Building practices of various Native American tribes.

‘How to Be Idle’: Being and Do-Nothingness

Jeffrey Steingarten in the New York Times:

For every hour of the day and night there is a different way of being idle, which is why Tom Hodgkinson has written his book in 24 chapters. At 8 a.m. (”Waking Up Is Hard to Do”), true idlers turn off their alarms, flop over in bed and go back to sleep. Hodgkinson is amazed that we voluntarily buy alarm clocks, which serve nobody but our employers. Nine a.m. is ”the time when someone, somewhere, decided that work should start.” And at 10 a.m. the idler is still sleeping in, living out Dr. Johnson’s incontestable dictum that ”the happiest part of a man’s life is what he passes lying awake in bed in the morning.”

The chief problem with modern life is not work in itself. It is jobs. In 1993 Hodgkinson founded the British magazine The Idler, on whose Web site he succinctly sums up the horrors of having a job: ”With a very few exceptions the world of jobs is characterized by stifling boredom, grinding tedium, poverty, petty jealousies, sexual harassment, loneliness, deranged co-workers, bullying bosses, seething resentment, illness, exploitation, stress, helplessness, hellish commutes, humiliation, depression, appalling ethics, physical fatigue and mental exhaustion.” Yes, that pretty much sums it up. On this we can all agree.

And the solution? Become an idler.

More here.

Hands Across the Himalayas

Michael Elliott in Time Magazine:

Mao_gandhiThe visit to India that starts this week by Wen Jiabao, China’s Premier, is being spun as a celebration of relations between Asia’s giants that are good, and getting better. Whatever the truth of that claim, this much is certain: very soon, meetings between the leaders of China and India will not be of merely regional interest. They will be watched by the whole world.

Combined, India and China account for nearly 40% of the world’s population. Fueled by turbo-charged growth, they are both consolidating their positions as central actors in the international economy. Inevitably, their economic heft will be accompanied by political influence. China is pursuing economic alliances everywhere from Southeast Asia to Latin America; India may well soon have a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. Taken together, India’s and China’s rise to prominence is the great story of our time.

More here.

Moonage daydream?

Keiji Tachikawa, who was the president of NTT DoCoMo and now is the head of the Japanease space agency announced a 20 years plan that ends in a vision of our moon with humanoid robots inhabitants, all made in Japan:

As part of the plan, Japan would use advanced robotic technologies to help build the moon base, while redeveloped versions of today’s humanoid robots, such as Honda Motor Co. Ltd.’s Asimo and Sonys Qrio, could work in the moon’s inhospitable environment in place of astronauts, he said in a recent interview.

Japan’s lunar robots would do work such as building telescopes and prospecting and mining for minerals, Tachikawa said.

“I see a big role for Japan’s robotics technologies on the moon,” he said. “Japanese robots will be one of our big contributions. If there is work where robots can replace humans, they will.”

More here

Friday, June 24, 2005

The New World Order

Tony Judt in the New York Review of Books:

Bush_george20050714Those of us who opposed America’s invasion of Iraq from the outset can take no comfort from its catastrophic consequences. On the contrary: we should now be asking ourselves some decidedly uncomfortable questions. The first concerns the propriety of “preventive” military intervention. If the Iraq war is wrong—”the wrong war at the wrong time”[1] —why, then, was the 1999 US-led war on Serbia right? That war, after all, also lacked the imprimatur of UN Security Council approval. It too was an unauthorized and uninvited attack on a sovereign state—undertaken on “preventive” grounds—that caused many civilian casualties and aroused bitter resentment against the Americans who carried it out.

The apparent difference—and the reason so many of us cheered when the US and its allies went into Kosovo —was that Slobodan Milosevic had begun a campaign against the Albanian majority of Serbia’s Kosovo province that had all the hallmarks of a prelude to genocide. So not only was the US on the right side but it was intervening in real time—its actions might actually prevent a major crime. With the shameful memory of Bosnia and Rwanda in the very recent past, the likely consequences of inaction seemed obvious and far outweighed the risks of intervention. Today the Bush administration—lacking “weapons of mass destruction” to justify its rush to arms—offers “bringing freedom to Iraq” almost as an afterthought. But saving the Kosovar Albanians was what the 1999 war was all about from the start.

And yet it isn’t so simple.

More here.

Next stop, Forbidden City

Eliot Weinberger in the London Review of Books:

‘The poet,’ Gu Cheng wrote in 1987, ‘is just like the fabled hunter who naps beside a tree, waiting for hares to break their skulls by running headlong into the tree trunk. After waiting for a long time, the poet discovers that he is the hare.’ These words turned out to be prophetic; six years later, his terrible and sordid crash against the tree would nearly obliterate what had come before. He had been a major cultural figure in China; now his poems were being read as flashbacks from his death.

He was born in 1956 in Beijing, the son of a well-known poet and army officer, Gu Gong. At 12, he wrote a two-line poem, ‘One Generation’, which was to become an emblem of the new unofficial poetry:

Even with these dark eyes, a gift of the dark night
I go to seek the shining light1

In 1969, the Cultural Revolution sent his family into the salt desert of Shandong Province to herd pigs. The locals spoke a dialect Gu Cheng could not understand, and in his isolation he became absorbed in the natural world: ‘Nature’s voice became language in my heart. That was happiness.’ His favourite book was Jean-Henri Fabre’s 19th-century entomological notes and drawings; he collected insects and watched birds; he wrote poems in the sand with a twig, poems with titles like ‘The Nameless Little Flower’ or ‘The Dream of the White Cloud’.

More here.

Finnish Technology: Computer Screen Made From Fog

Tracy Staedter in Discovery News:

Fogscreen_zoomA new interactive computer touch screen uses fog as a projection medium instead of glass or plastic.

Such an immersive projection technology could have applications that range from walk-through advertisements to hygienic touch screens in operating rooms, where handling a keyboard or mouse could undermine sanitary conditions.

“The interactive screen is quite new and has not been used anywhere,” said Ismo Rakkolainen, chief technology officer at Seinäjoki, Finland-based Fogscreen, who together with Karri Palovuori of Tampere University of Technology developed the technology.

According to Rakkolainen, other screens made from fog have been developed, but remain non-interactive because the large water vapor particles they employ would create a damp experience for the user.

But Rakkolainen’s Fogscreen is a ceiling-mounted device that sprays a fine mist of tap water particles so small they feel dry to the touch.

The fog is contained to a rectangular shape because it is sandwiched between two layers of flowing air that keep it from dispersing.

More here.

Surviving a lightning strike

Joshua Foer in Slate:

050606_di_ledoux_tnJerry LeDoux is a guy you don’t really want to interview, because interviewing him means having to be near him, and that’s like planting yourself by a dartboard. The stone claw hanging from his neck attests to his grisly encounter with a bear’s jaw at a roadside park in August 1990. (His wife, Bee, brandishes a photo album that documents the mauling before he’s done telling the story.) The Purple Heart on his Navy Seals sniper hat testifies to the three bullets he took in Vietnam. The ugly black mark on his finger is evidence that he once air-nailed it to a floorboard. The scar on his left arm is proof that he accidentally screwed his flesh to the wall. The long knife wound on his hand? “Things happen,” he says. The most improbable of his many accidents is the one that left the least visible evidence—just a few white splotches on his arms and a discoloration near his hairline. But that doesn’t mean it’s easily forgotten. LeDoux rolls up his sleeve to show off a tattoo of a man getting struck by lightning engraved on his left bicep.

All LeDoux remembers about the moment he was struck in August 1999 is that he was standing ankle-deep in a puddle when he was overcome by an intensely bright light. He woke up a half-hour later, 20 feet away, with a vague taste of battery acid in his mouth, he said. The soles of his shoes had melted, his two-way radio had exploded, and several of his teeth had shattered. The medical ID tag he wore around his neck was melted into his chest.

More here.

Return to Hobbit Limbo

Carl Zimmer in The Loom:

Hobbit20headloSo let’s recap: It’s been almost eight months now since scientists announced the discovery of Homo floresiensis, the diminutive people that some claim belong to a new branch of hominid evolution and skeptics claim were just small humans. We seem to have entered a lull in the flow of new scientific information about Homo floresiensis. The last thing we heard from its discoverers came in March, when they published scans of the Homo floresiensis braincase, which bolstered their case that the skull they found didn’t happen to belong to someone with a birth defect. The skeptics have made various noises about evidence that the fossils are indeed pathological, and thus can’t be the basis for recognizing a new species. They have told reporters about their visits to pygmies who live near the fossil site on the Indonesian island of Flores. But they have yet to publish any of this in a scientific journal, where their claims could be put to some serious scrutiny. For example, you can’t refute the claim that the fossils are a separate hominid species by showing that living pygmies on Flores are very short. You also have to deal with the odd body proportions of Homo floresiensis, such as its long arms. Perhaps these are pathological too, but no one has gone on the scientific record yet.

More here.

You thought you knew how to be a parent? Wrong: it isn’t what you do, it’s who you are

From The London Times:

IN THE late 1990s the US Department of Education undertook a monumental project called the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS). The wide-ranging ECLS data offer a number of compelling correlations between a child’s personal circumstances and its school performance. For instance, once all other factors are controlled for, it is clear that students from rural areas tend to do worse than average. Suburban children, meanwhile, are in the middle of the curve, while urban children tend to score higher than average. (It may be that cities attract a more educated workforce and, therefore, parents with smarter children.) On average, girls show results higher than boys, Asians show results higher than whites, and blacks show results similarly to whites from comparable backgrounds and in comparable schools.

Matters: The child has highly educated parents.
Doesn’t: The child’s family is intact.

A child whose parents are highly educated typically does well in school. A family with a lot of schooling tends to value schooling. Parents with higher IQs tend to get more education, and IQ is strongly hereditary.

More here.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

More Creationism vs. Evolution debates

Via Sci Tech Daily, a preview of a debate on evolution vs. creation in 6 days .  .  . with some, er, interesting arguments for the latter.

“Evidence for the Creator God of the Bible

1. Natural law

The Laws of Thermodynamics are the most fundamental laws of the physical sciences.

  • 1st Law: The total amount of mass-energy in the universe is constant.
  • 2nd Law: The amount of energy available for work is running out, or entropy is increasing to a maximum.

This means the universe cannot have existed forever, otherwise it would already have exhausted all usable energy. The 2nd Law implies that no natural process can increase the total available energy of (i.e. ‘wind up’) the universe. So it must have been ‘wound up’; (high available energy) by a Creator ‘outside’ (and greater than) the universe.

. . .

3. Biological changes

Observed changes in living things head in the wrong direction to support evolution from microbe to man (macro-evolution).

Textbook examples of adaptation by natural selection (first described by the creationist Edward Blyth, pre-Darwin) always involve loss of genetic information. Mosquitoes may adapt to a DDT-containing environment by becoming resistant, because some already have the genes for DDT resistance. But overall the population loses genetic information (any genes not present in the resistant ones are eradicated from the population, since the non-resistant mosquitoes killed by DDT cannot pass on genes).”

The Selling of Jeff Koons

“He made banality blue chip, pornography avant-garde, and tchotchkes into trophy art. How Jeff Koons, with the support of a small circle of dealers and collectors, masterminded his fame and fortune.”

Kelly Devine Thomas in Art News Online:

Bubbles_1Earlier this year some of the most powerful players in the art world attended a 50th birthday party for Jeff Koons, the controversial art star who rose to fame in the 1980s. Jeffrey Deitch, who helped bankroll Koons’s ambitious and outsize “Celebration” series and nearly went bankrupt for it in the 1990s, hosted the party at his SoHo gallery, where examples from Koons’s oeuvre were projected on large screens and miniature versions of Balloon Dog, an iconic work, were handed out as party favors.

Among the high-profile museum directors, curators, artists, and collectors in the room that night were Koons’s longtime New York dealer Ileana Sonnabend, with whom he has worked on and off since 1986; Larry Gagosian, who recently began showing Koons’s new works and is now producing his “Celebration” sculptures; Robert Mnuchin, chairman of C&M Arts, which hosted a comprehensive Koons exhibition last May; and dealer William Acquavella.

More here.

How the Web changes your reading habits

Gregory M. Lamb in the Christian Science Monitor:

Computers and the Internet are changing the way people read. Thus far, search engines and hyperlinks, those underlined words or phrases that when clicked take you to a new Web page, have turned the online literary voyage into a kind of U-pick island-hop. Far more is in store.

Take “Hamlet.” A decade ago, a student of the Shakespeare play would read the play, probably all the way through, and then search out separate commentaries and analyses.

Enter hamletworks.org.

When completed, the site will help visitors comb through several editions of the play, along with 300 years of commentaries by a slew of scholars. Readers can click to commentaries linked to each line of text in the nearly 3,500-line play. The idea is that some day, anyone wanting to study “Hamlet” will find nearly all the known scholarship brought together in a cohesive way that printed books cannot.

More here.  [Thanks to Laura Claridge.]

Blast of sound turns liquid to jelly

Celeste Biever in New Scientist:

A burst of high-frequency sound waves is enough to turn a range of oily liquid mixtures to jelly. Because the reaction is reversible, it could be used to remotely control the viscosity of liquid shock absorbers in cars or of lubricants in robotic joints, or to temporarily solidify fuels and paints so they don’t leak during transport. Engineers may one day even use the technology to make building dampers that absorb energy from external forces, prolonging a structure’s life and preventing a catastrophic event such as an earthquake from destroying it.

Gels are semi-solid mixtures that consist of a liquid trapped within the pores of a continuous network of chain-like molecules. They are usually created by adding an acid to a liquid with a solid suspended in it, known as a sol, or illuminating a sol with a flash of UV light.

More here.